Standardized Rates For The Photography Industry?

by William Lulow

As a follow-up to Friday’s article about how photographers arrive at their fee structures, I thought it would be interesting to examine the subject further. Photography is not regulated as banks, postal rates and teachers’ salaries are. It’s basically a “free-for-all” in the marketplace. But, there are certain pressures that advertising agencies, magazines, newspapers and the photography-buying public exert on the market generally. Since any photographer can basically charge whatever they like, arriving at a mutually acceptable rate between photographer and client can be, and often is tricky!

As I mentioned in my last article, there are certain guidelines that most photographers try to adhere to when setting prices. Some of those “rules” are governed by the very general ideas about what’s “standard” pricing in the industry as a whole. For instance, in the New York City market, I have found that $1,500 for a day’s shooting is a good number these days. There are obviously some commanding much more and some less. Moreover, it’s a number arrived at by trial-and-error as well as by asking other photographers of approximately equal stature in the business, what their “day rates” are. Herein lies one of the “rubs”: photographers who are on a par with you ability-wise, may be quite a bit ahead of you “notoriety-wise.” In other words, a “known name” can command a higher fee for the same relative work. And the only difference between her product and yours is the fact that people have heard of her more than you! Now notoriety has its reasons for being, too! Photographers who achieve a certain amount of fame do so because their product is usually better in at least one or two major ways. It may be a level of consistency or maybe it’s an intangible like “creativity.” Whatever it is, that person has probably been working at it for some time or, has met the people who can advance his career faster than others. I even know of a photographer who didn’t really know anything about setting up lights, or backgrounds or any photographic equipment. She had “techies” who would do all that for her. What she had was a creative “eye” and an ability to direct others to create the sort of “look” she was after. And, she had the clients who were able to pay her very high fees. It has to be said also, that if you are really busy in your business, whatever it may be, it means you are in demand. And, that always lets you charge more in the marketplace.

But, those people are exceptions rather than the rule. Most photographers who are trying to get to a certain level of fame, have to begin at the beginning learning how to set up a studio or how to treat their passion for photography as a business.

With all that said, ASMP (American Society for Media Photographers) has published its own guidelines for “business practices” in our industry. Here is how I might go about setting some prices for individual photoshoots:

When a job comes into the studio, typically it will sound like: “Hello, Mr. Lulow. I have several people in our company who need professional portrait/headshots done. How much would that cost me?”

“Okay,” I say, “How many people have you got? Because, the more people you can line up, the cheaper it will be for each person. I charge a “day rate” plus expenses.” My rate is x dollars for the day, plus transportation, assistants,¬† post-production fees including retouching and delivery. So, if they’ve got 20 people to shoot say, it could bring the price per person down considerably, depending on how much work I have to do in post production. If they sent one person at a time to my studio, the cost would be more like 3x dollars per person. What this does is it gives my clients an incentive to book me for the whole day. This means that I pay myself the day rate and charge extra for whatever other expenses there may be. So, again, the number of people they have, determines how much time it will take, and I can pro-rate my fee accordingly. For smaller companies with correspondingly smaller budgets, I can make this job much simpler for myself. I can cut out all assistants because I have condensed my studio location kit to just one hand truck. So, I know my costs can be kept to a minimum. I just want to be sure I can pay myself for the whole day, or at least, half a day.

Sometimes I’ll get a catalog fashion job to shoot. The client will typically say something like: “I have six dresses to shoot for my website. How much will it cost me?” Now, I know that shooting fashion is completely different than doing portraits or headshots. There are a number of other elements to this kind of shoot such as: stylists, props, other wardrobe items, locations, sets and model fees, to name just a few. So, I’m basically, still working on a “day rate” only this time, because it is more involved, it will be more. I have to put in time making the dresses ready to shoot, ironing, pressing (sewing, if necessary) and I have to take into account the fees for the extra help I will need. These are some typical items that I might include in my estimate:

  • Shooting fee
  • (2) Stylists
  • Day rate for Props
  • (2) Models
  • Model agency mark up
  • Assistants
  • Post production (uploads/downloads/retouching)
  • Messengers/delivery
  • Lighting¬† & extra camera equipment
  • Set materials
  • Transportation

All too often, a client’s reaction will be “What???. That’s way too much money!” If this happens, I usually recommend that expenses be cut. I try never to lower my fee.

Bottom line is, that I often have to negotiate prices and fees and do my best to explain what the fees are for and that if too many items are eliminated, the overall quality of the job might suffer.

So, part of estimating a photo job entails getting fixed costs for additional items and finding out what kind of budget the client has for a particular shoot. It’s important to determine what the budget is because it enables the photographer to see what his fee plus expenses would be. That will, most likely, determine if he can do the job and finish it correctly and not go over the agreed cost. There are times when a client doesn’t have an adequate budget to complete a particular job successfully. If that happens, the photographer has to decide if the job is worth shooting at all! Many times, it isn’t. If a photographer is going to do a first-rate job, he has to have the right equipment, the right space and the right help in order to wind up with superior results. In this business, you cannot turn in an inferior product if you hope to continue shooting. One’s reputation is broken by a bad job and it takes a long time to repair it! Better to turn down a job that’s not budgeted properly, than to produce bad results.

As I have mentioned, ASMP has published its guidelines for what photographers should charge. Many years ago, I analyzed those numbers carefully and arrived at my own fee structure. The advent of digital cameras has eliminated what used to be a large part of any commercial photography job, film & processing. These days, the most expensive item in an estimate is probably the photographer’s fee itself. And, by sticking to what I have learned from being in the industry for over 40 years, my rates are pretty well “standardized.”