5 years ago, I shot my very first newborn session. The session was for a friend of a friend, held in my front living room, and I think I charged $50 for the session with a CD of edited images. I had been learning about newborn sessions in online forums and tutorials for a while and felt like I was ready to tackle it. I think the session lasted 2-3 hours and it took me at least 10 hours to edit the pictures. I was experimenting with actions, skin smoothing, cloning, etc. I didn't have a backdrop stand, lights, props, or anything. I used my couch to lay blankets on to pose the baby. I was also using a Canon Xti and a 50mm 1.8 lens. While I have come a LONG way from these images (in both technical skill and style) I still look back at these images with a bit of pride. Are they perfect? Not for my standards today. But I am proud that I worked hard and gave these families photos to treasure.
I dove into newborn photography head first - and worked HARD at posing, lighting, and composition in the years after. Things have changed quite a bit since those first few sessions. Here's a before/after of my second newborn session and one of my most recent newborns:
I learned some hard lessons that first year. I had a client who was upset with me after family minisessions, demanded additional edits (and refused to pay extra for them), and who told me I was the "most expensive photographer in the area". He berated me on the phone and I was literally in tears. Then, I had a hard drive failure - lost ALL of my photos - including a maternity session that I shot but had not yet delivered images to the client. She had already delivered her baby, so there was no way to have a 'do-over'. Not only was my reputation with that client ruined, but I learned a HARD lesson about having backups of my data. And I had to buy a brand new computer, which I wasn't really charging enough to afford at the time. I also learned that there was no way I could please everyone - my prices were going to be too high for some no matter how low I made them. Unless it was free. And how many free sessions could I really shoot? My babies were 3 years old and 4 months old when I took my first paying client. I was spending hours away from them - either at a session or sitting in front of my computer editing pictures and learning photoshop. Was it really best for my family to charge next to nothing for something that took me away from my children?
It only took me about 3 newborn sessions and one round of family minisessions to realize that pricing for custom photography was a challenge. I wanted to be 'affordable' for all families, but I struggled with the amount of time I was spending on each session. As I raised my prices, I also started investing in props, equipment, and business stuff. Getting a business license, insurance, as well as paying taxes started taking nearly HALF of my session fees. Buying cute props for newborn and baby sessions took up more of my session fees. And then when I started offering actual printed products, I realized just why all those 'snooty' pro photographers were always preaching about 'charging what you are worth' and 'pricing for profit'.
People said I would never keep clients if I raised my prices. But that was not true. I have quite a few families who have stuck with me through the years. They saw my work improve and knew it was worth the investment. Did I keep them all? Of course not! But I have gained new families along the way and even the families who did not hire me back still respect me and my business. And that is worth it to me!
1. Treat it like a Business or Only do it as a Hobby
Get some type of tracking software for your income and expenses. Log every purchase you make - know what your bottom line is! It's easy to think "$150 for a 1 hour session doing what I love? Easy money!" But when you really look at what you are spending and the time it takes you per session, you realize it's not really $150/hour - it's more like $10/hour! But the only way to truly know that is to have some type of money management system going. If you do this from the very beginning, you will learn so much!
Pay your taxes - you must charge state sales tax and claim the money as income on your family income taxes at the end of the year. Get basic insurance in case something goes wrong (especially if you are shooting newborns/babies, births or weddings - even just for a 'friend'!)
Have a contract, take money from each client as a deposit/retainer, and be 'legit' from the very beginning. This helps with your credibility and it helps you to keep your things organized and flowing like a business.
If all that is too much, it's OKAY TO HAVE A HOBBY! There is nothing wrong with being a hobbiest photographer - taking pictures for your family, friends, neighbors...even charging a little bit for friends of friends! You don't have to have a license or pay taxes or anything like that. But please don't have a website or FB page and put yourself out there as a professional photographer. Say you are a hobbiest so that potential clients know why you are not charging much and the pros are.
2. Respect Yourself and Your Family
Log now much time you are spending. Seriously! Get a sticky note and start writing down every time you open your computer to do something related to your business. You will be shocked, I promise, at how much time you are actually spending per client. Is it 10 hours each? Divide what you are charging by that (after taking out taxes and expenses!) and decide if it's worth it. Is $6/hour worth leaving your children? Do you have to pay childcare? Is it putting a stress on your marriage or making it hard for you to do things with your kids? Are you constantly having to cancel plans with friends or arrange things around your schedule of sessions? If so, be sure you are being compensated for your time.
3. Respect the Industry
Doing it right from the very beginning not only helps you to grow faster, but it also gives you credibility with other professional photographers and other vendors in the industry. When you are online, be respectful of other photographers. There is nothing worse than seeing someone posting personal rants on their business facebook page. There is nothing more damaging than posting about other photographers - especially if you are discussing their pricing or offerings to make yours look better.
Take the advice of those who have been in business longer with grace. Don't argue with them! Pros who are giving their time to reply to your questions on online forums are taking time away from THEIR business (their profitable business!) to try to help you. They get nothing for it - so take a step back when you get your feelings hurt and try to see the situation more objectively. They have a similar story of starting out, most likely, and are just trying to help. Don't hide behind the phrase, "We all have to start somewhere". Yes, we do. And we all start too cheap - the difference is that some of us learned faster than others that we were not profitable at those early stages. :) I know it seems like sometimes the pros are 'snotty', but many times they are trying to help you learn the lessons they learned the hard way!
4. Learn, Learn, Learn
I am STILL learning! I will ALWAYS be learning! The wonderful, exciting (and sometimes frustrating!) part of photography is that you can never know it all. There is always a new photoshop technique or business opportunity or session type or lighting pattern to learn. I spend countless hours online and countless dollars at workshops to improve my craft. I have gone to quite a few workshops and conferences to learn more about photography and the industry. I HIGHLY recommend going to WPPI or ImagingUSA (photography conferences) or find a workshop specific to what you want to learn (newborns, posing, weddings, business coaching). Many of them will be out of your area, so some travel is involved. And many of them are expensive. I've spent anywhere between $300-$2000 on workshops. Every one of them has taught me something and it is not only worth it for the knowledge, but also for the comraderie of hanging out with other people who love to do what you love!! If you can't imagine affording to go to something like that, you need to raise your prices! Investing in yourself is key to growing yourself and your business. Charge an extra $50 or $100 per session and put that money right in an account to save for workshops/conferences. It is worth every penny!