10 Reasons Why Charging a Session Fee is Costing You Money

10 Reasons Why Charging a Session Fee is Costing You Money


In my last article, I talked about 6 business mistakes photographers commonly make.   I thought all 6 points were of great value, but it was #3:  The Mistake of Charging a “Session” or “Creation” Fee that got all the attention.  So much so that I committed to writing this article.

In a sense I am grateful that I fell on my face quite hard in the beginning of my career.   It left me with no money.  I couldn’t afford to attend industry conventions, etc.  And, in a sense, it was the greatest blessing for me, because I didn’t learn to do all the things that every  other photographer does.  Instead, I read business books and learned from outside the industry.   As a result,  I tend to do a lot of things contrary to what our industry in general does.   For example, when I wrote an article about never giving digital files on a disk, the comments came pouring in.   I was labeled as working from another decade, etc. etc.   Forget the fact that my studio is one of the most successful  portrait studios in the world, I was told I was out of touch with the industry and the needs of the modern client.   When it comes to an industry whose average annual income for full time practitioners is barely above the poverty line, I am grateful to be “out of touch."

One of the things I learned early on in my career is that once someone is in your studio, and if you produce beautiful work, people will usually spend money, and sometimes a lot of money.  As a result, I did not want to put up a barrier or wall  for potential clients to come to me, and I ditched all session fees.  Now if you think this strategy keeps me from getting qualified clients, you are wrong.  More than anything, poor marketing keeps you from getting qualified clients.   

Even though I do not charge a session fee, I do not have a problem getting qualified clients.  I have gone over 25 years without charging a session fee.  Other photographers can argue with me all day long, but I have reached the top .1 percent of income earners in this country applying strategies that are counter to what everyone else is teaching.  

Let me restate, it’s your marketing, not your session fee that brings you in great qualified clients.   I look forward to sharing marketing strategies with a group of photographers in Palm Beach in January, which will likely be my last seminar on marketing.  In the mean time, let me suggest 10 thoughts on why charging a session fee might be a mistake for you.   I don’t photograph weddings, so I will not apply this to weddings, only portrait photographers.   But, I am not so convinced this wouldn’t also work for wedding photographers.  Finally, this article does not apply to commercial work.

1.    Do you think people would set aside time.  Worry about clothing.  Travel to you, etc. if they weren’t seriously going to spend anything?   Could someone spend zero?  Yes, but how likely is it?  Would attracting more clients offset the risk?  

2.  One of the things I have tried to do throughout my career is to put myself in the shoes of the client.   When it comes to session fees, if someone were to tell me, “We don’t charge a session fee…the most important thing is to create some amazing images, then if you like them, you may purchase them,” and I was shopping around for photographers, I would completely pick the photographer who told me that.  It shows that they have confidence in their work.

3.   Let’s say you do Glamour work.  You have a hair stylist and make-up artist.   Because I am not in that field, I have no clue on your costs, but let’s assume you pay an extra $250. for that….Don’t be upset if I am way off….   Now let’s say you normally do 10 sessions a month and you normally charge a $400. session fee, and receive an average $2000./order.    But now you have removed the barrier of a session fee.   As a result, and with good marketing, you get an extra 5 people a month.   I believe people spend more with no session fee (I’ll explain below) but for now, let’s assume your average stays the same.   Before you had a $2000. avg. plus a $400 session fee for 10 sessions a month.  That equals a gross of $24,000./month.   With 5 more clients, you’ll have to pay an extra $1250 for your make-up artist and stylist, but you will now gross $30,000./month.   

4.  When paying a session fee, a client will need to know your prices upfront.   This might deter the client from doing business with you if your prices are too high.   They will be deciding more on a left brain level because you haven’t taken their images and there is no emotion as of yet.   Of course they can see how beautiful your work is, but until the photography is of their own family, it will not have the emotional pull for them at the same level.

5.  In the case of zero session fees, the client will know a general range for pricing, but now because there is no risk to them, they don’t usually ask exact prices at this stage.   They don’t seem to be as focused on it.  In fact, a majority of my clients do not know the prices until after they have picked the size that feels the best to them during the proofing/projection appointment.   This is the best time for them to buy because they are in a highly emotional state, and they will buy with their heart, not their analytical brain.   That allows me to offer the best product possible and charge accordingly.  

6.  When a session fee is charged, many clients expect that they are paying for your talent at that point, and hence the portraits should cost less as a result.   Many won’t hire you and pay your session fee unless you have some really affordable options, or include digital files (which is the most terrible thing you can do ever) after they pay your session fee.   This becomes a non-issue with no session fee.  My portraits start at $1,000. and go on up to $50,000. and I NEVER sell the digital files.   

7.   When you charge a session fee or a creation fee, you are really advertising what your time is worth.   If you charge $500. for a two hour session, you are advertising that you are worth $250./hour.   Not that that’s so terrible but a top artist might command a much higher amount.   Wouldn’t you want to be in the latter category.   I choose to get compensated from my time by what clients pay for my work.   It’s a more accurate reflection, because people are paying you for how good you did and not on speculation.  

8.  Isn't really the most ethical way to charge a client is based on results…

9.  If you are not confident enough that your work alone will sell itself, then there are more issues you need to work on to get to that point.  And….it is worth working on!  You might need to improve your quality but more likely your ability to sell.

10.  My invitation for you in considering this strategy is to act out of opportunity and not fear.  Being willing to take a risk and see how far your talent can take you based on work produced can be exhilarating and financially rewarding.

Other Thoughts

We do collect a credit card in many of our appointments in case  the client doesn’t show.   They know there will be a cancellation fee associated for cancelling at the last moment, so they tend to show up.   We say we need at least a week’s notice, but we are compassionate if they cancel with less notice depending on the circumstance.  It is not a huge issue.  There is also a whole set of language we use which tends to make sure people keep their appointment.  

Some Final Questions

1.  If you were in the market for a teacup poodle, would you be more likely to go to a breeder that charged you a fee for his/her time to show you the puppies to make sure that you were a qualified buyer, or one that warmly invited you to come and visit the dogs and hold them and play with them first and had confidence you would fall in love with one of their babies?

2.  If you were looking to buy a home, would you more likely choose a realtor who charged you for their time to show you around, or one that didn’t charge you and was confident they could help you find your absolute dream home?

In Conclusion

It is impossible to make money at the highest levels without some inherent risk.  Throughout my career I have chosen to go counter to many photography industry standard practices and embrace opportunities over fear.   Perhaps after reading this article, it might be something you might consider as well.

Want to become a master sales person of portraits and be more profitable? Click here to learn more.

Update  

In the 2 days that followed the release of this article, it went viral to over 35,000 people.   It was discussed in many photography forums.   Much of the response was positive.  The article received 2.1 thousand “likes" in just 2 days.   But there was a very negative and nasty response too...Because this article went so against the grain of what the majority of the industry practices, and it undermines what many people who make their money from teaching photographers teach, it rocked quite a few boats.   For many, they decided not to discuss the merits of the article, or to give a contrary opinion based on substance, but rather they attacked me personally instead.  Some said that I was a fraud, that I really didn’t make the money I said, that I use inflated numbers, that I can’t be trusted, that I was full of myself, that if I were really that successful why would I teach, etc., etc., etc.   

Four days later I decided to write a follow-up article to answer in a bold way those who attacked me personally including releasing 3 years of tax returns from my "photography income” which I don’t believe any other teacher in the industry has ever done.  This article obviously struck a nerve for some.  Some felt threatened, and the only way to deal with it was to attack the messenger instead of the message.  If you would like to read my straight-forward response to the naysayers, you can read it by clicking HERE.  

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Bradford operates studios in New York, California and on world famous Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.  He has made well over 20 million dollars from selling portraits (the majority in the last 5 years). He has taught photographers from more than 80 countries, and is the only photographer to be paid over $100,000.00 for a single speaking program.   


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