Monthly Archives: April 2011

Upfront sales and the Portrait vs. Wedding Deathmatch

I must say that  the last few day’s worth of posts have generated a great volume of comments.  Specifically my comments about Session Fees have raised some interest.

Take this comment from Mike:

I think we’ve hit a roadblock somehow. I agree with what you’re saying, but I find it hard to apply it to portrait clients (as opposed to wedding clients), only because it seems to be very difficult to sell to them on the front-end of the process. A potential wedding client *needs* a great photographer on their important day and will pay good money for one, but a potential portrait client rarely has that same kind of “need”. Instead, I’ve found that portrait clients must be sought out, tempted with great work in order to get them to book, then booked with some sort of financial commitment up front (or none??), then have an enjoyable and memorable session, and then be tempted again with great photos. I don’t see see how to *not* charge big on products and make your money that way.

Difficult?  Why?  A wedding certainly is an advantageous trigger for photography, but portrait photography contains just as many – birth, graduation, family milestones, etc.  If you feel that the trigger is the problem, then create the need for a few more triggers in your client’s mind.  I know there are portrait photographers that try to get clients to come back every few months, which other than extreme cases in newborns I really don’t understand.  But when we were photographing portraits we told our family clients when we believed the triggers would be that would keep them coming back every few years (first child in grade school, first child in college, last child in school, etc).  You can develop these triggers for yourself instead of waiting for the market to dictate them.

You can opt to look at any scenario as a search or an attraction.  You can either go out into the world and try to entice clients to you or you can create something remarkable and let them come to you.  This works for any product or service.  It certainly can work for portraits just as effectively as for weddings.  What you have identified is a lack of commitment from portrait clients.  That doesn’t mean that portrait clients WON’T commit, just that they haven’t been shown anything the compels them enough.

If they want to work with you, if they want what it is that you do and they believe in why you do it (your branding!) then they will play ball by your rules.  When I did photograph seniors extensively I worked on a commission basis for a particular large product (a book, a wall portrait or both).  You had to commit to one upfront.  Those were the breaks.   I don’t understand the concept of shooting a session and hoping that they like the photos enough to own them.  What you are doing in this case is presenting an additional obstacle which does not benefit either the client or the photographer.  Essentially you are adding another plea for acceptance into the mix.  The client already hired you.  They already like what you do and want it for themselves.  In my opinion, that is acceptance enough.  By setting up a system in which you indicate that the client might not like what you do you are creating doubt in their minds as to the reliability of you/your studio to deliver on your value proposition.

One of the things that Mike has brought up is the issue of trust.  I don’t see a portrait session as anything different from a wedding.  I sure as hell am not reshooting a portrait session just like I can’t reshoot a wedding – why would I?  If I am what I say I am, then I will do what I say I will.  There should be no need to undermine ourselves by indicating that we may not deliver.  This need to tempt and cajole the clients to do what we want is a commitment issue.  But I think the problem lies not in the client’s unwillingness to commit, but the photographer’s lack of confidence building.  Flip it around – who do you trust more to deliver on expectations – a $50 portrait photographer or a $1000 portrait photographer?

Everything is the photographer’s responsibility.  We can’t afford to blame a client for not acting the way we want them to.  First, we have to build the system that makes it work, and we have to make it so the client is thrilled to follow our rules.  I have a big directive in my business – I don’t shoot on spec.  I made this decision a long time ago.  It is a line in the sand that I drew to establish a level of respect for what I do and what it is worth.  Of course, you guys are free to do what you want and my way isn’t the only way.  But I have learned that my most precious resource is time, and I will not spend any time on work that isn’t making what I need it to make.  In my business it is never a question of whether or not a given job will make what I need it to, I am focused on whether this will be the biggest job I’ve ever done.

So many things are a matter of perspective.  You can ask why a client would commit to an investment up front without seeing the images.  Or you can ask why they wouldn’t want t0 trust an expert to create the perfect piece.  Every perceived negative is a massively valuable positive if you look at it in the right way.

This isn’t a portrait example, but bear with me.  I recently had a wedding client that kept talking about her $10,000 wedding dress budget.  I think the beginner wedding photographer might view this client as braggy or perhaps gifted with more wealth than discretion.  It became clear to me that wasn’t the case.  This client was very busy, and not an expert in wedding dresses.  She wanted to look a certain wayamd be confident that everything would work out.  Her method of controlling the situation and being completely confident of her decision was to budget enough money for the product (and more importantly service) that she knew without question that her goals would be satisfied.

I think photographers have a huge problem.  They are focused completely on price.  Price is what something COSTS, value is what something is WORTH.  If we focus on value, we can stop trying to beg and tempt and dance around the price.  Photographers look at a sum of money and think that a client would never pay that much.  Flip it, ask yourself what a client would be thrilled to invest that much in.

Hey, I’ve got a lot of opinions.  I’d like to hear more of yours.  Let me know what you think in an email, comment or tweet.  Also, if you’d like to work through your pricing/value proposition or solidify your branding to the point where the clients are looking for you instead of the other way around take a look at my consultations page.


– trr

[Link] – Seth Godin on Alignment

I love the following blog post from Seth Godin –

This gets to the heart of many of the branding issues that I’ve been talking about here.  What you want and believe has to jive with what your client wants and believes about themselves.  If what you want is money for photos then I think the potential market for clients that just want to give you a livable sum for photos is probably pretty limited.  I’m interested in helping photography businesses become more meaningful.  Alignment, as Seth explains it, is making a selling point out of what your business means and finding the perfect clients who believe the same thing.

Take a look and let me know what you think in the comments below.

Also, due to the increase in consultation inquiries I’ve updated the Consultations page with some new options that should help to accommodate some of the things you’ve been asking for.  Take a look!


– trr

Getting Clearer

Leave it to Alessandro to give a monumental comment about session fees to quote:

Basically I think the flaw that Todd is talking about (or at any rate the flaw that I find in my current approach) is that let’s say you’re a client who wants to buy a 24×36 canvas for your home and you want to hire me as your photographer. Well… in my current model you would hire me for the session, and pay $240.00 (session fee) and then when you select your image from the session you would pay $550 for the 24×36 canvas.

While you and I know what the real story is, to the client this must at some level look like:

I’m paying $240 for his photography work
and then I’m paying $550 for what amounts to a print of the work I’ve already paid for.

There’s little doubt that at some level a client (who wouldn’t understand that the $240 session fee is just essentially a “retainer”) would feel “cheated” on the print prices.

A session-free model would involve NOT charging for the session directly and basically saying “You’re paying for my art. And my art is a whole process that starts with a meeting, goes thourgh photography, culling, editing and finally printing”.

In this model the 24×36 canvas would be priced at $790

The benefit of this model is that it eliminates the mental arithmetic that causes the total to be perceived as ART+Print+GAUGING MARKUP

In essence the client would probably presume that the photographer is “selling the art for 650 and the canvas for the 140 or so cost”

Now the client might not think the art is worth $650 of course, but I think the “i’m getting cheated” aspect goes away.

The negative here, for the client, is that if not the full “session” fee, the prices for the prints would need to account for some proportion of that current income, which means that clients who buy more prints than I deem average would end up paying more under this model (of course they might pay more BUT STILL FEEL BETTER ABOUT IT)

The other option, which does not get rid of the session fee, is what I think you’re describing… which is the PAY ME UP FRONT model (which is what I use for weddings for instance, where if I don’t sell a single print I’m ok with that) where there is in fact a session fee and it’s a fee that FULLY COMPENSATES the photographer for the work. The prints then don’t need to include a markup to provide the “missing income” and can simply be marked up for the actual work involved in uprezzing, retouching and whatnot.

I like this model and it obviously works well for weddings, but I’m not so sure it works well for portraiture.

I’d love to hear your dissenting argument on this point

Alessandro, di sciascio Photography

[Deep breath]

OK, the big, huge issue I have with this model is the following – $240 to encapsulate the work that you do, $550 for the lab to print it – where are we indicating that the value lies?

What I utterly hate about this is that we are saying that we don’t matter.  We are making the point that the paper is worth more than what is on it.

At some point your lab is going to give up on selling to you and leverage the larger consumer market, and they are incentified to do this (if they already aren’t).  The more you create value in what the lab does over what you do the more you become a middle man.  You’re simply up charging a product that at some point the client will be able to get wholesale.  It is not sustainable.

I don’t know why we are so concerned with the client picking apart the back-end of our business?  I think it isn’t a big deal unless your system encourages the client to question the ratio of cost to value.  If you only cost $240 and your print costs $550 then the client has a reason to start wondering, don’t they?

I’ve said it before – if you find yourself in a situation where you are justifying your price you’ve already lost their trust and confidence.  You can’t “win” them back.  I would stop worrying about a client picking apart your costs and instead focus on value creation.

If you want a certain amount of money from a session I think that’s what you should charge.   I understand that photographers are constantly trying to hide what they want to make, and then they wonder why they don’t enjoy the sales process.  If you want it, ask for it.  Offer it.  I don’t really see any reason that it doesn’t work for portraiture if it works for weddings.  When I do portraits (which is admittedly rarely) that’s how I work it as well.

Now, I want to be clear.  I do hate the way that session fees are normally used but that isn’t the real point.  The point that I want to make is that your pricing indicates value to clients.  If you are creating value in the lab over yourself then I think you are shooting yourself in the foot.  If you are charging a low sum (I’m sorry, a hundred or three for a session fee is a low amount of compensation unless you suck) for your session fee you are indicating that amount is a significant figure to you.  If anything you offer lands over that amount it will appear to be a large, potentially overpriced sum and your clients should be questioning it.

If you were to go out tomorrow and buy a Picasso how important is the artist and how much do you care about the type of canvas it is painted on?

Let me have it.

– trr

Can you clarify?

Good question from Mike on the “Should can go die.” post –

“Most of the things photographers think they should do (session fees, portfolio building, offering multiple products, letting clients choose images/products after the shoot, hourly coverage, digital delivery, I-could-go-on) are ineffective, inefficient, unprofitable, and don’t offer clients real value.”

Todd, can you elaborate on this statement? I understand the detriment of, say, digital delivery and hourly coverage, but I’m not sure about the others. For example, why is letting clients choose images/products after a shoot a bad idea? Is it because we should be shooting with specific images and products in mind? And what about session fees? Is it because the session is not the end result/product anyway?

I’m very curious about your feelings on this. Thanks!

I’m a pretty opinionated guy.  I also tend to have a problem going along with what it expected unless I know exactly why I’m doing it and what the value is.

So when I challenge an existing convention like shooting a session and asking clients to choose I really do so in order to get you thinking about why you would want to do that?  Sure, I think your clients have an opinion and it does matter.  However, are you asking your clients whether your work is OK, or are you creating the value so that they understand how great it is and why?  Are you focusing on which images that they don’t like?  Or are you focusing on the fact that there should be images they don’t like?  Do you know what is best or do your clients?  You can run your business either way, but one allows more control and creates more value than the other.

Is it because you should be shooting with specific images in mind?  Well, I do think you ought to shoot with a specific purpose in mind.  After all, given a particular desired outcome, wouldn’t you photograph differently?  Who should guide and manage the session?  The client, or the photographer?  Again, you can do things both ways, one is going to put you in control of your business and probably make you more money.

Now, I might save session fees for another day, since I could fill a book on why I hate the convention.  But I will say this – pricing is more than a financial construct – it is a method for communicating value and significance.  I have yet to meet a photographer who’s session fee really compensates them for what they do outside of creating/finishing a product.  So what a session fee really does is tell a client that your work and who you are and what you do is worth less than the paper than your image is printed on.  I am mos concerned about where you create your value.  If you are taking a small session fee and hoping to upsell to make what you need you are creating value in your lab, and not in you.

Some day the lab is going to sell to your clients.  Some day your clients will have access to every little product that you have.  What are you going to do then?  The only thing they can’t take away from you is you.  That’s where I’d like to see you create the value.

I’ve got more to say, what do you think so far?

– trr

What you deserve.

I’ve seen a bunch of photographers talking about how ability/talent/whatever ought to dictate pricing, specifically as it relates to photographic ability.  I don’t want to cause a huge argument about it here (unless you guys want to pile on) but I’m totally sick of hearing photographers complain that one guy doesn’t deserve what he is getting, or that someone who is earning nicely isn’t producing work good enough to warrant the earnings.  Seriously, you deserve what you can earn.  Anything else is sour grapes.

And I’m as judgmental and jealous as they come.  I just had to get over it because  I can only control me, and not the rest of the market.  So, if you think someone out there is charging rates that their photography doesn’t warrant you should figure out what they are doing that clients value so much beyond the photography.  Professional Photography is as much about the professionalism as it is the photography, often more so.  Also, it might be true that what photographers think makes for good photography doesn’t jive with what clients value the most in photography.

Bottom line, if you are getting it, you deserve it.  Haters are, after all, gonna hate.


– trr