Photographers, Stop Asking Clients for Their Budget

Photographers, Stop Asking Clients for Their Budget

One of the most common questions photographers have is about how to effectively price their work. Rates vary so widely based on location and skill level that many are left scratching their heads as to what is fair. This has led to the common mantra stating “ask for the clients budget.” Here is why I think that's a ridiculous way to price yourself and a horrible piece of advice.

It's not often that you go to a restaurant and get asked what you want to pay for your meal. When you call a plumber, a mechanic, or an electrician, they all usually have pretty fixed costs for the services they offer. So why do creative types such as photographers constantly ask clients what their budgets are? Why are you giving the client that much control over your business?

The reality is most clients don't know what photography should cost. They may have an idea of what they want to spend, but how in tune with reality that idea is, is another story all together. I am not blaming the client though. If my lawyer called me up and asked what he should charge me, frankly, I wouldn't know where to start.

Are you beginning to see the flaw here? By asking the client for their budget you are accepting work on their terms. You are basically asking the client to determine your worth for you. That is no way to run a successful business.

Still, some folks might have reservations about what I am saying.

Photographers-Undercut-Price-Business

Aren't you worried about photographers undercutting you?

I frankly don't care one bit how little others get out of bed for.

I respect those who want to keep in line with industry standards and try not to undercut their competition. Bravo. But if you want to price yourself at $100 for a whole day of work, well, be my guest. I'm not worried at all. One of two things will happen.

  1. You will get a ton of work and will inevitably have to raise prices to curb overwhelming volume and the stark reality of not making any profit.

  2. The more likely, you'll run your business into the ground because you've priced yourself in an unsustainable way. Before you know it you are spending countless hours on projects working for less than minimum wage and burning out. Try raising prices and all those bargain basement clients you found will leave you for the next cheap thrill.

You have to eventually realize that competing based on price alone is a terrible tactic. There will always be someone willing to do it cheaper than you. You can't keep doing it for less if you want to keep a career in a creative field for the long haul.

Real clients will value your real worth as a real business. They understand that just like them you have arrived at prices that sustain the kind of business you wish to run. If they expect your level of service and expertise, they can pay your price. If those things don't matter to them, I question how long they themselves will stay in business, but they sure are not taking me down with them.

Photographers-Pricing-Bad-Business

What about money left on the table?

I am not concerned with squeezing every last dime out of my clients.

You see, when you take the time to come up with a price for your services that accurately reflects your worth, you tend not to care about the possibility of what might have been left on the table. This is because what you are getting was already determined as fair by yourself. Caring about how much more you could have potentially received is a sign that you have poorly determined your worth.

Try looking at it this way: There is just as much money left on the table by asking for a budget as there is by not asking.

If you ask for the client's budget you will inevitably get a number. That doesn't mean their number is correct or right in any way. If you give them your own numbers then there is always room for negotiation and you may in fact end up with a new budget from the client that is closer in line to what you want. That is extra money above and beyond their original budget that you could make without being pigeonholed into accepting compensation on their terms. Had you not submitted your own numbers that you came up with you would have left money on the table by accepting their low offer.

Photography Too Expensive Business Cost

Won't clients think I'm too expensive?

Rubbish. If this guy can sell a portrait of a potato for a million dollars, you are not too expensive.

On a serious note though, when I talk about not asking your clients for budgets, I don't mean you need to suddenly pick astronomical numbers from thin air and present those as industry standard. Arriving at what you are worth is actually a very simple process. If you follow it rationally, you will get very realistic numbers which line up perfectly with the current marketplace. Why? Because those are the numbers required to pay for basic living expenses. Nobody can argue with those, and if you adhere to them, you will ensure a good quality of life for yourself and a thriving environment for your business.

You can't be too expensive if you are asking to make a comfortable living, and any client that thinks that is out of their “budget” is not the right client for you. It's a hard lesson to learn as a freelancer but you don't need to, or want to, say yes to every project and client. Learning to say no and knowing your worth is key to keeping your value.

You must also understand that being expensive is simply a frame of mind. If I came to your house and tried to sell you a bottle of water for $20, you would probably scoff at me and turn me away. What would possess you to pay me $20 for a bottle of water if you could get it for free from the tap or for a fraction of the cost at the store down the street? However, if you were parched and in the middle of the desert and I had the only bottle of water for miles around, suddenly that $20 seems like a bargain.

When it comes to your photography business you must frame yourself as that bottle of water in the desert. How do you do that? Appeal to your clients sense of convenience, exclusivity, and dependability.

Grow-Your-Photography-Business

How Do I Scale Things?

Fair point. Not every client is the same and a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't always work. Some projects are bigger than others and can result in extra income. What I am proposing here in this article in no way prevents you from scaling your projects, however. What I am suggesting instead is that you come up with a base price that sufficiently covers your expenses and leaves room for profit instead of asking the client to determine that for you.

If you are a commercial photographer such as myself, the easiest way to scale projects will be through your licensing. By keeping a fixed cost of production you can ensure your basic needs are met, but as projects get larger, you can increase revenue by charging for usage.

If you are a wedding or portrait photographer you can also scale your services by offering a variety of packages tailored to different levels of clients. Your basic package will ensure your needs are met, but should a client wish to add more perks, that can be done at a premium.

There are many strategies for scaling your pricing but at the end of the day make sure that you are the one determining your minimums.

What You Need To Do

Re-evaluate your business and take a moment to actually figure out what you are worth. I went over how to determine your cost of doing business in a previous article.

Stop thinking of your photography as a service with ambiguous prices and begin thinking in terms of offering a product with fixed costs. Your photography is a culmination of investments in gear, learning, overhead, staff, marketing, etc. Those are all expenses which determine the final “price” of your service.

Going forward have confidence in the pricing you have arrived at knowing that it is what you need to charge to ensure the health of your business and yourself. When speaking with clients frame the budget conversation in such a way that you stay in control. Emphasize your intangible assets such as reliability, convenience, and support. By making those things a higher priority you keep the focus on the value added and off simple numbers that can drive your value down.

Bottom line, you are responsible for the well being of your business, your staff, your family, and yourself. Don't leave that massive level of responsibility with the client. Take charge and ask for what you want. Don't let them tell you what you should get.

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37 Comments

You forgot the comma in the title. ;)

Ansel Spear's picture

...and the apostrophe 's' in 'clients budget' !

Adam Chandler's picture

Thanks for the tips, Peter. Point well taken. I recently asked a potential client for their budget and I think it backfired...always felt a little awkward doing it that way.

Seth Lowe's picture

I have to respectfully disagree here... I always ask a budget as it gives you a tremendous amount of info on the clients knowledge, expectations, and possibilities. If it's way to low it lets you have a realistic conversation with the client before wasting time on a bid or creative proposal, if it's higher than expected you might have a chance to dream bigger on the creative elements and deliver a better end product to your client, and also make more money. That said there is no reason to max out a clients budget just because you know they have the money. I live in a small town, and when assignment work comes in from a larger city, the budgets are often 3-4x higher than a local budget. Not knowing that would not only have me leaving tons of money on the table, but probably cost me even getting the project as it would look like I don't know what things should cost, or give myself the perception of a "budget" photographer. The more info you have, the better you can meet your clients needs as well as your own.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Well said Seth. Peter has written some great articles that I still reference today, and while I liked this one as well, I find myself more in line with what you've said here.

I think both arguments have merits, and it might come down to the kind of job or client you're working with. If someone wanted me to be a camera operator or editor, I'd give them my rate. However, if a new client came to me a pitched a project that would require a fair amount of production, I'd indeed ask what their budget is, so I could scale as needed. Peter does talk about scaling, and to me that means how many collaborators and crew I can bring in– my minimum would absolutely be covered– so just me and an assistant, or is there budget for a sound guy, 1st AC, grip, makeup, etc. Perhaps offering a 'product' on a flexible scale isn't good for business, but in my markets it's been pivotal to remain flexible to meet client needs– I'm not above taking on a $2,000 project, when I get a fair rate out of that.

Seth Lowe's picture

Yes, if you are working in a B2C model... family portraits, weddings, seniors or whatever, just have your prices and be done with it. Anything else is going to be completely different, and you need to be able to work with a client so meet there needs, not just throw out a standardized number. That will cost you a lot of jobs, both for being too high, or too low. I agree with taking on lower budget jobs. I do lots of editorial assignments for low budgets, or new companies that don't have a lot of cash. If we can all get on the same page with what is possible with their budget, there is a lot of creative freedom on my end (being able to walk away with a portfolio piece), and I personally dig the companies values or creative vision, then absolutely I will work on a shoestring budget. It is interesting how motion, stills, and technology are all converging. In someways, technology is helping us get by with much smaller crews on a shoot, but as photographers are stepping into the motion world, their usage based billing is bringing up the day rates of directors & DP's (in my experience). We end up with smaller crews who probably work harder and are required to know how to cover more rolls, but walk away with more $ on the table. Ps - Im referring to all non union crews. I have no experience with Union sets/crew.

Peter House's picture

Very good points Seth and Mike. Thank you for adding to the conversation. I work with a number of ad agencies locally here and while some clients have a pretty good idea of what they need, I find a lot don't. Local or abroad. When I get requests for proposal, the agencies have a pretty solid outline for what the client expects. There are pretty specific shot lists, location ideas, etc, but rarely any sense of budget.

When I put together proposals, everything is itemized, and clients can easily see how things can be scaled up or down. Recently I had a proposal put in that would cost the client nearly $50k, but because I itemized everything, they could see that it was the talent portion which drove the cost way up. With further conversation we decided to do away with a quarter of the models while retaining everything else as was. There was no concept of budget prior to the proposal, just an outline of what they want to achieve, and upon review I made my presentation to them of what it would cost to achieve that. Once they have the overview its easier to talk budgets because there is a starting point for what their initial ideas would cost.

As for work coming in from abroad, I get a lot of international work. In fact, for the most part, my city does due to the exchange rate. Clients who outsource work here expect the rate to be cheaper than where they are. Basing my price on local factors helps me compete on the international scale.

Scott Spellman's picture

As your article points out, many small businesses do not know or understand the value of photography. Potential new clients are often unable to articulate their needs in ways that allow us to put a solid value on the photography for a project. Asking for a budget is the quickest way to eliminate potential clients that are nowhere near your value.

Asking for a budget in no way allows the client to determine value or pricing, as my pricing is based primarily on time involved. If the budget offered is small, then I can focus the client to completing the work in a few hours with just myself. If the budget is larger, then I can scale the project to include more staff, locations, gear, and time. I have no problem telling a client they can't afford me, but I don't have to waste an hour or more for pointless meetings or submitting a proposal that will never come to fruition.

Peter House's picture

I do agree that asking for budgets can be a good way to eliminate clients who can't afford you, but, here is another thought.

Clients dont always know the value of what they are asking. They can describe their ideas to you, but don't know all the work behind the scenes that goes into production. I mentioned in another comment below that I recently had a project that required 10K of permits. The client had no clue. Could not have budgeted for that. They were set on the idea and raised their budget, but only AFTER I informed them. Had I been given a budget before, it would have been way off.

Perhaps a better qualifier for your clients is to simply quote them an estimate based on your time. Tell them you charge $2000/day, for example. If they want to proceed you can put together a proposal featuring all expenses. But turning clients away because they may not be fully aware of all costs may not be the best way to go about it either.

Sean Berry's picture

I always ask if they have a budget in mind. Just because they say a budget, it doesn't mean you have to accept it or if that's even their max budget. More often than not Ill end up getting paid more than what they originally tell me their budget is.

Peter House's picture

As long as you get paid fairly then really, nothing to complain about. :)

Bert McLendon's picture

I think this works on some forms of photography, family, portrait, commercial, wedding. Things with a "day rate" type set up. But for Corporate and Event work, knowing a budget up front saves both parties a tremendous amount of time (and money). If a client tells me they have $5000 budget, I will design them something for $5k to maximize their value. If they only have $2k, well they don't get 3 photographers and a 2 photo booths, they only get 1 photographer and 1 photo booth. Not knowing what the budget target is, wastes tons of time. tons! (if time were measured in weight). On that same note, if I go through and spend an hour or so on a proposal on what realistically is a $10,000 event and get a reply with "Oh we only have $500 budget", I know they aren't my client. More information and communication up front is always best. Some clients don't give up their budgets, but some of my best clients are very open and there is always the opportunity to work something out to meet both of our needs.

Peter House's picture

Great insight. I can only speak from experience in my own genres. Good to know that event photographers work a little differently. Cheers!

This article makes the assumption that photography pricing is just based on the value of the photographer only. It is also based on the value of the photos to the client. Should Coca-Cola pay the same price for photography that is used internationally versus a local soda company who sells only regionally? No. Should a photo being one time be priced the same as a photo being used for an unlimited amount of time? No. This is why USAGE is a key element for a commercial photographer to factor into pricing...and why one price does not fit all situations. I highly recommend ASMP (American Society of Media Photographers - www.asmp,org) for learning how to price commercial photography.

Also, just because a client gives you a number, that doesn't mean they are determining your price. If you feel it should be higher, you can give a higher price and explain why. Maybe the client did not realize there are certain productions charges or the pricing for a model is higher than they realized, etc.

Most corporations and agencies that hire photographers on a regular basis are used to being asked about budget. They may not always give an answer, but when they do, it gives you a good feel for their expectations for the project.

Seth Lowe's picture

Totally agree with all of this. A budget is a starting point, not a final answer. I have come in under budget on projects, and still felt good about what I was making in relation to usage, and there are budgets I have gone way over on, but still been awarded because of the client seeing what was needed, and being educated on the process and people involved.

Peter House's picture

Actually Dan, if you re-read the article I specifically state that usage is separate. That is what scaling is all about. If you cover your bottom line with your fee, you can scale projects using the license based on the size of the project and notoriety of the client. I wrote an article, linked in this article, about a sliding scale for license fees. Cheers!

That's strange, I did not see that info the first time around!

michael andrew's picture

There is a fence here and it will be filled with people on either side, those that agree with you and those that disagree. Here is my take: I do both, for experienced clients that have worked with photographers and productions countless times (think art directors ect) then yes, absolutely ask what the budget is. For inexperienced clients who do not know what they are getting into is like trying to ask child to pay taxes, it's not their thing. I do agree completely though that most people do not know what their budget is because they simply don't understand what they are going to do with the content, they have likely been guided to a professional photographer by their web designer ect... And are trying to peice meal the whole project. In this case all of your tips are spot on, calculate your prices based on costs, profit and licensing.

Peter House's picture

It always helps when talking to an Arti Director or someone in the know haha. Cheers!

Roman Kazmierczak's picture

You just don't understand when this question apply...
You don't ask headshot or wedding clients for their budget, but you need to ask an ad agency that hires you to shoot for Prada, what is the budget you will get to work with. Real commercial client usually have fixed budget with little wiggle room. If you shoot for the small businesses, you need to do a lot of sales work. If you shoot for big client, the sale was already done with your past work/portfolio etc.

Peter House's picture

Even with ad agencies you still submit RFP's based on your cost and team cost. The big difference is that usually there is an established relationship with an agency and they already know your cost up front.

Here are my 2 cents about the topic.

First we should know (and explain to the client) that there is a production fee and an usage fee.

In the kinds of photography where every project is about the same (wedding, simple portraits, catalog, …), fixing our own prices without asking for a budget makes sense. This is at least for the base package, and have options for those who want extras. We are talking here about the production fee.
Then you can scale the total price using the usage fee (which can be zero when shooting for weddings if you feel like it and can grow for catalog shooting according to the publication’s reach for example).

On the other hand, for the kind of photography that is very different for every project (advertising, elaborate portraits, …) we cannot do that for several reasons.
- we don’t know if the client knows the cost/value of the project he imagines for himself
- those are very competitive fields where we need to push the boundaries of creations to be successful, therefore pushing to have resources to that end is very useful
- even if everybody knows the values of everything, if we need a swimmer in the shot, will anyone do? do we need a good one? or do we need Michael Phelps ? The cost will not be the same.
- The same assessment of production level is needed for: talent, location, props, costumes, etc … and we cannot do that without a target budget
- Those kind of projects have to be so customized that making an accurate offer will TAKE TIME ! You cannot afford this time if you are waaay over your client’s budget without knowing it.
- Actually, even architects and entrepreneurs need to do that when offering for their services.

And this is only for production fee ! Then you also scale with usage fee.

When asking for a budget, the most difficult part is doing it so that your client won’t think you are trying to milk his wallet to the last dime.

Therefore one way to ask is not by asking but by probing your client by throwing options at him: what kind of car do you want? A Toyota? An Audi? A Lamborghini? Or a golden Rolls Royce with a bar inside ? OR how many figures is your budget ? 3, 4, 5 figures or more ?

How do you do it guys? That’s what we need to share to improve :D
Cheers

Peter House's picture

Great points. The thing is, when clients offer concepts on a commercial level, the shot lists are pretty accurate. They know the location they want, they know the features they want, they know the talent they want. When you put together a proposal its a summary of all that they asked for. Itemized of course. After they see it they can decide if they really need that Bentley or Michael Phelps haha. Cheers!

This supposes you have clients who already know exactly what they want or have thought everything through. Unfortunately, it is not always the case.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

Great article. It presents an informed perspective, along with supporting rationale and it created an information-rich comment thread. I learned a lot from the author and the commenters.

Peter House's picture

Thanks Lenzy! I try and present unconventional views that give people the chance to question their process and open up truthfully with their own experiences. This is the kind of conversation I think we need more of in this industry. Cheers!

Dan Howell's picture

Whoa....I sounds like my jobs are a lot different than the people responding here. It has been my experience across both editorial and advertising projects is that a Budget incorporates both the fee for photography and the costs of producing the shoot. It has been my impression that clients do not scrutinize the fee portion at a higher degree than they scrutinize the expenses. It is a common trap for photographers to fall into to fixate on the fee at a disproportionately higher degree, but I don't recommend it.

Knowing the budget of a client tells me many things, but in general it tells me what kind of production resources I can bring to bear on a shoot. If this is the first time working for a client, it gives an indication of how 'professional' they are at hiring photographers and how much detailed explanation I need to give to them and how much time it will take to properly negotiate and estimate a job which will then become the blueprint for how the job is accomplished. If you can't ask pertinent financial questions, how can you adequately bid on a project. It has also been my experience that when all is added up, the photographer's fee is only a fraction of the budget.

I also need to know things like:
-What is their budget for models? This can change scope or level of models I can consider for a shoot--it can even chance which agency or which division I would even start to call for a casting.
-Is there a budget for props and backgrounds or a stylist? Honestly, this tells me how much of my time will be taken away from the shoot to make sure the project comes off smoothly.

With experienced professional clients, they have a clear idea of fee in the scope of their budget. I have dealt with several small to medium sized companies who only need photography once or twice a year. I do a lot of bridal fashion catalog shoots for designer/manufacturers. After several seasons I came to a pretty clear understanding of my client's budgets. My clients know how much money they have to spend and my free is only a fraction of that. I found that my days shooting ended up costing about $6500-7500/ per day including my fee and models. We have to come together to figure out how we can produce the shoot within those parameters.

Recently I had a new client come to me and say that they had only $4500/per day for a similar shoot. That was a huge challenge to see if I could deliver the same quality and take $2000/day out of the budget and still make any profit. As one might imagine there is not the same level of profit. Had I not known their budget I would have ended up with a disaster.

Possibly a better statement for the article is don't ask a client what the photo fee is but rather ask their overall-budget and what they expect to be delivered.

Peter House's picture

Dan, you are absolutely right. The "budget" is all encompassing. It includes the fee, the license, the expenses, etc.

Knowing the budget of a client might be a good indicator of professionalism, or it could just be an indicator of ignorance. I bid on a project recently that looked good on paper. The client knew EXACTLY what they wanted. Upon creating the proposal it turned out the locations they wanted to shoot in tallied up to nearly $10k in permits. The client had no clue and did not "budget" for that.

Me knowing WHAT they wanted to create, I was able to inform them and raise the budget as necessary.

Similarly on a recent casting the client knew they needed a stylist. What they failed to realize was how many pull days they would have to account for.

All these small nuances can be hard for a client to properly budget. Can they give you a ballpark figure? Sure. But whats the point. If they give you a solid idea of what they want, you can price it accordingly at market value anyways, and cover anything they may have missed. Upon showing your proposal final drafts and budgets can be made.

Really it all leads to the same place. I just find not asking for budgets gives me more control in the conversation.

Asking a client for the amount of their budget is incorrect but asking if your client "has" a budget is desirable. Should the answer be NO you have the opportunity to assist them in understanding why your worth the amount you charge to them and help them recognize how much they should expect to pay for the type and quality of images they are looking for. If the answer is YES you can ask other questions to determine if they are willing or able to meet your rates. Questions like, Who did your previous shoots?, Why are you not using them now?, Where was your previous photographer located? [if you do not recognize the name] etc etc A lot of answers might indicate their potential budget amount without directly asking for it. After all that then resort to asking the amount, if needed.

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