Welcome to the profession!
Yes...if you’re accepting money for your photography, then you are a professional.
I know that when I started out, I had a very hard time deciding what to charge for my work, and I’m betting that many others face the same. This article is offered as a helping set of guidelines on how to price your work. Let's begin with a few basic premises:
1. Whether you are intending this venture as a full-time occupation that provides for you or as a part-time gig that helps pay for your camera hobby, you are trading your time and talent for money. That’s time you could be spending with your family and friends, time you could be using for recreation and time you could be spending on personal photo projects.
2. You have considered the extra efforts that running a business entails. Insurance, licensing, taxes, record keeping, marketing and dealing with clients (not to mention turning your friends into clients and the relationship changes that can occur).
3. You believe that doing what‘s harder, but more profitable is better than doing what’s easier but less profitable.
If you have not considered the above or you disagree with those premises, you probably won’t be on board with the rest of this article. That’s cool...save yourself the time.
You’re still here?
Ok then! Lets start with what won’t work.
Shoot n Burn
As I said, I began as many others have...with no clue how to price my work. I started by charging $100 for my session fee. Why? Because it sounded ‘fair’ and was a nice round number. I included 10 digital files with print rights. Why? Because I really didn’t want to be in the business of printing... I was a photographer. (Note the slightly up-tilted nose and air of superiority?). This is called ‘Shoot-n-Burn’. I heard about other photographers who charged more and sold prints, but I just knew I could take all their business with my ‘revolutionary’ pricing strategy. That made it all the more surprising that people were not beating a path to my door. I did a mailing to all the homes with children within a few miles of my home studio. These were people I knew. People with whom I stood at the bus stop every morning. People who were getting family portraits done. Surely they would flock to me.
Not so much.
Yes, I got a few clients, but $200 was a good week. Not exactly what I needed to cover the mortgage.
Then I got analytical about it. I sat down and did the math. Here goes:
If I wanted to make $50,000 per year (half what I made in corporate America prior to the crash and my subsequent downsizing), then I would probably need $100,000 in gross revenues. If I wanted to take two weeks to vacation, I needed to earn those revenues in 50 weeks.
$100,000/50weeks = $2,000/week. At $100/session, that meant shooting 20 sessions every week. TWENTY SESSIONS EVERY WEEK! Holy Shinola! I hadn’t been able to book 20 sessions, let alone in one week. That’s 3 sessions a DAY, 7 days a week!
That’s just not possible.
Lets stop for a moment because I can hear you thinking, “but I don’t need to make $50,000.” Okay, then go back and do the math for what you want to make. Based upon premise #1, you realize that you’re trading your time and talent for money. So let's say you want to make $5,000 after taxes (enough for a new pro camera body and lens). That still means at $100/session, you need to shoot about 60-70 sessions...one to two a week. You’ll spend about 2-3 hours shooting, processing and delivering each session. So you’re willing to trade upwards of 200 hours of your time (and that doesn’t include marketing, bookkeeping, tax prep and meeting with clients) for $5,000? The fact that you’re not looking for a full time income may mean you already have a full time job... which makes your free time that much more precious.
There had to be a better way. And there was!
I found a mentor who explained to me that by giving the digital files away, I was strangling my business. Including the files did several bad things from a business perspective. First, it killed the potential for any print sales. If they could go to Walgreens and get an 8x10 print for $1.99, why would they buy a matted 8x10 print from me for $100? Second, it sent the message that I was a cut rate photographer who didn’t care how my work was printed and displayed.
What he taught me was that people want...CRAVE...a personalized experience. They want to be treated like a special client. And when offered properly, they want high end art for their walls and beautiful art-paper prints. And they will pay for that experience and art.
This is your entree into what’s called In-Person Sales, or IPS.
IPS is a process that begins with initial contact and goes through delivery of art to your clients. At every stage, you are reinforcing the luxury experience and in the end, your clients will purchase luxury art.
Step one is your initial contact. When they reach out to you or you reach out to a referral, the conversation needs to focus on them. What they want from the shoot. Where they might want to hang their art. This is where you’ll explain that they will have a $100 session fee and that for that session fee, they will be receiving your time, attention and talent. You’ll explain that, after the shoot, they will be invited to see their photos in a Grand Reveal either in their home or your ‘studio’. It’s then that they will decide what they would like to take away from your time together in terms of art. If they ask about digital files, explain that you will GIFT them any files for which they buy a piece of art. Ask them what dates would work for them and schedule those who are willing to book. TAKE A $50 DEPOSIT. It’s a small amount, but it will decrease your cancellations. It says “our time is valuable.”
Step two is a follow up call (notice how I haven’t said ‘e-mail’ or ‘text’ or ‘messenger’) to go over their expectations. It’s here where you really connect. If it’s a family shoot, ask them (and take notes) about each child and pet who will be there. Ask what they mean to them. Ask what makes them unique. Ask AT LEAST 10 questions to really get to know them. Ask specifically where they envision their wall art going. Get them emotionally invested in the awesome images you’re going to capture! And here’s the tough one, tell them that while you have beautiful matted art-paper prints for as little as $100, most clients spend between $1200 and $1500 on their primary wall art. Gulp.
Step three is the shoot. Make sure you have coffee, water, soda, iced tea, beer and wine as well as crackers and good cheese, fresh fruit and something sweet. It’s an expense to be sure, but one that will pay off. Keep the mood light, fun and still professional. No one wants to hear dirty limericks at a family shoot. Posed shots are great, but what sells are candid interactions between kids, kids and parents, kids and pets. Get them to play together. Above all, make the whole experience surprisingly fun for everyone.
The reveal is step four. I know some who do this days later and some who have the clients wait while they quickly cull and color correct the shoot so they can do the reveal right away. Which you choose will depend on your processing skills. You have to be able to finish in 30 minutes or less to do the reveal on the spot. That includes pre-designing 3-4 sample wall art pieces. Any more than 30 minutes and they’ll get frustrated. At the reveal, laugh, cry, share their emotions. For many clients, this will be the first time they’ll see themselves interacting as a family and the emotions can be powerful. After a slideshow of the images, tell them you’ve created 3 sample pieces based on your conversation about their potential needs and show them on-screen. Show them physical samples that you’ve brought or have on hand. Explain that they can be customized. Then ask them what they would like to take away from their session. Then be quiet. Let them either tell you what they want or ask you questions. Let them take the lead and you listen.
Pricing note, the art should be priced at 3 to 4 times your cost. A large canvas that costs you $300 should be priced at $900-$1200. A large metal print that costs you $500 should be priced at $1500-$2000. Again, take a 50% deposit with the balance due on delivery.
When the time comes to deliver the art, make it a big deal. Invite them to your studio or go to their home. Don’t just hand them a box, wrap the art up in ribbon. Don’t just give them 10 prints, put them in a premium package. If it’s at their home, offer to help hang it.
So let’s look at the two business strategies.
Lets say both strategies yield 100 sessions in a year. Lets assume you’ll spend the same amount on things like gas and tolls and gear repair, accountant, insurance and digital storage.
100 sessions x $100 = $10,000 gross revenue minus expenses like USB sticks or DVD’s. Maybe $9,000 before taxes and the above common expenses.
100 sessions x $1,000 average = $100,000 gross revenue minus expenses to include food/drink ($1,500), cost of goods sold ($30,000) yields approximately $68,500 before taxes and the above common expenses.
Both involve 100 shoots. Both have a $100 session fee. With one, you can pay for a vacation or some new camera gear. With the other, you can support a family.
What’s that I hear? “They wont pay that in my area!”? My studio is in a small town about an hour north of Philadelphia. I do get a few clients a year from the city, but the vast majority are from suburban and rural areas. The key is to realize that not everyone is your client and that your job is to find the ones who are.
Yes, IPS is more involved. You have to actually pick up the telephone and talk to people. I know this is a really big deal in this text-driven world, but this isn’t a text to e-mail relationship you’re trying to establish. And believe me, if you’re calling and your competition is e-mailing, you’re going to win. Do what others won’t. Anyone can sell themselves like oil on the commodities market. You need to show that your talent and work is not a commodity and the experience you offer is Nordstrom, not K-Mart.
In the end, you’ll have a deeper relationship with your clients and a more profitable and sustainable business.
Lee Shelly is a commercial photographer based in the Philadelphia marketplace, but servicing clients both national and international. You can see his work at www.leeshellyphoto.com