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If you’re in the business of photography, you know how expensive things can get. Even if you’re a dedicated weekend photographer and possibly on the way toward a career, or you’re already established in a business, money is what makes the world go round and keeps the lights on. Income may vary from month to month, but expenses will be the one item that can make you or break you. So, the paramount question you always need to ask yourself, in good times and bad, is: where can I make the best use of my money, the cost of doing business? The first step in this process is knowing how much you spend every month. Do you know? If you don’t, you have no idea how much you need to make each month to thrive, and not knowing is the most certain way to keep yourself and your business on the verge of big trouble. So let’s look at what you need to know about you and your business.

Fixed Expenses

What do you pay each month to keep yourself in business? Rent, utilities, employees, taxes; if you’re working out of your home office or studio, food and other monthly expenses. Write everything down  – anything that occurs regularly. These are your fixed expenses. Those numbers aren’t going to change much each month. Or they shouldn’t. If you have any expenses that fluctuate greatly each month, they might belong below in variable expenses. This is your basic cost of living each month. Are you making enough after taxes to cover this amount?

Variable Expenses

This category can get tricky, especially for a photographer. On a job-by-job basis, all of your expenses related directly to the job need to be billed back to the client. If you are absorbing the cost of incidental expenses relating to a shoot, make sure you factor those costs into your billing – the fees you’re charging your clients. It is too easy to overlook small incidental and variable costs have a nasty habit of slipping through the cracks when you take a “we’ll just let that one go” attitude. This is particularly true with small expenses like food and other cash expenditures. These kinds of expenses will kill your business.

Billing Back

To carry the idea of variable expenses further, make sure you keep track of everything you spend on any job. Petty cash expenses can bleed you dry. Things like coffee and food are items that can significantly sink your profitability, so much so that the fees you charge your client for a job (and your profits) can disappear under an avalanche of minor expenses. Make sure, before you agree to do a job, of factoring in all those little expenses and itemize them for your client. Agree up front on who is going to be responsible for paying for everything. If you don’t want to encounter the possibility of dealing with petty expenses with a client, then do the itemization for yourself and make sure you factor those expenses into your fees as a “hidden cost.” You’re not running a charity. You want to make money at photography. 

Knowing When to Say No

There are a whole lot of photographers running around in this world. Anyone owning a camera can call themselves a photographer, and many of these people have regular jobs during the week. For these weekend warriors, it is altogether too tempting to charge next to nothing for the “privilege” of shooting a job. Weekend photographers are not in the business of photography. What they are actually doing is undercutting the working photographers in their marketplace without knowing it. Since they don’t have the traditional expenses, and likely don’t know what it costs to do business, anything they make for a shoot is gravy. As a result, they can cheapen the pricing of a job, thereby cutting out the bottom of a working photographer’s market. This is bad business for everyone, especially those weekend photographers and they don’t know it.  Not only are they destroying the pricing structure for the working photographer, but they are also cheating themselves out of money. By dropping their own pricing, they are actually in competition with themselves, so much so that they will always be basing their business on the lowest price and the people who hire them will always be squeezing them for more money. Where the weekend photographer sees money coming in, he or she has no idea what it is actually costing them to do a job, particularly when it comes to time management. Photographers don’t charge by the hour, but a job takes so much time for preparation and post-production; most part-time photographers don’t factor in the hours of work when the camera is not in their hands, from the first phone call from a potential client to the delivery of the final product and they don’t charge enough for this effort or don’t consider it as an expense. You, on the other hand, must, absolutely must, factor all of this as expense. Otherwise you’re working for free. 

What does all this mean for the working professional or the photographer who is on his or her way toward a professional career? It becomes an important decision: how do I compete with these so-called competitors? There are going to be times when you need the income even if the job has a narrow profit margin, and you may have to play down to that market. But the more you play down where the profits are slender, the longer you stay there. Long-term goals can be undercut by short-term thinking, and there is going to come a time in your career as a photographer when saying no to a job that has little or no potential for profit is going to be the best decision you could make. It may hurt for a bit, but in the long run, you don’t want to stay attached to small profits and the clients who prey on photographers at the bottom of the market.

Knowing when to say no to a job or a client is contingent upon you knowing what your expenses are. If you don’t know how much you need to make to stay in business and prosper, you’ll never be able to say no to “bad” photo jobs and begin the process of finding and saying yes to the good ones. And there will come a time when you’ll only want the good ones, because the bad ones will bleed you of profit and attach you to clients who are impossible to please. Knowing your expenses will allow you to find clients and jobs that are a pleasure to work with and provide and your family with enough profit so that you can all be happy in your work and in your life. Ultimately, those are the clients you want to attract into your life. Knowing what your expenses are and learning to say no to jobs that don’t meet your profitability requirements will lead you to those better paying jobs and clients.


James Schuck

James Schuck is a writer and photographer working in Southern California. He is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York City and has photographed everything from Architecture to Auto Parts to Cookies to Portraits and Weddings.

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