Why 'Charge What You're Worth' Is Bad Advice

Why 'Charge What You're Worth' Is Bad Advice

The phrase, “charge what you’re worth,” makes sense on the surface, and it’s advised so often in photography business circles that no one realizes it’s a bad idea.

Behind the phrase, “charge what you’re worth,” is a right and noble sentiment: recognize your work has value and don’t undercharge. The sentiment makes so much sense, in fact, that most of us have probably said it to a peer at some point in the past, myself included. The problem for photographers comes in the phrasing, “what you’re worth.” It may seem pedantic, but words are powerful things that shape the way we think, and the wrong words, even used to convey the right sentiment, can set photographers up for emotional and business failure.

 As a writer, my job is to use words to put thoughts and ideas into other people’s heads, so I know firsthand the importance of word choice. The phrase, “charge what you’re worth,” implies something unhealthy: that your worth is tied to your pricing. Just this morning I responded to a post on Facebook where a struggling photographer asked a group of peers if a package price for a recently advertised session was too high because there were no bookings, and finished by stating that they were starting to doubt themselves, and weren’t sure if they were worth more than free shoots. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard another photographer tie their worth to their pricing, and I’m positive it won’t be the last.

I remember struggling with this issue myself while wondering how to price my work. When I searched online, I found this advice repeated everywhere. It seems to make sense, so where is the problem? It’s in three specific areas.

Image by Maitree Rimthong

Problem One

“Charge what you’re worth,” is subjective and emotional and has nothing to do with the market or good business practice. It takes no account for CODB, taxes, target audience, or what the local market will bear for that kind of work. It’s a platitude that — short of giving a momentary emotional boost — does the photographer no actual good. If a photographer is looking for advice on what to charge, give them sound financial advice they can put to use, not platitudes.

Problem Two

“Charge what you’re worth” explicitly ties the market value of the work to the photographer’s self-worth. If no one signs up, then maybe they’re just not worth that much. If someone scoffs at pricing or inquires with a low rate, it's an emotional blow to the photographer because they have tied their identity to their ability to make money with photography. Instead of treating the business of photography like a business, it becomes a validation engine. If someone spends a lot, the photographer must be worth a lot. So, when things fail — as they inevitably will in business — the photographer must deal with the emotional trauma of damaged self-worth, like the poor photographer I mentioned earlier. Personal identity and self-worth should never be tied to anything so unstable.

Problem Three

Worth changes across markets, with time, and individuals. What a photographer charges in New York is different than what the same photographer can charge in Baton Rouge, Louisiana or Pendleton, Oregon. What photographers charge now is different than what they charged during the recession. One client may be willing to part with $2500 for a shoot, when another may only be willing to pay $200. Time, experience, and rarity also tend to increase value, which is why a photographer who only charged $200 at the start of their career can charge tens-of-thousands by the end. That’s why understanding the market in general and target audience in particular, are so important. It’s a numbers game, not a measuring stick of personal worth.

Photo by Tomas Williams

Some Advice

  1. Never, ever value yourself based on what other people do.
  2. If you run a photography business, remove your ego from the equation and treat it like a business. If someone doesn’t want to work with you or thinks you charge too much, that reflects on their personal values, not on your value as a person or a photographer.
  3. Be serious about the business side of your job. Understand all the costs and expenses, understand your local market, figure out what you need to earn to live, and make your decisions about pricing based on that, not based on a vague idea of ‘worth.’
  4. FIND A MENTOR. Please. Find more than one if you can, who can tell you how they made it, what their failures were, and how they dealt with establishing themselves.
  5. Get good, unbiased critiques from people you respect who are working in your market. They will tell you if your work is technically solid enough to survive your local market.
  6. Track your marketing. For the love of all things holy, please track your marketing. There is a reason marketing is a job of its own. You need to know where your target audience hangs out, what copy resonates with them, what kind of imagery they click on, what times of day they’re active, how long they stay on your blog, and a hundred other little trackable details that will tell you what your audience likes to see, and what they ignore. Use these details to hone your advertising so you’re not wasting time and money in the wrong places.
  7. Whether people buy your work says nothing about your value. You are invaluable, priceless, and unique. It takes a long time to get proficient, both at photography and business. This is a long-term game, and perseverance is key. You will fall down, but that is just an opportunity to master another aspect of your job.  There are hundreds of failures ahead of you, each one nothing more than another chance to succeed, and none of these things have anything to do with what you are worth.

Those of us who find validation in photography are at risk of being negatively affected by this advice, of questioning our own worth when things fail, or of giving up all together. What are some ways we can encourage each other to establish proper value in the marketplace without leading one another to value ourselves based on what they earn instead of who they are?  

Lead Image used with permission from Images by Brant

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10 Comments

Michael Jin's picture

I charge what I'm worth all the time. That's why nobody ever pays me for anything. :D

Lee Christiansen's picture

You're worth what you can get... :)

I charge what it's worth to my clients. Still hoping to attract clients that wants to pay more. Some people will not be happy unless it's expensive. Just like they want most expensive cloths, furniture and what ever. I want those clients:)

Pedro Oliveira's picture

Market analysis is the most powerful tool a business owner can have in their arsenal.
What I'm "worth" in NYC & Los Angeles isn't what I'm "worth" in Portland.
Trying to sell apples to those who can only afford bananas won't cut. It is easier to change client targetting than change your current clients expectations of what they're already used to pay.
Believe me, I learned it from the hard way.

Brad Delaney's picture

I ignored advice from Business coaches and the like "you are too cheap, put your prices up" I put my prices down and have had the best years ever. You have to understand your Local market and the perceived value of what you do from a clients perspective. I realised that as a Corporate Headshot Photographer my price had nothing to do with my ability to take a good image. It was more about prospective clients perception of how they historically looked in photographs and their thought process or fixed mindset that tells them, "I always look like shit in photographs, I'm not photogenic and i hate having my photograph taken. For me it's about bums on seats. Clients don't see the value of what I do until they see themselves on the screen in my studio. I set my prices to get them in the studio. Once they are in there and they see what i do the price barrier falls away. Its understanding the mindset of my clients.

Well thought through and written article Nicole! Marketing is my weak point so defiantly taking advantage of a mentor. Realizing and accepting that "not everyone is your client" was a huge one for me. I Value your thoughts and expertise! Thank you!

Laughing Cow's picture

I always charged double what I was worth, and everyone was happy...

Gerald Bilton's picture

This is very good advise, Nicole. Treat your photography business as a business. Egos and emotions will tend to hurt your business. Each market is different and knowing your market is key. Thanks for the article.

I would figure out what it takes to make a living then worry about charging what you feel you are worth after that. Until you can live on what you make, charging what you think you are worth doesn't matter. There are plenty of starving artists in the world that price their work based on the value they perceive it to be but they haven't yet figured out how to make a living with their work vs. wanting to get the perceived value out of it.

A lot of which boils down to business and marketing I might add and not how good their work is. I see lots of photographers with mediocre work that make a great living and lots of photographers with wonderful work that have a hard time scraping two pennies together.

Studio 403's picture

Well said. To the point and its simple. ok Ken execute!