I'll Gladly Pay You Tuesday...

Today I had a stressful telephone conversation with a potential client. Our conversation had to do with pricing for product photography. I doubt I’ll ever hear from him again, but the exchange inspired me to write this blog.

The client owns an e-commerce website that sells private label skincare products for men. He asked me about my pricing to photograph an individual product on a pure white background. I told him my standard per image rate is only $39, which I believe is very reasonable. He then asked what my rate would be to photograph 20 items. I told him it’s the same rate per image x 20. He expressed shock and stated he was expecting a big discount for a higher volume of products to be photographed. I could make the argument that 20 photos doesn’t really count as “high volume”. (He later admitted he currently has only 5 items needing to be photographed. Clearly, he was fishing to see how low I'd be willing to go.) Despite my best efforts to explain how I arrived at my price, he simply refused to believe I wasn’t going to offer him a significant discount for his “high volume” gig (which didn't really exist).

I explained that I understood that manufacturers who mass produce a product (like skin care products) will offer that item at a lower cost per unit if a buyer agrees to purchase a certain volume of the product. The more products the buyer is willing to buy, the lower the manufacturing cost per unit. I get it — and that practice makes sense to me in the manufacturing world where machines, robots or teams of people are assembling, labeling and packaging a product. Creating more product is simply a matter of letting the "machine" run a little longer. However, I have significant issues with applying that pricing model to custom made-to-order commercial photography where each photo is essentially a commissioned, “handmade” unique work of art by an experienced professional artist — like me.

I further explained that each photograph, even for a very basic item like a shampoo bottle, will require at least an hour of my time. After the studio is properly set up for a particular job, each product requires an individualized, complex procedure: adjusting the studio lighting (because each product bottle, jar, tube, etc. has a different shape, different reflections that need to be addressed and other issues), determining the best camera height & angle, test shots, reviewing each image on a monitor, making micro-adjustments to the positioning of the bottle just to be sure it’s perfectly aligned in relation to the camera, shooting and re-shooting until the image looks as good as possible in-camera, post-production Photoshop editing, creating a private review gallery for the client so see the images, making any client requested corrections, uploading for digital delivery to the client, etc. This process applies to each and every photo whether I’m shooting one product or 100. No steps can be ignored or skipped over. There are no short-cuts or automation. Photographing, editing and delivering 20 professional quality product photos will take approximately 20 hours of my time on average. Every product photography gig is a custom job, which means it’s the exact opposite of assembly line mass production. The two processes are so completely different, it is only logical the pricing model needs to be different, too.

The caller wasn't buying my argument, so I tried a different tack. I pointed out he should be focused on his return on investment (ROI). My price for product photography is so low, he'll make up for the expense after selling only 3 - 4 units of the product.  He replied, "Don't tell me how to spend my money". 

He was becoming hostile and I was running out of ways to explain how $39 for a professional product photo is a bargain. I pointed out that when I do a job that's billed hourly, my rate is $100/hour. Since each product photo requires an average of an hour of my time, $39 is actually a 61% discount off my established hourly rate. That argument did not move him. I had to conclude that he's one of those people who simply won't be happy unless they're assured I'm working for minimum wage (or less). This conversation was going nowhere.

The gentleman refused to accept my reasoning. Unfortunately, he also made the mistake of attempting what I call the “Wimpy proposition”. As you may recall, Wimpy was a recurring character in the old Popeye cartoons. He was a heavy-set man with a serious hamburger addiction. He always had a craving for a hamburger, but never had the money to pay for it. He was famous for going into restaurants and saying, “I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. Of course, no one ever believed he’d actually come back and pay for the hamburger on Tuesday or any other day. He was attempting a scam and everyone knew it. I recognize the same scam whenever a potential client hints at lots of future work if only I agree to do this first project for free or very cheap. I feel like saying, “Get out of my restaurant, Wimpy!”

The Price of Naugahyde

Naugahyde is the original fake leather. Developed by the US Rubber Company in 1914, naugahyde is a composite of knit fabric backing with a leather textured PVC plastic coating.

When I was about 9 years old I accompanied my mother to a furniture upholstery business to get a reupholstery estimate. Our beloved naugahyde sofa had developed a huge tear across the seat cushion (both sides) after years of daily use. The well-worn sofa was proof my family watched way too much television. Our family wasn’t rich and my mom figured reupholstering the old sofa would be much less expensive than buying a brand new one. So, when the upholstery guy finished punching numbers into his calculator and announced a price much higher than my mother was expecting, she was clearly surprised. It’s the first time I ever witnessed “sticker shock”. My cost-conscious mother paused for a few seconds, then said, “Well, do you have anything cheaper than naugahyde?” The guy dropped his pencil onto the desk and gave my mother a stern stare, saying “Lady, there ain’t nothin’ cheaper than naugahyde.” I instantly knew this embarrassed my mother and the experience was so jarring to me I’ve remembered it all these years. 

Fast-forward to today. Far too often, I find myself on the other end of that “sticker shock” experience. After delivering what I believe to be a very reasonable pricing estimate for a commercial photography job, some of my potential clients recoil and express their surprise at my quote. Like my mother dealing with the reupholstery man, they ask if there is anything I can do to make the job cheaper. In those moments, I feel like saying, “Lady, there ain’t nothin’ cheaper than naugahyde”.

My business model is based on a very simple concept: Deliver top quality professional commercial photography at a price well below the standard market rates. Despite my nearly 30 years experience as a full-time professional photographer, my rates are more aligned with those of an advanced amateur versus a well-established pro. Those who’ve worked with professional commercial photographers previously instantly understand that I’m offering them a bargain. My steady, repeat customers typically come from this group. But, I also get my share of newbies. Whenever someone expresses surprise or shock at my rates, I have to assume they are completely inexperienced with commercial photography and they haven’t done any research on the issue before contacting me. Clearly, they don’t recognize or appreciate I’m offering them a bargain.

The uninitiated are often hung up on things like an hourly rate, how much I’m charging per photo or what it would cost if I eliminated the post-production Photoshop editing. It’s foolish to focus on these irrelevant issues. The only thing a client should be focusing on is ROI (Return On Investment). Will the photos I provide enhance your sales or won’t they? As an example, is it smart to pay $250 for professional product photos that will eventually result in $50,000 worth of product sales? Cheapness is short-term thinking. Quality product photography at a reasonable rate should be seen as an INVESTMENT in your business, not merely as an expense.

After talking it over with my father, my parents decided to go ahead and get the old sofa reupholstered with new naugahyde. It was much less expensive than a brand new sofa and the investment paid off. My family continued to enjoy that sofa for many years to come. In fact, I understand it’s still in use by the family who bought it from us back in the late 1980s!

Product Photography and Unicorns

I was recently checking craigslist’s “Creative Gigs” section for any potential professional photography projects that could utilize my expertise and maybe help pay a few bills. One ad caught my eye immediately:

Product Photographer Needed

Small start-up needs quality product photography for Amazon store. Please email with link   to your portfolio. Hoping for hungry, young talent at affordable price. :-)   — Dave

Unfortunately, this new business owner is in for a big surprise. The mythical “hungry, young talent at affordable price” is not nearly as common as craigslist ad posters appear to believe. If it ever exists at all, it’s certainly so rare that no one should ever count on actually locating such a person. I read his craigslist post and couldn’t help but think, “Get real, Dave”.

The problem for me is that there are a lot of “Daves” out there. They’re newbie e-commerce business owners who’s business plan and budget depend upon finding the urban legend of product photography — a yet-to-be-discovered, young photographic genius who has secretly devoted years to studying the world's best product photography, has spent countless hours privately mastering the fine art of product photography, owns professional cameras, studio lighting plus has expert Photoshop skills — and is still in the pre-professional (no fees or low fees) portfolio building stage of his budding career. Stop dreaming. Wait -- I think I once saw one of those guys riding a unicorn at the end of a rainbow.

To Dave’s credit, at least he's aware that he shouldn’t try doing the product photography himself. Believe it or not, a large percentage of my product photography clients got in touch with me only after they tried to do their own product photography -- and failed miserably. I’m sure it was a very frustrating and humiliating experience for them. Reality check: Quality product photography is much, much more complicated and difficult than it appears. A talented product photographer only makes it look easy. Creating impactful images that seem effortless is part of our craft. Don't be fooled. 

Professional product photography often requires specialized camera gear, lenses, lighting and numerous additional accessories to properly capture the subject. Then, the images must undergo skillful Photoshop editing — sometimes very extensive editing — to give them the magic that separates professional photography from amateur snapshots.

Often overlooked is the balance of various talents a product photographer brings to the project: artistry, psychology, extensive technical knowledge, etc.  All of these talents must be tapped to create effective “images that sell”. This highly specialized balance of varied talents can’t be found in just anybody off the street, and they probably don’t exist in a “hungry, young talent” either. 



Architectural Photography 101

Architectural photography is significantly more complex than it may appear to be. If your goal is to get “Architectural Digest” quality images, it requires an "artistic eye" to recognize the various vantage points that will showcase a property best, using quality photographic equipment and mastery of a specialized photographic technique known as HDR (High Dynamic Range). HDR is a photographic technique that involves "bracketing" -- shooting the same image at various exposures which are later composited into a single, tonally balanced edited image. There is a lot more involved than just owning a nice camera, snapping away randomly and hoping you get a few good shots out of it. Talent, the right equipment, technical skills and Photoshop expertise all have to come together just right to produce quality images.

Taking all of that into consideration, it puzzles me why so many realtors and property managers treat their all-important real estate photos as a weekend DIY project. I find myself telling them, "The iPhone is a remarkable device, but it's not going to produce professional quality real estate photos!"

When budgeting for architectural photography, it’s very important to recognize all of the hours of work and expertise that are required to produce professional quality images. For example, a typical 3 bedroom, 2 bath house takes me at least 2 hours to photograph, plus about 4 to 8 hours of Photoshop time. If there are a lot of view windows to composite, it may take much longer. Yet, when I speak with realtors for the first time, they often assume the photography will take only 45 minutes, with no consideration of the Photoshop/post-production time, so their photography budget reflects that misconception. I'm hoping this quick lesson in architectural photography will help to educate my future clients about the work I do and they'll adjust their budgets accordingly.


BEFORE. Multiple exposures are shot to capture the proper lighting for exterior and interior.

BEFORE. Multiple exposures are shot to capture the proper lighting for exterior and interior.

AFTER. The multiple exposures are combined, the vertical lines straightened and the overall exposure and light levels are corrected.

AFTER. The multiple exposures are combined, the vertical lines straightened and the overall exposure and light levels are corrected.