Whether you're a total newbie to band photography or a seasoned pro, it's a good idea to step back every once in a while and [re]evaluate your pricing strategy. Both the photography and music industries are in a state of constant change, and at the same time your skill set as a photographer is also evolving. To keep your business running optimally, you need to ensure that you're pricing yourself correctly for the range of products and services you're able to provide.
Problem is, how the heck to do you figure out exactly how much you should be charging? Do you just guess? Do you let some struggling musician tell you how much they're willing to pay, and just go with that?
If you're just starting out, chances are pretty good that you'll be stoked to make anything from your photography-- after all, it's basically just a hobby, so any amount of money you can manage to drum up is just icing on the cake. Amirite? On the other hand, if you're setting your sights a little higher, and you'd like to eventually build a sustainable business, you're going to have to figure out how to price yourself for the long-term.
Fortunately, you're in the right place.....below are the 4 most common pricing strategies you should consider, along with an explanation of the pros and cons of each.
Pricing Strategy #1 - Charge by the Shoot
This is the strategy that most band photographers use when they first start charging for their services, because it's easy and straightforward for everyone involved. There aren't any surprises or hidden fees, which keeps the client happy, and your bookkeeping work on the back end is minimal.
However, the simplicity of this pricing strategy is also it's biggest weakness, because it doesn't give you a whole lot of flexibility for situations where things don't go exactly as planned. Like when your scheduled 3-hour shoot ends up going twice as long because the drummer shows up an hour late, the guitar player wants to change shirts 13 times, and the lead singer can't decide which is his "good side".
Or what happens when an up-and-coming band suddenly catches the attention of an indie label, gets a recording contract, and now they want you to retouch twice as many images as originally planned (plus design an album cover)? Do you create an awkward situation by trying to negotiate a new agreement after the fact, or do you just cut your losses?
With all of that said, I do still use the "Charge by the Shoot" pricing strategy when I'm being hired to shoot a band's live show-- even though I fully understand that concerts rarely start and end on time. The main reason is that it's tough to make much money shooting live music photography, so I really only view those types of gigs as a means to an end.
In other words, I'll usually only shoot a band's live show as a way to get to know them better, and then hopefully parlay that relationship into a promotional shoot at some point (for more detail on this strategy, check out my eBook entitled Shoot for the Stars).
So in a nutshell, the "Charge by the Shoot" pricing strategy is okay for situations where you're reasonably confident that you'll be fairly compensated for your time and effort. But if you think there's a high likelihood of "unforeseen circumstances" cropping up, then you'll probably want to use....
Pricing Strategy #2 - Itemized
This pricing strategy offers the best protection against getting ripped off, because you can basically put a price on just about everything you do for a client. In other words, all of the time that you would normally spend-- from preparation, to shooting, to retouching (and beyond)-- can be broken out into separate line items on your invoice, right alongside any physical (or digital) goods that you deliver to the client. Everything is spelled out in plain sight, so there should be absolutely no surprises at the end of the process.
Even better, many clients really appreciate this approach because it provides total transparency, and it helps them to budget accordingly. They'll take comfort in the reassurance that they won't get hit with a barrage of hidden charges when they least expect it.
On the flip side, this approach can be a bit overwhelming for some. Nobody wants things to be overcomplicated-- especially you, since the bookkeeping work with this approach is infinitely more complex than with the "by the shoot" methodology discussed in #1 above.
So when's the best time to use the itemized pricing strategy? Basically anytime you need more flexibility when it comes to placing a value on the goods and services you're delivering. I can tell you from personal experience that anytime I'm commissioned to do a big commercial shoot or especially a destination shoot, I always present the client with an itemized list of charges, including intangibles.
I do this because there are so many "moving parts" with these types of shoots that it's next to impossible to predict exactly how everything will turn out. Something almost always causes us to deviate from the original plan-- which is okay because that's the nature of the beast-- but such variability still needs to be accounted for somehow.
Bottom line-- if you're looking for maximum flexibility and predictability, then this method is probably your best bet.
Pricing Strategy #3 - Charge by the Image
Off the top of your head, how many photographers out there do you know of (including yourself) who can honestly say that their price list only contains one single item-- something along the lines of "digital images - $$$ each"?
My guess would be not many. In fact, I have yet to meet another photographer who does this, because to be truthful, it's a very tricky (and risky) way to price yourself.
Basically the way it works is, you take all of the costs that you might ordinarily break out into separate line items, such as a session fee, retouching time, etc. and you combine them all into a single flat fee that's assessed for each completed image you'll place into your client's hands.
However, you might be thinking to yourself that it'd be kinda easy to get screwed over using this pricing model. I mean, what happens if you do the shoot, retouch the images, and then when it comes time for the client to pay, they decide that they either don't want the images or can't afford them? In other words, if you're not at least collecting a session fee or some sort of deposit, then the client could just walk away at any point in the process and leave you completely empty-handed. So the real question becomes, could this pricing model ever truly work in a real-world situation?
Well, I'm here to tell you from personal experience that it absolutely can work, provided that you go about it the right way. In fact, this is the pricing model I'm currently using for about 90% of my shoots. The trick is, you have to make sure to collect something up front for "insurance", and you have to charge enough per image to cover every minute of your time, plus a little extra (call it a "creative fee").
So how do you figure out exactly how much to charge for your images? Well, one way is to look at the bottom line on all of your past invoices and divide those figures by the number of hours you spent with each client from start to finish. Or, if you don't necessarily have a long history to pull from, you could guesstimate based on a few typical jobs you've completed. Just think about what the average shoot entails, including your total time investment and the amount you end up netting when all is said and done. Remember, your number doesn't have to be set in stone...you can always adjust up or down as needed.
But why would you want to use this strategy? What are the primary benefits? Well, in my experience the most significant benefit of this approach has been the extraordinarily calming effect it has on my clients during the shoot, because they realize that nobody's going to be watching the clock (remember, we're not charging a session fee, so there are technically no time limits).
As a result, the overall vibe of my shoots is much more relaxed and comfortable, and everything ends up feeling more like a hangout session than a business engagement. Instead of spending the first half hour trying to help my clients deal with the pressure and performance anxiety associated with time limits and session fees (which is a challenge almost all professional photographers face), I find that we're able to get usable images much sooner.
But aside from the time savings, this approach pays dividends in other ways. For example, once we've successfully executed the specific shots we've planned for, then we can begin to stretch ourselves creatively and experiment a little bit. More often than not, we end up with something way cooler than we started out trying to create. Stuff that was totally off our radar. Outside-the-box kinda stuff.
However, despite the straightforwardness of this pricing methodology and the fact that it scales remarkably well, there are of course a few downsides worth pointing out. First and foremost, as previously mentioned it can be rather difficult and time-consuming to figure out exactly how much you should be charging for your images. You may very well end up losing some money until you arrive at the right price point, so be sure that you have some flexibility with your bottom line before trying it out.
Secondly, you might find that once you determine your ideal number and begin revealing it to potential clients, you could end up scaring some of them off due to "sticker shock". The thing is, almost everyone is accustomed to itemized pricing for professional photography, so you're really going to have to remind and reassure them that there will be absolutely no hidden fees or miscellaneous charges down the road.
Re-emphasize the fact that everything's included in the cost of the images, and that they'll have maximum freedom and flexibility when it comes time to choose the shots they want to purchase. This should alleviate most of their concerns, assuming your salesmanship and delivery are both solid (keep practicing until they are).
Thirdly, you're going to need to figure out some way of insulating yourself from folks who may be tempted to walk away from the deal without purchasing anything (this can happen for a variety of reasons). The method I use is to require a deposit at the time of the shoot, equivalent to the cost of 2 or 3 images. I make sure to explain to my clients that the entire amount of the deposit will be applied to their eventual image order, so they're basically just pre-paying for the first few images. Almost everyone is familiar with the concept of a session fee, and although this isn't technically a fee, the idea of paying some amount of money at the time of the photo shoot is something that most folks are perfectly comfortable with.
Another thing to remember is that you don't want to spend too much time retouching any of the images beyond the pre-paid ones unless you're pretty darn sure they'll be purchased. The last thing you want is to spend several hours in post, only to be left holding the proverbial bag. What I typically do is ask for pre-payment on these images as well, which is never a problem because the client already has 2 or 3 examples of my work in their hands at that point, so they already have a good idea of what they're getting.
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Pricing Strategy #4 - Hybrid
If you find that none of the above methods is a perfect match for your particular needs, you could always combine bits and pieces from different strategies and "roll your own." As stated above, the ultimate goal is to choose an approach that fully compensates you for your time, but is also simple and straightforward enough to minimize bookkeeping headaches and avoid scaring potential customers away. How to find that balance will ultimately be up to you to decide, but I hope this post has at least given you some food for thought.
With that said, I'd love to hear about the methods you're currently using in your own business, and which ones you've tried in the past. I did my best to be fairly general and all-encompassing with this guide, but I'm sure there are some tips, techniques, and strategies being used out there that are completely off my radar. So whichever case is true for you, please sound off in a comment below.
Lastly, if you're still totally lost and have no idea where to even begin with your pricing, maybe what you need is to see some actual real-world numbers. If that's you, then definitely check out the eBook I mentioned above, Shoot for the Stars. In that book I reveal exactly what I'm charging my clients (in US dollars).
Don't forget to comment and let me know what pricing strategy you're using (or have tried the past)!