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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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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