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Photography Business Advice

by Danny N. Schweers with comments from veteran photographers in Arizona, Delaware, and Texas.

In November, 2010, I was asked for photography career advice from someone just starting. She wanted to know what to charge for her time and for her framed prints, and how to market her talent.

In general I know what I want to be paid in return for an hour of my work, so that's what I charge, plus my expenses for the job.

Actually, a lot goes into what I want to be paid for an hour's work. My hourly rate needs to cover enough to live on plus overhead and taxes. Overhead is the cost of photography equipment, computer, printer, software, paper, ink, car, business insurance, health insurance, etc.

If you are generating self-employment income, you will need to file Schedules C and SE with the US Treasury with your income tax. If you do that, you don't have to pay income tax on money spent on overhead items; business owners pay taxes only on their profit = income less expenses. (But don't take my tax advice: consult a tax expert.)

Also remember that, for every hour you spend on a job, you are spending an hour working on other parts of the business, maybe more! If you spend five hours a year working on taxes, and another 20 hours a year keeping records and billing, you need to get paid for that time, and for any other time for which there is no one to bill directly. That is, what you bill your customers has to cover all the time you work. And, while I think of it, it should also cover vacations and work breaks, just like you were the employee of a real business.

Then there's the question of demand. Who wants to hire you and what's it worth to them? You'll need to learn to bargain and negotiate. That can be fun!

The best advice I can give you is to play with pricing and marketing. Don't worry about making mistakes. Make lots of them! Post your photos on the Internet and in coffee shops. Experiment! See what others are charging! Talk to everyone!

One trick is to keep good records. Unless you can do that, and learn from the records you keep, you'll lose money as a self-employed photographer. I keep track of every minute worked, every cent spent, every dollar earned! It's not hard, but it's also not what I love about photography.

I'd love for some of you who are self-employed to comment on this advice. Click here to send me an email.

Photo of tree and sunset in Saint John, New Brunswick, copyright © 2010 Danny N. Schweers.

Back to Top | Danny is teaching photography at Delaware Art Museum. Learn more...

Comments

Craig Stacey, Camera Works Studio in Arizona, writes:

photo: Craig StaceyWell, you basically nailed the business end of it pretty well. The thing is, in photography, like everything else these days, change is the order of the day. With a "creative" product, it is even more dicey. A lot has to do with your own self-image and what you believe you're worth, or your photos are worth. Sometimes it's down to how much you yourself would pay for something. Truth to tell, many times I've set a price that I myself would never pay! (That's when I know the price is right!) Depends on where you live a lot too. In Manhattan you get a lot more for your precious little masterpiece than you do in rural Arizona. But then the Web has CHANGED things too, so now you can publish your work world-wide from the convenience of your desktop.

Price determines clientele, and vice versa. Starting out, everyone charges too little. In a few years, they're probably charging too much, if they've been successful. Your price determines your demand, but you have to build that demand first, then control it by varying your price point.

We at Camera Works change our prices ALL THE TIME. It helps to know what others are charging for similar services, and if you have any advantage other than price over your competitors (I'm speaking from a studio point of view, not fine art.) People don't think of us as a budget photo service; instead, we have a great reputation for customer service, being local, and delivering quality work.

The BIG problem with photography these days is the apples to oranges quandary. The basic question we get from a prospective bride, say, is "How much do you charge for your weddings?" Dumb question, but understandable. It's then up to us to educate the prospect by pointing out that photography is a creative art (practiced properly) and you can't compare photographers like you do cartons of milk or boxes of cereal. Each one is different, some are better than others, and price, tho an indicator, does not reflect the quality of the product. If we and another studio both charge $2,000 for a wedding package, it really tells the prospect nothing about the photography itself, which presumably would be why she's calling.

We've changed our business model completely over the last 3-4 years, and have relied on schools and sports and special events to butter our bread. We do a smattering of high school seniors and families and kids (babies), but thank God we don't have to try to survive on that. Hardy do any weddings anymore, and this is one area that I believe has been especially hard-hit by the digital everyone-has-a-camera revolution. When brides and grooms started putting cameras on tables at receptions, I knew the writing was on the wall.

Ah yes, and another bug-a-boo is: what in the heck do you charge for a digital image? Not a print, not a wall portrait, but a little collection of electrons. This one makes me squeeze blood from my ears! (Not a pretty sight.) People ask us every day: "Can we buy the images?" Used to be back in the day that NO ONE sold their negatives; well, negatives couldn't be infinitely reproduced either, like a jpeg. Now it's just gotten too easy, and people are just comparing one jpeg to another and not discerning any real difference (other than price, of course).

I don't encourage anyone to get into professional photography, as I think it's a dying profession. Just like you don't see any mom and pop camera stores anymore, in the not so distant future you won't see studio photographers like me. I've got in on the tail end of a 150-200 year phenomenon. It's been fun and an interesting thing to do. Hopefully I've provided people with something they and their families will treasure for a long time. But I have no illusions about the overall drift of the business.

I pick up my copy of Photography and the Old West every now and then. Would that I had been there at the beginning! How I would have loved to have been the first to walk up to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and plant my tripod down. How I would have loved to have shown those pictures to America and say, "Yes, this is really what it looks like! It's unbelievable." Now, gorgeous color photos of the canyon are available everywhere, four for a dollar!

Photograph of Craig Stacey copyright © 2010 by himself.

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Ave Bonar, a photographer in Austin, Texas, writes:

Your advice sounds good . . . for the good old days when ASMP ruled.

I don't know of anyone who is making a living from photography nowadays. Many studios, even some of the big ones, have been closing down over the last few years. The problem, in my view and experience, is that with digital, everyone is a photographer. And if they do hire you for photography, they don't expect to pay much.

About the only assignment work I do anymore is for an ad agency that does mostly state agency work. I do maybe one job every few months, and it's only staff photos and press conferences. For their creative photography needs, they buy cheap stock photos, and there are thousands, if not millions, available for cheap.

After the last rare wedding I photographed, many years ago, the bride's mother wanted to do all the Photoshop work, which is the equivalent of making the prints, which is one of the few ways now to make money with photography.

Some time ago I said to heck with commercial photography. Now I do copy editing for the ad agency I mentioned and, fortunately, I enjoy doing that. And, of course, I still do a lot of non-commercial photography. See: AveBonarPhotography.com. Shooting for myself, I'm free to get back to the basics. Check out my new book/exhibit, Coming of Age.

Rick Patrick, another photographer in Austin, Texas, writes:

The tricky part for me, and I suspect for everyone else who doesn't have superstar status, is in determining what fees the market will bear. One day your fee will be laughably low, the next it will be out of the ballpark. In a buyers' market, the fee may be a rapidly moving target. See: RickPatrickPhotography.com.

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Joe del Tufo, a photographer in Wilmington, Delaware, writes:

Photo: Joe Del Tufo. Link to his website.I agree and disagree with some of the points made by your colleagues. I agree that the model is changing, and changes in technology and how people perceive creative value are at the heart of these changes. But I also still think there will always be value in quality and creative innovation, albeit in a smaller room with more people interested in playing in it. And I think key people will always be willing to pay for great art, and be able it recognize it in a growing sea of so-so work.

For me the solution had been to use photography to support other business verticals where there is a more consistent revenue model. My business — Mobius New Media — sells photography but in and of itself it's only 10% of the revenue. If you look at how photography gets used to support web, print and video in our company, its value increases. More importantly, photography has been a way in the door for us. It is often the first thing a new client is exposed to, and both the quality and the experience of working with us tends to create other, more valuable opportunities.

By owning a business that can support the hobby, I also have the freedom to play a little with things that would be very unlikely to be profitable in and of themselves.

It is definitely a different market than what I understand it once was. But for me it's also the only market I've known. It's something I love doing, so getting paid to do it is something that makes me feel very lucky. Like the printing and mulitmedia markets before it, photography will evolve and shift a bit before finding value in a new way or ways. The question as photographers is, can we be flexible and agile enough to thrive in that new dynamic.

Photograph of Joe del Tufo copyright © 2010 by himself.

Danny replies: I tend to be optimistc as well, Joe. I compare cameras to word processors. Few people who have word processors think they can write. It may take awhile, but in time most people will realize they can't photograph either (or videograph, or build websites). Already, much of my website design business comes from people fed up with the work of amateurs, often themselves!

Bill Lindsay, another photographer in Wilmington, Delaware, writes:

The thing is, ever since I started out with my dream to be a photographer (at about the age of ten), there were always people thinking they were photographers. Photography is a folk art, and we as professionals tend to forget that one important point. Mostly, people think that being a photographer and making money at it is easy until they actually try to meet a few deadlines and juggle their time between working, family, responsibilities, paying the bills, and having a life etc.... My philosophy is very simple: Do what you love and be ready to make many sacrifices to accomplish your goals without stepping on anyone along the way.

As for the future of photography, I feel that photography is more of a tool that will always be there to use in whatever project you are working on at the time. My advice for the newby is to think of themself as an image maker, producer, writer, music maker, and problem solver, and to be able to bend with the flow of the times. [Click here to see Bill Lindsay's website.]

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