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!”