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Q&A | The Costs of a Traveling Photographer

Q:  I’m currently dealing with a very pregnant client who was given a gift certificate for a maternity session for Christmas. (She’s due in February, that’s how pregnant she is.) She wants the session to be done in her city (2.5 hours away from me) and wants to do it this weekend. I happen to have to be in her city on Saturday for another event happening in the evening, and told her that instead of charging her a travel fee, I could come on Saturday and we could do our session before my event. She wants me to instead come back on Monday and do it then, despite the travel cost to her.

I don’t really know what my question is, other than how do I negotiate with this woman so that I don’t have to drive 10 hours in one weekend? The “I’ll be saving you money by not charging you my travel fee if I come Saturday” doesn’t really seem to be sticking. And for the future, I think I may need to up my travel fee (currently at $50). What do you suggest for a travel fee?  – AP


A:  So, even more than I love being a photographer, I love being an aunt.  But I know that asking my nieces and nephews “So, what do you want for lunch?” is a bad idea.  They’re not going to say “Gee aunt Jenika, how about some steamed broccoli?”  They’re going to yell “CUPCAKES!

So instead, I have to say “Would you like a quesadilla and carrots, or a sandwich and celery?”

The options are clear – cupcakes are noticeably absent from the list.  They have to choose something that I can live with.

If the field of options is wide open, it’s only human nature to take what seems best to you, no matter the consequences.  It’s better to offer concrete options that work for you.

Who knows, maybe your client has been badgering her husband for weeks to get his hair cut and he can only do it on Saturday night, or maybe she’s still wardrobe hunting, or maybe Mondays are her best hair days.  Whatever the reason, when given a blank slate, your convenience won’t factor into her decision more than her convenience will.

When booking in the future, treat your schedule like a hairstylist would treat hers.  She has her openings, and a client needs to make one of them work.  So instead of saying “When should we schedule your session?”  you could instead say “The dates I am currently open for travel are Saturday January xx at __am, Wednesday January xx at __am, and Friday January xx at __pm.  My travel fee is $50, but if you choose to book me on Saturday, I will be happy to waive the fee because I will already be in town.”

That way they have to pick a time that works for *you*, and since they only have a few predetermined options, they will be more likely to pick the option with the monetary incentive.

Because I don’t know what your stated travel policies are, or what exactly you’ve already said to her regarding the date of her session, it’s hard to say what the best approach will be.  If you have already said you’re available on Monday, then you may be stuck driving the extra time.  It stinks, but when you run a business you have to do what you’ll say you do.

I’d rather drive an extra 5 hours than violate a stated policy or go back on what I said to a client.

If you haven’t said much to her yet, you could email her back and say “I’m sorry, I’m not available for travel on Monday.  The next dates I am available for travel are ____ and ____, or of course I could come on Saturday and I’m still happy to waive the travel fee.”  Ultimately, to rein her in, you’ll have to restrict her choices and give her less control over your schedule.  I’d caution you against doing that if you’ve already said you’re available on Monday.

If you charge travel fees, avoid flat fees unless you specify exactly what geographical area that flat fee covers.

$50 does seem quite low for a 5 hour round trip.  After you subtract gas, food, and wear and tear on your car, I suspect you’re being compensated only pennies for your time.  I would update your website to say something like:

“There is a $__ travel fee for clients who live up to ___ miles away from Hometown.  For clients more than ___ miles away, please contact me for a custom quote.”

I calculate my custom travel fee as follows:

Mileage to drive / miles per gallon that your car gets = Gallons of gas used.

Gallons of Gas * Current gas price (I round up, because prices fluctuate) = TOTAL COST FOR GAS

Hours driving * my hourly rate = TOTAL COST OF TIME


Be sure to keep track of gas receipts and mileage, because these may be tax deductible.  When calculating your hourly rate, consider both the cost of your time as well as wear and tear on your vehicle.

I will adjust or waive my travel fee in certain situations.  I recently did a session at a cabin that was a 2.5 hour drive.  They let my husband and I stay overnight in their guest house, and fed us a warm breakfast before we continued on our trip.  A free night in a cabin on the river and their hospitality was well worth the drive to us.  Last summer I was on a road trip through the southern states, and met up with a client in a small town.  We had predetermined what package they would buy when they booked the session, and they paid for the package and session up front.  I chose to only charge them for the gas to drive to the location because it wasn’t far out of our way, I knew I had already met my sales goal, and had the cash in hand.

Respect your own schedule, decide when you’re available, then let the client pick from concrete options.  Don’t give them the chance to just yell “CUPCAKES!”  Good luck!


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  1. Cindy Meisch on January 19, 2012 at 3:48 pm

    Just found your site via share in a photog Facebook group.. I need to be editing and have spent the past hour reading and note taking. Subscribed so I don’t miss another word! Thank you! I will take all your CUPCAKES please and Thankyou!

    • Jenika on January 19, 2012 at 11:56 pm

      Thank you Cindy! 😀 I’m so glad you’ve found the blog to be useful. Thanks for making me smile, have a great day!

  2. Toni on February 4, 2012 at 12:50 am

    What about hotel stays? How do you include in the travel fee?

    • Jenika on February 4, 2012 at 3:02 am

      Hey Toni! Because I do portraits, which are relatively short shoots, I haven’t run into that issue yet. I’d just charge the client for the exact amount of the hotel, and some kind of per diem for food if I had to stay overnight. It’d be easy to find the cost of a hotel with enough notice to charge them up front for it.

  3. Kim S. on February 6, 2012 at 7:58 am

    Thank you so much for your articles! I’ve just started my own venture in photography and I couldn’t even begin to put a price on the information I’ve learned from your website. Pricing on anything is something that I’ve always struggled with; there are wonderfully talented photogs in my area whose prices are, even for me, unreachable so I’m trying to find a ‘happy place’ in making my own prices. I think that’s where I get into the most trouble. I know I’m not as experienced or recognized as them but I am making this my career and also have bills to pay. So I suppose overcoming that has been my biggest hurdle. But I could go on for days about that. Anywho, I’m so happy and grateful for your knowledge and time! –Kim

  4. Andy Donnan on June 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Why not just charge the standard mileage rate issued by the IRS? This is a much simpler way to calculate travel costs. And if you stay overnight per diem rates on food and lodging.

    • Jenika on June 28, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      Hi Andy! That’s certainly one way to do it, though it might not actually cover all your costs. For example, if a photographer has to arrange for extra childcare in order to travel, that will probably put their travel costs above the standard mileage rate for the IRS. Or it may only be worth it to a photographer to travel if they earn $x for their time. Per diems are useful, as are standard mileage rates, and they will work in many cases. In others, calculating gas/per mile and figuring out their hourly rate may work. Hopefully everyone can figure out what works for them!

  5. leah on November 4, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Very helpful thank you!!!

  6. Karen on November 7, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    This was a very informative post and is certainly helping me to figure out travel costs for a quote for a wedding three hours away from home. Do you typically double the end amount to accommodate for travel back home?

    • Jenika on November 8, 2016 at 3:19 am

      Well I would include “there and back” in the original mileage and gas usage calculation – but whatever you have to do, my answer is yes, it needs to accommodate round trip.

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