What to Charge for Architectural Photography in 2019

What to Charge for Architectural Photography in 2019

Architecture Business Commentary

This article is essentially impossible to write, but it’s the single question I am asked more than any other. In fact, I apologize to anyone who has emailed me or asked me this question in person because I simply do not answer. That’s because there is no easy way to answer; it’s the equivalent of walking up to someone and asking them “how long is a piece of string?” Here I will attempt to walk you through coming up with sustainable price to charge for your architectural photography. Not everyone is going to be happy with this article but it needs to be written!

The worth of architectural photography

The first thing you need to understand in order to properly price your architectural photography is that there is no one-size fits all answer. I wish that there was a number I could write here and that everyone would nod their heads in agreement, and the article would be done. The price will change depending on your skill level, your locality, the demand for architectural photography in that locality, how deep your clients budgets are, how much you want to work (or don’t want to work), what kind of clients you want, what kind of projects you want to shoot, and so on and on and on.

I want to establish some of what I consider to be universal truths about architectural photography.

1) If you want to charge a lot, you have to be good. I’m just ripping the band-aid off to start. This is a specialized field that uses specialized equipment and it’s not for the faint of heart. Long days, demanding shoots, tricky compositions and a million unique situations with endless variables. You can’t really do this five days a week, because shoots are very demanding. Pre-production, travel, shoot days, post production. How many times can you shoot in a week with all of that, as well as run the back end of the business? You can’t chase volume if you want to chase the high end market. I simply don’t know any photographers who are working more than 2 or 3 days a week and charging thousands of dollars. Just doesn’t happen. Maybe they shoot a hotel for a week straight and then spend a week recovering, or maybe they do a travel gig for a few days, but it’s not back to back to back. That’s real estate photography territory – and we’re not gonna go there.

2) I want you to make a lot of money. Sure. Maybe you are my competition. Whatever. Everyone does better when everyone knows how to price their work. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not losing a lot of jobs to cheaper guys, and I’m not losing a lot of jobs to more expensive guys. I’m simply not being asked to bid on jobs that are out of my market in either direction. Cheap clients are going to look at my site and say nah, we can’t afford that. And that’s okay. And higher-end clients are going to look at my site and probably say something similar. I’m not the best – and I know it. But I do want you, dear reader, to make more money, and have a better, more fruitful career as a result. 

3) We are self employed/small business owners and have higher operating costs than your buddy down the street who is a w2 employee at Buck-o’s Cubicle Farm. Yep, overhead, we have it. Individual employees don’t. I’ve literally seen potential clients sit there and do the math in their head at meetings. “He just told me this would cost $5000, if he can work five days a week, fifty weeks a year, he’s making millions a year!”. Nope, that’s not how it works. This is an uphill battle that all freelance workers deal with; everyone from plumbers to programmers. The actual price of these things is high and it’s reflected in our estimates.

Pricing factor 1: Your skills

A very difficult metric to measure, but generally, the better you are, the more you’ll be able to charge. I would venture to say that it takes at least ten years to get to a point where you’re good enough to command top-dollar rates. Being good enough to command these rates isn’t literally just about your skill behind a camera, but it’s also about your network, your ability to act like a business persona and negotiate, your branding, and so many other little things. One thing about a photography career is that as you mature, your career matures and your reputation grows. Unlike sports, where you peak at a certain age, or music (let’s be honest, most bands best records are their first few 😉 ). With photography, the more you do, the more you build your brand, the more you become a someone instead of a punk with a camera. I’d say this is true with rare, rare exception. When you have a killer portfolio stacked with world class projects in locales all over the world, you can charge some high numbers. It demands respect, and clients will trust you to get them the photos that they need. When there’s a lot of money at stake, the photography commission isn’t really that expensive to big clients. They are, in most cases, happy to pay more to someone with the experience and portfolio to deliver the results the first time without any fuss. They don’t want to hire a second or third person, they don’t want to screw with any of that; they just want someone they know will get the job done and they are happy to pay for it without faffing around. 

Pricing factor 2: Your location

More affluent cities are going to pay more for photography than less affluent ones. Cities with populations that place a high value on art (e.g. Los Angeles) are going to be more willing to pay more than cities that aren’t as blessed with such a large art culture (e.g. Reno). BuT wHaT aRe YoU TaLkiNg AbOuT, RENO HAS PLENTY OF ART! Yes, I know, every city has art, and some have fantastic art at that – but certain places are known as art hubs for a reason. They are filled with people who appreciate art, the money is there for more people to be enthusiastic patrons of art, and this is reflected across people of all incomes. Not only that, but cities with more architecture being built are going to have more opportunities for jobs. With more development comes more competition from developers, architects, etc, and they also want an edge – so they’ll pay more for a top-notch photographer (unless you’re so good you’ll just get flown in from wherever you live – the dream!)

Pricing factor 3: Your reputation

I touched on this a little bit up-story, but your reputation is going to have a significant impact on how much you can charge. First and foremost, one quick glance at your portfolio can tell any prospective client what kind of photographer you are. Low end, high end, mid-range? I see a ton of photographers with 3 years experience emailing BIG, SOM, SHoP, and ZGF wondering why they aren’t getting gigs and their lack of any reputation is one big reason why. In addition to your portfolio, your history of published work is something to consider. Architects love being published and will certainly look to see where your work has shown up before hiring you. Another factor to consider is any personal connection – can anyone vouch for you? Can your potential client call one of his friends and ask if you’re the real deal? It’s a big industry, but it’s also a small industry. Word gets around. Someone coming highly recommended with a killer portfolio and work published in books everywhere is going to get hired pretty quick, for a lot of money I might add.

Pricing factor 4: The kind of jobs you want to shoot

Architectural photography isn’t just taking pictures of houses. Maybe if you’re a purist you can scoff at me here, but let’s consider architectural photography anything involving photographing the built environment. That is a pretty long list, including:

  • Homes for architects
  • Homes for interior designers
  • Hotels and restaurants
  • Art installations and galleries
  • Corporate architecture
  • Corporate interior design
  • Construction site photography
  • Commercial interiors (retail, malls, etc)
  • Advertising photography for architectural products industry

Of course the lines can be blurred, bent, combined, etc. My point is there are a lot of ways to make a living doing this, but in many cases some of these genres pay better than others. In general, I’ve found that architects working on corporate and residential projects have some pretty high budgets for photography. The highest in my experience have been advertising gigs for the architectural products industry, where we can get into day rates + licensing fees which can run the total pretty high, but each of these jobs comes with its own responsibilities and pitfalls. I fully expect to talk more about the individual sub-genres within architectural photography more on this blog, but I just want you to understand that there are different subjects within our line of work which can often have varying budgets.

Pricing factor 5: Who’s hiring you?

I’ve done work for architects, publishers, newspapers, magazines, interior designers, advertising firms, the list goes on. Publishers don’t pay very much, but they get your work seen. I’ve worked for some of the most expensive residential architects in the world, in some seriously high-end areas, where I’ve had to sign an NDA to swear to never release the photos of the homes I shoot. It’s disappointing to shoot something amazing and never be able to show it, but the money makes up for it. And then you’ve got the corporate firms that are in the middle, doing  work that probably isn’t the sexiest, but they are going to pay well and send consistent work your way. My point here is that different clients are going to pay different things and you’ll never be able to pull as much money out of an editorial commission as you can out of a commercial or advertising commission.

Furthermore, where are your clients in their career? If you’re starting out, perhaps you are working with some clients who are just starting out as well. This is not a bad thing because if you get along with them when they are small, you might grow with them over the years. I’ve got a few clients who I worked with while they built their own business and as they’ve grown, I’ve grown. Note that as they’ve increased their fees, I’ve increased my fees too. It can be a symbiotic relationship – you don’t need to go after the same clients as everyone else when you’re starting, so consider starting small or even offering to work together on a personal project with a designer or architect early in their career to get started.

Are you being asked to bid on a project by a powerful starchitect? Probably have a big budget, but don’t be surprised if some big names don’t want to fork over. I’ve heard rates as low as $2000 from some firms who you’d think would have deep, deep pockets, but just don’t want to pay for photography for one reason or another. Depending on how “corporate” the company you’re working for is, they might have a strict budget for hiring photographers. It’s slightly disappointing, to be sure, but there are absolutely firms out there who understand the value of good photography and are willing to pay for it. After all, good images are a big part of architects scoring new commissions and can be the difference in getting their next multi-million dollar job or not. They want to put their best foot forward, and are comfortable splashing out (but again – you’ve gotta be good to get here!)

Pricing factor 6: Retouching, turnaround, delivery

As everyone reading this (hopefully) knows, the job isn’t done when you wrap on location. The amount of post production that you’ll have to do varies significantly between client types (and your personal style) and can occasionally be more expensive than the actual shoot. If you’re working for a demanding client who needs perfection from a photo of a roadside motel, you’re going to spend way more time in post production than if you were shooting a recently completed house with a perfectly manicured lawn on a private 15 acre lot. You should absolutely be billing for post production above and beyond what is presented to you in reality, because again, that’s valuable time you’re using with high-end skills that take a significant amount of time to learn. Some may hire a retoucher to handle this, but I recommend before you do that, you make sure you are absolutely backed into a corner and about to drown from the amount of work you’re getting. Knowing how to put your photos together will help you so much in the long run, especially when it comes to communicating with a retoucher to get the result you desire. 

Next: A word on licensing

I haven’t quite yet talked about licensing, but yes, this is an important part of architectural photography billing. To give a quick summary, for my architect and interior design clients, I am bundling some type of basic, perpetual usage license into my day rate. This ensures that they get something they are able to use when they hire me, and as far as I can tell this is industry standard. My basic license for architects includes usage on their website, in social media, in contest entry, etc, mostly everything except print/digital advertising usage, which most architects aren’t doing anyway (this model won’t fly for hotels, or advertising, though: we can get into the weeds on licensing on another post). 

My bundled licensing does NOT include usage by any third party. Photographers who allow this let me down, let the industry down, and let you down.  For example, if I’m hired by an architect, they can’t go email the photos to the interior designer, realtor, builder, carpet people, or whoever, and say ‘use at will!’. No way. I want you to remove the notion that just because pictures are paid for by someone, that they can be used by anyone. If someone is profiting or using your photos for a commercial purpose, they need to pay.

It often occurs that I have an architect and an interior designer, or an architect and a contractor of some sort, who want to split the upfront cost of the photo shoot. This is a common occurrence in architectural photography. Since more entities are getting more usage out of the photos, you should charge more for the photoshoot itself. The thing is though: you can’t just double the fees and have each company pay the same rate (that would piss everyone off).

The best way to go about this is to offer a split fee arrangement. What I’ll do is add a second party to the shoot and give them the same license as the architect for a cost of 25-30% of the total shoot fees. For example, if the job comes to $2500 and I am notified before the shoot that the interior designer would also like to use the photos, I add a 25% premium to the entire shoot cost. That would be $625, which can be added to the total shoot fee, bringing it to $3125, which can then be split by the architect and interior designer. They’d each pay $1562.50 and have access to the entire set of photos. More usage = more money for photographer. But each company is paying less overall, and everyone walks away happy. You can extrapolate this out for 3, 4, 5, or however many other companies would like photos.

Another situation that happens frequently is a company approaching me after the shoot to purchase (license) images. For this, I charge 10% of the original shoot fee for a general architecture license. So if the shoot comes to $2500, to purchase one photo is going to be $250. To purchase 3 would be $750, etc. Why is this more expensive than what they original client paid? Because the original client assumed all of the risk, carved out time from their schedule, worked with you on pre-production, put in some elbow grease on the day of the shoot, etc. And how would it look to your original client if you turned around and sold the photos you created together for LESS than you charged them? I know I’d be pretty irate. The late licensor invested exactly zero risk into the shoot and gets a discount? Yeah right. Your secondary license sales should always be more expensive than the original license sales. Think of all that has to be done to get a house (or any location for that matter) ready to shoot – landscaping, cleaning, prepping, pre-production planning, notifying homeowners/tenants, all of the liability that goes along with it. I’d venture to say that the post-shoot license buyers are getting a smoking deal.

There are many other situations where we can talk about more difficult or complicated licensing fees ad nauseum. This is not the time or the place.

Alright dude, shut up. How much do I charge?

I have no freaking idea. What are your goals? How much do you need to make?

To arrive at some final numbers, here’s what I recommend you do. Charge a day rate for your time, and a post production fee for each image. The day rate covers your expenses on location – your talent, your equipment, your assistant, pushing furniture around all day. Your post production fee should be charged for each image – you can set a minimum purchase or let the client decide. Or do what I do – if we make a picture on location, you’re paying for it because I’m going to edit it.  This avoids the issue of shooting 20 images and only being asked to deliver five, or worse, having the client say “can you just get a shot of that? How about that? And a detail here? Just a quick snap!”

Here are my fees:

Between $3000-$5000 day rate depending on complexity of job (a shoot with multiple stylists, art directors, etc is more complicated and difficult than a shoot where me and my assistant are given a key to a brand new home before the owners have even moved in)

Between $50 and $200 per image post production fee variable depending on the subject matter,  (e.g. hotel photos take way more time to retouch than residential architecture photos).

I’m in Los Angeles. I know there are people that charge more than me. In fact, through multiple CC’d email chains that probably shouldn’t have made their way to me, I know architectural photographers that are in the $8,500-$10,000 per day range for a typical residential home shoot. And they are getting hired more than I am. They aren’t necessarily based in LA, but also in NYC, Chicago, Miami, etc.

I have arrived at this number over years of self-searching and learning. I personally don’t want to (and can’t, for that matter) be on location five days a week. It exhausts me and the quality of my work falls off a cliff. I can do 3-4 days in a row, but then need some time to recuperate and take care of business. If I have to pay a retoucher because I’m too busy to edit on my own, the edit fees can cover that. If I’m editing on my own – I don’t mind, because the rates are high enough to keep me happy. 

I can shoot 40-50 times a year at this rate and feel comfortable. I can do more but things start to get a little hectic, so I try to only take on work I want to take on. A big part of my business is personal projects; so shooting 40-50 times a year (sometimes I shoot once a week, sometimes I shoot 3 times a week, and there are occasional travel jobs with 4-5 days of back to back shooting) allows me a few months a year to devote to personal projects.

These personal projects allow me to grow as a photographer and I’d say any photographer who wants to grow their business and climb the pay scale should try to make one personal project happen every year. If not, at least, to spark some creative growth and excitement. The marketing potential of a well done personal project is unbelievable. A well-done and interesting project, whether architectural or not, is what is going to set you apart from your competitors. So many people can take good pictures of architecture these days that I believe a lot of people are getting hired for their personal vision. The other beauty of personal work is that you can use it to create residual income, which will take some pressure off of having to work year-round or take every job. And the more personal projects you can monetize, the more residual income you can count on, which lets you be more selective in your work, etc. It’s a beautiful thing.

So in the end, the way I price my work allows me to have a comfortable schedule with the ability to schedule plenty of down time or personal project time. I tend not to get burnt out because I’m not shooting every single day, and I often have a week between jobs which lets me re-calibrate and learn from everything I shoot.  I highly suggest your fee schedule allows you to do this, otherwise what are we freelancing for? I’d imagine to escape a grind, but not building in time for yourself is just, well, grinding in another form (and not the good high school dance form).

Why I charge a day rate + per shot editing fee

Over the years, I’ve found this to be the method of billing that makes me the happiest. For every day I turn up to take pictures, I’m getting paid for the talent, vision, and technicality that I (we) bring to shoots. It’s important to make it clear that those skills are something separate than a vague “photographer’s fee” or bundled post production rate or even worse, “creative/licensing fee” that I see floating around. The day you shoot is the day you are really using your skills – make it clear on the invoice. The post production fee that I charge per photo is separate as some of our clients still need to know that post production is a separate process. We’re not just clicking some photos and uploading them later – there’s significant work done at the computer. In a perfect world we’d all be working for clients who understood that – and this isn’t a knock on clients who don’t – but I’ve got clients with varying levels of experience of working with photographers and I’m sure you do as well. Some are seasoned veterans who have hired photographers for decades and understand all nuance, and some are as simple as a new startup restaurant down the street who is hiring a photographer for the first time. The per-image post production fee prevents the problem of “can you just take a shot of that?” and “can you just take a shot of that and we’ll decide later?” syndrome that has afflicted ALL of us at one point or another.

So when I’m charging $100 per photo post production fee, I don’t care if the client says “can we take a shot of that?”. Because I’m getting paid for the post production anyway; and it makes them think about if they really want that photograph of some custom anodized aluminum door stoppers that has nothing to do with the actual marketability or publication-worthiness of the project. Yeah, it’s cool, but really, it could be an iPhone photo and communicate it just the same.

In a past life, I used to charge just the day rate, and while I still don’t think this is the worst way to do it if your contract is rock solid, all too often I found myself up against the “can you just take a shot of that-itis” that I mentioned up above. Sometimes you’ll be absolutely fine if things are always arranged ahead of time, signed off, and everyone is on the same page. Unfortunately the world is messy and the person who signed the contact isn’t on the shoot or the intern who was designated point person for the shoot is doing her best to cover as much as possible and make their boss happy. I’d rather be the guy who says “yeah, I’ll take a shot of that, but the post production fee is $100” than be the guy who has to say “no” and make the client think I’m a hardass. Or even worse – be a passive pushover as I am wont to do and end up grumbling for the next two weeks as I take, edit, and deliver pictures that I know I got taken advantage of to make. 

I’ve heard of some photographers charging hourly rates also. The problem with the hourly rate first and foremost is that the better you get at your job, the less you’re getting paid. Another issue is that when you’re on the clock, you’ve gotta constantly worry about if the client is judging you on location. Ten minute snack break – of which we have many – is that paid? Or unpaid? Is someone sitting there tapping their foot with a cigar in their mouth waiting for us to get back to work? What about time wasted waiting for someone to get the lights turned on? Or waiting for the union location workers to sssssllllloooowwwllllyy do their job? It just gets too prickly too fast for me, so I’ve stuck with a simple day rate + post production fee.

Lastly, the trend of “creative + licensing fee” should be addressed. I see this bundled approach all the time and it kind of kills me inside. It seems arbitrary and vague to bundle something that is creative and something that is more rigid, such as licensing. Where does the creation begin and the licensing end? Why not just break them into separate line items? This way if the shoot has to be altered, licensing increased, more days added, etc, it’s easy to do so because we don’t have vague line items confusing the client with arbitrary numbers. 

Okay, so if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. I want to end this article by sharing what I’d consider fair rates for architectural photographers. I believe that if you follow these guidelines, you should not have to worry about “hurting the industry” or “undercutting the competition” or “pissing off the old timers” even though I’m sure that is going to happen in the comments anyway.

If you are an architectural photographer who is just beginning to charge for their work…

In a major urban market:
Day rate of $1000-$1500 per day
Post production fee of $50 per image

If you are a beginning architectural photographer in a mid-sized city or more rural area:

Day rate of $500-$1000 per day
Post production fee of $25 per image

If you are an intermediate, mid-career architectural photographer…

In a mid-sized city or more rural area:
Day rate of $1500-$2000 per day
Post production fee of $50 per image

In a major urban market:
Day rate of $2000-$2500 per day
Post production fee between $50 and $75 per image

If you are an established architectural photographer anywhere:

Day rate of $3000-$8000 
Post production fee of $100-$250 per image

For the love of all that is holy, don’t get started in this career without having a secondary income or money in savings. By cutting your own rates in a desperate bid to get a job,  you are only causing frustration to yourself. Charge a healthy rate and stick with it from the beginning.  One of my biggest career regrets is trying to take on every job that I could in order to make as much money as possible; it led to a ton of frustration and wasted time shooting for clients that I never really wanted while I chased a holy buck.

I hope this post has led to some insight and helps you charge appropriately for architectural photography; a somewhat high-skill, niche profession where information isn’t as readily available as other careers.

Mike Kelley is an architecture and interiors photographer who has photographed projects all over the world. He is a self proclaimed airplane food enthusiast and the founder of the Architectural Photography Almanac.
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