How to start a photography business: What to Charge

What should you charge when selling your artwork as a photographer? What to charge when that artwork technically doesn’t have any cost (you bought that camera long ago) for one photography session? I’m going to share my thoughts on what to charge when starting a photography business, from my 10+ years of experience, dabbling in all different price ranges and structures.

Two years ago, I wrote a post titled, Starting and Maintaining a Photography business, and I’ve heard that it comes up at the TOP of a random google search for that similar topic! It’s still got great and relevant info, but I’ve had SOOO many comments of people asking questions that I’m going to tackle some of those, and be more specific on some of the topics I wrote about. SOOO, if you are someone that has thought about starting a photography business, this is for you! If not, then maybe it’ll be interesting anyway, and you can understand why a photographer charges what they do.

Taking pictures of two girls

{Above shot taken on my clients smart phone, to see the images from this session on a gorgeous fall day (some of my faves) check them out HERE}

Did you stumble onto a photography business?


It’s happened a million times:

  1. You get a nice camera because you want to take better pictures of your kids.
  2. Those cute pictures are posted on Facebook or some other social media.
  3. Friends and family see those pictures and start asking you to take pictures of their kids.
  4. You do it because it’s fun.
  5. Those friends/family post your pictures.
  6. You start getting strangers asking you to take their pictures.
  7. You have no clue what to charge.

Sound familiar?

Well, that’s what happened to me, and I know it’s happened to many others. I’ve always had a passion for photography, and capturing the moments, even back in high school on the yearbook staff. Some people don’t have that passion ignite until their own children were born. However it comes about, taking pictures can be addicting. You want to keep out doing yourself, you see something clever and you want to try to imitate it, you see color or food and you want to figure out how to capture it in the most artistic way.

What level photographer are you?

From how I see it, starting a business can happen at two different levels, and I’d adjust how you charge accordingly.

1) Newbie Photographer-Just got a camera, have mostly shot on AUTO, you capture the moments well, but still learning how to take consistently great images.  The photographer often uses the very basic line of cameras, very possibly shooting with the kit lens that comes with the camera. (If you’d like to learn to Say NO to Auto, check out my book with that title).

2) Practiced Photographer- You’ve had your camera a while, have really taught yourself how to use it, feel happy with the majority of your shots in multiple light scenes. This photographer has likely upgraded from a beginner dSLR camera to a middle of the line series, and has invested in a lens or two beyond the kit lens.

If you aren’t sure about cameras, see more about what camera is best for you, check out my post: How to Decide what Camera to Buy.

People will ask you to take their pictures in either scenario. Some people really don’t care about perfect photography, their kids are going to be adorable no matter what the light and exposure are like, so are just fine with the Newbie photographer. Others have seen fine art photography, and look all around for someone that takes their style, and are willing to invest in the practiced photographer.

Here is an image I took of my kids back in 2005. I had paid clients at the time, was still shooting on auto, and I was pretty pleased with myself for this cute capture:

How to start a photography business

I still love my kids cuteness, but I’ve learned so much since then. I think I was charging $75 for a session that included digital images.

A lot of photographers that have been around for years are frustrated with the Newbie or Practiced photographer charging really low prices. It hurts the industry, and honestly hurts them. I personally see full time photography, or someone who plans to make a living solely on photography to be very very difficult. I’ve never had to do that, as my husband is the main income earner in our home, my photography has always been secondary. But if it were our main income, it would be very stressful, because it’s quite seasonal (fall and spring most popular) and most families don’t have professional portraits taken every year, but every 2-3 years.

Professional photography is a luxury. Something people don’t NEED, so it ebbs and flows. When the economy is down, the photography industry is down, because people need food and gas, they don’t need photography. Lots of photographers will run sales at times like this, to help ease the monetary burden, and to still have some income as opposed to none.

How to decide what to charge?

Deciding what to charge can be VERY difficult. Mainly because it’s hard to judge yourself on your own level of artwork. Can you really charge Picaso prices when you color outside the lines like a pre schooler?

So how good ARE you?

What’s difficult is that you can’t really judge yourself, and your family and close friends think you’re amazing because they love you, so that gets tricky! Honestly, The best way to know what to charge is to a) look around at photographers in your area that have images similar to yours and charge accordingly b) Ask an impartial person that you don’t know like a photographer you admire, what they think about your work. You may even need to pay for mentoring or something in that case.

So here is what I say about charging: Start with a set price, discounted, so you can build your portfolio

If you are a Newbie photographer, but are continuously practicing and getting better, I’d say to charge $100 for a session, but have an introductory price of 50% off. That ways its easier for people to swallow, you are compensated for your beginner work, but they clients know that it’s a beginner sale. If they like their experience with you, when you take off that 50%, they will likely continue on with you because they knew it was a sale the first time.

If you are a Practiced photographer, I’d start at $200 for a session and try the same thing–50% off for a certain amount of time. Post that time frame on your site next to the price, 3-6 months. Then if that date comes and you aren’t quite ready to take off the discount, maybe make it a 30% discount or keep it the same. This helps you feel more comfortable in the business part of it. Because you are more practiced, you will likely want to raise your prices at your year mark as you get too many clients to take on. Raising prices allows you to do a little less work for the same money.

At some point, for each type of photographer, you will need to decide if all of the work that you are doing, is worth that amount, or if you want to charge more. Photographers will often raise their prices, to go along with inflation, either once a year or every other year, often January 1st. Once you set a price, wait at least 6 months to change your prices, so people don’t see a lot of flip flopping.

What is included in the session fee?

This is where it gets more complicated. Several years ago, I charged $200 for the session fee, then there was the cost of print purchase after that. Some people spent $100 on prints, while others spent $1000. My average was $400-500 on prints. The ordering process became tedious, and although I liked approving the prints before passing them on, I recently have gone all digital in order to streamline and simplify my process. I really did hate the idea that clients had to pick and choose which images to print, and I like that they can keep the silly candid pictures that they might not otherwise purchase as a print. However, it is very hard to trust images with my name on it, and turn it over to clients who print at poor photo labs, and therefore the quality makes my photography look bad. I try to instruct my clients (with my packaging that I will share soon) the best I can with printing, but I can only do so much. I have really loved using Black River Imaging lately as a lab.

So for now, I have two options when it comes to client sessions.

1) Petite Session–I recognize that some people just want a few pictures taken, and don’t want to invest in over $500 for the custom session. I have done this enough to know that I can get what I need in the first 15 minutes of a session, so that is the timeframe for the petite session. Less practiced photographers might opt for 20-30 minutes for a mini session. With this session, I take a posed shot of the family, individual shots of the kids, and a couple shot. If we have extra time, I’ll take of “Just kids” and maybe a few candids. With kids of every range, I’ve never had a problem with that time frame, nor have I had a client complain that it wasn’t enough time to get what they wanted.  I charge $275 for this and they are given approximately 40 images on a thumb drive with printing rights. I have posted this before for travel sessions (I generally charge a little less, $200-250 and have had people in other areas tell me it’s much too expensive, but for my area, it’s worked great for me.) I do not photograph newborns in petite sessions, and if they are Seniors, just one location.

Here is a shot I got in a petite session (more here):

How to take family pictures

2) Custom Session–These sessions last 60-90 minutes depending on the type. With seniors in high school, we “location hop” with outfit changes, so it takes up to 90 minutes. With families, I send out this questionnaire to determine something unique about them to give them a great experience, something fun, not just the posed stuff. I suggest we include a fun treat to eat at the end, or a game to play. Dads often leave these sessions telling me how painless it was, and “more fun than they thought.”  For these sessions, I wanted to make my “happy place” with the previous session when I was selling prints, and that was $500-700. This includes all the best images on a thumb drive which ends up being around 75-100. I also include a 16×20 mounted print, which I sold for $125 before.

Here is an example of something that might happen in a custom session (click here to see more of this shoot):

Taking pictures with a pillow fight

My prices are likely higher than a beginner might charge, just starting out, whether they are a newbie or practiced photographer. It took me quite a few years to work up my abilities and confidence to charge that much. I also recognize that the custom session is not for everyone, and I’ve had some people say they love my style, but I’m not in their price range, and I happily forward the info of a dear local photographer friend, who charges less. I have no shame, I don’t need everyone’s business, this isn’t my bread and butter, but that’s the amount that I want to make in order to take on a session. It’s 4-5 hours of time factored in, along with the $1000′s of dollars I’ve spent on training, equipment, and tools to hone my craft over the years. I am finally secure with that.

Potential clients generally view THIS PAGE to decide what type of session to book with me, it’s very detailed.

People aren’t calling me, am I priced too high?

The photography market is saturated. Anyone can be a photographer when buying a camera, so there are quite a few options when clients are selecting who to photograph their family.  It could be the pricing, but it could also be your level of photography or their style just isn’t your style.  If you don’t know what your style is, practice some new things to figure it out. If you know your style and don’t want to change, then don’t do something you don’t love just because there is money involved (unless you really need the money). The #1 BEST way to earn new clients is “word of mouth” by former clients. In my next post, I’ll talk all about that, so stay tuned!

Any questions???

{I’ve got lots more photo tips, check them out here, or click on one of the links throughout the post}

How to use a dSLR camera in photography

Kristen Duke

Kristen Duke

Thank you for stopping by my little spot on the web! If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to my future posts via RSS, Facebook, and if you are looking to improve your photography, see my beginner books HERE.
Kristen Duke
Kristen Duke
Kristen Duke

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Comments

  1. Gretchen says:

    I’ve done a few free sessions and have considered taking the next step with my photography so I love this and look forward to reading more.

    • Kristen Duke says:

      So glad this was helpful! It’s fun to be asked initially, but at some point, it’s nice to be compensated for all the hard work!

  2. Thank you for the great post! I just started my photo business last year. Over the Mantle Photography http://www.overthemantlephotography.com It’s been a college education in itself learning about operating a business! I am very much very part-time right now. Even though I stay busy with everything in my life, I would like to get more clients so I can be more successful (read: earn more money). So far, I’ve only shot people whom I know. I’ve charged far below what I would charge for people whom I don’t know. I give my first paying client the same rate (even though I know they can afford higher) just out of gratitude for being my first client. A couple of other people in my church do not have the funds to pay my higher fees, and I don’t charge my pastor’s family or assistant pastor’s family. I am donating a couple of gift certificates to my MOPS group for their annual auction fundraiser, and I’m hoping to generate some interest from that.

    I can’t remember if you’ve ever discussed taxes, but that would be good information. I knew I would have to pay sales tax, personal income tax, and business license fees, but I had NO IDEA I had to pay state business tax on income and personal property tax.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to your future posts!

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I like to gift people who have done service for me, as well, and good luck with the fundraiser! Offer incentives to those who win that certificate to help them spread the word online. See my post next week. I’m kinda clueless about taxes, I’ve got a great helper!

  3. I also really like how you don’t photograph people in your own ward. That also helps your photographer friends who charge less but you referring clients to them. Win WIn all around…you don’t take clients you don’t want, client pays the price you want, and your friend get’s referrals.

    • Kristen Duke says:

      I do see it as a win win! Year ago in another ward, I did charge, and it just changed things…felt awkward, so when i moved I made it a new policy and I’ve never regretted it!

  4. Thank you, this is so encouraging! I am offering mini-sessions to help pay for our (orphan) hosting fees. And oh my, it’s hard to know what’s a good price. I feel pretty competent as a photographer and I have the equipment. But, I pretty much just shoot for me, so this is a whole new venture! Thanks for the helpful post!

    • Kristen Duke says:

      It is really hard to determine a price. If you are newer, I’d go a bit under my prices, I’ve been in my area for a while, and this blog gives me extra exposure that allows me to price a bit higher.

  5. I wanted to ask a question about the legal aspects. Would you recommend going to a CPA to be sure I have all the necessary licensure and permits? I have business insurance, but wasn’t sure where to go from here. TIA
    Ashlie recently posted..It is pretty incredible…My Profile

  6. Thanks for this! I’ve been trying to get my photography business up and running for the past several months. So far, I haven’t had any paying clients, but I have had a TON of interest. Right now, I’m just focusing on building my portfolio so that I can eventually get a real website to display my work, so I do a lot of family sessions. And of course, I love trying new concepts with my daughter; she makes an excellent model! ( :

    • Kristen Duke says:

      Yes, build that portfolio as much as possible to potential clients can see the variety of your work. Best of Luck!

  7. Wow! I LOVED this! It was interesting reading about starting a photography business and what to charge. My daughter who is 16 has been taking pictures since she was 14 and has been doing it “professionally” for a year now. Of course being her mother, i think she does pretty good, but knows she has soooooooo much more to learn. After reading this post it kind of gives us an idea of whether or not she is charging what she should. I think, and so does she, that she is not charging enough. Sometimes I think, well maybe because she is only 16, its ok that we don’t charge more, but then I know we are discounting her talent. So hard to decide. I think she will eventually start increasing a little more. I often remind her that she’s pretty blessed at her age to be getting paid for what she loves doing.

  8. Lots of great information here Kristen! Thank you for being so open!

  9. Great advice! I pinned this to my photography tips for bloggers pinterest board!

  10. Great advice! I pinned this to my photography tips for bloggers pinterest board!

  11. Found this on Pinterest and cant wait to share it with my wife!

  12. Thank you for this article! I’m a semi-professional photographer – I work for a studio but from time to time I do freelance work to pay for bills or for college classes…. I’ve started doing freelance for about 8 months now and I’m still charging 75 for my sessions… It’s quite hard for me to charge at the price I’m valued as other photographers in my area have said but your article has given me confidence to really push through with my new pricing.

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