4 Essential Pricing Strategies for Portrait Photographers

Whether you're just dipping your toe into the realm of professional photography or you're a seasoned pro, it's a good idea to step back every once in a while and [re]evaluate your pricing strategy. Business and market conditions can change very quickly, and your skill set as a photographer is likewise constantly evolving. In order to keep your business running optimally, you need to ensure that you're pricing yourself correctly for the range of products and services you're able to provide.

Now, before we get into the meat of the discussion, I need to make it clear right off the bat that the main purpose of this guide is NOT to throw actual figures at you and tell you exactly how much you should be charging your customers, because obviously those numbers will vary significantly from market to market. However, I can tell you with complete confidence that by the end of this guide you'll have a much better idea of how you should approach the issue of pricing yourself for maximum profit (and minimal headaches).

Sound good? Cool...let's get started.


pricing strategy #1 - charge by the shoot

This is the strategy that most photographers use when they're first starting out, because it's easy and straightforward for everyone involved. There are no surprises or hidden fees, which keeps the customer happy, and the photographer's bookkeeping work on the back end is kept to a minimum.

However, this pricing strategy's strength can also be considered its primary weakness. Oversimplification means that there is little flexibility when it comes to dealing with situations that don't go exactly as expected.

For example, what happens if a planned two-hour shoot stretches to four hours because of unforeseen circumstances such as inclement weather or a hard-to-please client? Will you be compensated for the extra time? If you've locked yourself into a flat rate with no provisions for such contingencies, then perhaps not.

Another common scenario involves the client wanting to purchase additional prints/negatives/etc beyond what was included in the package deal. If you don't have separate line items defined for these types of requests, then you may very well find yourself scrambling around at the last minute trying to figure out how much extra to tack on. Not ideal.

On the other hand, there are of course plenty of situations where a "by the shoot" approach makes perfect sense. For example, although I focus almost exclusively on commercial music photography, I also dabble in live concert photography as well. If a band approaches me about shooting their live show, and we know ahead of time that their set will last, say about an hour, then I've got a pretty good idea of how long I'll be expected to render services. I can simply adjust my rates accordingly.

By the way, in these types of situations (performances, shows, recitals, sporting events, etc), I recommend offering a flat rate and agreeing to deliver as many usable images as you can capture. Try to avoid making any promises with regard to the actual number of images you'll place into the client's hands, because oftentimes this type of photography is very hit or miss (mostly miss, lol). Just remember to assure your clients that the images they do receive will be of the highest possible quality, and then deliver on that promise.

So the best time(s) to use a by-the-shoot pricing strategy are situations where: (1) you're being hired to shoot by the hour, or over some other previously agreed-upon interval of time, (2) when you know exactly what you will be expected to deliver, and you're confident that you'll be able to do so with minimal risk, and (3) the number of intangibles and variables are absolutely minimal.

At the end of the day, you want to be absolutely sure that you're compensated for your time and effort (before, during, and after the shoot), so if there's a reasonable chance that you could come out on the losing end of things, then you might want to consider an alternate pricing strategy. Which brings us to...


pricing strategy #2 - itemized

Put simply, this approach is the best insurance you have against getting ripped off. Basically all of the time you agree to spend with a client (preparing, shooting, retouching, etc.) can be broken out into separate line items, right alongside any physical (or digital) goods you plan to deliver. Everything is spelled out in plain sight, so there should be absolutely no surprises.

Even better, many clients really appreciate this approach because it gives them infinitely greater insight into into your pricing methodologies, and helps them budget accordingly. They'll take comfort in the reassurance that they won't get hit with a barrage of hidden charges when they least expect it.

On the flip side, this approach can be a bit overwhelming for some. Present a client with too many options and their eyes will begin to glaze over, possibly causing them to turn away for good. Nobody wants things to be overcomplicated-- especially you, since the bookkeeping work with this approach is exponentially higher than the "package deal" methodology discussed above.

So when's the best time to use the itemized pricing strategy? Basically anytime you need more flexibility when it comes to placing a value on the goods and services you're delivering. I can tell you from personal experience that anytime I am commissioned to do a big commercial shoot or especially a destination shoot, I always present the client with an itemized list of charges, including intangibles. I do this because there are so many "moving parts" with these types of shoots that it's next to impossible to predict exactly how everything will turn out. Something almost always causes us to deviate from the original plan, which is okay because that's the nature of the beast, but this kind of variability still needs to be accounted for somehow.

Bottom line-- if you're a typical portrait shooter who specializes in families, babies, high school seniors, or pretty much any other genre of "people photography," this pricing strategy will probably be the best choice for you. That's not to say that you should break everything down into excruciating detail, but presenting your clients with an itemized price list will allow you maximum flexibility when it comes to satisfying their individual needs and/or budget.


pricing strategy #3 - charge by the image

Off the top of your head, how many photographers out there do you know of (including yourself) who can honestly say that their price list contains only one single item-- something along lines of "digital images - $$$ each"?

My guess would be not many. In fact, I have yet to meet another photographer who does this, because to be truthful, it's a very tricky (and risky) way to price yourself.

Basically the way it works is, you take all of the costs that you might ordinarily break out into separate line items, such as a session fee, retouching time, etc. and you combine them all into a single flat fee that's assessed for each completed image you'll place into your client's hands.

So if someone calls you up wanting to know how much you charge for a shoot, you basically have two ways to approach the question: (1) if you have a predetermined flat fee that you always charge, then in order to quote a price you'll need to find out roughly how many images the client wants, or (2) if your flat fee varies from shoot to shoot, then you'll need to determine exactly how much it's going to cost you to produce the image(s) the client has in mind. In either scenario, you'll quote a price, plan for the shoot, execute the shoot, and retouch the images before finally collecting your fee.

But wait-- wouldn't it be kinda easy to get screwed over using this pricing model? I mean, what happens if you go through all the above steps, and when it comes time for the client to pay, they decide that they either don't want the images or can't afford them? In other words, if you're not at least collecting a session fee or some sort of deposit, then the client could just walk away at any point in the process and leave you completely empty-handed. So the real question becomes, could this pricing model ever truly work in a real-world situation?

Well, I'm here to tell you from personal experience that it absolutely can work, provided that you go about it the right way. In fact, this is the pricing model I'm currently using for about 90% of my shoots. The trick is, you have to make sure to collect something up front for "insurance", and you have to charge enough per image to cover every minute of your time, plus a little extra (call it a "creative fee").

How do you arrive at the magic number? Well, one way is to look at the bottom line on all of your past invoices and divide those figures by the number of hours you spent with each client from start to finish. Or, if you don't necessarily have a long history to pull from, you could guesstimate based on a few typical jobs you've completed. Just think about what the average shoot entails, including your total time investment and the amount you end up netting when all is said and done. Remember, your number doesn't have to be set in stone...you can always adjust up or down as needed.

But why would you want to use this strategy? What are the primary benefits? Well, in my experience the most significant benefit of this approach has been the extraordinarily calming effect it has on my clients during the shoot, because they realize that nobody's going to be watching the clock (remember, we're not charging a session fee, so there are technically no time limits).

As a result, the overall vibe of my shoots is much more relaxed and comfortable, and everything ends up feeling more like a hangout session than a business engagement. Instead of spending the first half hour trying to help my clients deal with the pressure and performance anxiety associated with time limits and session fees (which is a challenge most other portrait photographers face), I find that we're able to get usable images much sooner.

But aside from the time savings, this approach pays dividends in other ways. For example, once we've successfully executed the specific shots we've planned for, then we can begin to stretch ourselves creatively and experiment a little bit. More often than not, we end up with something way cooler than we started out trying to create. Stuff that was totally off our radar. Outside-the-box kinda stuff.

However, despite the straightforwardness of this pricing methodology and the fact that it scales remarkably well, there are of course a few downsides worth pointing out. First and foremost, as mentioned previously it can be rather difficult and time-consuming to figure out exactly how much you should be charging for your images. You may very well end up losing some money until you arrive at the right price point, so be sure that you have some flexibility with your bottom line before trying it out.

Secondly, you might find that once you determine your ideal number and begin revealing it to potential clients, you could end up scaring some of them off due to "sticker shock". The thing is, almost everyone is accustomed to an itemized pricing for portrait photography, so you're really going to have to remind and reassure them that there will be absolutely no hidden fees or miscellaneous charges down the road. Re-emphasize the fact that everything's included in the cost of the images, and that they'll have maximum freedom and flexibility when it comes time to choose the shots they want to purchase. This should alleviate most of their concerns, assuming your salesmanship and delivery are both solid (keep practicing until they are).

Thirdly, you're going to need to figure out some way of insulating yourself from folks who may be tempted to walk away from the deal without purchasing anything (this can happen for a variety of reasons). The method I use is to require a deposit at the time of the shoot, equivalent to the cost of 2 or 3 images. I make sure to explain to my clients that the entire amount of the deposit will be applied to their eventual image order, so they're basically just pre-paying for the first few images. Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of a session fee, and although this isn't technically a fee, the idea of paying some amount of money at the time of the photo shoot is something that most folks are perfectly comfortable with.

Another thing to remember is that you don't want to spend too much time retouching any of the images beyond the pre-paid ones unless you're pretty darn sure they'll be purchased. The last thing you want is to spend several hours in post, only to be left holding the proverbial bag. What I typically do is ask for pre-payment on these images as well, which is never a problem because the client already has 2 or 3 examples of my work in their hands at that point, so they already have a good idea of what they're getting.


pricing strategy #4 - hybrid

If you find that none of the above approaches is absolutely perfect and will cover you in every given situation, you could always combine bits and pieces from different strategies and "roll your own." Even though I specialize in a fairly narrow niche, and the vast majority of my band & musician clients are looking for pretty much the same thing, I still find myself making exceptions here and there.

As stated above, the ultimate goal is to choose an approach that fully compensates you for your time, but is also simple and straightforward enough to minimize bookkeeping headaches and avoid scaring potential customers away. How to find that balance will ultimately be up to you to decide, but I hope this article has at least given you some food for thought.

With that said, I'd love to hear about the methods you're currently using in your own business, and which ones you've tried in the past. I did my best to be fairly general and all-encompassing with this guide, but I'm sure there are some tips, techniques, and strategies being used out there that are completely off my radar. So whichever case is true for you, please sound off in a comment below. Thanks!


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