While listening to This Week in Photography, Frederick van Johnson aired an interview he did with Dane Sanders, a well-known (and fantastic – check him out on flickr) wedding photographer that has written a book on getting started in the business – Fast Track Photographer.
One of the items Dane mentioned was about protecting one’s brand, and adding value to existing prices and packages as a way of combatting any decline in sales. The alternative would be to just charge less. I think this is very important, but that there are a lot of other things that need to be considered for wedding photographers such as myself, charging between $1000-$1500 for a base package (as compared to $2500-$3500, which is kind of the next step up).
The key part is that if you have created your brand as in a certain part of the market and as a certain type of photographer, it is important to protect that brand. This is marketing 101, to be honest. I’ll take myself as an example – I started out charging very low ($550) but made it very clear that it was in order to build my portfolio. Even when I met with potential clients I stated this quite clearly. As soon as I had 6 weddings under my belt (an arbitrary number, to be honest), I went up to $1000 for the same package. After about a year of doing weddings at that rate, I discovered that I was meeting with more couples that saw photography as an after-thought than I wanted. I have now gone up to $1250 for a wedding, which is apparently, based on those with whom I now meet and talk about their wedding plans, an amount that makes couples think about their overall budget and have made a specific decision to find a solid photographer to capture their memories. You can read more about what I offer on my wedding photography site, if you want.
Throughout this process, I have pursued developing my brand as a photographer that takes a wedding seriously, offers professionalism and a personal dedication to the needs of the couple. I book no more than 15 weddings a year and never more than 2 weekends in a row. I have actually turned down weddings that pushed these limits (despite my honest desire to keep revenues up). That is my brand. That is who I am, as Allan Chen the Wedding Photographer. My pricing has reflected that – I want to work with couples who value those parts of the brand.
Well, if I have spent so much time on that, then it’s critical that, even if inquiries are down due to the recession that I still protect that brand. However, I also have to recognize that couples are watching their wedding budgets more closely, and have to make some hard decisions. So the question posed to Dane Sanders was how does one keep moving forward in such a situation?
Sanders’ opinion was that it’s about adding value, rather than cutting price. What does a couple get for that same price? Yes, the personal touch, etc – that stays the same, of course. I can’t be more than 100% devoted to their needs, after all. But I could, for instance, offer an online slideshow for the same price, or add more prints, or a higher end album, something like that. Many of these options don’t require a lot of extra time on my part (the online gallery in particular) so they are also cost-effective for me. I think this makes a lot of sense.
The danger, though, is for photographers that charge about what I do. If I were to take into account the time I spend on processing a wedding, my margin would be very low. Even if I add an hour or two, it eats more and more into that margin. If I offer an additional service as part of the package, same problem. If I’m doing the same amount of work but am charging $3000 (because I’m in that market, or I’ve established myself to justify that price, or whatever) then the margins are better and it makes more sense. But right now, it gets thinner and thinner.
So what am I doing, having listened to Dane Sanders and agreed with his fundamental recommendations?
I’m really looking at two types of solutions to add value. First, I’m looking at what I currently offer, and seeing if I can offer options – replacements, not additional items. This keeps my margins about the same but gives leeway to a couple that prefers, for instance, a proof album rather than 4×6 prints. The hard part has been trying to find solutions that come in at about the same price point – if a proof album that is color accurate (there are lots of affordable album options out there where B&W images, for instance, come out purple or green or even one on the first page and another on the second page) costs a lot more than doing the same number of 4×6 proof prints, then it gets dangerous.
Second, I’m adding services as separate items, rather than as parts of various escalating packages. It’s common for photographers to offer different packages to clients. The “standard” is X hours and proofs, while the “silver” adds in some free enlargements and the “gold” throws in an album, etc. The margins don’t always scale but that’s a good thing. The more you get to buy the “gold” package then the better margin. Well, part of my brand is customization for the couple. So what I’m doing is trying to define specific additional services a la carte. Prices will be reasonable enough for couples to consider, but also set so that they can think “well, I want an online gallery, but I don’t need a fully designed album so I want the former but not the latter.” Whereas a package might include both and charge for both.
The hard part now is figuring out the pricing. But I’m working on it.