Can I Buy One?

By Roger (8 May 2014)

If you're doing well with your photography, sooner or later, someone will offer to buy one of your photos. It's a great feeling when this happens because it means someone has found something of value in your work. For too many beginning photographers, however, the initial flush of satisfaction disappears as they try to calculate a price that won't scare away their prospective client or leave the photographer second-guessing their quote.

I believe you should figure out your pricing formula before you are asked, even if you have no desire to be a professional photographer, trying to make a living from your work. There is no single formula for pricing your work, but there are some common factors you should consider when creating the formula that works for you.

The first, and most obvious, thing you should consider is the price you paid for the materials. This is pretty easy stuff. How much did you pay for the print and shipping? Are you going to deliver it in a matted frame? How much was that? You could just take these costs, and add in the amount of profit you want. You have a price.

If you arrive at your price using this simple formula, it is my opinion that you're selling yourself short. You're certainly not factoring in everything you should be. Let's look at some other factors that should matter in your formula.

Even if you're not a professional trying to make a living from photography, you should still take the time to figure out all the factors that go into the photograph's price. Let me say that again. Even if you plan to give the photo away for free, I think you should know what it cost to make it.

Everyone's formula is slightly different, or would be, if they bothered to tally up the cost. It bothers me that almost none of the photographers I know have done the work. I'm not talking about the perceived value of what a famous photographer is worth to a collector or some fancy art gallery – those select few photographers charge what the market will bear (at least until they are no longer in style). I mean what are all the identifiable costs that go into making your photo from the time you get up to make it; the processing; and the final product.

I work in a world where we have to justify all costs. When we propose work to our clients, we have a dedicated volume (usually the largest of five volumes in a proposal) that spells out exactly how we arrived at the price we want to charge the customer. This volume is read by folks looking for any way they can find to beat down our price (should we be chosen from amongst the competitors), so we have to be absolutely thorough in our explanation. You should be sure your formula is thorough, if only for your personal knowledge of what you gave away.

North Carolina Cypress

North Carolina Cypress

This photo has sold a couple of times. What are the costs I add in beyond the simple formula at the beginning? This location is in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, about a four-hour drive from my home. Already, I have four hours of time, half a tank of gas, and wear and tear on my vehicle before I snap the shutter. Except that I had been to this location about six times before I got this photo. On one of those visits, we had to stay at a hotel because there was no room at my family's house.

On this day, the sun was rising on the left side, while a fog was rolling in from the right. I didn't use Photoshop to obscure the horizon line; nature did that for me. The light was great, and I was there with my camera. The other times, the conditions weren't this good. I was there about 90 minutes – more time costs to add in. (6x90=9 hours)

I used an expensive camera and lens combination, sitting on a carbon-fiber tripod, to make this photo. I transported my gear in a nice camera bag, to protect it. My gear is covered by a separate insurance policy, as is the vehicle I drove down in. I uploaded the photo to my computer (how much does a computer cost?); cataloged the photo in Lightroom; and did about 30 minutes of additional work in Photoshop. More time, and those programs aren't free; neither is the electricity to run the computer. Oh, by the way, it took more time and dollars to learn to use the gear and those programs to develop the skills to create the photograph.

You can see where this is headed. Let me set your mind at ease – I don't add every penny of those costs into every single photo I took while I was in Elizabeth City. That would be one expensive photo! My point is that these photos cost much more than you realize if you aren't considering the totality of what went into them.

I find the biggest thing missing from most photographers' formula is an accurate accounting of time. Too many under-value the time it takes to create a single photo, much less a portfolio of photographs good enough to make someone want to buy one. Many photographers, probably most, aren't valuing their time enough to reach the minimum wage.

Time is a true cost, even if you aren't trying to make a living at photography. If you are trying to become a professional, you need to consider all your costs and devise a formula that allows you to make a real wage that you can live on.

Again, I'm not saying you should never give away a photo; I'm not saying everyone should make money on their hobby. Not everyone should be or wants to be a professional photographer. I do want you to appreciate the true cost of making your photos.

When someone decides they want to buy one of your photos, you might be unsure what to charge. If you've prepared your answer before it is asked, you'll be more confident in your pricing decision. Look them in the eye, and give them your price.