How Much to Charge for Your Photography: Negotiating Your Worth

How Much to Charge for Your Photography: Negotiating Your Worth

Pricing photography is often one of the greatest hurdles for people looking to break into the profession, bringing beads of sweat to the forehead just thinking about it. It’s especially nerve-wracking when you’re faced with a client demanding to know why they have to pay that much for your services. And chances are if you’ve just adopted the prices you’ve seen some other photographers in your area charge, without taking the time to actually calculate and understand what you charge what you do, then you’re going to be in some hot water to explain your worth.

You need to not only know the worth of the services you are providing, but you need to know how to articulate what you’re worth and why you’re worth it. Photography is an amazing creative outlet and career, but don’t doubt for a second that it’s a business. You’ve got to wear a lot of hats in this industry. Make sure you’re equally versed in the business practices as in the visual principles. When you can negotiate and state your worth with confidence and how you arrived there, you give your client confidence as well. Here are a few things I find critical when I find myself in the position of negotiating my worth.

Know Your Worth

First and foremost you have to actually know your worth. This is a must do. Not optional. It’s definitely helpful if you can find out what other photographers in your market are charging as a guideline to give you confidence in arriving at your own prices, but you need to arrive at them first for yourself.

The first step to do this is by calculating your Cost of Doing Business (CODB). Your CODB is what it takes at the end of the year for you to actually pay your bills and remain afloat as a business, or the target salary you’d like to reach for the year. Be realistic here too. You’re likely not going to be bringing in record profits (or hardly any at all) your first few years of business.

You can reach your CODB by a few simple calculations. Take all the expenses you need to run a business for the year – website hosting fees, gear purchases, insurance, rent, food, etc. – add where you’d like to try and be salary wise and then divide that figure by the number of jobs you think you’ll book for the year. If you’re looking to get into weddings, that’s how much you’ll need to charge per wedding to reach your goal. Make sure you’re realistic here. Just because you want to shoot 40 weddings doesn’t necessarily mean you will. But if you think your base cost is going to be way too high by just shooting six weddings a year, take into account you need to lower your salary goal or book more weddings to accommodate. The same principles apply to commercial photography when you’re arriving at either your creative fee or day rate. This is your base.

These numbers can flex if you’re doing both weddings and portraits, or especially in commercial photography with editorial and advertising. Just make sure you’re always reaching your CODB target and try to adjust prices on each as best as you think to align with market standards. Don’t forget to adjust for the actual creative and value portion you bring to a shoot – either in creativity, years of experience or just that X factor.

Articulate Your Worth

Now that you know what it takes to run your business and what your creative worth is, you need to be able to articulate that with confidence. It can be a big help to write out a “sales pitch” that you then roughly follow during initial client meetings, calls or introductory documents. This is your “why I’m worth it” statement. It’s what you bring to a photo shoot that none of your competitors do. Whether it’s your perspective, stream-lined business practices, costs, top-notch crew you work with or anything else that makes you unique, present this with confidence.

I’d like to introduce one other principle that seems to be disappearing from the market, but I believe is an important way of doing business – under promise, over deliver. I’m not telling you to play down what you bring to the table (especially in such a competitive industry) but don’t puff up or exaggerate what you can do to get clients if you can’t deliver. Word can and will get around. By instead remaining practical and realistic when articulating your product – and then going the extra mile to really deliver – you’ll not only create a happy client, but a brand advocate as well. Good word travels.

Listen to Your Clients

You know your worth, you’re prepared to articulate it with confidence, and now it’s time to listen to what your clients are telling you. This is important in adapting your product to your clients’ needs. There is no cookie cutter format that works for everyone and if you’re pushing a service one client doesn’t want or need while neglecting another they do then you’re probably looking at some lost business. If it’s something you can remove without affecting the quality of what you provide, do it. Additionally you may be able to add on some services and charges that different clients request. It’s all a balance.

Be tuned into your clients’ reactions and body language when you’re discussing your product and pricing. Learn to recognize the hidden signals and not just the verbal ones. If you’ve got a couple leaning forward and nodding a lot while you’re talking chances are you’ve hit the right chord with them. If you find them leaning backwards in their chair (a disengaging move) or appearing distracted these are some red flags. Watch for when they happen if they do. You can’t provide solutions to your clients if you’re not listening to them.

Be Prepared for Common Objections

While we’d certainly all love clients that understand the hidden costs behind photography, look at a fairly quoted price and sign without question that’s just not a reality. Budgets are tighter, times are still tough and people are looking to save however they can, making them even more critical and conservative of every dollar spent. And how can you blame them for that? We’re all trying to save a dollar how and where we can. No photographer enjoys fielding a tirade of questions from a client who doesn’t think a service should cost what it does or sharply asks “why do you charge more per hour than my lawyer?!” Or why you won’t come down to $500 for their wedding, “because my Uncle Bob has a really nice camera and he’d definitely be willing to do it for that.”

This is where all the above knowledge on why you charge what you do comes in handy and being able to articulate it with confidence. But if you find yourself running into some of the same questions over and over again, either evaluate if you’re really providing value to your clients, or if it’s an educational problem and you can prepare a set of answers to questions that often arise. That way you don’t have to sit and try to come up with an answer under pressure, you already know what the answer is and how best to explain the value you add.

Look for Compromises

Compromises can create a win-win situation for you and your clients. If you can save them a little costs without damaging your value pricing that makes everyone happy. There’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Let’s say for example as a commercial photographer you price out a package of usage rights for your client that costs $20,000. However, you’re $5,000 over their budget and they’re asking you to come down in price. The first thing you shouldn’t do is immediately take the loss of $5,000 and come down to that price without changing anything in your contract. What this says to your client is that you were trying to gouge them before, but you’ll take what they can give. If you arrived at a price that is both fair and competitive you should not be intimidated into charging less. You should have confidence in the price you arrived at.

Instead see if you can work with your client to find what usage/expenses you may be able to bring down to reach a compromise. Do they really need a five year licensing package, or could they live with a three year one instead that would drop the price without sacrificing the value of your worth? Perhaps instead of receiving 10 photos they could narrow it down to 8? Work with them to reach a compromise that maintains your worth while delivering them the product they need.

Know When to Walk Away

Sometimes you’re going to run into potential clients that just won’t meet you on equitable ground, and you have to know when to walk away from a project. It’s never fun to have to turn down work. Your mind instantly starts thinking of everything that the money could have helped out with from the job, even if it is much less than the value you’re providing. Don’t give away the farm just because your client is demanding it. Remember, what you do has value and worth! If your client can only afford Uncle Bob at $500 than they’re going to get $500’s worth of Uncle Bob value. Professionalism, experience and talent all come with a cost. After all, you can’t buy a Cadillac for the price of a Kia. Wish that client the best of luck and part on amicable grounds if you can.

Learn and use all of these practices – know your cost of doing business, articulate your worth, be prepared to educate and search for compromises, and know when you have to step away from the table – and you’ll be far better prepared to negotiate your worth.

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Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

Some Older Comments

  • Davor Pavlic June 14, 2013 08:32 am

    Some nice topics here raised, I like it. I've been working on a how to charge for your photography formula and been introducing some advice also. Wouldn't mind another opinion on it. Thank you.

  • julie January 6, 2012 12:31 am

    Do you think it is fair if a photographer charges a sitting fee for his/her creative portfolio projects when it is the responsibility of the model to find transportation and all other incidentals during that day? (plus the model must sign a model release form so the artist may use them for whatever they want to make money)
    I am speaking out of experience here, this happened to me and I wasn't very impressed. I have worked with photographers before and do photography myself but I have never came across this kind of dealing with another photographer. The artist in question is a friend of mine and he has recently started doing photography as a hobby, he has a full time job so it's not like he can give the starving artist excuse. I am not trying to cut him or anything, he's a great guy and I'd like to see him be successful because he does have talent but I just don't agree with his money making tactics. . . .oh, and the models get whatever photos he puts on facebook. . . .not so professional :-/

  • Jess July 27, 2011 12:55 pm

    So what do you do if someone has recently come into the the photography business in your area severally undercutting everyone and taking all the business? Do I drop my prices?

  • Donna Rigg June 7, 2011 10:21 am

    I live by the motto - 'Charge what you are worth, but it must be worth what you charge'

    I would never suggest dropping your price just to get a job. I did a wedding for a couple who paid what I calculated my work and time to be worth. At this wedding, there were 4 other couples, that had up and coming weddings, I got all four couples as clients, If I had dropped my price just to get the first job, I would have been setting that rate for the next four.

    When pricing your job and worth, it has to be right down to the stamp you use, the courier, the time on the computer, the travel costs, car costs, wear and tear on your gear, as things do wear out, batteries die, ink runs out, so much to consider. Do a cost analysis, it's an eye opener.

    When I was working full time, you got to meet other photographers by going to seminars, look at their work and relate their standards to yours, there is nothing wrong in asking for direction and feed back from someone with experience.
    I have had many discussion with other photographers, we never stop learning, but you'll never get anywhere without confidence, if you look at your work as a hobby, thats what it will stay as.
    Aim high, educate yourself correctly in this field, and there will be no doubt.

  • Conall O'Brien April 25, 2011 01:59 am

    A Mike - You should raise your prices automatically every 6 months , a minimum of 10-15% annually. Automatically, say for example every May 1st , raise your prices. You can always offer a discount for first time customers, letting them know that normally you charge X amount.

  • Ginger Johnson April 25, 2011 01:30 am

    Interesting article, I've sold a few and struggled with the pricing. I'm just getting my feet wet and these were all candids taken at dog shows. Something that is rather unique and I'm not sure that this article really applies.

  • Naik April 24, 2011 09:30 pm

    The article and comments are really worth but for the moment, I usually shot friends and love to learn. I have never tought of selling my photos.

  • Mike April 23, 2011 08:35 am

    Very good article and good comments from all. Right now photography is a hobby and I'm still learning a lot about the art and my camera, but would eventually like to start a business part-time. I truly appreciate these articles and the comments.

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:35 pm

    Thanks for this article, very interesting. Having started out in wedding photography and built a client base, it's difficult to know how and when to push your prices up so you start to actually earn some money from what you love doing!?

  • Robert Dingwall April 22, 2011 05:05 pm

    Thanks for a very informative article.

  • bilco April 22, 2011 10:44 am

    Agreed on the other comments regarding 'what you're worth' vs. CODB. These two things have zero to do with each other.

    CODB is good to know so you understand how much you need to charge in order to make a profit, but that's all. Buy massive amounts of equipment, hire a limo to take you to a shoot, and CODB goes way up, but you haven't added a penny to what you're worth.

  • ksw April 22, 2011 05:08 am

    The article is very much appreciated. Thank you for sharing.

  • Tim Lamerton April 22, 2011 02:58 am

    Great article, being very new to this (and UK based), how do I find out more about licensing agreements? As a general comment I am finding it difficult to in a recession to attract people willing to pay for my experience and skill, its all very frustrating but must try harder.

  • wri7913 April 22, 2011 01:38 am

    One way to find out what your market will bear is to call other photographers in the area and inquire about jobs. Have a few different types of jobs that you will be working on and get an estimate from a reputable photographer in the area.

    If you actually know the photographer and feel confident in talking to them about pricing you can inquire as a colleague. Sometimes professional photographers are willing to give you a rough estimate of job worth since its in their interest to keep others from "lowballing". If everyone is pricing about the same, then it will simply come down to talent and style. ASMP or PPA are great organizations to get involved with and members of these organizations can also help you arrive at a suitable CODB if you run into trouble.

  • Jeremy Williamson April 22, 2011 01:25 am

    Nicely done Matthew.
    Thanks for the clear thinking and useful advice.
    You covered the ground very well.

    Jeremy Williamson

  • John Parli Photo April 22, 2011 01:06 am

    Don't sell yourself short or undercut your colleagues/industry, and it's ok and sometimes liberating to use the word "NO"!

    Know your worth! No one wants to be known as "the cheap guy in town".

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 21, 2011 12:01 am

    I offer this pricing starting point:

    $150 per hour shooting/on location and then $10 per properly edited digital image (personal use only, as in for portraits, etc.)

    These rates can then be the basis for creating packages or when someone calls you up and is like, "how much for an hour to photograph my car and I only need five images?" Instead of saying I'll get back to you, you can quote the potential client a price of $200 right then and there.

    It is very useful to have a minimum hourly rate and a per image rate established so when someone calls you about a job that does not neatly fit into any existing packages, you can respond instead of being left wondering, "yeah, how much would I charge for that?" I write this out of my own experience running into that situation often.

  • Matthew Dutile April 20, 2011 10:20 am

    What your market will bear is a big consideration. I can't get the same prices in Phoenix as I can in New York. Also, Doug you'll notice I said use CODB as your base and then don't forget to add for the actual creative worth of what you bring to a shoot.

  • alignm2 April 20, 2011 05:19 am

    You cannot charge for mediocrity and deliver quality!!

  • Doug Sundseth April 19, 2011 11:30 pm

    I have to disagree that calculating how to meet your CODB is the way to determine what your photography is worth. A brilliant photo doesn't become less valuable because it was taken on the fly, nor does a weak photo become better because it was the result of a three-day photoshoot with models, sets, and MUAs. (If you subscribe to Marx's Labor Theory of Value, I'll have to just agree to disagree, since I try not to argue religion.)

    What determining your CODB does is let you know the number you have to reach to stay in the business. If you can find clients that will pay that number for the work you are currently doing, great. If not, you'll have to change your way of doing business, work harder, or find a new business. You can also use that CODB to estimate what your competition will need to charge to do the same job, though you always need to consider the possibility that your competitiors are more efficient than you are.

    Furthermore, your customer doesn't really care how much it costs you to keep your studio open. What he cares about is how your photography will provide value to him through enjoyment or increased sales (depending on the genre of photography). You need to make your pitch on that basis:

    "You should hire me because I have experience shooting lifestyle photographs that communicate exactly the message you want to project to your clients."

    "My unique portrait style will provide you with a photo that you will enjoy looking at for years."

    or even

    "I can get good enough photographs in less time for less money than my competition."

    You need to know that CODB, so that you can know whether you are sinking or swimming and when you need to fix things, but for your customers it's all about the value proposition.

  • Ed O'Keeffe April 19, 2011 07:03 pm

    Great article, I'm currently running my photography business part time whilst working a full time office / day job and this gave me a lot to think about. A few months ago I worked out my CODB to be nearly £600 per month (buying new camera bodies and computers every 24 months). Ultimately though I am just building up my client list slowly and enjoying the rewards of selling commercial licenses for me work.

  • Gary April 19, 2011 02:06 pm

    This is a great article but it's useful to remember that worth, and pricing, are based on what the market will bear. A great way to price is to ask too much, lose the deal, drop the ask slightly to the next buyer, repeat - until somebody takes the offer. A seller really doesn't know what the pricing ceiling is unless he loses a few opportunities because his price is too high.

  • Johnp April 19, 2011 12:45 pm

    Really helpful article, thanks. I find clients don't appreciate the amount of post production work that goes into a photo shoot and it helps to let them know the hours you expect to spend processing their images. That time, especially for weddings, will be longer than the photo shoot itself. Letting them know that also helps to set you apart from the Uncle Bobs of this world as they then realise they are getting something extra from you for their money. It makes your price look better as well as a lot of clients tend to think of your fee on an hourly rate basis.

  • chew April 19, 2011 11:46 am

    It's quite tough, isn't it? especially the articulation part. Very great article. Thank you for putting this up.

  • McGuireuk April 19, 2011 09:23 am

    Great article. I have recently taken the plundge into making money from portraits. So far so good. Been doing for two weeks and have 6 bookings already. It is a scary thought trying to price up your work as you can easily think "What if they don't book me?".

    Great way of putting it into practice to calculate 'your worth'.

  • Robert Coombs April 19, 2011 09:07 am

    My favorite take on pricing comes from Anil Dash who says (referring to consultant pricing):
    1. Slap the client in face.
    2. Tell the client your hourly rate.
    If the person looked more shocked, horrified, offended, hurt, saddened, or wounded by the slap in the face, then you are still pricing yourself too low.

  • Michelle H. April 19, 2011 08:11 am

    Amazing article my friend! Such a great reminder about knowing one's worth and not apologizing for it!

  • Gary Paakkonen April 19, 2011 07:06 am

    Excellent article Matthew! I'm getting the calculator out right now and start crunching :)


  • Blair April 19, 2011 06:54 am

    I totally feel you about the whole "know when to walk away" thing....I had a lady trying to get me down to almost nothing to shoot her wedding a couple of weeks ago. I ran into the "we'll just get some family members to take pictures" statement, but I'm proud of myself for not compromising my work and worth.