Why Photographers Should Not Compete On Price!


William Lulow

Chances are, you’ve bid on a commercial photography job only to find out that someone else came in with a lower bid and stole the job from you. Or, perhaps you didn’t bid enough and the prospective client thought you were valuing your services too little. Both can be signs of not being sure what to charge for a commercial photography assignment.

Well, today, with all kinds of digital cameras around, everyone is a photographer. And, even advanced amateurs can probably come up with a set of images that would be okay for use on a website that wasn’t too fussy about its image in general. So, if you are looking for clients who are always going to pay the minimum, going rate, that is exactly what you will get.

On the other hand, as a professional photographer, you have an image of your own to maintain. In addition, you have a standard of living and working that you have been used to for a while. People know you by the kinds of pictures you make. So, in order to keep that image, you cannot compete on price. Someone will always be willing to do it cheaper. Therefore, you need to come up with a selling point that no one else in your area has. It could be personality, convenience, ability, talent, special equipment or another intangible that could separate your service or product from the rest. It could be an advertising phrase that you constantly live up to and make part of your service. It could be a special way of working that gives your clients more of what they expect from a photographer. Whatever it is, or whatever you decide it should be, that’s got to be your selling point. You set a certain value on your work and that’s the price for which you will sell it!

Let’s say you’re a portrait photographer like me. You have a good studio and you’ve got expenses that need to be paid. Your price point is somewhere around $350 – $500 for an ordinary corporate portrait that takes you less than an hour to shoot and maybe another hour to upload and edit. (By the way, in the days of film, this price was usually much higher due to the film, processing & print component that no longer exists). Then you come across someone who will do it for $100. Can you compete with this other “photographer?” I’m imagining that someone who will shoot a decent portrait for $100 has no studio, no real overhead except transportation. He or she has to go to the client and shoot “on location.” Maybe this photographer doesn’t really have any professional-type lighting equipment save for a portable flash. This person cannot possibly do the same type of job you can do in your studio. So, the client who hires this “photographer” either has to expect that the result won’t be as good as that from a studio photographer or this client will wind up being disappointed and may have to have the job re-shot. This client is only looking for the cheapest product, not the best. The whole thing might just wind up costing him more than the “deal” he was getting in the first place if he needs to fix a bad job. If a potential client is not willing to pay your price, a price you have arrived at after careful assessment of what it costs to be in business, then that’s not the client for you. There will probably be someone who will shoot his portrait for $50 even! Or $25! (God forbid!) I’ve even seen people looking for photographers who are “building their portfolios” and might even do a portrait for free! If you’re in this business, those clients are not for you. I have often said that I would not shoot at all rather than give my services away. This is not to say that you can’t do “pro-bono” jobs when you think that they might establish some good will or get your name out there more. But we shouldn’t just give our talents and services away.

(I recently did some event photographs for a company in exchange for their promoting my studio)!

So, you can easily see where this is all headed. Once you agree to take less than what you think a job is worth, it becomes a slippery slope from which you will never recover. The moral is: You Can’t Compete On Price alone! All of us in this business have to maintain our value set and not deviate from it. You might be able to give discounts for continuing customers or offer specials from time-to-time, but those deals are different than lowering your price just to compete with another photographer.

Here’s a shot which was actually done on location in an airplane hangar. It looks like it could have been shot with a simple point-and-shoot camera, but in fact, it was made with three studio electronic flash units. Two bounced into umbrellas and the third used “raw” to add enough light to make a really good portrait AND light up the rear of the plane as well.  Also, because umbrellas were used, the light was soft enough not to cast much shadow! Many shots like this look easier to make than they actually are. Then again, that’s the job of a true professional.