Photography is a Luxury Business, Not a Discount Store

by Jamie M Swanson

Photography Is A Luxury Product

Photography is one of the worst types of businesses start if you’re simply looking to make some extra money.

It’s based on your time, which is limited, so your potential income is limited. Even if you start a studio and hire additional photographers, you’re not truly scaling your business very far.

There’s a low barrier to entry as the cost of equipment comes down and there’s no special schools or trainings required, causing market saturation (and high competition for clients) in almost all areas.

You also build very little equity, so if you decide to retire and sell the business, you won’t make much compared to other businesses and you may not even be able to sell the business at all.

On top of all that, it’s a creative service so its value is hard to quantify.

I’m not trying to depress you with these facts, and I’m certainly not saying you can’t have a profitable business.

If you want to have a successful photography business and really make money with photography, there’s one very important thing that you need to know and live by.

Photography is a luxury product

You are in the luxury business.

Not everyone can afford photography. That’s okay.

If they really want it, they’ll find a way to afford it.

Look at all the people who have iPhones or iPads. Even in my blue-collar town, there’s plenty of people who pay lots of money each month for the luxury items they value.

Price your photography where it needs to be in order to be profitable.

Create an experience that makes your customers rave about you.

Believe in yourself and your work for what it is. It’s a luxury, and it’s a valuable one.

It’s not your job to save them money.

Print that out and look at it every single day.

You are not a financial planner, you are a photographer. It is not your job to save people money.

We’ve all had to deal with someone who asked for a discount.

They LOVE our work, but they only want to spend $350 on something that you normally charge $600 for.

Should you give it to them?

Let’s put this into another context.

I walk into the Apple store. I fall in love with a 32GB iPad. I mean, I just LOVE this thing. It even has video.

So I go up to the gal working there and start gushing about how much I LOVE the iPad, but I really only want to pay $350 for it.

What do you think will happen?

If I really love that iPad, I’m going to have to find a way to get the rest of the money because there’s no way that they’d be dropping the price for me at all.

Why do we feel like it’s different when it comes to our photography business?

So how do we convey this to clients?

Before you can explain to clients why you can’t discount, you need to believe what you’ve read in this post.

Do some soul searching, build some confidence, and know that your art is worth it.

As for how to reply to your customers and tactfully explain why you can’t give them a discount?

The answer is coming, my dear ones.

I’m teaming up with the amazing Jennifer Brindley Ubl to create the ultimate resource that will tell you exactly what to say in this situation. You can expect it later this spring. You can find it right here.

Huge thanks to Amanda Schlicher (of Tangerine Studio) who brought this up recently and was talking about it in one of my photography groups. She graciously allowed me to share this all with you, and I’m thankful for her insight.

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Jamie M Swanson is a Madison Wedding Photographer with her husband Brandon. She enjoys photography, loves the business side of things, but truly comes alive by helping others grow their own businesses. Connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

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Heather January 20, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Thank you for this. I’ve been struggling with raising my rates because I feel like no one will pay them. I guess I just need to remember that I don’t want a bunch of “discount” clients; I’d rather have paying luxury clients!

And the iPod comparison really helped me to see that clearly. Thanks!

Jamie M Swanson January 20, 2012 at 1:01 pm

You’re welcome. It’s something I need to remind myself of from time to time when I get stressed about stuff. Glad to help!

matt shumate January 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Great info, Jamie! The only thing I’d add is that if you can’t charge enough to be viable financially, you need to get to work on your craft. Like you wrote, it’s a competitive industry & you have to have a product that people value.

If your potential clients can’t tell the difference between you & everyone else, they’ll likely go to everyone else.

Jamie M Swanson January 20, 2012 at 1:25 pm

Excellent point, Matt. Thanks for bringing it up, as it is definitely something that needs to be part of the conversation.

Jen Smith January 20, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Useful, practical, concise info, as always, Jamie! Thanks for the reminder. Having just paid sales tax and insurance premiums, I agree we must act like a profitable business if we want to be/own/manage one. Happy Friday!

Jamie M Swanson January 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Thanks for leaving a comment Jen! Enjoy your weekend!

Brianne January 20, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Fantastic advice! Should be required reading for everyone considering photography as a career (or even a side job).

Jamie M Swanson January 20, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Thanks Brianne! I’d love it if you’d share it with others you think should also read it! :) I wish I could send it to everyone, but alas my reach isn’t that big yet.

Lea January 21, 2012 at 6:59 am

As always, thank you, Jamie! I SOOO needed to read this! I’m in the process of completely re-branding my business and have made a full 180 in the direction of my work…as I was crunching the numbers I came up with a session fee that is literally $200 MORE than what I have been charging and I almost had a heart attack! And yet that is the absolute minimum I need to charge! I was feeling a little overwhelmed to say the least! This perked me right back up. Thanks again! Your posts always seem to be exactly what I need to here exactly when I need to hear it!

Jamie M Swanson January 21, 2012 at 8:27 am

You’re welcome Lea! I’m glad that you’re finding value out of the site. :) Hang in there – raising prices can be difficult, and it will be hard to jump up a lot (or maybe you need to increase prices on things they buy after the session so you don’t lose too much business from the new higher prices up front.)

If you’re interested in doing some one-on-one consulting, let me know. I don’t do a lot of it because of time, but I’m in the off season right now and would be glad to help you get from where you are to where you need to be with your sales. Just drop me a note through the contact page and I’ll send you the details.

Amy Corrigan January 21, 2012 at 10:10 am

Hi! Tried to click on the Amanda of Tangerine Studio and the link might not be correct? Would love to get her comment. Thanks. Looking forward to your YouTube info as well!

Thanks for sharing.

Jamie M Swanson January 21, 2012 at 10:15 am

Hi Amy,

Thanks for letting me know about the link. I looked into it, and the link is correct – her site is down right now. The link is to her photography site though, not to an article as the comment was made in a private local photography group that we are both a part of. Once her site is back up you should be able to contact her if you have more questions. Hope that helps, and thanks again for letting me know!

Steve Dunham January 21, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Great post. I really like the iPad comparison too. I think many photographers are their own hardest critics and undervalue their work which inevitably does not help. If we are offering something that a client cannot do themselves that they will cherish for years to come then we are still giving value even if we are selling luxury goods. What’s the old adage about knowing the price of everything but the value of nothing….

Typed on an iPad!

Jamie M Swanson January 21, 2012 at 3:30 pm

It’s so true, isn’t it? I mean, if people really value it, no matter what it is, people will pay for it.

The hard thing about pricing photography is that it’s art, so it’s personal, so I think many photographers tie it into their own self-worth (or their view of it) so if they don’t have much confidence, they don’t price very much or have a hard time charging what they need to in order to be profitable.

Good thoughts. Thanks for the comment. :)

Marta Spendowska January 21, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Jamie, this post is so so good—thank you for that!
I might steal the idea of writing about that and spec work in design. May I?
I love the comparison to your desire to have iPad2 and simply not willing to pay the full price.
Keep writing, you’re the best on da block!

:: Yours // Marta

Jamie M Swanson January 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm

Marta! Absolutely you can write about it with design, it’s completely the same idea. Thanks for the comment and the kind words. Nice to see you around here!

Jamie K! Photography January 24, 2012 at 11:14 pm

So glad I stumbled across your videos today! Love what you’re doing and CANNOT wait for more :) Keep inspiring others!

Jamie M Swanson January 24, 2012 at 11:47 pm

Well thanks Jamie! :) So kind of you! Glad to hear you like the videos.

laura zastrow February 5, 2012 at 7:32 pm

oh, if only it was this simple! when a couple asks for a discount on wedding photography, it’s not that i think that i am a “financial planner” and that i think “it’s [my] job to save people money.” if that was the reason i was considering giving discounts, you’d have convinced me with this post. (:

if i offer them $300 off, i know i’ll be making $2200, which is nice and comfortably secure. sure, my work is worth more than $2200, but giving a discount is guaranteeing myself a $2000+ job. saying no to the discount still leaves things up in the air. the reason i’d choose not to give a discount is because i’m holding out hope that someone will sign me for their date for the full $2500. and maybe no one will. which will leave me in the place of wishing i had that $2200 in my pocket. just some thoughts.

Jamie M Swanson February 5, 2012 at 8:17 pm

Laura, I know that we’re in the same market, and I’ve found that once you start closer to 3k that people mostly stop asking for discounts. At least that’s my experience. And your work certainly is worth it.

I understand why you feel this way, though. When it’s 2200 vs 2500 or the risk of nothing, then it’s seriously tempting and might even not be a bad choice. But then later when someone comes around and is willing to pay more than your minimum for that date that you just discounted for someone else, you kick yourself. Kick yourself a few times, and you stop doing it. :) Good thoughts, though. Thanks for commenting.

laura zastrow February 6, 2012 at 6:48 pm

yes, i certainly do wind up kicking myself. as a general rule, i don’t give discounts. but that doesn’t mean people don’t like to ask! (and like to not book when i stick to my guns!)

thanks for your input. making the jump to the $3000 bracket is so scary. we should talk…

Jamie M Swanson February 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm

I will occasionally discount as well, in very specific circumstances for people who are special to me and sometimes in the off season when it is very unlikely I’ll book another wedding. So I don’t want to come across as too purist about it.

It is scary to jump to the $3000 bracket, but hardly changed anything (except giving me a better wedding average sale amount.) I am guessing we’d book a few more if we were cheaper, but not enough to make that much more than we’re currently making. So I like it; less work for the same pay. Gives me more time to focus over here. :)

Cynthia March 25, 2012 at 1:47 pm

I’m struggling with this thought right now. Me and husband are working towards starting our own photography business part-time and we revisit this thought every now and then.

As someone who was recently married in a state that has a high cost of living I can’t seem to justify this thought. I was a budget bride and I did increase my budget for hiring a photographer throughout my wedding planning. However I reached a certain point where I decided I just can’t afford anything higher, as much as I would love to spend more. The one thing I do wish I had prior to booking my photographer was the knowledge about wedding photography. I have to say the few people that I contacted that charges beyond the price I could afford never bothered to educate me on what it was worth. And I did not ask for a discount because I respect them as artists but what I did not know was what wedding photography is really about. If the photographers had bothered to help me understand than maybe I will think to spend a little bit more. But the poor customer service just makes me wonder whether it is worth it to spend that much on someone who doesn’t think you are important if you can’t afford it. Even if their work is great.

Maybe I’m just a bride who had bad experiences while looking for a good photographer. But I’m not about to turn someone down who can’t afford me – if the client is truly looking for lasting memories they are worth just as much as those who put down a retainer before even meeting with you.

Jamie M Swanson March 25, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Hey Cynthia,

Thanks so much for the comment. I think you hit on 2 extremely vital points.

1. Education. Photographers are not doing nearly enough to educate their clients on why they might want to pay more. Maybe they can’t afford to stretch their budget, but maybe they can. Either way, we should do a better job of educating so that people can then make an informed decision about if they are able and willing to stretch to make it happen or not.

2. Customer service. This absolutely needs to get better. It’s easy when you are first starting out, but it’s much harder once you really start getting busy to keep up with emails and such. That’s no excuse, however. In fact, I’ll be talking about this at length in my new e-book coming out in April. :)

If you are only doing photography part time or are not relying upon the income to pay bills, then you have the luxury of being able to offer your services at a substantial discount in order to help out the brides who can’t afford you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this.

However, if your main income is photography, like ours is, there are only so many prime dates that we can shoot in a year. I know exactly how many weddings I need and what my average needs to be in order to keep paying our bills on time, feeding my kids, and all that. If I discount, I’m losing income and need to make it up somewhere else, but if all my Saturdays are already full, it’s going to be hard to find another wedding to shoot to make it up.

Time is a limiting factor. It’s hard. I shoot close family weddings for very little, and I recently turned away two weddings to other colleagues who booked both of them for over $4000 . So really, by booking my family member for free in this case, I just tangibly lost $4000. When this is your main income, that stings. If it was just a side job where the income was extra, it’s not nearly as big of a deal. I don’t regret it as there are some things more important than money, but it’s something that’s important to know.

I’ve often turned people away who can’t afford me. It’s not because I didn’t value them (and I always sent them to people who were more in their price range whose work was better than others in that same range) but it’s because I know my numbers and I’m committed to being financially responsible to my own family. I need to pay my bills and can only shoot so much. I also respect them and don’t get angry because they also need to be responsible to their budgets and I respect that tremendously.

Thanks again for such a thoughtful comment. I hope I’ll hear from you again on the blog. I seriously appreciate your candor and your thoughts having gone through this before, and the more I can push people to truly provide excellent service, the better. :)

Best wishes to you as you start your business!

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