WHAT IS MY PHOTOGRAPHY WORTH?

There is a simple equation to determine what your photography is worth

(Client Experience x Photographer’s Market Confidence) – Business Expense = Cost of Photo

FIGURE OUT THE BUSINESS EXPENSES

There is nothing I can do to help you change your client’s expectations and experience with your photography. Like the bard said, “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” Every client is the same way.

There is also nothing I can do about a photographer’s confidence. I have seen amazing photographers give their work away because of low self-worth. I have seen horrible photographers turn their wedding business into a used car dealership and “ego” their clients into a $5,000 wedding package.

I believe in offering fair value for services. If I have done my job, I will have images that the client will believe in. I will go home feeling that I was adequately paid for the effort I gave my bride and groom. I will be proud of my work, my business and myself.

A photographer that overcharges his work, based on his salesmanship and not his photographic ability incurs bad kharma and a while his bank account might grow, his soul becomes bankrupt. And this is true even if the clients never notice the difference.

DETERMINE COSTS

The first question in pricing your images should be “How much do I need to charge to recoup all my expenses?”

All too often, beginning photographers undervalue their work because they fail to consider the real expense of materials and labor. For these “weekend warrior” photographers, $500 in the pocket is all profit (especially if this is just extra money added to a 9-5 weekday job).

Unfortunately, even if you are just shooting “on the side” you still have expenses. That $500 isn’t pure profit. There are all sorts of expenses that must be considered.

Gas to and from the event

Time spent meeting with clients

Wear and tear on camera equipment (who will pay to have worn out gear replaced?)

Consumables (batteries, tape, etc.)

Wardrobe (You can’t show up to a wedding in shorts and a T-shirt)

Your time (this is really important. Many part-time photographers end up working for less than minimum wage when their expenses are deducted from the paycheck. Is it worth the trouble at that point?)

Insurance. (If you get hurt, your day job won’t pay your bills. If your wedding is ruined because of a computer surge, you can get sued).

Computer equipment

Web site (hosting, domain names, design, upkeep, editing time, etc.)

The list can go on for a long time. In the end, it could take several dozen $500 weddings to pay off just the equipment you need, and we still need to deal with marketing.

When you have worked out all the costs of shooting a wedding, add 35% to take in consideration forgotten expenses and marginal profit. Put this number in your “Business Expenses” portion of the formula.

THE MARKET

Another consideration is the market. Obviously the cost of living is different in each area of the country. A $100,000 house in Pittsburgh might be a mansion, while $100,000 wouldn’t get you a sublet to a closet in a Manhattan studio apartment.

There should be information online and at your local better business bureau on the average costs of weddings and services in your area. A common belief (held by brides) that wedding photography should average 10% of the total wedding expense. This should give you a starting point.

The next step is to start looking at the other photographers in your area. Many of them will have their prices on their Web sites. If they don’t, then call them and introduce yourself! Be honest about who you are and why you are calling.

Some photographers see every other photographer as competition, but most would rather see you price yourself appropriately and keep the “market” prices competitive. Low balling the competition only serves to deteriorate the overall sense of value of everyone’s work.

Be honest in your self-evaluation of your skill as a photographer. Then ask many of your friends to look at a variety of sites and be honest as to their evaluation of where you sit in the market. [note: have a thick skin for the really honest ones, and be suspicious of those “nice” friends who always praise you.]

Do not forget that you also need to evaluate your business as well as your skill. You need to be able to provide good customer service, quality prints, high-end wedding albums, address concerns and issues, and keep everyone happy for months before and after the wedding as well as during the wedding. You will need to be sure that you can control the environment during formals, and be unobtrusive during the wedding ceremony.

Once you have done your research, plug in your estimated place in the market in the “Photographer’s Confidence” portion of the formula.

CLIENT SATISFACTION

This is the hardest portion of the formula to figure out. In fact is it all just a guess (especially at first), but this is a ranking system of how well you think your clients like your photos and “WANT” you to shoot for them. Are you “in demand?”

This number should always start at “1” when you start your business. Your place in the market must be higher than your expenses to be profitable (or at least break even). This is a baseline of your business. As you see your client satisfaction number get higher, you can then make adjustments to your pricing accordingly.

Here is an example: Two photographers Bob and John start separate wedding photography businesses. Bob and John have the same gear, the same expenses, the same reputation in the community, etc.

However, Bob was very good at pleasing his clients. The end product was the same and the service and products matched exactly, but something about the connection he made with his clients made them raving about him to all their friends (at least more than John’s clients who may have been an older crowd with less single friends to influence).

John, in the meantime, we very skilled with the Web and was able to drive more and more new traffic to his Web site to find new clients. John also volunteered at his church and made a lot of connections that way for new weddings.

At the end of the year, a very popular Bob shot 25 weddings and John shot 28. Bob was already booked for 30 weddings his next year and John had booked 43.

Should Bob and John’s wedding prices remain the same or go up? Should they go up equally? What happens if they raise their prices too much? Will they lose customers? What happens if they don’t raise them at all? Will they lose profit?

Bob figured that 23 of his 25 weddings raved about his work to friends and he booked 15 weddings by Word of Mouth (WOM). Bob also booked his other 15 weddings just through his Web site. Bob figures that his Client Satisfaction Number should be determined by his WOM ratio (25/15= 1.6) and his decrease in unsolicited bookings (15/25= 0.6). Averaging those numbers together, the new Client Satisfaction Number for Bob is 1.1.

Bob decides to increase his costs.

John had a different formula. He increased his bookings from 28 to 43 weddings. He is reasonably sure that his prices are too low because of the demand for his work. He knows that if he increases his prices too much he will be out of the budget of many clients. He could just look at the increase of business as an indicator of demand (43/28 = 1.5) but he feels that his extra time and effort building his Web site popularity and his community relations is taking up a lot of effort and expense (which will figure into his Business Expenses section). He has decided to use the 1.5 Client Satisfaction Number and add his estimated marketing costs to both his expenses and his market value (putting the cost of marketing directly on the clients expenses).

John decides to increase his costs as well.

If both John and Bob make their goals in booking wedding clients, then they will have proven that they were right. If the weddings stop booking—then they will need to make more adjustments.

It isn’t important that you discover the secret formula to pricing. It is important that you have a way to measure your success and develop a way to keep measuring and evaluating your business.

WHERE TO CHARGE THE CLIENT

When I first started shooting weddings as a real business, I found that where we price products influences how clients respond to the photographer.

My research showed that the average Pittsburgh wedding costs $25,000. That gave me a starting point of $2,500 for photography (not including wedding album).

The initial plan was to offer a full “one choice” plan of image ownership, shooting, etc. I wanted to be the Henry Ford of wedding photography, “You can have whatever you want as long as you want THIS.”

It didn’t work, and I booked very few weddings, but I was a weekend wedding photographer still, and made most of my income shooting photojournalism.

The next year, I started offering lots of choices for the clients. It was a very extensive menu that confused and confounded clients. Within weeks, it was obvious that wasn’t going to work.

I had to take from scratch and look at what the clients saw as value and what the clients were expecting to buy, and I came up with a great product line and services. The only problem was that I needed to adjust where the value went.

At first I charged $1,750 for wedding photography and $250 for a wedding photography CD. Albums were $500-2,500.

When I shifted the prices to $1,600 for wedding photography and $400 for a wedding CD, I immediately doubled my clients in six months. It didn’t matter that my album prices had risen to $750-$3,000.

Adjusting the prices again ($1575 and $450) for the economic recession has kept my flow of clients.

My point is, that once you have a good idea of what you should charge for your services, you may still need to make adjustments in your pricing to find the right psychological worth of the images.

This also holds true for increases in prices. There are times you will find that increasing your prices will add to the psychological client satisfaction of the images. If it costs more, it is worth more. Just be careful not to price yourself out of the market.

CONCLUSION

Is my formula the way you should set up your business? I can’t answer that. However, whatever you decide to do, it should be based on a plan to retrieve measurable results.

“You can’t improve it, if you can’t measure it.”

Photography- from the Greek graphia
(“to paint”) and phos (“with light”)
Zen- from the Japanese zazen,
a Buddhist meditation practice

ZEN OF PHOTOGRAPHY

The Zen of Photography is a spiritual and holistic approach to creating images with light.

It is not important to be Buddhist to understand Zen or how it applies to photography. The philosophy is simple and the application is just as simple to grasp. All that is required is to develop patience, mindfulness, skillfulness, and an open mind.

PHOTOGRAPHY

Photography as a science is fairly easy to understand as well. In both film and digital, light is captured and recorded on a light-sensitive material and then eventually translated into a presentation medium: usually a photographic print or via computer monitor. The ability for the camera to craft the light is determined by two mechanical processes that adjust the amount of light allowed inside the camera (the aperture) and the amount of time the light is allows inside the camera (the shutter speed).

The lens of the camera crafts the light to create a desired effect. Long telephoto lenses bring objects closer (like a telescope). They also compress the objects in the image to feel closer together. Meanwhile, wide angle lenses allow more of the scene to be captured and give a distorted sense of space between objects.

Just as there are many different types of bushes a painter may use, there a many different types of lenses for a photographer to choose from. A painter certainly could create a wonderful piece of art using just one brush, but a variety of tools allows him more skillful means to get the job done.

ZEN

One of the central concepts of Buddhism is that everything in the universe is one. A tree is not just a tree: it is a seed, a chair, fire wood, ash, nutrients for the soil and other trees. A seed must have sun, water, and the earth to become a tree. A tree must rely on the birds to eat its fruit to make more trees.

Similarly, we are not just connected to everything in the universe, but we are just one facet, or representation, of our entire ecology.We don’t exist within the world, but are an integrated part of it. No aspect of the world around us is separate, just like the tree. All we are is the awareness that is experiencing the ebb and flow of the universe from a particular point of view.

By recognizing that we are not really a separate entity (what Zen Buddhists call “no self” or anatta) we free ourselves from being reactionary creatures to our experiences and proactive processes within a cosmic context.

[Note: that this is a VERY rudimentary explanation of a very complicated Buddhist philosophy so that it may have a practical application]

When a photographer ceases to be conscious of himself as the capturing agent of an image, he can become one with the creation of the image through perfection of the technical skill.

In practical terms, the practice of the Zen of photography comes when the photographer stops grabbing in front of him to snatch pictures, and develops a sense of mindfulness and skill to create the image that should be there.

Skillfulness

Skillfulness is simple to develop. It involves the study of the technical craft of photography. This means that there needs to be hours dedicated not only behind the camera, but in processing images; recording and deconstructing how the images were made; learning how to improve the creation of images through better photographic and light control; and most of all learning the physics of light.

A painter doesn’t just learn how to put paint on his canvas. He studies how paint chemically reacts with other paint. He knows which yellows may be mixed with blue without becoming green (btw that is “Naples yellow”). He knows when he should use titanium white instead of pure white. An artist understands how to each canvas material reacts to his brush.

Most photographers, especially in the world of digital photography, feel that technology has removed the need to learn the basic science of photography. The truth is that as technology advances, photographers need to increase the amount of knowledge they need to know in order to make the images they want.

Mindfulness

The difference between someone who owns a camera and a photographer is purpose. A photographer makes an image with his camera, while everyone else hopes to.

With some skillfulness with a camera in a photographer’s hands, there is potential to make amazing images. Nevertheless, so many technically skills photographers fail to be satisfied with any images they make, because of one simple fact—

Once they have the camera in hand, they don’t know what to take a picture of.

This is why photographers need to develop a sense of mindfulness. They need to feel connected to the world and see the images come within them instead of passively hoping for an opportunity that the images cross their path.

This is where the Zen of photography really comes to play.

The first step is to sit. If possible sit in the environment you are going to be shooting in; but if not, that is OK.

Clear your mind with some deep slow breaths. As you breathe try to worry only about your breathing. Be aware of the sensation of the air going in the nose, down the throat and into the lungs. Notice how your chest and back move as you breathe.

Now notice how difficult it is to just think about your breath. How many thoughts jump into your head. How much of your mind is preoccupied with things that happened in the past or may happen in the future? Just let them go. If they thoughts come back, treat them like strangers walking down the street and let them come and go from your view. Just relax and focus on the breath.

Within a few moments, you will feel your mind calm. It will seem like the end of a great party where the guests slowly start to leave. A few will want to stay behind, but just learn to ignore those stubborn thoughts.

What you are doing is becoming present. You are living in the moment right now. This is important, because this also means that your attention is in the right now. There are no distractions. As you continue to practice this breathing technique, you will find it easier and faster to enter this mindful-present state. You will also develop skills to increase your sense of mindfulness as well.

Looking at Light and Set the Scene

As you look at the world around you, look for the light. Start at the large swatches of light first. See where the light comes from and see the direct and indirect lines that the light must travel to get from its source to the final location. See where it is intense and direct and where it is soft and diffused.

If the camera is the canvas, and the lens is the brush, then light is the paint. Think of it this way. See how it mixes the colors and shades of the world around you.Build an image based on the lighting of the scene around you.

What I mean is that so many photographers create an image based on the subject: the flower, the bride, the family pet becomes the focus of the image. In reality, the image should be built from the scene first. What environment will the subject be interacting with? That will set the tone, the mood, and the depth of the image. Even when the photographer has very little control over the subject, such as a candid shot, the photographer will have control over where he places himself in relation to the subject to create the best possible scene for the subject to interact with.

Example: I was asked to shoot a youth soccer game. In order to get the scene that I needed, I had to shoot from the south of the field to avoid the distracting parking lot out of the scene. In another uncontrolled photo, I made sure that had the bride & groom stand so that they had the majority of the crowd and the reception hall behind them instead of settling for the corner of the room and the DJ.

Start with building the scene and add the subjects in later.

By becoming present, calm and mindful; you will be able to better observe the light and how everything interacts with it. You will also be able to then make decisions on which scene you want your subjects in and plan accordingly. This is how Zen of Photography makes you more mindful and aware of the world around you and how you are a part of it so that you may take better images.

The Fifth Wheel

One thing that most photographers forget is that once they have their scene, their subjects and their camera gear set to take the perfect picture that there is still one aspect of the image that needs to be taken into account: the photographer.

The final audience doesn’t see the photographer, and so the photographer feels that he is “off stage” and unimportant. However, the photographer is the awkward “fifth wheel” on the cart. Although he isn’t seen, his presence is felt. He can make a model uncomfortable, a baby cry, and a bride frustrated.

This is where we return to the Buddhist philosophy of “no self.” The photographer must always be mindful that he is a part of the image. He is reflected in every aspect of the final image. If he is distracted then the shot will be distracted. If he is angry, it will affect the scene. By internalizing the philosophy that he is just as much a part of the image as he is the rest of the universe, he can develop a sense of “one” with the moment and the image.

Practically speaking, a mindful photographer will be able to be aware of how his actions affect his image. A calm spirit may make a dog friendly. A confident photographer may make a model more at ease. An energized photographer may energize a group portrait. The more mindful you are of your effect and connection to the world around you—the more effective your actions will be in creating the image you want.

Conclusion

The Zen of Photography is philosophy in practice. It certainly isn’t mystical or something that is difficult to obtain. Unfortunately, so many photographers don’t obtain the attention to detail of their craft to take advantage of it.

I certainly expect many e-mails explaining to me how readers (who identify themselves as photographers) do all of the practices I listed above. That is fantastic. If this is true, then you may have learned nothing new reading this. However, I have readers every day write to me and ask me how to shoot a better photo. Looking at their work, I note that what they lack is a fundamental connection and awareness of the world around them to be proactive shooters instead of reactive observers.

Get out there and start clicking with those cameras. Engage in world.