Setting the Price: How to Charge for Photography Services
by Jack Crager
February 13, 2014 —
What’s the best method for pricing and packaging your photography products and
services? Three photographers share strategies that bring the cash.
Beth Forester’s Successful Photo-Business Model
Last summer, photographer Beth Forester was coming off the road and needed an influx of cash. “I’d been in Europe for two weeks, and then I came back and went to Vegas to speak, and that was three weeks where I wasn’t shooting,” she recalls. “And I thought, I have got to really get some money coming through my door! So I decided we would do a summer special on my farm.”
In her regular practice—specializing in high-school portraits in Madison, West Virginia—Forester offers three-hour photo sessions and customized, high-end service with a price structure to match. But for this special, she slashed her rates and cut the frills. “You play by my rules: You show up at the farm, the pictures are not going to be retouched or cropped, and it’s 40 percent off our regular prices,” says Forester.
“And you only have this four-day window to get the deal. I’m trying to push a certain amount of money into my studio in a short amount of time. Orders have to be placed by this date, and all this has to happen in basically a week’s time. And it worked! I filled up all the appointments—12 of them—and I was able to put $15,000 right through my door in a week.”
She calls this targeted marketing. “You have to have a goal,” she says. “And your price list is a tool for you to achieve that goal.”
Building a Price Structure
Forester describes her philosophy as a sliding scale of time versus money. “If I spend three hours with a high-school senior, [or] a baby comes in and I spend 45 minutes, I’ve basically got different goals for my pricing structure,” she says. “For my senior, I want my average to be $2,000, but for a 45-minute appointment, I want my average to be $300. I’m looking at how much am I going to make every hour. That’s for my time—and people forget about their time.”
Indeed, Forester adds, she’ll be investing more time on the back end. “I may spend three hours for the shoot, and then I’ve got the computer work and fulfillment, which is maybe ten hours by the time it’s all done—all the post-processing and taking care of the order and everything.”
From the Ground Up
“I have about four pricing menus,” she continues. “Senior, Portrait (includes babies, children and families), Weddings and Volume Events (like our annual Christmas Special where I do over $20,000 in sales in three days).”
Her varying menus, she says, are reflective of her clients’ desires and the time she intends to spend on each session.
Before Forester made a deliberate switch to portraiture a few years ago, she was a successful wedding photographer. But instead of giving it up entirely (“they’re a lot of work,” she says), “I said I’ll create this ludicrous price list. So I made up this $8,000 starting price point, and I basically still sell it. I shoot a few weddings each year. Again, I had a goal: I wanted lower volume on that part of my business.”
She emphasizes the need for a sound business strategy. “I’ve seen plenty of people who make a lot of money, and I don’t think their photography is all that great—but they are really business savvy. And that’s the key,” she notes. “I’ve seen really good photographers fail, because they have poor pricing structures and poor business practices.”
It’s important, she stresses, to do things right. “Word-of-mouth is your best marketing,” Forester says. “How you treat your clients, how your finished product looks. Marketing and sales go hand-in-hand. Almost every client I get has a friend, or their mom’s friend or somebody, and they saw their senior portrait and recognized the quality. And as a marketing tool, I might create a small accordion album and give it to a client so they can go around and share it with people.”
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
What about creative types who are bad with numbers? “I think with a lot of photographers, that’s not something innate—the numbers part—so they don’t even want to think about it,” she says. “But here’s what I tell people: we all like to count money. You are a numbers person—you just don’t know it—if you like to count money.”
CASE STUDY #1
Beth Forester’s portrait studio is located in Madison, West Virginia, where median incomes are well below the national average. “West Virginia has been in a recession since, like, the 1940s or ‘50s,” Forester says half-jokingly. “So I’ve always had to work within that. But I’ve also found certain markets where people were willing to pay higher prices.”
For her high-school senior portraits, Forester regularly offers a series of six different packages that vary according to the number of poses and prints in different sizes.
“The Level One package costs $615. It includes two poses, two 8x10 prints, four 5x7s, 48 personalized wallet prints and 15 originals,” she says. “On the other end is the ‘I Want It All Package,’ for $2,995. This includes 30 poses, a 24x30 wall portrait, a 24x24 composite, a 5x20 senior slim-line, three mini-accordion albums, ten 8x10 prints, 14 5x7s, 168 double-sized wallet prints, 100 411 cards, a 20-page senior storybook, all the originals with album, and a DVD slideshow, an iTunes podcast and a webPix collection of the entire session.”
Her most popular option is a happy medium: her “Level Four” Package for $1,895. “This includes 15 poses, a 16x20 wall portrait, a 20x24 composite, five 8x10 prints, 10 5x7s, 112 double-sided wallet prints, all originals with album, and the DVD slideshow, iTunes podcast and webPix collection of the session.”
The entire package system, Forester explains, is based on marketing principles. “Know your profit margin for each package,” she says. “Packages offer ways to make an easier workflow, to direct your clients, to set a standard and to offer incremental incentives to purchase more. Also, if you specify your packages, people assume that other customers must be buying it.”
Forester adds that a la carte services have their place: “They lay the foundation, and they offer a way for people to add on to their package.” Her typical a la carte prices for 8x10 prints, for instance, range from $95 for an 8x10 (without package) to $45 (with package). She sells batches of 48 wallet prints for $110 (with package) to $55 (without package). And she offers Storybook Albums for $695 (15 images, ten pages) or $945 (20 to 25 images, 20 pages).
“The idea is to set up a system that directs your customers,” she says. “To do this you have to clarify your own place: Are you going to be high-volume, low-volume, or in between? This choice will determine your pricing structure.”
CASE STUDY #2
Call Sarah Gormley a romantic: she says her wedding photography practice is based on the ways of true love.
© Sarah Gormley
“When I started my business, I thought about the people I wanted to work with and the most effective way of reaching them,” says Gormley, who incorporated her Washington, D.C.–based operation in early 2013. “I wanted my niche to be people who prioritized love above anything else on their wedding day—love of their fiancé, love of their family, love of their closest friends. Then I started to make some deliberate choices in order to try to attract those kinds of people.”
Gormley set up a simple, transparent pricing structure. “When I’m spending time with a couple before their wedding day, I want the logistics conversation to be as quick and easy as possible so that we can move on to actually getting to know each other,” she says. “It’s critical to invest time in that relationship in order to help couples let their guard down and reveal themselves to the camera in honest, candid moments.”
Her rates are based on two packages: Home and Destination. “Home is up to ten hours of coverage for $3,000 anywhere within a three-hour drive of where I’m based,” Gormley says. “Destination is full-day coverage anywhere in the world and includes travel and one night’s accommodation. Additional hours can be added for $300 per hour (my portrait rate) and an associate photographer is $400 for up to ten hours.”
Editing and post-production work are included in Gormley’s flat rates. “All of my photos are toned with my custom film filters and retouched,” she says. “I outsource all of my printing to a proofing site, Digiproofs.com. The only add-ons that I offer are albums which are designed by me and printed by Renaissancealbums.com.”
Gormley set on her price structure after targeting her market. “The most difficult part is striking a balance between a rate that is affordable for my niche while also sustainable for me as a business owner,” she notes. “Setting a price too high runs the risk of alienating the more artistic, creative clientele that I’m looking for. Setting a price too low not only makes it difficult to sustain a business, but also attracts couples who don’t recognize the true value of professional photography.”
She adds that her flat rate “also means that the photos have to be worthy of the price I charge. That’s a challenge—and it’s inspiring.”
CASE STUDY #3
Andy Marcus is president of Fred Marcus Photography, one of New York City’s premier wedding photography studios. Founded in 1941 by Andy’s father, the studio has become a favorite service provider to the city’s elite.
“Our clientele has evolved to the top tier of New York society,” says Marcus, who has been shooting weddings for over 40 years. “We have, at last count, more than 28 of the Forbes 400 richest people in the world as clients.” Over the years the studio has photographed the weddings of Eddie Murphy, Donald Trump, Kelsey
Grammer, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan and many more. Son Brian shoots more than 50 weddings a year under the studio name, and wedding album packages start at $7,500 but go to twice that amount if Andy or Brian are the main photographers. “Brian and I charge a premium because we are the most requested and have no problem getting more for our services. We charge less for my senior photographers.”
But Marcus does spell out fees in advance to clients. “I explain that if they like what they see, they will be spending a lot of money with us.”
On site, the fees are based on manpower. “Depending on the size of a wedding, we add on additional photographers,” Marcus explains. “As a rule, for up to 225 guests we need one crew (a photographer and assistant); for 225 to 400 guests, two crews; for 400 to 800 guests, three crews; etc.” The studio charges extra for travel time and expenses. “All we as photographers have to sell is our talent and our time. The hours of editing, enhancing, color correction, retouching and album design are what cost the most.”
Typically, the end result is a high-end wedding album. “All our arrangements include leather-bound albums for the bride and groom and a set of printed proofs for clients to make selections from,” says Marcus. “We use Leather Craftsmen as our binder of choice but have a couple of less expensive alternatives that parents or grandparents can choose from. We charge one fee for a set number of prints in an album and then a per-print price for what they order after that.”
Digital files are not included. “We do not give away disks of images,” he says. “We remain in full control of the image’s look as far as cropping, color correction and enhancement are concerned.”
During consultation, clients are made aware of the bottom line. “There are many studios that charge for everything separately: labor, proofs, prints, binding, and—‘oh, you want retouching?’—another charge. That would annoy me and I know it would annoy my customers. Our prices are all-inclusive,” says Marcus. “And truth be told, consistent quality and great customer service are the reasons people keep coming back to us year after year.”
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