Why you must sell digital files, and how to price them properly

As a photographer, you’re probably asked about digital files often. You don’t want to offer digital files, but sometimes you feel like you need to. Do you sometimes make exceptions? Do you have a set policy for digital files? Do you have a good answer to the “Do I get the digital files?” question? I believe that your answer must be "Yes".

Has the digital file replaced the print?

Will all of our photos live and die on a hard drive? Will we have nothing but iPads and iPhones to enjoy our photos on with our children, and our children’s children?

… Not if we have anything to do with it.

As a photographer, you’re probably asked about digital files often. But, do you have a good answer?

Many photographers are in an awkward transitional phase, where they don’t want to offer digital files, but sometimes they feel like they need to. Do you sometimes make exceptions? Do you have a set policy for digital files? Do you have a good answer to the “Do you offer digital files?” question?

Well, that’s what I’ll be showing you here in this article.

Why you must offer digital files

Here’s the quick answer to “Do you offer digital files” question – “Yes”. I believe that saying “No” is not even an option.

Yes, you heard me right. I said that you must say “Yes” to digital files.

Listen, I am a huge proponent for the printed product. It’s engrained both in my personal life and in the very culture of my own photography business. Personally speaking, my wife and I have boxes and boxes of 4×6 prints; we print everything. Sometimes to a fault! We have two beautiful books from our daughter Ava’s newborn session that we look back at often. We have wedding photographs all around our house and we look through our album every year on our anniversary.

Professionally speaking, prints, books and albums are a part of every conversation with every client, without question. And most of our clients leave their experience with our studio with a beautiful finished heirloom.

But … I still subscribe to what I believe is the #1 rule of business: never say “No” to a client.

There are too many photographers who have had to hang up their cameras because they were unwilling to adapt to change and evolve with our industry. Don’t be like them. Don’t be proud. Don’t be stubborn.

The only thing that is constant is change (Heraclitus), and if you refuse to move forward with the times, you’ll find yourself stale, stagnant and, frankly, out-of-business.

Always remember that you are in the service business, and it’s your job to give your clients what they want. That being said, it’s also your job to educate your clients in what’s available, and build their want for a printed product to be greater than that for a digital product.

Why prints should matter to you

In case you need a reminder, or a “push” as to the importance of prints versus digital, here’s a quick summary of an article I wrote for Digital-Photography-School.com as to why prints should matter to you:

  1. A print will always be there.
  2. A print doesn’t need to be enjoyed on a screen.
  3. A print lasts a lifetime, and often even longer.
  4. Prints separate you as a “great” photographer.
  5. Offering printed products increases your perceived value.
  6. When you offer printed products, you show that you care about the quality of your work.

In summary, prints offer 2 main benefits, one for the consumer and one for you, the professional.

For the consumer, a print is the most meaningful way to enjoy photography. As a professional, a print is the vehicle in which you can communicate value and offer the greatest customer experience.

As much as I love prints for all the reasons above, I still have no problem in offering digital files, because I am a service provider and want to give my clients what they want. I’d encourage you to consider the same.

Assigning a value to your digital files

It bears repeating: you are in the service industry, which means it’s your job to say “yes” to your clients and give them what they want. While you must still make it your mission to promote and educate about the value of the printed product (and if you do it correctly, you’ll have them asking for prints instead), you still have to have an answer to the question “Do you offer digital files”, and that answer should be “Yes”.

But … here’s the catch. If you’re going to give digital files, then you must sell them.

You must handle digital files with respect and care. You must give them value. You must not treat them as a throw-away product. Most importantly, you must position your digital files so that they are less-than-desirable in relation to their alternative, the printed product. If you make digital files so easily attainable and more affordable than the alternative, then you’ll have a hard time selling anything but digital files.

By positioning them as more expensive than your printed products, you’re making it easier for your clients to purchase prints, books and albums instead.

How you should price your digital files

I’m normally an advocate for the cost-of-goods pricing model, and I’ve taught this method and written about it more times than I care to count. I love the mechanics of pricing (I know, I’m a weirdo), and since so many photographers struggle with it, it really allows me to help photographers reach break-throughs and structure their business for sustainability.

The cost-of-goods model is simple: you add up the inputs (labour + material) and then multiply by your mark-up factor to get the price you should be charging. This is the only pricing model that is repeatable, consistent and reliable.

But this model doesn’t work with digital files though. Why? Let me show you.

Calculating the cost for a digital file

Let’s say that for a single digital file, your labour input (time spent) is:

  • 5 minutes retouching the image
  • 1 minute uploading the file for your client to download
  • 1 minute to email your client the link to download

And your material cost for a single digital file is nothing.

So your total cost for this digital file is 7 minutes of labour, which if you’re paying yourself $60,000/year, means that the cost is $3.50. Multiplying this cost by a mark-up factor of 2.85 gives you a price of $9.98.

Based on the cost-of-goods model, you should be charging $10 for a digital file.

Calculating the cost for an 8×10 print

But let’s quickly consider the alternative – an 8×10 print of that same image. The labour input is:

  • 5 minutes to retouch the image
  • 1 minute to order the image from your lab
  • 1 minute to unpack the print from your lab
  • 2 minutes to package the print
  • 5 minutes to meet with your client when they pick it up

And your material cost is:

  • $2.50 for the print from your lab
  • $5.00 for shipping from your lab
  • $3.75 for the presentation and packaging

Therefore, based on the numbers above, with the same $60,000/year salary, your cost-of-goods is $7.00 in labor and $11.25 in material. Added together and multiplied by the same mark-up factor of 2.85 gives you a price of $52.

Based on the cost-of-goods model, you should be charging $52 for an 8×10 print.

Do you think this makes sense … charging $10 for the digital file, and $50 for the print? I don’t think so.

Obviously your client will choose the digital file in this case, because you’ve made the digital option more attractive. And so this is why the cost-of-goods model doesn’t work for digital files. You need to find another way to price them so that you are making the printed option look more attractive instead.

I still wouldn’t recommend guess-pricing though, which is when you just pick a number out of thin air. I still believe there should be a calculated, repeatable, systematic approach to pricing your digital files.

And there is …

The “opportunity cost” pricing model

The method I recommend is the “opportunity cost” pricing model. In it’s simplest form, opportunity cost is defined as “what you have to give up”, which for pricing your products means you must consider what income you’d be missing out on by selling a particular product.

If you sell the digital file, there’s a slim chance that you’ll be selling a print of that same file, right? So, therefore by selling the digital file, you’re missing out on the sale of that print. The opportunity cost of the digital file is the income you’d not be making in selling the print.

More specifically, let’s say that if you didn’t sell the digital file, you’d be selling at least an 8×10 print of that image. Therefore the opportunity cost for the digital file is the price of the 8×10 print – $50 from the example above. In this case, I’m suggesting that you price your digital file to be greater than $50, perhaps something more like $65 or $70.

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Let’s look at another example – selling all the digital files from a session. What’s the opportunity cost? If you didn’t sell all the digital files from a session, what would you be selling instead? Perhaps a wall portrait, a bunch of smaller prints and a portrait book? Add that up … what is your average sale? Let’s say your average sale is around $1200. Therefore, your opportunity cost for the whole set of digital files from a session is $1200, and so I’d suggest that you price your set of digital files from a session around $1500 in this example.

When you price your digital files this way, you are still giving yourself a way to say “Yes” to the question “Do I get digital files”, but you also make your printed products much more attractive. Combined with your enthusiasm and ongoing education about the importance of the printed product, you should have no client that wants only the digital files.

55 Comments

  • Kelly says:

    great article, I am SO excited for your upcoming class at WPPI!

  • What a great article 🙂

  • susan says:

    Thank you so much! Your articles are so helpful for me… just starting out in this business.

  • Rebecca says:

    A lot of my clients ask for justifications as to my costs. Would you recommend explaining to them in plain honesty that you’d have to make up that missed margin from the print sale, or is there a better, more tactful way to approach answering that question without having to justify your margins?

  • Deb says:

    Great article. Now to be fearless and apply these principles…

  • Jason Hudson says:

    Gotta say. I agree with this 100%. I know many photographers look down on shoot and burn but if that’s what the customer wants, and the price is enough to justify selling a file, then I have no problem with this.

    • Bryan Caporicci says:

      Exactly Jason! I personally don’t advocate for shoot-and-burn, but if it’s for the price that I have set, then at least it’s profitable.

  • Dan Scott says:

    Great article Bryan, however there is a real cost associated with digital files in the form of computer hardware, storage, internet access, and electricity. As a photographer for 20+ years I have a stack of hard drives that no longer function. Replacing hard drives and related hardware is costly and should be worked into the COG. I think a lot of people over look that hidden cost. I gave up that model shortly after having one too many clients get angry when I told them they couldn’t have the digital files. After all you must adapt to the marketplace to continue to be competitive.

    My solution for clients now is a minimum purchase, (average sale + 30%) then a disk with the images is sold at additional cost, which I make clear to them at my planning session. With the digital file I also include a color corrected proof print to ensure the integrity of my work (that cost is worked into the price for the digital file). You would be surprised how delighted my customers are when the disk comes with a stack of 4x6s.

  • Ken Daniels says:

    Interesting article by and for photographers. Might I add my two cents from a consumer’s perspective?

    More and more of us are interested only in the digital option, not in prints. As you rightly observed, it’s problematic to say No to our requests, and I commend you for recognizing this.

    Photography is one of many industries affected by the rise of digital media, including books, movies, music. All these industries have, understandably, sought to maintain profitability in the face of this shift, some by putting on the brakes and others by embracing and adapting to the digital world.

    From this customer’s perspective, I don’t want prints. Period. I know that sounds like heresy to professional photographers, but I am by no means not alone.

    I’m not interested in paying $5.00 for the shipping cost of an 8×10 print, let alone the 2.85 markup factor on the shipping. Just not interested.

    I understand you have a living to make, and I want to pay you for the services that only you can provide, namely your photo shooting. I’m not interested in your printing, just your photo shooting.

    I understand your point about opportunity cost, but that’s only a theoretical opportunity that lives increasingly only in the past.

    What matters today is the market. If photographer A lives is the print world (and only marginally in the digital world, charging $1500 for a session of digital files), and photographer B embraces the digital world, exclusively selling digital files for an average of $500 a session, the millennials will soon flock to photographer B, and photographer A will lose business over time.

    Let’s say you’re a single-photographer shop, charging $500 on average (more for larger groups, less for smaller groups or individuals), with an average of 8 sessions per day. That’s makes for gross receipts of $4000 per day, or $1 million a year at 250 days/year.

    You could pull this off with a single digital camera, a single computer (with perhaps external hard drive space), a photographer, a single assistant, and a small office. With all those expenses together, you would still be pulling in a handsome profit.

    Bottom line: where does all that $1500 go that you’re recommending for digital copies? Are you saying you couldn’t make a decent living off $500 per photo shoot? Am I missing something? I recognize that if you’re a larger shop, your expenses will be higher (more employees, more equipment, etc.), but you’ll also be earning at least proportionately more.

    If you charge $1500 per photo shoot, and other professional photographers can do just fine at $500 per photo shoot without appealing to the opportunity costs of a bygone world (which customers increasingly care little about), you will eventually find your model marginalized.

    I found this site when trying to google for photographers who specialize in providing digital files. I know and understand and appreciate that I should be charged more for a digital file than for a print copy because I’m free to reproduce it. I am willing to pay a premium. But what you’re suggesting is frankly out of reach for most of us commoners. I want to pay you primarily for your time and expertise, not for your prints. Ours is becoming more of a service society in which we pay professionals for their time, not their products. Photography would do well to adapt to that model.

    When the combine was invented, we didn’t have farmers saying, I’ll continue reaping my crops by hand and charge according to the old model, while offering to provide crops harvested by a combine at the same or higher price as if I was reaping them by hand. No, it became possible to deliver more for less, and the price had to be lowered to reflect that greater productivity afforded by technology.

    • Callum says:

      I have to agree with Ken here, I am a photographer who sells Digital primarily, with prints from a local lab for those who request.

      I charge $300 for the photoshoot, and offer my client up to 10 photos, with the option to buy more digital photos at $5.50 a photo, and prints at Cost of Goods (no labour) + 15%.

      I do fairly well, and most people normally get there “top shot” in a print format, and then 10 others in digital. Even if they only grab the 10 digital, I work (on average) 25 mins for the shoot (from greet to wrap up), 45 mins post-editting, lots of times same day meetup, if not next day for another 10min (average) meet, at which time they decide what pictures they’d like, if they want prints, etc.

      Total working time is (average) 80 mins, my cost of goods for digital is 1 16gb memory stick + labour time, for a profit of roughly $250.

      Now if I am doing a modelling shoot, my price bumps up to $600, but my shoot normally goes 2-4 hours, so the added money is to compensate the time, as well as the added editting time I put in, but I also include up to 25 shots, and $2.5 per shot after. I advertise it as “packages” and sell prints with it normally for a few bucks extra.

      I don’t offer as many shots as most photographers, but I also have a lower cost than most, so a lot of the time people are still pretty happy, and if they aren’t I normally give them a discounted price on the extra photos if they are really upset.

      • brian says:

        What you consider quite well is the same amount kids make at MacDonalds. Unless your are packed monday – sunday all year round. I doubt thats the case!

        • Um, $250 earned in say an eight hour paid shift, is $31.25 / hour. That is how much I make at my carreer job at over twelves years in. And NO fast food restaurant is paying Anyone that. Not even the manger.

          Lies or exaggerations never helps an argument.

          • Brad Shutack says:

            Edward, if you are doing one of these shoots 5 days a week, then I would agree with you. But if you only do 2 shoots a week, you’re only making $25k/year. As a second job that you do after your career job, it’s a great extra income, but you’d have a difficult time living on that if this is your sole job that you rely on to make a living.

            As for Ken’s comment: I can understand this perspective and I appreciate the alternate POV. My objection, though, would be that you are purchasing a print product. In this case, it is a printed photograph and many times is printed on a surface that the artist feels best shows off the image. Whether you are willing to buy this product is up to you, and the digital, in turn, is an alternate option made available.

            I would compare this situation to watching films in 35mm in a theater vs a Digital Reproduction at home on your television. As good as Digital has become, the look of film is simply unmatched, in my opinion, and although Millennials may be all about Netflix, many people are still willing to pay for the theatrical experience to view a film in a theater the way that the artists who were involved in the production have intended it to be viewed.

    • Ryan says:

      I have been toying around with all these pricing scenarios. I find as well that most people around us are charging a higher yet modest price for digital only but offering these other products as well. Then we offer digital alacarte at a higher price but way lower as a bundle. Have a minimum order amount close to the digital price. Then people can get prints or all items however they have to spend a certain amount and have an option.

      So for instance 500.00-600 for all digital images that include all images. The part that is driving up what we need to charge in some peoples scenarios are the markup factor which like mentioned includes all the cost associated with getting a image ready for print, uploading it, packaging it and shipping it. Which is the cost of good sold.

      I guess if you do digital only technically you don’t really have a cost of goods sold at all like the article states. I guess i look at the time portion of the equation as part of why my salary is comprised of which is part of my fixed expenses. To make up more salary we would need to do more weddings which the general public has a higher perceived value on and is willing to pay more for. Or corporate head shots and events which are on a separate price scale.

      We are just finding it harder and harder even if you offer a better product general consumers are less and less willing to pay those types of prices when everything else around them is tailored at sales and deals and lower prices. To reach the people that will pay the 1200.00 price you end up having to market way more which cost more $$$ so it starts to lessen the profit since your fixed expenses go way up.

      Bottom line here is like others have mentioned it will get harder and harder to sell at a higher price point for something that people dont necessarily want. Maybe i have this all wrong but its just what i’m seeing doesn’t mean its the same for everyone.

  • RSanz says:

    Yea…I too have to agree w/Ken and Callum. Callum: you get my business; all you others, sorry…you can try sucker punching, but if push comes shove I’ll just buy a high res camera and have my cousin/brother/sister/aunt/uncle/grandma point and shoot for us. How much did you say per digital copy??!?! Don’t be ridiculous!

    • brian says:

      Go buy a camera and try that. Real photographers spend years and thousands on training to take great images. The reality is photography studios are not packed with work all year. That is why you see such a high failure rate. The camera has very little to do with photography. Plus professionals shoot Raw! Do you know how a camera works? The camera tries to make everything 18 percent grey. When the wedding dress comes out grey you will wish you hired a professional. After over a decade in I still struggle, some people have to learn the hard way!

  • Thomas says:

    Great Info… I look forward to future informative and “changing” articles.

  • RB says:

    There is huge scope for abuse once someone has a high-res digital copy. Images can be put online in various ways, without any watermark, those then stolen and used by opportunists, even print magazines. Of course a print can be scanned but it practice that doesn’t seem to happen much. Pursuing theft is time consuming and should be factored into the cost.

  • This is such a difficult topic for our studio. Five years ago, we started out offering digital image files on disk for $150-$250 per session. As a new photographer building a business, we thought this was what we needed to do to because of our limited experience and low perceived value. As the first couple of years went by, we realized we were working really hard to provide 25 images on disk for a meager $150 when each of those images takes 15 minutes to edit start to finish. We knew that our business wasn’t sustainable at that rate. So, we made a huge change and moved to offer product only: albums, prints and wall art.

    We had several prospective clients call and gave us the “what for” about our pricing structure and couldn’t believe we didn’t offer the files. We lost business. We were telling them “No”. We picked up a couple of great clients who spent $2000 on product, but we just couldn’t get enough people in the door to book us at that rate. We saw our prospective clients dwindle. We ticked off some existing clients, too, who didn’t want to pay the premium price. We lost business we thought we had already won. It was frustrating.

    After a year of struggling like this, we decided to listen to our clients and start offering the digital files again. But we offered them only for paid packages where the client spends $1000+. We didn’t notice much of a positive response in terms of more clients by doing this. In fact, new prospects continued to dwindle. They didn’t want to spend $1000 for photos! Clients would email asking if we offered digital files and we would do our best to explain why prints are so important and why digital files cost more, but this was hugely unpopular.

    So we decided to make the move to all-inclusive sessions: the fee includes the session, the editing and the digital files. It’s easy to communicate and understand, we thought, and people get what they want. Then this spring we started getting more business and, again, we felt like we were working very hard for very little profit (we were offering all digital files on disk for $250-$400). We also didn’t like that people were only getting files – after all, we want them to enjoy their photos on the walls, in their offices, etc. Those who did use their digital files to order prints got them made at Walmart, which just doesn’t sit well with us!

    SO, we raised our prices as we decided to offer BOTH prints and digital files in a Keepsake Collection box. This way, our clients have a professional hard copy of their selected images, they get to see how nice professional prints look vs. WalMart/Walgreens/Costco and we felt good knowing they were able to get their files AND prints.

    The response has been good, but it isn’t as profitable as we want it to be. Our all-inclusive portrait sessions range from $400-$600 and include (15) high-resolution digital images, (15) copies in web resolution and (15) 5×7 prints. We thought that the perceived value of getting the prints and images would be so great that people would be flocking to us (after all, some photographers in our area charge $40 for a 5×7 print). That remains to be seen. We’d like that to be more like $750-$1000 per client, but I guess we’ll just have to slowly adjust our prices each year to meet the demand and we’ll get there one day.

    We think we offer quality work that challenges many of the better photographers in our area, but because we have little exposure and marketing has been hit-and-miss, we just don’t have the leads we need to ratchet this up to the level we want. I can’t say that what we’re doing is the right way to do things, but we think it’s a step in the right direction. We just need to get paid what we think we’re worth.

    For any given session, we shoot to provide double the number of images to proof, from which clients make their (15) selections. We offer additional digital files (since we’ve already taken them, processed and edited them – why not?) for purchase if they want. A la carte, they’re $25 each or (5) for $100. We’ve had one client actually buy more digital image files. The rest are content with (15). Sometimes I wonder if this hurts our business – as if clients may be getting irked that they have to leave the other images “on the table” – yet they don’t seem interested in buying more. I don’t know. Perhaps we’re marketing to the entirely wrong clientele, but we have yet to find the “right” clientele who will pay what we believe we’re worth.

    • brian says:

      Marketing is not your problem. Your clients are the problem. Your clients need to value photography! They should also be at a higher income level. Those guys that sell $40 5×7 prints sell them because their clients value them! I made this mistake for years. Being a better photographer does not drive customers to your business. You would think that would be the difference maker but the reality is its not. Photographers tend set prices on what they can afford. You are not your client. 5 big sales should equal 20 small sales. There will always be low end clients who will complain on price. Higher end clients spend money on what the believe to be quality. They also want prints! They don’t have time to get things printed that’s your job to give them quality. You have to go out and get these clients don’t expect them to come to you! Focus on the perceived value on your brand. Leave all those people wanting cheap files to cheap photographers. Are you the walmart studio or the Prada studio. People like leaving a store with tangible items. The ones who want cheap digital are on a budget and their not your client! Telling your client no is a bad thing everything should have a price!

  • Chanan says:

    This is much less complex than its made to be. In the digital age not giving the customer the digital files is more than stupid, it’s defying gravity. It reminds me of the WPPI 15 years ago when about half of the photographer swore ” I will never use a digital camera” and here came a laundry list of explanations. Now or soon almost all photographers will be selling their time (and talent etc.) all the rest will be add-on options. And the pricing is pretty simple: 1. How long will this task take you ? all of it, from pre-wedding meeting all the way to image editing and retouching. 2. How much do you feel you need to get paid from your time? if the market is not willing to give you this sum you should either find a different job, change your expectations or improve your skills or marketing so the market will be willing to give you that sum. and 3. What are your other related expenses? from travel to computer, internet and insurance. some are per wedding (travel) and some have to be calculated annually and divided between the number of jobs you have. Call it contribution to general expenses. If a couple will buy from you an album or not doesn’t need to matter, and should not change the basic concept and pricing, it’s just one more item that will take x time and per your talent etc. should be priced in the same manner, i.e. time (how long will this project take) and expenses (how much will you pay for the album). If the bride feels your time is too expensive for her she will go online and select to do it her self in one of the few (and coming) direct to bride profesional albums solutions like http://www.bridebox.com or Artisan state. You cannot fight it, so adjust and thrive!

    • brian says:

      At the end of he day people are paying you for you time and talent. WPPI has high end wedding photographers that charge 15000. If a client wants your work they will pay for it. You dont see women saying why buy Prada when walmart is cheaper do you? It comes down to value.

      • JJ says:

        Yes!!! Why don’t more photographers understand this? It seems like 98% of photographers are still undercharging for their services/overhead and then overcharging for products to make up for it. If you are providing a service, then provide that service for the appropriate price – then you won’t have to overcharge for products.

        • retroformat says:

          I agree with JJ, first get your time paid for. But as for pricing “product,” the question remains: what constitutes “overcharging” for hi-res or even RAW files, if the client wants them? The client will think these electrons are _physically_ not worth much, but as I suggested in my reply to Incagraphy (below), digital files have a lot of value… long term, they can be of use to the client in many more ways than a print. So, a hi-res digital file should be seen as worth more than a print, any size print, really! But the client will call that overcharging.

  • Chanan, your comment is much more complete. I found the original article to be outrageously simplistic. The value of ANY photo has to include factors like…. if I want to take the same photo, what do I have to spend? Airfare, land transportation, camping gear, a wet suit and $25K worth of photography equimpent and about 188 hours in the bush either sleeping or laying in a river edge to catch a bunch of mindblowing photos of grizzly bears feeding on a salmon run. A photo that will help every outfitter in the area make an additional 30% of revenue because it gets plastered on a national wildlife magazine, and sell an additonal 2% magazines.
    That’s a little different than running next door and catching an absolutely adorable shot of your neighbours daughter giggling as she comes towards you in a swing. Yeah, good luck with that. Someone will like it. May even want to buy it. But they will ask the same ‘what if I want to take the same photo’ question.

  • Deborah says:

    The article and the responses have been very helpful – thank you. My question is would it be a good idea to put the pictures on a flash drive to give to the customer?

    • Hello Deborah, we do have several packages where we deliver a flash drive. It makes sense in a number of instances if your studio has clientele who benefit from this kind of service. For us, the leading reason for flash drives is time and $. Some of our budget clients would take too long in selecting the perfect image. Thumb drive and done. The client’s who benefit most are on limited funds and it helps us save about 1/2 hour per client by not going through images for which these client’s cannot really afford value added service. Win win. If you’ve the time for these clients, the thumb drive is an option. For select clients… all the images on a thumb drive lend confusion to the situation… too many choices too far afield. These value driven clients are afforded the service of culling and they appreciate the expertise and help.

  • A question for you all… If there was a way to make a commission on the prints your clients order from the digital files you sell them, would you be interested?

  • Angel says:

    I’m not sure what industry you’re in Ken Daniels, but I will point out a few flaws in your view of the pro photography industry. First, if I shoot 8 sessions per day (Approx 1 hour each), when do I have time to market my solo business, answer inquiries, clean my studio and gear, retouch my images, or even eat lunch? You’re delusional if you think a professional image has less value because digital technology has become the mainstream way in which we consume most of our media. You are what we refer to as a “price shopper”, which categorizes you as a consumer who does not value photography as art, but rather as a basic service…much like having your automobile tuned up. Second, no two photographers are the same in regards to technical expertise, style or years of experience in the business, so if you believe photographer A will charge the same as photographer B, even when offering identical packages, then you must believe a Ford Fiesta has the same sticker price as a Porsche.

    Understand that none of us seeks to hold fast to a dying market of print loving clients if the larger market is strictly digital, however, you are the voice of a very specific corner of the market sir, and quite honestly, print sales have never been high amongst the male American sector. Perhaps if I shot strictly business head shots, or NASCAR events…I could relate to your point. The fact is, women like and buy prints as well as albums. They ALSO, like accompanying digitals to share on social media and with friends/family. Most of us are working towards finding the balance between the two media genres while covering our COB and seeing annual growth. There is a “big box store” option out there for consumers like yourself, and you’ll find them in the mall. The photographers whom you trust to take your important $500 all inclusive photos has been trained in 3 weeks, and has no idea what the definition of RAW file or Color Space is. Many of the sole proprietor photographers you speak of are operating boutique businesses, where they coordinate with pro makeup artists, hair stylists, clothing stylists etc. to give the client an experience of a lifetime…not just a digital file they “kind of” like. Newborn photographers spend 3-5 hours on a session, giving babies and new mothers feeding breaks etc. But hey…if we can’t crank me out like cattle to churn the profit you have done the math on…we must be bad at our jobs or probably suck at business in general right?

    I say all of that to point out the ridiculously skewed view many consumers have about our profession. We aren’t Walmart or McDonalds…and our price structures can’t compete with high volume, low end business strategies. Are there plenty of photographers out there who charge way too much for their mediocre work? Absolutely, and you should be shopping for good quality, not their price. Think of it this way, when you download an album from iTunes, the cost is reflective of the GLOBAL sales projections…not the local/regional sales one independent photographer will make from your private prints. So…digital downloads should definitely be offered as well as prints, but they should definitely cost more since grandma will print 10 4×6, 3 8×10 etc. for all her friends and family. I’m pretty sure you can’t share your iTunes music library with your out of town relatives like you want us photographers to allow for free.

  • incagraphy says:

    Thanks for the informative article.
    Two questions:
    1– already asked by someone else, but the answer wasn’t really to the point. How can we answer to the question to thy the digital file is more expensive than prints when in the client’s view they are not getting something that has to go through printing and all?
    2– do you have another article explaining about the mark-up value of 2.85?

    • no-one says:

      The answer to the first question is that, by selling them the digital image, you are allowing them to reproduce the image as often as they like – they effectively are sharing the copyright.

      The second question i can not answer 😉

  • incagraphy says:

    Thanks for the informative article.
    Two questions:
    1– already asked by someone else, but the answer wasn’t really to the point. How can we answer to the question to thy the digital file is more expensive than prints when in the client’s view they are not getting something that has to go through printing and all?
    2– do you have another article explaining about the mark-up value of 2.85?

    • retroformat says:

      1- your clients receive more value, when they receive digital files. That’s why digital files should cost more. The increased value they receive is comprised of: convenience in storage (less space needed), image editable by client, image available to digital and social media, and image available for unlimited reprinting at the customer’s price/quality preference (i.e. prints from walmart or your studio). You could even stretch to claim that digital media last forever (as long as they are maintained regularly), and that digital media are less of a burden to the environment (for your green clients!). These are not values that can be obtained from traditional prints.

  • AMEN to that, Angel!!

    Ken needs to find the photographer that suits HIS budget, but that doesn’t mean he’s the majority of the market.

    You get what you pay for. If you want to consume junk food go to Burger King, if you want healthy, fresh, organic, non-GMO foods prepared by an experienced chef who works as an artisan then you will pay a higher price for higher quality food, that’s better for you and took more effort to make. But to say the craftsman chef now has to dummy-down his recipes and offer low quality, sub par food just to match his fast food competitors is ridiculous! Fast food chains and the craftsman chef have two different types of customers. These customers may cross over from time to time, but they don’t stay.

    Photographers! Know who your customers are, how to reach them, and market to them! Offer specials and sales to test the market, but If you sell yourself too cheap you won’t be viewed by the high-quality client as being quality yourself. They will think your an imposter. Like a Coach purse you find online. Just a little to cheap to be REAL.

    In our case, a high-quality customer won’t take a chance on spending the time and effort on a photographer he/she doesn’t think can produce the quality (and hand-holding) they are use to, then they wont even give you a chance, because THEIR time is money TOO!

    Produce quality, keep educated, adjust to the market but get paid accordingly.

    Good luck out there!

    Karlana Pedersen Visual Art & Photography
    Minneapolis | Chicago
    612-269-8761

    http://www.karlanapedersen.com
    http://www.KPphotograph.com

  • Jacinda says:

    I am thinking about starting a photography business. Any useful links or advice you can give? I live in NZ

  • Nic says:

    Thank you, Angel. Clearly, Ken has not calculated actual editing time, consultation and planning time, digital media upkeep and expansion costs, and as you noted, that we and are our work are not commodities, unless we position them that way. What he is saying, is jump on the bandwagon of unprofitable shoot and burn photographers in order to get a minimal return. Eight clients per day? When would you even have time to edit in between clients?

    • retroformat says:

      “unprofitable shoot and burn” that is a relative statement. Lots of business activity becomes unprofitable, when the market changes. Are you still developing film? Is that profitable? It depends… It’s no secret that the photography market has changed in a huge way since digital media have matured in the past twenty years.

      “Shoot and burn” can be profitable, if done right. “Shoot film, and develop film, and print proof sheets, and sell prints” can also be profitable, but that’s a completely different (and vastly smaller, now) market. The business is dynamic, not static. It’s not the middle ages anymore.

      Soon enough, the client with budget limitations will be shooting their wedding with robotic drones. I’m not saying that to argue one way or the other… just saying it as a matter of fact. If the business and technology environment changes, then you need to adapt… or die.

  • JJ says:

    Ken Daniels and Chanan are primarily correct here – though I wouldn’t bring actual prices into this, since that will be entirely dependent on the photographer and their experience/prowess. There are two strategies that photographers can use in the digital age: charge for your services or charge for the results. If you charge for your services, then you charge what you are worth (which could be a lot for an excellent photographer). You are charing for your time AND overhead (all costs for your business including raw materials, depreciation on your studio, yada, yada, yada) as Chanan suggests. In this model the cost for producing prints after the shoot would be higher than producing digital products. On the other hand, if you are charging for results, you are severely undercharging for your time and overhead and hoping to make up for it though the cost of the products. The second model will likely attract a different clientele – a clientele that doesn’t value your time, but only values results. In fact, in this model, YOU are not properly valuing your time. The 2.85 markup also sounds like some workaround to make up for the fact that you are not properly charging for your time and overhead. Work in all the costs, including what you are worth, and then charge appropriately. Let the hacks give away their services for free and then overcharge for the products – their clients will likely be less satisfied and spend less money.

    Will it be more difficult to break into this business and make a good living at it? Yes it will, but what did you expect when it became possible for non-professional photographers to take thousands and thousands of pictures in the hopes of getting a few good ones.

    • JJ says:

      When I say to charge for your time, of course I mean ALL of your time – including the time spent working with clients before the shoot and editing pictures after the shoot. But if you subscribe to the service model, you should give the client all of the products that are the result of that service. Or keep your old product-based model – but that will be likely be less sustainable and less profitable in the modern age.

  • incagraphy says:

    can somebody please explain what the 2.85 markup is based on and how it’s calculated?

  • d722 says:

    Honestly the whole photography game is a ripoff. Most people that hire a photographer don’t know they will not own the pictures in the end. To pay someone thousands of dollars then turn around and have to pay for the pictures is absolute bull. As technology gets better more and more people will avoid hiring photographers and just have their cousin with the nikon take pictures and you guys can go back to bragging about the pic of the sunset you took to your nerd friends on Flickr. You can say it was in the contract but that doesn’t make it right hope you sleep well at night.

  • Chelsea says:

    Love the article. I am totally missing ONE thing here. What is the equation you are using to get this number? “So your total cost for this digital file is 7 minutes of labour, which if you’re paying yourself $60,000/year, means that the cost is $3.50.” Do have an assume amount of minutes you spend working that you are not stating here?

  • Charlyn Woolley says:

    So I’m a client. I have a website and I want custom digital files, what should I expect a photographer to charge? If I have 300 products and he charges me $75 a pop, I’ve just paid his salary for 6 months. Yeah… no. But if he charges me for his time (the shoot) and labor, PLUS say $10/digital file, he’s staying competitive with the stock image market (his competition) There will be clients (I am one) who only NEED digital files, because we work in a digital marketplace.

  • Gavin says:

    A very interesting article. A question, I have had my first enquiry from someone wanting to buy a file from me, (super excited!) but why do you say slim chances you would sell a print of the same file in the future? Doesn’t that depend if you sell the rights to the file? Sorry if its a dumb question, I just want to get things right in my head as its something I want to make sure I do correctly for me and for any future clients. Many thanks!

    • retroformat says:

      I believe the O.P. is talking about a very specific type of photography: portraiture and event photography, where the clients will want digital files, so that they can make their own prints. In that situation, you are unlikely to be able to make print sales to that client in future – they will make their own prints, and you’ve given/sold them the files to be able do it. Furthermore, such imagery will unlikely be released to you for commercial use, so you’ll not be able to sell prints of those images to anyone else either. Thus, if you will offer digital file sales in that kind of situation, you must charge a premium (if you want to make money); i.e. you might charge about as much for the digital files, as you would for printing them.

      From your question, Gavin, it sounds like you might have a different situation. Maybe you have an image that has been released to you for any use (i.e. you have a signed model or property release). In that case you can sell prints of the image to anyone, and indeed the chances are much better that you might have print sales in future, e.g. via a gallery show or online sales, to numerous buyers. So in this situation, you might feel less uptight about selling the digital file to someone (they could use as a PC wallpaper for example), because you have so many other potential buyers theoretically available to purchase prints in future. With such an image you also have the possibility of a commercial sale, where you sell just specific rights (say, for use as a book cover) to a person or publisher.

      Those can be very lucrative sales, but honestly the heyday of such “stock photography” was a decade or more ago, as was the heyday of making prints for event/portraiture clients. … or even product illustration photography… There are too many good images in the market now, and too few buyers, to consider stock photography a very attractive employment/income option for 99.9% of photographers.

      The shining star of the professional photographer is in decline, simply because technology has made the making of good images relatively easy. I’m not saying everyone or anyone can make good images, given this technology, but I am saying that many, many more people can than used to be the case. The barriers to entry into the photographic arts are practically zero.

      Soon drones and bots will be doing most of the work!

  • Great article. You answered my question while also giving me some more knowledge . Thank You

  • minimalist says:

    From a customer’s perspective this is really not complicated. Figure out a fair rate for your time and level of expertise and overhead and a set number of digital images you will deliver for that price. Younger customers don’t live in a print world anymore. They don’t want or need to be “educated” about the importance of prints. Ask that people pay you fairly for your skills and your experience and then they kindly step out of the way.

    As an architect I get it. I know what running a business costs and I’m willing to pay you a fair price as a fellow professional. But when when you tell a 20-something you don’t offer digital files or that they will cost MORE than prints they will smell a rat. Charge what you’re worth up front and stop trying to control the end product.

  • Marianne Saieg says:

    thank you. This was all very helpful. I create Visual Meditations with min. of 30 images with texts plus music. Pricing them is difficult.
    When I think of someone getting 30 of my best images plus the work and reflection of the material I would charge upwards of $100….
    your thoughts? please. I very much appreciate this.

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