Why Won’t Photographers Talk About Price

Why Won’t Photographers Talk About Price

Photographers often harangue one another over pricing. Ironically, very few are willing to publicly disclose how much they charge for jobs. In economic speak, this leads to an inefficient market that has wide ranging pricing for the same output. More to the point, no one knows what to charge, photographers don’t have an easy way to benchmark their rates and approach, and thus pricing information is guarded like gold. The cycle of opacity continues.

In an age where everyone is a photographer and where even the most popular trade organizations have only a few thousand members, the notion that discussing pricing could somehow be construed as collusion is antiquated. Pricing is vexing. We need to talk about it openly.

There are a few good resources (here, here, here), but a few resources aren’t enough to alter the status quo. In the meantime, publishing groups work together to devise new ways to appropriate more rights from photographers, and issue signing ultimatums. Photographers have been waiting for a messiah, failing to realize that their messiah is themselves.

We’ve focused on many different topics on the blog in the past decade, but over the next few months, we’re going to examine real world pricing by asking photographers around the country how they price specific jobs. The intent isn’t to single out a particular approach as being “correct,” but rather to show regional factors and the nuance that goes into pricing, and hopefully help start a more transparent dialog around pricing that can benefit photographers as a whole.

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Why won’t photographers talk about price?

For editorial assignments, pay is often dictated by standard rates, but even those are somewhat flexible with added service fees (parking, mileage, rentals, digital transmit, etc). When it comes to commercial, corporate or institutional work, a dearth of information makes it difficult for both the photographer and the client to assess whether they are getting a fair deal.

Pricing can be nuanced. A photographer might agree to a lower shoot fee because she feels that the resale potential is high. There might be a guarantee of shoot days. Ancillary services like retouching or social media consulting might affect the price of the pure photography.

What photographers say

“I think it primarily comes down to a fear of being judged. Not only is pricing is all over the place, but the way in which we structure our fees varies widely. Some people license their work very specifically, others have embraced unlimited use, some people line item everything, others bundle fees into one lump sum. I think part of that is dictated by which area of the market you work in, but that doesn’t stop the topic from eliciting very passionate opinions from people. So there’s a very real fear of being looked down on, considered one of the low-ballers, or found to be less impressive a businessperson. No one wants a colleague to think ‘Man, that’s a lot lower creative fee than the other guy suggested’ or ‘Oh, you’re one of those people who is regularly leaving money on the table!’”

Jenna Close, Commercial Photographer & Chairperson, Board of Directors, ASMP

“I think part of it is culture. Here in America it is rude to ask how much people make for a living or even for a job, just like it is considered rude to ask who they voted for in the recent election. But in reality, I think it is mostly because photographers are not educated on this topic and do not know how to price their work. Many photographers get incredibly nervous when this topic comes up because they haven’t taken the time to learn this part of the business. It comes down to lack of education, which has plagued our industry forever…I also think that discussing pricing with photographers is very intimidating as there is always someone pricing their work at much lower rates than the rest of the folks in the discussion. I have seen this play out in ASMP meetings which talked about pricing. That person undercutting everyone else in the room was fairly quiet. Those that were talking were in “witch hunt” mode talking about how the “under cutters” were destroying an industry. Hence, this is a tough topic that requires serious trust so folks can open up and either become educated or at least not be alienated.”

Michael Clark, Outdoor/Adventure Sports Photographer

“While I’ll freely talk about how I arrive at my pricing for different jobs, I only share the specifics with a handful of close friends. Generally speaking, I’m reluctant to talk about pricing because: 1) I’m afraid of being undercut by the competition, 2) I’m insecure about my own rates, 3) I think that each photographer needs to price based on a cost of doing business calculation not necessary what others are charging.”

Chris Owyoung, Concert Photographer & PhotoShelter product manager

“Nobody wants to be the low guy. There’s no transparency because you’re afraid to be embarrassed to be the low guy.”

Robert Seale, Commercial/Corporate Photographer

“No one wants to feel like they are the one undercutting the market. But there are a lot of factors – geographic, future sales, long-term relationships – that can go into what makes a ‘final sales price’ and these factors can determine a price that is lower than what photographers may be bragging about/publicly revealing (most folks only tend to talk about shining victories, not drudgery. Their personal high outliers on the spectrum, not the low ones). Keep your rights, they can help offset a lower Creative Fee for long term profit.”

Logan Mock-Bunting, Commercial/Editorial Photographer

“I think that the vagueness/secrecy comes from fear. The fear comes from the lack of actual data/or/metrics for determining value and not knowing how one photographer sizes up to another. The other thing missing is knowing the terms/ rights and scope to a particular project that is then connected to a value.”

Richard Kelly, Photographer and Educator

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Approaches to pricing

“Pricing is a process that works to eliminate as much doubt as possible for a key stakeholder to make a profit maximizing decision.”

Vivian Guo, Pricing Intelligently

 

As abstract and arbitrary as pricing can seem, arriving at a price is a process that equalizes a buyer’s needs and expectations (aka value) with a monetary amount. Luxury fashion is a great example whereby “value” is conveyed through brand prestige (usually accompanied with higher quality materials and design), which allows some designers to sell t-shirts for $400.

One of the challenges of the digital age is convincing consumers/customers of the value of what is essentially intellectual property. In the analog age, spending $15 for a CD made more intuitive sense because you received something tangible. Similarly, with photography the print provided a tangible output to the client.

When your photography is perceived as a thing (i.e. a photo), rather than a service, the customer will always consider it to be fungible. Why pay a photographer $1000 to capture an event when another photographer is willing to do it for $200? If the customer believes the only thing that matters is price, the $1000 photographer is screwed. But if you can convince the customer that having a back-up camera, liability insurance, quick turnaround, great service, and the experience of shooting five hundred other events is meaningful, then $1000 is worth it because of the perceived value of the service.

Anyone who has ever dealt with a general contractor can probably tell you that selecting one on the basis of price can end up being an expensive decision. You want the contractor who will answer your phone calls, communicate problems that might arise, and ensure that quality work is completed by his/her subcontractors. Everyone wants a good deal, and that doesn’t necessarily mean the lowest price.

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Pricing Methodology

There are three main methodologies of pricing: 1) cost-plus pricing, 2) competitor pricing, 3) value-based pricing.

Cost-plus pricing

Cost-plus pricing is a typical pricing methodology in retail where a desired profit margin is added to your Cost of Doing Business (CODB) or Cost of Goods Sold (COGS. The cost of raw materials and labor needed to produce a product). For any freelance photographer, understanding your CODB is key to ensuring that you don’t underprice yourself out of business. The NPPA provides a great CODB calculator.

Cost-plus pricing isn’t an ideal methodology for photographers because it tends to treat photography as a widget instead of a service. However, it still is important for photographers to understand their CODB as a basis for beginning a pricing analysis.

If you know your CODB for a day of work is $1,000 – and you might be surprised at how high your CODB really is – you’d better have a good justification for taking $250 editorial jobs (i.e. they provide marketing exposure for higher paying corporate jobs). But simply tacking on 20% to your CODB doesn’t teach you how to show value to your clients.

Richard Kelly provides counterpoint to using CODB as a starting point, “For me, it’s not a basis for pricing, it’s a way to ensure you don’t go out of business.” Still, knowing your CODB gives you a baseline from which to consider and/or evolve your pricing.

Competitor Pricing

Competitor-based pricing, as its name suggests, is a pricing methodology that only uses other people’s pricing as the basis for setting your own prices. The problem is that it assumes your CODB is the same as your competitors, and it can lead to a race to the bottom.

This isn’t to say that you should be blissfully unaware of what other people charging. It’s important to know where your pricing sits in the spectrum so that you don’t cause unnecessary price deflation, but it shouldn’t be the sole criteria for determining pricing.

Richard Kelly notes that his biggest competitor in his homebase of Pittsburgh is Getty Images, “For the past decade Getty has been my biggest competitor…clients would compare both the work and the price to what they could get from Getty.”

Competing solely on the basis of price in photography is a death sentence for freelance photographers. In retail, businesses that rely on low prices (e.g. Walmart) depend on huge volume to be successful. They can play the volume game because they have scaleable businesses. High demand? Build more stores. Hire more employees. Negotiate better volume pricing.

But photographers are usually sole proprietors, and are inherently non-scaleable. If you’re a kid right out of photo school, $99 headshots might seem like a good idea. But try paying rent in a city like New York, and you’ll quickly realize the error of this pricing strategy. You simply cannot generate enough regular volume to make this a long-term business model.

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Value-based Pricing

Simply stated, value-based pricing sets price based on the perceived value to the customer. It doesn’t factor in cost or competitive pricing. It requires lots of research to understand the customer, their pain points, and their willingness to open their wallet, but it generally results in the highest profit margins.

Let’s use wedding photography as an example. Wedding photography can easily be found in New York from $1,000 to $25,000 and more. New York Magazine polled 100 brides in 2013 and found that 21% wished they had spent more on photography (perhaps equating money spent with results), suggesting a openness to value-based pricing.

Most sophisticated wedding photographers would argue that selling wedding photography isn’t about photography, but about selling a relationship. On one of the most intimate days of a bride and groom’s life, the photographer is continually present for hours. How do you create perceived value while simultaneously honing in on your target demographic?

For well-known wedding photographers Justin and Mary, the culling begins with their inquiry page which is targeted towards the bride. The last question of the form asks, “On a scale from 1-10, how excited are you to be a Justin & Mary bride?”

Justin and Mary previously told me they don’t respond to inquiries of less than an 8. The reason? A bride who isn’t excited to work with them is probably 1) comparison shopping for the lowest price, 2) isn’t familiar with their work and brand, and therefore is a poor customer.

There is scant information about fees on their website other than to say “Full collections begin at $6800.” For most people, that’s a fair chunk of change. But as long as the marketing and price work to eliminate doubt from the customer’s mind, the price is “accurate.”

  • Do their galleries lead you to believe they are competent photographers?
  • Does their website design match your aesthetic?
  • Does their marketing “voice” speak to you?
  • Are you excited to work with them?

It’s tempting to believe that a different genre of photography is somehow exempt from this approach. A commercial photographer bidding on a custom stock library for a corporation might seem worlds apart, but is it?

  • Does your photography and aesthetic match or exceed the customer’s expectations?
  • Does your list of clients reinforce your ability to service the customer?
  • Can you communicate in a way that is equivalent to their other vendors (some of whom might be significantly larger than your company)? Is your proposal professionally designed?
  • Does your personality resonate with the customer?
  • Are you responsive in your communications? Are you perceived as being fair? Are you perceived as a “good guy”?
  • Does your breakdown of your estimate scare or comfort the customer into thinking you know what you’re doing?

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How should we talk about price?

How can photographers talk about price without letting emotions get in the way? A good template already exists via Wonderful Machine’s Pricing & Negotiating column on aPhotoEditor. An actual estimate (with identifying information redacted) is provided, and Jess Dudley does a great job of breaking down various provisions, and how specific items were negotiated with a client.

But of course, the column is focused on “wins” rather than “losses” and the estimates are typically for corporate/advertising usage in the $10k+ range on shoots that require crews. You’re unlikely to see a price estimate for an event photographer at French Embassy dinner (i.e. the scope is relatively narrow compared to the gamut of photography jobs that freelancers deal with).

You also don’t get a sense of regional variations in pricing and approach. In New York City, replacing a water heater might cost you upwards of $3,000. In Iowa, Sears might be available to install the same water heater for $750. Variations in cost of living, insurance, accessibility (e.g. a water heater in a garage is vastly easier to install than a water heater tucked into a corner of an apartment on a fifth floor walk-up) can create legitimate regional variation in price.

In the next few months, we’ll focus on tackling real world pricing scenarios and solicit input from multiple photographers around the country to understand the hows and whys of pricing. We hope to initiate a real dialog around pricing, and hope you participate through thoughtful questions and comments below.

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This article was written by

Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 29 comments for this article
  1. Patrick at 1:46 pm

    I am wondering how much Stephen Wilks charged for his latest pictures in the National Geographic magazine, considering the time on location, travel expenses, extensive retouching work, licence…

    • Jack Reznicki at 12:00 pm

      Interesting question. The thing to remember about someone like Stephen is that he sells a lot of his images as fine art prints. Having an image on the cover of NG and being paid a standard editorial fee might be considered a “loss leader” and enabling a higher price point for that print in a gallery. That would generate a lot more income than any editorial assignment. Resale ability was always the reasoning for low editorial rates. With the downpricing of stock photography over the years, that ability for making up money in after markets has diminished a lot, but the editorial prices still remain low. Stephan’s ability and reputation in the fine art area would make a showcase like NG worth the exposure at any price point, IMO.
      But that’s all just speculation on my part, for what it’s worth.

      Factors like that are what makes pricing so complex. I seem to get a lot of calls from friends and students and strangers about pricing. I can talk for an hour going over considerations in pricing without ever mentioning a price. Photographers always want a set number, like picking an item from a menu, but pricing photography has so many variables that affect the price, that is not often a good way to go. You need the entire picture. But some jobs and situations are cut and dried and having a known set price list would be good.

      I agree with this great article that discussing pricing would help everyone and staying in the dark does hurts all.

      • Larry Arnal at 3:08 pm

        I completely agree with your comments, Jack.

        I get a number of younger photographers, students and even peers who want to get into a discussion about pricing. As you mentioned, the number of factors involved are sometimes mind-boggling from potential resale v. editorial rate (notoriously low) or, there are times when the scope of a project can lead to a pricing negotiation. There are just so many variables. As you said so well, you can’t often just pick a number from the menu.

        That is also why I rarely give a price by email, especially if it’s a new or even fairly new client. It’s far better to have a conversation, discuss your workflow and how it will make their lives and the results of the shoot better/more collaborative/easier and what the justification is for your rate. I find clients are generally very receptive that way, rather than “Oh, this person charges “X”, and that person charges “1/2 X”, so let’s go with the less expensive option.

        Yes, in my market, I tend to be on the higher end of the middle as price goes.

        I look forward to seeing the future discussions on this topic. I think it will serve everyone well.

    • Don Crossland at 6:09 pm

      I had the chance to talk to Joe McNally about NatGeo. They pretty much have their rates set and the photographer can take it or leave it. They do, however, have no problem paying for expenses. He did a shoot for them where the budget for equipment, including cranes and a helicopter rental, was $50k and his fee was around $4k.

  2. The Truth at 2:18 pm

    Many photographers are total douchebags when it comes to talking prices.

    If you say you got $50K for taking a picture of a brick wall, 90% of photographers will tell you they’d have charged $100K.

  3. Darren at 3:10 pm

    I would be interested to see this done internationally as well. The markets in England are quite different than in the US. Headshots seem to be more of a thing in the US.

  4. Derrel at 4:46 pm

    There’s more than 3 pricing methodologies and definitely more than 3 that work in this field. I was in agreement with all of this article up to that point.

      • Joshua at 4:13 pm

        What I was hoping to hear from you, Allen, in this article, is an inclusion of which category PhotoShelter’s use of FotoQuote fits. Is FotoQuote based on cost, competition (seems likeliest), or value? If not one of those three, possibly some other category? Also, it seems that digital licensing and licensing for social media use are becoming more and more important, but in my research, there’s very little information about how to price these types of products, and was also hoping to read about that in this article.

  5. Sam at 8:33 pm

    I find the conversation of pricing to be particularly difficult when trying to break into a specific type of photography. I’m much more willing to undercharge for shooting with bands because I know their funds are limited and I know the reward of having the work or networking may be more valuable in the long run. Can’t really turn networking into meals, however.

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  7. Reuben at 6:25 pm

    This is such an important topic, and could be the most important that Photoshelter have taken on to date. Please don’t just focus on the U S market, but look at the UK and Europe as well.

  8. Donna at 4:44 pm

    This is truly a very important discussion. I certainly hope to read more and learn more about this and we have been in the biz for over 10+years. But no one around here is willing to discuss pricing, so we completely based ours off CODB. I am haunted by the feeling I am leaving money on the table. But I just don’t know. I hear from some clients I am priced high, while others don’t blink at the price and hire us over and over again, so i really could use some more info. Thanks for taking this on.

  9. Al G at 8:28 am

    Getting to a point where we can start placing consistent value on photography is really not helped by the statement ‘In an age where everyone is a photographer…’

    Yes we are in an age where most people carry some sort of camera, but that is a very very different thing. I think most people recognise that by ‘photographer’ we mean professional photographer and that is a better starting point for this discussion.

    • John at 8:22 pm

      Agreed! The advent of digital, though that has been some time now, has certainly diluted the “profession” of photography; meaning that with relatively cheap and very “smart” cameras along with one click processing filters so abundant, many people can take pretty great shots under most conditions and deliver good images to a client.

      I recall one of my instructors of photography at Ryerson University, and this wasn’t all that long ago, saying he remembered the introduction of cheaper pro SLR’s and 35mm film causing similar anxiety in the industry (yes he was quite an older gentleman and was teaching me the zone system which still applies by the way). So perhaps this is cyclical? New tech etc.

      The point is, understanding light never changes. The capture device is irrelevant. Understanding what clients want and need never changes. Understanding business and best practices is what professionals do. Developing a distinctive vision, quality product and the ability to consistently repeat/reproduce your successful work under any conditions is what professionals do.

      Now if only the clients would recognize this. Although some do when spending good money after bad.

      Please excuse this if it sounds like a rant. I got outbid today on a very reasonable quote lol!!

      • Larry Arnal at 3:18 pm

        Sorry about your loss on the quote.

        Quick question. Being one of the “older gentlemen” and having used the zone system 30 years ago with sheet film, how do you apply it in any real way with digital technology? Yes, you can’t clip the highlights or shadows on your histogram and have detail in either, but I’m curious as to how you can expand the histogram (which is essentially what the zone system is for) with a digital sensor… aside from shooting multiple exposures and combining them in post. But then, that’s not really the zone system.

        I look forward to learning something new!

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  11. Heather at 10:08 am

    I am happy to see you mention regional variations in pricing and approach. I am in a very small market and struggle with realistic pricing for both me and for my clients. There is no information on this. Everything I ever see is based on big markets and big clients. So I am looking forward to some considerations and hopefully recommendations and advice.

    • Jebb at 4:04 pm

      Hi Heather, I know this is an older post by now, but I am wondering if you’ve made any progress in working out realistic pricing for you and your customers in a small market. I’m in a similar situation, and every year I find myself trying to figure out the best method. I end up so frustrated that the all the calculators and articles suggest prices that make people in my small town angry. You have a nice portfolio…willing to share your insights for smaller markets?

  12. Stu at 1:56 pm

    After living in another country for 15 years I moved back to New Zealand where I had no market. I have had to start all over again. My previous market was strong and I was raising prices, but here in NZ I am still breaking in. I talked to a few friends about pricing, no one would share. So I asked a young family to ask a group of Facebook friends how much they had paid for portraits. They came back with a bunch of prices that people had paid at different photographers. Most were pretty low, which leads me to think that a lot of photographers who talk about the high prices they get are exagerating their income… So, what did I do? I chose one of the lowest prices, and slightly bettered it and then went out and got another job to pay the bills while I wait a couple of years to build up my reputation again in a new market. Basically I’m now making 30% of what I was making previously, because I am trying to break into a new market. I suspect other newbies to be doing the same thing and this ultimately forces the price down over time, to the point where there are many people shooting for free just to get the market open. The only way I can see to combat this is for photographers to form co-operative groups where people talk together. However in the days of easy travel, even if that happened consumers would somehow just hire from out of town. What do do? The only way to make money these days is to have a super-charismatic personality that is your distinctive no one can copy. Then you might make some money! Anyone else out there have any ideas about how to create market distinction?

  13. James at 8:19 am

    Happy to see this topic has been brought to the table. The same table with all that money left on it 😉
    It is interesting how many people said they were afraid of being the low-baller.

    An important thought is “Everyone is NOT Your Client”. Too many times do I see creatives bending over backward, to “Get the Gig”. And too many times they are frustrated they “Got the GIG”. Perhaps feeling cheated and angry that the client is taking advantage of them. Because the client said yes, to the rate the photographer quoted!

    At the end of the day, realize what it is that you do well, and value it enough to say NO! I have found saying No, is as exhilarating as getting the Gig. There is a power of affirmation in it. And I am mindful, not everyone is cut out for freelance work. The market will determine if your a professional photographer or not.

  14. DMWerner at 9:28 am

    Great topic & comments.
    A few random thoughts.

    Did you see the show where they priced iut an MRI at hospitals all over the US ? It showed how much the prices varied, even in the same cities. It was insane. I think it was on the evening news or maybe 20/20 I just dont remember.

    I needed tires , brakes & rotors for my vehicle. Prices varied by as much as $500 in the same city.

    Auto mechanic labor rate was $ 99.00 per hour. Let that sink in.
    Call around and ask what an electrician or plumber charges in your area.

    I shoot quite a bit of film, 35 mm & 120. On average my lab bill is $40.00 per roll.
    Professional labs that do fantastic work , and keeps me from spending hours and hours behind the computer in post. This is priceless to me ! Is it priceless to my customer? Probably not. I love printing in a darkroom. I love the craft of handmade silver gel prints. How do you put a price on that? It is time consuming and perhaps a lost skill set. So we price our prints by size, but we know it takes basically the same amount of time to make an 8×10 as an 11×14 and a 16×20. Material costs and chemicals a just a tad bit more for the larger sizes.

    I can shoot a local editorial assignment in a few hours, including xmit.

    Digital cameras cost $$$, but how does one establish a price of shooting a few rolls through vintage gear. Every roll has the potential to be the one that breaks that delicate 1950’s era camera.
    Honestly, they are not that delicate or they wouldn’t be around today.

    So my reasons for these random thoughts; how in the heck can I apply a one price fits all to my pricelist? I can’t. My work is custom. My travel varies. My skill set is part art, craft, science,chemistry and then you need the biz side of things like logitics, marketing,sales, retail, purchasing as in matt and framing supplies.
    One size does not fit all in the world we create in which is why pricing is all over the place for so many of us.

  15. Jasmine DeFoore at 10:05 am

    There are a few private facebook groups (some regionally focused, some national) where people openly talk about rates. Ask around and get added to them, you can post questions and people will chime in with how they would price out a job or licensing deal.

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