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.


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.


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.


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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Previous comments
Peter House's picture

There is some solid thinking and advice there! Thanks for sharing :)

I always ask, I think you HAVE to ask. As many have said, it gives me a great idea of the production values a client is expecting, and lets me then say (if they're under financed) something along the lines of, "Clients have paid x for this in the past with a similar level of production and quality that you're looking for. If you're OK with lowering some production costs (like forgoing hair and makeup, or finding a location that doesn't require a fee), I may be able to do y for you." It also lets them then ask their higher-ups to adjust their funding with expectations if need-be.

Peter House's picture

Thanks for the input Doug. If you itemize everything in your proposals, the client can comb through them and see how much hair and MU might cost for example. If they look over it and feel like thats an expense they can do without, they are welcome to cut it. I might advise against it, but the option is there for them.

I think presenting itemized proposals based on real value shows your client what to expect for the full production they asked for. It can be refined to suit their budget afterwards.

Derek Heisler's picture

I agree with most things in this article, however asking a client for their budget on the project is important.

First, it gives you an understanding of what they have set aside already for the project. If you know from experience a project of this nature is far outside that reach you can address that and see if there is space to move, if there inst then you can walk away, verses spending hours or half a day on a proposal (if you're including a treatment with it).

This is very useful for feeling the client out. By no means am I using their budget to price my project out, it's only there to give me a ball park idea of where their budget is. Often this won't move very much, so I can take those numbers and cut certain "nice to haves" (or excessive licensing) out of the proposal so it comes closer to their number (if possible).

Now that I do this, I've found I land a much larger % of jobs then I use to. Because often I would do a "pie in the sky" proposal which was leagues outside of their budget for the project.

Why not have that information available to you so you can use that to your advantage?

as with all things photography, it depends. right?
ad agencies and people that have worked with photography before surely have a grasp on their budget right?

But lets say, smaller businesses that doesnt work in a creative field have no clue. I have never gotten an answer on what their budget is. Small time stuff really. So now I just give them a quote to work on.

Your point is valid to a degree. However, a good example to compare might be shopping for a house. The realtor is going to need to know your budget. Due to the customization aspect of photography you can have a wide disparity in pricing. Maybe we need to give multiple ranges to the client in order to end up with something that appears to be in the customer's budget.

Rashed Ahmed's picture

These can happen when you jump in a professional field with expensive gears but poor knowledge. In the past, young photographers used to assist a pro photographer to learn technical / creative skills and to gain business knowledge as well. Later when they became a full time pro, they had no problem running their creative business.