Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Portrait Day Wednesday - What Do You Charge For The Portrait

Good Morning Everybody,
We wrapped day one of our West Coast leg of Digital WakeUp Call last night. Thanks to the 200+ enthusiastic photographers that came out for the program. My special thanks to those that made 2, 3, even 4 hour drive to be in attendance at the program. My thanks to several of our Canadian neighbors who also made the trip down and across the border to see the program. Your presence surely made it an international experience for everyone!

Last night I also got a chance to meet fellow blogger, Gavin Seim. Gavin runs which features several notable articles, interviews, and discussions on all things digital. Heck, I was even a guest a while back. He has a great post right now entitled, "19 Tips To Get 300 Client Inquires" - pretty good stuff. You can check Gavin's site out right here. It was certainly a hi-light to finally meet Gavin in person and to put a face with the name.

Gavin, Jag from Canada, Kanani, and I had a nice visit in the lounge afterward just talking all things photography. I'll tell you, I love Seattle, I love the salmon (missed it this time around), and I love the beautiful geography in this part of the great USA. We look forward to a return visit where we can have an opportunity to explore the area.

Hey, let's get on with today's post.

What Do You Charge For The Portrait
Wow! After the few the negative remarks about my "Clothing Conference" last week [link], I wonder if I should go on with the series. Just kidding - I was surprised by the remarks though. Some commenters liking the first image over the second blew my mind. The first image might have looked good at grandma's house as a 5x7 next to some snaps of the grand-kids, but it would not be my choice as a piece of photographic art to hang in my home. Maybe that's the difference - what's the final use of the image. Anyway, each to their own opinion.

The post today was originally slated to take on a different flavor, but somewhere along the way my brain took a detour. I got fired up about pricing, and ended up with what you get to read today. Maybe I should have posted this tomorrow for Business Day Thursday, but hey, we've got to hit the road for Portland shortly so I'm going to let the stand as is for today. Next week I'll get back to the specifics of shooting the portrait - sound good? Then off we go...

But, you know, it does raise a point about family portraits - what is the final use of the image going to be? I started this series based on the premise that the final portrait would be hung in a prominent location in the clients home. I suspect many readers have a different expectation of what the family portrait represents to their photography business.

This begs the question as to what one might charge for such a service. How much should you charge for the portrait session? How much should you charge for an 8x10? What should be a good sales average for a portrait sale? Answering these questions certainly makes some sense before we proceed with booking the client.

Hit the "Read More..." link below for the rest of the story.

So how much should you charge for a "sitting fee?" We charge anywhere from $0 when I donate to charity auctions in which I support the good cause of the event. Sure, the "sitting fee" is paid but the proceeds go to the fundraising event and we get the promotional value out of our gesture. As a result of our participation we, by the way, usually pick up a good client too.

Typically our session fee is $250. That includes my time and talent, my assistant's time, planning for the portrait with the client, and follow up discussion on how to best display the family's full enjoyment of the portraits.

Photographers prices can range all over the place for the portrait photography service. Some photographers opt for a minimum order of as an example $500 and waive the session fee in lieu of the client agreeing to the minimum amount. The bottom line is this folks, if it's not profitable, don't waste your time.

What do I mean by that remark? Follow my thinking. I recently saw a photographer at one of our local parks photographing two young children ages around 4 and 5. The photographer was using a wide angle lens that certainly did little to enhance the portrait - we've talked about why I use a long lens on all my portrait shoots [link]. He was also using a flash diffuser on his on-camera flash - no directional light - hence no beauty in the lighting in my opinion.

I'm guessing his sitting fee was quite small. Notice, I didn't say reasonable here. Why? Because reasonable implies value for price and from where I was standing, there was not much value going into the "portrait" I was watching the photographer make for his client. Granted I didn't have benefit of viewing the final results, so I can't be absolutely sure of the photographers final presentation to his client.

OK, don't start the nasty-grams yet - still here me out. So many photographers are charging little for their services in many instances because that is what their services are worth. The print prices for the client, I suspect would be quite small too. I know of a photographer who was charging $10-$12 for his 8x10's - for real!

So now let's beg another question. How much do you need to net to support yourself working on a full time basis in this profession? What's a comfortable amount for you? Let pick an annual income of say $50,000. Now let's do the math; sitting fee - $50, total sales from portrait session - $150. That's a grand total of $200 for all the photographer's time and effort. I would have to shoot 250 sessions a year to gross $50,000. After expenses, taxes, FICA contributions, etc. I get to keep about $23,000 - about the the poverty level for America and for a family of four! It doesn't work.

Now consider your time to book the session, shooting time, post production and delivery and you end up making about $18/hour - not worth it in my book. It comes down to this - you need to present a great product at a fair price for your time and talent and only then can you expect to make a decent profit and be successful in this profession.

At those unreasonably low prices, you might be staying busy but staying busy is easily confused with being successful. I know photographers that charge from $50 to $500 for a session fee, $50 to $300 for an 8x10, and up to $3000 for a 40 inch wall portrait.

DAZNOTE: I personally wouldn't spend $3000 on a portrait if that portrait didn't compliment the colors, tonality, and mood of the space in which I planned to display it.

Where is your comfort zone? The entire discussion demands that we rethink what we want our gross sales to be, what we need to do to hit that number, and finally consider how many dollars are left for us to put in our back pocket.

I learned in the second grade a little saying by J. Hawkes that sticks with me even today, "Aim at the sun and you may not reach it; but your arrow will fly far higher than if you aimed at an object on a level with yourself."

Food for thought--

Hey everybody, I've got to get moving -we leave for Portland shortly. See everybody tonight in the beautiful Beaver state. See ya' then, -David


  1. Dave,

    I appreciate your lesson today. I just revamped my whole wedding packages due to not making enough money for the time and talent I offer. I started out on the low end of the pricing spectrum, to get some business and learn what I needed to do. I was lucky because I have a day job and was able to go cheap until I figured it all out. Now that I have a couple of years experience and several weddings under my belt it is time to go to the next level. At any rate this just confirmed that I am doing the right thing. Thanks


  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for the post. It's right-on in my opinion. It seems that so many photogs seem to be giving away so much these days.

    Perhaps it's the new nature of the game with so many people have a new digital SLR. But I'm not sure that's it, either. When I was starting out in photography about 11 years ago (not professionally, just as a hobbyist) I knew several people who went out and purchased a lower-end SLR and couple of lenses and were suddenly in business!
    I think there really needs to be a change in the thinking of photographers who are charging for their service. We need to have a solid understanding of business principles as well as photographic concepts. If you want to charge less, that's fine. Maybe you'll focus more on volume than great quality. That's a valid business model just like the low-volume, high quality shops around. But, for heaven's sake, don't charge $50 or less for a sitting fee and $5 or $10 for an 8x10! If you need to boost your portfolio, do free sessions (not necessarily free prints) and let the 'client' know up front what you're doing. Charging very little to nothing is not helping the pro photographic community one bit. And you'll garner good will from those you 'help' with free sessions. When the time comes for you to charge for your services you'll have good reason to not 'give away' your services for a loss, or close to it. You'll have worked your rear end off to get there and you'll know that you're worth more than $3-8/hour for your time!

    I think if people would think of things in terms of "how much would I need to charge if I were doing this full time" instead of "this is good for some extra pizza money". One of the best pieces of advise I ever came across was from a full-time photographer I once sold a lens to. He gave me a real talking-to about what I charge and why. It was probably the single best conversation I'd had with another photographer to that point. You know what one of his major points was? "If you can't charge much for your services, increase your value!" Then charge more for your services.

    I have a lot more to say, but this isn't my blog and I've already droned on for quite a while.

    Keep up the great work, David!

  3. David is was so neat meeting you. You had a great workshop too. I'll be sure to spread the word.

    Thanks for the plug and recognizing the show at the workshop. It was really nice of you.

    Take care in Portland and keep up the good work... Gav

  4. How much do you need to net to support yourself working on a full time basis in this profession [of photography]?It sounds like you are suggesting that people who charge little or nothing for a sitting fee don't deserve to be photographers or even have a chance at it. I would be most interested to hear how you got into the profession as well as what year that was. It's a safe assumption that not only was professional-grade gear more expensive then than it is now (adjusted for inflation), but the savvy required to operate it so that the results were presentable was sufficiently high to allow someone with the skill set to make a full-time living from it. You also had the additional barrier-to-entry that each job was going to cost you hundreds in incremental costs due to film acquisition and developing. This impediment alone kept a lot of your would-be competitors from even trying to compete.

    Fast forward to today: a $500 digital camera with a $500 lens gives you quality far superior to 35mm cameras of old, and pretty darned close to medium format film. Additionally, there is no incremental cost to shooting: digital imaging technology allows budding enthusiasts to experiment for zero additional cost. With the initial barrier of entry so much lower, and the incremental costs of shooting gone entirely, there are hordes of folks who are willing to foray into low-paid photography to see how things work out -- all while holding down a "regular" day job. Is that really such a bad or threatening thing?

    Let's turn the tables for a moment: as a professional computer programmer, I could make counter-jabs at hobbyist code hackers as well as bloggers using free blogging services. Regardless of your interest in doing so, would you have had the ability to put together anything resembling your current blog ten years ago? I seriously doubt it! Additionally, the newer tools for making computer programs and websites have made the task so easy that legions of people (teenagers especially) have the ability to "encroach on my turf." My choices are that I can whine about it or I can further refine my skills such that I can still demand a high salary because my domain knowledge and experience clearly separates me from the script kiddies and newly minted "programmers" whose only experience is an eight week night-course on Java or PHP.

    But your post today isn't about encouraging full-time photographers to develop and market themselves in order to separate themselves from the photographic riff-raff: you instead decide to take it out on the enthusiastic amateurs. I'm proud to admit that I charge nothing to shoot portraits for friends, family, and co-workers. I tell them that the quality of my work might be in line with my fee... but it might just be something that they will want to hang prominently in their wall and about which their guests will rave. If that is offensive to you or any other "working pro" photographer, I don't care. I have just as much right to shoot a portrait session for $0 or a wedding for $250 as you do to charge $500 and $25,000 respectively.

    I'm disappointed with this cynical side of you, Mr. Ziser: I thought you were above hating on the eager (and part-time) digital new-comers to photography. I guess I was wrong.

  5. Pro Roller 2: not to change the subject but--um--for any who may be interested in a Pro Roller 2 I saw one listed at B&H's used department for $179. Its condition was rated at 10, so I made the purchase. Upon receipt, I found that it was in the original Lowepro packaging, sealed and untouched. Perhaps they are unloading new ones since this series is now discontinued. B&H still shows that they have stock on this roller. Regards, Brian F.

  6. Hi David, I’m Back, I really, really, really like your blog and stirring up the conversation. I think some of the newer photographers get there feeling hurt to easily. This is a conversation about what you think. They can get their own blog if they want, who would read it? It’s not a war. Just because you think one way or the other it’s about exploring our art. Consider this, small to some, but big to me, the responsibility we all have to the Care and Feeding of the Goose that lays the golden eggs. My Goose is the profession of photography. How’s your goose these days? Is it healthy and laying golden eggs, or is it a little under the weather due to digital revolution. The illusion that you can be a photographer if you have the equipment weather now or 30 years ago is the same. Are you a Lexis or a Hugo? This is not about cynicism its reality. What are you? And where do you want to be? This is still America the land of the free and over taxed. On Price. I really enjoy the Harry Beckwith books on Marketing, 1st Book is Selling the Invisible, 2nd Book is The Invisible Touch and the 3rd is “What Customers Love”. In his 2nd book the 4 keys to Marketing the #1 Key is “PRICE” price alone will set you apart or group you. I just ordered his 4th book “Selling You Self”. I have always wondered what other photographers charge and what there markets are like and what they do to market there business. So why are we so afraid of what we charge? Mine is simple Studio session $100 out doors $300 beach $ 500 with a min order in the studio of $500 and out doors $1000 and the beach $1500 and my 8x10’ start at $200 but last year we did 400+ portraits. You can charge what ever you want but how much are you doing. Are you a success or are you hurting the Goose. In my area the contract photographers have destroyed the senior portrait business and its one of the lowest sales averages in the country for one of the largest cities in the country. So when some may say they can identify this or that, it’s the reality of what they are doing and probably what they are charging. Yes it’s also personal, it my profession. Work Is Personal. Is part of the caring for the goose? Every dentist in the United States can see what every other dentist charges. They are controlled by the Insurance Company’s as to what they can charge in different areas of the country. You can charge more but this is what insurance company will pay you per area. Oh By the way I heard dentist have the highest per capita income of all professionals. Money is not important if you’re poor or rich, but money is important if you’re poor or rich. I just could not resist.

  7. Thank you for this post! After reading this I think I need some honest opinions on my pictures and pricing. Currently I have been photographing for 12 years, but just started as a home business in Sept. 08. I am charging $10.00 for a session fee with online viewing of the photos taken. (all protected where they can’t be copied) Then my 8x10 is only $10.50.
    Ok my question and please feel free to go to my site or my blog to check out my work and help me with my pricing. I do want to open a store front within the next year. I don’t want to cheat myself or my client.
    Thanks in advance to any who help me!

  8. Dear Parvenue74,
    Glad you asked - my 1st camera was a Yashica A. I picked it up at a pawn shop for $25. I just saw them on-line for $50. I found a Stroboflash strobe for $10 on a clearance table at a local camera store.

    This was my gear for the first few years I was in business. My prices started at $119 for 12 8x10's in an album and I gave the proofs to the client in a smaller album. Success was not following me very closely.

    I showed up at my first professional photographers meeting - the Tri-State PPA in 1979. A big boisterous photographer pointed his finger in my chest and gave me the best advice ever got, "You know kid, you do a cheap wedding they'll recommend their cheap friends. You do an expensive wedding, they'll recommend their rich friends." It's advice I'll never forget.

    A week long seminar with Monte Zucker in 1979 finally got me on the right path to pricing. I drove Chuck Lewis, a renowned portrait photographer, to the airport after one of our state conventions. He looked at one of my albums and told me it was a $2000 album - in 1982. I had just sold it for a whopping $700. I set a goal to shoot 50 weddings at $2000 within the next 5 years. We did 72 $2600 weddings in 1986. Good thing I listening to my advisers along the way.

    And, yes, I'll still shoot complimentary photographs for family, friends, and charities all the time. -David

  9. David,

    How do you know the photographer you saw in the park was a pro? If you visit the right park in San Jose at the right time, you may see me photographing my own daughter or one of her friends with my 5D Mark II & a 70-200/2.8 IS lens, for fun, as a hobby. Perhaps he was the kids' father, or uncle, or a family friend?

  10. I don't know exactly which side I agree with since I see good points on both sides. But there are a lot of markets out there and I live in a rural area where I'm not even sure I can carve out a niche for high end photography. There are a lot of low to moderate income folks who just want 'decent' photographs which they will undoubtably display in a prominant area of their home, but those homes won't have more than 3 bedrooms. Thier budget for a family portrait is in the 'small' category fee you mentioned. They probably don't have the wall space for anything bigger than an 11x14. I understand it may not be worth my time to photgraph these folks but you gotta start somewhere. I don't yet photograph with an assistant but feel passionate about creating great images and hope to work my way there as you undoubtably did when you first started. I appreciate the advice to not sell myself short and agree that when you shoot worthy photographs you will get your asking price whatever it might be. I have witnessed some lazy photographers in my area and realize that even among the low and moderate income clients, they will be willing to pay for quality. Thanks for the encouragment with your blog. I'm an avid reader.

  11. Thank you David, you hit an important point. Too many of us under value our work, or perhaps not? I suspect that there are many photographers who are uncomfortably close to this. As a newcomer I do not have the proven track record needed to command the prices of the top photographers in my area. However, if I cannot set at least a fair price, then am I being unfair to myself or am I being honest about the quality of my work? To my way of thinking, if I am being honest and my work is sub-par, then I must either rise to the call or get out, because to produce less than consistently excellent work is a disservice to my clients and the profession. If I am being unfair to myself, then it is time to raise my prices.

  12. Wow David you really love to stir it up :) I've a quick question off topic, is there any chance you will be bringing your DWC tour across the pond towards Ireland?

  13. What if we took David's point as food for thought if we are full-time or part-time photographers for hire and if we are enthusiasts who are not charging fees then we simply let it ride?

  14. This is advice on the BUSINESS of photography. If you want to support yourself with your passion for photography you have to charge money for your services. Some will say no others will say yes and will probably turn into more business.

    David is not saying there is anything wrong with shooting for friends and family etc.. but he is advising us on how to make a living on photography. If you work a "day" job that's fine, but many of us, especially me, are working towards using photography to support ourselves full time.

    I live in NYC and let me tell you there are wedding photographers who charge $100 - $50,000. I'm not kidding. But you get what you pay for in this world. How much work is someone going to do for their client for $100? What type of final image is the client going to get? If this is my living I'm not going to spend more that one MAYBE two hours on the job because the job has to be profitable. I would rather shoot one wedding for 10k than shoot 10 weddings for 1k each. The client then paid for the time for my talent to work on their photos and make sure they get top notch work.

    Think of it this way, Apple Computer doesn't sell $200 - $500 computers because they know at that price point a computer is not real quality. So in return they have about 8% market share by selling higher end higher priced computers valued at their price points. They have BILLIONS of dollars in the bank. The same goes for BMW or Jaguar. There are reasons why you can't buy those cars for 15k. And in my opinion this is what David is showing us, how to give a quality product at a valued price to grow your business.

    My advice to everyone reading this blog is to really learn from what David is saying.

    Thank you David.

    ~ Jarrod G.

  15. @Parvenue74: I think you are totally missing the point. This isn't a John Harrington rant against people who shoot for free. The message is that if you call yourself a business then act like one, and that includes charging enough. It doesn't matter if you do this full time or part time, businesses exist to make money. If you don't need to make money, it's a hobby.

    I've shot lots of "free" sessions for family or friends, or done TFP sessions with models. Everyone does at some point and as long as you get something out of it (experience, happiness, whatever) that's fine. But if it's a paying assignment, it should be evaluated to determine if it's enough to cover expenses, time away from family, etc and leave some income to show for it. If it isn't profitable, and you shoot it anyway, you've lost money. Businesses that lose money don't stay in business very long.

    "The bottom line is this folks, if it's not profitable, don't waste your time." That about sums it all up.

  16. I think there is a new element here. Many new immigrants from Asian countries e.g. India and China are used to making decisions strictly based on price. In thoss countries e.g. on the streets of Bombay, everyone knows and expects extremely poor quiality of any item or service they buy. So the best value i.e. what you get for what you pay is always the lowest price. Even after they settle down in the US for many years, old habits die hard.
    Some of these immigrants with no other opportunities for jobs, buy a camera and start charging free to low rates. They capture the ethnic market becasue of the low price and the closeness to the customer due to common language and culture. There is never any thought or dicussion of "quality of work or service."
    I have lost business becasue spomeone else charged a few dollars less. They ask if I will match someone else's price. And I reply "yes, I can if they can match my quality and service". I normally do not hear from them again.
    I really liked the comment "cheap clients will reccomend you to other cheap clients".

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