Understanding your Value as a Photographer (part 1)

Feb 15, 2021 | Creative Business, Food Photography

Something I get asked frequently is “how should I price myself as a photographer?”

And while this is not something that I can answer for you, I thought it might be helpful for me to write a two-part post on what it means to understand your value and some things you can do to determine how that translates into a price tag.

Why you can’t ask someone else to tell you your value

First, a soapbox moment: If you follow me on Instagram you know that I usually grit my teeth when I see this pricing question thrown at me repeatedly in my DMs. If I’m being brutally honest, it frustrates me that people try to use the access that Instagram grants them to take advantage of the knowledge of people who are further ahead in business. It’s not normal to expect free business advice from other people, especially on such complicated subjects. I think we need to take a step back and understand that there is a line when it comes to what we should be asking other people to help us figure out when we aren’t paying them for their time and years of experience. I come on Instagram to serve you guys, but I can’t serve you if I’m not demonstrating how to be a smart business person. It goes both ways.

If you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to be willing to be one even when finding the answers takes risk and work (that’s literally the definition of an entrepreneur.) You also need to understand that part of knowing your value is being able to determine it for yourself without someone else telling you what that number is, or you’ll spend your career losing negotiations. This is just a fact.

No one else knows the investments you make in your work, the overhead costs, the time you take on a project, or the market that you work in. So if you’re asking someone else to tell you what your pricing should be, you’re making a poor business decision that doesn’t take your actual operating expenses and potential into account. Of course, we need to be mindful of what a reasonable cost is for our market, but that is all a part of the greater equation that only you (or a mentor whom you are paying to intimately understand your business) can solve.

I hold lots of space for us to all be learning here, so there’s no judgment if you’re realizing you haven’t done the work in this area. But hopefully, this gives some perspective from my side.

You are the one who sets your value

Much of my career has been built on me deciding to do good work and then doing it. No one offered me a dollar amount and told me my work was worth that number. I chose to invest time, sweat, and my own money into building something that I knew was valuable, and then I’ve charged accordingly. I’ve also been brutally honest with myself when my work wasn’t worth a whole lot of money, and instead of doing work for free or for cheap, I chose to wait and work behind the scenes until I was better before I charged.

The topic of working for free to build a portfolio is one that people have many varied opinions on, and it can be hard to know the right answer. Personally, I decided that if my work wasn’t good enough to charge for that it wasn’t good enough to give to a business to use. And once it was good enough where someone wanted to use it, it was worth charging for. Many people approach this in different ways, and you don’t have to go about it the way I did, but I believe you don’t need clients to build a photography portfolio, even in the restaurant space. You can take shots at home or when you’re out at cafe’s and practice that way. Then you never get caught in an awkward spot where someone who you did free/cheap work for wants you to keep working for free when it no longer makes sense for you.

Again, you don’t have to do this the way I did. But I strongly encourage you to think ahead when you decide what this is going to look like for you.

If someone doesn’t appreciate your value, you don’t have to work with them.

I recently got an email saying that someone wanted a reasonable photographer with reasonable pricing, followed by a few rude sentences letting me know that they wanted a deal and would accept nothing less from me.

I responded with a proposal showing my regular prices and telling them if they wanted to share their budget I could tell them what they could get for it. I didn’t expect a response, and I didn’t get one. Because while I have all the sympathy in the world for restaurants who have struggled through this pandemic, I have supported them in ways that don’t put my business in jeopardy. You can’t serve your clients if you put yourself out of business by not charging enough, and it does no one any good to enable people to take advantage of you. Plus, you can’t do your best work when you’re not charging enough to focus enough time on your clients. There’s no way around the fact that everyone wins when you charge your worth.

Even if another entrepreneur doesn’t understand your value, you still don’t have to work with them.

You’re allowed to charge full price no matter who you are working with. If anything, other small businesses should want to support you, but I’ve learned this isn’t always the case.

A few years ago I got a DM from a prominent female entrepreneur in a networking community that I was a part of. She asked my prices for a branding photoshoot, which I sent to her. She then asked to grab coffee to talk over the shoot, which I was happy to do.

We met up and I came ready to show her the shoot I had planned. She had seen the prices, so I figured she was on board since she had asked to meet. This wasn’t the case. She spent half an hour trying to talk down my prices, explaining she was cost-sensitive (she was leaving to go on vacation right after our meeting, so she probably needed spending money?) I politely told her I was charging what I needed to based on the worth of my work. A small part of me wondered if I was doing the wrong thing by not giving another female entrepreneur a discount. But then this happened:

We parted ways, but not before I inquired about her services. She told me her hourly rate which was more than double what I was charging. My prices were not too much for her, she just didn’t appreciate the value. To give a discount would have enabled the devaluing of my work even more by someone who didn’t view my work as a worthwhile investment.

It’s also worth saying that in the branding and marketing world we help other people to value their own business by being a way for them to invest in their own potential.

I climbed into my car and thought over everything I had learned in that moment about sticking to my guns about my value and not giving discounts. Not everyone understands what you have put into your work, and that is ok. That meeting wasn’t a waste of my time, it was an opportunity for me to be a smart businessperson and stand up for my work. I take what I learned that day into every meeting I go to now.

As much as I’m all about charging your worth, It’s important to make sure you live this out on your end, too. Celebrate other people who charge their worth, and support them when you can. I try to be conscious of sourcing shoot materials from other creative business owners and avoid saying that anyone is “too expensive,” to purchase from. Aim to be what you want to see in your clients when you are working with another business.

Value is the sum of many parts, most of which no one sees.

In part 2 I’ll be talking more about your overhead costs, but for now let’s talk about what goes into a photography business that no one else sees. You have your (probably expensive) college education (which, even if it’s not related to your industry, it’s still a part of your learning experience.) You have online courses and continuing ed, cameras, props, lighting equipment, backgrounds, laptop, memory cards and drives, wifi, Creative Cloud, shoot ingredients, health insurance, equipment insurance, photo deliver software, accounting fees, etc, etc. It’s a lot, and it’s very expensive. Part of why I don’t believe in working for free (ever) is because even when you’re new you still have high overhead costs to pay, and you should be able to cover those if someone is wanting to work with you.

And then there is everything you’ve accumulated through your years of work: the expertise behind the work that you do. This is even more valuable than the equipment. When I step into a restaurant shoot the client is not only paying for the images, they’re paying for the fact that I know the trick to making the bad lighting work. I know the angle that will make their food look best. I know the colors to pair to make the food pop. I know the questions to ask about their brand and their audience that will translate into an image that sells. I know the competitive landscape and how I can make them stand out. And I know how to run an efficient restaurant shoot while they’re in service so I’m not in the way but the images still come out great. This is factored into my pricing.

And then there is the potential for what good images can do when someone is using them. I’ve shot for clients who landed major magazine features and endorsements shortly after using the images I sent them because I knew how to make their brand look its best. Amazing images truly do sell, and you need to account for that.

Your value is something you communicate in the way you present yourself

Hopefully, all of this gives you a glimpse into understanding your value. But it all falls short if you don’t present your business professionally.

This is where so many freelancers drop the ball with unprofessional communication, bad (or no) branding, a bad website, and poor presentation of deliverables. I’ve branded myself and set up my business to look just as legit and high-end as any other large Manhattan firm, because I know I can do the same kind of work that you would get with a large firm. Presentation matters, that’s why we’re commercial photographers, right?

You can’t expect someone to pay high-end prices when you look like a cheap business. It doesn’t work that way.

And with that, I’ll leave you to digest this and think a little more about your value. Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll talk more about how to apply this!

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Hey! I’m Moriah– a commercial and editorial food photographer and creative entrepreneur who is perpetually drinking coffee and covered in dog hair. I write this blog from New York City where I run my creative agency, The B Edit. I write this blog in the hopes that you can one day have your creative dream job, too!   

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