My first tip is probably not what you expected to read. It’s not the most creative or inspiring advice. It doesn’t even have anything to do with actually creating photos. But it’s true: if you are going to start a photography business, then you need to do your math. You need to crunch the numbers to figure out your pricing.
Here’s a little secret: doing your math isn’t actually about numbers.
It’s about something else.
But I’ll leave that secret until the end.
Back to your math and your pricing.
Let me first say this: your pricing has nothing to do with anyone else. Ignore what other people are charging. Ignore the prices you’ve seen on social media threads and community chat boards. If you want to do this right, then your pricing should be based on your desires, costs, and taxes.
I started my business eight years ago, and I was clueless. I was just happy to make some extra cash. If you’re reading this post, then I assume you’re in the same place. You’re not an established business with a long list of repeat clients. You’re thinking about turning a hobby into a side hustle or you’re trying to boost a fledgling business that isn’t working just yet.
If that’s where you are, then read the rest of this post and do your math.
Conventional advice is to figure out how much money you’d need to make per year and then multiply that by three. That number is how much money you need to actually bring in. (Why multiply by three? Conventional advice is that one-third is your income, one-third for expenses, and one-third for taxes.) For example, if you want your photography business to give you an annual income of $60,000, then conventional wisdom says you need to actually bring in $180,000.
That’s a lot of money. If you’re just starting out, I’d imagine that number looks impossibly high. Again, you’ve been thinking that it’d just be nice to make an extra $100 on the weekends doing something you enjoy. How could you possibly go from earning nothing to $180,000?
Well here’s the thing about that conventional wisdom:
it isn’t what you need right now.
I have never come close to bringing in that kind of money. I also don’t need to. My business is a side-hustle. It’s not full-time work. (I’m also a high school teacher.) But I do make a minimum of $1,500 per session, and my photography side business keeps our family comfortable.
I have also never used personal funds to pay for my business. Every new piece of gear, website subscription, private lesson, backdrop, hard drive, you name it, has been paid for by my clients.
Let’s assume you are looking to start your side hustle. You are a student, a stay-at-home-parent, or someone with full-time work hoping to make some extra weekend cash from your photography hobby. What math do you need to do?
The first step is the same as I mentioned above: identify the amount of money you’d like to make each year.
Let’s say you’d like to make an extra $5,000 with your photography side business. (That’s a vacation, right? Or a daily Starbucks habit?) Double that and you’ve got the money you need to bring in.
Why only double? Didn't you just tell me triple?
If you do things right, then you should have enough tax deductions (mileage, supplies, gear, website and email fees, etc.) to offset any tax bill you might incur. After eight years in business, my photography income has never made me incur a tax bill. I just don’t make enough money for it to move the needle beyond my full-time job earnings. And remember, every business expense reduces the tax bill.
(Wait, business expense, you ask? Do I need to register my side hustle with the government? Well, yes, you should, but let’s wait a bit for that step. I’ll talk about that in a future blog post.)
Okay, so you need to bring in $10,000. Now you have to ask yourself how many sessions you’d like to do each year. Is one per month your goal? Do you want a session every weekend? What’s reasonable? What’s attainable?
Let’s go with two sessions per month. Now ask yourself, “How many months of the year can you operate?” Do you live somewhere with seasonal photography or year-round opportunities? (If you have a studio, then you can work all year! Here’s a blog post about my in-home studio if you want to see what it takes.)
Let’s assume you can only work spring and fall: when it comes to outdoor sessions, summer is too hot and winter is too cold. That means you have six months to make $10,000. If your goal is two sessions per month, then that’s 12 sessions to bring in $10,000. So what do you need to make per session? What’s $10,000 divided by 12?
That’s about $835 per session.
I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a lot of money. I was going to be happy with $100 per session!”
But if you really think about it, would you be happy with $100?
Is that what you’re worth? Is your time only worth $100?
What if you drop your camera and now need to spend $800 on a new lens? Now you need seven more $100-sessions just to pay for that new lens. You won’t even be able to pay yourself until the ninth $100-session!
Remember that secret I mentioned at the beginning? About how the math is really about something else?
Doing the math is really about telling yourself how much you are worth.
You are worth more than $100 per session.
Your time and effort is worth more than minimum wage. All of those photographers out there charging $250 for a session and giving a link to a download gallery, if they did their math, they’d realize what they are missing out on and they’d realize the message they are sending about their worth.
Your pricing conveys what you are worth. Tell your clients that you are worth it.
Let’s review our math real quick:
Step 1: Decide on the total annual income you want to make.
Step 2: Double it to account for expenses and modest taxes.
Step 3: Decide how many sessions you can reasonably expect to complete.
Step 4: Divide Step 2 by Step 3. That number is the minimum you need to make per session.
Again, here’s my example following those steps:
Step 1: I want to make $5,000 with my side hustle.
Step 2: Doubling it for expenses and taxes brings me to $10,000.
Step 3: I think it’s reasonable to expect to do two sessions per month during six months of the year in the spring and fall. (That’s 12 sessions total.)
Step 4: $10,000 divided by 12 is about $835. I need to make a minimum of $835 per session.
In fact, I am telling myself that I AM WORTH $835 per session.
Here’s the thing: in order to charge $835 for a session, you need to offer more than those $250-per-session-download-link photographers. I offer plenty more to separate myself from the everyday photographer. $835 per session also isn’t really a price list, is it? So how can you offer more? How does $835 per session turn into a price list? I’ll save that for my next post.
Here’s another thing to remember right away: not everyone is your ideal client.
You probably aren’t your ideal client.
Many of the people you first tell about your business will say, “Wow, you’re expensive.” Take comfort in knowing that, yes, you are expensive, and it’s because you are worth it.
There’s someone out there who will value you and your skills, and they will pay you what you’re worth.
Some people buy a BMW and some people buy a used Hyundai. Some people spend $100 on a steak dinner while others spend $20 on one. Some people buy designer clothes and shoes, and some choose the bargains and the discounts. Which photographer do you want to be? Are you the bargain or the luxury? The choice you make determines the message you send about your self-worth.
That last piece is tough to internalize. I spent the first five years in business taking on anyone who would pay me to take photos. Some of those sessions were fulfilling and fun, but many weren’t. I often felt taken advantage of, nickel-and-dimed out of every last ounce of energy or photo.
As soon as I stopped chasing every possible session and stuck to the pricing that conveyed my self-worth, my business prospered. I had more clients willing to pay well beyond the minimum.
My prices are as high as they’ve ever been, and I have had my most prosperous year and my most fulfilling sessions. What’s more, every client trusted me as a professional and an artist. That’s what pricing can do for you. It sends a message about what you are worth.
I’ll say it one more time: if you are starting your photography business, then do your math!
When it comes down to it, doing your math is really about affirming your worth. Your time, effort, and skill are worth it.
Do your math and affirm your worth.