When I officially made the jump from taking photos of friends and family to starting my photography business, I didn’t put a whole lot of thought into pricing. I randomly picked a number that felt right, not considering the cost of running a business. My first year, I charged $300 for a full session delivered on a USB flash drive. Some of you might think, “Holy Cow, that’s cheap,” while others of you are saying, “$300 a session sounds like a dream!”
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I was photographing 3 families a weekend, editing and hand delivering all those images (yes, I drove the USB to their house). In the busy fall months, I barely saw my family. When I did, I was sitting in front of the computer editing. After an exhausting two years of some serious hustle and being crazy busy, I thought I was a successful photographer. But I was still in the hole.
After 5 years as photographer and running a successful and profitable studio, these are the top 5 things I wish I knew about pricing that first year I was in business.
No.01Don’t be the Cheap Photographer
I get it. You need to build a portfolio. You should be doing this with a Model Call, and not cheap sessions. There are two schools of thought, on Model Calls, neither of which is right or wrong.
The first way to hold a Model Call is to not charge any money for portfolio building sessions. Many refer to this as a “Styled Shoot”. Charging nothing allows you full creative license to try new things without having to worry about pleasing the client. It also takes the stress off you and allows you room to try to implement some of the skills you are learning.
Many people will do this for about a year prior to starting a business. One other nice thing about a Styled Shoot is you can ask the “models” to wear specific things or go to a specific place that will fit your brand and the client you would like to attract.
The second way to build you portfolio is a more traditional Model Call. In this scenario, there is no session fee. You only charge for the finished product. Many people will hold a Model Call and tell the models that there is no charge or commitment, but should they want the images from the session, they can purchase them for $xyz.
When I started out, I was cheap because I was in the portfolio building stage. Like many new photography business owners, I charged what I thought people would pay.
This is bad. This is so bad. In doing this, I built a client list of people who were only willing to spend $300 for a photo session. The referral wheel was turning big time, but guess who was contacting me based on those awesome customer referrals? Yep, more $300 clients.
I can’t tell you how many times I heard clients say that they were going to go with another photographer whose pictures they loved, but they were too expensive. I was the cheap photographer. And it wasn’t a compliment. I wound up, years into my business, having to drop almost all my clients and start over from scratch.
No.02Don’t just Raise your Prices
But you just told me not to start cheap!
Yes, that’s true. But randomly picking a number that feels good and is higher than what you’re charging now isn’t the right choice either. Your price list must reflect what your business expenses and product cost.
When I did my first price increase, I was still a “Shoot and Burn” photographer. I raised my prices to $800 for the full session with digitals. I thought that price would let my potential clients know I was a higher-end photographer than those just starting out who were charging next to nothing. I literally booked nothing at that price.
And I let that pricing sit there a good long while. Then I learned about In Person Sales and realized my prices either had to go up or down… and I didn’t want to go down. So, I raised my prices again even though my higher price of $800 was booking squat. And you know what, I suddenly started booking clients.
Weird, right? But there’s a reason.
There is a strange thing happening in the economy today. People have a higher level of disposable income than ever before… or at least they think they do. The mall near me keeps opening more and more high-end stores. In addition to Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, and Bloomingdales, there are over 20 premium stores. I’m not talking just nice stores. I’m talking 28 high end DESIGNER stores.
Part of this disposable income is reflected in our disposable society. We don’t fix something, we throw it away and get a new one. Because of this, when you don’t go for pricey quality, you go for cheap and quick. So, we now live in a world where Walmart and Target are part of our culture and keep expanding. I mean…we have dubbed it “Tar-je” making fun of ourselves for how much we love this ridiculously cheap brand.
But what stores have filed for bankruptcy in the past few years? Wet Seal, Aeropostale, The Limited, American Apparel, Pac Sun… basically every shop I went into during my teens. These brands are not high end stores, but they’re also not the low-cost leaders either. They just sit in the middle. And that’s where I was with my $800 Shoot and Burn price.
I was now too expensive for the budget clients, but too cheap and basic for the high-end client. Now, I’m not going to lie, I didn’t just raise my prices, I changed the way I did business. But first, I had to figure out how to price myself to turn a profit.
No.03Don’t apologize for your prices
When I go into Nordstrom to buy a pair of shoes, the salesperson doesn’t feel bad and apologize for the price. Can you imagine if she did?
Sooooooooo… that pair of boots is $275. I’m so sorry, I know that is a lot. But if you can’t afford that, don’t worry, I’ll just take $50 for them.
That would never happen, right? So why are you doing that? No one will believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself first. (Yes, I realize how cheesy that sounds, but it’s true). You can have the most supportive people around you, but that doesn’t mean they should decide what you are worth.
My husband has been amazing throughout my business journey. He helps with things I need done in the studio, he watches the kids so I can work, he gives me business advice when I need it, and he believes in me. I couldn’t have a more supportive partner.
But when I raised my prices so that my digital package was $1350, he told me no one will pay that for a photo session. And two weeks later, someone did. While he is great for business advice, he is not my ideal customer. I still go to him for advice and ideas, but only I know how to apply that to my business.
What I have come to realize over the years is that pricing myself low not only hurts my business, but the photography community as a whole. Many clients don’t value photography because we don’t value photography.
Setting low prices for work that is anywhere from good to spectacular tells prospective clients, I can get this amazing photographer for so cheap! Why would we ever spend more?
If Christian Louboutin’s Red Soled Shoes sold for $20 for those who couldn’t a $700 pair of shoes, would anyone still pay $700? Eventually, no one will value that brand because it is cheap and anyone can get it.
It took me over 3 years to really understand the whys to my pricing and implement successful business strategies. I should have done the math in the beginning and grown my business that way. I can’t even think about all the money I left on the table over the years with my “competitive pricing.”
So, take the time and really give some thought to where you want your business to go