Affordable Photography and Being Too Busy

Image courtesy of Brandon Sigma at

Today’s post is a long one, but it’s an issue most photographers that are successful (or are becoming successful) struggle with at one time or another. As artists, we tend to under value our work, and the public at large will often help us do so because they like ‘deals’.  But running a photography business is also running a business – and a business needs to understand that profit is not a dirty word.

I’ve got a large and growing client base. I find myself doing 30 to 40 sessions a month. And I’m a one womanshow. I also have a large family with 4 children, a zoo of animals, and a husband that is in the army, but does the best he can to help out whenever or where ever needed.

How do you get the ability to say NO? I’m booked. I want to only book 20 sessions a month. I use to have my calendar with highlighted availability, but that kept my clients happy… now I feel like I’m too big. I don’t want to raise my prices. I just did it last month and I honestly strive to stay affordable to my 99% military clientele.

~ Military Mom and Photographer


Dear MM&P – Congratulations on having a booming business! I know a lot of photographers are reading this and saying “I wish I had her problem” and it’s true that being too busy is a great thing because the money is coming in… but it’s coming in at a cost.   Like you said, you have a family, and you’re doing this for them, to help support them. But your overbooking sessions is not only pushing you towards over burdening your workload and providing less than stellar customer care for your clients, it’s already causing you to feel the need to put your family time second.  And your own sanity down at a distant third.

In a normal situation, my suggestion would be to hire in a production assistant who you train in your selection criteria and editing, so you can focus on shooting, and lighten your post-production workload, but having seen your pricing, there’s no way paying an assistant will get you profitable and sane.   In fact, it will mean you’d need the 30-40 sessions because you’d have to pay them (and employee taxes) and still make your minimum.

So the question you need to ask yourself is if you’re making a living wage for the time spent shooting, editing, and producing all those images in the first place!

Let’s take an average, easy portrait session on location locally.  You charge $120, and they get 20 digital images edited.

Here’s how it breaks out:  Fifteen minutes at booking discussing location, outfit, and session plan. The day of:  packing the car & camera bag, fifteen minutes. Thirty minute round trip commute, 1 hour session total.  Then 15 minutes to download and back up the images once you’re done, and based on what I understand from how you work a session, the client gets 20 digital images total, edited, and that’s it.  So a super conservative edit time of three minutes per image is 1 hour.

That’s 3.5 hours, so just under $35 an hour. Not bad, right? But, wait, taxes. Government ends up with 30% in the end: you’re down to $24 an hour. Still decent, or so it seems.  But that doesn’t count insurance, wear and tear on the car and gas, or planning for the future with camera and equipment upgrades, new software, props, business cards, or even batteries for the flash.

And that’s assuming the session doesn’t have more travel time, doesn’t go longer than an hour… or that your editing  takes that little time.  I can’t think any photographer I know who actually spends 5 hours or less on a single session in the end.  And if you’re spending more than that… your current hourly rate starts dropping rapidly from there.

Oh, and what about all the general time you spend making business cards, planning marketing campaigns, and working on the stuff that keeps your business running, like filing taxes, getting your business license, and all that ‘fun’ stuff? Each client session needs to absorb a small amount of that time too.

But forget the hard numbers for a moment. What’s your family time worth to you?

You’ve said that the moment you get the kids at school and the littles are napping, you’re either shooting or editing, and then you just keep going as best as you can once everyone wakes up and is back from school… and then the moment they’re in bed you’re editing again.  In fact, I bet you edit sessions in your dreams sometimes! (I know I have!)

Going back to your goal: 20 sessions a month – this will give you your family time and sanity back.  You want to learn how to turn those excess sessions down…

I know, but the money from all those other sessions!  And those people need pictures too!

Guess what? Pictures are not a need – they’re a luxury item.  And you’re not the only provider. It’s okay to let them go to someone else.  In fact, it’s time for you to work smarter – not more sessions, but more value per session.

I’ve been to your Facebook business page. You’re good. But you’re cheap. This is a guaranteed combination for being not just busy, but super duper insane busy.  Because not only can people get a great deal, they have the ability to actually get quality photos from it!

Right now you’re giving too much, and getting too little. And I mean that both in price and time; so it’s time to adjust your offerings.

My basic suggestion is to figure out what you need to gross per month total.  Then divide that by 20.  That’s your per session minimum need.   I don’t know what that number is, as your needs aren’t my needs.  But let’s put a hypothetical number in for the sake of math: $3,000 – for living, taxes, business expenses and business investment too.  That’s $150 a session.

Great, so I’ll just increase my total session fee a bit once more to cover that and I’m set!

Not so fast… that’s a minimum, what about up-sell? What about money to put into retirement funds, college funds? You’re self employed, there’s no 401K here!

What if, instead of doing 20 images in that session, you keep the price the same and only included 5 of their choice from the gallery of 20? And then gave them the option to add on more images both individually or to upgrade to all.

I’m not asking you to be greedy, what I am asking is that you value what you do more than you do.

But I’ll lose clients!

But I thought you needed to cut your workload in half?  Isn’t it better to have half the clients and half the workload at the same price point?  And then have twice as much time to be a wife and mom and just all around sane person?

But I want to be affordable!

People can afford what they want to afford. Stay out of your client’s wallets in deciding what can and cannot be purchased. People want something, they find a way to afford it.  You’re not asking them to take out a loan, or go without… but how many of your clients can find a way to have a designer purse? Drive a luxury car? Get a Starbucks regularly and have constant manicures and pedicures?

But maybe not all your clients can do those things. And you want to find a way to keep them. Great, let’s find a way to keep them and still keep you sane.

First, semi regular Mini Session days scheduled as a one day back to back 20 minute session to update photos. (not newborn obviously, or any of the other time intensive sessions, but family and child groups).  In effect, having 3 families share that hour cost among themselves makes it affordable to all 3 family sets, but you still get paid a fair rate for your time and talent.   Schedule this promotional day before the big holiday rushes happen so you have time to get the images turned around.

Second, a referral program. Let your clients earn portrait credit through sending new clients to you. For each new full session booked (at your new prices!) they get a credit on their account. They could earn a free session with you with enough referrals!

Third, because you so strongly want to be able to offer quality portraits for those in need, let’s find some families truly in need. I’m not talking about the ones that call and ask for discounts with a sob story, or just want to barter. I’m talking about families that for them this would mean the world.  You’re connected with your local military base, is there an organization there that you can work with that can verify and connect you with those in true need? Develop a charity arm of your business plan, and use that to gift sessions outside of your 20 to those that meet your criteria.

You’ve got your heart in a great place, but a business isn’t run with just the heart. It can’t lead, but it can advise.  So take my advice here, and not only schedule your family first, but schedule yourself some breathing room.  And value what you do – photography is way more than just a good camera and luck at the level you’re working at.  Your clients that stick with you will recognize this; they value you. Those that just value cheap will drop off to someone else cheap. There’s always another sucker around the corner.

I leave you with one final thought: this is a quote from author Cynthia Occelli, via her Facebook page:


Do you have a question about the business of photography? Contact Stefanie Shutters for help! Never name and identifying information – just real advice!