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Working out what fee to charge

What fee to charge is one of the biggest (and most important) questions photographers need to ask when starting out professionally. Get it right, and it will be one of the keystones of your business. Get it wrong, and you’ll probably go out of business before you realise what’s happening.

You’re probably hoping I’m going to get really specific here, and give you precise figures. Sorry – not happening. The photography industry is far too vague, amorphous and dis-organised for me to try and give you a set figure, and mine varies from job to job anyway. What might be valid for an editorial rate here in London, will be very different to what you charge for a wedding in Manchester, not just in total amounts, but in how it’s structured and so on.

Since you’d love to know, my fees start at £300 per day/shoot, and have gone up as high as £4000+ for a day/shoot. Sadly, it tends towards the former rather than the latter! This does not include expenses, which are pretty much always extra. That’s one big difference between myself and a “social” photographer – selling to Joe Public, you’re much better off stating prices quite clearly, and not adding in lots of expenses after the fact – no-one likes it when this happens! If you find yourself having to justify fees to clients, I’d suggest you go and read this old post I wrote about what your fee represents. It might help them realise that there’s a good reason for paying professionals properly.

2 golf shoots - same sort of job different fee
Same subject, different fee. One is an editorial job, and the other a catalogue/point of sale. I’m not telling you which, but one shoot was worth more than 5 times the other!

Here’s the method to work out how much to charge:

Break even – how much do you need to make?

First, calculate your break even . Without this, pretty much all your calculations are a waste of time. If you don’t know how much money you need to bring in every month, any fee you pick is going to be largely arbitrary.

Market research – what fee is everyone else charging?

Next, do as much market research on your market sector as possible. In some markets this will be quite transparent and straightforward – many photographers who advertise to the general public will display their rates, although they may bury them quite deep in their website. For commercial, editorial, and advertising photographers, information on fees can be much harder to come by. You could try asking people straight up – you may get a response (although don’t hold your breath!). You could try professional forums on the interwebs, although I’d be slightly wary of those, as there is an understandable tendency for people to boast. Beware though that in these realms, usage plays a huge part in how a fee is structured – it’s why the numbers I’ve listed above vary so wildly. Usage as a topic I’ll save for another day, but if you’ve never heard the term before it refers to what end use the imagery will be put to. The more usage the higher the fee – so the longer something is used for, across a wider range of media and territories, the more money it costs.

Be honest – how much do you really think you’ll work?

Third, be honest with yourself about not only how many times a month you think you can shoot, but how much work you reasonably expect to get. As with so many other areas of setting up a business, there’s not much point in lying here – it’s only you you’re lying to! Don’t say “There are 4 weeks in a month, that’s 20 working days, so I’ll do 20 shoots a month!” Please email me when you do 20 shoots a month, every month, as a freelancer, and I promise I’ll buy you a beer! At my busiest (and amongst most snappers I know I’ve often been very busy) I was doing just over 150 shoots in a year. Do the maths, and that’s not 20 shoots a month, it’s 12 1/2! Freelance life just doesn’t work out evenly – you get double booked, busy weeks and quiet weeks, no work from one client this month, and six shoots for them next month. Of course, if you’re employed somewhere as a photographer – shooting pack shots, say – then yes, you can do 20 shoots a month, probably more. However, since you’re employed, your rates and fees will be set, so this entire post is a bit of a moot point!

Make sure you take into account how busy you can get when you calculate your fee
12 Shoots in 14 days at the end of 2013. The other days were spent travelling. Yes, you can work like this for brief periods, but not for prolonged stretches without collapsing. Luckily in this instance, Christmas was just round the corner!

On the same topic, you need to bear in mind that it’s not feasible to shoot every day of every week anyway. There’s a certain amount of pre and post production that goes into even the simplest job, and unless you’re employing a staff of some sort (which of course, will factor into your break even….) then you need time to deal with these things. The nature of what you’re shooting will affect this too. If your work consists of, say, event photography, and doesn’t require much if any work in Photoshop to get it out the door, then you can probably turn out a higher volume than someone whose work relies on a lot of retouching.

Having done your market research, matched up what the market is paying with what you need to bring in each month and how often you think you can shoot, you now come to the crunch – does it all add up, and will this work? Only you can answer this, and if the answer’s no, what are you going to do about it? You can try and reduce your break even, you can try and charge more, or you can try and shoot more. The last 2 are of course up to the market to a great degree, so are slightly out of your control. As an example, I can tell you that the magazine/editorial market has never had huge budgets, and certainly doesn’t these days – insisting that you’re worth another £100 per day probably won’t get you anywhere, or it will get you the money once, and then never called again!

If none of it fits, and you can’t reduce your break even any lower, then you’ve probably got to face facts and look at fundamentally changing your plan in some way. You may need to start part time, rather than throwing yourself into it wholesale, or mix up your markets. Above all, go into it with your eyes open. I’m not trying to scare anyone off here, just being my usual honest self about what it takes to make a living creating images!

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