"How can some photographers charge so little?"
This is invariably followed by the same comment:
"There should be an industry standard."
So I thought I would put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard as the case may be) and write down some personal thoughts and factual observations about this discussion, which never seems to get resolved.
Before I continue though, I need to point something out. Photography is a bit of an outlier from other professions - we are in a unique industry that has virtually limitless possibilities. That we have diversified so much in the field of portrait photography that we have in fact driven WalMart to follow our lead is a testament to the fact that we have stumbled upon something great. As an added bonus, there is so much flexibility in not only in what we want to shoot, but how, when, and where, we basically have the ability to have designer jobs with any one or combination of travel, architecture, landscape, nature, wildlife, sports, space, real estate, products, babies, weddings, glamour, boudoir, fantasy, digital illustration, pets, and yup, even porn. Whatever you can point a camera at, there is a potential market. How many industries offer that ON TOP of flexible hours and the ability to run your company from home and your smartphone? It's no wonder so many people want in! Which of course, unlike toddler soccer when they don't keep score and everyone gets a medal, means competition gets fierce and not everyone gets to win.
To ensure every child 'wins', Ontario athletic association removes ball from soccer
We often hear the phrase "community over competition" but under the guise of "educating" newcomers to the industry, statements get made about how people are devaluing themselves and the entire industry by not charging "enough" which as I recall as a newcomer felt more like passive aggressive bullying than "education."
The shaming isn't limited to newbies though - those who work part-time as photographers are also subject to getting called "hobby" photographers like it's a bad thing and are subsequently accused of cheapening the market and taking work away from those who are "legitimately" attempting to support themselves as full-time photographers. There is even a host of terms with derogatory connotations used to separate those who consider themselves "professional" photographers from those who they feel are inferior - weekend warriors, momtographers, GWACs, WAHMs, etc. even though they themselves started off as one of those. Even full-time photographers who are making a comfortable living but charge less than what others might want or need to make are accused of "undercutting" the competition. Nobody likes to feel judged, and often it feels like you're damned if you do, and damned if you don't.
We constantly hear complaints about "entitled millennials" and how they expect the world to make them space simply because they exist. Yet that same kind of irrational entitlement is sometimes used to hold "the industry" accountable for our success (or lack thereof) rather than being aware of and examining what we ourselves are doing. Furthermore, some people accuse others - usually local newcomers - of "ripping off" ideas and trying to muscle in on their "territory" despite the fact there is a global community of millions of photographers constantly feeding new trends into the mix (remember that time when everyone made everything black and white except the eyes?) We take the existence of competition - especially talented upstarts - as a personal infringement on our right and ability to succeed.
Though the veterans commiserate about how much wiser they are now that they are 2-5-10 years in the biz and their stated intent is to help others by raising everyone up, let's not forget that telling everyone else to raise prices will ironically make the pool of potential clients shallower as more people will be fighting for a smaller number of clients, rather than leaving the low-priced photographers to provide services to those who can't or won't pay the "standard." I mean, if your pricing model isn't working for even YOU why would it work for everyone? And, as difficult as this is form some people to wrap their heads around, some of us just have a core philosophy that photographs of your family or wedding should be affordable, especially if we were once unable to afford is ourselves.
I am selling my art
Lastly, I want to point out one small but important fact: we are artists and because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you cannot standardize or homogenize and therefore regulate outputs any more than you could for painters or sculptors, which would be especially true for innovators who expand and improve the craft with new techniques, subject matter, and technology. Unlike the medical profession or skilled trades, creative professionals cannot be measured objectively, only subjectively, and as we all know there is no accounting for taste - mom goggles guarantee that. While there is always room for peer review and feedback, and everyone will have a different opinion on what constitutes "good" and "bad" art, there is no "right" or "wrong" way to express yourself creatively.
I highly doubt there will ever be consensus on the right "mean" price or quality for services, which makes the idea of a guideline a total unicorn, but it doesn't matter. Having an interest group putting together "guidelines" (setting a minimum and maximum price) regardless of the cost of production, experience of the photographer, level of service, and quality of the product is as ludicrous as suggesting that Gap should be allowed to dictate how much WalMart and Chanel charge for a pair of pants. When one technique or trend saturates the market, it actually drives innovation, and WalMart making knock-offs and riding on the coattails of the industry has no effect on Chanel's bottom line. Johanna Blakely did a stellar job of explaining this phenomenon in her TedTalk here:
In order to understand the vast array of prices in any industry, you have to place equal consideration on a) the business owner's financial goals and b) consumer priorities, which are both affected by not only individual preferences and value systems but changes in the economy. While it's easy to get why people spend less money during a recession, even when the economy is booming and it's likely that we can charge higher prices, that still doesn't mean someone will pay us just because it's what the market will supposedly bear.
Let's take a closer look at the business owner's financial goals first. (I say "goals" and not "needs" or "wants" because sometimes it's hard to make a differentiation between those two.) As a business owner, in order to make "enough" you have to first understand what your financial goals are. That will be the "magic" number you need to base your pricing on, not what everyone else is charging or some arbitrary
~insert mental image of lemmings here~
Equally important is realizing that whether "enough" is breaking even, making spare change, or not bankrupting yourself while traveling to exotic locations to take master photography classes, if you happen to live in a mansion and drive Lambourghinis, "enough" will be substantially higher than someone who lives in their VW van and just needs to cover insurance, gas and meals. And, I should point out that what a person charges isn't necessarily a reflection of skill or ability or how much they "value" their work as a photographer, but that's another post entirely.
"I just need to pay my bills"
For some, the financial goal is to make enough money to pay the bills and maintain their current standard of living. "Enough" means covering the mortgage, the car payment, the utilities, and groceries while socking a bit away for retirement and annual vacations. In order to determine how much to charge, this individual needs to take into consideration how much he will need to "break even."
You wouldn't tell a guy who pumps gas on the weekend he does it for a "hobby."
For some, the financial goal is to supplement their primary income, and whether this is to make ends meet or to afford luxuries affects how much is "enough." If the goal is to make ends meet, then the rate charged would be calculated to offset the deficit, whereas if the goal is to create a travel fund, "enough" will be calculated to reach that travel budget. I also want to point out that I personally know photographers who take on part time jobs to supplement their photography income. Having two jobs is not abnormal and in some instances is almost a cliche, such as actors who wait tables while waiting for a big break. I am still waiting for someone to explain to me why the photography industry should be exempt from permitting those seeking part time supplementary income from hanging out a shingle.
For others, the financial goal is simply not having something they love passionately cost them a second mortgage. Photography is an expensive sport - from equipment to workshops, even for those who shoot primarily for pleasure, there are very real costs to be covered. In much the same way a professional snowboarder may score sponsorship when their work gets noticed, some "hobby" photographers with no intent of going "pro" receive free gear in exchange for endorsements. Some people manage to trade services in a bartering system - paying for oil changes and salon visits with photos leaves cash available to spend on lenses. For the rest of us, finding the means to continue doing something that we love means selling prints or taking on paid gigs. This particular group is unique because they would find a way to shoot even if they never got paid a penny for it. They seem to never forget the reason they pick up a camera: for love.
It is important to remember that financial goals are not static - whether we wish to buy a bigger house or sell everything and live as a minimalist will increase or decrease how we calculate "enough" for ourselves. The tiny house movement is proof that "lowering your standard of living" is a valid choice for having more financial freedom, which for some means working for less money or fewer hours and using the time and money they don't spend on a mortgage to travel. It is therefore a fundamentally huge mistake to assume everyone's financial goal is to make or have more.
WORKSHOP: *If you'd like to know how to calculate how much is "enough" for yourself, I have a workshop on February 12th, 2017 that will show you how to identify your business goals, prepare a simple household budget, calculate your cost of doing business, and come up with your very own personal magic pricing formula. In the afternoon, I'm doing an intro to basic bookkeeping. While this is geared towards photography, the workshops apply to most small and home-based businesses.
Now that you (hopefully) understand why pricing seems so inconsistent, we need to take a closer look at the other half of the equation, which is consumer priorities. These will determine why an individual is willing (or unwilling) to pay what you've decided is "enough" for you. Their finances, thoughts, feelings, circumstances, value system, aesthetic tastes, and a myriad of other real and imagined things will factor into their decision on who they will hire as their photographer, and how they prioritize these factors will occur in spite of not because of price fixing. In fact, I am about to show you how small a part pricing actually plays in the big picture.
Here are the primary reasons a consumer may not choose you as their photographer for financial reasons:
- you are charging more than they can afford
- they think you are charging more than you are worth
- they don't think photography is worth the price you (or anyone else) is charging
- you are not charging enough
Bride A and her fiance work hard for their money. She is a Social Worker and her husband makes a respectable living as the HR director for a major national chain store. Her student loan is almost paid off but they just had to buy a new car because the college beater "second car" just died a slow painful death. Their wedding is important, but not so important they are willing to forego a killer honeymoon and future plans to move from their condo to a house and start a family. While they hope to spend less, the ceiling on their wedding budget is $20,000 and they already know that half of that is gone on food, booze, and the venue. This leaves $10,000 for the dresses, tuxes, limo, flowers, wedding party gifts, guest favours, DJ, videographer, decorations, HMUAs, and - the most important thing - their honeymoon. Even if they can technically afford $5000 for your services, you still might not get hired. Why?
Bride B has a virtually limitless budget. Raised with a credit card she was free to rack up at any time and Daddy's blessing to spend as much as she wants on her wedding, money is no object. She wears Louboutins to the gas station, gets her roots done every 3 weeks, and spends an average of 2 hours a day tanning, working out, and moisturizing. She can spot a fake Coach bag at 50 paces. Despite her charmed upbringing in an affluent family, she is highly intelligent and has a business degree. She is a successful realtor, and her and her husband - a corporate lawyer - have high expectations regarding both quality and customer service. She has already dropped $15,000 on her wedding dress and has hired a respected somewhat notorious wedding planner to handle the details she simply doesn't have the time for. Even if they can technically afford $5000 for your services, you still might not get hired. Why?
Choosing a photographer isn't only driven by finances. Here are several reasons a consumer might not choose you for non-financial reasons:
- they don't need what you specialize in
- they want traditional posed bridal and you specialize in candid lifestyle bridal
- the want traditional posed bridal and you specialize in boudoir
- they want traditional posed bridal and you don't specialize in anything
- you don't have any or enough experience
- they don't like your style of lighting and posing
- you don't have references or testimonials
- your SEO or social media presence sucks and no one knows you exist
- you don't have a website and look unprofessional
- they found your website clumsy or difficult to navigate and moved on
- your server was down that day and they got a big old 404
- your website is ugly or they hate your company colours
- they read all the typos in your bio and think you're illiterate
- you have music playing on your website that they dislike
- they hate all music that autoplays on websites
- you replied to their inquiry too enthusiastically and seem desperate
- you didn't reply to their inquiry fast enough
- you're not available on the date they need you
- they heard bad things about you
- you're not famous
- you're not on the wedding planner's suggested vendor list
- they got a referral for someone who didn't happen to be you
- they got an endorsement for someone else from a trusted source
- their photographer is a close friend or family member
- someone else is paying for it and they have no choice
- they would prefer someone who shares their religious views
- they forgot the name of your company or didn't bookmark the website
- they want a female photographer and you're a guy
- they want a gay photographer and you're straight
- you're trans or gay or black or look too Muslim and they're xenophobic
- they found something offensive or that contradicts their politics on your social media
- they used you once or twice and were dissatisfied
- they used you for years but wanted to change things up
- circumstances changed and they no longer need or want your services
- they think your company name sounds stupid
- they met you and you didn't click
- you were 13th on the referral list and they are superstitious
- you lost the coin flip
- Mercury was retrograde and you're a Scorpio
- Tuesday was just not your lucky day
WORKSHOP: *If you'd like to learn about appealing to different demographics, you might want to the workshop on February 26th, in which we will look at how certain characteristics like age, income, and cultural capital impact the way you need to sell to and retain clients, and look at some tips and tools for breaking into new markets and put the baby on the thistle. From social media to social statistics, this workshop will leave you inspired and geared up to get going, whether you're a new company or wanting to reinvent the one you've got.
What's the solution?
All of these non-financial reasons are precisely why setting industry guidelines or standards is unrealistic. There's no one-size fits all pricing model that accounts for the photographer's personal goals - WalMart doesn't appeal to Gap clients, and Chanel doesn't care if you can get cheaper pants at Gap. Likewise, a person willing to buy $500 pants at Chanel isn't interested in WalMart price rollbacks or the spring clearance sale at Gap. My dirty hippy heart loves the idea of a socialist approach to photography but my intent would be to invent a sliding scale and fix income equality with better taxation and distribution of wealth, but that ain't happening either. ~sigh! But again I digress...
So what, then, is the solution, if not setting industry guidelines? Without the luxury of simply teaching everyone how to pay themselves minimum wage after expenses, it is simply this: spend more time minding your own business, both literally and figuratively. The time and energy spent criticizing other people's business model or pricing is time that could be better spent building a following on social media or sorting your receipts. Or shooting. Not only will you be feeding into growing your brand and business but you'll also be feeding your mental health. And if you want to empower others and engender a realistic "community over competition" that doesn't require assimilation to the norm by telling others what they shouldn't do or telling them what you would do, encourage them to figure out what their personal "enough" is and go from there. Not all of us will become full time rich famous successful professional photographers, but we can all find our niche, even if that niche happens to be just a GWAC who pays out of pocket to take pictures that make him happy...
Now go on. Get out there and make it work so you can do what you love. #shutupandshoot