Price Negotiating: Why I Don't Ask 'What Is Your Budget?'

Price Negotiating: Why I Don't Ask 'What Is Your Budget?'

"What is your budget?" Have you ever asked that question? Actually, the more important matter is: Have you ever been asked this question? How has it made you feel?

I usually become friends with most of my clients. Often after a photoshoot or filming we end up discussing anything from business to cooking. I've had the golden opportunity to hear stories of my clients working (or meeting) with other artists. This is the time when I just listen without commenting. These are precious moments where you can be taught how not to do business. I've heard those stories where artists have asked them "What is your budget?" If you've never been on the other side of the quote, this can be interesting to you.

Why Many Artists First Ask for Client's Budget?

It's important to note that I'm talking about a situation when that's one of the first questions asked. There are cases when you ask for the budget after you've given a quote. At that stage of negotiations the client knows your value and you think of reasonable ways to cut corners depending on client's financial limits.

The usual situation I am talking about is when the client describes their project and asks for a price. To that the artist replies with a question: "What is your budget?" Why such a question? Well, there are three reasons I can think of for such a questionable response:

  1. Many ask it, because they are taught this the way business is conducted in the art world. Yes, I have asked that question too, because I wanted to try that method out.
  2. The artist is concerned about the reaction of the client if the price is too high. Rarely there's a concern for a too low price. What do I call that? I call it fear and lack of confidence.
  3. The artist thinks they can earn much more if the client tells a number first, especially if that number is higher than their price in mind. It's that sort of thing: "What if I asked them for 1,000 but they would gladly pay 10,000?" What do I call that? Ripping off a wealthy client because you can, not because you're worth that much.

I remember walking at a local flower market and stopped by a seller asking for the price of a certain bouquet. He told me a number. I decided to go around and look at other bouquets too. As I was passing by the same seller I overheard a quote that was given to a sharp-dressed gentleman who asked for that same bouquet. The price was much higher than I was told. What do you think? Sudden inflation? Did I buy a bouquet from that store?

Some clients of mine say that they felt they were being tricked when were required to say a number first. It is like telling the artist how much a client thinks they are worth. What if that number is too low? Wouldn't that be accepted as an insult or the client would become the next funny meme and a hot topic for conversations for the next month?


What Do Clients Expect?

Clients want you to ask them more questions regarding their project until you give them a number with confidence. It's better to have a firm opinion about your pricing and lose a client than to be shady (yep, that's in clients' terms).

There's a tricky situation if a friend of the client refers them to an artist they worked with before. Imagine the client asks for a price for a similar project as of their friend's. If the price is several times lower and that friend of theirs finds about that, wouldn't the latter feel ripped off? Would they refer others to that artist again?

In my opinion and in the opinion of clients I've spoken to, you better stick to your guns and be true to what your value is. If needed, defend your price.

It's Not Always About Budget

There are situations when I enter a store and the salesman or the consultant asks me what my budget is to give me the "right product." Sometimes It's not about budget. It's my willingness to pay for something. A product may be cheap, but I just don't like the manufacturer or the way the salesman have talked to me. I won't buy it. Other times the price may is high, but I gladly pay for it, because I like how the product has been presented and advertised.

Walking through the forest alone

What If Your Fears Become a Reality?

What if you quoted a client for 1,000 while they would wholeheartedly pay 10,000? You have to do that project with contentment and adjust your price for similar projects in the future. It's normal to raise your prices with time. What if a client is turned down by your price? Does that mean you have a problem in your calculations? The answer may be "yes," depending on your experience on the market. It's better to start with an average price and raise it with the rise of your experience. When it's you who sets the price, even if it was too low, you won't have any bitterness against a client who pays you the negotiated amount. This will teach you humbleness, responsibility, and confidence. In the art world pricing varies and is totally subjective from artist to artist. In your small business world your quote needs to be well-grounded and backed-up with a solid portfolio.

Do I Tell You to Have a Fixed Price List?

Of course not, but if two projects are similar (including the type of client, licensing, and type of work to be done) they have to be priced in a similar range. Otherwise, in business terms, it means that you don't know how much you are worth.

My Way

When I'm meeting with a potential client I ask questions about the scope of their project. After that I am able I give a price range or an exact quote. If the price is too high for them, I try to negotiate a lower number by cutting features from their project or give them other options as workarounds showing the pros and cons of the approach (for example, they want to shoot at an extremely expensive location while I give them an option to film everything on a green screen). When you know how much you are worth you won't fall below a certain minimum. This is important, because you should not lower your price below that level, because you are a business person after all. In business people work for profit. Of course, there are exceptions where you can even do something for free or without any gain, but in general, if you want to be sustainable, you need to be profitable.


Asking for client's budget to some may sound like "how much money do you have in your wallet?", while others, like agencies, may find it a perfectly appropriate question. There will be clients that will walk away because of your prices, even if you are cheap. If you are sure your price is reasonable and rational, this means they are not your clients. In order to get confident at your quotes start with an average price and adjust it from there after you gain more experience. Pretending to be confident is not what you want. Start humble, build a portfolio, set your value, and defend it with skills.

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Robert K Baggs's picture

I think it depends on the size and level of the job, particularly near the top when projects can be elaborate in the extreme. However for most of us photographers conducting projects, asking "what's your budget?" shows the person doesn't know their cost of business, how much their time is worth, or what their value is. A lack of confidence — as you say — is usually part and parcel or a result of that missing knowledge.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Exactly. For most of our projects this is not an appropriate question. Even for the video projects that I do (that may require several days of shooting, celebrities, VFX, etc.) I don't ask such a question upfront.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I often ask of a client's budget, not because I don't know how to cost my time or because I don't know what my time is worth... but because there is more than one way to do a job and rather than list all the different ways with a price attached, I can better fine tune what I can offer for a price range.

Imagine going to a car dealership without discussing budget, and having the sales person show you every car at every budget... No He'd most likely want to know which range you were headed for.

And all too often I'd offer a fair price for what I think is a great way of delivering a great service - only to find the client's spend was 1/10 of my number. That's 20 mins wasted. And although I can tweak my service to suit a lower budget, they're now perceiving me as "that expensive photographer."

Alas many clients don't actually have an idea of what a project can cost or have realistic expectations of results / budget.

It can be a never ending game of cat an mouse sometimes. If someone comes to me with a specific project and a planned way forward, then fine I can price that out. But if not (and they often don't), we're going to have to discuss a strategy, and that strategy is effected by their budget range.

"Let me offer you the best I can with the maximum impact within your budget spend" I'll often say...

Bert McLendon's picture

That's exactly what I do as well Lee. Asking what their target budget isn't just about feeling out the client but it's also to see if they are your client to begin with. I've had multiple potential clients call up and talk about every service they needed for their event and sounding like they have tens of thousands to spend, only for them to end up saying "Yea and we're trying to keep it under $1000". "Yeaaaaaaa sorry, we're not the right fit for you!" This definitely depends on the genre of photography you're in but I see this more and more for corporate event/guest entertainment type photography services for sure. SOOO much time can be wasted quoting out and going back and forth and it grows the bigger the event is. Getting an idea of their budget upfront can help you focus and get more bang for the buck. That being said it's very important for me to establish the idea of it being a partnership to create something epic for the end client or guests before asking the question about the budget. Usually, I've spent time listening to what they're wanting and then going over questions about the event where hopefully the conversation leads into directional questions about upsells/addons like "Are you needing anything for the guests to do during the opening reception like a photo booth or portrait station?" This will make them feel like you are thinking more about the overall event more than the "How much you cost? How much you got?" feel when asking the budget question. If the client asks what our costs are before fully describing the event I'll say "Well we've designed something for budgets ranging from $5k up to $115k so it all depends on what your vision is."

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I understand your point, Lee, also Bert's arguments. I see that the motivation behind that question is mostly to save time and efforts giving a quote or explaining what you offer.

While asking for their budget to see if they fit in your league may sound reasonable, it may also fall into the list of offensive questions, based on my clients' stories and opinions. It's part of the business to negotitate deals with a client. We are not entitled to have every deal closed, but there will be times when we won't get to work with a potential client. If you go to the middle east and stop by some of the local markets you will see how much effort these sellers invest into persuading the customers that their goods are worth buying. They will never ask you for your budget and they know some will buy and some won't. That's part of the business.

If you don't want to invest much time into giving detailed quotes without asking "What's your budget?", I think it's good to give a price range after listening to what the client wants. This is what I do many times: "For your type of project the price is often between $1,000 and $1,500, but let's clarify some of the details, and see if we will fall into that range."

When I want to buy something for cheap, I often purchase a more expensive product or solution, because I do my own research, or the sales person manages to persuade me to change my mind. If they asked me for my budget upfront and never given me the opportunity to understand why the more expensive option is better for me would not bring them much profit.

If you have so many enquiries about your services and you feel you spend too much time explaining everyone what your prices are, finding they can't afford you, just put a "prices start from $X,XXX" on your website and this will leave you with only those who can afford your minimum. If your projects are very versatile, you can state that "My usual day rate is $$$ which doesn't include licensing, photos, travel expenses, etc." This will tell them if they can afford you or not and won't bother calling if they're cheap.

Bert McLendon's picture

Tihomir, the question of the potential clients budget can always be delivered in a non-offensive or insulting way. I don't think I ever bring it up in the middle of the conversation unless it feels like it's progressing towards a common goal of creating something special for their event. I think the main goal is to ask it (if needed) in a way that seems constructive toward the goal of creating something epic instead of an aggressive "how much money you got? Can you afford me?" type way. I don't think this is necessary for most types of photography, but for multi-day and multi-service type event work, it's a critical piece of info. A LOT of clients/potential clients even start off stating their budget and when we're designing something up to their budget they'll want to add something to it for a part of their event. Since I'm mostly dealing with corporate clients and business professionals, I don't see them getting offended because it's a part of their everyday conversations compared to a newborns parent or mother of the bride who may get offended by the "What's your budget?" question. Simply changing the question around to "Did you have a target budget in mind? Because we can design something around a $1500 budget and we can design something around a $15000 budget." makes them feel that you're trying to establish a starting point and it's not about "can you afford me". I do have PDF brochures for each of our services to send out to potential clients that include general pricing but for multi-day events with multi-day services AND discounts for multi-service/multi-day, it's just easier (for everyone) to have a starting point. Again, I don't see this as a necessity for photographers who offer one thing (wedding, families, newborn, etc...) but when your services can scale up or down easily, it definitely helps.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I understand, Bert, and yet the client has to know your price range, or at least your starting price (not minimum, but starting price) or at least your day rate so they get an idea if they can afford you. I frequently tell my day rate or my hourly rate and this is enough for some clients to find someone else, because they wanted to spend half of that for everything.

When saying a number first you get them acquainted with the types of prices in your business and you spare them the "opportunity" to shame themselves saying a price that's very very low.

I don't ask for a budget (upfront) even for multi-day shoots. I just say a price range and tell them what the pros and cons are. Then they may say "we plan to spend $XXX" or if they are not the decision makers and have fixed budget from their superiors, they will name the budget.

With many clients, especially big ones, often it's not about the budget, but about how much they are willing to pay. If you show confidence, transparency in pricing, strong portfolio, respect them, you will probably win them. Apple are overpriced and yet people buy their products, because of their way of presentating them. They clearly state: it costs "onlyu" $X,XXX, but see how shiny and smooth our ad is. Look at the experience these people in this emotional lifestyle commercial have.

Most importantly, it's about the type of clients you work with. If your clients are used to that question, go for it. Most of mine are complaining about that. They would rather pay more than they had in mind than being asked for their financial limit on that project.

Tony Clark's picture

I have never asked a potential client about their budget. I ask the usual questions, get a realistic view of the project and then draft my estimate. More times than not, they are are surprised by my number and the job ends up going to some lower baller. How a full-time photographer can pay their bills on those kinds of jobs is beyond me. All you can do is be professional and move on to the next job.

Lee Christiansen's picture

I'll ask those questions and get answers like "great images" "dynamic" or "like the Nike Adverts" only to come up with a strategy that delivers this and then find the budget is, well... not a Nike budget.

If I have realistically thinking clients then it's easy to quote. But often they aren't realistic or they're actually happy with different results but are just coming out with all the usual PR favourite phrases. (I swear some of the briefs I see could be written without ever knowing what the project was...)

But one thing clients do understand is money. Find what they've been given to spend, (because usually they've been given a fixed budget range to achieve), and find a way to give them better than anyone else within that constraint.

Sometimes I can find ways of coming in under budget once we have a strategy. Other times I can explain the limitations their budget will bring and we find extra to overcome those limitations. But it isn't always about bleeding their budget dry.

When I get a client who genuinely wants to know how much their dream will cost and will find that £££ to achieve it, I'll let you know... :)

Leigh Miller's picture

Exactly right...

I learned that right out of university on the way to being a stockbroker cause I needed cash fast.

Never ask "how much liquid cash do you have to invest".....first lesson the sales manager hammered into the heads of new recruits.

michael andrew's picture

A smart question I feel not enough people ask that has helped me immensely is pretty
Much the same as asking for a budget however even more more telling:
“Can you show me what other vendors have produced for you in the past and what the project cost you”.

It can save you a lot of time as it directly provides you with something they either were or were not happy with, and since creative work is so wildly custom and different on so many levels having a piece of work you can base their satisfaction off of is incredibly useful.

This is a no bullshit epic way of seeing what they were delivered and what they paid for it. I find that companies change vendors (photographers or productions) for a few main reasons:

• New Project manager:
Simply because the person that is now in charge of finding a new vendor as they never had a previous relationship with the past vendor anyway and one way they can make an impact in their new position is to find “better” or “cheaper” contractors to reflect well on them. This is actually a double edged sword, it’s good because now the door is open to work with this company, but bad because a primary driver in this new “insert job title
Here” persons role is to impact the project in some meaningful way that may or may not really be attainable, ie: the last production was probably great but cost 10k so they want something that is the same or better and costs 5k.

• price:
it could literally just be price.

• new to them: maybe they have never actually done a project similar to this for their company, and in this case it is imperative that you help and consult them through the process otherwise they are very very likely to price shop to the bottom as they may have zero experience and just notice someone will do something for 3-4 times cheaper.

Simply asking for a budget is something I have done successfully in the past but I have moved on to now seek a historical roadmap of how they have dealt in the past and I find people are much more likely to be honest and open about what they spent vs what they can spend.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Asking about previous work is definitely a plan. It does offer a few potential problems if the previous supplier has been inexpensive and not good. Are we suggesting that the other supplier wasn't good, or are we suggesting the client doesn't choose well...! :)

It can be a dangerous path critiquing other suppliers. (Even indirectly by suggesting we'd deliver better).

That said I'm needing to do just this with an events company who are trying to steal one of my clients away. (I say steal because we were both introduced to a wealthy family by a 3rd party, but now they're aiming for a bigger slice of the pie). I know what their photographers are like, because I've been asked to "fix" their work and on one occasion I remarked it was better to tell the client that the camera had died because it was unfixable. So now I'm quite happily calling int question the wisdom of choosing this cheaper source of photography on what will be possibly a £200,000 private party.

(But I've a suspicion that even though everyone wowed at my work the last 2 times and even though the client is worth some £700 million, he'll still choose the cheaper option because aren't all photographers the same...?!

Alas too many clients seem to believe that they can have £10,000 worth of delivery for £2,000

Mr Hogwallop's picture

“Can you show me what other vendors have produced for you in the past and what the project cost you”.

And they show you what the other vendors have charged..?
That is pretty ballsy on your part to ask and sleazy on their part if they reveal those fees to another vendor. It gives you a lot of information about how others do their business and you an advantage every time you are in a bid with them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I never ask such a question, because other vendors may have changed with time, may have been scammers or great professionals. It's their business, it's their craftsmanship, it's their prices.

When I give prices, I don't really compare myself to the rest of the market and I don't really know what prices people charge for similar jobs. If I am a trader and I sell commodities that many others are selling, I would be interested to see what price tags they put, but when I sell my own craftsmanship I can price it however I want and this doesn't have anything to do with cheaper or more expensive photographers or filmmakers the client has or hasn't worked before. If I price myself based on the prices of the others, this is again a sign of insecurity and lack of confidence (in my opinion).

michaeljin's picture

I ask what their budget is because there's no sense in me talking about a level of service that they can't afford—especially since it will inevitably lead to a long explanation of why things cost what they cost only to end in them revealing that it's above their budget regardless of the reason.

A client being honest about what they're looking for and what they're looking to spend helps start the conversation in a productive manner. If you were a real estate agent, would you spend your time looking up homes for a buyer who only tells you what they want, but not how much they can afford? It's a waste of everyone's time.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I can't remember how many times I have a budget X for a product or a service and end up paying much more, because I understand the benefits and disadvantages either by researching myself or someone else consulting me.

If someone asks me for a budget and agrees to provide me a product or a service at that price range, I already won and they failed to sell me a better and more expensive product or service.

That's the paradox, because people are asking for the budget in order to see what's the maximum they can pay, but usually that's not what the client can pay, but what would like to pay. Often that budget limit is a lie and it's less than they would willingly pay. This is why saying a number first, as a vendor, is much better, because:
- You don't devalue your work;
- You are confident in your pricing;
- You can even earn more than the client was hoping or willing to pay, because they found your numbers are reasonable;

Yes, your time may be lost, but that's part of the business: some will become your clients and others won't. If you don't want them to take your time, put a minimum price requirement on your website and you won't get bothered by cheap people.

Matt Kosterman's picture

I agree completely. I was taught at one point early in a different career to ask this question up front. I think it is presumptuous. My rates are my rates. As is mentioned, later in the negotiations it can be helpful if you are trying to figure out how to be creative. A corollary is to never cut price/give up revenue without getting something in return; i.e: reduced scope of work in some way.

Yo FStoppers. This is the content pro photographers and also new comers want to read. We need more experience teaching and things learned on set or in the field. This is the best Article on business I have read here. Well done!! Please do more!

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for the feedback Ehrin. If you browse my other articles you will find others on the topic of business negotiations. You may find something helpful there too.

"When I'm meeting with a potential client I ask questions about the scope of their project." Yep, that's what I do, and it's really the best way to get the ball rolling, and feel things out. For inexperienced clients, it helps educate them about all that's involved (for when it comes time to quote a price for all that's involved); for experienced clients, it's a way to maybe steer things a little toward creative input from you. "Were you thinking of a studio shoot, or maybe a location, too? Because I have this one place in mind..." But never, ever, ever just quote an hourly rate. Then you're doomed. But if you do--like many of of have--learn the lesson well as you end up working for about $5/hr late into the night retouching, and don't do it again.

I've also worked on the other side of things a tiny bit, in a marketing dept for a large corp, and when someone says their budget is X, all that means is, that's an amount already approved (likely as just some line item on a spreadsheet), and it'll be a hassle for them to get approval for more. But it can almost always be done, if they're motivated enough, their manager likes them, etc.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

I have asked the budget question after I am asked for an estimate (not a bid) and they say that my numbers are too high. I ask what kind of budget they are working with so we can re jigger the estimate to get closer to what they have to spend. But that is not the first question I have.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Exactly what I meant in the article. Asking that after giving a price range or an exact number is a very natural if the client wants to get it done for less.

Of course you need to ask about budget. As a photographer you are selling yourself and you are the product. If you think that you are big shot artist you are mistaken. People expect you do produce memories, not artistic stupid pictures to post on Instagram or Facebook. You should ask how much money they have to spend for the memories and provide amount of memories you will make that that money. If budget is too low, offer them to provide pictures of the bride and bridal party. If budget is high offer metal prints to fill the wall. But don't pretend that you are Michelangelo and are worth you weight in gold..

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

You sound like you've never read the article.

Clients dislike being asked for a budget. This is what they've told me a numerous times. I also don't like it, because it sounds like you don't know how much you are worth or you don't have any confidence to boldly say a number.

I guess you are mainly talking about family photography, seniors, children, and weddings. This is where I would never think of asking for a budget. I am working in the commercial world where I don't photograph memories, but ads, editorials, headshots, lifestyle. The budget is quite different there and yet I don't ask for the budget and I am neither producing memories, nor "artistic stupid pictures to post on Instagram or Facebook." Being on the market for a decade I can assure you not asking for a budget is working just fine.

You examples are in the area of family photography, as I said, and this is where you have:
- the photography part
- additional products like prints, framing, albums, etc.

If you ask them for their budget, they will certainly pitch too low and you will lose them as clients, because people often don't want to spend much money on something they don't have an idea of. But if they find the value in it, and especially if they like you as an artist, they would gladly pay you as much as you are worth.

If your prices for the same type of project vary based on the budget, this means you don't know how much you are worth. If you want to up-sell and clients buy more prints and albums from you, you just tell that your prices start from $XXXX and include a X by Y print. You show them the print, you show them the album, and they might buy more.

Asking for a budget not only offends clients (based on their own words), but you may earn less, because they will tell you how much they are willing to spend on your art. As we know, today everyone is a "photographer" and they can buy the same camera you have, but they don't understand that they are actually buying craftsmanship. This is why they will often pitch too low if they need to say a number.

If you read the article you will see that clients saying a number first are often laughed at in photographers' talks, because people simply don't have an idea.

Don Risi's picture

I have never had a client answer the question about their budget. Likewise, I've never had a client willing to negotiate. From the POV of the clients in this area, whatever price I quote is the final price, good or bad. If it's too high, they turn to a competitor. Period. No negotiations, nothing. Those same clients won't say what their budget is, usually because it's so low they know I'll never go for it.

"What is your budget" says, "how much can I fleece you out of?" Tell me what your prices are for each part of the job. If I want something a bit different, tell me how much you would charge me for that. If you tell me your prices and I tell you I can't afford it, that doesn't mean I don't think your work is worth it. It means I don't have enough money.

Bibi Haribi's picture

I must tell you that you should not publish articles like this one because it's completely wrong.
You repeated several times that you are an artist but you behave like a plain salesman. With a poor man mentality. But, in same time you strongly push your approach and give advices. Please, don't.
So, what's the problem?

First, you should tell us first who are you clients? Little segmentation first. Learn some marketing, photography is a business, too. If you work with small businesses it's obviously that they can't pay a lot, what ever that means.

Second, what do you sell (for God's sake)? In photography business your price contains lot of cost. First part of your price is cost of your work/service. Cost of your time, equipment you use, vehicles you use, assistants you have (you do have assistants, right?) and everything else you need in the process. Second part of your price is cost of copyright usage of your photos. And that price depends on their budget.

If you work with some big company they will earn a lot of money with the campaign and your photos will contribute, so you have to ask/earn more money than if you work with small businesses.
From your words (I became friend with clients) I can see you work with small businesses, otherwise you would never see your clients. You would work with people from advertising agencies who make a creative concept and production setting jobs.

So, first segmentation. Tell us first who are your clients?
Second, if you work with big clients/agencies always ask for the budget. They have a budget, trust me. In my carriere I was on both sides of a production chain. Tip: send them a questionnaire, don't talk with them first.
Third, production costs + copyright cost/usage. That's your price. Separate this strongly on your invoice.
Fourth, don't be cheap, because client will never learn that photography business is not cheap, in that way. You need equipment, vehicles, office, assistants (you do have some?), computers, servers, software. You can't grow with 1000USD/EUR jobs. Unless you want to be a one-man-show photographer whole your life.

Dana Goldstein's picture

This is why you break down your bid into all the particulars, so the client can see what actually costs what. Just giving a single number without explaining how you arrived at it is unhelpful to the client and can hurt you, because they will just want to make the number smaller without being able to articulate what they need and what they can economize on -- or give you the opportunity to show them where being economical will affect the final production or not. Your creative fee is your creative fee and that shouldn't change, but there are so many variables, and a detailed bid shows that you're being upfront (ie not shady) and trying to help them make intelligent choices.

Guys, stop it. Some good, but many of bad advice here. Learn from the master. It's going to turn your world upside down.