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A Guest post by Jenika McDavitt from Psychology for Photographers.
“At all levels of income, the typical response is that one needs 20% more to be happy.” – Richard Easterlin
The photographer’s equivalent to Dr. Easterlin’s statement is probably “Whatever you charge for your work, the typical response is that you’re 20% too expensive.” Like clockwork, I’ve been told my photography is too expensive at $75, $100, $300, $500, $1200, and $2000 price points. But why?
First, photography is one of the worst victims of something called the anchoring bias: Our tendency to grab on to a certain number and weigh everything else against it. Even if that anchoring number has been pulled out of the air, or is largely irrelevant to the situation, people will cling to it when evaluating everything else. For example, a person from a small town might think taxis in their town are too expensive. But a New Yorker who visits that small town will think “Whoa, these taxis are cheap!!” It’s the same taxi and the same price – but reactions are different because the two people have a different anchor for how much a taxi “should” cost.
People are used to paying $5 for 50 prints at the corner grocery store and under $30 for a packet of school photos. Thus, most people’s “anchor” for photography pricing is probably somewhere between $5-30. So they wonder: Why would they want to lay down a hundred bucks, let alone two grand, for your services?
The hard truth is, no matter what you charge, you will always be too expensive to someone, especially those whose “anchor” is a grocery store. You might as well price your work profitably, and in the meantime, work to “re-anchor” your potential clients to your price range. Here’s how:
Don’t steal someone else’s pricing because it “looks right” – you need to understand exactly how you arrived at your numbers. If you take your pricing from some other photographer, it’ll be harder to stick to your guns when clients pressure you to accept a lower rate. When you feel desperate for work, one price grabbed out of the air won’t be much different than another. Understanding your own overhead costs and profit margins helps you be firm, because you’ll quickly see what that discount would really cost you. (If you’re struggling with setting profitable pricing, I recommend Easy as Pie by Alicia Caine. My highest sale before buying that e-book was $500, my first sale after implementing my Easy As Pie pricing list was $4000. Well worth the investment.)
Most people understand why taxis in NYC are more expensive than in their hometown. But many people may not see the difference between your photos and a mall studio, except that your photos are taken at a park. (But since using the park was free, why would you be more expensive?) Make sure your website describes in lavish, dazzling detail exactly what they will get from working with you. Blog regularly about the experience clients receive, how unhurried and fun each session is. I recently blogged a breakdown of the time I spend on each client (23-34+ hours), and potential clients told me they had no idea!
Make it clear how much effort you put in on their behalf, and what that means for their life and family. Only then will they see how their previous price anchors don’t apply to your business.
Too many photographers fall into the trap of counting on clients to perceive the high quality of their photographs and thus believe that their services are worth more money. But consider: when you started in photography, I bet you were more easily awed by professional photographs. Now, after putting in hundreds of hours taking and looking at photographs, I bet you have gotten progressively more picky about technical sloppiness.
Your clients are not photographers. They are not going to immediately recognize soft focus, clipped highlights and shadows, Photoshop overcorrections, etc. Some may honestly not see the difference between your honed skills and your neighbor down the street who just picked up a camera yesterday. There needs to be a more compelling reason for them to pull out the checkbook. You might make it a part of your regular blog conversation to post a few SOOC/post-processing comparisons, do a “year in review” and talk about how much you’ve grown over the year. Even non-experts can appreciate jumps in quality when they see things side-by-side.
Your current prices are an anchor for past clients. Wedding photographers are not aiming for repeat wedding clients (hopefully!), so they can raise their prices more frequently with less anchor damage. But a mother who did her newborn session with you may be shocked to come back at six months and find that your rates have doubled. It’s easier to set a profitable pricing list right now (which usually represents one significant jump), perhaps taking time to explain to past clients that in order to be around to serve them long-term you have made some adjustments, but that you value their business and look forward to working with them again. Then tweak only once or twice a calendar year thereafter.
If you set a profitable price list and find that you need to make an increase, consider keeping your session fee the same and adjust the prices of your products. Session fees stick in people’s minds, so big session fee jumps can induce more sticker shock than nudging up the price of your canvases.
People are not always explicitly aware that they have price anchors, or that they are using them to evaluate you. They simply think “too expensive,” and move on. Thus, it’s important that you make it clear to clients that you’re in a totally different category from mall studios or DIY prints so that they don’t simply think “photography” and grab on to their grocery store price anchor.
When you market to differentiate yourself, you may find it tempting to focus everything on YOU. MY photography is better quality, I provide great service, MY business is better than their business, etc. This is a mistake. People don’t care about how great your business is if it’s not totally clear what’s in it for them. Ask them: Imagine what it would be like to have a relaxed, unrushed, 2-hour photography session where there was no stress, just family fun. Imagine personal service, no waiting in lines, no hurry-up-and-decide pressure. Imagine a professional retouching each image and ensuring that it looks beautiful. Give them a clear picture of what they will get out of an experience with you. This will help them let go of those frustrating anchors and better see the value of your services.