What’s in a photographer’s price?

Pricing one’s work is often one of the trickiest things to do as a photographer (or any artist for that matter). As a Montreal photographer who shoots events, weddings, portraits and real estate – four very different markets with four different types of clients, I have learned that the key to getting to a price both parties are comfortable with, is to clearly understand your client’s expectations and make sure they understand what they are getting from you in return for the price you are asking.

But what does it all mean???

While some event planners or wedding planners are familiar with contracting photographers, for most people finding, choosing and hiring a photographer is not an easy task. For one thing, there are countless photographers out there, many of whom have their own websites or blogs with different ways of packaging and selling their skills and their work. The sheer abundance of choice can be overwhelming, even to a skilled buyer like an event planner or wedding planner. What accounts for the difference between one photographer and another? There are many factors that I have observed, which I will share here with you to help you choose an event, wedding, portrait or real estate photographer the next time you need one:

  1. Who owns the final images?: In the pre-digital days and through the industry transition as older photographers held onto their film cameras and film-based pricing structures, a price was bounded by and built upon a monopolistic control of the negative. The photographer took your picture, but her or she held onto the negative. They would make you a print and charge you for it, but keep the negative in order to charge you more each time you wanted a new image or an image in a different size.  In my opinion this business model is dead and does not serve either the customer or the photographer’s best interest. It certainly makes no sense in the digital era yet still I am surprised at how many photographers cling to the notion that they somehow retain some implicit right over a client’s images. It is even more astounding when the client has already paid you for your time and effort if you are charging an hourly rate or session fee. It pays to ask up front if you will be given a copy of all the images taken during your shoot or if you will only be allowed to select the ones you want and then pay for prints. If the photographer retains the digital images and only lets you have prints you will be guaranteed to pay more.
  2. Hourly or fixed fee?: As a Montreal wedding photographer and Montreal event photographer I charge by the hour for my work. My price is based on a few things. Firstly, I will be providing full coverage of your event, usually non-stop. The only point in an event where one can safely take a 15 or 20 minute break in my experience is during meals as no one wants a picture of themselves with their mouth open shoveling food into it, no matter how pretty the face. Unless you are documenting some kind of food related event, eating shots are unnecessary and provide a built-in break. Otherwise, you cannot afford to be unavailable and so you will be out and on the move and ready with your camera for when the moments happen.  I tend to take a lot of photos (roughly 100-125 per hour) which provides clients with security knowing they will have their event fully covered.  A fixed fee, on the other hand, makes sense for small groups or individual portraits and real estate listings photography where the agent is more concerned with getting good results than the time you spend inside – in fact, most agents would prefer you spend as little time as possible shooting as they are not getting paid for the time they spend waiting for you.
  3. Is your price negotiable?: From time to time I get asked this question and my answer is always the same: no. But I don’t stop there. In the case of wedding photography or event photography I explain to my prospective client that my rate is based on  the time I will spend working and providing live continuous coverage of the event + the time I will spend uploading and preparing viewing galleries for the client + the time I will spend responding to emails and queries from the client + the time I will spend editing the photos the client selects for final post-production + the time I will spend burning a final DVD of the images + the costs of delivering the DVD to the client + an allocation of the cost of my investment in professional photographic equipment, computers and the latest versions of professional photo editing software which is expensive. Once a client sees all the many inputs that go into a price, it is much easier for them to understand that my price is actually more than reasonable. I then ask them to consider the costs of the food they will be serving, or perhaps the venue rental fee or some other fee attached to the event against any one of which I am certain I will be one of the least expensive. And my work yields lasting images that document the event or wedding and forever retain the beauty or significance of the event – the food will be eaten and gone tomorrow, the lights turned off, the flowers wilted and composted while my photos will be looked at, shared, posted across Facebook accounts, websites and sent by email around the world. Finally, if the client is really looking for a discount I recommend them to other, younger and less exeperienced photographers who will work for the experience.
  4. Quality matters: This one is simple but needs saying nonetheless. Yes the ubiquity of digital cameras has made it seem much, much simpler to take photos of anything and everything you want. Yes, even the most inexperienced photographer can come up with a few good lucky shots. But can you – or your sister’s younger cousin who just started taking photos – consistently set up, find, capture and produce quality images time and again? Does your photographer know how to shoot in different or changing light conditions? Are they prepared with backup gear, batteries, storage cards and chargers should something happen? Do they know how to interact with you and your guests to elicit real smiles and laughter without overdoing it and taking up more space than they should as someone who works for you.  There is ALWAYS a cheaper alternative. But quality is hard to fake. If your photographer comes with great references, a portfolio you admire, a personality you like and a professional, client-focused attitude, then he or she is worth the price being asked. Quality counts because photographers, just like other professionals who put their name to what they do, live and die by their work. A professional cares about his or her reputation – and so do you if you have chosen to talk to them about their price. They get it from producing quality work clients love.

Educating your client about what goes into producing quality photography is key.  Even if all it looks like you are doing is pointing your camera and clicking a button, you should now know that there is much more work involved in producing a gorgeous image. Whether your charge by the hour as I do for event photography and wedding photography, or work for a fixed fee as I do for portraits and real estate listings photography a photographer’s price is based on the effort before, during and after the shoot that goes into producing an image that will exceed the expectations of you, the client. Clearly explaining how photography is priced helps both photographer and client appreciate each other.  Having achieved understanding, you will both be happier and better prepared to discuss a photography contract.