When should a client and photographer opt for a per image pricing contract?
Pricing in photography has always been a challenge and will continue to be so as the demand for creative images increases in tandem with the abundance of suppliers. While quality can vary considerably between photographers, the bottom end of the range has risen in line with technology so an average shooter ten years ago is now able to deliver reasonably good images with some basic kit that may meet the needs of some clients. On the upper end, the possibilities of what can be done with images in post-production, as well as the quality of images that can be captured and created now with top-line professional gear that can include virtual reality cameras like the Ricoh Theta S, drones and a range of pro lenses, is even more impressive and can satisfy even the most demanding of clients.
The struggle remains however, for the independent photographer, in determining the right price for their work when a request comes in from a new client. Given the paucity of full time jobs for photographers and the oversaturation of people in the field all calling themselves professionals, pricing for any given type of photographic assignment is really widely distributed. The range begins at free and rises up through the thousands for the same kind of assignment.
I recently read a very good and thorough article on PetaPixel by Rosh Sillars that explores the idea of pricing photography in 2016 in great detail. I recommend reading it for anyone – producer or buyer – who is in the market of hiring photographers, buying photographs or producing images. I want to focus on just one aspect of the article, regarding per image pricing as it is a concept I am beginning to explore with my clients and feel that in certain contexts it makes the most sense from both the photographer’s and buyer’s point of view.
Specifically, I want to explore types of assignments I am experienced in where it would and would not make sense to offer per-image pricing. I look at four types of photography: event, portrait, editorial/website and wedding.
Per image pricing? Not for most situations
One of the challenges an event photographer encounters with every gig is how to gauge what balance of images a client actually needs and will use vs coverage provided. In most events for which a photographer is contracted, there is a planned agenda which is followed with more or less adhesion depending on the client, type of event etc. While not every event has speakers or centre-stage activity, there will be a timeline and detailed plan for the night that an event manager has hashed out, often down to the minute. This holds true whether you are covering an international conference or a local wedding. As the person responsible for providing visual coverage of the event, one of your tasks is to capture everything that happens – which includes both scheduled agenda items, as well as candid moments, beauty shots of rooms, important items, and often signage and evidence of sponsorship activity. The result is a tendency to err on the side of over-shooting such that at the end of even a brief 2 or 3 hour event you may well have a few hundred images to subsequently sort through, curate, edit and then deliver to the client.
How would per-image pricing work in that scenario? I have never met a client who wants to pay more to do more work, which is exactly what would happen were a per-image pricing model enlisted in this context. Furthermore, some of the most beautiful and engaging images I have captured as an event photographer happen in those unscripted moments where people experience some kind of emotional uplift or response to each other. These images are often my signature pieces but would they make the cut if a client is suddenly sensitized to the idea of having to pay for each and every image?
I suppose the model exacts a discipline on both the photographer and the client to really focus in on the essentials, and this kind of a constraint can have a positive impact on creativity, but I believe it would have a greater negative effect on the overall workflow of the shooter and result in a less attentive, less responsive style of shooting that would skew towards the main event, ignoring or overlooking the often much more interesting, fun and engaging, off-stage type moments where the magic tends to happen when people gather.
Per image pricing? Yes, almost always
Portrait photography much more easily lends itself to per image pricing. Often a client is booking for a number of employees, the shoots take place on site in the client’s office and there are invariably last minute additions when random employees wander past and see a photoshoot going on and beg to have a shot “so I can update my LinkedIn profile”. A day rate or per hour contract in this scenario can be costly for the photographer as the workload is effectively uncontrollable. When shooting portraits in the client’s office, there is a lot of pre and post work involved, not the least of which may be physically accessing sometimes inconveniently located office spaces, navigating a labyrinth of loading dock, freight elevators and shipping doors lugging around the unwieldy collection of light stands, gear, etc., required to make everyone look beautiful. Then there is the set up-almost always in an office that is cramped and small-before the shoot happens. While each subject may not require more than 10 or 15 minutes, post-shoot there is the added work of sorting, and editing final versions of images that are highly scrutinized by their likenesses. It is not for the faint of heart and all in, a per image pricing model makes a lot of sense. How much per image is a completely different story of course, as the end result needs to still align with client expectations and counter the misperception that all you’re doing is pressing a button.
I normally calculate portraits on a per image fee, starting from a fixed base for the onsite studio set-up than a per head fee that can be adjusted based on discussions with clients vis-a-vis budgets, as well as the type of client being served. I consider it fair to offer lower, more flexible rates to smaller businesses and charge full pop for corporate users. My pricing is based on a fairly elaborate calculation that takes into account not just all the work required to perform the specific task, but the overhead involved in marketing a corporate portrait business, and aftermarket support to clients.
Per image pricing? Yes, almost always
Thanks to the convergence of social media sites and formerly corporate websites, there is an ever-growing demand for fresh photography to populate an array of digital properties most companies have to manage today to ensure their brands stay relevant and they are engaging their customers where and how they like to be engaged. This generates, in turn, an insatiable desire for imagery which is heavily skewed to photography. While video is a rising star in the digital marketing world, use-cases for video are still more restricted than photography. While it’s quite possible to envision a website with no video on it, it’s nearly impossible to imagine the same with no photography. And as most stock imagery these days is recognizable as such, clients with even a little budget are thinking creatively about their needs and hiring photographers to generate their own library of custom stock photography. It can be done affordably and may often be less expensive than the ostensible cheaper option of using stock images. But in either case, a per image fee makes a lot of sense here. Clients who hire photographers to come in and document a day in the life of their office space usually have a set of images in mind that they’d like to see at the end of the day. A talented photographer can work through that kind of list and add value by shooting the shot list with their own brand of creativity that can excited clients when they see the final results. As well, this can be a very low-risk type of contract for a client to enter into as there are no fees paid other than for the images they themselves select and place a value on.
For these kinds of contracts, whether the images are ultimately destined for internal client use, a public facing website or publication or media, the pricing per image should reflect both the effort and skill required to take them, as well as the post-production necessary. While some photographers will share unedited proofs, I believe this to be a terrible idea that is highly disfavourable to the photographer. A movie producer does not release a trailer of the unedited cuts. Most clients, regardless of their sophistication and experience purchasing photography, do not have the time and skill required to parse an image, as it were, and see it for its potential from an unedited proof. More than likely they will deem the work subpar, and judge the photographer accordingly. While there is a risk to the photographer of editing a batch of images that may not, in the end, be purchased, this can be mitigated against by making a judicious selection of images to edit and share with the client initially. Once the client’s appetite has been whetted, more images can be processed and shown should the client express interest.
Per image pricing? No.
Wedding photography (which I run through a separate weddings focused business here), is in my opinion, the mother of all excess and the source of the most widely varied pricing in the industry. This is due to a conflux of factors including: first time buyers, people spending other people’s money, vast gaps between expectation and reality when it comes to desired outcomes vs real budgets, and good old fashioned price gouging, exaggerated markups and unscrupulous vendors taking advantage of misinformed or unsaavvy buyers to charge huge, unwarranted premiums.
Now before all you wedding photographers get your corsages all tied up in a knot, I’ll say that some wedding photographers are truly gifted artists and power to them for charging as much as they can and finding receptive clients happy to pay. These comments are not for you. But for the wedding factory type photography outfits, the fly-by-nighters, and the countless hacks who claim to offer some kind of premium service when all they are really doing is grabbing at extra margin because they’ve inserted the word “wedding” into their portfolio, I believe the balance of power is shifting to consumers and your days of overcharging are numbered.
Brides and grooms, while subject to a vast array of marketing machines aiming for their wedding dollars, are becoming savvier and more prudent with who and how they hire. Paying a fixed package price that takes into account all the extras and additional work of a wedding is fair, but spending over $10,000 on wedding photography, no matter how jaw-droopingly beautiful you may be, is just a silly waste of money. Yes, weddings are a lot of work and they are rightfully a little more expensive than your average event photography contract. While the same skill set is required, given the intimate nature of the event, the vast number of guests who are all in their own way important, and the richness of opportunity for touching moments to happen and be captured by a sensitive photographer, there is necessarily an increase in effort that needs to correlate to price. Within reason.
I would not see a per-image pricing model as any way satisfactory for clients for their wedding. In a typical wedding photography contract a photographer works anywhere from eight to fourteen hours on the wedding day. There is often more than one location, multiple lighting situations to accommodate for, and a parade of necessary if rather formulaic images the clients will expect to receive. The photographer is also considered the expert and will have a leading role to play in organizing groupings, and managing the “formal” parts of the shoot. All of this is best covered under a blanket fee based on a blended rate that covers both time on the ground, as well as the significant post-production work that will be done on the images.
In reviewing these four types of photography assignments, it is clear that in all cases, the best pricing model for both client and photographer is aligned. Much noise is made in photographer circles about the costs of maintaining a photography business (expensive gear, high upgrade costs, time to market, etc) but I don’t think that is at all relevant to clients nor should it be. No one forces a photographer to go into business. If you are a photographer, you’ve chosen a career with variable income, and high operating costs. Complaining about that to your clients doesn’t get you better pricing and won’t make you more money. Choosing the right kind of pricing structure for the job that places the client’s interests above your own, on the other hand, will.