"How much should I charge a client for a shoot?"
Asking this question of a fellow photographer usually provokes the same reaction as asking someone at a Grateful Dead concert, "How should I dance to this?"
Because, although most Deadheads appear to be dancing the exact same way, they are—believe it or not—grooving a bit differently. (Also, if you gotta ask, you probably have no business dancing in the first place.)
My short answer is...
The maximum amount the client will pay... provided they are still happy next week.
Most pros will push the first half of that equation: "Don't race for the bottom", "Our craft is worth a lot of money", etc... etc... But there's something about a guy combing clients out of his hair, telling you not to "give it away". We all appreciate the philosophy, but at the same time... they're not the ones who are trolling friends' birthday parties, casually inquiring if anyone needs family portraits done. And I'm guessing Annie Leibovitz does not spend her evenings hashing out print-packages with clients and arguing over who gets the negatives.
So, seriously, whudyah charge?
There are no numbers here. Just my process. It's likely different than yours, but we may have common ground. Hell, I've just started learning. If you have the magic formula, then don't hesitate to use that comment button down there.
Keeping in mind that I do have a day job—meaning, I can be picky—this is my interior monologue when someone asks me to shoot for them:
- Have I done this type of shoot before? Generally, there's no way you should be charging someone the "going rate" to shoot their wedding, if you've never done one before. (Another good reason to narrow your niche. If you're "the guy who shoots anything and everything", you'll never be able to charge top dollar in one field.)
On the other hand... if you kick ass in one area, you've probably got a fighting chance. As a friend of mine reminded me, "They're buying your style, not your experience." Bottom line: if Joe McNally offered to shoot your son's bar mitzvah, would you turn him down?
- What is the "going rate", anyway? Pick up the phone! Ask a pro, then ask someone closer to your level of experience. Pretend you're a client and relay the same information that your client has given you. Somewhere in there is a reasonable middle ground, I'd reckon. More homework means more money and more gigs.
- Do I need the money? If you're living on Ramen noodles and are on the verge of pawning your D3, who am I to tell you to back off? Quote them $10,000! They might go for it. Then again, they might resent your impersonation of a pro, and trash your name when the prints come back. Word of mouth works two ways—but always fast.
- Do I need the experience? Paging John Harrington. If a cheapo shoot is actually going to open doors for you in that field—and it won't— you might consider bargain basement pricing... at first. I heard of a guy who reno'd a friend's living room for dirt cheap. The catch? If anyone asked, the friend was to quote a much higher price to the future client. Sounds like an urban myth to me.
- Do I need the portfolio pics? If you don't need better pics in your portfolio, I tip my hat to you. Now run along and get your yacht polished. Seriously, though... I'm not saying that you should work cheap to fill your book, but the better your book, the less likely it is that you'll feel compelled to work cheap.
- Is it for friends or family? If you take yourself seriously as a professional, they will understand if you charge—but there are times when the best gift to give is your snaps. If it makes them happy, gives you solid experience and maybe even gets your name out there—and not just as the "free guy"—everybody wins (except the other photographer who isn't getting paid).
- Is it a charity? Ditto the above, but you don't have to endure your Uncle Craig's off-colour jokes in a house that smells like Cinnamon Air Wick.
The point is, only you can decide what you're worth—with a little help from your clients and colleagues, of course. Research and top-ten lists are only going to get you so far. Push your luck a little, and you may find you can charge more than you had hoped.
Reality check: if you get shot down three quotes in a row, you're asking too much. The good news is, you now have the second book-end to what your pricing should be. (The first bookend is "zero": if no one has ever questioned your pricing structure, you're charging too little. Just a hunch.)
Whatever happens, keep shooting. No one ever got good (or rich) waiting by the phone. Except maybe Annie.