Can we, as an industry, pause a moment and take a deep breath?
Okay. Straight talk coming your way today, fair warning.
I submit that as a profession, we:
1) Spend far too much time thinking about how our competition is pricing their work,
2) Misunderstand who our competition actually is, and
3) Waste considerable emotional energy on being upset by said ‘competition’, making ourselves miserable and insecure, instead of pouring that energy into the things that matter.
There, I said it. I may get angry letters over this, but it feels good to say it out loud.
Please understand who your competition is, and who it is NOT.
The perennial woe of photographers is all the “newbies” who charge nothing for their work. It’s time we accept that freebie sessions (and newbies) aren’t going anywhere. People need to learn their cameras, and to get people in front of their cameras they are going to offer free sessions. Yes, it shifts people’s price anchors and makes some people devalue photography. Yes, that is upsetting. (It’s also common in every freelance field, from graphic design to writing to acting to music.)
But in no way are the free-session-givers my competition. Or yours.
If someone was considering hiring me, and jumped at the chance to have a free session with someone else instead, they weren’t my target client to begin with.
I have two distinct client groups. One group is well-off and ready to spend money on a photographer, and they rely mostly on referrals (not Google) to find one. To reach these people, I simply have to build relationships with those they already trust. The second group is a gaggle of loyal followers who simply love my work, follow every blog post, and want to hire me above anyone else. Although I’m often ‘out of their price range’ they have caught the vision of what I’m doing, and they save up the money to hire me. (Humbling.)
Neither one of those groups is going to be tempted away by someone offering a $0 session.
A financially high-powered family is going to be cautious with money, sure, but they are not going to be interested in ‘bargain art.’ They want someone who knows what they are doing and can produce consistent, predictable results that they can hang on their wall. The second group is also not going to be price comparing, because they have a relationship with me and are already imagining my images on their walls. I’m absolutely not the greatest photographer on the planet. I never will be. But I can spend every second possible creating and maintaining meaningful relationships. You can’t put a price on that.
I never for one second considered having anyone but Liz Frandsen photograph my wedding. I had followed her, I knew her, and I trusted that she would give me exactly what I wanted. I didn’t care that I had to fly her in from another state. I didn’t care what her packages cost or how much photography ate out of my budget. She was it.
We need to be spending our energy building those kinds of relationships with people – not fretting about how much other people are charging. Once someone is committed to acquiring a certain level of art from an individual they trust, bargain-basement deals fall irrelevant by the wayside. Is this scary, hard to believe, and hard to do? Absolutely. But it is possible.
Just in case you think I’m lying, I offer you an actual email that I received from a non-photographer businessman who reads this blog:
I have been reading your advice to photographers for some time now and find it refreshing and engaging. Of particular interest to me has been the apparent angst among the professional photographer community about prices – in particular: charging enough to be profitable. Perhaps your photographer friends would benefit from the point of view of at least one of their potential clients – me.
I am not a photographer. Oh, yes, I have a very nice camera and out of the thousands of photographs I take I do manage to come up with a handful that are perfect, but they are simply accidents of light, subject, and automatic camera settings which combine for a fortunate happenstance. But you people – professional photographers – need to understand that people like me consider using your services because we know you are artists. It is your creativity for which I am willing to pay. You can turn a photo session of a couple in a junkyard into a love story on the most interesting stage in the world. I can’t.
Snapshots are great, but photos worthy of hanging on a wall for decades has to cost something. (You wonder how many art patrons ended up regretting having a masterpiece created for them. Like, “oh, dang, I wish I had not paid Leo so much to paint that weird picture of Mona!”)
You can do things I cannot – and like any other thing I cannot do (such as plumbing) – I am willing to pay an expert to do an expert’s job. It is your talent, your mastery of the camera, and your eye that are valuable to me, and I expect I will need to pay what they are worth.
Photographers who charge between $2,000 and $6,000 have to understand that they made a decision about their market already. They are not going for the $59.95 customer or the $800 customer, so quit worrying about customers in that range…just provide the best experience for $2,000 that is possible.
So quit fussing so much about prices. Choose your market and go for it. Make it as easy as you can for me to use your services, but if you are not profitable, I know you won’t be around the next time I need you. Do your best work for me and know that I enjoy recommending experts to my friends.
Boom. Straight from a potential client’s mouth – and one who is not some wealthy super-splurger, either.
Running your own business is scary as heck. It’s natural to want to look around you and make sure you’re ‘doing it right’ and ‘staying competitive.’
And it’s darn smart business practice to know what your competitors are doing and to stay in touch with what is happening in your market. Absolutely. But instead of just responding to the market, why not see what they’re not doing, and use that to drive the market?
Why not take that energy you spend worrying about others and pour it into making your images, your client experience, your business a wonder to behold? Why not practice so much that you’re churning out better and better images? Why not charge what you’re worth and invest in killer education to push you even farther? Why not become so great at connecting with people that those ideal clients will want to hire no one but you?
I saw today that Sony is lowering its tablet prices in anticipation of the upcoming iPad 3. If I were Sony, I’d quit rubbernecking at what Apple is doing and go out there and create my own insanely loyal following. Sure, they can make money chasing after the bargain-hunters who aren’t enamoured enough of Apple to pay top dollar. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a good market, and possibly a profitable one. But an exhausting one. If customers are not loyal to you and arrive at your doorstep purely on price, they’ll leave as soon as they came when someone else lowers their prices. That makes for a tough job, the terms of which will be constantly dictated by other people.
I’d rather have the loyal following.
Let’s go create one, shall we?
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UPDATE: The original article mistakenly referred to Samsung instead of Sony. The text has been updated accordingly. Apologies!