The True Value of Professional Photography
I thought I’d share my thoughts on a common, sometimes controversial, but very important subject surrounding the value of professional photography services. More specifically, the value of wedding photography.
This post is inspired by a massive influx of wedding photographers, in forums and social networks, all talking about prices. Most of them were actually complaining about how clients don’t value photography anymore.
The entire article you’re about to read was actually meant to be a reply to a post on one photographer’s Facebook status. My comment was starting to look like an essay, so I thought it deserved a blog post of its own.
Before I begin I just want to point out that as a wedding photographer myself, I’m going to refer to wedding photos in most of what I say, but my sentiments apply to every discipline. Or any business in fact.
So what is everyone complaining about?
There seems to be an overwhelming notion among some wedding photographers that the public (clients) are not seeing the true value of professional photography and always looking for the cheapest deal. Some are complaining, others are ranting, about how clients expect a lot but want to pay very little. But is that really the case? Are photographers just overreacting to a change in culture?
We constantly hear the argument that, due to the relative affordability of DSLR’s, people are not placing the same value in professional photography as they used to. Why would they want to pay for something they think they can do themselves? The other common argument is that clients don’t respect photographers in the same way they do other suppliers.
I understand these sentiments and partly agree with them. What I don’t agree with, is the way some professionals are placing the blame squarely on the paying customer for not valuing the photos. I don’t understand why so many people think that way.
It’s not the customers’ fault!
I don’t think it’s the customer’s fault at all. As with any purchase or investment, all the buyer really wants is value for money. And who decides what is value for money? The buyer!
Whilst most people are savvy enough to recognise the importance of good photography, not many understand the intricacies involved in producing the images. Instead, they look no further than the quotes they receive. In the early stages, especially upon the first enquiry, not everyone realises the true value of the actual end product because it isn’t in their hands yet. At this stage, they are simply speculating. Most customers don’t know how the process works, so won’t know what questions to ask. Naturally, they will end up approaching it like any other purchase, by comparing the factors that they do know about and is most likely important to them. And that’s usually their budget.
But can the customers be blamed for thinking like that? Is it even wrong? Isn’t it our responsibility as the professional photographers to educate them? How else are the public supposed to understand what is involved in what we do? And isn’t it a bit hypocritical of us to complain about people looking for a bargain, when we all do exactly that when shopping around for most products we buy?
I think too many wedding professionals have a sense of entitlement and are missing the point. The fact is, at first, the majority of customers don’t realise that they are not only buying a product, but also the photographers time, expertise, creativity and vision. It doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t care once they’ve been informed. But ultimately, what’s important to one person, may not be important to another. That’s just life.
So there’s no sense in getting angry and bitter towards customers just because they couldn’t convince them to place a higher value on something they don’t believe in. If a client doesn’t appreciate, understand or simply can’t afford it, they will not be your client. Focus on those who will.
Do photographers actually value themselves?
Although many will remain in denial about it, the reality is that too many photographers have lost sight of, or never understood, the intrinsic value and power an image holds. And unfortunately, in a bid to secure bookings, a lot of professionals offer services at unsustainably low prices. This is what is giving the buying public a false perception of what photography should cost. The multitude of price ranges on offer is skewing the distinction between what is, or isn’t good value. And it’s causing a lot of confusion and mistrust.
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Of course, pricing is not the sole problem. There are a number of reasons why people charge the way they do. You can read about those reasons in another article titled: “Why is Wedding Photography Expensive?”. Cheap and expensive are relative terms. To some people £1000 is nothing, to others, it’s a year worth of savings.
What is of concern is ‘how’ photographers approach the issue of pricing their work and what they prioritise on. With so many photographers giving out various conflicting advice in their workshops, it’s no surprise that most people are confused about what to charge for their work.
With all that in mind, it wouldn’t be entirely unfair to say that the decline in the perceived value of photography is actually caused by the photographers themselves! The very people who need and want customers to respect their craft.
Here are some of the main reasons why:
- Lack of communication with clients – A lot of talented photographers underestimate their talent and what they have to offer. As a result, they are unwilling or don’t know how to effectively communicate the value of their service and product to the client.
- Targeting the wrong customers – This is probably the single biggest cause of frustration and resentment on both sides. Too many photographers don’t know how to position their brand in the market and try to cater to everyone. They are not willing to accept that customers have different budgets, different tastes and prioritise things differently. No amount of persuasion is going to convince someone to spend more if they don’t have the budget, don’t like the work or generally don’t value photography as highly as other things.
- Lowering prices due to competition – Instead of working towards differentiating themselves and standing out from the crowd, many photographers choose to reduce their prices. This usually stems from lack of confidence and belief in their work or business strategy.
- Low quality work and bad service – Almost every industry has them. Those who have no interest or care about the standards of work they deliver. They are usually the ones charging rock-bottom prices just to keep the cash flowing. They are also the ones who over promise and under deliver. This leaves customers with bad experiences and a negative perception of photographers in general.
Reasons 2 & 3 are difficult ones to navigate and overcome. They more or less coincide with each other. And it’s totally understandable why it happens. These days, we have really talented photographers out there, some with years of experience and high profiles, who are charging very little in comparison to relative newcomers or others in the same calibre. This, of course, benefits the customer, but it’s destroying the rest of the photography industry and making it hard for others to compete on a level playing field. Everybody is afraid of pricing themselves out of the market.
But it’s the biggest fallacy to think that you can raise the perceived value of photography by constantly lowering the price.
It’s also irresponsible as a professional. If you’re reluctantly working for less than what you deserve, you will not be motivated enough to put 100% into the product and service you offer. Like delivering unedited images because you don’t want to spend the time it takes to process them. Lowering your rates influences you to cut corners. And that’s when the client loses out as it costs them far more in the long run. The cost of regret! Why would anyone place any value on something they were not entirely happy with or underwhelmed by?
The actual cost of wedding photography
So what can photographers do to reverse this race to the bottom? How much should we be charging for our work?
It’s difficult to offer one universal answer to those questions as there are many factors involved. We all define value in different ways and we all place importance on different things. What I do know, is that unless all of us in the wedding industry work together and respect each others profession, not much is going to change. We might as well ride out the wave until it loses its momentum and comes crashing to shore and disappears.
In regards to how much photographers should be charging, that all depends. First, on how each photographer measures their own experience, skill and knowledge. Then you have other costs associated with running the business, which varies based on the business model and workflow. And of course, the quality of their end product (images, album design etc). But in the end, the main factor is what kind of customer the photographer is targeting. And whether or not their brand and marketing strategy fit’s with that customer’s needs.
Unless I’m asked, I am in no position to tell others how to run their businesses. Nor can I lay out a pricing structure as that is entirely up to the photographer to put together themselves. I can only make suggestions. And one way I can try to put things into perspective is by highlighting both the intrinsic and monetary value of photos in relation to current average pricing trends.
In the example below, you will realise that no matter how much a photographer charges, the customer is always getting the best value. So all we really need to do is educate the client about it. Most people forget that photos last a lifetime. Technically, they get to ‘use’ the product every single day for the rest of their lives.
With that in mind, here’s a quick breakdown of how that works in terms of cost to the customer:
- The average life expectancy in the UK of men and women combined is about 80 years.
- Let’s say a couple get married at age 30.
- That means the photos we create have an average shelf life of 50 years!
- Let’s say they received a quote for wedding photography of £3500 for 250 images.
- Divide the £3500 by the number of years the couple will be using the products: £3500 ÷ 50 = £70 per year.
- Now divide £70 by the number of images: £70 ÷ 250 = 0.28
That’s 28p per image, per year!!
And that’s before deducting any of the costs associated with completing the job. i.e. Album cost, editing, designing, shooting time, travel, admin etc.
And the couple gets to enjoy them everyday for 50 years!! Not only that, the images will still be there in the family, passed down through each generation. I can’t think of any other product that will last that long other than a house. But even a house costs more money to maintain. Photos don’t! A lot of people queue for hours to spend over £500 on the latest iPhone. A product that becomes obsolete within a few years. A photo lasts forever!
So you see, even if you charged, I don’t know, say £9500 for 250 images, the customer is still paying less than £1 per photo (76p in this instance). Once costs are deducted, they are being given away practically for free!
The Power and Intrinsic Value of Photos
A price tag is something artificial that is added to the image by us, based on a multitude of artificial factors. It’s not an accurate reflection of the true value a photograph provides by its very nature.
Lets look at what a single photo does and the power it has to change the way we feel at a given moment, and sometimes our entire lives.
- How many of us reach for our photos when we miss our partners?
- How many parents dote over images of their children at birth and different stages of growth?
- How many times have entire families gathered round to look through a wedding album? Or birthdays, children’s first steps, graduation, prom and so many other significant events?
- How many photos remind you of people and moments that have passed?
- How many times are photos used as evidence of wrongdoing?
- How many times are photos used to document history and new discoveries?
You see, a photograph can evoke happiness, sadness, memories, laughter, anger, contemplation, pride, love. Images have the ability to bring people together. Preserve history. Change lives.
The featured image attached to this post is of my mother (circled). It was sent to me back in 1997, the year before mum died. I never really got a chance to get to know her. With the exception of the baby years, I only ever saw her twice, for a total of 12 months, in my entire life. I was separated from her at the age of two, and this one battered old photo is all I have to remember her by. I cannot put together words to describe how it feels to have not known or spent more time with my mother. So to me, this one photo is the most valuable possession I own.
It doesn’t matter that it’s not in perfect condition. I don’t care whether or not any creativity went into its creation. It’s a photo of my mother. Each time I look at it, I feel a sense of belonging. It calms me. It make’s me sad. It makes me happy. It reminds me of the fragility of life. Of Sacrifice. Of responsibility. It helps me appreciate those still around me. It inspires me. It reminds me that I am the son of a beautiful woman. It does all that and more. That’s all that matters. This one battered old photo. So modest, yet so powerful. That’s what is valuable to me!
Only you can decide what is valuable to you
In the materialistic world we live in today, it’s easy to forget that not everything can be quantified. Whether you are a professional photographer or a paying customer, only YOU can decide what the true value of a photo is to YOU!
It’s the prerogative of the individual and how much importance they put on their memories and how highly they regard the product on offer. I don’t think anyone has the right to say what others should or shouldn’t value.
Know your customer
I think the biggest mistake you can make in any business, is to try to cater to everyone.
We’ve all been there at some point or other, where we feel that every enquiry has to be converted to a booking. Even if the customer doesn’t fully understand what is being sold. Then we get stuck in an awkward situation where there’s a conflict between what the client wants and what you are able to deliver. Your style, vision and workflow does not match their expectations and you’re constantly locked in a battle trying to convince them you were the right choice by trying to keep them happy. Only one party will be happy. And it’s usually the customer.
Do this long enough and you’ll find yourself believing that clients are too demanding for what they paid or your work is not good enough. This kind of relationship is detrimental to both parties and leads to disappointment and the misplaced resentment I’m addressing in this article.
Whether you’re starting out as a professional photographer, or already established, having a clear idea of the type of customer you’d like to attract is the most important part of the business. This is what your whole business strategy will be focused on, and will shape the style of your work, how you price yourself and how your business evolves. Once you do this, when you get enquiries, you can devise a set of questions to ask in order to qualify your clients.
If you find yourself constantly attracting the type of customer you don’t want, then you need to seriously re-evaluate your business strategy and make changes. It’s naive and short-sighted to think that all customers think the same. They don’t. There are customers out there for everyone. You just have to recognise the ones you want and tailor your business to cater to them.
Want higher paying clients? Find out what they want. What makes them tick? Customers who are willing to spend more understand that quality costs money. So be honest with yourself and think about why they would want to invest in you? How good is your work? Your level of customer service? Can you deliver to their expectations?
Want to fill your books with budget clients? That’s ok too. The same thing though, you need to know what they want. And yes, this class of client will always focus on price and quantity first. Can you afford to keep discounting your work and efforts? If so, then great, they are your ideal client. But remember, these type of clients can’t, or won’t, want to spend much. Most of them are merely concerned with ‘how much’ they will receive at the end. Don’t expect them to understand or even care about your process and your efforts.
The bottom line is, YOU are in control of your business. If you’re unhappy with the kind of customers you’re getting, take responsibility and realise that it’s your decisions that are attracting them. Just as much as the customer gets to choose whether or not they book you, YOU can also decide if you want them.
If you get an enquiry where the customer doesn’t see the full strength of your service and creativity, even after educating them, then they’re not your customer. Just be honest and inform them that you’re not the right photographer for them. Don’t be afraid to say no.
Don’t lower prices, raise your standards!
Good wedding photography by its very nature has a high sentimental value to the client. Aside from the fact there is a priceless element to the images, there are also the cost factors to consider.
Many photographers focus on their present cash flow situation. For others, it’s simply a ruthless business manoeuvre to undercut and get the booking. And then there are those who simply don’t realise they are underselling themselves. Whichever way you look at it, it’s us photographers who are affecting the market in a negative way by not valuing ourselves. Some believe the industry is in an irreversible downward spiral. I don’t think it’s as bad as that. Yes, it’s not in a great place, but I believe we can change that.
But change is only possible if we can work together to eliminate the fear of competition and self-sabotaging attitudes among photographers. Competition is healthy. It inspires us to push ourselves to do better and raise our standards in all aspects. Competition is not supposed to be about how to destroy the opposition. It’s supposed to be about how you can win. Losing your self-respect, reducing your income, and destroying the industry is NOT winning!
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Unless we aim high, recognise the importance of the work we do and, collectively, raise standards, there will always be a huge divide and confusion between what is and isn’t good value for photography. And if we’re not willing to work hard to improve, there is absolutely no point in complaining, ranting and blaming the customers.
There are enough customers out there who DO value photography and willing to pay for it. But if they keep getting high-quality work at low prices, do you really think they will kick up a fuss? If us photographers don’t value our own time and effort, how can we expect the buying public to do so?
Respect yourself before you expect others to respect you.
What do you think? Is the value of professional photography in decline? Are photographers self-sabotaging the very industry they depend on? Can we change it, and if so, how? Let me know if I’ve missed out anything. Share your thoughts in the comments.
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