Photographers know this fundamental truth as well as anyone: It’s a race to the bottom when you start negotiating price. Price is an important part of the sales process for service-oriented businesses, but the more critical element is the client experience. And nothing sells that experience like a really great story.
“When you are selling anything, the key is selling people into a story they already believe,” explains Shereese Floyd, a master brand strategist. “You just have to make it come true with the photography that you create.”
To craft your story, Floyd says to start by figuring out why you’re a professional photographer in the first place. If you want to create a compelling story for your business, you need to ask yourself what you want to be known for and how you want to show up in the world.
Go big. Don’t be afraid to tap into your deepest motivations because that’s what inspires people. Maybe you feel driven to help people with their self-image. Maybe you’re moved by sharing once-in-a-lifetime moments with clients. Maybe you feel your calling is helping people find their voice through your art. Whatever your motivation, express it in a narrative that others can relate to.
“If your why doesn’t make you cry, it’s not big enough,” says Floyd. “We’re looking for the emotional expression of what you do. The actual photographs should be the representation of the emotion.”
If you say, I just want to make beautiful photographs, keep digging deeper. Ask yourself why you want to make beautiful photographs. Tap into that emotion. Is it because you like making others feel good? Because you want to promote peace? Because you want to build people’s self-esteem? When you can express that, then the true value of your work becomes how you make people feel, not the price of your photography as a commodity.
“It’s important to remember that the story is not about you,” says Floyd. “The story is about your clients. So, when people come to your website and view your marketing materials, they should see themselves and recognize that you are the best person to help them tell their story.”
At the same time, even as you’re keeping the focus on your clients, you also want to make sure you appear in that story. Clients want to see your personality as the face of the business and understand that you’re aligned in terms of the experience they expect. They want to see the human being behind the art.
One way to show clients this perspective is to share behind-the-scenes photos, videos, and anecdotes. This approach allows you to pull back the curtain and talk about the process. You’re showing how you do what you do, and more important, you’re showing why your art is important to you. You’re giving people different elements of your personality that can help them identify with you. And you’re providing a way for the client and photographer to become part of each other’s stories.
Sometimes these elements resonate, sometimes they don’t. No problem. “It’s OK if you don’t connect with someone,” says Floyd. “You need to focus on your story and the people who identify with it. This is about authenticity. Aren’t we all tired of not being ourselves? If you try to be all things to all people, you end up getting away from your story. You want to be operating within your true self because that’s where your best work will be done.”
Your story brings a higher perceived value to what you do because you’ve shown why your art matters to you, and you’ve created value around your why. For this reason, a good story and the experience that goes with it makes price less of a sticking point to the right client. That doesn’t mean that price is no longer relevant. It means that your ideal client will prioritize your story and the experience you create more than the price.
By contrast, when you come across someone who is looking for anyone who takes photographs, that’s not your customer. When you’ve put in the effort to create an engaging story, it’s easier to identify the people who are looking for the lowest price because they won’t be focused on all those experiential elements; they’ll be focused only on bottom-line cost. That person doesn’t matter to your business.
All of this helps you stand by higher prices because you’re selling art inspired by a story that the client relates to, and that has more value than the work produced by someone who is just snapping photos—even if the technical quality of the imagery is the same.
When you’re formulating pricing, think about the value you’re bringing to clients. That value may be subjective, but it’s based on the experience you provide. Look at everything you’re doing, not just the time you spend with the client in a session or at an event. Think about all the time you spend creating the experience, the time it took to build your expertise, the education you went through to get to this point in your career, the effort to build your unique style—the whole package. Then factor in the story that makes this a personal experience for your clients.
“Set it and stand by those prices,” urges Floyd. “Because if you aren’t confident, people will try to haggle. And if the number you’re charging doesn’t scare you a little, it’s too low.”
“The most important thing about getting your story into the world is understanding that you are a unique being, and no one can do what you do the way you do it,” says Floyd. “Understand that you have unique value and you are moving through the world with that unique value.” So don’t overthink it. Get your art into the world so the people who really want you as their photographer can find you. Trust in the value you provide and reward yourself accordingly.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.