Pricing Issues: One Big Monster of a Problem

A day or two ago a firestorm of sorts broke out on the interwebs on pricing. It got heady and angry and although I initially made a post on one of the players in this dramas posts here, I subsequently found that I had stumbled on to something that was just getting going.

You can see how it unfolded here. Be sure to read the comments, as that is all part of the context of the argument. Mr. Bourne’s post is linked here.

This issue on price, undercutting, ‘ruining’ the business all gets so dicey and tricky in the crazy light of the real world, I thought I would throw out some of my opinions… and I do have some opinions. (And if you disagree, I will be totally fine with it, not call you names or deride you in any way. I am not the end all of photographic knowledge, just a guy with an opinion.)

So here are a few subjects that keep coming up on forums and blogs all over the net.

1. Undercutting is wrecking the business.
Let me be clear. I think that undercutting is a problem. It demeans the business, it demeans the photographer doing the undercutting, and it demeans the client. There is no win. What professional photographers do is valuable. It demands years of work to do well, and it provides a unique and very special product. But the term ‘undercutting’ means we have to be apples-to-apples. And that is where I think a lot of these arguments come off the rails.

Let’s look at the $500 wedding scenario with a bit more of a realistic set of parameters. I think that there some situations where a set of variables must be known, compared and weighed. A $500 wedding in my little area of Phoenix is laughably inexpensive for most of the folks living and working here. Upper middle class area, lots of Saabs and Volvos and Tahoes. Nice folks and quite diverse. Average wedding shooter in this area: $3000 – $5000. Average. So where would a $500 shooter fit into this wedding market? And do you really think that a bride in this demo wants a $500 shooter for her wedding?

A little area north of me is a community with a demographic that puts $1200 weddings at the upper echelon of wedding photography. I have no desire for the people in that neighborhood to get bad wedding photography, or worse… get no photographs of their wedding at all. They are hard working people at the lower end of the scale and they don’t have that much discretionary income. They don’t drive Hummers and Mercedes, nor do they do open-bar weddings with $4K cakes at the Phoenician. A wedding with a budget of $3000 could be a place where a $500 wedding shoot makes sense. Not for a wedding shooter who has a different demographic for a clientele, but I don’t have any problem with people of modest means getting their weddings photographed. Do you?

12 miles north of that little area, $8000 wedding photography shoots are norm. And there a $500 wedding shooter would be terribly stupid. The market can bear, and work with pricing at that higher level. If someone in that demo wants to hire a photographer at the $500 rate, they are either playing the photographer, have no concern about what the images look like (or what their friends say – and believe me that is a big concern for a lot of brides in that demo) or have some other agenda. None of those clients are ones I want to work with, how about you?

I think that making a well researched investigation into the venue, expenditures and budget of the couple is easily handled int the pre-wedding meeting. If they are spending a lot of money, you would be a fool to do the photography for a cut rate. If they are spending money of other stuff, they can afford to pay for great photography. However, there are times and clients who fall below the budgets we would like to see. Here is my take on it. If the bride and groom have rented a big, fancy hotel, spent a couple of hundred on a cake, got themselves a DJ, open bar and some rubber chicken dinners, then they can take that $500 fee and stuff it. If you are a $500 wedding shooter and that is your market, you are still crazy to take a gig where you are making 3 times less than the DJ, ya know. Pride in your work and your value counts for something.

And while I am saying that there may be a place for lower end wedding work ($500 is way, way lower end) I am sure as hell NOT advocating anyone do cut rate work. I don’t think anyone in this business should do any less than excellent work. I am simply saying that there are issues beyond simply the black and white issue of undercutting. Apples to oranges in many cases… and we end up yelling PAST each other. And if you are a photographer who is doing really great work, and shooting far under what YOU are worth, then that sucks for you, and your clients. If you are a moderate priced shooter and are being killed by the lower end shooters, you need to look within. What are you doing or not doing that your clients cannot see the difference between your work and someone who has far less value identification?

Commercial photographers are a little different. There are a lot of challenges to world of commercial shooters… ad budgets are down, magazines are folding, micro-friggin-shit-stock is evident in some regional and even national magazines. But I don’t believe the Conde Naste folks are pouring over Flickr and Craigslist looking for a shooter for the next issue of Vogue… and neither are their advertisers and their ad agencies. They aren’t. Really, they aren’t.

And the same thing with the better ad agencies and design studios and corporate communications clients out there. In my town and your town. There are plenty of artistic, creative people who are looking for quality, creative, professional shooters who know all the ins and outs of producing the kind of work that they need. Quality work. Work with vision.

2. “Craigslist photographers” are killing the business.
Here I have to disagree. Not my business. I don’t work for people who look for cheap photography. Do you? And if you do, then you are working in the client area you work in.
(more after the jump)

Clients looking for design and photography of the kind I do are not looking in Craigslist. They simply aren’t. Annual report shooters are not found on Craigslist by corporations who spent $50K on photography last year and suddenly decided they could get someone off CL for a couple of hundred bucks. Brides looking for that special photographer that can make her special day… special, aren’t looking there either.

Craigslist photographers are there for the clients who want to pay as little as possible. It is a filter. It is a way of pre-qualifying your clients. If they are looking on Craigslist and you are a higher end shooter, they aren’t your clients. They are probably gonna choke when you make your quote. And, again, if you are competing with CL photographers, there better be a real big self awareness meeting coming up for you. Differentiate or die.

And if you are working in that lo-end space, good luck to you on that. I am serious. Not into having anyone fail. If you are putting food on your families table and keeping your little home warm on those lesser paying jobs, that is great. I am not worried that you are ‘taking’ my clients. And you should not worry about me taking yours. I cannot work at those margins. And I wont.

Look, Ferrari salesmen don’t hand out their business cards to fast food clerks. They have a built in pre-qualification filter. Kia salesmen don’t usually try to crack into the high finance guys with a great deal on the newest $8K sedans. Same filter, different settings.

You make a decision on whether you are a “Ferrari Salesman” or a “Kia Salesman” when you start out. At least you set that goal. That is your choice and your road to travel. And I bet those Ferrari sales guys don’t lie awake at night freakin’ out about the Kia guys. If you are getting killed by the undercutters, maybe you are playing in the wrong arena and need to redefine your strategy. Maybe it’s time for some serious self evaluation, a seminar or a workshop. A new portfolio… something to change it up. Vitally important to make sure you are NOT on par with the lowest level shooters if you want to make more money.

And some areas have been pretty well decimated by the weekend warriors. Model composite work is more rare now than it has been in the past. I know a guy who does real-estate photography for $15 a shot… and he is getting heat from below. And I also know a architectural guy who charges tens of thousands for shooting a few images. Guess which one is the most busy. (Hint… the one who is driving the way better car.) Oh, I also know a shooter in Miami doing very well shooting model composite work for the agencies there. Very well.

Are there some challenges for us to meet? Absolutely. Can we meet them and move forward, sure. Does it do our industry any good to drive the prices down in a market that already has challenges with keeping the prices where they need to be? Absolutely not.

But I haven’t met an ‘undercutter’ shooter who could do what I, and a lot of professionals do? Coordinate a crew, manage a set, prepare for all contingencies, light it, direct it, shoot it, process it and deliver it. On time and on budget. To do that, one would have to be able to manage a budget that would be beyond the weekend warrior practice and experience. You don’t go from shooting ‘models’ with speed lights on Saturday afternoons to shooting CEO’s for Annual Reports in a week.

I am focusing on the clients and budgets that make sense to me. I am not interested in clients who only want to pay a few bucks. I will not do web design for $60 a page. I won’t shoot for rates that will not allow me to make the studio rent, drive a nice auto, pay for health insurance for my family and a profit. I am not a hobbyist. Experience counts. It is valuable.

I want photographers to measure what the value is of their images. To educate themselves as to usage and fees and structures and the intrinsic value of an image. And, in the day of $3 images with unlimited rights (MS) that can take some strong personal fortitude. Find your voice and sing really loud. Take a stand. BE a photographer with pride in your work and your industry.

But if we are gonna beat each other silly, call names and insist on our positions as golden, and all photography must be treated the same, then we have some more discussion to do. And we will.

Here’s another opinion: I would rather a new photographer shoot for free than to charge a pittance for their work. It is far less damaging to the industry.

We’ll talk about that next time.

Interested in taking a workshop this year? See Learn to Light for our schedule. Follow me on Twitter, and my 365 Project is here.

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  1. Great article, Don; I couldn’t agree more. Know you market.

    PS: Some of the paragraphs appear to be truncated: the one ending with, “wrong arena and need” and the one ending with, “Find your voice and”

    Thanks for another insightful post!

    • Thanks for the catch, Gordon. Fixed now. I was struggling with connection issues and some of my edits were not saved. All is good. Thanks for visiting.

  2. At last some detail without a blanket statement! It seems we have lots of experts that throw a dollar figure out there that speaks for the whole country and every individual. As you said, high dollar brides are not surfing craigslist but someone looking to capture moments of a private ceremony at city hall might. Are we all to unionize and give a big FU to the couple looking to offer a photographer some worthy experience so he MIGHT one day be qualified to get better paying gigs?
    I do believe the photographer needs to be honest with themselves and the client, just because I bought a camera, does not mean I suddenly am an expert. I’ve done some Sr. Portraits for free with the understanding that if they like them they will buy the prints, if they dont we both walk away with no hard feelings and nothing lost but some time. I have zero interest in weddings but the right couple might find the gamble worthy. This is not my job, and I have the right to send clients I dont want to work with packing. I might be under charging but I’m still finding my balance, my rates will rise with my abilities and the time I have available.

    • Next week I will share why I think it is better to shoot the entry level stuff for free, than to drastically lower the price because of one’s self purcieved place on the ‘food chain’ so to speak. Thanks for reading.

  3. AMEN! You truly are a wiz. Joking aside, this was one of the more cojent reasponces to cheap buisnes I’ve seen.

    Thank you for this,


  4. Don,

    Thanks for saying it on your blog, you basically read my mind. I read Scott Bourne’s post yesterday and really felt he was missing some very big points which you pretty much nailed. My opinion was basically that if his client was seriously trying to compete against $500 photographers, they need a lot more than a cute tag line and should seriously consider a new “consultant” that can deliver a business strategy.

    Then again, if someone can get their costs down and volume up to where they can make a living at that level, then more power to them. I know of a lot of couples down here near Fort Bragg that put on $3000 weddings prior to deployment and need basic but dependable vendors including photography. On camera flash or natural light coverage for a couple of hours and some prints are all they want. Its sad that most of the people who serve that community are not professional in any way and often don’t deliver. Its especially tragic when those photos are the last ones ever taken of the soldier with his family.

    My point is that there’s a place for photography at all price levels and our profession shouldn’t be regarded as only being for clients with deep pockets or that there’s something patently wrong with inexpensive photography services. Those guys don’t give all of us a bad name, like you said, Conde Nast isn’t trolling (yet.) Even micro stock isn’t as bad as people make it out to be, business wise. Generic pictures of people and things aren’t worth much. If anyone can make the image, then who’s going to pay a premium for it? Photographers just have to adapt.

    One final note on Mr. Bourne. I follow his blog and podcast and admire his nature photography for what it is, good nature photography. I follow his blog mainly for the interviews, but there comes a point in every interview where you get a sense of what he and his fan base is all about. For instance he’ll have an interview with a great photographer like Chase Jarvis, and in all of his interviews there is a point where he asks some questions from his Twitter followers and almost all of them tend to be inane gearhead questions like “what do you think of this lens?” or something equally stupid that the person just says something polite to. That annoys the heck out of me and says something about Scott that he chooses to still ask those questions.

    Thanks for taking this to a higher level. Oh, and Selina Maitreya’s audio program is great. The best $100 I spent on photography last year.



    • Thanks for this great comment, Luis.

      “..Conde Nast isn’t trolling (yet.)…”

      Does give one chills, ya know.

      But all across most channels, I see some wonderful interest in creativity, design, excellence and, interestingly, fees.

      If I had a wedding studio (shudders a bit) I would make sure I had a junior shooter for the less ‘expensive’ weddings. There would be a filter of course, not getting played nor would I undercut. But there are cases, as you pointed out… the soldier and his bride, where a nice set of good images in the $500 – $700 range could be a great business builder. Now… is this a 7 hour wedding with a band? Hell no. 3-4 hours max and a good, fresh shooter with a great PJ look.

      The couple is NEVER gonna spend $3500 on a wedding as one of them gets shipped off. So, providing a service at a price point that creates a profit and serves a niche… that sounds an awful lot like a business.

  5. Very good read. I haven’t seen the pricing debate going on, but am kind of glad I haven’t. I remember the mess that was stirred up a while back with Hobby and the “shoot for free” thing. I’m looking forward to your post next week. Shooting for free is something I regularly do, and it is what gets me paid work and portfolio material. I’ve got some things to think through, thanks Don!

    • Yeah… the post on shooting for free instead of $14 will either be controversial or it will be a big “duh”… we’ll see.
      Thanks for reading!

  6. Don, another great piece (maybe your best). You’ve nailed it. If a client wants bargain-basement, you don’t want them. I live by this, and it rewards me with: better clients, fewer headaches and better shoots. I don’t mind passing on clients I don’t respect.

  7. Great post. This is the first time I have ever commented on a post. I have been following you for over a year now. Love the info you present. One thing I find interesting is that a lot of the websites that are all about educating photoghaphers that are just starting out, seem to be the same sites that are slammming those same photographers for tying to get into the business. I have shot a few weddings for friends or friends of friends and I am the first to tell them if they want the quality and polish of the the “big boys” then they should hire one, but most have a very tight budget and are very happy with someone that will do a better job than “uncle Charley” with his point & shoot. I never thought I was infringing on the Pro’s business because if these couples could not find a “$500″ shooter, there would be no photographer. As you said, they deserve some photos too.
    Lookinfg foward to you next post on the subject.

  8. Very well put Don. This isn’t a new issue. I remember there was a move in England back in the mid ’80s to have a law passed that would require wedding and portrait "professionals" to have a license! I think the market works and the only ones who complain are those who need to have those little talks with themselves you mentioned.

    • Oh yeah.

      With the disparaty of photographers fees, the ones at the top would be decimated. Licensing and stuff like that never works unless it is to pull everyone down.

      As to those little talks one has with themselves. Oh man, I have had to have a few in my career. Me and me2 are discussing stuff even today.

  9. One of the best responses to the whole “situation” around Scott Bourne et al. that I’ve read. Very well done, Don.

  10. I agree in many ways with your post but it leaves me with one question? How do you know when to make the transition from free newbie photographer to full blown charge the industry standard photographer?

    • Short answer… it is a trending point in your career. Once your book is ready, you start making the rounds to places to show it. When you are hired, you are full on professional. Look, if you want to be 15 – 20% off the going rate, that is fine. But the total lowball is not the best way to go.

      Watch for more on this soon.

  11. I like the way you put things into context…especially the example describing the different towns in your area. Always a pleasure reading your posts and tweeting with you.

  12. Don,

    Great post. I’m always amazed that some photographers think they face issues that no other industry has. For example, commercial software vendors seem to be able to coexist with open source vendors, and Wal Mart and Nordstrom both sell jeans. Existence in an open market is all about you: your client, your positioning, and what you deliver. Same as everybody else in any other market.

  13. Thank you so much for speaking your mind, I\’m not much of a word person. Image is where is stands with me.
    Reading your post was like wave washing over me, I loved it. Your points are great, and I wish many many more would stop by and take note.

    Thanks again.


  14. Everybody wants to sell Ferraris. Everybody wants to play the colonizer. Everybody wants to be the $8000 photographer. Give them an inch and they’ll start hating on what they once were.

  15. Thank you for the perspective, the comprehensive nature of your stance on this issue, and the help! I’ve been struggling with this issue over the past 6 months to a year and something about your blog just made it all click. Very helpful. Very insightful. Thank you!

    (Trying to make a go of it in a region where it seems most photographers give everything away for practically nothing)

  16. Maybe it’s not the cheap photogs. Maybe it’s the greedy CEO’s.

    In our business we have seen reverse auctions for the lowest bidders, Now we are being sold out to foreign engineers that aren’t as good as we are. There work doesn’t show it, their product doesn’t show it, but the bottom line does.

    You will be seing more $500.00 weddings in my part of town.

    It’s only a matter of time before it trickles down to the photographer as well. I love my profession as an engineer, but I will now do it as a hobby. My new shingle won’t be near as fun, but it wll put food on the table. So if you were born to be a photographer, as I was to be an engineer. It may soon be a hobby. Not a profession.

    • I am not sure, Larry.

      Quality will most always win out. Are there turns and twists and flirtations with cheap? Sure. But iPods, Mercedes, L-lenses, ProFoto, Braun, and a host of others are in the same game as many much cheaper manufacturers. Price is simply not the answer.

      I know what you are trying to say. But there was a time when HTML ‘programmers’ were getting 6-figure incomes… and along comes Dreamweaver and such. Memory sales middlemen made a killing from the margins of RAM… now… not so much.

      Things change, but there is always room for excellence. Even as a hobby.

  17. I’m not disagreeing with you at all. Just sharing some of your frustration in a different sector. I work for company X, making widgit Y. We were the “best.” Then upper mangement decided to take the “low road” and follow the cheap imports. Once that happened there wasn’t a difference, then …. well… let’s just say we are no longer needed and the division is being sold.

    Fortunately for you they care more about their annual report photo then a quality product. It’s easier for you as a photographer to set yourself apart from the pack. A little fame from your web site doesn’t hurt either. I have watched you market yourself over the past few years and you have done a great job.

    Anyway, as my family is trying to supplement our lagging income we are doing it with photography. I am attempting to do it with the best quality and effort as I can. Specializing in family photos. As the economy continues to downturn, less and less people can afford the better portraits. I have a certain amount of guilt knowing that I am undercutting the higher end studios, but just as the engineers over seas needed to feed their families and work for less, I need to feed mine. So there is my delima.

    I know from experience that the high end market may continue to shrink. And it is just a shame. Just saying.

    • Maybe we should talk.

      I know a photographer in an upper-middle demographic who gets around $2-5K per family photo shoot. His work is beautiful, well executed, presented and marketed with that end in mind. He never did the inexpensive route… opened shop with expectations of $2-3K sales per family shoot and has maintained that and more from the first days of opening.

      Yes… he did have:
      Killer portfolio (friends, neighbors, …(gulp) family, and strangers he had approached.
      Some savings from odd jobs and work.
      Highly disciplined and self motivated work ethic.

      But most of all he had no expectation of shooting for cheap. He had a full expectation of making a high 6 figure income as a photographer in the north San Diego market. And he does.

      The economy is cyclical. It will be back someday. Hopefully sooner than later, but back it will be. Raising your rates at that point would be nearly impossible.

      Develop your plan, deliver the highest quality work you can do, and secure the place on the ladder that is rightfully yours.

      The upper rings may be crowded and shrinking, but there is always room for excellence.

      Good luck!!

  18. “Quality will most always win out. Are there turns and twists and flirtations with cheap? Sure. But iPods, Mercedes, L-lenses, ProFoto, Braun, and a host of others are in the same game as many much cheaper manufacturers. Price is simply not the answer.”

    Every one of those manufacturers release products at multiple price points.

    • Surely they do… but in all cases mentioned, their lower prices are still higher than the ‘knock-off’ competitors high end items. Multiple price points are not a problem with photographers at all. There are a lot of ways to get creative to offer price points that make sense to the markets they sell to. Not across the board, but at the targeted demos that make sense for them.

  19. Well said Don. I saw something close to the ferrari comparison in Vision Mongers talking about how Ferrari dealers don’t just lower their prices to match Chevrolet because they are in two different niche markets.

  20. Well written and very timely. So many are all doom and gloom. I is still a struggle, but anything worth while is worth the fight. It is just a matter of figuring what fight you need to do.


    • Thanks Ron.
      Yeah… I am tired of the doom and gloomers. I have decided to ignore them and just focus on the reality of my own work. Whining bothers me… heh.

  21. Very well written……thanks!

  22. It’s just a great as well as useful part of facts. We’re joyful which you provided this useful details here. Remember to stop us up to par in this way.. My Source Thank you sharing.


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