The Great Pricing Hoax

No sales? Hard time hooking clients? Your deep-discount pricing could be choking your reputation.

It’s not uncommon to offer your services at cut-rate discount with the hope that you’ll snap up eager bargain-hunters. But is this really the right approach?

Successful Pros agree that raising your pricing may not necessarily scare away potential clients – in fact, it’ll do a body good. Here’s why.

That sounds backwards…

Photo by Adriana Klas Photography

“Cheap” sets bad expectations for your clients. If you’re a cheap photographer, clients wonder how you’re cutting costs so much, and if it’s worth it for them to take the risk. They question your ability to manage expectations and communicate with them. Will you effectively guide them through an important experience, or will you simply fire a few snaps, hand over a CD and call it a day?

“Cheap” makes you look as though you don’t think you’re any good. Any business owner who doesn’t think their brand’s the best is probably in the wrong business.

How to Not Be Expensive

Photo by Adriana Klas Photography

Right about now you’re probably worried about scaring away clients by being too expensive. How do your clients really know what “expensive” really is? It’s all about pricing and a concept called anchoring – meaning that they have to compare the value of something new with something familiar.

In English: Clients will be able to better grasp the value of your work by judging their interaction with you.

Here are some tips to help you prove that your work is worth every penny:

  • Create a unified brand.  A clean website. Clearly placed information. A custom domain and email address goes a long way, too.
  • Be professional. Be prompt, cordial, and friendly. You provide a quality service, which is worth paying for.
  • Look and act the part. No one is going to pay $5k to a schlup wearing ketchup-stained t-shirts, particularly if they show up late and forget to bring the paperwork!

How to do the “Free” Thing (the right way)

Photo by Sphynge Photography

Just because you should be paid fairly for your work doesn’t mean you can’t cut clients a break, or even do the “free” thing once in a while. Samples are a great way to give clients a nibble of what you do do without giving away the whole farm. Some quick ideas of how to work this into your model:

Model 1 – Waive your session fee, but be sure to charge for prints and digital downloads.

Model 2 – Apply the sitting fee towards the purchase of digital downloads, making the first (X number) free.

On SmugMug, it’s so easy to offer a few deep discounts by creating a custom Coupon to hand out. There are five different types, making sure that you can keep changing it up and keeping it interesting. How to use Coupons.

Get it? Got it? Good.

Calculate Your Costs to Avoid Going Broke

Photo by Sphynge Photography

The reason most photography businesses don’t survive is because their owners didn’t properly calculate their costs. And as the old adage goes, time is money. Don’t forget that your time and expertise are more precious than replaceable objects like paper and gear; you can hire assistants but they aren’t you. (Yes, it’s our mission to make you feel like a million bucks!)

Here are our suggested guidelines for calculating your costs:

  • For prints: Your pricing should be not less than 4x your hard costs, including packaging and shipping. Seem like a lot? It’s not – about half of your balance goes towards taxes, 1/5th of goes towards the base cost of the item and the rest goes towards (ta-daa!) your profit.
  • Albums and multi-photo goods: Your pricing should be no less than 3x your hard costs, which may include design work as well as the physical cost of the product.
  • For Downloads: Price your larger-than-web-sized digital downloads at no less than the cost of ten prints. Giving away images at any printable size means you have to make it worth your while: They will use that file to print lots of prints, and you also run the risk of having your brand diluted if your client opens Photoshop and makes their own digital adjustments. Check out our resolution chart to find out how big they can print.

The Bottom Line

Don’t be afraid to charge a fair price for your work. By understanding your costs and charging more, you’re sending a stronger message to your clients and ensuring that they value you, too.

If you’re already in business and think your prices needs a kick, remember that it’s simple to adjust your pricing using Pricelists. Look here to see how they work, and don’t forget to ping our Support Heroes if you get stuck.

Wanna keep talking about pricing? Never forget that our photo forum, Digital Grin, has a whole section dedicated to the art of turning your photos into money. Check out our Mind Your Own Business section here and post away. Or just voice your thoughts in a comment below.

Good luck and stay tuned! We’ll be sharing more tips and “best practices” for you, soon.


Links you’ll love:

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I'm a freelance documentary photographer who loves travel, rangefinders, medium format film photography, and everything in-between.

41 thoughts on “The Great Pricing Hoax”

  1. One of the best blog posts in a long time.🙂 Pricing is one of the most common questions, and this gives some really good guidelines. Kudos!

  2. Most of the pricing information such as this seems to be geared more towards the wedding / portrait photographer. Can I reasonably assume these same principals can be applied to a just starting out nature, wildlife, and landscape photographer? Pricing my work has always been the toughest part of trying to take my photography to the next level.

    1. Hi Jeff – For fine art you probably will want to charge more than what’s suggested above but you can poke around the links to Dgrin to see what other landscape photographers have to say about it. Good luck with your craft!

      1. Charge even more. Oh man, I have a hard enough time pricing at the level I do. That’s confidence issue on my part. I’m having a hard time getting over the “I’m a nobody in the world of photography, I can’t charge that,” syndrome🙂

    2. One problem those of us who sell stock photography face these days is that we must compete with folks who are not doing photography for their principle income. The dentists and doctors (no offense) who have taken up photography as a hobby and are happy to see their work published (I can frame it and put it in my waiting room) may very well have better gear, more ability to travel and can happily give it all away for bragging rights. These folks also now have effective ways to get their work in front of the clients. On top of this, many print editorial clients are seeing a decline in ad revenue and are looking for deals (and Freebies). This all makes it tough on the stock shooter hoping to come away with a profit.

      I don’t have an answer to all of this other than 1) work a niche and be skilled in it beyond the average hobbyist 2) package images with text so that you can deliver publication ready content (solves a problem for the editor). 3) Find another revenue stream to keep food on the table while you pursue your passion.

      Am I overly negative or a realist?

  3. Reblogged this on Jay&Jacy Photography and commented:
    Always interesting reads on pricing…you are what you charge? Your value as a pro is found in your pricing? You are what the market will bear? Don’t sell yourself short? You and your work are valuable.

  4. I don’t like the coupons though, because you make us the vendor pay our own retail price against your percentage cut – not fair if I’m the one footing the bill. You guys are profiting of something I’m not profiting off of.

    1. I have found the coupons a great way to increase sales while still maintaining a strong and confident brand. If coupons are marketed right, new and past customers feel lucky to be getting the coupons and feel they have a personal connection with the photographer.

  5. In a world of “fauxtographers” I’ve bumped my prices of sessions and goods 25% even though it felt like I was giving up a kidney!
    Doing the “free” shoot correctly is great advice! I did a “free” shoot for Miss Nebraska as a sponsoring promotion. That was 4 years ago, and they have come back every year with no discounts!

  6. Woody Allen doesn’t go to the Oscars. He isn’t a snob, he finds quantifying artistic expression futile. I LOVE people who like to use the word “faux tographer”, I love it EVEN more when I look at their stuff and ask…”So you are a professional photographer who’s work just sucks?” Whats the difference?

  7. Jeff Sinon :
    Charge even more. Oh man, I have a hard enough time pricing at the level I do. That’s confidence issue on my part. I’m having a hard time getting over the “I’m a nobody in the world of photography, I can’t charge that,” syndrome

    Ouch! I know what you mean, I live in a small town where no one thinks professional pictures need to be taken, they all have their little digital phones/cameras. I find it hard to raise prices too but by god I am going to!

  8. I’ve been generally following this solid advice for a couple of years now. Yet, I just lost a bar mitzvah job to someone (who I never heard of) whose price was less than half of mine. And he included an album and a photobooth. I don’t see how he’s making any money, as I barely do with my pricing. My guess is he’s new to this particular niche and figures he’ll give it away to get established. If this is just a one shot competitor who probably can’t deliver the goods, no biggie. But if he and other bottom pricers are proliferating, that pretty much kills the market here. My pitch, reputation and track record are highly regarded and I’m not backing down. Thoughts?

    1. From working in both the pro-lab, and professional photographer side of the industry for many years, I have seen that bar/bat Mitzvah photographers tend to have high and low periods. The community of Mitzvah parents will pass around a good photographer, and give them a lot of business for a time. Then a new guy comes along and dazzles them, sapping your market for a time. Eventually, though the pendulum will swing back, if your service remains consistent. I do not think pricing has much to do with it.

  9. Early in my career in a midsize Midwest market, I had a couple from the East coast not book their wedding with me, explaining that although they loved my work, they were not confident simply because my prices were too low! I doubled my prices the next season, and consequently doubled my bookings! So I know it works!
    Over the years, I have noticed that clients who want the cheapest service, are also the most demanding and difficult to work with. Anyone with me on that?
    When [you and] your clients have confidence in you, they will question your work far less than clients looking to squeeze something out of every last cent of investment. And since most clients do not know you on a personal level, your pricing is a large part of your first impression (and higher prices for the service a skilled artisan can be a very positive asset). Discerning clients will see confidence when they see higher pricing along side excellent photography.

  10. Here in my nick of the woods, a cup of coffee from Starbucks is $2.25 (Venti). When they first started selling Venti coffees years ago I think it was a more reasonable $1.50.
    My point here, is that I have a coffee maker, actually 3 means of making coffee at my studio: drip, french press and 1 cup at a time. I know I’m not the only one who owns a coffee maker and brews incredible cups of morning joe. So why do I need Starbucks or Peets (preferred favorite of the coffee moguls out there)?
    They are expensive.
    But they are still there, brewing coffee everyday and back opening stores new stores.

    So raise your hand if you know anyone who DOESNT own a digital camera. Right, I doubt anyone raised a hand at that.
    So why, if so many people have the ability to take incredible photos would they want to hire us and pay our rates?
    Because they don’t know how to do what we do, they don’t have the same “vision” we have. What we do is valuable. They don’t understand what it takes to just get a correct exposure (if they even understand that a correct exposure is something they even need to know about, lets not talk WB or shutter speeds or ISO).
    We, as professional photographers provide people with a commodity that, without considerable effort on their part to learn, they can’t get. Sometimes they do, most camera’s are permanently glued to the P or Auto mode. You can’t get predictability out of that kind of randomness.
    So charge them for what you do, charge what’s fair. Make an above decent profit off your work. You have bills, children, a car, a mortgage and a means to pay it, photography.
    Until they (fauxtographers) can prove themselves by doing what we professional’s do, your phone will ring and they will buy.

    So who’s up for Starbucks?

    BTW- Rob, underselling your work can and most often does lead to demanding and difficult clients to work with.

  11. Great article on pricing. The biggest thing our studio found when setting our prices was coming to the conclusion that we are not our clients. Meaning that our clients may be Mercedes shoppers but we are used Subaru shoppers. Just because you personally don’t think anyone in their right mind will pay what you ‘should’ charge for an 8×10 doesn’t mean there aren’t clients out there that will pay the $150 for an 8×10. The key to our pricing was telling the client ‘why’ we do what we do and not try to justify our prices all the time.

  12. How about using the word inexpensive instead of “cheap”. I market myself to the Inexpensive Alternative to the pricey photographer.& it’s slowly catching on. Though, this a great blog on how improve on some turn around. Even with the ketchup stained shirt.

  13. This is all true. You have to put the effort in, and charge for that effort. Don’t just increase your prices just because. Increase your prices because you offer value that someone else doesn’t.

    How much time do you spend running your business, planning your marketing to reach your clients, meeting with them, showing samples, upgrading software and equipment, repairs, travel, wear and tear and gas for your car, travel to and from location scouting, client tracking and bookkeeping, having an accountant, saving for retirement and paying for a home or studio, lab costs, editing time, working with them to select final prints and albums, etc. Oh yeah, and paying both the employee and employer taxes when you’re self-employed. To be honest, I probably spend 50% of my time on general business and marketing alone, and probably with everything else, 10% of my time behind a camera.

    You will always be undercut, always. Don’t compete on a level that will put your business under, show why you are worth it. This took me time to understand, and it is why so many photographers fail even in their 1st year. If you are charging $200 and handing over a CD, you are going to end up making, as stated, like $30 profit at most. How many families do you really think you are going to photograph in a year in order to survive? 1,000? Nope, not unless you want to be a factory. I’ve seen photographers lose their families over this. Remember, places like Walmart and such are ok losing money just to get people into their stores to buy other things!

    Once your run your business AS a business, it changes. Weekend warriors doing this in their free time will charge less since it’s not their main job. You can talk to your clients about how that is something you DON’T do, that you put everything behind this because it’s your life. I’m not lying to my clients. I say exactly what I mean to them, and I work with people I want to work with and show them why.

    As Mark said above, you are not your client. Find people who value you, and work with them. Spend your extra time with them and give them the best you absolutely can.

    Oh, as far as coupons vs lowering your price: it’s harder to convince people and current clients that your prices need to jump so much and you risk losing a lot of people. Also, when you lower your prices, people will assume they can talk you down even more. As Rob implied above, you are likely to get more “tire kickers” than clients who truly value what you do when you are lower in cost. I saw that with web design as well. Coupons are a nice way to help people out, but keep your value in the long run.

  14. With so much talk about pricing your work correctly, it sure would be nice if the Price List features of SmugMug Pro would be enhanced in several areas but primarily the ability to export Price List to a spreadsheet (or csv) and likewise, to import a spreadsheet (or csv) to create a new Price List.
    Life would be so much easier if this capability were added. Vote here to implement this feature:

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