To price or not to price: Dustin's thoughts

(random leaf image from amber's photo walk. Can't do a post without a picture, now can we?)

I just read an article that I couldn't resist responding to. This article articulates a VERY common opinion in the wedding photography business. It states, in relation to new photographers charging very little:

"You’re dragging down an entire industry. If you come into the market as a weekend warrior and start selling cheapo weddings against established businesses who have already set the industry standard, every cheapo wedding you shoot diminishes the industry. You’re participating in self-destructive behavior which is against your own interests" (full article)

I see this all the time: established professionals get angry at the "newbys" for "undercutting" their business by charging so little. But I ask, what's wrong with that? Isn't that how it should be?

An example from my own experience. I once bought a used computer (never a good idea) on ebay (also not a good idea). Why did I do it? Because it was CHEAP! All I needed was something with wireless and the ability to make word documents, and it had a calculator! I was excited to get such a sweet deal.

I still have the computer. How good was it? Not. It was outdated when I bought it, it's outdated today. It shuts down without permission, doesn't start with permission, and attracts destructive toddlers without my permission. It seems to take about 6 days to start up and about 3 to shut down. If I ask it to compute pi to 6 digits, it will refuse and instead tell me what 3+4 is. Overall it's temperamental and slow.

What's the point? The point is that I knew I was getting cheap when I bought it. When it started to break down, know what I said to myself?......meh.....that's what I expected.

Had I paid an exorbitant amount of money for that laptop, and had the ebay seller advertised it as "top of the line," or "best in the business," or "cutting edge technology," I would have been furious when it started acting up. Do I regret buying such cheap technology? Perhaps. Did I expect much better? NO!

While it worries the established professionals to see newbys charge so little, it actually worries me to see newbys charge so much? Why? Because they are portraying themselves as "top of the line," "Best in the business," and "cutting edge," when in reality maybe they're a little more like my temperamental lenovo. Sooner or later, you're going to have a bride realize you're not top of the line and someone's going to get upset. Someone will get burned. Likely both will get burned.

The ideal business model?

When we started out, and for several years, we charged $395 for our opening package. Perhaps we felt a little ostracized by the industry. When someone asked us how much we charged (a question commonly heard amidst the haughty banter of the wedding photographers), we would be embarrassed about admitting our prices. Inevitably we'd get a lecture about how we're undercutting the industry and devaluing the professional. Much too shy to refute, we would consent and claim that we are in the process of restructuring. But we always felt uneasy about something. We couldn't put our finger on it. But now we can.

Here's my opinion on why newby photographers NEED to charge less.

1. You set up the expectation for the client. Most people understand the phrase, you get what you pay for. Well...if you're new to photography, don't give people unrealistic expectations about how you shoot. I think you WANT them to know that you're just starting out. It's your insurance. If they know it's your first wedding(s), then whatever you produce is going to be incredible to them!

2. It will jump-start your business by giving you experience. In our first two years in the business with our original price structure, we shot nearly 50 weddings a year. Why? Because we were cheap and we were decent. That's almost 100 weddings in two years! You cannot buy that kind of experience. Had we charged as the grumpy photographers told us we should, we would never have gained that experience and would have been stuck inevitably in "mediocre" gear.

Again I quote this photographer: "Develop your skill set first, then your marketing, then launch with a product that has the value it should and more importantly value that will last." How can these skills be developed without practice? How can you practice without clients? How can you get clients without being reachable?

3. I can't shoot everyone's wedding. There's a well known professional in the business by the name of Sandy Puc. While most professional portrait photographers bark at Target and Walmart for offering sessions and prints for under $20, she thanks them. She says, "I can't possibly take everyone's picture. I'm glad Walmart is there to take some of the burden off my shoulders."

Honestly, there's enough business out there. I can't shoot everyone's wedding, so I'm glad there are photographers out there who charge $300 for full wedding coverage. At least those brides get wedding pictures, and likely, she will get what she expects. I personally think that is awesome.

Don't let the "grumpy photographers" tell you what your prices should be. They don't remember starting out. They don't remember waiting by the phone or constantly checking email hoping that someone is interested. They don't remember the frustration of longing to be better without a chance to improve. If shooting for friends at a reasonable rate is the only way for you to gain experience and build clientele, then go for it. You won't get any flack from me!

I'm interested to hear your opinions on the matter. You have both sides of the argument. What do you think? Let me know!

See also: fast track photographer, Jasmine Star


Stephers said...

I agree with you. Photography is kind of like learning how to cut hair- you learn best by practice and being exposed to several different situations. You can go to a hair school and get a really cheap cut from someone who is learning, and you know you're taking a risk that it may not be top quality, but at least it's cheap. I personally would be very upset to hire an expensive photog only to find that they are inexperienced.

Brooke said...

This is the most balanced take I've heard on that article! You're right... there's a place for the cheap photographer AND the expensive one! And yes, you do get what you pay for and most people expect that.

If you read Dane Sanders book "Fast Track Photographer", he talks about how you eliminate all competition when the product you sell is not "photography" but the "photographer". There's only one YOU. People who are threatened by cheap photographers are selling "a commodity" as that author reluctantly referred to photography as.

I want to be hired because people want ME. In the long run, I hope price is secondary.

But... that being said, you really do establish the allure of "YOU" only after having experience and honed skills... which just might be sharpened by charging cheap prices to get some experience :)

When you do reach that level of confidence and ability though... I do agree that you should raise your prices :)

ALS said...

Thank you, as a photographer starting out I feel uncomfortable charging outrageous prices and want to get the experience I need to get better without saying I am the best photographer out there.

I agree, there are plenty of people who need pictures and we are lucky enough to get to be in this business. Thanks again.


Tim said...

Very interesting post Dustin. I find it quite interesting in light of the horrible craigslist ad that you guys reposted for a beginning photographer.

I think this is a very good take.I wouldn't want to be paying the price to get you and then get something that I could have gotten and Wal-Mart for a fraction of the price.

Looking forward to hopefully meeting up with your wife this weekend while she's in Cali to get some 6 month pictures of our son.

kristin said...

oh thank goodness i read this! i am so happy to hear your argument on the other side. i read that article last week and have been stewing about how to handle being in the exact situation you describe.

of course i'd like to charge more than i do now, but i don't want to set up expectations with my prices that i can't yet meet.

what you describe is fair to the new photographer, the new client (as long as the client has realistic expectations from the photographer), and the industry in general.

thanks for your thoughts!

Jen said...

Thank you! This was perfect and exactly what I needed to hear :)

jamirodana said...

Great post! I'm still a "newby" in my first year and I don't feel comfortable charging too much, but I'm making sure it is worth my time as a mother of 3 who stays at home:)

I do not like grumpy photogs and I will never be one!!

Jessica Hills said...

Thank you for this post! I am semi-professional and got all my experience from first doing free sessions, then charging bare minimum. I don't like grumpy photogs either!

Fife Photography said...

Thank you all for your comments. The photog who wrote the other article mentioned there were lots of other photographers who were "out to get him" after writing this article. Apparently it's not the most popular school of thought among photogs.....then again, maybe people are too kind to disagree :)

PamH said...

Just came across this post from Brooke's blog, and I couldn't agree more!! Thanks for putting it together so eloquently!

Bree said...

I'm so grateful for Brooke's link to this post! I absolutley agree. Who cares?! Everyone knows that you get what you pay for, right!? ;) Everyone has to start somewhere and I think that there are many top-professionals that forget that. Thanks again for your awesome take!

Christina said...

I hopped over here from Brooke's blog too. Thanks for putting this into words. There are plenty of people who can and will afford the thousands of dollars some awesome photographers charge, but there are many more who just need some photos. I'm shooting my first wedding in a few weeks for free because

1. It is my first and

2. The couple looked for a photographer they could afford and decided they couldn't afford anyone. They were not going to have anything but snapshots of their wedding because of price, that is, until they met me, an aspiring newbie needing experience.

Since there are a both a lot of people in that #2 situation and a lot of new photographers, I think pricing low is a great option for both of them.

genevievepelissie said...

I chime in with all those who have said, "Well-balanced post, Dustin!" From my perspective as primarily a client, I appreciate knowing that I'm not paying an arm and a leg for a new person, but I may not be getting the "best ever" shots either. Other times I may choose to pay the higher prices because I want to guarantee higher quality. I just love the free market!!! Keep up the great photography and education!