How Photographers Are Price Cutting You

How Photographers Are Price Cutting You

I write a lot of articles about photographers not price cutting you, so I am going to try and approach this from the opposite direction. Here is how photographers are price cutting you.

I am clearly bias on this topic and to cut straight to the headline, I do not believe in price cutting at all, but I thought it wise to look at the argument from an opposing direction. The belief is that photographers offering the same service as you for less money are price cutting you. Yet, I think it is fair to say that there is a parallel argument that these said photographers are doing a worst job with worst equipment etc. So there are a few facets to the argument.

What Are Clients Paying For?

Every genre of photography has a mix of clients. From those who do not value photography much (which is fine) and don’t pay large fees, through to those who think it is the most important thing in their life or business and pay fees to correlate with this. Within there are huge gray areas. If you are targeting people who do not value photography and offering them a high end service, you are going to get price cut. Not because the other photographer is looking to wrong you, but because they are offering the service at the price of the value. Obviously if you take this to its natural conclusion, you have photographers ending up paying to shoot for clients. Which I am sure has happened to some. The trick is not to get caught up by this trap. If people are not willing to pay for your service at your fee, you either have the wrong service or the wrong client. Wondering why your fine art prints of tinned food wont sell for $10 at a major art show or why they won’t sell for $500 at a local fair are the same issue, I do not personally believe that price cutting goes into it, I do think that people pitch the wrong product to the wrong people though. In this case, the product, service, and client are misaligned, but both do have their place.

What Are You Worth?

Knowing your worth is key in every industry, but also understanding that is changes. Years ago, if you printed maps to be sold at gas stations, you were on to a winner, anyone driving anywhere would need a map. Today, it is a pretty low value economy. Sat nav is now being out dated by the free phone apps which are purchased via your data which is in turn sold on, and I am sure at some point driverless cars will trump the lot. Ranting about the value of your maps and how apps are undercutting you is not going to get you anywhere, as is the case with ranting about instagram photographers getting paid more with their phone than you do with your $10,000 camera and lens combo. Clients rarely care about your camera, they care about your images and in all honesty, a lot of the Instagramers have better images than most people who call themselves photographers.

Times change and the value placed on the service moves with it. The family portrait photographer selling prints of negatives is long gone and that business model no longer works. Yet, I know of influencers who do phone photography getting paid $10K to take a photograph of a product in situ. As far as I am concerned, this is professional photography. I then take a complicated image in my studio and get the same fee, but we offer very different products and ROIs, so we also have very different clients or at least different shoot briefs with different projected marketing outcomes when we do have the same client.

How Can People Charge Less?

As photographers, we don’t always see the business side of things like people in other professions do.After all, we are selling on our creative abilities. If you are working with just a kit camera and lens or an iPhone, then you can charge less than a photographer with a Hasselblad and make the same profit margin. If the quality of images is as good or good enough, the lower price point will win. Why pay more when you can achieve your goals for less?

What Should You Do If You Are Being Price Cut?

If you think that another photographer is offering the same service as you and that all things are equal, but that they are charging far less, they are going to get the clients. It is as simple as that. If, by some unknown reason they are obscenely cheap and the work is of an incredibly high standard, this probably wont create a booking through price cutting due to perceived value and risk, but for most of us it will happen. Nevertheless, with lower fees, it is highly unlikely that they are actually offering parallel services.

Chances are that they have remove costs that they feel the client is not interested in. Maybe you feel a high end prime lens is required, where as the client can’t tell the difference between that and a kit lens. This is not the photographers fault, the cheaper photographer has merely understood that particular  market better and has filled the gap. I have had clients looking at Phase One images and asking for even more from the camera, but I have also shot for clients with my phone when local restaurants need images on a budget. See if you can spot them on my food photography portfolio www.scottchoucino.com  There are however, as briefly touched upon, a few reasons to pay more, if you tick these boxes then your clients will stay, if you simply do not command the extra cost, they will go else where.

If you are offering a far higher perceived quality of product that there is a need or desire for, your clients won’t go cheap, or at least the clients you attract wont expect cheap, you will more than likely find that your cheap clients go else where, but that is an article in itself. People only go cheap when the perceived value just isn’t there. I am not paying $1000 for shoes when $300 do the job for me. Someone else is only paying $50 because that's how much they value shoes. That isn’t to say that the $50 shoes are undercutting the $1000 shoes. The more expensive shoes are probably far better (removing any premium for certain brand names), but not everyone cares about shoes nor do they require shoes of the same quality.

Cheap, Good or Fast: Pick Two

As the adage goes, you can pick two of the following; cheap, good, fast. If you need a high quality image delivering quickly, clients know that they are not going to get it cheap. This is just a fact of life. Those looking for all three are either nightmare clients to avoid or are kidding themselves or you and only really care about two of the above. If you can offer on site delivery on an ad campaign whilst having your retoucher in the room, you wont be cheap and the clients who need you will pay the fee for this. This has been my personal experience. If you are offering a family portrait, speed probably isn’t vital, but quality and price may be, so people may be happy with a cheaper portrait of high quality that takes 3 weeks to receive.

You need to understand your market and work toward it. Being angry that the world doesn’t work the way it did or the way you want it to is pointless and wont change anything. If someone is price cutting you, you need to up your game and prices or perhaps look to cutting back on your overheads to meet their price point whilst maintaining your profit margins. My choice was to up my game and increase my day rate by more than ten times so that I could afford to offer the service that I wanted to produce, I then slowly upped my product until people would actually pay my new price. I didn’t want to be part of the fight to the bottom, so instead of being annoyed at prices I couldn’t compete with whilst offering the service I wanted to, I worked on my craft and priced myself well out of that market. But this was not quick, it took 6-8 years of constantly working all day and every evening and probably 3 out of 4 weekends. Which is not for everyone, but in the same way, not everyone will make it to be the CEO of a company, I certainly couldn’t get there as I don’t have the love for the career path and there is no way I would work 16 hour days for 8 years to get there. It sounds obscene to me that anyone would want to do that for what I think is a very dull job, but we all have our own ambitions and interests to work with. 

So What Do I Think?

I do agree, cheap photographers are cheaper than expensive photographers. I also agree that they are not as good (in general), but I don’t agree that they are ruining the market or price cutting anyone. It is just business, we all need to adapt to the changes. It seems that the same argument has been running since the 90s with some being angry and others adapting. I am sure it will continue and I am sure the goal posts will change.

If in 2025 I am working on an iPhone to be a photographer, I will be more than happy. I love taking photographs of food and the means to achieve this do not interest me. If it means I charge less, but have lower overheads and achieve the same profit then I am more than happy.

I also have a pretty diverse income streams, which is a mix of hobbies that pay and a few Brexit disaster plans incase the British Government send us into some horrendous recession. But I am confident that making a living from photography alone will be a viable business and is becoming even more viable thanks to social media.

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12 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

"I do agree, cheap photographers are cheaper than expensive photographers. I also agree that they are not as good (in general), but I don’t agree that they are ruining the market or price cutting anyone. It is just business, we all need to adapt to the changes. It seems that the same argument has been running since the 90s with some being angry and others adapting. I am sure it will continue and I am sure the goal posts will change."

Adaptation only works until a certain point. In most businesses, you are competing against other entities that are reliant on a sustainable business model. Sure, there will always be global imbalances at play where Godox can be sustainable while charging a lot less than Hensel, but when it comes to photographers, a lot of people just do it as a side gig or a hobby. A photographer with a wife and two kids who depends on photography as a source of income cannot "adapt" to a market flooded by unattached college students living in their parents' basements who only need to break even on the gear that they purchase. It would be fine if every cheap photographer did garbage work, but this is not the case at all in practice.

Yes adapt, but you can only "lower your overhead" so much. You still have to survive so there's a limit to how little you can afford to charge for your time and while you're trying to charge for iPhone pictures, there's going to be someone willing to do it for free with $10,000 worth of equipment because they don't need their photography to actually pay for anything and it just seems like a fun project for them.

This is actually one of the reasons why the arts are filled with trust fund babies. The rest of us actually need to make money.

Anders Madsen's picture

Adaptation is a lot more than just matching prices and cutting costs.

If your main competitor is a college student in a basement, you make sure to let clients know that you have a beautiful, bright studio with free coffee, water and chocolate for everyone.

If your competitors are weekend warriors, you start working with businesses instead - they want you to show up on weekdays and could not care less about what you do during the weekend.

Any photographer who isn't working as a full time pro will have some kind of weak spot that you can exploit - so that is what you do. At least that is what I do, and so far I am on my 5th year as a full time pro. And yes, I had to move from private customers to businesses for the exact reasons mentioned above, but it also turned out to be a much more profitable business for me (and fits me better in general).

Lee Christiansen's picture

True - but the reality is that many of the new pros are newbies who are intent on a full time career so they're available during the week as well. They don't last because the economics of working dirt cheap doesn't realise enough extra jobs and they quit to get a job that can pay the rent - only to be replaced by a new set of newbies.

This is accelerating because the cost of entry to photography is getting lower and lower so entry is open to anyone who is keen.

Time was in TV that a camera cost more than a house - so only time served pros need apply. Now cameras cost buttons so everyone is a "cinematographer." And the rest are "directors / filmmakers." They're new and keen, with no sense of finance - which hurst the industry as a whole.

The potential for this has always existed, but with cheap kit and no processing costs, it is more of an issue today and even more tomorrow.

Cheap (unsustainable), competition is in front of us 7 days a week. And the number of £12,000 a year jobs I see for "experienced" photographers/videographers brings in even more cheap in-house competition, (until they realise £12K isn't going to pay the pension).

Lee Christiansen's picture

I think the 2nd to last paragraph is a little naive at best.

When the pro world is just shooting on iPhones and little else, sure overheads may be lower - but to be honest photographic overheads aren't often that high anyway. Lights last decades, lenses too and we don't need to upgrade camera bodies every year.

So we can only reduce overheads so much. But pros charge what they need to because of other overheads like insurance which will remain no matter what, and because we've spent years learning our craft so we justifiably have an expectation of a realistic return on that investment.

iPhone clients may require less effort, so each job would take less time - great stuff... except...

If we assume that overheads will reduce a little, but not entirely, it seems reasonable to assume that we'd need an increased amount of work / clients to maintain an income. But here's the rub - vastly reduced cost entry points to our craft have shown a huge rise in those offering "professional" services. Which leads to more photographers chasing the same amount of work - so less work each.

And less work each at less £££ per job, with less £££ allocated to post production means less £££ for each individual photographer. And there won't be enough work for each pro because the pie is shared between an ever bigger photographer base.

I hear the word "adapt" thrown around a lot on forums, but adapt to what?

I'm better than many of the photographers in my local area at many things, but I am faced with "the other guy is 1/4 your price." And although I'm better, I'm not perceived as being 4x better, and the lower price becomes the new default for potential clients.

My product is simple. I deliver pictures. So I can't offer oodles of bells and whistles to attract. I already have fast turnaround times, I already offer free online proofing, I have free parking at my studio, I bring in chocolate biscuits when clients come around... And the competition isn't offering anything extra - just cheap prices.

So by diversify, do we mean compete on price? That doesn't work as the article says. But in the same respect, the market for higher paying clients is fast reducing. I've seen in TV production over the last 30 years and it is happening in photography. Even the traditionally big clients are squeezing tight. (Heck I recently shot for a multi-billion blue-chip corporate on a budget which made my toes curl because their usual guy comes in at a rate so low most wedding photographers would turn the job down because it is less than a typical young couple would pay...)

So whilst we can improve and chase the higher paying clients, that is going to bottle-neck fast, and then there will be another price war because that always happens when supply outstrips demand - even at higher levels.

I've diversified by becoming a specialist at many things. I've learnt a lot of new tricks so I can tackle many different jobs at a higher level. I'm chasing a watch reseller client which might be lucrative. (Not an amazing per shot rate, but the scale would transform my yearly income and it is still highly creative). So I've spend endless days perfecting my existing product skills specifically towards watch photography, refining my workflow, perfecting set-piece lighting and researching outsourcing to get a speed of output that maintains quality. So in this respect I am diversifying my skills - but at a cost to my personal time and at a small cost to my pocket.

It may be that I need to redefine what I regard as "quality." Maybe less is acceptable - but we're artists as well as business people, so that's a hard thing to chew on. Do I offer cheaper retouching options for my headshots by just popping things in Portrait Pro rather than hand retouching which is far better. Will my clients notice the difference? Would more ask for retouching if it is cheaper, or will I just get the same work but now for less ££ each? Would the reduced rate balance against more work? If I'm doing more work for the same £££ is the change worth it?

Whether we like it or not, the pro photographic arena is reducing. Technology allows "good enough" to be good enough, and in a transient world of the internet where commitment to delivering an image is no more than popping it online, (remember the days when the high costs of print required quality throughout...?) then clients are caring less and less.

I've just done a shoot for one of the UK's biggest retail shopping chains, where the "art director" could tell the difference between a good shot and one 2-stops under, and where I was instructed "if it looks better than an iPhone pic, then we're happy." So no matter what I do or offer or deliver, the next job is going to the cheap guy - but they're not going to offer a higher workload to compensate for a lower daily rate. So we all lose out.

Fortunately I get to escape the pressures of pro life in about 5 years. But I fear for the upcoming creatives who will find it increasingly hard to make a passable income - even if their "overheads" are little more than the phone in their pocket.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Exactly. I consider my work to be better than most of the other photographers in my area but they will shoot a whole wedding for $400 or less and yet their overhead is more than mine as I am sure they have kids and other things that I don't.

I get thousands of inquires and yet most people rather go with the cheaper price.

Another way the cheaper photographers undercut the "system" is not understanding the value the photos have to the clients.
Many younger photographers are very good technically and have learned how to shoot watching the "Hi Guys!" videos, online tutorials and workshops. But never assisted or have a good idea why a picture is worth $6000 to one client and $500 or less to another.

The whole cheaper is lower quality thing is often not realistic.

Lee Christiansen's picture

This is very true. There are photographers out there offering great images but at rates that betray the value of the images. This hurts them, and everyone else Next thing we know, this is the new norm and the goal posts have just been lowered again.

Cheap photographers often go out of business soon, only to be replaced by new cheap(er) guys - and so it repeats. The pros who are in it for the long haul are the ones who suffer. We could end up with a very temporary field of pros and experience may become a thing of the past. (It's happening a lot in TV after similar things happened years ago).

Luke Adams's picture

If I own a Hassleblad, and an iPhone - just because I take the cheaper iPhone out to a shoot does not mean my overhead is lower (as the author seems to state). This makes no sense.

I think one thing is left out of this. Personality, we have to interact with our clients, and they have to feel we are worth the prices we charge. I have a very unique niche in documenting car restorations and creating albums for a final product. Some of these restorations can take years. By maintaining a good relationship it has lead to other projects. I also see a lot of photographers who are very rigid in their pricing, and won't change to client wants. I don't have any prices on my site. I ask the client what they want and then create a price for what they want. I think we need to learn to be flexible. Some clients just don't want much, in my experience most don't want much and we over deliver.

Michael Murphy's picture

I’ve been shooting as a hobby since 1982, semi-pro (off & on) over the years since 1989 when I actually purchased a Hasselblad; obviously both film-type cameras (35mm and then the Medium Format). I finally switched to ‘Digital’ in 2008 which is SOO much easier!

I’ve seen both the switch from film which was expensive as all heck and ‘required’ you to have a certain skill-set in order to even vaguely be considered a Professional’ to ‘Digital’ otherwise known as (‘Digital only’ ever) and now pro-level digital cameras cost significantly less to start out and anyone and everyone and their brother can buy a Digital Camera on Monday and be shooting Weddings &/or Portraits and more using Auto/Auto Mode by the weekend and getting paid for it by some Clueless Client, maybe not a lot of money but seems very easy to find people who will pay chump change to get someone ‘they think’ is a ‘Professional Photographer’ to shoot photos for them but the next time the Client wants more photos and goes to another Photographer who maybe doesn’t shoot on Auto/Auto Mode they will expect better photos for the same price they paid Mr. One-week Auto/Auto Photographer and then freak-out when they discover not only does the whole deal cost more but that the Photo-session Fee doesn’t cover all the 500 plus Digital files they wanted it to include and now they need to pay more for prints &/or a couple Thousand Dollars for the Digital Files if the photographer even offers them, they end up Pissed!

I’ve seen a lot of my ‘Co-Pro-Photographers’ at Multi-Photographer Photo-Shoots who ask me, “What is that?” when I pull out a Light-meter to take my readings while setting up for a shoot. I arrived an hour before them but they start shooting half an hour before I even start shooting and then wonder why my photos look better straight out of the camera (SOOC) than theirs. They constantly want to compare ‘their settings’ to what I’m shooting at and have even paid me to peak at the back of my camera to get ‘the correct’ settings to shoot at and they wonder why they spend an average of an hour processing their photos (per photo) over the 15 minutes I spend editing Per Photo for my images. I’m usually shooting at 100, 150 or 200 ISO while they are shooting somewhere at 800 or 1600 ISO in studio! WTF?! Inviting Noise in much?

I think the Real Problem here is that there is a variance in the Definitions and Levels here of what constitutes a ‘Professional Photographer’; everyone calls themselves a ‘Professional Photographer but your level or Professionalism is the question here. Most Digital-only ever ‘Professional Photographers’ can’t consistently get great results straight out of the Camera (SOOC) if ever (they just shoot in Auto//Auto Mode and will fix it later in the Computer), many don’t know the proper process when shooting, many don’t know the proper use of their Gear and some don’t even use the proper gear &/or have never even used a light-meter or even know what one is or looks like other than the one in their camera that only meters through the lens. How can you be ‘Professional Photographer with any or all of these short-comings?

Because they get ‘Paid’, that’s their definition of being a Professional Photographer. That’s what is hurting ‘Our’ Industry. That and many other issues as others have elaborated in the other comments here.

Don Risi's picture

Cheap Photographer, after hearing what I quoted the potential client he "stole:" "Wow! You were asking more for one photo than I asked for the whole job!"

He has since "stolen" another potential client.

Neither client wants really great photography, they want cheap. And yes, I have clients who pay my rates, no questions asked, because they value the better product.

Jeff McCollough's picture

"If you are working with just a kit camera and lens or an iPhone, then you can charge less than a photographer with a Hasselblad and make the same profit margin. "

But should you? Nope. Just because you have a tool that cost less than somebody else's that doesn't mean you should charge less. In business school they taught us about raising prices. It's much harder to raise your prices than lower them. If you want to raise your prices don't charge pennies just because you can.