How to Price Photography and Avoid Burnout

In case you missed the news, the photography business is a pretty tough one these days. To survive, our focus is directed to getting the next client in the door, getting the job shot, keeping the client happy and delivering work that lives up to our expectations. It’s not an easy gig, but who said that living out the dream is easy?

Funny thing happens though on the road to a happily-ever-after photography career. Along the way, we start working more and more for the client. Processing images, booking shoots, updating the websites, customer service and so on takes its toll. After a few years, the profession we dreamed about becomes one we feel locked into. An air of desperation sets in as we’re engaged in work that pays too well to leave but the thought of dealing with another client’s set of files is just frustrating beyond belief. Enthusiasm and the work begins to suffer.

Quietly and without notice, burnout has set in.

When we’re getting started in the business, we work long and hard for cheap. Money starts rolling in and prices go up somewhat. Everything is working – or so it seems. What happens with far too many photographers however is that the pace that’s required to stay profitable is not sustainable over the long run. In all the calculations for creating a life in photography, what it takes to succeed over the long haul is rarely considered.

But the long haul doesn’t take to long to get here. Burnout is a key limiting factor in the equation for success. What’s worse is that it’s difficult to discuss and rarely taken seriously. After all, you’re doing what you love aren’t you? You’ve made sacrifices and worked hard. How can you want to give up now? Most of us labor on in frustration and unhappy silence.

The last time I wrote about burn out, I received an outpouring of thankful emails and even a phone call from a tearful reader who was at the edge of her sanity. Because it’s a silent foe, many photographers don’t even know what they’re experiencing – much less how to combat it. So, as we’re all hopefully hard at work this summer season, I’m going to talk about what exactly causes burn out and how to avoid it.

The Who
Before I talk about the how and why, let me talk about who can suffer from burnout. Simply put, it can happen to anyone in the business – whether they’re at the top of the food chain or near the bottom. Whether you have all the talent in the world or just a little, it doesn’t matter.

One of my favorite wedding photographers, Greg Gibson, received two Pulitzer Prizes for photography during his illustrious career as a documentary photographer. After two decades of shooting, he couldn’t take it anymore and got out of the business. Complete and total burnout. He sold all of his camera gear except for a point and shoot. After a couple years, he fortunately discovered weddings and is now happy in his second photography career.

If burnout can bring down a photographer as talented and motivated as Greg Gibson, it can affect anyone.

The Cause
Burnout is the result of feeling forced to do something day after day. Working hard isn’t the issue so much as it’s the feeling that you have no choice but to do the work you’re doing. I love chocolate brownies. They’re a special treat for me. But if I were forced to eat brownies every day, I’d quickly get sick of them.

That brings up a valuable point – It doesn’t matter how much you love what you do, if you feel like you lack options, burnout will eventually follow.

In real terms, what generally causes burnout is putting yourself into a box where you have to work nonstop to keep the doors open. For example, wedding photographers often charge rates that force them to book a bunch of weddings to survive. They then must do all the production and customer service work on their own because there’s no money left over for help. On top of that, the photographer is often spending countless hours in Photoshop retouching every image so that they’ll look perfect for the client.

The problem here is that the photographer is making enough to get by, but not enough to bring in help or outsource the work. The photographer might even be sick to death of shooting weddings, but there’s nothing else he or she can do that might pay as much – hence the feeling of being trapped.

Solutions
If you feel like you’re in a rut, heading down the road to burnout or in a Get Me the Hell Out of This Mess! state, here are my suggestions for dealing with burnout.

1. Rethink your pricing. The way most photographers look at their gross profit per wedding is to subtract their hard expenses from the total amount that they charge. For example:

Wedding Package A                $2,000
less Cost of Second Shooter   – $300
less cost of prints for Album  – $100
less cost of Album                    – $600
Gross Profit                              $1,000

What this model fails to consider is the labor spent to produce the final product. When you’re working in your business doing the production work, you’re working at a cost to your business. Instead of doing the marketing and new work to help your business grow, you’re editing files. That’s a cost and so you should place an hourly value on the labor you’re doing – based upon what it would take to hire/outsource someone to do the work – and then factor that into your profit calculations.

If you outsource your work, here’s what your numbers might look like (based upon a 1,000 image take sent to shootdotedit.com for editing, image processing and album design):

Wedding Package A                     $2,000
less Cost of Second Shooter        – $300
less cost to edit 1,000 images       – $80
less cost to process 400 images  – $180
less cost to design album             – $400
less cost of prints for Album       – $100
less cost of Album                         – $600
Gross Profit                                      $340

I’ll think we’ll all agree that $340 per wedding in gross profit is not enough to be successful in this business. Yet this is the reality of what’s going on with most wedding studios. Now if the photographer in this case wants to continue to earn a profit of $1,000, he or she needs to be charging an extra $640 per wedding. In so doing, the photographer will be able to outsource the tedious parts of the business to focus on the more important and high-value parts of the business.

The other outcome of raising in this scenario is that the photographer can shoot 50% fewer weddings while maintaining the same overall level of profitability. Fewer weddings means less stress and more time to focus on building the business.

Now you’re probably thinking that you can’t afford to raise your pricing. Well, that’s probably true if you keep doing what you’re doing now. But one benefit of outsourcing the tedious work or reducing the volume of shoots is that it frees you up to do what you should be doing and what you love to do: create more beautiful images.

2. Shoot personal work. When was the last time you went out and shot a project for yourself? I’m not talking about Instagram or photos for Facebook. I’m talking about photographing a model for your portfolio or a personal project of work that’s near and dear to your heart? The ultimate irony of most photographers careers is that once they make photography their profession, they stop shooting for the sheer joy of it.

When you’re out creating work you love, you’re no longer in the self-made jail of doing work because you have to and the way the client wants it. Not only that, but by creating new and interesting work that reflects your own personal style, you’re better able to market your work and charge the rates needed to thrive.

Just today I got a call from a client who wants to hire me based upon my personal photos of partying youths. She’s not looking for traditional wedding photography nor is she looking at any other photographers. Think of your personal and portfolio work as research and development. Imagine if Apple stopped doing R&D – the company would die a slow death. The same thing is true with you and your business.

One objection I hear to the notion of outsourcing the work is that “no one else can do the same job as me.” That’s true. But no one cares either. Clients certainly don’t. Every single image does not need to be retouched to perfection. Leave that for the handful of blog and Facebook images that you work on. Indeed, by putting aside the daily production grind, you’re freed up to do the marketing work that your business requires to grow.

I love telling the story of the fellow that I met at a PPA convention. In one breath, he was telling me about how he insisted upon retouching every single image himself and that there was no way that he’d allow anyone else to edit his images. In the next breath, he told me how was sick of all the production he was doing and that he was hoping to get out of the business. It amazed me that this guy was so unwilling to give up control of his work that he’d quit the business. The sad thing is that he’s far from alone.

When it comes to avoiding burnout, there’s no easy answers. Yes, a vacation or workshop will stave it off – for awhile. But ultimately the solution comes down to creating a healthy,  sustainable business. Above all, never stop shooting what you love. Your personal work is the most important work you can do.

John

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About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Knowledge. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How to Price Photography and Avoid Burnout

  1. Kelly Lyle says:

    I was literally laying on the floor of my office feeling overwhelmed and exhausted thinking, “I can’t create another wedding album. I just can’t.” The chime for email rang and I got up, read this article, and said, “Amen, brotha!” I looked at the numbers and said, “No wonder I am spiraling into debt. I would be better off working at a fast food restaurant, or the Starbucks that sits next to my office.” Need…to…make…changes….

  2. johnmireles says:

    Hi Kelly:

    I just want to say that you’re not alone. We all hear about other people booking tons of weddings or we get disappointed when we lose a wedding to someone charging less than us. But what we don’t see is the other side of that – the part with the long hours and low pay. For all the encouragement and rah! rah! spirit on forums and at trade shows, there’s no emphasis on the numbers – on what it takes from a financial perspective to not just keep the doors open, but to thrive.

    The other day I was talking to a friend who wanted to start an Etsy business since she’d heard from friends who were making money there. I told her about the photographer who made $100,000 selling prints on Etsy and to whom everyone pointed when they were looking for an Etsy success story. I broke it down though. Figure 1/3 of that $100k went to overhead. That leaves $66,000 in profit – for three years work. That’s $22,000 per year for working God knows how many hours blogging, facebooking, printing, uploading, shipping, shooting, responding to customers etc. She would quite literally have been better off working at McDonalds.

    Anyhow, best of luck as you move forward. Awareness and acceptance are the first steps to growth!

    John

    • Dana says:

      Actually, if making $22,000 a year at Etsy pays exactly the same in take-home as working at McDonald’s, I’ll take the Etsy job.

      Only someone who’s never worked f2f customer service could ever say otherwise.

      And hey, if that’s your situation, I’m happy for you, really. But trust me. Etsy.

      • johnmireles says:

        My point isn’t that we should all run out and get jobs at McDonalds or that one is better than the other. There is however the mystic of being self-employed and living the life of a photographer. Yes, it’s great when we’re doing what we love, but as I pointed out in my article, it can also be a miserable trap when the net result is working super long hours for little pay. For that Etsy photographer making $22,000 per year, that’s probably the result of 60 hour weeks and a lot of stress from dealing with the nonstop flow of marketing, shooting, printing, customer service etc. The hourly rate is probably less than the minimum wage – but there’s no walking out the door and leaving work behind.

        My point is that we need to factor all of our costs into our work so that we can continually pursue the work we love – so that we don’t get to the point that working at McDonalds seems like the more profitable and less stressful option.

  3. Vanessa says:

    I enjoyed reading this as I can sense though I’m new to the photography bit, already becoming burnt out. I feel like I profit little (well, I know I do) and it almost seems pointless. The only thing that keeps me behind the camera is my true love for it. Before a session, I’m full of butterlies inside, but once I arrive on site, take a few images, it all comes to me. Living in a small area with several other photographers, my prices are lower just to have any clients at all. As for wedding photography, I’ve only shot one wedding thus far. Reminder, I’m new at this.

    While I think everyone else thinks weddings make you score the big bucks, I like to pause and realize it is SO much work. This was just confirmation for me. I have considered not doing weddings at all, but that eliminates my clients that would be coming to me for E-Sessions. I love shooting couples – they are my favorite! I’m just not sure I want to give them up. However, after spending HOURS on my first wedding, feeling entirely overwhelmed, and utterly disappointed and what the wedding itself gave me to work with, I questioned my ability to even be in the photography business. I’m not the photographer I once was, and I’m not yet the photographer I will be. I pray that things will come together in the future as I grow in knowledge of this wonderful form of art!

  4. Joe Maher says:

    Right on John! I was going through all this (for a second time) awhile back. It was costing me and my wife 1000s of dollars to stay open. Then I started to ask the questions that I was afraid to hear the answers to. With a little help from a few extremely talented and wise shooters (including yourself) I have begun to face the realities head on. Even though the answers are hard to take sometimes and not near what I wanted to hear my wife and I think I am on a very positive track with the studio. EVERYTHING you have presented on this post is 200% true. I would add to your post that sometimes we just cannot see the forest through the trees. That happiness is in our work when we allow ourselves to produce that kind of work and learn how, and not be afraid, to charge what we need to keep a viable business.

    Cheers to you!

    Joe

  5. Karen says:

    Hi John, love reading your your stuff.. first hand experience. Been in firtness trainer for the last 18 years, i am already thinking of doing something else. That is why i a looking something else to do beside training clients/ teaching classes.. Always having the my small camera around wherevere i go to take shoots of people party/ friends wedding(just for fun) or vacation, my hubby got me for christmas a nikon 3100 and encourage me to take up photography as a 2nd partime job. I am still in the middle of going for courses on how to used my camera well, rather then putting on auto mode all the time..:-( Some day i would like to be an assistant to a wedding photographer and learn the trade. I will be getting married in Sept at malaysia and i have already engaged my photographer. Really looking forward to see how he works and learn from him. Pls pls i would appreciate/ honoured to get any advice from you as i journey this new phase of my life. Doing 2 things that close to my heart (fitness and photography). keep up the great job John.

    Anyone who is reading this.. your advice is will be appreciated.

    karen

  6. bkukucka says:

    Thanks John. Perfectly worded and offered. Just started feeling all the things you described this year – my 12th year of doing weddings. My recipe? Take myself less seriously ( which does not mean that I don’t care anymore.) I’m also making a point of taking time to play … Drive-in movies, a glass of wine while I watch the sunset, getting together with friends instead of waiting until the season is over. I’m finding the everything still gets done, and I don’t feel that my life is passing me by while I sit in front of a computer.
    Good post. Thanks for voicing what most of us are afraid to voice!

  7. Paul Deveaux says:

    John,

    Thanks for writing this post. As an aspiring pro it is nice to finall see someone writing about the financial aspects of the photography business. So much of what is being talked about online is just about marketing and sales, as if the financial aspect would take care of itself. Great post and keepthem coming

  8. bethwade says:

    Thank you SO much for this post. I’m just starting out and was second guessing my competitive prices and building content by shooting own boys…very helpful!!

  9. Kelly Lyle says:

    The discussion John started here is a very important discussion that everybody should have. There is another side to the cost as well. Wanting to improve you do begin chasing those in the industry who have been quite successful, spending thousands of dollars on their seminars and getting pumped up to take on the world. Inching into the industry, meeting the celebrities of the photographic world, excited at the prospects of success, feeling the awesome emotions when clients love your work…it all becomes addicting, the lure, irresistible.

    You push further and further into the business, purchase top of the line equipment, file all the legal papers necessary, begin paying your taxes, hire an employee, get caught in the mire of workflow, begin wondering what you sold your life for, realize you are actually giving up your life for this “dream” and often find yourself trapped with little reward. My story. And now I look at where I am and realize I am literally trapped for the next three years if I keep the promise to myself that I won’t hire anymore employees, buy anymore equipment, or attend any more seminars. I got intoxicated with the promise the photography business offered and made unwise decisions.

    As I have been following this thread, I have read so many of you tempted by photography’s promises…take a good dose of reality and listen carefully to what John is trying to say. You have to ask yourself the question, “What is my life worth.” Count the cost.

    • johnmireles says:

      Thanks Kelly for your perspective. I completely agree that most people don’t consider the realities of going into business. People just assume that everything will be great and the freedom of working for yourself will overcome all other challenges. The flip side is that the business side of the equation is boring. People want the easy answers. They want the sexy stuff. How do I take pretty pictures and get them published?

      There’s a reason why Jasmine Star has 60,000 Facebook fans and I have 600. It’s the glamor and the feeling of empowerment that sells. (This is not an attack on Jasmine Star. She’s very good at what she does.) Business is boring… until you’re in the middle of it and you realize that it’s the backbone that supports your creativity. All I can say is please hit the Like button and share my blog and FB page to help me get the word out. Good luck Kelly with your business.

      John

      • Kelly Lyle says:

        Thanks John. (By the way, I did enjoy seeing you work on the Potovision DVD’s. Looked like great fun, the wedding shootout.) I’ve learned a great deal about business along the way. It is easy to get caught up in exactly what you are talking about…the sexy lure. But the serious nitty gritty of business does bring one to fully face the challenges one has accepted. Keep reporting what you are reporting to the masses. It is good stuff.

  10. julie says:

    Thank you! I just got rebooted with inspiration!

  11. Jennifer M. says:

    This is a fascinating article and discussion! I’m a graphic design student who is starting to freelance and I was googling how to price things when I stumbled upon your post. I’m always afraid of charging “too much” to do something I like doing, but you made me realize that charging barely enough to scrape by will only result in burnout. I already spend so much time in marketing my work without pay, let alone the time & knowledge it takes to create each item. It would make it so much sweeter if my prices took even a fraction of all that into consideration. I’m not sure why charging for what you love doing is so difficult emotionally, but it is.

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