How I Think About Pricing For My Photography Work
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Over the last 7 years of freelancing, I’ve had 3 formative moments that have shaped my thinking about my photography work pricing. The way I price my work is tailored to my priorities, my work style and my overhead. If you’re looking for a much more in depth guide, I highly recommend Rosh Sillar’s guide to how much photographer’s should charge. He updates it every year and does a great job of explaining different pricing structures with pros and cons for each.
Currently, I try to structure most of my projects to fit either under a retainer where I get paid a set monthly fee for some capped number of shoots or under an hourly rate. A lot of my work is on location and requires a minimal amount of production so it’s easy to have everything under a flat rate. When things start getting more complicated with travel, equipment rentals, additional production or intricate concepts then things change but about 80% of my work fits under retainer or hourly structures. Anyway here are the experiences that have shaped my thoughts on pricing.
Overly complicated pricing structures
When I was first starting out, I got brought on to do a very large commercial GIF project. It’s been about 7 years so I don’t remember the exact structure of the deal but it was probably more complicated than it needed to be. We agreed to a set number of pieces that I would create (it was around 60, I think) and then rates for production, shooting and editing with a cap on each of those categories. There was also a max total amount and everything was broken out into 3 phases.
The project was a behemoth to begin with but with all the different things I had to constantly track, I often ended up feeling like a quarter of my time was spent on tracking. Anytime I got close to using up one of the billing categories during the phases I had to notify the creative team I was working with and then we would have a strategy call on how to best use the remaining time. To my frustration, I had to cut some pieces that I thought had considerable promise and were exciting to me simply because I ran out editing time.
After this experience, I changed 2 things. One, no matter how complicated the project, I try to structure project pricing in a way that lets me minimize the amount of time I spend on tracking, invoicing and general business operations. I’m a photographer because I love photography not because I get hyped about project management. Two, I’m somewhat picky about the work I take on and it’s important to me to have the control to see a project through from start to finish. That has meant that I’ve passed on some larger projects that intrigued me but required me to hand off my images unedited to a retoucher or had set editing times attached.
These days, I often use a flat hourly rate (which at the moment I have 3 tiers of) and I technically don’t charge for editing time so I never have to dump a portion of a project because I run out of allotted editing time. In reality, I maintain a high enough hourly rate that supports the down time I have during the work week that I use to edit and it’s ultimately on me to stay focused and efficient with my time.
A few years ago, I decided that it might be nice to work with a modeling agency on a project for a large retail client. Up to that point, I had been working with friends and scouting random folks. A lot of the creative projects I worked on gave me substantial creative control and I used that leeway to present commercial work that was a bit less glossy than agency produced stuff. The one downside of working with friends and random folks is that you can’t rely on them to direct themselves. Pushing people that aren’t used to being in front of a camera to model outside their comfort zone is great experience that I think substantially helped me improve as a photographer but it was also exhausting at times.
For that project I wanted to focus more on the concepts and to work with models that could more or less direct themselves, so I reached out to a modeling agency. We discussed budget and parameters and a few days later I got a couple of options. There were a few models that seemed like they would be a great fit and so we then started to work out timing and logistics. At this stage I got sent the initial contract and everything came to a screeching halt.
The modeling contract was written as if it was 1995 and I was about to shoot a print campaign. There was wording that would have me on the hook for additional licensing fees if the imagery appeared anywhere after 3 years. The images and cinemagraphs I was shooting were going to be partially used for a social media campaign and there was no way I could guarantee that someone somewhere wouldn’t repost those images. I figured it wouldn’t be too big of a deal to change around the contract wording in order to reflect the usage but the agency refused to budge. We went back and forth for weeks. Whatever energy I hoped to save got eaten up by these negotiations. Ultimately, I gave up and hired a few friends.
When I was starting out as a creative I read all sorts of advice on pricing and licensing. A lot of it was very black and white. Never work for free. Never release your image copyrights. Being on the other end of a negotiation where someone refused to understand and work with my usage constraints made me realize that advice was bad. It’s not so black and white all the time.
If I’m working on a project where I’m conceptualizing the creative, drawing from my personal experience and pouring some bit of myself into the end result then I definitely want to hold onto my image copyright. In those situations I want to retain as much control as I can finagle.
If I’m photographing a product or an event where I’m showing up with camera in hand and just using my technical skills, then I’m much less persnickety about rights.
Before you start hollering at me that licensing equals money, let me respond that it depends on the type of photography you do. If you do a lot of stock, celebrity or niche work, then yes licensing will probably account for a chunk of your yearly revenue. For me though, licensing is a pretty small piece of my yearly take home. A lot of my work is about consistently creating images over a long span of time for reoccurring clients. I earn considerably more through repeat client work than through licensing. Reflecting back on the modeling agency, I ended up never working with them. They ultimately lost out on thousands in commissioned work for their models because of their intransigence. I’m a photographer because I love the process and I love the weird opportunities that come my way to see exceptional food and places, not because of the money.
The other 20% of projects
While I try to fit most projects under an hourly rate, sometimes I get a project that’s just too big, too complicated or too unique to fit under either of those structures. Last year I worked on a huge commercial project that required location scouting, production, rental equipment and assistance. On top of that some of the imagery was for web, some of it was going to wrap around a building and a few things were going up on a billboard. In that situation, I cost things out, came up with a licensing rate that felt fair to me and came up with a total project fee. From there I just invoiced 50% of the project before it started and the rest after I turned in the photos.
In a project that takes up a lot of time and work, I feel that an up front 50% helps build trust for me to feel confident that the client will ultimately pay me (I’ve been pretty fortunate and have only had a clients refuse to pay me twice over 7 years). Additionally, on a shoot where I’m hiring assistants and renting equipment, having 50% upfront makes my cash flow situation much more doable. The upfront 50% makes sure I can pay for all the expenses on my end without having to dip into my savings.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been doing a lot more interior work, which requires considerably more editing time than my usual food photography work. At the moment I’m going through that awkward stage where I’m not entirely confident of my pricing structure. Initially I priced those projects out the same as my food and travel photography on an hourly basis but the editing is a lot more intensive. For some of the larger projects I’ve been adding editing time but that leaves be back at square one where I’m tracking a bunch of things. Currently, I’m contemplating changing my interior photography work to price per image but I haven’t made a decision on that at the moment.