This post is for photographers who wear their hearts on their wallets.
(In a good way.)
You know who you are. The folks who cringe at changing their prices, even though you “need” to, because you kind of hate that money has to be a part of this at all.
You love photography so much you’d do it for free, but you want to make money, and ugh, you’re torn.
You’ve gotten to the point where you’re creating consistently good work, you know your camera, and you know how to get shots you want. You don’t want to lose past clients in a price change, you feel loyal to your early supporters, and you genuinely want to be available to serve everyone. You’re hearing mixed messages about how much you “should” charge. You feel guilty about changing prices, yet also guilty about *not* changing them.
Let me tell you a secret:
A good pricing system isn’t all about the money.
Making cash with your business is good, yes. But it’s a mistake to think that changing your pricing is just an issue of making more money. Price influences a lot more than that.
Before we get any further: In this article, “profitable pricing” simply refers to a pricing system that has thoughtfully factored in business expenses, taxes, and needed profit to arrive at a price. “Profitable pricing” doesn’t mean you have to charge $10K for every wedding. It simply means that once you pay for stuff like gas, gear, insurance, and have given the IRS their due, you have something leftover (a profit) that is acceptable to you.
In short, pricing such that the business can sustain both itself and you.
If you need help sorting out the mechanics of pricing, I recommend The Photographer’s Pricing Guide Workbook by The Modern Tog (affiliate link).
But for some folks, even the need to make more money isn’t enough to motivate a change in pricing.
Especially if it feels like you’d be betraying past clients, “selling out,” or you’re still in disbelief that you’re actually in business, and keeping low prices is your way of staying in the shallow end of the pool in case you need to jump out real quick.
For you, it has to be about more than just money for it to feel okay.
Here are seven reasons why finally taking the time to overhaul your pricing is a good idea.
And rest assured, they have nothing to do with money.
#1: Because price influences people’s perception of quality.
It’s definitely not true that everyone will think you’re a fabulous photographer just because you’ve slapped a mega $$$$ price tag on your work.
But price factors into how people judge the quality of your work. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. If you race to the grocery store to buy drain cleaner, and you see a bottle for $7.99, a bottle for $13, and a bottle for $19, you make assumptions on the spot about each bottle simply based on price.
Some people will buy the highest-priced item because they assume it’ll be the best and they really care about getting the job done right, and done right now. Often, more people will go for the middle-priced item, because they assume it will at least be better quality than the bargain bottle, even if they can’t afford the highest-price bottle.
There are lots of other things that influence perception of quality (including brand, packaging, familiarity, etc), but price is one un-ignorable piece of that puzzle. (I don’t make these rules of judgment, I just report ‘em.) And as always, quality and value are two different things. You might believe the $19 bottle is the best, but if you don’t think it’s a good value for the money, you won’t buy it. We don’t have license to go nuts, here, there are many factors to attend to.
But if you under-price your work, thinking you’ll attract more people, you might actually be missing out on clients who are headed for the middle or top pricing ranges because of assumptions they’ve made about quality, reliability, and professional experience. Chances are, if you under-value your work, others are more likely to as well.
#2: Because the subjective feeling of being under-paid is creatively and emotionally toxic.
When people feel underpaid compared to their peers, they typically feel more dissatisfied in their work and are more likely to start searching for a new job.
In other words: You want to bail.
Not only is this bad and of itself, it also affects your clients’ experience. If we’re feeling dissatisfied, it’s much harder to offer sparkling, over-the-top service, to keep a two hundred dollar attitude, and give people the benefit of the doubt. A client who was once a joy to work with suddenly feels like a time-sucking drag. And they will sense it. And that will hurt both current and future business.
But the detrimental effects of being under-paid are documented and clear. It’s not just something you do for yourself, it’s something you do so you can serve others with your full enthusiasm and attention. And your clients deserve that.
#3: Because pricing for profit enables you to more easily support causes you care about.
If you want to make the world a better place through your business, you have to make sure you stay in business. Blake Mycoskie can’t give away TOMS shoes to people who might need them if he doesn’t have any money to give. It’s also harder to donate your time when you’re scrambling to find clients to cover your costs and needed income.
And since doing good is one of the greatest joys of being in business (see the reader comments on this post), it’d be a shame to miss out because you’re not pulling in the resources.
#4: Because your prices influence what the public expects photography to cost.
Believe me, I’m not interested in indulging a debate about how much photography “should” cost, so let’s not bother. That’s an impossible question to answer, and even market value is going to vary wildly from region to region. I also believe the general public will always think photographers are “too expensive,” as discussed here.
But like any business, photographers should have the right to set their prices such that they’re able to cover business expenses, allow for necessary education and self-improvement, and leave some profit leftover. The numerical results are going to be different for everyone, but walking through that process is a critical part of running a sustainable business.
If we as an industry choose to not factor those key things in when considering our prices, it only lends credence to public perception that to be a successful photographer, all you need is a camera and a sunny day, and that our prices are just pulled out of the air because we’re greedy. Not true.
I don’t care what your prices are, but I do hope we will all be wise about how we set them, and how we narrate the reasons to clients. (I actually think we’re seeing more and more public discussion about this, which is great.)
#5: Because the process of setting good prices helps you answer several other key business and life questions.
Of course, in order to factor in the cost of doing business, you have to figure out what those actually are. When you’re portfolio-building, it’s easy just to charge a flat rate and then count your pennies as you move along. Shifting to profitable pricing requires you to plan for the future. It requires you to ask hard questions like:
- How much do I need to take home each month?
- How much do I really want to be working? What do I really want out of this?
- What are my fixed expenses, and how much do I need to stay in business for one year?
- What does each shoot actually cost me? How much time does it take?
- How much am I making per hour? Is it worth it to me, considering I’m spending that time away from my partner/family?
When you’re just getting your feet wet, these “big picture” questions can fall through the cracks. Sitting down and creating a price list forces you to get all kinds of ducks in a row and refocus on why you’re doing this in the first place.
#6: Because it never gets easier to change prices.
If you’re charging just a little, you probably will get referred to others who also expect you to charge just a little.
If you’re producing consistently good, reliable, professional-level work, then it’s time to make sure your costs of business and time are covered.
It won’t get easier if you wait. If factoring in your costs means you have to raise prices, then yes, it’s possible you might have to search out a new market of clients. But it’s no different if you do it now than in six months or six years.
#7: Because the process of setting good pricing makes you value your own time more.
It’s a powerful thing to know exactly how much you’re paid per hour (or per job). You become much more aware of how good of a fit prospective clients are, and a lot more willing to turn down jobs that aren’t a great fit.
When you know exactly how much of that price you just quoted is going to get eaten up by costs, you’re a lot less enthralled about the idea of someone simply paying you to do a job – it needs to be the right job.
You know what it costs you to do the work. And if the job doesn’t excite you, it’s far less worth it to pay those costs. Thus, you’re apt to search out and accept more jobs that really fulfill you, which leads to better work, which leads to happier clients, which leads to more referrals…..
Onward and upward.
This post really isn’t about “raising” prices, it’s about evaluating them.
There’s a lot to sort out as you start a business, but good, sensible pricing is a top priority. If you haven’t sat down and looked at what your business expenses are and thought about where you’re headed, trouble will result. Even if it seems tough and uncomfortable right now, schedule a time to sit down and evaluate (or re-evaluate) your pricing.
Because there’s more at stake in pricing than just how much you’re earning.
Pricing influences how people see you, how you feel personally, how your clients feel, and how you plan the future of your business. It’s worth getting it right. You can do this.
P.S. Relevant news flash:
As I mentioned earlier, I recommend The Photographer’s Pricing Guide Workbook by The Modern Tog to help sort out the nuts and bolts of a profitable price list.