Diving into Pricing for the New Photographer / by Annemie Tonken

Photo: Annemie Tonken

Photo: Annemie Tonken

So once again, thank you to everyone who responded to our last two posts on pricing. This is obviously a hot-button topic for a lot of people, and though The Family Narrative isn't all about hot button topics, some of the things we are all about require diving headfirst into deep and sometimes difficult conversations. So if seeing our colleagues survive and thrive in this wonderful business means having frank discussions about pricing, count us in.

One of the most common questions you raised in the pricing conversation was along the lines of this:

But what do I do if I'm just starting out? I don't think it's reasonable to charge seasoned photographer rates when I have a limited portfolio and am still in the process of finding my aesthetic. Doesn't it make sense to charge less and aim to grow over time?

This is a great question, and one that not enough people think through thoroughly! We promised a response, and although I'm sure mine isn't the only solution, it worked for me and I recommend it to most of the new photographers I talk to... so here it is for your consideration:

When I first started toying with starting a photography business, I was working full time as a nurse, had two little ones under the age of 3, and had gotten obsessed enough with taking photos of my own kids that I started fantasizing about switching careers to become a photographer. 

But being from a medical background, I had absolutely no idea how to go about transitioning a hobby into a career, so the first thing I did before I ever accepted a dollar for my work was to sign up for a business class. Among other things, that class forced me to de-romanticize my ideas about what going into business for myself would actually mean, and I truly believe that starting my career with a clear picture of what it was going to require has been the key to my success. Here's what I did:

First, I honestly answered the following questions:

  1. How much time and attention are you willing to spend on your business?

  2. How many clients per month can you reasonably fit into that amount of time?

  3. What will your business-related expenses be?

  4. How much money do you want/need to make with your business (think of this number like a take-home salary... what amount would you accept if you were going to do this work for someone else for the number of hours/week you calculated in number 1)?

BEWARE: These questions are deceptively simple. Your answers should be thoroughly thought-out and researched. It's easy to think that the only costs associated with a photography business are your equipment and your Lightroom subscription, and that if you have ten hours a week to devote to your business, you can take on four clients a week, but I assure you that neither of those answers is even close to true. This post isn't designed to go into all of those variables, but there's plenty of info out there. Dive deep on these questions.

Second, based on my answers to those questions, I figured out what I was going to need to earn to switch careers.

Your expenses plus your salary divided by the number of clients you can handle will determine the amount of money you need to make per client.

If you've tallied your expenses properly, the number you come to will likely scare you... possibly a lot. It certainly scared the hell out of me. Even though I didn't aim particularly high - I just plugged in numbers that would replace my nursing salary (including the value of my benefits and allocating money for taxes) and take up essentially the same amount of my time (36 hours/week) - the number I came to was over $1000 per client, and that seemed entirely impossible. I was still trying to get myself fully transitioned from aperture to manual mode, after all.

But the numbers didn't lie. If I wanted to quit my job and be a photographer, that was what I needed to aim for. Even if I didn't need to make as much money as I did as a nurse (!!!!), even if I won the lottery and money were no object at all, there was the cost of my time to consider - time I could otherwise devote to my family and my friends and exercise and self care and relaxing and traveling and on and on... not to mention time to enjoy the hobby that had inspired this whole business idea in the first place!

Finally, I took those numbers and created my pricing.

For the first year, while I still had my job to fall back on, I offered discounts to people when they called. I talked them through my full pricing, then told them that their timing was amazing because I was currently offering XX% off to all new clients (the discount started high and decreased as more people started calling). I gave every one of those clients the full experience that I wanted to give at my full pricing, and took that time to try out various products and sales strategies to see what worked best. And over that time, I started to realize that even though it's a stretch for many people, the pricing I was aiming for wasn't crazy: when I thought about the the amount of money people spend on crap at Target and fun gadgets that end up in the garbage after a year, I realized that I didn't need to apologize for charging enough money to be profitable. The more practice I had talking about that pricing, the more confident I became and the fewer people balked.

Eventually, I took the training wheels off and no one batted an eye - even those who couldn't afford my full rates knew what they were to begin with, so when they talked to their friends about me and showed off my work, they never talked about or thought about my work as cheap. Thus, the referrals I got were all prepared for my real pricing, and even some of those clients who initially said they wouldn't be able to afford me at my full rates ended up finding the money and coming back because the experience was so good. In fact, though a handful of my clients are wealthy, the vast majority of them are pretty solidly middle-class... they save for my work and value it immensely, which is the best validation I could ever ask for. 

Two years into my business I was turning work down at my full rates because I couldn't keep up with that and my work as a nurse, so I knew the time had come to quit... that was six years ago and I haven't looked back. Last year, my husband and I separated, and I had several well-meaning friends and family members asking if I was going to be going back to my real job, but photography is my real job, and I'm more grateful now than ever that I set myself up for success from day one so that I get to do the thing that I love every day while paying my mortgage and providing for my two kids and planning for a retirement that will actually happen.

So there you go... it can be done! I'd love to hear from you in the comments about other success stories or questions you have about mine.