Pricing Creativity in 3 Words

The Most Important Question When Negotiating Photography (or any Creative Freelance Gig).

Today an old friend asked me for advice pricing a tabletop photography job. And after she told me about the ten photos she was being asked to do, I told her, “you know, for simplicity you should probably just tell the client it will be XXX dollars an hour for your time.” Then I told her that she might want to cover expendables with an add-on like twenty bucks for Cinefoil and gaff tape. And another twenty for insurance. (Then I joked that she will need to figure out how many rolls of VPS III and how many sheets of 664 Polaroid she would need and add those in too; there was awkward silence on the phone because I’m not as funny as I think.) Oversimplified Pricing? Yes. But, she is starting out and she didn’t want my business-plan lecture, she only wanted a magic number she could tell her client when they called back.

Not a very sophisticated pricing regime, I admit. I also admit it is not the way I price 90% of my photography. I admit I would not be comfortable using this formula in my business (architectural photography) today. But, until my friend is fluent in Nikon and Profoto and has a relationship with the client; and until she figures out her overhead, expenses, profit, and taxes; this simplified approach will keep her from going broke while she establishes if she is way-too-cheap or has oodles of extra money left over. It is also easy for the client to comprehend: 10 photos, 1 hour each, equals 10 times hourly. More importantly, if the client shows up with twenty products or wants three variations of each setup (which happens a lot to beginning photographers) the hourly rate scheme has a built in safety: the longer we shoot, the more you pay.

Ad agency asked me to build a beige, foam-core wall, and buy a powerstrip and plugs. Their budget: $1,480.00

The irony is that my friend used to be one of my best clients. She was in advertising twenty years ago and now she’s beginning to do photography. I used to conceive these same numbers and ask her the same questions when she called me for a photography estimate. How many shots? Props? Models? Studio or location? What’s the usage? Then I would calculate how many rolls of film I would need, Polaroid, assistants, stylists, models, and where I would get lunch catered. Twenty years ago, in a medium-sized town in California, the Day-rate was $1500 and the day’s expenses (without models) would be about $500.00. For ten tabletop photos, the deliverable would be ten transparencies (Hasselblad, 2 ¼ square) in a clear sleeve, unretouched. The client would then need to take the “tranis” to be scanned on a drum scanner at the printer. But I digress.

You read this far for the three words, not the nostalgia.

Ad agency asked if I could digitally photograph a pin in a piece of paper with a shadow for $1,000. I said yes.

I hung up the phone with my friend after giving her an hourly rate and went about my day. I don’t know if her client called back or not. About four hours later I suddenly remembered I had forgotten the most important question in all the pricing negotiations I have EVER had. And I sent her this E-mail:

ALWAYS start the pricing conversation by asking your client:

“What’s your budget?”

If they reply, “A million dollars.” Pause, breathe and reply… “ I think I can do it for a million.”

Surprisingly, in twenty-five years of professional photography, from weddings to advertising to architecture, about half the time the client would give me a number. I then knew one of three very important things:

1. They want your photos for nuthin’ and you can politely decline or be insulted and lash out, it’s your ego and your prerogative.

2. They have a budget close to what you were thinking and you can confidently adjust to give them more or less time or more or fewer images to use up their budget (or give them a discount).

3. They divulge a number which is significantly higher than you were thinking, and you can now figure out how to add production value, rent better equipment, hire prettier models, travel to more photogenic locations, get tastier catering or keep the extra profit (or give them a discount).

The other half the time they’ll keep their budget a secret and you’ll have to guess. But it always amazed me that about twenty percent of my jobs had bigger budgets and more profit than I would have asked for just because I asked “What’s your budget?”

It really does happen. Good luck.

S. Dirk Schafer is an architectural photographer ( and teaches workshops at the Los Angeles Center of Photography. He is author of the book: Don’t Shoot | 66 Reasons NOT to Become a Professional Photographer. (