Price vs. Value

Price vs. Value

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Do you feel comfortable with the prices you’re charging for your services and products? Do you have a nagging thought in your head that you’re not charging enough or wonder why people can’t bring themselves to pay your high prices? There are many factors involved in knowing what to charge for your services and I’m not about to break it down in such a way as to come up with an answer for you. But what I can offer is some hindsight thoughts in my journey finding a price point where I feel comfortable.

I’ve said it before – there are three camps in the professional photography universe. Left brained business people who decide it’s a lucrative career, right brained artists who figure out that they can make money doing what they love and then there are those who have managed to think with both sides of their brain and fuse art and business into something grand. I’m not saying I’m in that category. I hope I am – check back in 5 years and we’ll see how it ends up.

So we have these business photographers who care little about doing more than they need to do to get by, counting on the fact that most consumers don’t know what they’re looking at and think all their photos are great (I’m saying this from experience so don’t tell me it doesn’t happen!:) And then you have the arty photographers who have a hard time taking cash-in-hand for a job well done. The subject of money makes them uncomfortable and they can’t quite come to a conclusion about exactly what they want to charge.

Have you ever bought something outrageously expensive which doesn’t seem to have any reason for being so expensive? For example, I’ve bought two pairs of UGG boots in the past couple years. Why would I spend £200+ on a pair of boots I had never yet even seen in person or tried on? Boots which no one actually told me how they feel when you wear them how they hold up with wear and tear. Boots which cost the company about £5 to make. Shall I be totally transparent and tell you the real reason I paid a high price for a low cost pair of boots? Because they make me look cool. The value of those boots far exceeds the price. If you’re a girl (or maybe an UGG wearing guy – yes, men wear them now too) you’ll have seen it before – two women walk by each other in the newest fashion UGGs and just as they get out of each other’s peripheral view, one glances back to look at the back of the other woman’s boots to see if they’re ‘real’. This is what UGG is selling to women. They aren’t selling fashion – they could come up with the most horrific fashion in boots next month and everyone would clammer to get them. They are selling status. They are selling superiority. £200 isn’t the price, it is the value.

Blog4Now think of popular photo studios in your area which lures unsuspecting new mothers with a ‘free sitting’ and then charges exorbitant prices for their images. I’ve heard story after story after story. Couples who aren’t even together anymore, but still paying the monthly £35 direct debit for photos which have probably had the heads chopped off by now. New mums who ‘won’ a free session (which somehow cost them £50) and leave spending more on one canvas than on all of their baby gear combined. I’ve been in the sales room before. They slowly fade your images in and out on a massive flat panel plasma screen with some soothing music (some studios first give you a glass of champagne to loosen up the pocket strings). Then they hit you with the price – £900 for a family photo framed. 4 5x5s in an acrylic block – £1060. They give you two years of free credit to pay monthly for your photos that sometimes cost as much as a car. These studios justify their tactics thus – they aren’t selling pictures, they are selling art. They tell the client that they are ‘investing’ in ‘art’. Why is this an absolutely asinine concept? Because an investment is something that someone else will want to buy from you one day. By it’s very definition, investing is ‘expending money with the expectation of achieving a profit’.

These studios aren’t selling pictures. They aren’t selling an investment. Art? Perhaps. But mostly, they are selling a feeling. The feeling that you get when you look your newborn in the eyes. The feeling you got when you were in the viewing room looking at the one time in your family history when all of the children were simultaneously clean, well-dressed and behaving themselves. They are selling the idea that you are a happy family and it must be true because look at this glowingly Photoshopped representation of your happiness created out of an entirely fabricated situation and lovingly edited to take the smiling face of shot A and placing it next to your smiling face in shot B.

We can learn a lot about how not to treat people from this situation. Make a lot of money? Yes. But sleep at night knowing that you aren’t ripping people off an the biggest way? Better swallow a couple Tylenol PMs.

People just want lovely photos they can display in their home. They don’t want to still be paying for them by the time they’re painfully outdated (can you Photoshop a mullet?) and looking to have new ones taken.

I’m still finding my niche in this market. Still exploring the option that I’m not charging enough. Personally, I didn’t get into this business to become a millionaire. I did it because I wanted my friends to have beautiful images of their children without going through the photo mills that will leave them broke as a joke. I do, however, feel a responsibility to my family to be making enough money to make all of my work and time away worthwhile and I feel no qualms about charging what I need to charge to turn a nice (and realistic) profit.

Some bullet points for why people pay extreme prices for photos:

  • They made the appointment months in advance.
  • They fought to get all the kids a fresh hair cut and, darnit, they want a photo to commemorate that achievement.
  • They have already made an emotional investment.
  • Who can allow photos of their children to be trashed? I once had a photographer actually throw my son’s school photos in the bin right before my eyes and there was a twinge of pain in my heart. It’s a despicable way of manipulating an emotional purchase.
  • They can’t shop around for these same photos. You took them. You own them. You are willing to sell them the right to have one on their wall. In a way, the photographer is holding their family hostage.

I know this paints a negative picture of an evil hostage-holding manipulating photographer and I don’t believe that the majority of you reading this operate in that fashion. Those bullet points are a powerful insight into the mind of the client and can be used for good or evil – to decide a reasonable price which sets a level of value in the heart of your client or to rob them blind.

Back to the UGGs. Perhaps the guy who made the first pair thought ‘Can I really charge that much? Will people really pay £200 for these boots I made for £5?’ But he took that risk and it worked. We believe that UGGs are worth £200 because Mr. UGG told us so. Your clients are looking to you to not only tell then the price, but convey to them a value. People cherish things which cost them money. They won’t hang their £300 canvas in the bathroom – they will show it to everyone and your hard work and dedication to the art of photographing people being happy will shine for the ages.

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What do you think? If you’re not a professional (or you’re a professional who has been to another studio in the past) do you have a story to share that will shed even more light? We’d love to hear it!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • LexaRae June 19, 2010 07:17 am

    THANK YOU! This answered my questions, and my battle!

  • LeinwandFotoDruck March 4, 2010 08:12 pm

    Great article. Indeed a lot of companies charge way to much for their services or products. We are a photo-printing company, and in my opinion our prices are by far not overdone considered the quality.

  • Troy Schulz February 22, 2010 03:47 pm

    A lot of it has to do with where you live as well. A person who lives, say, in New York or California is going to have to charge a lot more than someone here in Wisconsin - for the same level of quality workmanship - to be able to provide themselves an adequate living.

    It costs less here to rent or buy a three or four bedroom house than it costs to rent a 1 bedroom apartment in those areas.

    So a lot of it is relative to where you are.

  • Johanna Lakin January 5, 2010 12:57 pm

    10 years ago when I was baout 13, my sister and I saw a beautiful photo hanging in a studio window of two sisters. The photo was priceless! SO me and my sister even though we had barely any money scrounged up enough to have ours done. We wanted them to look just like the photo in the window. Long story short, the photos looked awfull! Now looking back I realize the photographer had no artistic abilitys. He didnt even get good angles on us. We looked bad, but, we still spent over 200.00 on the prints for who knows why! I think it because we had to pay for them to get done and we wnated them so bad! I finally the courage to throw them out this year cause they were that bad. It may have paid off to the photographer at the time because we paid $300.00 but it didnt pay off long term because we will never go back.

  • Mike Harris December 24, 2009 09:19 pm

    I am a Narrator - "Voice for hire" and am paid what some see as exorbitant fees - $500 minimum for what often turns out to be a 10minute recording session. That's the "Price." The "value" is: "In and out." A recording session (studio charges,etc.) is usually measured in hours and costs $2-3,000 per hour, so the less time I take the more time the client has to "sweeten" the production and overall get a better final product. So what seems like a, lot up front ends up "cheap" in the end. I tell some gulping clients: It's not the 10 minutes this session ran - it's the 30 years it took to teach me how to do this session in 10 minutes that you're actually paying for.
    :

  • Anton Oosthuizen December 24, 2009 05:52 pm

    Gr8 article - I am the arty photographers who have a hard time taking cash-in-hand for a job well done, thanks for confirming LOL

  • starrpoint December 24, 2009 02:51 pm

    I too, have had pressure on me to buy an expensive photo package by the tiime-honored throw it in the trash bit.

    While I did like the photos, I did not like the high-pressure sales pitch.

  • Gerry Coe December 24, 2009 10:37 am

    Elizabeth, A very good article and I agree with all you said. You are still trying to find your Niche, well keep at it and before long you will find that you have your own unique style. You won't recognize it at first but others will point it out to you. That happened with me and people are still coming back for my style. Happy Christmas and a Profitable New Year.
    If you are going to the SWPP in January look me up, I am doing 2 workshops there.

  • Stephanie December 24, 2009 04:58 am

    Good article, as I need to sit down and re-evaluate my pricing schedule. Most photogs in my area are expensive. I'm not so much, but I'm not doing this full-time and I don't have overhead. BUT, this year, things really took off for me and when I sit down and calculate the actual time I spent on weddings and portraits, I didn't make a dime. I feel I have more experience now to start charging more. However, I do believe that you shouldn't have to mortgage your soul for quality photography and I like the clients that really appreciate beauty and value. And for those clients who do balk at my prices, because "Uncle John" has the same equipment, I tell them to let Uncle John to take their photos--but don't come crying to me to fix them! LOL

  • Phil Brooks December 24, 2009 04:35 am

    Great article! I have been there a million times, and I finally feel like I'm comfortable with price vs. value. I do mostly portraits and events, and photography for me is a second means of income, but by no means a path to riches and greatness. My goal is to make enough money from my work to be able to continue investing in equipment and constantly improving the quality of my work. In other words this won't replace my full-time job! I want my work to be a level of quality where the customer is willing to pay a premium, not a fortune.

    This article was very helpful.

  • Eric Mesa December 22, 2009 10:54 pm

    I think there is room for plenty of price points. There need to be photographers for rich people and photographers for poor people.

  • Richie Heaney December 21, 2009 11:12 pm

    I particularly liked this article because like most new photographers, it is hard to get the correct price for your work. Just this year I have set up my own "business" and the fact that I love taking photographs with the ability to sell my work, makes me happy. The only issue is trying to get a good price for the photos you take and what the customer is willing to pay! I have took two photoshoots recently and these were my first paying customers. I have to say that I am not expensive but do think I could probably charge a little bit more for my work but that will come in time. I am kind of appalled at the prices some photographers charge as it really is daylight robbery. Like this article says, it is like holding the family to ransom and using emotional blackmail.

  • Arnar December 21, 2009 10:06 pm

    The best way to figure out a price that is fair is to make a simple calculation.

    How much does your equipment cost ? How much time do you expect to be using it for ? What will your equipment and rent cost you per shoot.

    How much money do you need to make a decent living ? How many photoshoots do you want to have every month. How many photoshoots are you having every month.

    I would definetly say that having 3-5 photoshoots in a week should have to be enough to pay off your equipmennt and your mininum salary. Then you have to make effort in making your clients happy so that refer their friends to you and every additional photoshoot you make is a straight shoot into your wallet.

  • Scott December 21, 2009 05:59 pm

    The reason the 'plasma screen' viewing photographers charge so much is probably down to the costs of running the studio and also marketing, if it's the Franchise I think you're talking about a lot of those studios have gone to the wall as they've 'mined' the market. I've come a lot of customers of theirs have been left a bitter taste in their mouth due to costs of prints and they way they've been suckered. The one in my city barely lasted 12 months.

    The key marketing tool a photographer has, far more than any other tool, is word of mouth. This is because you have to build the trust of your clients and if you're been referred then you've achieved half the objective. If you can't get word of mouth then you're scuppered. Customer loyalty is also important, so setting up some kind of reward for referrals or word of mouth can work for some studios.

    We also have a ethical obligation as caretakers of memories not to hold the client to ransom, but also not to let them walk roughshod over us. This is where you have to balance a fine line between the two. How do you do it? You understand your city, town or market, see how you can fit in. There is a lot of photographers out there and price isn't a differentiating point as much as it used to be, people are still looking for something 'new' and interesting, but not avant garde. If you can do that then you're on the right track.

  • Jason Collin Photography December 21, 2009 03:15 pm

    I'm surprised to hear the tactics of some studios, like throwing photos in the trash to shock the client!

    I try to charge what I think my services are worth within reason. I do know the longer I do photography the more I want to charge.

    About UGGs, people who spend huge money on clothing that is not functional have a mental problem brought on by a lack of personal ethics. Don't care about the power of marketing, it's up to the individual to control one's wallet. Don't know why anyone would spend hundreds of dollars on footwear that is not waterproof, cannot allow you to traverse any terrestrial environment, and provides arch and ankle support.

  • Jeff December 21, 2009 02:31 am

    I know around here in our small town there are several options. There's a woman who's an old friend of mine. Beautiful pictures, not cheap. Probably the most expensive in town, or close to it. However, she sells the copyright to the photos she shoots with the package - all post production done and photos printable. Her fees are high, but presented up front with no hidden costs.

    Sometimes we have to wait for her sale days to afford her, but she is our go-to photographer. When we wanted maternity pictures of my wife, we went to her. We didn't balk at the cost because we knew that a) we were getting the best photographer in town and b) we would have printable digital copies for scrapbooking, digital photo frames and our blog. And still, when it comes time to order a print for our wall, do you think we print it off at wal-mart just because we now legally can? Nope - we still go to her, because we know that the print company she uses will make it look the best it can be.

    Then, there are other photographers that charge half as much or less, but they are happy to just take photos and hand you film to develop yourself. No prints, no nothing. I'm not sure what these guys are doing now that they're shooting digital - I haven't bothered.

    Then there's walmart. Come in and get a studio session for five dollars! Sure, you get one pose, one shot. You get preview it on a monitor. Like the shot? You can buy it. Don't like it, you can choose to pay for another pose (not 5 dollars this time) and the first pose is deleted. And then you are charged through the nose for a single portrait pose that you've finally decided you like just to get pictures to hang on your wall.

    I'm happy with my normal photographer. I'll pay more, because I value the art she produces and the copyright to my commisioned works so that I can use them in all these newfangled digital ways.

  • Sarah December 21, 2009 01:01 am

    Thanks for the article! Right now I'm not really charging enough compared to other phographers in my area, but I'm charging enough for ME right now to feel good about what I'm doing and to be making a profit. This is my 1st full year. I'm a stay-at-home Mom who does daycare also - But since I've started doing this, I've been able to start watching only 1 toddler other than my own 2 so it's been great. There were a couple months straight this summer where I had 2-3 every week so that really helps us out. And I get do something I love, more people can afford me, and I'm getting tons of experience. I think people (myself included) need to not worry so much about what others are doing and focus on doing what makes us feel happy & fulfilled. :)

  • JP Smith December 21, 2009 12:58 am

    Good article. While I don't do much in the way of portrait photography - landscape and the like - I have had similar thoughts. I thought up some pricing schemes (framed prints, cards, etc.) and ran them by some trusted friends who have bought like items in the past. They also gave me candid feedback on my earlier work. They suggested prices slightly higher than I had originally come up with, but I found that it was a motivation for me to really work and make sure that I felt the customer was getting at least what they were paying for. As I feel that my work has improved (composition, framing, mounting, etc.), I have raised my prices. Part of it is a factor of personal confidence - do I feel that my work is work $XX? It also helps that I have a day job and am not dependent on my photography to feed the family and pay the rent. Just working towards that next lens!

  • Amandalynn Jones December 21, 2009 12:49 am

    This is brilliant.

    It's difficult to find that balance sometimes, value vs. cost, and it will vary from client to client, situation to situation... but ultimately people will only value your work as much as you yourself do, so you better set a good example(whether that involves raising the cost or not).

  • Elizabeth Halford December 21, 2009 12:10 am

    @Absolutely Everyone: Thanks so much everyone for the comments. And, yes, Danferno, those are the tryptophan boots :) That made me laugh (and yawn).

  • Van Marciano Art December 20, 2009 09:03 pm

    Brilliant artilce and enjoyed reading very much, I don't actually photograph to sell but I do use the images to work from in my studio. But the concept here as a pinter works too, and I will be dwelling on some of these thoughts for the new year, thanks for posting.

  • Ian December 20, 2009 08:01 pm

    Thanks for this article, i consider myself a novice and have done pictures for friends and family which they have been very happy with. I have only ever asked for the cost of printing and hope to build a reputation for great photos.

  • Pat Mondl December 20, 2009 12:30 pm

    Excellent article! Something that is always on my mind. Thank you for sharing.

  • Rob Wright December 20, 2009 12:20 pm

    Love the article. Tough to make a living in this economy with every GWC, or mall based photo studio charging lower prices for lesser quality.

  • Larry Eiss December 20, 2009 11:12 am

    I always get something I can use from your articles, and this one is no exception. Thank you, Elizabeth.

  • George Fragos December 20, 2009 09:22 am

    People don't respect art that comes cheap -- don't devalue yourself. Cheap attracts a low class of customer and that's the last thing you want. Cheap encourages you to cut corners and the quality that will make you stand out. Would you rather be known as the low priced spread or a great photographer. Charge more and put in the effort to create your best possible product. Both you and your client will feel better about it.

  • Ron Gibson December 20, 2009 08:58 am

    It is all about value. And one persons value is not the same as the next.

    I am not an inexpensive photographer, and I don't try to be. My rates are higher than most in my area and I certainly don't mind that, who wants the competition? My business background has taught me to be monopolistically competitive- if you only compete on price (perfect competition) you will never make a dime. By charging more money I am able to justify spending more time on post production, providing the clients more options, utilizing better equipment, and providing a better product.

    One thing to avoid- the cell phone plan style of pricing (base cost + this fee + that fee). I don't bother with hidden fees, I show them right up front- here is the whole price. But I'll massage the project with them if the price is too high.

    Sure, many clients will just purchase based on price- then you hear later how upset they were with their photos. I hear it all the time. But that's what you get for $200, some guy that happened to have a camera in his hands. Don't compete with that guy! There is a huge value in quality, and the clients know they have to pay for it. If they don't- they will when they get their photos! Think about that next time you are considering a new camera or a new lens, are you buying based on price, or on value.

  • Andrew December 20, 2009 08:11 am

    I'm both too young and too inexperienced to set up appointments and have families in for portraits.

    So the portraits I do (mostly school dance pictures) are only as expensive as it costs for me to print them for the couple. I'm hoping to build a reputation for high-quality photography and get some experience before I start charging for a profit.

  • Danferno December 20, 2009 07:04 am

    Are you talking about tryptophan boots? (sorry, couldn't resist)

  • Casey Friend December 20, 2009 06:53 am

    This was a great article. I have been messing around with photography for about 1 year now and I have people coming to me asking me to take their pictures and offering payment. I enjoy taking pictures, but the money part always bothers me. Sure, it's great to be paid to do something I love, but I'd just as happily take pictures of them if it were free.

    I'm still in the process of learning to accept payment for pictures, but I consider myself to be one that likes taking pictures because of what it is, not to make money.

  • Wayne Mah December 20, 2009 06:49 am

    Good article... thanks for your insights! Plus I know now I don't need to buy those unfashionable UGGs... ;-)