There is no simple answer to the “How much should I charge?” question in the form of a dollar amount. For those who just want to be told a dollar figure to charge for a given photography service, there is no such pricing in this article. If that's what you're looking for, you can save some time and stop reading here.
For those who want to learn methods for pricing their photography services, read on.
Before I Begin...
Don't listen to anyone who tells you that you cannot make money in photography because the photography industry is dead because everyone has a smartphone, blah blah blah. People tell you what is true for them. That only becomes your truth if you believe it. As in all things in life, you should be taking advice from people who are doing what you want to do and not derailing yourself by listening to people who aren't doing what they want to do and want you to be miserable with them.
You should not be a starving artist as a photographer
You should not be flooded with work and just barely making it as far as paying your bills. You can make a great living as a photographer, but only if you develop business skills. You can be a mediocre or even a poor photographer and a great business person and make a ton of money. But if you're the greatest photographer in the world and lack business skills, you'll make no money.
Running a photography business is about running a business
90% of running a business is universal across all businesses. If you plan to run a photography business, understand that the majority of your daily activities will not involve you having a camera in your hand. 90% of what you do will be the same things you'd be doing if your business was selling shoes or coffee or insurance. So before you decide to start a photography business, make sure you're actually interested in running a business because it is a grind.
The event photography “exposure” myth
Do not do any kind of event photography for any organization (non-profit or for profit) because you think it's a way to generate business leads.
I've done event photography for years and that's not how it works. Learning this is like a rite of passage for photographers. If you join any professional photographer group or association, those with years of experience shooting events will tell you that shooting events for free NEVER yields a paying client. It just doesn't.
I don't care what the organization is or who the crowd in the room is, you don't get paid assignments from shooting events for free. It must be a law of the universe or something. You only get referrals to paying clients from paying clients. So don't shoot events for free unless you're doing it purely out of philanthropy and understand that you're not going to get any business out of it. You've been warned.
Now on to the pricing discussion...
The easiest pricing to find is the pricing offered by the photographers in your market who market themselves based on price.
But if you're using that pricing as the benchmark for establishing your prices, you're already putting yourself at the low end of the market where the price shoppers are.
You can't build a sustainable business in that part of the market because everyone there is in the Race To The Bottom. As soon as someone learns your pricing, they undercut you. Then you undercut them. And on and on and the price-shopping consumer doesn't care who they end up working with because all they care about is price.
At the low end of the market, you're also competing against people with day jobs who don't have to actually generate a profit with their photography rates. They can charge $100 for a $600 job because their bills get paid whether or not their photography “business” generates a profit. You can't be profitable if you position yourself to compete against these people.
Costs of Doing Business
When you base your pricing on your costs of doing business (CODB), your prices will likely be totally different from the prices you see by asking around. And when you set your prices based on the level of service you provide and the artistic value of your work, your pricing will definitely look nothing like what you see in the market.
I create family wall art, for example. The portraits I create are one-of-a-kind works of art of my clients joyfully spending time with the people most important in the world to them.
I don't set my pricing for that artwork based on what the photographer down the street charges or based on what my CODB is. I create artwork in the form of family legacy wall art pieces that will be in a family for generations. This is artwork that is immediately priceless and only grows in value over time. And I charge accordingly. So should you. Sarah Petty's book Worth Every Penny teaches you how to do this.
When you create artwork that your client will still have in fifty years and their family will still have in a hundred years, you should charge accordingly.
When you understand business and how to market yourself and present your value proposition, it doesn't matter what the market rate for photography is in your area. You don't have to compete with that market if you position yourself above it, which is what you have to do to run a sustainable photography business.
If your value proposition is based on your price, you'll never make money. There's ALWAYS someone willing to cut you on price, all the way down to working for free.
Anyone who wants to succeed at running any kind of business, not just a photography business, has to understand (1) that CODB is a thing and (2) how to calculate it. Otherwise, you have no chance of succeeding. If you don't know how to calculate CODB, it's very easy to charge $1000 for something and not realize that it cost you $1025 to deliver that service.
How to Calculate CODB
Two of the many variables that go into calculating CODB are your target salary, which is an expense, and your target profit for the business itself after all expenses (including your salary) are paid.
How could someone advise you on what to charge for your services without knowing these things? And what good is any number that someone gives you if you don't know what target salary and profit that number will yield? Does that target salary make sense for your objectives? Does it make sense for the cost of living in your area? So many things go into calculating a price that you can’t just go online and ask other photographers “how much should I charge for XYZ?”.
Unless you do the calculations to understand how a price is derived, any price someone give you is just a number. You can't even tell if the person who gave you a price to charge knows what they're talking about if you don't know how to do a CODB calculation.
You have to learn how to calculate your CODB, otherwise you don't know at what point you're breaking even, losing money, or generating a profit. Your bills and living expenses, etc. are the basis for determining how much money you have to make and the only person who knows those numbers is you. So you can't ask someone how much you should charge and get a number that is relevant to your situation.
There are many resources available that teach how to calculate CODB, including online calculators that list everything you need to factor in and do the calculation for you. Best Business Practices for Photographers by John Harrington is an excellent resource that explains, in detail, everything that a photographer needs to know about calculating CODB. Here's a link to an article I wrote, based on John Harrington's book, that explains some of the things that go into calculating CODB.
You should also join organizations like PPA or ASMP, which have tons of resources on how to run a successful photography business, including how to establish your prices. More importantly, these organizations have communities of professional photographers running successful businesses who want to help you do the same thing.
You Are Running A Business
Thinking that running a photography business is a "creative mind" endeavor is where many people fail. Making pretty pictures and making money are two totally different skill sets. Anyone who wants to make money through photography or any other art form has to develop business skills. It's just not optional. Successful photography businesses succeed because of the way the business is run, not because of the artistic merits of the photography.
Once you understand CODB, you know how to fish. Regardless of scenario, you'll know how to come up with a price that makes sense for your business.
If all you want to know is how much to charge for a headshot, what happens when a potential client asks you for a quote on event photography or family portraits or product photography? And then there's the whole matter of licensing for usage, which is another whole calculation that factors into the final price (this topic is covered in Best Business Practices for Photographers).
The only right answer to the "how much should I charge?" question is for you to learn to calculate your CODB. That's your starting point. And then, depending on what kind of photography you do, you can develop pricing based on the artistic value of what you produce. When you go to an art gallery or auction, the prices of the artwork are not in any way based on what the canvas and the paint cost. Photography is no different.
Recommended Reading: [Business Books I Recommend (including all books referenced above)]
Recommended Software: fotoQuote by Cradoc fotoSoftware will help you determine what you should charge for a particular project.
Recommended Online Training
Relevant Web Links That Hopefully Still Work When You Read This
The Fstoppers Guide to Pricing Commercial Photography