Don’t Make These Commercial Photography Pricing Mistakes

As a follow up to avoiding failure on your first commercial shoot, in this article I will go into detail on a few pricing mistakes.  I”ll also offer tips about how to price yourself for commercial photography shoots and how to make your bids when a company reaches out to you for a potential job.  Pricing commercial photography is a murky river to walk through and you never know if your bid is way too high or way too low.  Much of the time you will never hear back from a company if they decide to go with someone else.  And even rarer are the times where they say, “You were too high/too low and this is why” or give you any sort of feedback at all.

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of pricing, I want to reiterate what I mentioned in the last article.  It is my opinion that pricing should not be a game of cat and mouse where you chase each other's budgets until someone caves.  In creative circles, it is routinely viewed as a failure if you disclose your numbers first.  I don't want to play games, I want to take pictures.  For this reason, I recommend deciding on what price works for you and stick to that.  If it is more than they want to pay, then tell them something like, “Thank you for the opportunity to bid and I hope to be considered for future projects.”  No haggling, no wasted time and frustration or feeling like ‘you caved' first.  Many other creatives disagree with me, which is fine.  You may even disagree with me.  I'm totally OK with that.

Pricing yourself

So speaking of pricing yourself, let's start there.  This is the hardest part of bidding for a commercial job.  As I mentioned, you don't want to be too high and you don't want to be too low.  There is a really thin “Goldilocks zone” of pricing yourself that has to match your skills, experience level, and popularity.  If you are just starting out and you landed a job shooting cookies for a local bakery, they will want to pay you in free cookies instead of cash (which sounds delicious and I would totally be paid in cookies).

Let's run with that example.  Say you are part of a local photographer Facebook group (If you aren't, you really should be) and you see a post about needing a photographer for some product shots for a local bakery.  Now is your time to shine!  Here are some things to consider before you give a quote:

  1. Have you shot products before? Do you have a portfolio of said shots?
  2. Have you shot the specific products they are selling (cookies/baked goods in this case)?
  3. Have you done anything big (like for Pillsbury or other big names)?

Three yes's mean you can charge big money.  Two yes's mean less money. One or zero yes's mean little money.  Price yourself appropriately if you want to even be considered for the job.  And remember what I said about not chasing their budget.  Instead of feeling like you wasted 2 hours only to find out they are planning on spending $200 when you would have quoted $2,000, just give them YOUR price and let them decide if they think you are worth it.  You'll get a lot of “no thanks” this way but at least you won't be working for someone who expects you to build a nuclear bomb out of used pinball machine parts.

Many times you'll see that a company's budget is much smaller than yours.  This is especially true if you find a “call for photographers” via some online portal (Facebook, smartshoot, etc).  MOST of the time these companies will hire the cheapest photographer to put in a bid.  So if you really want the job/experience, bid as low as you possibly can.

In this specific example, remember to price according to what you think they can pay.  A small local bakery isn't going to have $2,000 laying around for marketing.  If you want/need the experience of shooting products like this it would be totally reasonable to pitch them 4 dozen cookies for the photos they need.

Quoting from your portfolio

Since there is no certification in commercial photography, you need to have a portfolio of relevant work in order to land most jobs.  People need to believe you actually got paid to take those photos.  Whether or not you did get paid is not the point.  But you can't just make some cookies and take a photo of them sitting on your kitchen counter with no lighting, staging, or post processing and expect to wow people.  If you make some cookies and then dress them up with staging, lighting, props, and really good post processing, a potential client would believe that you actually got paid for those photos.

I saw an architectural photographer's portfolio where he went to various strip malls and took pictures of the buildings.  They were fine photos from a photographic perspective, but they weren't staged or prepared in any way.  Random cars in the parking lot, some trash or debris here and there, and lights on in some stores and off in others.  I doubt anyone would believe that the head corporation that owns the strip mall actually paid him to be there.  More likely he just showed up some day and took some pictures on his own.

Fortunately, it's pretty easy to fake a paid portfolio to get started.  You just have to put in the work to make the photographs look professional.  When I got started in real estate photography, I visited model homes and asked if I could take a couple pictures of the kitchen or living room.  After practicing a few times I was able to produce portfolio-quality images that gave the social proof that someone actually paid for those photos (they were at least good enough to make someone think I got paid).  You can do this with almost every other type of photography.  I work my day job in a somewhat pleasing building and asked the facilities manager if I could take some photos.  I added these to my architectural photography portfolio.  You could rent a wedding dress and have one of your friends be a model for a day to add to your portfolio for bridals, hair, or makeup design.  Go into a local coffee shop (not Starbucks) and ask the manager if you can take photos for your portfolio.  Offer them the photos for use on their Instagram or Facebook pages.  Go to a local “cars n coffee” meetup and chat up some of the car owners.  Ask them if they would be interested in doing a photoshoot (for free, of course) in exchange for copies of the photos.

An image from my office building where I went in on a Saturday and took photos for my architecture portfolio.


Ask how the photos will be used

Knowing how they intend on using the photos will help you deliver a more accurate quote based on their budget.  Since most people won't tell you their exact marketing budget, this is a good way to get a pretty good idea.  If they just need photos for their website, Facebook, Instagram, and some local flyers mailed to 5,000 homes, it's obvious their budget isn't huge.  But if they are going to be running a TV ad and printing these images on all their packaging for a worldwide audience, they have a much bigger need for the best photos possible and have the money to spend for it.

This also helps you establish correct usage in your quote and contract.  If they say, “we only need these photos for our website and paper mail marketing to about 5,000 homes” then you can include in your licensing terms “Images to be used for website and paper mail marketing only” and state the same in the contract.  If you find they are using the images willy nilly on every kind of marketing you can approach the owner with a breach of contract (and invoice for more money).  This also keeps them honest if they actually did plan on using your images on packaging but wanted to “sneak it by you” by saying something like, “Oh you know…our website, maybe some flyers or something…”

Now, a client might respond to this question by saying, “What do you care?  We will use the images how we see fit.”  For the majority of small businesses, this is a perfectly acceptable response because there are literally 200 photographers who could take cookie pictures.  Getting comfortable just asking the question will help you be better prepared for bigger jobs in the future.

Show where the money is going

Bigger budgets usually require better insight on how money is being spent.  Nike isn't going to accept a quote for a photography job if the photographer just shoots back, “I'll do that for…$15,000.”  They want to see how the money will be spent to justify the cost.

Additionally, people want to know they aren't being ripped off.  When presenting a quote, break it out into multiple line items with the final proposal price at the bottom.  This helps people understand all the costs associated with a project, makes you look like more of a professional, and justifies what you are charging.

For example:

  1. Production costs
  2. Creative fees
  3. Licensing terms

Production costs will include everything necessary for the day of the shoot.  Gear/equipment rentals, models, art directors, etc.  These costs shouldn't change based on the client or the job.  If you need to rent 4 studio strobes for $200, don't upcharge a bigger client just because they have more money.  That's where licensing comes into play.

Creative fees (AKA, your day rate) will include your personal time to prepare for and execute the shoot.  This includes scouting the location and discussing vision/goals with the art director.  The cost of your time shouldn't change based on your client, either.

Licensing terms will include how long they can use the photos and for how much.  Typically the price goes up incrementally as the time goes up but the overall cost goes down.  Example: 1 year of licensing could be $35/photo while 3 years of licensing would be $55/photo.  If they were to relicense year after year for 3 years they would end up paying $105/photo after 3 years versus $55/photo up front.  Licensing will be the hardest thing for most beginner commercial shoots because people think they are buying lifetime rights to the photos when they are really just “renting” them from you.  However, don't get caught up on this for the beginner shoots.  It honestly doesn't matter that the local bakery has lifetime rights to those images because they won't use them after 2 years anyway (and you are getting paid in cookies, not cash).  If you try to push the issue with them, they will just go with another photographer who isn't as complicated.  But keep this in mind for when you start bidding on bigger shoots that understand licensing terms.

At the very end of the breakdown you would add up all the costs for the final quote.  You could even divide this by the number of photos they are requesting to get a better per-image price.  If your total comes to $1,100 and they want 20 photos, 1100/20 = $55 per photo.  This could help them digest the number a little better since $55 per photo seems much more reasonable than $1,100 even though the number is the same.  This is especially helpful for interior and architecture photography since most jobs are quoted on a per image basis.  For something else that needs fewer photos, the total quote would be fine.

Don't be afraid to abandon the contract or ask for more money

When you land a paid gig it isn't suddenly going to be rainbows and butterflies.  There is still going to be a lot of work to make sure you get paid for what you agreed upon.  The client will want you to change this thing or add this other small piece to the project (this is known as scope creep).  If this happens, make sure you aren't doing it for free.  The scope of the project should be well defined before it even begins so everyone understands what is expected and how much it will cost.

I recently did a client testimonial video shoot for a national home purchasing assistance company.  They wanted 2 testimonial videos of real estate agents that worked with them to help their buyers get into homes they otherwise couldn't afford.  The agents loved their services and would recommend them to anyone and that's what this company wanted to capture on video.

The project was to include 2 testimonial videos, shot on-location, asking a specific list of questions, and editing the video into a 1 minute final cut with music and video bumpers at the beginning and end provided by the company.  Easy peasy lemon squeezy (as my 4 year old would say).

After I sent them the raw footage, the first concession they wanted was 2 videos from one of the agents because she had enough to say to cut into 2 videos.

“Could you do that for us?” they asked.
“I absolutely can,” I said, “I'll need another $100 for the additional edit.”

They agreed.  I drafted up 3 videos and waited for the open/close video bumpers and music.  I waited.  I waited some more.  Almost 6 weeks later they finally came back with an Adobe After Effects file that they wanted me to use.  It included some motion graphics, slides, and text.  This was a national marketing campaign so they sent the file to about 6 photographers working on similar projects around the country.

The first reply came in from another photographer: I don't use After Effects, is there a way I can do this in Final Cut Pro?

The company's response: You can download a free trial of After Effects from the Adobe website.  They have tutorials on how to use it.


After Effects is not something you can just fake like your confidence on a first date.  It takes a while to understand the interface and how to manipulate the files to get them in the right place and to do what you want.  Asking photographers who have never used AE before to just “learn it real quick” is completely out of the scope of the original, agreed upon project.  Nowhere did they say the photographer needs to know how to use AE because they would be providing AE templates.

I replied directly to the coordinator and said, “I know how to use After Effects and I'm happy to continue this project but we are pretty far outside the original scope.  I'll need additional compensation in order to continue.”  She asked how much, I said $100/hr and it would probably take at least 2 hours for what they were asking.  She agreed.

I don't know what any of the other photographers did or said but I really hope they asked for more money.  Your time is valuable and you shouldn't be giving it away for free when the scope grows (yes, even in the case of the local bakery…ask for more cookies if they want additional photos of the customer counter or the brand new hot chocolate machine).  If you run into a situation like this and you think, “…yeah I'm not learning AE just for this one project” it would be completely reasonable to tell the company, “It's obvious your needs have changed.  I'm happy to provide the raw files to you for the previously agreed payment.  You can have another photographer make the final edits.”  That way you still get paid for the work you already put in and they can hire someone else to finish the project.

About 3 weeks later, one of the other photographers sent an email just to the group of us photographers saying he was having a hard time trying to understand AE because he's never used it before.  I imagine he spent several hours playing around with it and couldn't get it to work.  Again, I hope he was getting paid for his efforts.

In the end, I ended up charging more than double the original quote because of the additional time needed to make the AE edits (partly due to poor communication on their end which required multiple re-edits).  But I got paid what I believed my time was worth and didn't have to make any concessions I wasn't comfortable with.

No shame in starting small

If you are just starting out, never disregard small jobs in order to work your way up to large jobs.  Go ahead and take the local bakery shoot and get paid in 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies!  You are getting experience and they are getting the basic photos they want for right now.  Could they have gotten better photos by paying some big name to come in with $50,000 worth of gear?  Absolutely.  But they would never recuperate that expense.  It's more cost effective for them to hire someone local and it gives you a great opportunity to expand your skills.

You aren't going to wake up tomorrow and successfully bid on $10,000 shoots with no experience.  Sure, you know how to use a camera and got a couple blue ribbons at your state fair, but you still have no idea what you're doing when it comes to commercial shoots.  Starting on small jobs gives you the experience to shoot bigger jobs.

If you have had success at bidding on commercial jobs, let us know how you did it in the comments!


3 thoughts on “Don’t Make These Commercial Photography Pricing Mistakes”

  1. Interesting reading. I always have a hard time estimating how many hours i will need for the project at hand. So i often multiply by 1,5 or 2 just to be sure i have enough hours.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top