Pricing. Photographers struggle with this — and agonize over it — more than almost anything in business. We doubt ourselves. Second-guess ourselves. Paralyze ourselves.
Am I too new to charge? How much should I charge? Am I charging too much? Is that why I’m not booking? OR AM I NOT BOOKING BECAUSE I’M NOT CHARGING ENOUGH? Another photographer told me I haven’t been doing this long enough yet… I live in a small town, and my market is saturated. I live in a big city, and MY market is saturated. Maybe I shouldn’t be in business at all…
Can you relate to this?
If that’s how you feel, you’re not alone!
Every photographer we’ve EVER talked to has played this mental game with themselves at some point in their career. It’s totally normal.
Unfortunately, what’s also normal is to get bad pricing advice from random people on the Internet who’ve never run a successful photography business; or people who don’t know all the facts of your personal situation (where you live, your experience level, your business goals, your personal finances) and think there’s a one size fits all price.
We ‘re here to help bust the most common pricing questions for new photographers, so you can (confidently) ignore random people with opinions who tend to talk the talk, but probably haven’t walked the walk.
We know what it’s like to build a successful photography business from the ground up. We’ve been through all the same pricing back-and-forths as you. We also know what it’s like to turn nothing into multiple six figures — and we’ve taught a lot of other photographers how to do the same.
Without further ado, here’s the first pricing question…
1. I’m starting out. How much should I charge?
This is, by far, the most common pricing question we get from new photographers. Most of the time, what photographers want is for us to just give them a number. To hand them the “what.” But we think it’s really important to take a step back and understand the “why” behind pricing. Because when you know the why, the what becomes much easier and clearer to see.
In our experience, for a lot of new photographers, your adventure in photography goes something like this: You get a new camera for your birthday or Christmas. You’re really excited! (Hopefully you’re enrolled in the Shooting and Editing Course 😉 You start taking photos of your family and friends with your new camera and posting them on your personal Facebook or Instagram account. The messages and DMs start trickling in. From family. From friends. From friends of friends. From people from high school you haven’t talked to in ten years. From a lot of people. Hey! I see that you do photography now! So cool! What would you charge me for a session?
You’re flattered. Then the fear sets in. Because you have NO IDEA what to say back. So you throw out a number — and, just like that, you’re in business!
Is that what you want?
It’s funny, because most photographers ask themselves the second question before the first question, but the first question is actually the more important one.
First Question: Do I want to make money with photography? SKIP!
Second Question: How much should I charge?
If you want a photography business, that’s awesome! We’d love to help you!
But if you don’t want a photography business, if you just want to do photography as a hobby, where you bless people with beautiful pictures for free just because you love to shoot as a creative outlet, hear us loud and clear: THAT IS OKAY! Everyone is in a different life season. Everyone is in a different financial situation. Everyone has different limits on their time. Everyone has different goals for their photography — and some don’t involve charging money. We know some amazing photographers who have great full-time day jobs, could charge a lot of money for their work, but choose to skip the stress and hassle of being a business owner, and instead use their gift as a way to give back. We think that’s awesome. You can also stop reading now. Haha!
2. If you do want to charge money for your photography, or you think you might in the future, the second thing to understand is that price is associated with risk.
Here’s what we mean…
If you’re priced too high, you risk not be able to get enough clients. If you’re priced too low, you risk getting too many clients. Too many clients?! That’s not a problem! Yes, it actually can be 🙂 As a photographer, there’s only one of you. You’re not a cheeseburger or a cup of coffee. If you had a hundred people standing outside your door right now, wanting to hire you this week, you couldn’t serve all of them. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Starbucks and McDonald’s don’t have that problem, because the product they have is scalable — meaning it can be replicated for a high volume of customers, an infinite number of customers. You’re not scalable. Which is why you don’t have “customers.” You’re a solopreneur in the service-based business, which means you have “clients” (not customers) and you can, by the laws of nature and physics, only take a limited number of clients at a time. Just like a massage therapist, or a hair stylist, or any other person who works directly with people where their time is tied to getting paid.
So, there’s risk in being priced too low, because if you get too many clients at once, you won’t be able to serve all of them well and in a timely fashion. We’ve heard absolute HORROR STORIES from photographers who offered their services on a site like Groupon, deeply discounted, in order to generate quick, easy clients for their business. And it was a disaster. They had SO MANY bookings, at such a low price, that they were scheduled out for months and months (which clients weren’t happy about), their turnaround time was super slow (because they were shooting all the time and didn’t have a chance to catch their breath to edit), and they weren’t making much because their prices were so cheap. They were overwhelmed, exhausted, and wished they’d never done it. Photography wasn’t fun anymore, that’s for sure.
We don’t want that to happen to you!
* Important: It’s okay to price yourself low in your first year, when you’re just getting started and are desperate for clients. We did that, too! Everyone does 🙂 We just recommend a few clients at a time, via word-of-mouth referrals, so you don’t get swamped with more work than you can possibly handle at once — which can easily happen in Groupon and bridal show situations. No disrespect for either! We just think photographers should be very careful, thoughtful and realistic if they choose to go that route. As a general rule, we don’t recommend it.
The other risk is being priced too high. We’ve seen photographers who priced themselves so high that they could only get a handful of bookings. What good is it to feel good by having your website say, “Wedding Collections Begin at $5,000,” if you can only book two per year ($10,000) and you need $40,000 to live on. You’d be better off shooting 20 weddings at $2,000, making the $40,000 you need to live, and getting a ton of experience under your belt and expanding your client base by having TWENTY brides who can refer you their friends… versus just two. We’d always prefer that photographers slightly underprice themselves and be working A TON, versus slightly OVER pricing themselves and not making enough.
As you can see, pricing is a delicate balance. There’s no magic formula. How much you charge is something that has to be constantly tweaked, evaluated and refined based on the laws of supply and demand, based on what “the market” (or people) are willing to pay.
3. That brings us to our final point for this lesson: incrementalism.
If you went into Starbucks today, and your favorite cup of coffee cost $5.00; and then you went back next week (or even a month from now!) and the same coffee cost $10.000, you’d probably be upset and wouldn’t pay for the coffee. Likewise, if your friend said, “Hey! There’s this amazing new coffee shop in town. Their lattes are only two dollars. It’s amazing!” and you went to the coffee shop and they’d raised their latte prices to four dollars, you’d probably be upset and wouldn’t pay for the latte. That’s because consumers are sensitive to price increases unless they’re done incrementally. A little bit at a time.
Have you ever heard the story about the boiling frog? It goes like this. If you boil a pot of water and throw a frog in, the frog will feel the hot water and jump right out. But if you put the frog in room temperature water and gradually, over a period of time, raise the temperature, the frog will eventually boil and not even realize it. Now, we’re NOT suggesting that you boil your clients!
Here’s what we are saying: raise your prices a little bit at a time. If you do 3-5 portrait sessions for $100 each — and your clients are happy and you keep getting more bookings — then it’s probably okay to raise your prices. Maybe from $100 to $125 or $150. Then hold there for a little while. Make sure you continue to book. If demand stays consistent, increase your prices again in a small increment. Maybe from $150 to $175 or $200. Always keep the coffee example in mind. How would you feel if your friend got their photos done with Photographer A for $100, told you that, and then when you inquired, Photographer A told you it was going to be $200 for the same service just a week or month later. Would that be a turn off to you? It probably would be to us! Because it wouldn’t feel fair. It might even feel a little greedy. That’s why, when Starbucks raised their prices recently, it was by 10-20 cents. Most customers probably didn’t even notice. If they did, it probably didn’t even bother them. Because it just felt kinda normal. Because prices go up over time. Everyone knows that and accepts it. Especially in a service-based business where your time is limited and you can only accept so many clients at one time.
Your photography clients will probably accept it, too. If they don’t, it’s a good sign that you raised them too high, too fast.
* One thing that’s really important to mention is this: we believe in the free market, the free exchange of goods and services between two willing individuals. So, if you can double your prices every week, and you keep getting more clients, and you’re happy to serve them, and they’re happy to pay, then BY ALL MEANS charge whatever the market will allow. It’s a win for you and it’s a win for them. That’s capitalism. The other side of the capitalism coin is this: at some point, markets curb prices. If Starbucks doubled their prices next month, they’d lose a lot of customers. If they did it again, the next month, they’d lose more. Eventually, they’d go out of business. So if incremental price increases are good for Starbucks, it should probably be good for us! Plus, it’s just a safer, steadier way to grow.
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to pricing is there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that we, or anyone else, can give you. That’s why the pricing module of our AJ Business Course is almost three hours alone! There are so many components that factor into making pricing decisions. Hopefully knowing this makes you feel less alone and more empowered to make decisions that work best for both you and your clients.