I get the question, "How do I determine my rates?" in my DM's at least 5 times a day (I'm not exaggerating, I swear). It's such a hard question to answer because there is SO much you need to think about when you're pricing your work as a food photographer. In this guide I'm going to try to break down everything you need to know from how to calculate your creative fee and expenses, to licensing! But this is an extremely nuanced subject and one-sizes does not fit all.
You'll also want to check out my post where I explain copyright and licensing for food photographers and my post about what to include in your contract as all of these issues are very closely related.
Disclaimer: I am NOT an attorney and I am not an accountant. This post should be interpreted as my opinion and not legal advice. I highly recommend seeking advice from a personal business attorney and CPA about your specific situation.
Don't Work For Free!
First things first, I don't believe in working for free. Period. Have I done it before (back when I didn't know any better)? Yes. Do I regret it? Also yes. Did I benefit in any way from working for free? NOPE.
Not only is your time valuable but if a brand is going to use your images to advertise their products, they will directly be profiting off your work. Aka you deserve to be compensated. I'm not going to spend too long on this point but if you want some more hot takes I have some rants saved to my highlights on Instagram.
A common question I get is, "But what if I'm just starting out and need to build a portfolio?" There is a misconception that you have to work for free in order to build a portfolio but this is simply not true! You can just do personal projects to put together in your portfolio (most of the photos in mine are not client work). If you want photos that look "branded" then just practice using products you already have!
Something else to keep in mind is that if you work in exchange for product, legally you have to pay taxes on the value of that product. So often you're actually LOSING money when you work for free.
If you're curious about the topic of not working for free, you can check out the following videos and podcasts I've been featured on!
- Eat Blog Talk Podcast - Why Working for Free is Hurting the Food Blogging Industry
- IGTV - Why You Should Never be Working for Free
- IGTV - How Repost Accounts Hurt Content Creators
Why You Should Charge What You're Worth!
- It benefits you - This should be obvious, but charging a higher rate is important if you want to run a profitable business.
- It benefits the photography industry - If too many photographers are charging extremely low rates, the industry becomes unsustainable as less and less clients will be willing to pay a living wage.
- It benefits the client - Now you might be wondering, how does charging more benefit the client? So hear me out. If you are charging a rate that allows you to focus all of your time on 1-2 clients at a time, they get a much better experience! If you're constantly reducing your rate, you'll be having to take on several clients at a time so that you can survive. You won't do your best work because you'll have 20 different things on you're plate and you'll be STRESSED from not making enough money. Trust me, I know this from experience.
I've become very passionate about this subject lately because I keep talking to photographers who are only charging brands a couple hundred dollars for recipe development, photography, AND the image licensing. Which is honestly absurd, but more on that below.
I also speak to a lot of people who transitioned into food photography from portrait or wedding photography and think that the same rates should apply. But commercial photography is completely different and demands a much higher rate! Why? Because with commercial photography the brand will be directly making money off of your photos. I go more in depth about this in my post about copyright and licensing.
This is coupled with the fact that far too often clients will say they have a small budget and expect you to drastically lower your rates to meet their budget. There is nothing wrong with having a small budget, but client's need to understand that that means they get less work.
Say it with me, if a client's budget is $500, they should only receive $500 worth of work. Not $10,000 worth of work for the reduced price of $500. Don't ever lower your rates! Instead decrease the deliverables!
I really can't stress this enough. It sounds so simple, but I promise you that adopting this mindset will change your life!
Lowering your rates to meet the client's budget signals that your work isn't actually worth what you're charging. You're teaching the client that they can get the same amount of work for an extremely reduced price. So why would they ever increase their budget?
If you quote a client $1000 for recipe development and 5 photos and they say their budget is only $500, then you should tell them what deliverables you can remove to meet their budget. Maybe that means you just reshoot a recipe you've already developed and only give them 2 photos.
This is a screenshot of an email that I got from a client that I really appreciated. I didn't end up working with them because their budget was still far below my minimum. However, this is exactly how clients should approach price negotiations!
There are several different pricing structures you can consider for how to price your work. Sticking to one main pricing structure will make it much easier for you to determine how much you need to charge per client.
- By the hour
- Standard day rate
- By the image
- By the recipe
- By the whole project
Personally, I always charge either per recipe or per whole project and I'll explain why.
By the hour or day rate
This is the easiest to calculate but I don't recommend it. It's incredibly tedious to track and very easy for the client to dispute. It's also very common to underestimate how long a project will take (trust me lol) so you'll probably end up not billing all the hours you worked or charging the client far more than they expected. Neither is a great option.
Charging a day rate is super similar to charging by the hour except you're charging by "days." This is most commonly used if you're doing photography on-site, like at a restaurant.
By the image
I don't typically charge per image because I mostly do recipe development along with photography. But if you're doing strictly "product style" food photography, your client may want to get pay for a set number of images and that's fine. You can also charge by photo package (5, 10, 25, 50, etc).
However, I do charge per image in terms of licensing!
By the recipe or by the project
This is how I price 99% of the time! Pricing per recipe (or whole project) gives you the opportunity to evaluate all the deliverables holistically. I put together my creative fee, my expenses, and image licensing together into one standard rate.
But you need to make sure you're clear on a few key variables before you give a project estimate!
- complexity of the recipe/shoot
- number of images
- usage rights for those images
- prop and ingredient budget
- as many other details as possible!
I actually created a Client Inquiry Form that I send all my potential clients before providing an estimate. It ensures I know exactly what they want so I can price appropriately!
Regardless of which pricing structure you choose, be sure to factor in usage rights and expenses!! As a photographer you are the legal owner of the intellectual property (all photos, videos, recipes, etc). For the clients to be able to use your images, they need to pay you a licensing fee. You can read more about the nuances of copyright and usage in this post and I'll dive into more details below.
How to Build Your Rates
There is no perfect formula for this but I recommend breaking your rate down into 3 different pieces.
- Creative fee - Your creative fee should be your base rate! There are a ton of different ways you can calculate this but I calculate mine based on my time and experience.
- Expenses - This encompasses your expenses for the project itself as well as your operating expenses for your business as a whole.
- Licensing - This is the most important but often the most overlooked for new photographers! Licensing is essentially when you let the brand "rent" the usage rights to your image and the fees vary greatly based on how exactly they want to use your images.
How to Calculate your Creative Fee
There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to determine what your starting rate for your creative fee needs to be.
The first and most important consideration is how much money do you need to make per year? Not just how much do you need to scrape by, but how much do you need to thrive? Do you have a mortgage? Car payment? Student loan debt? Kids? Pets? Do you live in New York City or rural Nebraska? Is photography your full time job or side hustle? The answer to this question will be wildly different for everyone.
For me the answer is I'd like to make at least $120,000 a year before taxes (DC rent is very expensive, okay).
So the next question is how much do you want to work? I think it's easiest to go with a standard 40 hour work week with 2 weeks of vacation time. However, if you're also a full-time stay at home parent that might not be feasible for you. The beauty of working for yourself is that you have the flexibility to set your own schedule and hours.
So for me, I'd like to work 40 hours a week for 48 weeks out of the year.
Next you need to decide, how many jobs would you like to shoot per week? First you need to realize that it's impossible to be shooting every single day. There are days that need to be used for admin, editing, recipe development, personal projects (especially if you also have a blog). I'd say that 2 jobs per week is about the max that one person can comfortably handle.
I try to only work 1 job per week because I want to have plenty of time for personal projects (like writing posts like this) and 1 project takes me an average of 15-20 hours of work.
So now it's time for some simple math!
(annual salary) ÷ (working weeks) ÷ (jobs per week)
For me the calculation would be ($120,000) ÷ (48) ÷ (1)
Each job would then need to be an average of $2500. So this is my starting point for how much I need to charge to run a profitable business. There is a LOT more that goes into determining your pricing, but this simple equation gives you a good baseline.
If you want, you can break this down even further into what your hourly rate should be. To do this you need to know roughly how many hours it takes you do a "standard" project.
You can see below that it takes me an average of 19 hours for a single project. If that sounds like a lot, I challenge you to actually track your time because you'll probably be surprised by how long you spend on one thing!
So if I divide my base rate of $2500 by 19 hours, it comes out to roughly $132 per hour.
So when I'm determining my creative fee for a project, I try to figure out roughly how many hours it will take me and then multiply by $132 because some projects are smaller and some are much larger.
Now didn’t I just say that I don’t charge an hourly rate? Yes, so let me explain. I don’t go to clients and say “I charge $132 an hour and I think this project will take 12 hours.” Instead I say something along the lines of, “Based on the deliverables and usage, my fee for this project will be $3500.” This allows me to combine my creative fee, my expenses, and usage fees.
Quality of Your Work
Now the reality is that to demand a high creative fee, you have to have high-quality work. If you're a complete beginner you probably can't charge $132 an hour but you can still charge more than you probably think!
- Beginner - As a beginner you can charge anywhere from $35-$75 per hour. I wouldn't recommend ever charging less than that because I promise it won't be worth your time!!
- Semi-professional - You can charge from $75-$150 per hour. I would say most people that fall into this category are wayyyy undercharging.
- Professional - Most successful bloggers and photographers fall into this range and should be charging at least $150-$500 per hour. I consider myself at the low end of the professional level and typically charge $150-$200 per hour once I factor in my expenses and experience.
- Top Professional - Once you've been shooting commercial photography for years, you can demand rates of at least $500+ per hour. These photographers are the best of the best!
This is the second factor in determining your pricing is your expenses! There are both tangible and intangible expenses you need to consider. I can't really tell you how you should charge for your expenses because everyone's will be wildly different and there isn't really a standard.
I try to calculate my monthly cost of doing business and then divide that by my number of projects per month. The NPPA has a great cost of doing business calculator you can use!
I've been working on my 2020 taxes (ughhh) and I spent over $20,000 on Barley & Sage last year! If you don't have some type of accounting software or way to track your expenses, I highly recommend it! Once you realize how much money you spend, it makes it easier to raise your rates. You can use a tracking software like Quickbooks or a spreadsheet like this one from The Fit Peach. I also recommend talking to a CPA so you can find out which of your expenses are tax deductible!
- Equipment - This is obvious but cameras, lenses, tripods, lighting equipment, your computer, editing software, etc.
- Studio space - Even home studios cost money! When we move in a few months, we'll be looking for bigger places so that I have enough room for a full home studio. That extra space is money! Tip: if you have a dedicated studio space in your home, you can usually write off that square footage as an expense on your taxes!
- Props and backdrops - You don't even want to know how much money I spend on props...
- Groceries - Food is expensive!!!
- Admin expenses - Is your business an LLC? Do you use invoicing software? Have you hired a lawyer or CPA? Do you have business insurance? If you have a website you have all sorts of additional fees!
- Taxes - Depending on your state you probably need to set aside about 30% off all your income for taxes.
- Health insurance and retirement - One of the joys of being self employed is that you get these fun extra expenses!
- Experience - Even if you're a beginner, you probably still have more experience than whoever is hiring you! And you'll only continue to gain more!
- Creativity - You are probably in this business because you’re naturally creative. Aka you have something that the brands need!
- Education - I have taken literally thousands of dollars worth of courses to become a photographer!
- Time - I've said this before and I'll say it again, your time is valuable!!
Some brands won't be willing to pay your rates (even at the low beginner level) because they don't understand the value of your work. If you want to be successful and demand higher rates, you have to make the client understand why you charge what you do. This means communicating both the tangible and intangible expenses associated with running a business.
How to Calculate your Licensing Fee
This is by far the most complex and confusing part of your rate and it 100% depends on how the client wants to use your images. You need to make sure you find out exactly what the client wants before you give them an estimate! I created this Client Inquiry Form which has been so helpful in calculating licensing! If you don't understand what licensing is, read this post!
You also need to make sure that very specific licensing is spelled out in your contract! I talk more about what to include in your contract in this post.
To calculate photo licensing fees, the standard charge is 10 to 20 percent of how much money the photographer spent to create the image. So if you charge $2000 to create an image, you can license it for $200-$400.
Typically, I charge more for the first image and then a lower rate for each subsequent image. For example, I may ask $300 for the first image and $200 for each additional image.
If a brand wants to purchase the exclusive rights to use the photo, prices range from 50 to 100 percent of the original production fee. If a brand wants to purchase the copyright to your photos (meaning they now own the photo and you can't use it anymore) the price ranges from 100 to 200 percent of the production fee. But keep in mind that the biggest reason one would wish to purchase the copyright is because they plan to resell the image. In almost all cases, it makes sense for the photographer to retain their copyright and simply license the image for specific usage. Some brands will think they need to buy the copyright but they really don't, so you just have to politely educate them.
However, this really just applies to standard digital media usage. For other types of usage (print, advertising, etc.) it's best to use a usage calculator.
Calculators for Licensing Fee's
- Rosh Sillars - I love this pricing calculator because it lets you determine price based on skill level.
- Getty Image Calculator - Getty has a great calculator but it's a bit on the high end for most amateur photographers.
How to Charge For Sponsored Posts
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned "sponsored content" at all in this post. That's because you don't need to have a large IG following or be an influencer to charge these types of rates! Everything I've been talking about is for freelance food photography.
When I do sponsored work for brands, I use the same pricing model that I laid out in this post. The only difference is the licensing fees. Instead of licensing fees, I charge a premium that's based on my following + engagement rate and then I grant them a license to use the photos on their social media. I'll then license individual photos if they want them for different uses. I also charge a 5-10% whitelisting fee if the brand wants to run ads with my photos.
So for a sponsored IG post and 3 IG story slides I might only charge $500. But that's in addition to my creative fee and expenses!! So the total cost is several thousand dollars.
When I first mentioned that I would be creating this post, I got a couple questions about competition and why I'm willing to share these resources with competing photographers.
This answer is simple economics. If there are a ton of inexperienced photographers charging next to nothing for their work, it drives down the industry standard for all of us. If my competition raises their rates and charges what they are worth, then I can too!
Also, when it comes to sponsored work, most brands want to partner with a variety of influencers and photographers so that they can reach the largest audience possible! I've honestly never experienced "competition" within this industry. In fact, I've worked on the same campaigns with some of my close food blogger friends (and we all got paid big bucks)!
I highly recommend talking to other bloggers and photographers and discussing rates! When I started getting offered bigger jobs, I talked to other bloggers and realized my rates were wayyy too low! The stigma around talking about money needs to go. Transparency around pricing benefits all of us!
But the number one way to reduce any possible "competition" is to find a way to stand out and define your own style/brand! Don't try to copy what other photographers are doing and focus on what makes you unique!
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