Photography Pricing: Calculating your cost of doing business

Whether you’re a hobbyist photographer getting your first paying clients, or a seasoned veteran, deciding how much to charge for your services can conjure up fear and anxiety. While there are many thoughts on the subject of pricing, most are clear on one thing – in order to properly price your photography, you need to know your cost of doing business, or CODB.  It sounds pretty simple, but in this article, we’re going to do a deep dive to ensure you have all the information you need to properly calculate your cost of doing business.

Are you currently charging people for your photography services?  If so, how did you arrive at your current pricing structure?  Did you just take a look around at what other photographers in your area were charging and pick a number out of the air that felt good, or did you do some research first?  If you’re like most of us, you took a look at what others in your area were charging, and based your prices on theirs. All too often, I hear people talking about how they are trying to build their photography business up to the point of being able to quit their day job, but then I see them charging ridiculously low prices for their services.  While their cost of doing business may be less than mine, it's quite likely they haven't done the work needed to set their business up to cover all of their business costs, take enough home to cover their personal budget, and plan for future equipment purchases, repairs, education, etc.  Whether you’re trying to take your business full time, or earn some extra money to take your family on nice vacations, taking the time to calculate your cost of doing business is one of the most important things you can do to ensure your business is profitable.

So, what IS your cost of doing business?  It's just your time, right?  If you're currently earning $15 per hour at your day job, and think that you can charge $100 for a portrait session and make more money than you are currently earning at your day job, you’ll want to listen up. That one hour portrait session will cost you 1 hour of your time for the session itself, most likely a minimum of 30 minutes of travel time, to and from the location, 1 hour for culling and proofing, 30 minutes for a pre-session consultation, at least one hour for the ordering session, plus prep time to get your gear ready and loaded.  That's already four hours plus into a one hour session, and that doesn't even include any other costs associated with providing the service. You might be tempted to think that you're still making $40 more than you'd make at your day job, but what about fuel, software, your website, camera gear, education, supplies, and oh yeah, taxes!  If you haven’t done the work to figure out your true cost of doing business, you’re just playing a guessing game and HOPING you’re profitable.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to base whether my family gets to eat or not on hopes and guesses.

By now you should be convinced of the importance of knowing your cost of doing business, so how do you calculate it? You might be thinking, “I'm a creative, and this sounds like the kind of stuff that makes my eyes roll and my ears close up”.  That may be true, but you already know everything you need to know, you’ve just got to gather up the pieces and get started. I'll make it as simple as possible, I promise.

Very simply put, your Cost of Doing Business is the amount of money you spend, whether you have any photography jobs or not.  This includes your personal living expenses, as well as the additional expenses you have for your photography business.  But, you say, “I do this part time for fun, and my day job covers all of my personal expenses.”  Ok, that may be the case, but you should still be covering the expenses associated with providing your photography services.  Or, are you ok with having less money to spend on your kids because you are using your personal money to supplement your photography business?  If you're going to take time away from your family to provide photography services, you probably want to bring more money into your household so you can provide more for your own kids, don’t you?  Maybe your photography business can provide the funds to take your entire family to Disney World, or buy that boat you've been eyeing up – after all, you've always wanted to teach your kids to waterski, haven't you?  And what if you want to quit your day job and go full time?  If you don’t factor in the cost of your time, your CODB will be too low.  You see what I'm getting at…knowing your cost of doing business will help you make better decisions that will affect both your personal and business life.

Step 1:  IDENTIFY THE AMOUNT OF MONEY YOU SPEND IN YOUR BUSINESS

Ok, so let’s get down to the nitty gritty and identify the components of your Cost of Doing Business.  Below is a comprehensive list of all of the items you spend money on annually, whether you have paying photography clients or not.

Office/Studio

Whether you have an office and studio in your home, or rent a separate space, you will need to factor in all of the costs associated with operating that space.  Rent, mortgage, property taxes, homeowner association fees, insurance, security fees, home maintenance, etc.  If you're using part of your home for your business space, calculate the percentage of square footage that is used for business to determine the costs.

Photo Gear

Without your camera gear, you won’t have a business, so you need to plan for the gear you will need to acquire or replace within the next year.  I would also recommend setting up an accrual for gear that will need to be replaced further down the road.  If you set aside a little money each month and put it in a savings account, you will have the money in hand to replace your gear when the time comes. Things like light stands, modifiers, backdrops and stands, strobes, and gear bags also fall into this category.

Computer Equipment

We all need at least one computer to run our photography businesses, and many of us have more than one.  Factor in the costs of all of this computer equipment – desktop, laptop, monitors, printers, scanners, docking stations, mouse, wacom tablet, keyboard, hard drives, network storage devices, monitor calibration tools, etc.  While you may not need to purchase these items every month or even every year, it is wise to set aside money each month for the eventual replacement, so you are prepared.

Phones

Include the cost of all cell phones and landlines – if you use your personal phones for your business, determine the percentage of use and include that.  Make sure you also include the cost of the phone itself in this calculation, or set aside money for the next one you’ll have to buy.

Equipment Maintenance and Repairs

Include your costs for annual camera maintenance and potential computer repairs.  You’ll want to have insurance, but it's also a good idea to budget for the deductible and small repairs either way.

Internet service

High speed internet service is a necessity, so make sure you include the cost in your totals.  If you share your home internet service, allocate a percentage to your business costs.

Website and Hosting Fees

Be sure to include the cost of your domain names, website builders, tools, fees, plug ins, gallery hosting, shopping carts, and web portal services.  If you pay someone to update or refresh your site regularly, make sure you include those costs as well.

Vehicle Expenses

Car payments, insurance,  maintenance, repair, license fees, and fuel should all be factored in to your business costs.  It is important that you keep mileage records for the IRS.  Mileage records will also help you determine the percentage that is business related so you can include those numbers here.

Office Supplies & Equipment

Pens, paper, scissors, labels, office chair, desk, file cabinet – you need all of these items to conduct your business.  Don’t forget these when calculating your cost of doing business.

Postage & Shipping

Non-billable postage and shipping – sending equipment in for repair, promotional mailings, holiday cards, etc.

Continuing Education/Training

Include the cost of workshops, retreats, conferences, books, courses, and other educational activities, whether online or in person.  To stay current, you must keep learning, and the cost of that education is all a part of your cost of doing business.

Advertising & Promotion

Business cards, brochures, marketing materials, social media ads, marketing services like Constant Contact, MailChimp, and AskMimi, Video Marketing services like Animoto, and other marketing options like Sticky Folios.

Subscriptions & Dues

Fees and dues paid for professional publications, association memberships, chamber of commerce, service organizations, photography clubs, etc.

Insurance

Equipment and business liability insurance, disability insurance in case you can't work, health insurance, life insurance. You can click here to contact the guys I used to setup all my insurance – it was less of a hassle for me personally to outsource this, but if you have the time/effort to do it yourself – you'll probably end up with the best plans available to your own personal needs.

Accounting and Legal Services

Attorney fees for reviewing contracts and procedures, amounts paid to tax preparers and bookkeepers.

Taxes and Licenses

Self employment taxes, annual filing fees for your business entity, business licenses.  Don’t overlook these items; doing so can create a serious financial hardship.

Utilities

Heat, lights, water, electricity.  If your studio is in your home, determine the amount of square footage used for your business to calculate the percentage to be allocated to it.

Outsourcing

Administrative assistant, photo editors, receptionist, studio assistant, cleaning staff.  Anyone you pay whether you have photo jobs or not should be included here.

Software Services

Services like Fundy, Animoto, Sticky, Videoblocks, Audioblocks, PASS, 17 hats, and social media schedulers are all services you pay for, whether you have one client or hundreds, so the associated costs need to be covered as part of your fixed costs.

Travel

Hotels, airfare, rental cars, etc related to educational training, other travel costs related to photo trips that aren't being paid for by clients.  Any travel you do that isn’t specifically related to a client-specific job should be included here.

Salary

This should be the amount of income you need each month to pay your personal living expenses.  This includes your mortgage or rent payment, vehicles, food, insurance, toiletries, haircuts, tuition, activity fees, daycare, utilities, phones, clothing, etc.  If you don’t currently have a personal budget and know these numbers already, now would be a good time to figure out your personal cost of living, too.

If you have a job in addition to your photography business like we discussed earlier, it is still wise to include a salary amount that would represent what you would have to pay yourself or someone else who would be working full time in the business.  Being realistic about the costs associated with running your business will help you develop a pricing model that will work for you now and into the future.

Step 2:  ADD UP THE ANNUAL MONEY YOU SPEND

Now total up ALL of the above costs, including your salary – THIS is your annual cost of doing business.  Now divide that number by 12; this is your monthly cost of doing business. It’s a pretty big number, isn’t it?  This is the absolute minimum amount of income you need to make in your business just to cover your minimum costs.

Category Month Annual
Office/Studio $400.00 $4,800.00
Photo Gear $700.00 $8,400.00
Computer Equipment $100.00 $1,200.00
Phones $125.00 $1,500.00
Equipment Maintenance & Repairs $100.00 $1,200.00
Internet Service $75.00 $900.00
Website and Hosting fees $50.00 $600.00
Vehicle Expenses $400.00 $4,800.00
Office Supplies & Equipment $250.00 $3,000.00
Postage & Shipping $25.00 $300.00
Continuing Education / Training $300.00 $3,600.00
Advertising & Promotion $100.00 $1,200.00
Subscriptions & Dues $15.00 $180.00
Insurance $50.00 $600.00
Accounting & Legal Services $100.00 $1,200.00
Taxes & Licenses $600.00 $7,200.00
Utilities $150.00 $1,800.00
Outsourcing $100.00 $1,200.00
Software Services $90.00 $1,080.00
Travel $200.00 $2,400.00
Salary (this should be what you need to take home to cover your personal budget) $4,000.00 $48,000.00
Total Business Costs $7,930.00 $95,160.00

 

Step 3:  DETERMINE YOUR BILLABLE UNITS

Once you know your total cost of doing business, you will want to break that total down into a cost per billable unit so you can make educated pricing decisions. So, what is a billable unit?  A billable unit is a common unit of measurement for your photography services, such as hours, days, sessions, weddings, or real estate shoots.  This is often the amount of time it takes for each type of session, including non-shooting time.

For our example, we are going to use hours as our billable units.  The one equalizer we all have is time, so you will need to decide how much time you are going to spend each week on billable client activities. This should include the shoot itself, client meetings, culling, proofing, editing, and any other activities related to a session.  This should NOT include time you will spend working ON your business, doing things like marketing, bookkeeping, education, and styled shoots.  For our purposes, we will assume that your goal is to work a 40 hour week, with 10 hours each week spent working ON your business and the other 30 hours working IN your business, shooting and doing shoot related activities.

On an annual basis, you will have a total of 1,560 billable units (30 hours per week x 52 weeks per year).  Do you like to take vacations and time away for retreats, conferences, and other events?  Now, let’s say you want to take three weeks off for vacations and other events.  This will reduce your number of annual billable units by 90 (30 hours per week x 3 weeks), down to 1,470.  You might also want to factor in the likelihood that you won't be fully booked every week of the year, so you'll want to reduce your billable units again based on that estimate.  For our purposes, let's assume that on average, you are booked at 80% of capacity, which means we should reduce your annual billable units another 294 units (annual billable units of 1470 x 20% average unbooked time), leaving us with 1,176 annual billable units.

Step 4:  CALCULATE YOUR COST OF DOING BUSINESS PER BILLABLE UNIT

Divide your total cost of doing business from step 2 by the Total Number of Billable Units from step 3 to arrive at your Cost of Doing Business per Billable Unit.  In our example above, the CODB per billable unit is $81 (Total CODB of $95,160 divided by 1,176 annual billable units).

Total CODB  $          95,160
divided by Total Billable Units                 1,176
CODB per Billable Unit  $                  81

Step 5: DETERMINE THE NUMBER OF BILLABLE UNITS ASSOCIATED WITH EACH OF YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY SERVICES

Before we can use this information to help you make pricing decisions, you will need to determine the amount of billing units associated with each type of service you provide.  To illustrate, let’s assume that you are a portrait photographer doing senior and family photography, and you offer session types that range from one to three hours of shooting time, and you use hours as your billable unit.  We all know a one hour session takes way more than one hour, so let’s do a quick calculation to determine the amount of billable units we will need to associate with each session type.

One Hour Session Two Hour Session Three Hour Session
Shooting Time 1 hr 2 hr 3 hr
Travel Time 1/2 hr 1/2 hr 1/2 hr
Culling, Proofing 1 hr 1-1/2 hr 2 hr
Client Meetings 2 hr 2 hr 2 hr
Admin Time (emails, phone calls, reminders 1/2 hr 1/2 hr 1/2 hr
Billable Units 5 hrs 6-1/2 hrs 8 hrs

Step 6:  DETERMINE YOUR COST OF DOING BUSINESS PER SERVICE YOU PROVIDE

One Hour Session Two Hour Session Three Hour Session
Billable Units 5 6.5 8
CODB per Billable Unit  $                 81  $                 81  $                 81
CODB per Session  $                405  $               527  $                648

In our illustration, your cost of doing business for a one hour session is $405, which means this is the absolute minimum amount you can charge for doing a one hour session in order to cover your costs of doing business.  How does that $100 for a one hour session sound now?  Similarly, your CODB for a two hour session is $527 and $648 for a three hour session.

Step 7:  DEVELOP YOUR PRICING STRATEGY

So, now that you know what goes into calculating your cost of doing business, and have taken the steps necessary to calculate it for your own business, you can use this information to determine YOUR pricing strategy.  It's so easy to get caught up in comparing your prices to others that you don't even stop to think about whether the prices you are charging are actually covering your costs and earning you enough to make a living.  Comparison is the thief of joy, and if you’re busy comparing your prices to others, you'll likely never earn enough to get ahead.  Do your homework and figure out what you need to charge to be profitable.  No matter the type of transaction, price is not the difference – the difference maker is YOU.  People will pay more for YOU if you give them a reason to.  YOU just need to be ok with it.  Being a creative does not mean you have to live a life of poverty, and being a creative business owner does not mean you are taking from others.  So many entrepreneurs, women in particular, feel bad about taking money for something they love to do, and TAKING is the word they use, like they're robbing a bank.  The reality is that you are receiving money in exchange for goods or services that your client desires.  Do you find it difficult to receive compliments, but are constantly doing things for others?  If so, then you may be the kind of person that loves to give to others, but has a hard time receiving.  If this is you, and you’re in business, you need to get over it, and be grateful and humble when accepting payment for your goods and services.

Now that you know what your cost of doing business is, please don't apologize for your prices or feel bad about charging what you’re worth.  Providing goods and services that people desire, while taking care of your own family at the same time is the right thing to do, and I hope that by identifying all of the costs that go into running your business, you can feel confident in developing a pricing structure that meets your needs, and will keep you in business long into the future.  I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic, as well as how calculating your cost of doing business has helped you run your business more successfully.

If you're interested in more information on the subject of pricing, check out the following articles from my fellow IP Writers:

10 Considerations for Pricing Portrait Photography by Alex Lawson

How to Price Your Photography Prints by Nathan

Headshot Photography Pricing guide for Photographers by Pete LaGregor

11 thoughts on “Photography Pricing: Calculating your cost of doing business”

  1. I’ve been waiting for something like this to come along for a long time…Excellent article Deb!

    1. Thank you, Adam. I really appreciate your kind words. I think this is one of those areas that we all struggle with, but it’s good to take the emotion out of it and make sure we really are covering our costs.

  2. Wow, fantastic, thank you for taking the time to explain a complex subject in such an easy and understandable way. So greatly appreciate it. Any tips on how to calculate per image? I’m geared more toward the commercial/product end.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Robin. I think you step back and apply the same thought process based on the way you charge for your products and services. At the end of the day, you want to make sure that you are charging enough to make it work, whether your clients purchase one or ten photos, and you may adjust your pricing structure to accommodate that. 🙂 Hope that helps a bit.

  3. This super informative; i love it! My question regarding is being self aware of my worth/value. When you have an unscheduled weekend (or a slow season even) and your potential clients counter offer with something lower than your CODB, do you say you “No that’s below CODB” or do you accept the slightly lower than average payment, because the argument is “it’s better to be paid, then never have been paid at all”

  4. I have a question regarding this method, which I think is a detailed, yet still simple and flexible way. However, how would you include product pricing in this equation? For example, is the “session” just time time you spend shooting and editing photos? You would need to factor in product production (for example, album designs, prints, sales of products) in this correct?

  5. I love this model and it will be very helpful for me. To respond to Nichole’s question above, add-ons to different packages (such as prints, etc) could be cost separately and included at the end of this model.

    For example: if one pricing package is “1 hour session with three 8×10 prints” then you would use this model to calculate the cost and add the cost of those prints to find out exactly how much that pricing package costs you to provide.

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