One of the most widely discussed topics in the photography industry today is that of pricing. I hear career photographers complaining that there is a huge influx of new photographers willing to work for literally pennies. These established photographers make the argument that the new entrants are destroying the market, and killing the industry standard rates. On the other side of the fence are the new entrants complaining that they want to charge higher, but are in competition with all the other low-priced photographers. They are searching for ways to enter the market, charge what they feel like they are worth, and still get clients.
In order to address these concerns I’m going to discuss a few key topics. First, the effects of technology on an industry. Second, the basic economic principle of supply and demand. Third, branding, target markets, and client relationships.
The Effects of Technology
The photography industry has been turned upside down by advances in technology. It has both blessed us, as well as made things difficult. We all get giddy with the announcement of the latest and greatest camera body or lens, and are ecstatic when we see how affordable it has become. But on the other hand, as technology has gotten better, and cheaper, it has drastically lowered the barriers to entry for photography. The learning curve is much smaller than it used to be.
The days of shooting rolls of film, waiting to see the results as the film is developed, making notes on changes needed from mistakes, buying more film, and making more photographs is over. It no longer costs money to press the shutter. One can get immediate feedback on fundamental techniques, allowing them to learn and adjust on the fly. Does all this mean that anybody can quickly and immediately create visually appealing images? Heck no! But it means they can more quickly learn the basics and consider themselves ready for hire.
The photography industry is not the first to suffer a huge upset by the advances of technology. You could make a list as long as your arm of similar cases of technological advances that have completely reshaped the face of industry. Examples include:
- Amazon.com vs. traditional brick and mortar book stores
- Online movie rentals vs. traditional movie rental stores
- Desktop publishing (and on-demand print fulfillment) vs. traditional print and publishing companies
- Tax preparation software vs. accountants
- Mobile phones and companies vs. landline telecommunications and utility companies
- MP3s, digital music distribution, and their effects on record labels
The list goes on and on and on. Technology has a way of changing the world, seemingly overnight. We have two options. Adapt or die. Period. ADAPT. OR. DIE.
(Scared? Read on for the “how”, it does get better).
Supply and Demand
That’s right, even artists need to know and be aware of a little economics. We are definitely not immune to the basic rules of business and economics. Price is the basis for our complaints right? You’re working your tail off, and not making what you feel like you deserve. Well, price is the child born of the relationship between supply and demand. The relative supply of photography services has increased (and continues to do so) exponentially over the past several years. But, unfortunately, the demand has stayed fairly level. Sure more people are wanting custom portraiture, but the relative growth in that demand pales in comparison to the growth in the supply of people offering their photographic services. So we’re all screwed, right? WRONG! Let’s talk about how to fix this supply/demand issue.
Branding and Client Relationships
In this over-saturated market, what are you going to offer that nobody else can? If you didn’t say YOU, then you got the wrong answer. You are the defining difference. Your style, your creativity, your vision, and your personality is 100% unique to you, and nobody else can offer that. I know, it sounds fluffy, like it just spilled out of the mouth of a motivational speaker.
Consider for a moment hair cuts. There are likely countless places you could go to get your hair cut. All of them could likely give you a pretty similar service. Some people will go with the cheapest option, and will be totally fine with the $5 hair cut. But others will only go to THEIR hair dresser. They perceive that person, and the service they offer, to be of higher value. It may be the relationship they have built or a unique service that they haven’t found in other hair dressers. It may be just a comfort thing or family tradition (dad, and dad’s dad went there, so I go there too). But the point is, regardless of the price, they keep going back, knowing full well there are other options for lower prices.
It’s no different in the photography world. If your primary sources of new business aren’t previous clients and word of mouth, you’re doing something drastically wrong. The first reason people should come to you should be because of YOU, and how awesome YOU are. I can count on all my hands and feet, and all the hands and feet of everybody in my neighborhood the photographers that could offer a well composed and technically correct photograph. So again, why should they come to you? YOU! Then, as you build those relationships, nurture them, protect them, treat them like gold.
Like the hair salons, there are photographers who can, and will, give you a pretty decent shoot for $50. Then there are photographers who will charge $1,000-$10,000 for a similar service. They want THAT photographer, regardless of the price. They want that person because of who they are, what their name represents, and the art they create. On the other side of the table, the person hiring the $50 photographer would NEVER, EVER pay $1,000 for photography, regardless of the quality. They are solely shopping by price.
So the question is, who are you targeting? If you are successfully targeting and selling your services to the $1,000+ ($5,000+ for weddings) client, why are you worried about the photographers squabbling over the $50 clients? If, however, you are working in the $50 market, the question becomes “why” and then should be followed by “how do you get out?”
You are more than welcome to charge whatever you want, but at some point you have to ask yourselves, what is my time worth? If you are charging $50 for pre and post shoot communication, 2-hour shoot, drive time, post processing time, plus the time you have to put into your business for marketing, you aren’t even pulling in minimum wage! So ask yourselves, WHY are you doing it?
If you find yourself in the situation described above, you may feel you can’t charge more, or nobody will hire you. And you might be right … for now. But now ask yourselves why you are shooting. If you really, really, really need that $50 to put some rice on the table and feed your starving kids, then by all means, go ahead and do your thing, but strongly consider slightly raising your prices every few months. On the other hand, if you are shooting for the love of photography, and don’t really need that $50, consider another approach. Stop marketing to the $50 clients and start shooting what you love, just because you love it. Collaborate with other artists in the industry and create projects that move you. Shoot for charities that really don’t have the budgets to pay clients, but could really use some pro bono work. Find things in your area that interest or excite you and photograph them. Write an article on that new restaurant that just opened up and shoot the chef at work. Whatever it is, just shoot it because you love it, forget about the whole world of “clients” and just make pictures. Most critical of all, as you do all this, SHARE IT! Get your work out there, let people see and experience it.
As you move forward with your new “I shoot what I love campaign”, a few things will start to happen. First, you’ll get much more satisfaction out of what you shoot. Second, your portfolio will drastically improve and along with it your creativity, ability and technique. Third, you’ll quickly find and develop your style, and thus ultimately hone and improve your brand. And finally, as you begin to develop your unique style and vision you’ll start attracting a new niche of clients. And guess what, that new niche of clients will want to pay you! You are no longer one of the masses offering the exact same images as everybody else, but have a unique and creative style. You express YOURSELF in your images. You now fall within your own supply/demand curve and the supply is VERY VERY LIMITED. Which ultimately means you can charge a premium for your services! All this will take time. You’ll want to throw in the towel, at least a billion times. You’ll threaten to quit, and decide it’s never going to happen. But ultimately, if you want it bad enough, and you’re willing to stick it out, the day will come when it all happens! You’ll start getting those random, then more frequent calls. Then your biggest problem will be time management, and not pricing.
A Final Note
Finally, as a note to the whole industry in general, MEAN PEOPLE SUCK! I get so frustrated (and sad) when I see the negativity out there. I see forums full of people spending countless hours ragging other photographers, their philosophies, their work, etc. If somebody approaches you and asks for a sincere critique of their work, then fine, give them your honest opinion. On the other hand, if they are simply sharing something they are excited about, then as Thumper said, say something nice or shut the eff up (or something like that). Negativity and making fun of others in the industry does nothing to improve it.
One of my favorite authors, David DuChemin, is a perfect example of what the industry should be like. It is very evident in much of what he writes that he is frustrated with the same mediocrity in the industry that bothers many of us. But instead of spending time being negative and criticizing those around him, he offers educational materials in the form of books, ebooks, and workshops. Many of the ebooks he writes are very small (10-15 pages), and he sells them at a very affordable price ($5). Think of the number of helpful tutorials, books, and other educational materials that could come from the same amount of effort spent on bashing and arguing on forums. And I bet you can guess which one would make the author more money :).
So to summarize:
- Stop complaining about the state of the industry. It has changed and will continue to do so. Look for ways to differentiate yourself, and most of all, adapt!
- If you’re charging too little for what you do, stop! Start shooting what you love, defining your style, improving your craft, and sharing your work. The clients will come. And with them they’ll bring their money!
- And last of all, let’s lose the negativity! Can’t we all just be friends?!
Great blog post! Sometimes we all just need a little refresh & reminder of how to with the photo world we all live in. I do contract work for one of the largest youth sports photo companies here in San Diego & they work based on some very true points. While as a professional photographer some of their techniques kill me & would be things I would never do...like (Point & Shoot with on camera flash) but they have a sellable product that is affordable to their clients and they have over 30 photographers on staff. The biggest thing they have is customer satisfaction and a positive attitude with everyone. You do the work, keep the client happy. It's very true that you need to pick your market and this is just another reminder....shoot what you love and things will come into place. Looking forward to more good blog posts
Darlene Hildebrandt shared this link with me!!! You must have been inside my head when you wrote this! Thank you. Thank you to Darlene to know that I would appreciate it!
I too follow David Duchemin - great article, I'm going to share it with my students who want to be photographers and don't know what to charge.
I love this:
“Finally, as a note to the whole industry in general, MEAN PEOPLE SUCK! I get so frustrated (and sad) when I see the negativity out there. I see forums full of people spending countless hours ragging other photographers, their philosophies, their work, etc. If somebody approaches you and asks for a sincere critique of their work, then fine, give them your honest opinion. On the other hand, if they are simply sharing something they are excited about, then as Thumper said, say something nice or shut the eff up (or something like that). Negativity and making fun of others in the industry does nothing to improve it.”
I remember a few years ago a friend of a friend was looking for a photographer to shoot a small event. I don’t usually do events but she got my name and asked me to send her some examples of my work. After I sent her a few pictures she actually had the balls to critique all the photos! I was not sending her photos from one photog to another for critique, I was sending her finished examples of my work, examples that were already loved/sold/bought by clients!! But she had bought a camera from Costco recently and felt she knew enough about photography now to critique someone’s finished work!
After she was done critiquing the photos, she asked if she could hire me (for an insulting price, no less) and asked that I have all the photos from the 4-5 hour late-night event photoshopped and delivered within 24 hours. When I told her I’d have to turn this offer down, she came back to me with a better offer: she could pay me less for the job but I would just send her all the pictures (“removing all the clunkers, of course”) and she would take care of the retouching!
“If somebody approaches you and asks for a sincere critique of their work, then fine, give them your honest opinion. On the other hand, if they are simply sharing something they are excited about, then as Thumper said, say something nice or shut the eff up (or something like that).”
Very inspiring. I agree with many of your points. It is a challenge when we need to put "rice" on our tables. We all have basic needs. I am in the middle of doing just what you were suggesting....defining my style, re-branding. improving all skills and practices and offering something that an rookie cannot offer due to their inexperience and vision.
I couldn't agree more! I feel like I'm constantly in workshops or doing research to better the level of service and product I can offer my clients to stand out and keep them loyal. I firmly believe that education, software upgrades, and equipment upgrades are worth the extra $$$ you charge. I raised my prices this year, and kept my clients. Go figure :-)
Very well written and great point of view. Your conclusion demonstrates in-depth experience and I find your positivity refreshing.
Wonderful article, Travis! Yes, we all struggle with these issues, but I completely agree that as professionals, when challenged, we need to step up our game! Improving our art (yes, many people still know what a good photograph is vs. a mediocre one), building relationships & providing top notch customer service are some of the ways we can survive as Full Time Photographers. Thanks so much for putting it out there & giving us some reminders! You ROCK!
I think the point of this advice is to change, based on the environment you are in. We all have to innovate. Are you going to allow the economy to tell you. you are in a recession or are you going to do something, anything different to bring more value to what you are offering. Think of how car makers or computer makers innovate. Sure this is an art, but the principle is the same. Anyone can sell you something that can get you from point A to point B, but can anyone give you a different experience along the way. There will always be those that will say, "Oh, well Gosh, even the big boys are hurting, or not in this economy." You are the leader/manger of your "company or hobby or whatever you do." Take some time, sit down, do SWOT analysis and put your plan into action. Only you know your business conditions, competition etc, so how about you initiate this?
This is one of the best articles I have read in a long time! The message couldn't have been better said. This is what I'm striving to do. Building client relationships is the key and treating every client like gold. I'm very excited about this article!
AND, the negativity thing is soooo true!!! In my experiences with critiques, some of these people need to learn how to critique properly instead of putting people and their work down. One of my experiences, in particular, was by a well known photographer in which I took a week long class from his wife (she was too chicken to do her own class critiquing, by the way). His critiquing was totally inappropriate. I seen it with many others in the class. Some of them left crying.
Very good post, but a far too simplistic view.
Many markets cannot bear the higher priced photography and potential clients will flock to where there dollar goes farther. That is usually reflected in the economic conditions that the market is experiencing. Too ignore these things when trying to set up any business would be frivolous and silly.
In this particular market, the three biggest photographers who had the lion's share of the market have all had their weddings reduced to less than one third of what they usually do. In the last 5 - 10 years three other studios have closed. One more is switching to part time and has taken another job. The studios did impeccable target only to see it disappear.
While passion is a wonderful thing, a "build it and they will come" attitude is not sound advice on to build a business on.
Hi THe Walrus, thanks for your note, I actually totally agree, and that's the point I'm trying to make. New (and established) photographers have to do SO MUCH MORE than just take nice pictures, SO MUCH MORE than just build a portfolio, SO MUCH MORE than hang a sign and say they are ready to take your pictures. A photographer has to differentiate, stand out, and make people WANT to come to them. The market is getting ever more saturated with competition, and people willing to do the same job for much less, so how do we get people to pay us what we deserve, and build a sustainable business? It's by differentiating ourselves, by building relationships with our customers, and by being BETTER! Better at marketing, better at sales, better at building relationships, and of course, better at photography! So in a nutshell, if one wants to be successful, in this or in any other industry, they must a) differentiate, b) make their customers LOVE them, and c) continuously strive to improve their craft.
tjsmithut I agree that it's so much more than taking pictures. I believe it's gone so BEYOND just taking pictures; that it's actually not about photography anymore WHAT-SO-EVER! The client doesn't know good photography from a mediocre photography.
In the end, my advice to anyone starting this: have a full time job because photography is, at best, something you can only do on a limited part time basis.