What To Charge For Photo Assignments

Posted on 8/7/2017 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

A woman who earned some decent money as a photographer back in the 1990’s called me recently asking for pricing advice. She was trying to help a young neighbor (just out of high school) understand what he should charge for his photography.

This boy loves photography and wants to make it a career. His parents have bought him a lot of good equipment, but his mother is tired of spending money with no prospects of a return on that investment. She wants him to start earning some money from some of the pictures he takes.

He was recently asked to take pictures of paving stones for a paving contractor. The number of shots needed, the amount of time required to take the pictures and how they would be used are all unclear. The boy was asked how much he would charge to take the pictures. He said $100! The contractor laughed and said, “We’ll pay you more than that.”

I was asked (1) what he should be charging for such a job and, (2) what I would advise him about a photography career.

I explained that I really didn’t know enough about the job to give a price, but most professional photographers would need to earn at least $400 for an 8-hour day. Some with experience and a good portfolio can earn more than this, but, unfortunately, many photographers today are happy to work for a lot less.

In terms of a career my overall advice was for him to continue take pictures in his spare time, for fun, but not to try to turn photography into a career. At the very least, as a fallback position, get trained in something else that might give him a better chance of earning a living.

The woman said, “I can’t tell him that. I can’t destroy his dream!”

After the call her statement has haunted me. Must we encourage young people to enter careers that have little or no future?

Sure he may dream of traveling the world on assignments for National Geographic, or being the next Tim Hetherington or Annie Leibovitz but the odds are very slim and earning a decent annual income doing nothing but taking pictures is getting harder and harder.

So for those determined to pursue a career in photography here’s some things to think about.

Establishing A Price

Before quoting a price for a job, you must either know exactly what the job entails or quote an hourly rate.

Determining what the job entails includes knowing where the work will take place. Will it be at one location, or multiple locations? Will the pictures include people or just inanimate objects?
How many people? A single portrait, or multiple people involved in multiple different activities? Will you need to be concerned about clothes, makeup or other props? Will you need to examine the locations before the shoot? If so you will need to factor the time involved in performing al these tasks into the price you charge.

If you can quote an hourly rate then you won’t have to worry about many of these things, but most customers will want a fixed fee for the job, not an open ended hourly charge for however long it takes you to do the job.

When you begin to think in terms of the hours it will take you to do the job you also need to factor in transportation time to and from the location. In addition, be sure to factor in post production time you’ll need to spend on the computer back home after you’ve completed the image capture. Many photographers tell me they spend as much, or more, time in post production as they do on the actual shoot. If the client can’t see you he may think you are not doing anything to advance the course of his project.

Knowing Your Costs

Before establishing a price for your services, you must have a clear understanding of your average costs of living.  

Assume that you don’t want to live in your parent’s basement forever and mooch off or them for food. You’ll have the cost of an apartment, food, clothes, telephone, a car and entertainment to cover. You may also need healthcare and it is very possible that you’ll need some additional camera and computer equipment.

Since you’ve never had to pay for any of these things it may be hard to estimate the real costs, but in the U.S. it might be safe to assume an overall cost of living at about $30,000 a year. Assuming you work 8 hour days, there are 2,080 work hours a year (not counting weekends). If you’re working 12 to 14 hour days you need to be charging for that extra time, not just throwing it in for free.

To make the math simpler we’ll assume you want some vacation and round the work hours to 2,000 a year. If $30,000 is all you need to cover your living expenses and you can get paid for 2,000 hour of work per year then all you need to earn is $15 per hour. However, you’re self-employed and most of your jobs will last one day or less. As an individual working alone you won’t get paid for every hour in every work day. There will be a lot of down, unpaid time.

Most successful freelance photographers are lucky to get paid for 100 work days a year. Scheduling new jobs so there is no down time is impossible. A lot of unpaid effort has to be spent in marketing to get those jobs and administrative work. You’ll also be working around the schedules of a variety of clients, not scheduling work at your convenience. Some photographers consider themselves lucky to average one paid day per week. A few of the very top photographers are able to generate more than 100 paid days a year, but they usually have a support staff doing marketing, administrative and post-production work. The salaries of these employees must be paid.

Some experienced photographers with great portfolios and reputations get $1,500 to $3,000 a day, but they tend to be working fewer and fewer days a year as the competition from other talented photographers willing to do the work for a lot less increases.

If we assume 50 to 100 paid days a year then that photographer needs be billing $300 to $600 per day worked. Photographers just starting out may have to work for less to get some experience and build a portfolio, but if you’re earning less than $300 a day you’re probably not earning enough to stay in the business long term.


The big problem is that there are a huge number of want-a-be photographers out there who are willing to work for very low fees. An increasing percentage of the jobs are going to them. But, since they don’t earn enough to sustain themselves they quickly move onto something else and a new group of “dreamers” take their place.

The big question is how well these aspiring photographers have prepared themselves for that second job. Do they have some other type of training that will enable them to transition into something else.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there were 48,660 employed photographers in the the U.S. in 2016. This number does not include the self-employed. A huge percentage of images used are being produced by the self-employed photographers.

The median annual wage for these staff photographers is $34,070. The bottom 12,165 earn $23,480 or less annually.

According to Pew Research there were 6,171 photographers employed by newspapers in the U.S in 2000. That number had dropped to 3,120 in 2016, and is expected to continue to decline.

Newspapers and magazines have always been major users of picture, but the circulation and number of pages per paper has been declining which means they have less and less space for pictures. In 1990 the daily circulation of U.S. newspapers was 62,649,000. In 2016 that had dropped to 34,657,199. In 1990 U.S. newspapers had a combined total of 456,900 employees. In 2016 the number was down to 183,200 and it is still declining. (See Pew Research) More pictures are being used on the Internet by newspapers, but they are paying a lot less for them.

Here are links to a couple other stories worth checking out. Career In Photography and $15 per Hour.

If subscribers know of a young person considering a career in photography, please feel free to print out  this story and pass it along to them.

Copyright © 2017 Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Tim McGuire Posted Aug 17, 2017
    I don't leave the house for less than $350 and that is a two hour shoot max with no lighting, just me and a camera/lens. I've gobne as high as $1600 for an 8 hr day. If I got bigger commercial jobs I'd charge more but as yet I haven't.

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