Figuring Out What To Charge For Photography Services!

by William Lulow


Note: This is an article I have published previously, but I have included some new information here.

Putting a price on your photographic services has always been a challenge. The best advice I’ve come up with is first to do some homework. You need to take a look at the kind of photography you do and examine carefully, how good you think you are at your job compared to other photographers in the marketplace. If you’ve been working in photography for a while, if you’ve been an assistant in a busy studio and seen first-hand, how the business is run, if you’ve had a number of repeat clients (people who have come back to you for more than just a couple of assignments), if you are supremely confident about your ability to make photographs that have sold products or been used in magazines, newspapers, brochures and on the web, then you should be at the higher end of the pricing scale. Maybe not the top, but up there! The top tier photographer is the person who you’ve heard about, seen in promotions for photo gear, or whose credit you have seen time and again, in major magazines and newspapers. These are the people who are the most sought after and therefore, can command the best fees for commercial jobs. Keep in mind that magazines and newspapers don’t pay as much as advertisements. So, there are many photographers whom you may not have heard of, but who are still at the top of the pay scale.  If you have a busy studio in which you are shooting several times per week and at good day rates ($1,500 and up), then you have a good business. If you keep getting referrals for new business, if you are continually booking new shoots on a regular basis, then your prices should reflect your business.

Also, keep in mind that if you have an agent or representative, they usually take 50% of each booking as their fee. So, if an agent represents just you or one photographer only, you will have to earn enough to keep the both of you in business. Usually, agents represent a number of artists at the same time. That way, they can increase their “take home” money without depending on just one artist. It’s also rare that an agent would take on a beginner, unless that artist is very well connected to the kinds of clients that can help him or her generate large fees.

So, if you are booked at least two full days of shooting each week, (translates into about $3,000 per week or roughly a $120,000 yearly gross, based on 40 weeks a year of work, not including extras), that’s probably not enough to pay for rent, staff and living expenses in New York City, but it might just be enough in a smaller market. On the other hand, if you are booked five days each week (not many are), that will translate to a $300,000 yearly gross. That might be enough to own and operate a photographic studio in New York City. My experience has been though, that the five-day-per-week shooting schedule is not the norm at those prices. You might have days when you can command higher fees, but you will also have days when you can’t! Also, don’t forget that even with a $300K-a-year business, you might be able to put half of that in your pocket after taxes and expenses. (Also, remember that studio space in a market like New York City, is very expensive – maybe as much as $5-10K/month for a decent sized space). So, will $150,000 per year support the lifestyle you want? Can you send your kids to college with that income? Will it be enough to pay rent on your studio as well as enable you to live in a decent apartment or house, pay the commuting expenses as well as everything else? That’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves. And don’t forget that most photographers who are sole proprietors (i.e., they are basically one-man/woman operations with assistants hired as needed), are not actually shooting five days per week. That kind of schedule is mostly for large studios that have daily photographic needs (or these days, large corporate entities with complete photo departments and studios. These corporations typically hire photographers, but since they are on salary, they may make around $50K – $60K per year, minus taxes and social security). These kinds of shooters have limited ability to earn large fees because they are regular employees.

And, 40 booked weeks per year for the average entrepreneur, is almost unheard of. When I had my studio in NYC, and was earning what I considered to be a decent amount of money back in the 1980s, I can remember having about 10 – 15 “open weeks” during the course of the year. Those were weeks when I had no bookings at all. There are some highly successful wedding shooters who maybe book 35 to 40 weddings a year. But they are at the top of the list.  This means that they are shooting almost every weekend. Some large wedding studios with multiple shooters will be booked 52 weekends a year as well as both Saturday and Sunday. But, this is almost impossible for one shooter. You have to provide yourself with some vacation time and take a rest once in a while to enjoy your family!

So, for the successful wedding photographer who charges say, $5000 for a wedding (there are quite a few “celebrity wedding” shooters who can charge quite a bit more), and who spends at least 20 hours shooting and editing the shots, that translates to $250 per hour, not taking into account expenses. Let’s say that of that $5000, the photographer pays $400 – $500 to an assistant (or second shooter), $1000 on album cost (not including editing time), this now brings the hourly rate down to around $180 per hour. (Quite a few wedding shooters charge extra for the album, but that may only add $1500 or so to the gross).  Now, of that $180, she would have to pay tax, rent on an office or studio, advertising costs as well as website design and maintenance, auto maintenance and purchase, computer purchase, phone bills, electricity costs, workmen’s comp insurance, other insurance as well as keeping equipment up to date, etc. All this has to be factored in to what she would ultimately charge.

Now, for the portrait photographer it’s a bit different. Many portrait studios charge a minimum shooting fee and then try to make up the difference on print orders after the shoot. Assuming the client really likes the images, maybe the total sale might amount to $750 or so. To my mind, that’s a lot for the average family to spend on pictures. But, I’ve looked at more than a few studios who use this business model and they seem to be thriving. (At least when I visited them). At this rate, this studio would gross about $450,000 per 40 week year. This is based on a 5-day-per-week shooting schedule and around 3 clients per day. Again, of that $450K, roughly half is expenses. One studio I visited was in an upscale strip mall-type shopping center in the Northeast. I’m sure their rent was at least $10K per month because they had a fairly large space with at least 3 shooters. But, here I’m talking about the individual photographer who couldn’t possibly handle that kind of volume. So, when you actually crunch the numbers, you can see that unless you treat your “artistic expression” as a business, you won’t be making big bucks from professional photography.

However, these are just some of the things we need to consider when trying to figure out how to put a price on our artistic work. There are even people these days, who invest in a top-of-the-line digital camera and compatible speedlight, who are content to book whatever jobs they can find. Perhaps they are wives whose husbands can afford to fund their interest in photography. They, therefore, have no real expenses to worry about, no staff to pay, no taxes to file (other than their personal income taxes), no insurance to carry, etc. These “dilettante photographers,” as I like to call them, really don’t do their work as business people. They are shooting more as amateurs, because they love to take pictures, even though they might get paid for it. These are not the people of whom I am speaking.

If you are just starting out in the photography game, you have to take that into account as well. Obviously, you cannot charge what a well-known name can, but you must place a value on your artistic ability. Keep in mind that everything photographers do in creating their art has a value. Just because you are starting out, doesn’t mean that you have to work for free. As I said, you need to do your homework. Nowadays, you can find photographers whose work you admire on the internet and try to see what they charge for their services. You’ll need to know what they provide and how they deliver the final product. (Not all photographers deliver the job in the form of photographic prints).  This may entail getting someone to call them, discuss a possible job and try to get their prices. (A wife or girl friend might do this for you). Some photographers publish their prices on their websites. More often than not, they don’t. This is because they usually need to meet with a prospective client to find out what they are willing to pay and what exactly, the job entails. Most commercial photographers bill on a “day rate plus expenses.” This means a fee for the photographer’s time and expertise, plus extra for transportation, assistants, digital post-processing, uploads and downloads as well as disc burning and delivery. Extra fees might include: stylists, location scouts, additional rental equipment, as well as studio rentals. These items should be detailed on your estimate and invoice.

These days, many clients don’t pay what they used to. There is no film, no processing, no tests, no Polaroids. These are items that a photographer could “mark up” and thereby add to her profits margins. But, much of what it used to cost to produce a professional assignment has been eliminated by the digital revolution. Clients may feel that they could do the job themselves, so why hire a pro?  So, photographers need to try to figure out what their time is worth based on the items I have detailed above, and stick to it.

I hope you can easily see from this that doing a shot for $50 is not even feasible for a serious photographer/businessperson. People who say things like “This shot will only take an hour,” really do not understand what goes into producing a top-notch commercial-type photograph. They don’t realize that unless you live in their house, it will cost you something just to get to where the shot needs to be done. Even if you go by subway, it’s still going to cost something. So, the $50 is now less transportation costs. Now, in the digital age, you will have to spend some time uploading the image to your computer, then do some manipulation in Photoshop ($700 program which actually cannot be purchased these days. It must be licensed on a monthly or yearly basis), and then email the image or burn it do a disc for this client. So, now you’ve put in say, two hours for that $50, plus the transportation cost plus the cost of postage and handling. We are now down to around $30 that you get to put in your pocket for the two hours. That’s $15 per hour. It’s above the minimum wage, but not by much. And, you still haven’t factored in the cost of your equipment and your learning curve!

I would say that the minimum fee to charge for any professional image should be $350. This is for one basic shot that should take no more than an hour to shoot. If I do a simple still life (product shot), or a headshot on white no-seam paper, in my studio, I have to:

  • Have client send product or travel to pick it up, or travel to a location, or have client come to the studio for a portrait, or do it on their premises
  • Clear a space in the studio
  • Set up a table top
  • Put up the paper background
  • Set up all appropriate lights
  • Do a series of test shots
  • Adjust the product or decorate the set with appropriate props (if called for)
  • Download the images to the computer
  • Analyze and manipulate the shots as needed in Photoshop & Lightroom
  • Size the images for the intended use
  • Burn images to a disc or send them to client via FTP or other file transfer program
  • Make sure the images are acceptable
  • Write up an invoice for transmittal
  • Wait for the check to arrive. (For this, you often have to be a bank because some clients take more than 30 days to pay. This means that you are, in essence, lending them the money. As an example, I recently was hired by an old client to do a series of images at a wedding. It took 45 days and a couple of emails, to get my money).

So, the one hour shot may take actually several hours including set up, photography, set strike and post production. Does that mean the we should only charge for the hour it takes to make the actual image? I don’t think so.

Therefore, before you accept those really low-paying jobs, make sure you understand how photographers arrive at their pricing schedules, what’s involved in a professional photo shoot and what you have to do to compete in this market. Sometimes clients need to be educated as to what all of this entails and exactly what they will be paying for. Each photographer also has to decide for him or herself, at what income level they are willing to live and how much time and effort they put into their craft. I should also add that some pricing schedules for photographers sometimes revolve around what the market will bear as well as what other, similar photographers charge. Much of this will determine what you can charge for your services.