The Photography Business, It’s Not about Photography

Why do I have to keep telling people that the photography business is not about photography, it is about business. Photography is just the product that the business is built around.


I am tired, very tired, of new “professional” photographers that can’t understand the idea that photography is a business. At least, it is as soon as you say you are a professional. I constantly hear from these people: “I can’t charge the same rates as my competition. I’m new and I just don’t feel right doing that.” or “I’m not good enough to charge the full rate for this job. I don’t have the experience.” The hell you aren’t!


If a new McDonald’s opens across town do they charge any less than the first McDonald’s in town? It’s a new franchise owner and they have never owned a restaurant before so I guess we should go to the new one because they will be cheaper. No they won’t!  They charge the same price as the other one for the same service and the same food. So if you are the new photographer in town and you have the skills and the talent to do the job, why are you afraid to charge for the same service?!


I understand that new photographers may not have the experience that some clients want, and that is fine. However if they have the talent to get the shot, they have the ability to do it in a professional manner and they deliver the results the client wants why are they charging less than they are worth?

Sure there is a variable in rates from the inexperienced to the seasoned pro to a reasonable extent. The new photog in town is not going to command the rate that a Joe McNally, a David Hobby or a Helmut Newton (if he were still alive)would but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth the same amount that the other photogs in town are worth. If the end result is the same and the service provided is the same (excluding individual artistic style), why not get the same fee?


Then there is the client that loves to exploit that. That client is always going to go for the cheapest rate he can find because his images only have to be good enough to get by. Guess what? There are always going to be the bottom dwellers that can feed here, but when I see a talented photographer damn near giving their services away it gets me angry.


I have been shooting professionally for years and I have raised my rates over time but they have always been near what my competition is charging too. This does a number of things for me and for the business itself. For one it keeps all of the pro shooters in check. Our clients know that when they come to us they are going to get XYZ service for ABC cost. They also know that the quality is going to be of a certain professional level. This means that if Joe Blow over on the other side of town is charging twice what I charge, he better have an added value of some kind that I can’t provide. If he doesn’t then the client will go to someone else in town.


Another thing consistent rates do is show a commitment to servicing our clients. We can’t survive in the business world without being our clients’ advocate, at least to some extent. To do that is to provide that added value.


When these new photographers come along they often haven’t been taught much about business. This means they may not be aware of the cost of doing business. Do they understand that there is a cost every time you press the shutter?  “But it’s digital so it’s free!” No it isn’t!  There are only so many times that shutter can be pressed before that camera has to be replaced or repaired. Then there is the cost of the computer they will upload the images to, the time processing them in the expensive software they purchased and the desk all that stuff sits on. Plus there is the cost of insurances that protects us and our clients.


I can go on and on and on but I think you get my point. If you are a pro, act like one. If you need to hire a pro, hire one, and pay them a fair rate. After all the old saying is true; if it seems too good to be true…

12 replies
  1. Murray
    Murray says:

    Good solid advice.

    I recently quoted for a job at my normal day rate for local work, it was rejected, the client told the ad agency he could only afford 2/3 of my quote. Reluctantly I reduced my quote because I wanted to work with the agency – new to me. I still didn’t get the commission.

    I’m told he has gone to someone who charges less, or perhaps he’s doing it himself because “good enough’ will do. Actually it won’t – good enough is never satisfactory to me. I want to go to bed at night knowing I’ve done the best job possible for my client. This is link to my blog about clients and price.

  2. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Perhaps Murray, the client never intended to hire you, but rather wanted to use your reduced quote as ammunition to get that other photog to go even lower with their quote. This is not all that uncommon of a practice.

    Negotiating price and reducing price are two entirely different things. When your quote comes in over the budget of the client, it is perfectly acceptable and reasonable to negotiate a price that the client can handle. But the negotiation should be the reduction of services, not the reduction of value. Simply reducing your price undermines the value of your service. For example:

    You quote a client $6,000 for 6 images to be licensed for web use for two years ($500 to shoot each image plus $500 to license each image for 2 years) . Your client calls back stating they cannot exceed their budget of $3000 and want to negotiate. You next move is to accept the $3000, but only for 3 images to be licensed for web use of one year. By doing this, you haven’t reduced the value of the images or their licenses.

    When you go to McDonald’s but can’t afford to purchase a large Coke-Cola, do they lower their price for it? No, they offer you a smaller cup. Why should you be any different?

  3. Lenka
    Lenka says:

    I’m new to the business, and just in bad times… Businesses don’t hire photographers anymore (and quality of photographs in usual ads is much lower now, but who cares when all of them do the same), and most people just aren’t going to pay _anything_ for a photograph here in the Netherlands (NL scores very high when it comes to the number of cameras per 1000 people…).
    Two years ago, I photographed pro bono for a local mother center and exhibited a series of 29 portraits of women from around the world. I’ve got very positive reactions from the women, they admired the portraits, some of them said that they never had such a lovely portrait of them taken. So I’ve asked them if they would like to _buy_ those beautiful portraits. No. They were not ready to pay even EUR 5 (!) for a 8×12″ print, which is just a lab price. (They’d rather go and spend EUR 10 for a pizza.)
    It didn’t get any better since then. Even the portrait photographers that are settled here for tens of years offer now their services for as few as EUR 75 for a complete photoshoot including a print, and special discounts many times a year. I ask myself how can they pay their bills, or how much do they have to lower the quality (maybe a pass-photo-type shoot?).

  4. Kevin M
    Kevin M says:

    I asked the same question to a successful photographer years ago when I was starting out.
    “What do you do when the client only has a limited budget?’ He said that this was a question he faced every day. He said we are like chefs, you just have to have a good reputation for your product and they will keep coming back for more.
    As far as the customer is concerned you don’t go to eat and start to discuss the prices on the menu.

    So the answer to the question – you can reduce your rate but also reduce what you offer.
    If they only want to spend $3000 then offer the six shots at half the usage rate. They will still want to use the images but they will get only half the usage. If they are using the images to build their brand they will come back and either re use you as their photographer for new images or they will re sign for another period.
    Photographers are always too nice – we are always making the difficult decisions for them.
    I know this sounds hard – but it is business.
    The photographers who stay in business don’t allow the customers to push them around.
    Be fair but don’t get trodden on.

  5. Deirdre
    Deirdre says:

    I’m working hard in my area to get people “used” to my prices and to take me seriously as a professional. I do not mind giving back to my community for certain events. I enjoy this very much and it give me great pleasure. But when the business community in surrounding areas give me a hard time, well then I find that I still need to educate. It’s frustrating, I loose the gig, but I have stuck to my guns. Trying to find places that understand usage rates for me is almost next to impossible in my area.

  6. Sean Holmquist
    Sean Holmquist says:

    Discounted work means “non-quality” work. I like the chef/restaurant analogy above. If you have a good reputation or were referred because the food was excellent – then you go there and try it. If you like it you go back if you don’t… you don’t. Our business is no different. Much of my business is driven on word-of-mouth advertising and referrals, some are friends some are aquaintances. Often I get a job before price is even discussed. Part of “business” is sales and quite simply a pleasing personality (which I believe I have).

    All that having been said, I still feel it right to offer “specials” or “coupons” to get people “in the door” – and if all they want is the special so be it – at least there is one more advertisement – and if someone asks for the “special price” and the special is expired… at least you have a shot on the next sale based on the quality of the image they have seen at their friends house.

    Yes, business is very much a part of photography in many aspects… supply and demand drive us and to some extent our prices and price integrity. The trick is to know exactly how much to charge balancing your own supply and demand. Some of us produce exquisite dishes, some do not… oh my I could go on… I better shut up! Ultimately most consumers understand that rule “You get what you pay for” – my question to YOU however would be “What are you worth?”

  7. Christina
    Christina says:

    While I understand the point of this post, the ‘McDonald’s analogy’ doesn’t cut it for me. McDonald’s is a well-established fast-food chain with corporate offices overseeing new franchise openings. There are SOPs, and C of A’s in place to be sure that the food is from a certified/approved corporate supply house. The SOPs are in place so that hamburger A tastes like hamburger B and so on.

    When I started, I offered my current prices at a discounted, portfolio-building rate.

  8. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    As a new “professional” photographer I run into the problem of people not wanting to pay enough. Now, I don’t have any work. I would love some advice on how to acquire paid work. I know that there are photographers out there getting paid, but I find that most people don’t understand the time, effort, experience and skill that goes into making a great photo. Everyone thinks photography should be cheap.

    What do you recomend?

  9. Michael
    Michael says:


    Many people don’t want to pay for photography for a number of reasons. Maybe they don’t see value in it, show them the value. An image of a loved one is priceless and that is especially so when we lose that loved one. If the image is one of a product then what is the value to the client? It has great value if that image sells their product or service. If the image is art, then what is the value of the emotions that it brings to the viewer? Educate your clients on the value of each image and each project. Photography is about sales more than the science of light but the two do coexist. Sell your client on that science.

    If you have or are working for free, stop. All that does is tell your client that your work has no value. If you are working for less than the professional rates in your area then the value is less than that of a seasoned pro. I’m sorry, just because I have been shooting for years and you are somewhat new, does that mean you don’t work as hard as I do to capture the image needed? If anything you work harder to gain that experience. So why should you get paid less?

    Show the value. Keep doing it. Read this blog and others like and Don’t give up and raise your fees don’t lower them.

  10. Terra
    Terra says:


    I love your rationale along with many of the other replies I have read regarding the article. Reading this is very timely for me as I too, am new in the business and still trying to find my way. Currently I do portrait photoghraphy and manage to do about three to four sessions a week. This is only covering some of my expenses and certainly not providing me any type of profit. I guess I am one of the proffesionals that is being referred to in this article. Shame on me for being that person. I do know better. Years ago I read Robert Kiosoki’s books and found “Rich Dad Poor Dad” to be the bible of understanding that we are in the business of business, period.

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