Tax season is always the time when the blunt evidence of a completed return shows the health of a photography business in unmistakable clarity. There is no escaping that number and the veracity it offers—as well as the motivation to make it a higher number next year. And one of the easiest ways to increase that figure is through effective negotiation.
Probably the most difficult conversations photographers have are about money. Most photographers seem to strongly dislike the negotiation process and simply want to get to the part where they make pictures. Most of us are creative people and money isn’t what motivates us. If it were, we’d have probably chosen a career tailored more to quarterly revenue and yearly bonuses rather than composition and content.
The result is that photographers tend to underestimate the value of what they do. In fact, some are so grateful to stand on the sidelines, photograph a celebrity, or see their credit in a magazine that the financial value of the project is almost secondary. And that reluctance to place emphasis on their value is often the exact thing that prevents them from having a sustainable career doing something they love. It’s a mindset that leads to photographers competing solely on price rather than competing on the superior value of their work. When price is the focus rather than value, it’s usually a race to the bottom.
“Nothing is more rewarding than waiting for the client to commit first and then hearing a figure that was higher than you were willing to take.”
Skilled negotiation is where a photographer’s value is determined. Usually, a negotiation begins with the client asking, “How much do you charge?” When we hear this, most of us are in such a hurry to give an answer that reflects our own perceived value that we don’t give the client a chance to express their perceived value. Undoubtedly, there are times when the client’s perceived value is less than we might have hoped. But, what experience has taught me is that more often than not, when you let the client commit to a number first, that number will be higher than the number you were originally willing to take for a given project.
Biting your tongue during a negotiation is a discipline. It requires deliberate practice and strength, but nothing is more rewarding than waiting for the client to commit first and then hearing a figure that was higher than you were willing to take. How do you get them to do that? Simply ask them for their budget. Everyone who hires photographers knows what they have to spend.
Photographers can deliver a project at different levels and it’s the budget that determines that level. If the budget is $500, there won’t be a stylist, a makeup artist or catering. But if the budget is $5,000, the project can be scaled upward. And that’s the tactic that allows you to ask for the budget. Simply by saying, “I need to know the scope of the project so I can give you an accurate projection of the costs. Once I know the budget, I can determine what we can do.” In almost every case, if you stick to this script and don’t cave, you’ll get the number. And more often than not, it will likely be higher than you thought.
Joey Terrill is a Los Angeles-based photographer with clients that include American Express, Coca-Cola, Disney, Golf Digest, Major League Baseball, Red Bull, and Sports Illustrated. He teaches workshops and speaks at seminars including the Summit Series Workshops, WPPI, Atlanta Photojournalism Seminar, UPAA Symposium, World in Focus, and Nikon School.