Choosing your rates is one of the hardest challenges for any photographer, professional or enthusiast. But wrong prices can be corrected. The challenge isn’t just to choose the right amount though; it’s to pick the right moment to make the change.
The worst time to demand more money is also the most tempting. As photographers build up experience they also build their confidence. The danger comes when that confidence spills over into a form of arrogance. They become aware that their pictures are beautiful, impressive, moving and technically correct but they’re not aware just how many other photographers are equally capable of creating images that beautiful, impressive, moving and technically correct. Believing that they’re in the top one percent of photographic talent, some photographers believe that their prices should be in the top one percent too.
“I find some photographers start to get an attitude about themselves and quote very high-end prices,” says Teri Bloom, a professional photographer in New York. “Very often, their pricing is more about their ego than about the quality of their work.”
While having the confidence to charge for work is essential, the moment when you start to feel that you’re better than almost every other photographer isn’t a good time to raise your prices. It’s a good time to buy a photography book and remember what other talented photographers can produce.
Let Your Competitors Take the Risk
Similarly the sight of a competitor adding some figures to his rate page isn’t a reason to adjust your prices upwards either — at least not immediately. Other photographers have no greater feel for what the market will bear than you do. They’re also no less prone to wishful thinking. If they’re right about market rates, then they’ll stay in business and will have earned a little more money than you for the few months it takes to test the new pricing. If they’re wrong though, they’ll lose jobs and see their income fall until they decide to adjust their prices down again.
When you see competitors changing rates then, rather than jump right in behind them, watch to see what happens. Let the competitor take the risk and only follow suit if you see that they’re keeping the prices at the new higher level. That’s a sign that the market has shifted. The price it will have cost you to discover that new level is the difference between your old prices and your new fees during the time you waited.
So if you shouldn’t raise your prices immediately after you find that you’re shooting consistently beautiful images or even the moment your competitors increase their fees, when is the best time to ask for more cash?
There are at least a couple of clear signs that your prices are too low. The first — and the most serious — is when you’re not meeting your expenses. It’s not unusual for part-time photographers to accept an offer from a buyer for a picture that they shot for fun, only later to calculate the true cost of the production and realize the buyer didn’t actually pay anything for the talent and creativity. The fee barely covered the costs of printing, framing and shipping, let alone travel to the location, time in post-production or buying the equipment used to create the picture.
When you realize that you’re shooting for nothing, that’s always a good time to put up your prices.
Losing Photography Clients? Charge More.
Oddly though, losing customers can also be a sign that you’re not charging enough. While charging too much will price you out of the market, charging too little suggests a lack of experience and knowledge. You might want to charge less than competitors in order to buy your first clients, but buyers who are willing to pay the market rate will believe a low price will deliver a budget service. Photographers who have pitched low prices in the hope of making their first moves into professional photography as quick as possible have found that their rates slowed their progress by scaring off buyers.
Another good time to consider raising your prices then is when you see that a client who rejected you has hired a competitor with higher fees. Compare your images to see if those clients are receiving more creative images for those bigger checks, but if you find that your photography is comparable and that the only difference is experience, then try matching their rates and see what happens.
That’s not easy to do though. Comparing images requires a subjectivity that’s hard for a photographer to bring to his or her own images, and it will always be tempting to buy market share with lower rates than to hide inexperience with mid-range prices. But there is another fail-safe time when it always pays to put up your rates.
When your schedule is full and you’re having to reject bookings, that’s a sure sign that you could be earning more money. Just as it doesn’t pay to turn down low-cost work when you’ve got empty hours, so it does pay to swap your budget clients for buyers with deeper pockets. You might want to keep returning customers who supply a regular source of income, but new customers will have to win the remaining slots in your book by outbidding each other. Put up your prices as you see your schedule closing up and you should find that while you’re holding fewer consultations, you’re still completing the same number of shoots, turning away fewer leads, and earning more income.
In general, a recession might not be the best time to think about raising your prices, but if you’ve been charging too little for your photography then even a crunch can be a good moment to ask for more money from new clients. Just make sure that that your schedule is full enough to handle lower demand from budget buyers, that you’re not stepping too far ahead of your competitors — and that your new prices match the quality of your images, and not what you’d like to think about your images.