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Charging people money is scary. Having people I’ve never met ask me to produce something I have metaphorically promised the world I can do at a professional level, that may or may not meet their expectations, is terrifying. There is so much I can’t control – the weather, the mood of everyone involved, my camera suddenly deciding to jam without warning, that nerve condition I Googled last night where something snaps in your eyeball without warning and you go blind in mere seconds. Never mind that every single time I leave my house, I’m pretty sure that I am completely out of any possible creativity, creativity that will never renew itself, and it’s only a matter of time before everyone realizes I’m just a fraud that got lucky for a while.
And that’s on a good day.
I get hired repeatedly by my clients, seem to be able to pull off a shoot in most elements, and as of yet, that nerve hasn’t snapped in my eyeball. However if you look at my pricing comparatively for my area, my pricing history, or ask my mom, I am not charging enough. It’s not that I don’t want to make money of course, it’s that I feel bad taking it from people. I’m not sure I deserve what I am currently charging for what I do, never mind even more. There is no true way to measure the market rate for a photographer, but there are plenty of reasons that setting my rates – determining my true market value – is enough to make me want to go pick-up an application at McDonalds.
At some point I am hoping that all of us can get together and agree that owning a fancy camera does not make someone a photographer by trade. I happen to own a really nice guitar after a gifting incident that took a wrong turn. Sometimes just for fun, I sit at my desk with it and strum like I’m a fledgling musician in a coffeehouse working for tips and free lattes. But all of the strumming in the world isn’t going to change the fact that I completely lack the coordination to have my left hand do about anything and I can’t play a single note.
Consider every job that relies on nice equipment – a baker needs a fancy oven, an auto-mechanic requires a collection of expensive tools, a fast car alone doesn’t make anyone a race car driver (though with the right stretch of highway and a good song on the radio, we all have the potential to be a rockstar). Ownership, or even a working knowledge, of a tool does not make someone a professional anything.
Chances are if you are a professional photographer, you’ve done portfolio building of some sort; maybe you did portraits for friends for free, did corporate work for cost, or photographed thousands of landscapes until you felt comfortable putting your work out there for sale. Making the step from being a budding photographer to a full-fledged “real” photographer who charges money for their work is a huge but necessary one. Once you have established that you are a photographer with a body of work to show for yourself, you are no longer building from scratch. If you’ve built the house structurally sound, you’re not going to build another house to put on top of the original that’s better. Build your business to be sturdy, flexible, and confident and instead of tearing down and starting over, you will just remodel from time to time and rearrange the furniture when you need to freshen the place up.
Spend a day going through your entire portfolio and honestly reflect on your work. Do you have a nice representation of the type of photography you want to charge for? Can you see noticeable differences in the images you created when you first started to now? Do you have images that you are quite proud of and show what you are all about as an artist? If you answered yes, the truth is you already have a portfolio. You will continue to build on this portfolio as you have more (paying) clients, as your skills improve, and as your style becomes more defined and evolves but charging your honest market rate is what is going to help you to get there.
Admittedly I spend my editing days in pyjamas at my desk. Most days I don’t commute anywhere, I eat lunch in my own kitchen, and I never have to contribute to a coworker’s birthday party fund. On the surface it appears I spend next to nothing to bring in a lot, but what I lack in dry cleaning bills, I make up for in expensive equipment, monthly subscriptions, website maintenance, business collateral, and more. Once a chunk of change has already been spent on that fancy camera, building it into your actual cost of doing business can be quickly forgotten.
Come up with a list of every single expense you have from your electric bill to run your computer, to how much you spend in cat treats to keep your cats nearby, giving you someone to talk to all day so you don’t go crazy. Don’t forget to allow for things like wear and tear on your cameras and lenses, new software you may need, and the traveling involved with getting to a shoot. You should also include extra funds for unforeseeable repairs and expenses, increases in printing costs or other regular fees, and any classes or workshops you will attend to support your photography. Divide this total by the amount of days you can reasonably work in a year and what you have is the bare minimum day rate you need just to keep doing it. Know this budget as actual numbers, not just a vague amount and it will become very clear, very quickly, if you are not charging enough to make it worth your while no matter how much you love it.
I don’t have a good rebuttal for this one. All I know is that if photographers couldn’t charge money for their work until they had a proven workflow in place, there would be no photographers.
Even if you don’t subscribe to the flakey artist bit, your process is going to change often, having to constantly accommodate for seasonal fluctuation, client needs, and your own style. So long as you have a true desire to be a professional photographer and a method to getting pictures out of your head and into your camera, and then into the hands of clients, you have a workflow sufficient enough to charge a reasonable rate and work from there.
Do not feed this monster! This monster will come to your door often in your career and just like my kid’s friends, the more candy you give him, the more frequently he will come around and the longer he will stay. Be realistic and competitive, but do not base your entire pricing system on a lack of confidence. Photography, like most creative occupations, is often personal and will never fit firmly in the category of just business.
Ask an objective friend to take a thorough look at your portfolio and prices. Show them your competitors and walk them through exactly what it takes you to go from nothing to a finished image, ready for delivery.
Rather than being a large business that strives to be the cheapest choice for customers, you are one single person. It’s easy to get hung-up on the idea that if professional photography isn’t in your budget, then it’s not in other people’s either. I haven’t paid for photography in six years – I take pictures of my own children often and when I want family photos or any other picture that actually includes me, I trade with a photographer friend. I am not a good judge of what people are willing to, or can spend on a family photographer.
Do you buy art? Do you support artists? This includes musicians, actors, and that guy on the corner that can fold himself into a two foot plexiglass cube and eat fire. I give that guy a dollar every time I see him and I bet you would too. People budget for what they truly want and what is important to them. If they want to invest in your time and talent, who are you to tell them no?
Ouch, this one stings. Everyone wants to be liked and let’s face it, kind words are better than a sharp stick in the eye. Especially a compliment that is given based on skills you have worked hard to perfect. Confidence is something every photographer needs at least a bit of, but accolades don’t pay the rent.
If you aren’t charging them, someone else will be happy to and collect the compliments too.
Besides – I would be a terrible fry cook.