When I started writing this article, I was initially going to focus on pricing. However, I got about two paragraphs in when I realized that I was heading in a totally different direction. I could talk pricing until I was blue in the face but the truth is that the industry really needs help learning how to run their businesses successfully. Many people think that a love for photography is what makes you successful, but the truth is that passion will not determine your success. If anything, my background in business management and communications is what has made me successful, but passion has kept me in the game when I am ready to throw in the towel. I’m hoping to shed a little bit of light on how people who want to take their business to the next level and have a successful photography business can do exactly that. Enjoy!
I’m in the middle of optimizing my website and last week I was browsing through Google Analytics performing keyword searches. I was shocked when I found out that one of the most searched phrases is “cheap portland photography”. I think I sat there aghast for about ten minutes because I simply could not believe it. Cheap photography? What? Isn’t that what department store studios are for?
That wasn’t the end of my shock either because a few days later I was out with a few friends and acquaintances when one of the women flat out asked me to do a session for free because her kids would look great in my portfolio. I laughed because I was sure she was kidding but when she kept a straight face, I quickly realized that she was serious. I asked her if it would be acceptable to her for her husband to continue working his full-time job but bring home no pay check and when she replied as I expected she would, I asked what gave her the impression that I would work under the same conditions. She had no response.
Why has it become acceptable to expect a professional photographer to work for less than minimum wage? The answer to this question is simple: the market is saturated with “photographers.” Digital photography has made it easier for everyone to have access to the same technology we have been privileged with for much longer. Ask any one of your friends and they will tell you that they know a photographer. Some of these photographers charge pennies on the dollar for sessions with all digital images included and it is changing the industry.
Professionals think that they have to slash their prices to compete but the truth is that there is no competition. Pricing should be as individual as the photographer. One photographer might be targeting a more “thrifty” market, whereas some have a $1700 average sale for a newborn session. It’s all about how your business is structured.
All of this begs the question, when you’re starting out, how do you price yourself right? How can you secure the future of your business and ensure financial success? What is the secret ingredient to making sure that you are not selling yourself short, staying competitive and pricing for profit?
Here are five small steps that will help your business leap forward.
1. Figure out your Cost of Doing Business
When I started my business, I had to sit down and figure out how much it could cost me to run my own business. It is a common misconception that photography businesses have little to no overhead costs in the absences of a studio setup. As a newborn photographer, I have to cycle through adorable props on a very regular basis. I only use sets twice before putting them in storage for a minimum of three months. The average prop setup for me runs $300. Yes, that is one setup including a pant and bonnet set, layering sets, wraps, a trench bowl and flokati. I upgrade my equipment annually, and we are talking tens of thousands of dollars in electronics, computers, lenses, props, car repairs, expenses and the like. No overhead costs? I think not.
You can perform a simple Google search to find CODB (cost of doing business) calculators, which is how I found mine. Consultation meetings for new clients, session prep (I map out all of my sets and poses before the session), shooting time, editing, in-person proofing sessions, print orders, follow ups, phone calls and emails all need to be taken into consideration. Full-time work for me is four sessions a week. When my husband and I sat down to draft my business plan, we determined that four clients is the equivalent of 42 hours of work per week, and this is my sweet spot. This is where my starting point was when I determined what my rates would be.
Small sidenote: make sure that all of your ducks are in a row as far as taxes, insurance and licensing are concerned. As a business owner, you are required to register with the city where you live, pay taxes to the IRS and have business insurance to protect you and your clients. Expenses need to be taken into consideration so you make sure that you’re not spending more than you make, and these small expenses all add up. If you’re unsure about where to start, hire a lawyer to help with paperwork and get an accountant. You won’t regret it and it will take the pressure off!
2. Polish Your Pricing
When I first started out, I charged no session fee to clients and had no print minimums. Some might balk, but it worked exactly as I expected. Even now, I don’t make money from session fees but from print orders and digital images. Clients loved that they could buy only what they love, and my average sale was still $650. Now, I build print credits into my session fees and then offer a la carte options as well as collections. Collections are always a huge hit. I have no problems sharing my collections with other photographers, so hit me up on my Facebook page for some examples.
Collections range from $150 and include a very small print package and a few low-res watermarked images. My biggest collection is $800 and includes several mounted enlargements and high-res digital images. I highly recommend no session fees and print minimums if you are just starting out. However, this only works if you’ve priced your prints appropriately. I charge $35 for anything 5×7 or smaller and it breaks my heart to see photographers giving away 16×20’s for less than that. So much work goes into editing and preparing an image for print, most photographers end up practically paying their clients for their own work. Don’t fall into this trap! Pricing appropriately benefits you and the rest of the industry as well.
3. Cut Out “Time Suckers”
I use to spend hours upon hours making my own props. I couldn’t fathom spending $40 on a small bonnet that I was only going to use twice. My husband stepped in and asked me why I was spending $300 to make a newborn bonnet myself. I was confused and replied that I had only spent $20 on the hank of yarn, and I was saving half of the money I would have spent purchasing it from a vendor. My husband then asked me how long it took me to knit the bonnet. It had taken an hour and he was quick to remind me how much my time is worth and how that hour could have been spent working on my business as opposed to making a prop. It was then that I began to appreciate what my vendors had to offer.
Making my own props was a time sucker and was taking time away from my business. Working with vendors has been a win-win situation for me. I do work with props from vendors and they feature my work on their own sites. Sure, I spend $40 for a bonnet, but I spent the hour I saved working on getting clients for my business and I’ve made so many friends working closely with vendors! Identify your time suckers and eliminate them.
4. Perfect Your Workflow
Getting stuck on one part of your workflow is going to seriously impede your ability to be productive. Not having a workflow and being disorganized is cutting into your bottom line. I have forms that I made which guide my workflow, but everyone works differently. I am the kind of person who needs to write things down and keep a list. As much as I loved the idea of keeping a list on my iPhone or iPad, I just could not keep up with it. I need everything written down, so my forms work for me. If you don’t have a system, you are costing yourself more money than you realize in the form of your time.
So many small business owners fall into the trap of not realizing the value of their time. This is why burnout is so common among entrepreneurs. Successful business owners realize how precious their time is and where their time is better spent. Get yourself organized, find a workflow that works for you and don’t deviate from that. Doing this will save you time and by proxy, money.
5. Stay Connected
This industry is not stagnant and an important part of making sure that you don’t fall behind is educating yourself. Stay abreast of trends and know what your clients want. I’ve seen ebbs and flows as far as demand is concerned. Clients buy more letterpress and accordions around the holidays and more canvas in the spring. Storyboards are more popular in the fall and enlargements are typically purchased by my newborn and family clients. Knowing what your clients are looking for means you can price yourself accordingly and when to (and when not to) offer sales. Take note when a client mentions wanting an enlargement but puts it off for financial reasons. When your lab offers a sale, send a quick message letting that client know about it. Knowing what your clients need before they do will maximize your profits. A client who feels pampered, listened to and taken care of is a client for life. Portrait photography should be an experience and you need to make sure that your client never has a negative experience in your presence. It’s the little things that make all of the gears turn.
How about it pros? Got any advice for newbies trying to move their photography business forward?
Veronica Gillas is a natural light photographer in Portland, Oregon, specializing in newborns, children, families and seniors. When she’s not with her amazing clients, she loves to knit, challenge her 8 year old to a high stakes game of Mario Kart, play dress up with her 5 year old, tickle her 6 month old’s feet and snuggle on a picnic blanket with her husband. Head on over to her website or Facebook page and say hello!