How to Raise Your Rates While Mitigating Risk as a Photographer

How to Raise Your Rates While Mitigating Risk as a Photographer

In order to grow your photography business, you must constantly be re-assessing and re-evaluating how you are doing business. One integral part of your business is how you price your services and capabilities; doing this incorrectly and undervaluing or overvaluing what you provide can be your downfall as a professional. Raising rates is critical to pricing what you do, and is something I’m constantly working at. Here’s the why and the how.

In general, we should always be looking at raising our rates as time passes. Life, in general, is getting more expensive. Your rent is going up. Your insurance premiums go hiking. Inflation is a thing. Our subcontractors also charge us more as time goes on, and the inevitable march towards higher rates continues. I also assume that you don’t want to be stuck making the same amount of money until kingdom come; I know that money is not the end-all be-all of a career in the arts but it isn’t exactly encouraging to get better at your craft and never be able to charge more money for your increased skills.

You are getting better, right? I think I am a far better photographer than I was ten years ago. An order of magnitude better. Since my pictures are much better, I’ve decided to charge much more. I improve every year. Ergo, higher rates.

You are becoming more prestigious in your field, aren’t you? The beauty of the arts is that as your career blossoms and progresses, you become not only better at what you do, but more respected and connected. There is a web of trust built around you from your previous clients and portfolio. Clients can trust that you’ll deliver what they need, which has value, so you can charge more for that. When you were just starting out, that trust really wasn’t there. You are better connected – editors of blogs and magazines will want to see your work. Book editors will know they can call on you for new material, clients know that your work is up to par for publication, and so on. This all pays off as press for your client, something they are generally always looking to get more of. This, too, has a value.

You become less of a bet and more of a guarantee. Less of a question mark, more of an exclamation point. “Who photographed it? Oh, whatever. Famous big shot guy photographed it?!! Yes, we gotta see!” You get the idea.

I like to think I’m much better now, with a far more refined style and dependable images
Than I was in 2012…I was a bit of a mess. I got lucky from time to time, but that was about it…

How I raised my rates

When I started, I sucked. It’s okay – the first time you do anything, you’re going to suck at it. I think I charged $200 for my first ever photoshoot of a house, and the results were pretty much about what you’d expect. But it was good enough to get my first client – and I obsessed over architectural photography, trying to learn everything I could to produce better results. A second client. A third. Shoots ranging from $150 to $500 pretty consistently. I started to make more money than my “day job” which to be honest was not that difficult considering at the time I was getting paid $7.75/hr at one job and $10/hr at another. Goodbye to both!

After a year of relatively steady income from my $150-$500 clients, my schedule was full. Well, I had an idea. What if the next time a client came to me and I told them it would be $1000 to photograph their project? Would it be crazy?

No, not at all – because I still had a nice steady income stream of clients paying me a couple hundred bucks a pop. It didn’t matter if my inquiry thought that $1000 was preposterous, since I had a calendar full of regular clients at cheaper rates.

But then one client bit at $1000. And a few months later, another. And a few months later…you get the point. I had trouble making time for my few-hundred-buck-a-shoot clients. Some of them I stuck with, some of them I gently let down.

When my calendar was full of $1000 shoots, rinse and repeat. Let’s try $2000. Holy crap, it’s working. You know what? I have a calendar full of $1000 and $2000 shoots – let’s go for broke and try $3000. Oh my god it’s working, you guys. $4000. $5000.

You get the point – this didn’t happen overnight, but took ten years. This will be my tenth year in business as we swing into 2020. I see so many photographers getting discouraged because they see me writing about charging thousands of dollars to take pictures for god’s sake how hard can it be? I bought your tutorial and everything but I just can’t do it.

No shit.

It took a long time to get here. Start cheap. Fill your calendar. Say yes to everything. You probably sucked at first. There are good bits about your pictures, but you probably have a lot to work on. Make that bed of steady income with cheaper, simpler clients before you screw with raising your prices – that way you aren’t playing with scared money when a big job does come along, because you have plenty of regular clients, just at lower rates.

If you know, then you know

How to break the news to your existing clients

You’re probably not going to want to tell your existing clients that you’re raising your rates right away. Let them stay on their program for awhile – hey, they took a chance on you. If they send interesting work your way, are easy to work with, are fun to be around, it’s probably not going to be worth it to go nuts and raise your rate on them by some massive amount. Maybe start small and bump it up gradually.

If, on the other hand, you have clients that you could take or leave (that sounds awfully mean to type, doesn’t it? I don’t intend it to be) then you can take a straightforward approach with it. Honestly this sounds much scarier and more dangerous than it really is. Most of my clients, even if they aren’t my omg I have a crush on you let me take you to lunch type of clients still get along pretty well with me, it’s just more of a business transaction. So here’s what we do:

Dear Client,

I’m writing to let you know that starting (next year, next month, whenever) I’m going to be raising my rates. The new rates are $x per day and $y per photo, reflecting an increase of z%. If you have any questions about this I am happy to answer any questions and will get back to you as soon as I can.

As always, thank you for your continued business and the trust you place in me to photograph your projects.

No sob stories about how you can’t pay the mortgage. No sob stories about “increased costs of doing business” – it’s not your clients problem. Just the facts. Rates are going up, here they are, take it or leave it. I’ve seen some truly cringe-worthy emails that photographers have sent in an effort to raise their rates, going on and on about how it’s hard to make ends meet, post production costs are high, their kids are in private school. Just stop.

I have subcontractors that raise their rates on me all the time. I like them, I like our relationship, and a price increase isn’t going to freak me out – it’s part of doing business. I want the people that I hire to be successful, so provided that their rates aren’t going up 100% overnight, I’m usually more than happy to pay them a little more every year. I like to think that my relationships with my clients work the same way – they’re generally nice people and I truly believe most of them want to see me succeed and make as much money as I can.

And hey, if you’re a photographer that quotes every single job on an individual basis, you don’t even have to do this, though it may behoove you to give your favorite clients a heads up that rate increases are coming. Since I use a rate sheet model that’s standard across the board for all my clients, it’s easier to alter the rate sheet and send it to everyone.

When not to raise your rates

Ah, the caveat. There is something to be said for using a little emotional intelligence from time to time, which I consider the icing on top of a successful photographer’s career. I have a few clients who are smaller firms who just don’t have the budget to support $5000 photo shoots. They might do 2-3 modest residential projects every year. The work isn’t the sexiest, but I really love working with them and it’s not even like it’s a day of work. They’re local jobs, so I can turn up, shoot, have fun with them all day, and be back in my bed that night. As long as they make my life easy, I’m happy to very slowly increase rates or grandfather them in. This is a personal decision that you’ll have to make for yourself – but when I’m flying halfway around the world and pulling sunrise-to-sunset shoots in June, you can bet that I’m not going to keep the rates the same for all of eternity.

Other benefits of raising your rates

As the amount of money you’re able to charge climbs, it has a bit of a snowball effect. You’re able to make the same or similar amounts of money for working less days. One $5000 job takes less time than five $1000 jobs – although it’s not 1/5th the time, as the pre-production and post-production is generally more involved, but let’s say it’s 3/5ths as much time. Suddenly you made the same money for working 60% of the time.

Now we can take that freed-up time and, oh, I don’t know – market to more higher paying clients. Or do a personal project. Or stuff more work in there if you’d like to make money. Or just relax with our families. It is a major, major stress reliever to be able to charge more and have more free time. It gives you options!

Another somewhat unknown or less-talked about benefit is the fact that people trust you way more at a higher price point. He must be good because he charges a lot. Let him do his work. People stop breathing down your neck; there is an inherent amount of trust that comes along with high rates. As a result, I know my work has gotten way better with the creative freedom that, somewhat ironically, comes along with higher paying work. It’s a beautiful thing and I absolutely love all my of clients at these higher price points – of which I only have 5 or 6 regular clients. It’s all I need, and I can give them my full attention, instead of running around trying to work with 30 or 35 different clients for a few hundred bucks each. Less drama. Better pictures. Happier me…and hopefully happier you, too.

Bottom line

Raising your rates consistently is an important part of being a successful photographer. You should always strive to raise your rates at a reasonable and consistent pace, yet be sure to use a little street smarts before you do – architectural photography is a relationships, talent, AND business game, so foster great relationships and be smart about how you raise rates. And when you do raise your rates, don’t BS anyone: just be a professional, please.

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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