One Way To Start A Photography Business

One Way To Start A Photography Business

by William Lulow

In an article published in PHOTO DISTRICT NEWS, David Walker describes Geordie Wood’s path to becoming a professional photographer by recounting the photographer’s rise through the ranks at a magazine. That is a really good way to get there, because it led to seeing what goes into hiring, working with and editing the work of other photographers for publication purposes. This kind of on-the-job-training is really invaluable these days.

(Magazine shoot with art director, George Lois, 2016)

It used to be that you would work for an established photographer and by assisting on photo shoots, you would, by osmosis, pick up tools and techniques that made that photographer successful. The problem was, after you put in enough time as an assistant, you would still have to set up a studio business of your own and go out to find new clients.

That was and still is, the hardest part of this business. While sitting at a workshop given by a well-known photographer, during which he was explaining how he lit various shots for various magazines which had hired him, someone in the audience raised his hand and finally asked, “How did you get those assignments?” I guess he had had enough of the technical explanations, but wanted to cut to the chase and find out how those assignments were obtained.

Some get lucky and have connections to advertising agencies and/or publications which will use their images. Others have to build their businesses slowly, step by step. First, you have to have a great (not just good) collection of photographs which you can display on a well-crafted website. Then, you have to go about making connections however you can until enough people see your work and are willing to hire you. This, of course, presupposes that you have the requisite equipment and know how to use it, thoroughly! This comes sometimes by instruction, but most often by constant practice. Someone once asked Tiger Woods how he got so good. His response: hit 1000 balls a day! I’m a golfer and I can probably hit 50 in an hour, if I work at it.

So, you see what goes into being “great” at what you do. It’s almost constant work. You’ve heard about the “overnight successes” that took twenty years to produce? This sums up the process pretty well. These days, I look for any type of networking event where I think I can meet people who might buy my services. I go, armed with my postcards and business cards, prepared to give them to anyone who will listen:

(Latest postcard mailer/give-away)

I also do a twice-a-week blog article, usually about technical subjects having to do with lighting, but also related to business (as this one is). My website says “All Things Photographic” – and by this I mean ANYTHING pertaining to photography, from its history to special techniques and business practices. In addition, I try to stay current in the business by looking at my competition and assessing where my services are better and where they might need to be improved. I also make use of a number of SEO techniques I’ve learned to boost the position of my website in the search engines. If you Google “photographers, Westchester, NY”, I am now the first listing, which has translated into a few more assignments. Further, I am now going to do two, targeted direct mail pieces during the course of this year. Hopefully, all these efforts will help to increase business. But, I am currently satisfied with the workload I have, which is far less taxing than it used to be.

But photographers have to keep working on their skills because things in the marketplace will only continue to change. New technologies will inevitably arise to take the place of the old. It’s a constantly changing environment that needs continual monitoring and upgrading if one is to be competitive.

Why Photographers Should Not Compete On Price!

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 someone else.


Here’s a shot which was actually done on location in the doctor’s office. It looks like it could have been shot with a simple point-and-shoot camera, but in fact, it was made with two studio electronic flash units both bounced into umbrellas to add enough light to the room for a good-sized group. 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.

How Accent Lights Make Your Portraits More Interesting!

How Accent Lights Make Your Portraits More Interesting!

by William Lulow

While on a location shoot the other day, I decided to take some images of how I set up my accent lights. I was doing a corporate portrait and I decided to use just three lights. One main light (bounced into my big umbrella, one accent light and one background light. (Since the subject was a man, I wanted the image to have the same look as others I had done for this company, but I wanted to make it a bit more dramatic)! So, how do accent lights work to make a portrait more dramatic? First, an “accent light” is really just a highlight that attracts the eye to a particular part of the person you are shooting. In order to do that, it must be lighter than the rest of the face because, in an image, anything light tends to attract our attention much more than something dark. The rule is: light stands out, dark recedes! This is the reason for setting up an accent light in the first place. You want to give the portrait some added depth by creating light areas as well as dark ones.

As I have said many times, if you want the accent lights to register as white (and thereby stand out in the image), they should be roughly one f/stop brighter than the main light. So, here is how I set that up:


This is the power “pack” I use. (The slider bars only control the modeling lights not the power).  You will notice that there is one head plugged into the “A” bank on this pack. That is my mainlight umbrella. The umbrella is diffusing the light and softening it. That is the light that I want to be my main exposure. It is set at 125watt/seconds.  My camera meter on that light read f/11 using ISO 100. You will also notice that there are two heads plugged in to the “B” bank. In addition, notice that the switch controlling whether both banks would be used together or separately is on “separate.” Both heads connected to this bank are used without any diffusion. They are “raw.” Note also that the power switch is on 250watt/seconds. My camera meter reading from the subject’s hair and shoulders read f/16. That is how I know that the highlights (accent lights) would register white.

Here is the result:


The accent lighting on the edge of the subject’s face and on the hair are reproduced as white. They are one stop brighter than the mainlight, which is nice and soft, giving the face a very neutral tone.

The background light, which is also one f/stop brighter than my umbrella light is placed on the floor and when aimed up at a gray background, produces a nice gradation from light to dark as the top part of the background actually absorbs the light as it goes from lower to higher.

These power settings are fairly low compared to the capability of this pack. Given the DSLR’s sensitivity to light these days, the same amount of power is just not needed today as in the past.

You can see that the accent light here gives the portrait a bit more interest than simply a head shot against a plain background. There is really no limit to the results  you can obtain by knowing when and where to place your lights.

Jobs For Commercial Photographers

Jobs For Commercial Photographers

by William Lulow

Commercial photographers are often called on to shoot many different subjects. That’s why they need a whole, complete arsenal of tools with which to work. This week, I was asked to shoot an entire cosmetics line for Jill Harth Cosmetics

These were small objects, glass bottles and tubes, etc., so they could be shot on a fairly small table top. This was the initial setup in my small, office studio. (I have a larger studio downstairs for most people photography):

It’s important to note that when shooting glassware or bottles of any kind, you want to use soft boxes rather than any other type of light modifier such as an umbrella. The reason for this is that you want to have the highlights be rectangular and long, rather than round and short. This makes the product look much better.

Here are some examples:

Note how the straight highlights accentuate the length of the lipstick products! Occasionally, you might need to put up black boards behind the camera to make sure that none of the studio’s surroundings will reflect in the products. If you create a lighting setup like the one pictured above, the black space in the product makes for very good looking images. Also, make sure that all your studio room lights are turned off as well.

All that was needed here was a small sweep of no-seam paper and a large enough surface to make sure that both the foreground and background would be white. (You can see my background light set up to make sure that the background reproduced as white.)

The client was present for the entire shoot and helped prepare the products, including labeling them so that they could be recognized easily (no small task).

In order to make these products look good, we often had to employ one of the basic principles of light: “the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.” In order to make the labels reproduce correctly, the product often had to be angled so as to reflect light directly to the camera’s lens. Here’s an example:

This was reflective type on a black background. The only way it was going to read in the photograph was if I angled the product so as to reflect the copy. Otherwise, it would have reproduced a dark gray and wouldn’t have stood out at all.

The point is that knowledge of all of the aspects of lighting is necessary to the success of any commercial photographic project. Sometimes a lighting setup can be a simple one, but it still has to follow basic principles of how light is used to make products as well as people look their best.



What Photo Editors Want!

What Photo Editors Want!

by William Lulow

Here are a couple of quotes from an interview with Jennifer Pastore, the photo editor of the Wall Street Journal:

JP: Getting along with your editor is pretty much the same as getting along with anyone in your professional (and personal) orbit, though I would add a few key things that are particularly important in the deadline-oriented world of magazines. Most important is clear communication. It is essential that the expectations on both sides are understood and that you enter into any assignment feeling good about the shoot parameters, timing, budget and creative brief.

JP: The logistics surrounding our cover shoots vary with every subject in terms of location, photographic team, timing and creative direction. In general, our cover shoots take place in one day. For our celebrity stories, we have a crew of people on set: the photographic team, styling team, prop stylist, hair and makeup artists, digital tech and one or two people from the magazine.

Interview with Jennifer Pastore, Photo Editor, WSJ for LENS CULTURE magazine.

I have said many times, that the photographer who is trying to illustrate an article for any publication, has to be on the same page as the photo editor. Commercial photographers have to work with their editors and please them because they are the final judges of the photographs. The photographer must know who will determine the success or failure of an image for publication.  That is the person with whom she or he must communicate. So, it is essential that they see eye-to-eye (literally) about any and all images.

The first thing I ask for when doing a magazine assignment is a copy of the article or a galley, because most often, what the piece says is what I need to help illustrate with my photos. If there is no galley (because some articles aren’t written until after the photos are done), I try to ask the photo editor questions about the person I’m going to photograph. I will then do as much research on him as possible before the shoot. If it is a famous person, I try to get some information on his or her hobbies or other things of interest to them so that I have plenty to talk about during the session. Sometimes, subjects other than the reason for the photographs, will bring out the most interesting expressions. In my case, many of the editors for whom I have worked, tell me about the article and what they are trying to illustrate and the rest is left up to me. I have to make the contacts and set up mutually convenient times and places to do the shoot. Most of the time, I travel to the person’s place of business. Occasionally, I shoot in the person’s residence.

My shoot with the famous art director, George Lois (Esquire) took place in his apartment in New York City:

Sometimes, my subjects will come to the studio (as was the case with Ira Levin):

And, sometimes it will be at a particular location that may be mentioned in the article:

This image was made at a television studio while the subjects were engaged in taping a show for broadcast.

Ms. Pastore, as a well-known photo editor, can assemble the crew needed to ensure that the subject(s) look their best and that everyone is prepared for the shoot. Many times, I shoot for smaller magazines and other publications which don’t have large budgets and consequently, most of the coordination is left to me. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have any number of “associates” who help with a shoot. I have several hair & makeup artists as well as a prop stylist when the assignment calls for it.

These days, photographers who do editorial assignments have to be flexible when it comes to working with photo editors. They have to be able to communicate well and be able to coordinate entire shoots themselves, if necessary.

Shooting Events With Some Creativity!

Shooting Events With Some Creativity!

by William Lulow

As I might have mentioned in a prior blog article, I have been getting more than my share of events to shoot lately. Many people don’t like shooting them because they think that there is really no room for creativity when all you are capturing are shots of people grinning for the camera. But, if you know your studio lighting, you can often come up with interesting and creative ways to cover events.

Most events like weddings, take place in a hotel ballroom or other convention-type facility. So, I like to go in, see what the set up is as far as a dais or lecturn goes and then set my lights up so that I have a background light as well as an accent light to go along with the light on my camera. The event that I covered during the last two days was a digital marketing and sales meeting organized by Salesgasm, which conducts these seminars worldwide. Salesgasm

When you are shooting an event, you never know where people are going to stand especially when it’s a cocktail party or a “meet & greet” gathering. Therefore, I like to cover all bases. I can turn on or off the light on my camera as well as the other lights I have set up around the room to get a variety of interesting lightings. Here is one of a dais, where I’ve just used the background light:

Here, I have framed the speaker with a cameraman who happened to be recording the entire event, by just using my background light. (The accent light on the right, which fired simultaneously, lit the front of some people in the audience and had some flare, but the flare itself didn’t spoil the image, and could be cropped out if necessary).

As an aside, I have noticed recently, that lens flare with newer glass made for digital cameras, has been kept to a minimum because these lenses are made with an anti-flare coating that makes the reproduction of lens flare, when it is within the frame, much less obvious. I have even used it as a creative element which gives a burst of light.

Here’s another example of a creative use of the background light:

For this shot, I added the light on my camera (bounced off the ceiling) as well, to give the foreground some more detail, while keeping the focus on the speakers at the dais, in the background.

Straight shots of speakers, I normally shoot with the on-camera flash as well as the background lights, just to lighten the scene generally:

Even then, I can still create some interesting lighting by bouncing the on-camera light off the ceiling and letting the accent light (which is aimed directly at the subject(s), be a bit brighter. (Remember: if you want the accent light to register white in the image, it needs to be about 1 f/stop brighter than your main light).

Here you can see the effects of the accent light coming from the left with the overall brightness of the scene from the main light on the camera.

So, the take-away from this article should really be that seemingly boring and straightforward types of events can be made much more interesting visually, by the addition of several other lights and, of course, the knowledge of how to use them properly.

The Global Landscape In Commercial Photography – Revisited!

The Global Landscape In Commercial Photography – Revisited!

by William Lulow

Today, many people are upset about lost jobs, the changing economy and the internet age in general. They are upset about how everyone uses smart phones today instead of actually talking to each other. They complain about how the internet has re-shaped their world into a “DIY” (Do It Yourself) environment.

This kind of complaining has led to increasing frustration in the workplace in general, not just in commercial photography. Demagogues love to use this kind of thing to promote their agendas! But, enough about politics! What do we do in the field of photography to stay up to date in the global, connected world?

For my money, I saw the internet age coming way before it actually arrived. I got my first computer in 1983 basically to handle my growing mailing list. From then on, I made sure I was up to date with much of the new software that was being designed and produced for our industry. During various photo expos, I would sit myself down in the Adobe booth (or any other manufacturer that piqued my interest) until I felt that I had learned the new software well enough to use it in my daily workflow. I learned about SEO from a very savvy internet entrepreneur named Jarom Adair  

Jarom taught me quite a few things about key words, where to put them, how to edit them and a little bit about the workings of search engines in general. Today, if you bother to Google photographers in Westchester, NY, I am now on page one. And, I have done it without spending a huge sum of money! I have seen the increase in the number of queries about my work over the last several months.

My point to all this is that whatever business you find yourself, you need to make a very strong effort to stay on top of changes that are going on in the world at large. Expecting things to run the same way they have for the last 50 years just doesn’t cut it anymore! And those people who are slow to adopt new techniques, technologies or business models will soon find themselves out of business entirely! These days, a photographer can be almost anywhere and get to locations where he or she is needed quickly. Jobs can be delivered on the internet as well through companies like DROPBOX ( ). So, the need for big studios is just not there anymore! If you have a shoot that requires lots of space, there are plenty of studios for rent.

Another thing that has been changing rapidly as part of the delivery system, is the move away from DVDs in favor of flash drives. USB drives are quite a bit faster at displaying images and, of course are quite a bit smaller.

I have seen the number of out-of-town clients that utilize my services grow steadily over the last several years. People need something photographed in the New York area and I get a call because of my Google ranking and website! I have been able to adjust to the new landscape in our business over the years. It didn’t happen overnight. I had to put in many long hours at the computer figuring the whole thing out for myself. And, my billings went down during my “adjustment period.”

The moral here is that we must keep up with change and embrace it. Wishing that things were back the way they were is futile and counterproductive! This doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot film! But it does mean that you have to use film a whole lot more differently than you used to!


Connectivity has become of paramount importance for almost any business model these days. I remember when I used to beep in to my telephone machine for any messages. Now, all my business is done on my cell phone, as is the case with most of us these days. Clients can reach me wherever and whenever they need to! I can even edit my website via my smartphone! Google has actually learned that roughly 70% of the population perform internet searches using their smartphones! The changes brought about by rapidly improving technologies has actually been good for my business. If you take the trouble to learn about and use them, they should help you as well.

Is Digital Photography Really Easier Than Traditional?

Is Digital Photography Really Easier Than Traditional?

by William Lulow

I have often said that digital photography is easier than using film in several ways:

  1. There are many auto-focus lenses
  2. The camera can be programmed to calculate correct exposure
  3. You don’t have to load film
  4. You can preview your work directly on the LCD screen. No need to wait for development.

With all this being said, there are quite a few more items to consider than simply pressing the shutter and recording the image. In the days of film photography, you had your choice of indoor or outdoor film and several options of film speed. You had several different sizes from which to choose, from 35mm to 2 1/4 medium format, all the way up to 4×5 or 8×10 sheet film. The characteristics of each were somewhat different, but that was about it as far as choice went.

Today, the digital experience offers quite an array of different settings that force us to think carefully about how we want our images to look. Yes, you can set your camera to AUTO and it will yield fairly good images, mostly correctly exposed, but you can also use a myriad of different settings depending on your personal preferences and, of course, those of your clients (if you sell the images or shoot for a commercial concern).

So, here are just a few. My Canon cameras have nine different “PICTURE STYLES” from which to choose:

  6. MONOCHROME and three more “USER DEFINED” settings.

Within each of these you can choose four more settings:

  1. Sharpness
  2. Contrast
  3. Saturation
  4. Color Tone

This gives you at least thirty-six different settings you need to think about. Some of the differences may be subtle, but that can sometimes make the difference between a good shot and a “great” one.

Here are some examples, all shot with the same exposure (ISO100, 1/125th of a second at f/8):

This image was made on the STANDARD setting with SHARPNESS set at 7 (Max) CONTRAST at 2, SATURATION 0, and COLOR TONE 0.

This image was made on the PORTRAIT setting with SHARPNESS set at 6, CONTRAST at +2, SATURATION at 0 and COLOR TONE at -2.

This one was shot on LANDSCAPE mode with SHARPNESS set at 6,CONTRAST at 2, SATURATION at 2 and COLOR TONE at -2. Here you can begin to discern a slight blue tint to the snow (probably cyan rather than blue).

This was made in the NEUTRAL mode with SHARPNESS at 6, CONTRAST at 0, SATURATION at 2, and COLOR TONE at -2. To my eye, this looks a bit more reddish than the STANDARD setting, but still looks good.

In FAITHFUL mode, this image actually looks the most neutral of all of them, representing the scene most closely as my eye saw it.

Now, with all these settings to add to your confusion, you need to be mindful of how you want the scene to be represented. If you prefer more color saturation, then you can use one of the USER DEFINED settings for that. I once had to photograph a client’s paintings and I had to be sure that the colors in the paintings were correctly represented in the images. Also, if you are shooting a product, you need to make sure that the images accurately represent the colors, otherwise, the client will not like them.

In the days of film, we were able to control the way the images looked with a combination of color balancing the lights, processing the film in certain ways or by filtering the film to produce a “normal-looking” image. We would often compare color charts with the colors we were shooting to get a fairly exact match.

This should give you some of an idea of how complicated your “easy” digital photography can be.


My Technique For Photographing Events

My Technique For Photographing Events

by William Lulow

I have written before about how to photograph events, so let me reiterate a few points that I use whenever I’m asked to cover a corporate event.

As you probably know from looking at my website, I am a portrait photographer. I have been trained and have studied all forms of portrait lighting and techniques from Kodak manuals to working and studying with famous, professional studio photographers, including the renowned photographer, Philippe Halsman, who was responsible for over 100 LIFE MAGAZINE covers!

So, I bring my studio lighting expertise to the photography of events as well. What this means is, I am intensely aware of how light works to create images. And, I love to see the various lighting techniques I can use to achieve different results outside of the studio setting. I’m constantly looking for all sorts of interesting lightings I can set up with my portable flash units when I am out “on location!” Many photographers may think that photographing an event simply means putting a portable speedlight on their cameras and just snapping away. Although that may work in some cases, it doesn’t produce really interesting photographs. If you have a strong enough speedlight and you use it basically to light up the space within which you are working, that might suffice. But, as I said, that doesn’t make for really good and innovative images.

My technique involves thinking about the background as well as the subject matter itself. If you are going to cover a room, you either have to bounce a strong flash off the ceiling to light it up, or, you are going to have to light the background separately.

I use at least three speedlights to accomplish this task. I try to position two of them in opposite corners of the room I’m shooting in, and the third, I have mounted on my camera. Given many speedlights’ working distances and power settings, some may not provide enough light to cover large rooms. Using a “flash-on-camera” will, at least ensure that the subjects in front of you will be lit correctly. You also have to keep in mind that using a speedlight on full power will drain its battery much more quickly. So, I often wind up bumping up my ISO setting to around 1000 and reducing the power on my portable flash units to 1/4 power or so. This gives me quite a bit more light, faster recycling times and much more battery time. I have not noticed much, if any, image noise or graininess from using ISO speeds of 1000 or even 2000. You begin to notice it more if you use ISO speeds in excess of 2500.

Here is an example I shot at a recent corporate event, a cocktail party:

This image was made by bouncing my on-camera flash off the ceiling.

This image was made using an external “EDGE LIGHT” (off to the right and behind the subjects), and the light on the camera, bounced off the ceiling. The bounce effect diffused the overall light while letting the external light provide some highlights on the dancers because it was aimed directly at them. (Remember, an accent light should be about one f/stop brighter than the main light in order for the highlight to register as white). I was also shooting at 1/125th of a second (to stop the action) at ISO 1000 and an aperture of f/5.6.

In this room, I set up one light to light the background, and another to light a bit of the front of the room. I still had my on-camera flash, but for some shots like this, I simply turned it off:

Here, you can see that the people in the foreground are dark and only the background is lit. By using your speedlights selectively, you can achieve very different results

Here, I have turned off the on-camera flash and backed away from the room to show the people in the front in silhouette while lighting only the main dining room.

You can obtain many more interesting images by using your speedlights judiciously, knowing when to turn them on or off.

In addition, there are times when you may not want to use any speedlights:

So, armed with an arsenal of lighting techniques and know-how, I can create a series of different images that can be used by corporate art directors and communications people alike.



Figuring Out What To Charge For Photography Services!

Figuring Out What To Charge For Photography Services!

by William Lulow


Note: This is an article I have published previously. Every time I publish it, I add new information.

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 ($2,500 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 $5,000 per week or roughly a $200,000 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 $500,000 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 $500K-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 $250,000 per year support the lifestyle you want? (Don’t forget personal income taxes on top of corporate taxes, if you are an LLC! If your business grosses this much, you can figure that you’ll take home around  $165,000 as your salary). 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 these days. 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 also gross about $500,000 per 40 week year. This is based on a 5-day-per-week shooting schedule and around 3 clients per day.(If they can handle more than that, it would, of course, increase their gross).  Again, of that $500K, 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. And, the people who run these types of studios are really business owners rather than photographers. They hire photographers to do the shooting (grunt work) for them.

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/flash drive creation 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 profit 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.