The following is an excerpt from Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington. 

How do you establish your prices? This is seemingly an age-old question, and certainly one that perplexes many of the more experienced photographers, who, when asked, simply shrug their shoulders and respond with something like, “I sort of just guesstimated.”

If this is you, don’t be alarmed—you’re not alone. That doesn’t mean you’re free and clear; it means you need to reverse-engineer your rates to see whether what you’ve been doing meets your long-term goals. You also need to know which types of assignments are revenue positive and which may be, without your even knowing, revenue negative. (Yes, that means taking a loss on a job.)

Although 15 years ago resources were few and far between to help you come to reasonable and logical conclusions about rates, they are abundantly available now in books, online, and in software specially designed for photographers.

First things first, though. Repeat the following phrase out loud three times. If you’re reading this in midair while flying over country, say it anyway. If you’re reading by bedside light and your significant other is asleep, say it anyway. But if you’re in a church, then wait.

Why are you reading this book in church? Anyway, say this:

“I am a profitable business and must remain so. If I am not, I’ll be waiting tables soon.”
“I am a profitable business and must remain so. If I am not, I’ll be waiting tables soon.”
“I am a profitable business and must remain so. If I am not, I’ll be waiting tables soon.”

Now, no disrespect to waitstaff all across the country, but I doubt very many of them aspire to be waitstaff for the rest of their lives. For most, it’s a waypoint during college, while they wait to be discovered and become a famous actor or perhaps someday own the restaurant. Regardless of their goals, yours is to remain a photographer.

Second, in keeping with the mentality of the mechanic who repaired your car in five minutes (as related in an earlier chapter), the amount of time involved in the shoot is a relatively small factor in determining your rate. In fact, your fees could well be increased conversely to your ability to execute the shoot expeditiously, and thus you should earn a premium. Nowhere else that I know of does someone more skilled get paid less because they completed their tasks faster than a less-experienced person.

Nelson DeMille, one of my favorite fiction authors, wrote a line for one of his characters in his book Plum Island, and it has remained with me for at least a decade. He wrote (for his character), “The problem with doing nothing is that you never know when you’re finished.” I have endeavored, as I recall that sentiment, to always try to do something.

When you are making the strategically smart decision to decline assignments that are below your threshold where you can earn a profit, you must maximize that time “doing nothing” by doing something. Go out and search for new clients, whether by doing research at the magazine stand for prospective editorial clients or online for prospective corporate clients, or even by cold-calling prospects in the marketing or corporate communications offices of businesses that are located in and around where you live.

Taking the approach that being the lowest-priced photographer will earn you all the work you need is a failing goal. The commoditized photographer promotes himself first on price, then on service or style of photography, and then finally on himself.

The best photographer is one who first promotes and markets himself, then his services and style, and finally his price. Recently, I was CC’d on the following dialogue between one of my existing clients and someone who had sought a recommendation for a photographer from him:

Subject: Re: Photographer Recs Needed

Dear XXXX, John Harrington is a great photographer that would more than satisfy your client’s needs. XXXX XXXXXX uses him almost exclusively…and you may have met him at the recent XXXXX event. Go see his website at His email is


Here’s the response from the recipient of that email:

Hi XXXX: Thank you so much. I do remember John—great guy, and he’s my first recommendation.

Thanks again so much, XXXX.

Here is a clear and concise indication of this point. How does the party receiving the recommendation gauge me? “Great guy.” This, in my opinion, is a successful referral (and my ongoing goal to receive). I am not going to be compared on price—in fact, I am the top choice before a quote is provided.

Here’s another example, where we had already provided the estimate, and the client balked.

Subject: RE: Photo Estimate for: Saturday, May 9

John – This looks great. We will share with the client and get back to you shortly to confirm.


Here’s the response they got from their client:

Subject: Re: Photog estimate

Can you reach out to another photog and get another quote???

My client backed me up and wrote:

Subject: Re: Photog estimate

FYI: He is very good and gets the job done right. XXXXXX pulls this guy in for this type of assignment on a regular basis. He always delivers and is very good on the ground. I don’t think you will find anyone better. We are also lucky he is available … he usually books up pretty far in advance.


Then, as a courtesy, the client emailed me that back and forth with this message:

Subject: FW: Photog estimate

Make us proud … we just got the approval after the endorsement below. The invoice is going to go to: X XXX

In this example, you have the client going to bat for you. They did not solicit another (expectedly lower-priced) photographer. Earning clients like this takes time, and yes, when I get this type of client going to bat for me, I will be sure to go above and beyond in my efforts to do a great job for them, and, as they requested, “make [them] proud.”

Valuing Your Work

The aforementioned client clearly subscribes to the Warren Buffett position that “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” We deliver valuable photography, and this client knows it.

During a recent political season, I received a solicitation from a political candidate with an opportunity to attend this candidate’s “summit” (another word for a campaign stop that makes the event seem more important than it really is).
The email listed the following:
Ticket Prices:
$2,300 VIP
Includes full-day Summit, premium Summit seating, and a photograph with XXXX

$1,000 Guest
Includes full-day Summit

The email invite makes it clear that you will get your photo taken with XXXX and an actual photograph if you pay an additional $1,300. About those “premium seats”? Since the photo will, most likely, take place just prior to the candidate taking the stage, they will hold the front-row seats for those who are backstage getting their photos taken, so you can be front and center, rather than getting the back-of-house seats because you’re entering the room moments before the candidate begins his or her remarks. Okay, again, no problem with the seating.

What I find most remarkable is the value that is placed upon the 8×10 glossy you’ll get. Assume a fair figure of 100 posed photos, which will take about 15 minutes—tops—to accomplish, and you’re at $130,000 in additional gross revenue just from those photographs. Perhaps you’ll get an added bonus of having it signed by the candidate as well, with something akin to “Thanks for your support.” I make no bones about political candi- dates generating revenue from these types of events. Instead, I am providing this example to demonstrate the potential value of an 8×10 where your subjects are depicted with a high-profile political candidate.

What, then, is the added value of an 8×10 with an actual high-level elected official? They do political fundraisers all the time, and the stakes are even higher, no doubt.

The next time someone tries to place a value on a print of himself with a VIP—whether political or celebrity—realize that it’s worth much more to that person than the cost of the print plus a nominal markup. It could be worth hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to that person for the wall of fame in his office. And, by the time he calls you because you just happened to be in the right place at the right time to capture it, he has probably already got the space picked out on his wall for it.

I appreciated how highly regarded photographer Bill Frakes made a point during an event where we were both speakers in Atlanta a few years back. Frakes recounted a story where he was asked to shoot a particularly challenging assignment of a sports facility with the sport in question happening. A friend of Bill’s had been contacted initially to do the shoot, and he knew he couldn’t pull it off, so he passed it on to Bill. Frakes recounted that because the client arrived at his door in that fashion, his first estimate was extremely reasonable. For what the client wanted, Frakes quoted a figure of $10,000 for the assignment, and the client went off, calling into question Frakes’ pricing, and just how overboard and beyond the pale it was. The client said they’d hire someone else to do the work who was more reasonably priced, and Frakes thought that was the end of it.

After a few weeks, the client called back, saying that they’d hired another photographer whose work just didn’t cut it—the images just didn’t work or were otherwise unusable. The prospective client now wanted Bill. Bill responded that the cost for the assignment was $20,000. The client was, as it was recounted, nearly speechless. How could it now be $20,000? Hadn’t he just quoted $10,000, the client wanted to know. Frakes said, “Now you know how difficult the assignment is, so that’s what it really should cost.” He went on, “I didn’t do it for spite. I had the additional information gained in our initial conversation that this was going to be a difficult client to please.”

The client paid the new figure.

It helped that Bill’s original estimate was only valid for three days, which gave him the leeway to make that adjustment. Not placing an expiration date on an estimate might have created a different—and $10,000 less—outcome in this situation.

Far too often, we make things look easy and really make things run smoothly for clients, and we forget what a significant value that has for clients. We are far too quick to diminish the contributions we make, either in getting it right the first time—or when it really counts—and delivering what they want, when they want it.

What Are You Worth?

There’s an oft-repeated quote about pricing: “Good, fast, and cheap. Pick two.”

Think about that for a minute and work out the permutations. You want the photos good and cheap, you’ll have to wait until my spare time, which is otherwise nonbillable, and when I get around to them, I’ll get them to you. Fast and cheap? The photos will look far less than the quality we normally deliver. It’s akin to calling an architectural photographer, known for their “shot at dusk, light balanced just right, framed perfectly, and so on” work and asking for it cheap. The result will be an image they take out the window of their car as they are sitting at a stoplight in front of the building on the way to their kids’ soccer practice—and if it’s a cloudy afternoon, oh well. And good and fast? That will mean it’s going to be expensive. Period.

Free surely is not a viable solution. During the time when they were opening up pharmacies in their stores across the country, Walmart’s CEO was challenged on the notion of giving away free drugs, as some other companies had, to get a toehold in a market. The CEO’s response? “We’re in business to make money. Free is a price that is not a long-term sustainable position.”

As you present your rates—especially for event coverage, which is one of the very few types of photography where a per-hour rate is fairly applicable—you may get some objection. Some clients will think (and I’ve experienced this firsthand as they mentally do the calculations), “$100 an hour times eight hours in a day, times five days a week, times 52 weeks in a year…” They think that you are a $208,000-per-year photographer. They will say, “My attorney/doctor/therapist doesn’t get paid that much,” and then you have an uphill battle.