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How To Price Portrait Photography To Make Money

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How To Price Portrait Photography To Make Money

How To Price Portrait Photography? Words of Advice from a Professional Photographer

As a general observation, I am shocked at the low prices of a lot of portrait photographers – especially new photographers, and I hope this isn’t offensive to anyone, but what is more important than your photography, is your business skills when running a business.  This industry is completely saturated with under priced photographers – many talented.  Think of this — the stats are something like 95% of all photography businesses fail.  What makes you feel that you should be in that 5% that does not fail?

Business sense, that’s what.  Have you marveled at a local photographer who does really boring work, yet they are always busy and their prices are more than yours?  Why is that person a success and you can barely bring people in even though you are always hearing how everyone loves your work…  It’s because he/she knows how to run a business.

Everyone asks – how should I price my portrait photography?  So and so has $25 8x10s, so I can’t go higher than that.  Okay, so research all the local portrait photographers and find out what they are charging.  Use that as a guide, but understand, many photographers do not have their pricing on their site, and there is a reason for that.  You need to price yourself for profit.  If you are new and still portfolio building, something that is great to do is set your prices based on turning a profit (as I will describe below), then sure, discount your prices and be CLEAR that you are portfolio building.  That way, when you are done portfolio building, you can return to your already advertised REAL prices, and you won’t make your previous customers angry because they knew at some point you would move on to them.  The problem with starting too low is when you start realizing you aren’t turning a profit, and you start to raise them, you are going to be without business because people will get angry with you for raising them.  So be honest and upfront and clear about what exactly is going on, and you will continue to have clients who have built a relationship with you and understand what’s going on.  Don’t drop a bomb on them, by any means.  Once they have invested with you, they are invested, it’s a relationship, maintain it.

Another thing – if you do not need the money right now because your spouse is the breadwinner, now is a GREAT TIME to build an exclusiveness about your business.  You don’t need the money, so why not price yourself to make it well worth it.  So you get a few sessions a month.  You are PAID WELL for your time away from your family, and then as word of mouth builds, you are viewed as a higher priced, more exclusive portrait photographer – and that can be quite desiring for many crowds.

The thing about running a business – you have to take emotions out of it.  By emotions, I mean “I want people to still be able to afford me” “I don’t think I am good enough” “I’ve never done this before” “I can’t afford me (I beg to differ – how much did you spend on your living room furniture?  $3,000?  How much did you spend on that big screen TV with surround sound?  I have news for you – pictures last longer and are more important in the longrun.  Clients will not value your work, if YOU don’t value it.  News Flash:  WalMart’s a la carte pricing is $50 for an 8×10.  I’m not talking about the coupons.  I’m talking about for one of those crappy ugly 8×10 a la carte backdrop pictures of your child with a fake Christmas tree, where you only got 15 minutes to get your child to smile printed on substandard photo paper is $50.  You offer WAY better than that to your clients, don’t you?

Jodie Otte

When I see some charging $200 and that includes all the digital files or even some of the files or even a $100 print credit with $20 8x10s, I cringe because that photographer can be making less than minimum wage and has no idea.

Do you have a reason for pricing the way you do? Do you just toss it out there and hope for the best? Or do you have concrete logical reasoning for why you are pricing the way you are.  You need to take your EMOTIONS out of this and think like a business owner.  No business owner should be making less than minimum wage. You really need to think about business management (classes would be a great idea).

So how do you price?  Work backwards to figure out what clients need to spend.  So many people want to skim over this because they are “arteests” and think it’s all about the talent, not about the pricing structure.  WRONG!  Artists work from emotions, and you better step outside of that for a moment and keep those emotions and business separated, or you will BE a starving artist who will one day look back and say “my kids are grown, where did the time go?  I sat in front of that computer for hours for less than minimum wage… I wish I had that time back with my kids….”  No one looks back and says “I wish I would have worked more away from my family….”

Ask yourself how much you want to make per year. My personal goal is always well into six figures, but I’ll back this down to a more reasonable goal for newbies.

Okay – let’s say you want $50,000 SALARY for a full time BUSINESS OWNER.   When figuring this out – what do you value your family time at?  $50 an hour?  $100 an hour?  $10 an hour (REALLY????  You may regret that one day years in the future – don’t set yourself up for regrets)  Don’t laugh – some people do this for $10/hour and then pay a babysitter $5/hour.  It boggles my mind.

Work backwards to figure out your pricing structure.

1.  Income desired is $50,000.  Again, you are a business owner, you don’t need to be working for pennies.  Add 35% to that (that’s for your taxes as a sole proprietor). Yes, you need an additional $17,500 to cover your taxes.  So now your income has to be $67,500 as you are going to owe Uncle Sam a nice chunk.

2. Add your expenses to your desired income – $67,500 plus $25,000 equals $92,500 -Don’t think $25,000 is a lot for business expenses. That’s not a lot at all. Last year alone, my expenses were $70,000.  Expenses means everything – gas money or mileage, office supplies (paper, ink, packaging, file folders, pens, pencils, envelopes, sticky notes, light bulbs, batteries, whatever….etc.), office equipment (computers, software, actions, mouse, keyboard, file cabinets, books, internet etc. etc. etc.), studio supplies and equipment if applicable, portions of gas and electric bills, telephone bills (if working out of home, it’s portions of this vs. full amounts if you have a studio) photography supplies and equipment (cameras, lenses, memory cards, lens cleaning supplies, flash, strobe, softbox, camera bags etc. etc.), packaging supplies (bags, boxes, bows, tape, labels, etc.), postage, props -yes, all those baskets, newborn hats, wraps, backgrounds, chairs, stools, etc., marketing supplies – print samples, business cards, etc. oh and your business insurance.  Do you have studio rent?  Then think much more than $25,000 as expenses.  The figure I am using is based on not having a studio – and I am being nice, most with even part time businesses have higher expenses than $25,000.

3. So you need to bring in $92,500 in sales every year to get your desired income of $50,000. How do we go about that? Okay, ask yourself – how many weeks per year do you want to work? Let’s say 48 weeks per year (don’t forget, you may have your kids home for spring and winter breaks, etc.. $92,500 divided by 48 equals $1,927 per week. You need to have $1,927 per week in sales.

4. How do you want to achieve that? How many clients do you want per week?

If you want 2 clients per week, you will have to have two sales of $963.54  (if you are selling albums/prints, make that $1,163.54).
If you want 4 clients per week, you will have to have four sales of $481.75. (if you are selling albums/prints, make that $681.75)

Umm… okay, why did I add the parentheses?  What are your COGS (cost of goods sold).  If you sell an album, some prints, and a canvas, you are looking at COGS of being around $200 per customer – factor that in.

A little note, how many hours exactly do you work for your client. Hmmm… An hour in transit, 2 hours in session time, 4 hours proofing/editing, an hour uploading and doing office tasks, 3 hours between phone calls and scheduling and emails and questions from client and client sale finalization, packaging, ordering etc.. So you did 10 hours for that client? (we didn’t include other things like marketing and bookkeeping and in person ordering, but I’ll skip that for now – challenge:  log in while you work on a client, EVERYTHING you do related to that client, I bet it will be close to 10 hours or more per client).  Well that’s not bad, that’s about $50/hour toward the business for option one, having two clients per week. That’s half of what plumbers make, though… and guess what, your PICTURES LAST LONGER! :laugh: … but option two puts you at about $25/hour toward the business. Not TOO bad either – but you SHOULD be making at LEAST $50/hour as a BUSINESS OWNER (although myself and others would tell you as a business owner, you should actually be making more like $100/hour because you don’t want to forget having retirement, college funds for your kids, etc. and as a business owner, you should accept nothing less in my personal opinion or you may as well just work a job for someone else that is less stressful than dealing with the public). I challenge you to plug in lower numbers in this equation as well – let’s say you only want to make $20,000 per year – I’ll touch on that at the end.  Although don’t forget, life happens, and you may find yourself in a pinch one day to where you may actually need an income to support your family on your own…. which begs to go back to – what do you value your time away from family at?  One customer takes you away from your family for 10 or more hours.  Is that only worth $250 to you?  Not to me personally…. but to each his own.

5. Back to what do you price?  I personally like to work by worst case scenario  so I figure at the very least, I know I will have 2 clients per week, even during slow time, so that means I would want to guarantee two sales per week at $1,164. So therefore I would price my work so that every client would spend at LEAST $1,164 which means my lowest print package should be $1,164 (or $682 if going to take on 4 clients per week).

Personally, this is just my opinion, but I don’t think a business owner should be making less than $50,000, but that’s just me.  You should network with some other local BUSINESS OWNERS (not photogs, but business owners) and see what they are making.   Want to work with lower figures?  “Oh I just want to do this part time for fun… $20,000 is plenty for me to have part time…”

Okay, let’s work with lower numbers.

Goal: $20,000 Add 35% to that for taxes equals $27,000

Expenses: Add all your expenses up – I’ll be nice and pretend you aren’t spending on all those group buys, trendy items, and you don’t have any SUPER expensive equipment, so let’s say your expenses are $15,000 per year (do you REALLY think that is high? I don’t – not at all – see above list and I challenge you to REALLY evaluate what you are spending every year – most photogs are spending at LEAST $20,000 per year in expenses if not much much more. So $27,000 plus $15,000 equals $42,000

So for you to make $20,000 per year, you need to have sales of at least $42,000

$42,000 divided by 48 weeks per year of steady work equals $875/week in sales without cost of goods sold factored in. You need $1075 (including COGS) per week in sales to have an income of $20,000 per year – so if you are only taking 2 clients per week, you need sales of around $640 for each client. Just keep that in mind…  😉

Also keep in mind, if you are taking on 4 clients per week so that your sales need to be much less HOWEVER when taking on FOUR clients per week – you are working 40 hours per week – that’s FULL TIME for $20,000 per year… umm… That means that you are working a full time job for $10/hour – your time away from your kids is valued at $10/hour? You are missing 40 hours per week of your kids’ lives for $10/hour as a BUSINESS OWNER.   Makes you think, doesn’t it?

I just challenge all new business owners to really look at their figures and use these simple concrete ways to project your income, to define your income, to price yourself out, and actually structure your business as a real business, and operate as a business owner who knows basic business management 101 now.  Work your business proactively with good reasoning behind it.   Remember, IF WE DON’T VALUE THIS INDUSTRY, NO ONE WILL.

Thank you to the incredible portrait photographer Jodie Otte of Black Horse Studio for this thought provoking answer to the question: “How should I price my photography?”

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  1. December 13, 2013 at 1:26 am —

    It’s the same here…I’ve seen some people asking 40$ for an hour session with all the digital of the hour on the CD. How people who are serious about it and want to live of photography can compete!?It’s driving me nuts.lol
    I think there should be a law about it asap.Like you can’t go under … and then when people are really gonna pay the full price they will go see the one who has the real knowledge and spent some years of their lifes learning it…I don’t want to be mean and say that people who havent studied it have no talent.That would be false but at least they should learn that fixing those kind of price makes the other ones straigth to bankrupt.

  2. January 12, 2014 at 8:36 pm —

    This information is helpful, though I’m looking to start out part time because I do have so much going on right now (college, another job, kids etc..) but photography is my passion and I’d like to try maybe one client a week or less. I figure if it does work out and grow then I could set aside my day job and make photography full time. I also live in an area where most people are low income. Any suggestions on pricing for this?

  3. Jen McLeod
    September 22, 2014 at 1:34 pm —

    Cost of goods sold is a business expense (so it should probably not be added on after business expenses) and taxes are charged as x% of the total, not 35% on top of what you make.

  4. Katherine
    October 22, 2014 at 10:58 pm —

    I want to applaud you for this realistic slap of reality that is needed by many, and I mean that in as positive a way as possible.

    This is a great article full of truth for the photographer that is doing photography as a full time job and trying to be a small business owner. I am concerned however that the number of people who are declaring themselves as “professional photographers” is sky-rocketing. The self proclaimed professional with little to no business experience, photography experience/education and editing experience but still advertise their professional level work… the ones who invested in the generic DLSR, took a few backlit photos of trees, kids playing, and their dog…. and decided that they are of professional quality and their service is worth paying for. These people are not licensed or insured, and only see their new found “skill” as a way to pocket some cash.These people troll through the internet conversations and forums of photogs and build some sort of false photographer ego that only stems from the idea “charge what you are worth.” Well to them, their work is worth ___amount of cash___when in reality it is not even in the same ball park as a real professional photographer. These are the people who do not charge a lot because they do not have the business expenses, but still want to make six figures in the photog field. ( I am not knocking new photographers, everyone has to start somewhere. There is no shame in building a portfolio and offering cheaper work as an aspiring photographer or a hobbyist, just don’t put a title up there that wasn’t earned, it creates confusion and chaos. Why is this pro charging $500 and this pro is charging $5000 for the same thing?)
    To make the kind of money that you mentioned in the article, the aspiring photographer needs to have the credentials to back up their title. I see a lot of people promoting the need to “respect the field.” It is the work of the “fauxtographer” that is the most disrespectful and harmful. They are giving the impression that “it is easy, any one can do it, there is no need to pay an arm and a leg for photos” when in reality it takes an uncanny amount of skill and knowledge to produce quality work.
    I am a huge advocate for photographers who have a formal education in the field, who have spent quality time shadowing other photogs and being a secondary, who know their gear in and out on the manual settings, who don’t use pre-made photoshop short cuts, who have a business license and insurance ( not just a FB page) … the photographers who not only seek betterment of their work, but self improvement as well.

  5. October 26, 2014 at 6:57 pm —

    If my expenses were $70,000 a year and my only revenue stream came from family portraits, you’d better have the absolute BEST business plan going. What were the expenses? A RED camera + new Jaguar? Hahahaha.. there’s a funny comment up there.

  6. March 26, 2015 at 3:46 am —

    Wow, this post is awesome, I have only just started with my photography business and was struggling to come on with prices, this has helped me a lot, thank you for making this post

  7. January 25, 2016 at 8:18 pm —

    Amen! I have been in the industry for 15 years. I was very low at first, but quickly learned what a mistake it was. This business will just suck up all your time if you let it, so you want to be compensated. you have to educate your clients on why you are worth it.

  8. Jennifer
    February 28, 2016 at 12:42 am —

    Thank you so much for the article! I have been struggling forever with pricing. I am a hobbyist with the occasional request but have more than full time job…lots of overtime… But my passion from childhood has always been behind the lens! I read soooo many of my own rationales in your article. Thanks again for breaking it down!

  9. March 12, 2016 at 11:43 am —

    I see how you work it backwards… though doesn’t the pricing and marketing drive the clients per week?

  10. May 11, 2016 at 6:17 pm —

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! I needed this today. I’ve been worried my prices are too high because of feedback from friends who say they can’t afford me, but I after reading this, I know they are too low. Thank you for saving me from myself and telling me this before I lowered my prices!

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How To Price Portrait Photography To Make Money