Seems like every artist in the beginning stages of their career comes across the daunting task and begins the inner battle of deciding what they're worth and what to charge for their creative services.
It's true, vision and creativity is a difficult thing to place a price tag on. How does one even begin to place a dollar figure on something that doesn't even exist yet, with little to no experience behind you to prove you can create it? How can you perform with the weight of money and expected performance on your shoulders? How do you charge friends for something they think should be free? How do you ask money from another starving artist?
It's easy. You just do it. And it doesn't have to be as scary, or as difficult as you think it will be. It also doesn't have to ruin any relationships you've already spent time and effort building.
Why you need to charge money for your photography services.
Ninety percent of small businesses fail within the first two years. With few exceptions, working for free is the fastest way for freelance photographers to become part of this 90 percent. Photographers like any other business owners need income to survive, and the industry itself as a whole relies on it's own community to stay alive. If all photographers stopped charging money, the community and support system we rely on to find work would collapse. Its a (sad) fact of life that money makes the world go round and the business of photography is no exception.
Charging a fee for your photography establishes value and respect. These are extremely important characteristics of any successful business venture. You can't get caught up worrying about other people's financial situations. Helping out a 'starving artist' for free because you want to be nice isn't accomplishing anything, because guess what? Technically as an amateur photographer you are too! Let's shed some light on this topic in another way. Let's pretend said starving artist waves down a cab and askes the cab to drive him home - 20 blocks away. The guy sits in the car and says Hey driver, listen times are tight and I really need to get home in a hurry. Except I have no money to offer you. What do you think the cabbie is gunna say? Guess what pal, can't help you. Times are tight for everyone - take a hike.
(See 12 Excuses For Shooting for FREE - And Why They're Bogus)
More importantly, imagine 5 years from now when a client you shot free pictures for actually has a budget, let's say $2,500 for a large project requiring two days of shooting - who are they gunna call up? The photographer they used back in the day that gave up his time and talent for free? Or are they going to ask around or go online in search of new professional photographers to work with that cost roughly $2,500? 9 times out of 10, it's the latter. Who would you rather be? The guy who gets the call for free shoots ("networking opportunities") at the local rock club on 90's playback night, or the guy that gets a call once a month from a marketing agency when they can afford you and your rate - let's say, a rate of hundreds or thousands of dollars? I think I know the answer.
Truth is, we've all been there. The excuses for shooting free work are endless. The most common being that its to build a better or more diverse portfolio. But in your initial stages as a photographer you can shoot nature, the city you live in, small concerts, friends and family for free as much as you want to build your portfolio. It's important you understand that when a stranger comes knocking at your door for photography - that is your cue to start building a name and brand for yourself in the industry beyond your comfort zone by charging a fee. It's not your cue to initiate the same freebie/portfolio conversation you've been having with friends and family.
How (much?) to charge for your photography services.
When I was just 16 years old I got to say I was a professional photographer. Why? I shot my first wedding and charged the bride and groom $300. Such a low price that most pros would laugh, but it was something at least. Some people would ask, though, how could I charge anything when I was still so young? The answer is: I had spent countless months building my skill set shooting nature, architecture and portraits for close friends and a family, plus I shot a family wedding and all things considered I was feeling good and prepared to charge for my work. I was confident in my talent and ready to take on something new and outside of my bubble, and I wasn't about to do it for free.
The question then became, what do I charge? I did some research on other, much more experienced photographers in my area and found that they were charging roughly $1,500 and up for weddings. Great! I knew that if I was significantly below $1,000 any bride and groom would be silly not to sign on the dotted line. Plus, I had nothing to prove - they had already inquired with me for the work - which means they like my website of nature and portraits and believe in my ability to translate that same vision into wedding photography. I didn't need to sell them on me, I needed to sell them on the price. This would become the single most important business skill I ever learned. How to price myself.
There is no one-price-fits-all formula in photography, because pricing almost always depends on the client and requirements of each shoot. But here's some advice to get you started and help you get it right.
- Get pricing from other photographers in your area. Ask friends of friends who work in the industry for their rates or pricing advice. If you are brand new to the scene, place your price safely below what the veterans are charging. The safe number is probably somewhere around 30% less. Yah, that might still sound like a lot. Guess what? Photography is a specialized, often expensive service that people pay for every day. Get used to it and stop feeling guilty about it.
- Ask the client what their budget is. This is the best thing you can do actually and is my favorite way to go about setting a price. You will avoid charging too much and scaring someone away, you'll also avoid charging too little and selling yourself short. Everyone is happy. If their budget is too low for you, you can try to coach the client into a happy medium between what you had in mind and what they can afford - usually people can afford a bit more than they initially admit, you just have to explain exactly what your service includes to make it worth their while.
- Aim to at least cover your expenses. If you can go shoot some pictures and just have enough money to cover your time, travel and a meal that's not so bad when you're just emerging as a photographer. That is ideal and should be your goal. $50 is probably enough gas or train ticket money to get you pretty much anywhere in Ontario and maybe get some McD's along the way. That's a Win/Win scenario: you didn't lose money doing the job, the client who couldn't afford much ended up getting an awesome deal on great photos and you just started a great working relationship.
Being a photographer is definitely no walk in the park. It takes a lot of hard work, time and effort to get anything remotely like a consistent income flowing your way. It also takes a lot of time, many years in fact, to learn every facet of the business and get comfortable in your own skin - especially when it comes to charging people for your time and creativity. Even if you're the most talented photographer it's possible you'll struggle to make a living - especially at the start. But one thing is for certain - shooting for free won't help you change that fact. Start charging people, even if it's only enough to cover your gas or train ticket, clients don't need to know the why behind your price. Just charge them something so that if nothing else you can start to compensate for your expenses, and one day you'll see yourself staying in the black. What's more is you've helped keep all the photographers around you in business as well, by helping maintain the idea that photography is a service worth paying for and just because every grandma and their fat cat owns a camera doesn't mean everyone can take a good photo.
Ultimately one day making a wonderful living doing what you love will be the fruits of these labors. Just hang in there. And believe in yourself.
Thanks for reading and good luck!