Hourly Photographers Are Like Vending Machines

The title said photographers who charge by the hour are like vending machines of the photography world. There is everything wrong with that, and my quest is to help you earn more money.

I'm also aware this could be seen as insulting. To me, it's insulting to undersell your services and position yourself in a way that does not benefit your growth. Look below at some reasons I believe hourly photography rates can damage your business. 

Why Is Charging by the Hour Bad for Your Photography Business?

What is your photography hourly rate? Trick question! Hourly rates are bad for business, but many photographers go into it because they're afraid to do anything else.

  1. Low Perceived Value: Charging by the hour helps diminish your perceived value with the perfect photography client. It means you're just hourly labor, not really an experience they can enjoy. You are replaceable. Photography is a luxury item, and people want to enjoy it. They'll probably pay top dollar for an enjoyable experience, like a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant. 

    Passport photos are mandatory and quick. They are not creative, and they are cheap. Wedding photography, headshots, baby portraits, etc.: all of those are luxury items. They should be experiential and something clients look forward to. Clients that pay a good rate want high quality and a great experience. They steer clear of the bargain-basement type of service. Charging hourly lowers the perceived value. They will assume you're a bargain product, and it will deter the type of clients who pay good rates.
  2. You're Pinned to a Corner: Once the client has your hourly rate, they'll start making other decisions that push your comfort levels. Imagine a client who says "I just need a couple shots, nothing serious. It'll be easy." Do you think that client will try to pay you for 30 minutes instead of and hour? They will! There is a better way to charge, which I discuss in the video.
  3. You Attract Bad Clients: Hourly rates invite undesirable clients. I'm not saying they're bad people. I am saying they are undesirable clients. They shop based on the price, not the service provider. These clients are loyal to the cheapest rate, and they will always be prioritizing that. When you want to raise your fees, they will likely shop elsewhere for the next cheap hourly photographer. While it attracts the undesirable clients, it also pushes away the people who will stay with you long-term.
  4. You're an Artist, Not a Vending Machine: A vending machine will get the job done, but it's not something you want to pay more than a few dollars for. When you do put the money in, there is a voice in the back of your head saying: "just wait for something better; don't do this." If you complete the purchase, it's often followed by remorse. It's not something you rave about or feel good about. In almost every situation, it's a decision people regret. They could have waited for a better option, even it was more expensive but better experience. They could have made a healthier meal at home or spent a bit more and dined somewhere healthy.

    The photographer who charges by the hour can accidentally fall in the same category. You’ll be something that’s quick. You’ll be a decision from haste, not from a thoughtful decision. There’s no privilege in sitting for a photographer and looking at your watch. It’s hard to think of that as an artist-experience. It’s even harder to pay a big budget for something that’s hourly. When you act like a vending machine, you’ll be compensated like a vending machine.

Now that you've seen why I think hourly pricing is bad for your photography, check out the video that talks about a better way of charging, session fees. Furthermore, I'll also discuss the only time it's okay to charge by the hour. You are an artist that deserves fair compensation and a respectful rate. Your work is valuable, and acting like a vending machine will have you paid like a vending machine. You deserve better.

Walid Azami's picture

Walid Azami is a Photographer/Director and creative consultant from Los Angeles. He got his start working with Madonna + Co by contributing to her many projects. It was then he realized his place in the creative world & began teaching himself photography. He has since shot Kanye, Mariah Carey, Usher, Bernie Sanders, JLO, amongst others

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It took a long time, but I came around to this viewpoint a few years ago. As an event photographer, I wanted to win more clients by making the estimating and hiring experience as friction-free as possible. I even considered posting a rate calculator on my website, but never went quite that far. I did, though, quote an hourly rate, figuring that repeat clients would be more likely to come back if they didn't have to go through the rigamarole of getting a quote each time. What I found is that they didn't care about this. They sent an RFP each time, regardless.

As for the actual rate, mine was, for a long time, 20% below some of my similarly skilled competitors. I figured it was better to bid low and have more work, since my calendar wasn't exactly full. Thing is, I was still losing prospective new clients, and it seemed to be a result of commoditization. So, I raised my rate, and it's had no impact on my client base, in part because they already know I produce quality they won't find at a cut rate elsewhere.

When I quote a job now, I don't list an hourly rate. Based on the specifics of the job, I quote a price for each service requested (event coverage, portraiture, onsite printing, etc.). This works well, and I feel a lot better about not selling myself as a button-pushing monkey.

EXACTLY. You absolutely get it and found a solution to your problem.

The devil is in the details, are we talking about a simple portrait, a small shoot for a company or a large production for Commercial use or Advertising? Odds are that small portrait shoot requires organizing a small kit of gear, travel, shoot time, processing of images, delivery and then editing of final images. Yes, the time needed is to be considered but it's more about the use of the images.I always put a limit on the time allowed for a shot, a defined number of images to be delivered and how they are licensed to be used. I find that if you are respectful, act professional, you give the potential client the chance to do the same or you simply part ways. There will always be people that lowball or underestimate the value of their work, I try not to work with that crowd.

Bingo! Another "generic" video/tip that is actually sounding like specific to certain type of photography.

I am mostly a commercial photographer shooting product with or without models. I charge by the hour, by the shot or the day for base. It all depends on the client needs, frequency, volume and type of photography and post work needed. The first thing to understand is what the client needs and figure out if there can be a long term relation. Then I figure out the process and options that would be best for the client and for me and I come up with a price. I have 20+ years clients with different billing models.
There is nothing generic about billing, it’s all about client retention. Clients have specific budget and if they can have a clear idea on how much photography will cost them for the year, you solve someone’s administrative dilemma. For many clients, cost is not the issue, budgeting for the year and planning are.

Once again the umbrella of 'every photographer must do as I do' it's just out dated. Find what business style suits you and go with that.
I am however jealous you got to shoot and meet Joe.

I went the opposite way. Used to have packages but find it way easier to just have an hourly rate. First hour is double the price then hourly after that.

They call me, Redbox Ed. j/k :D

Terrible article. Switched pricing to hourly last year (after 10 years in business) and my income has sky-rocketed. Up nearly 30% and time on location has dropped more than 15%.
Author makes a terrible mistake assuming hourly rates are low-balling.

This is what is so awesome yet so maddening about going pro. How/how much to charge! This is an industry of absolutely no standards and all of us photographers suffer for it.

Maybe instead of yet another photographer teaching people how to take decent next pictures, how about more phototogs teaching the economics of photography? Hmm. Maybe the less active older photographers focus on the well-being of other people put down the ladder so we can learn from your mistakes and successes instead of it just being sold to us by other photographers on YouTube.

I think every photography guild /union worth it salt should sponsor free classes for the business of photography economics. It is critical that we conduct our business properly.

As demonstrated by the other comments, there is many variables when it comes to prices.. a potential nightmare for clients (and new pros). That said, It's in every photographer's best interest to know their numbers. Having that baseline hourly/project service charge is just gold.

I love the plumber comparison, however they can openly discuss prices clients etc. Good luck with having these conversations with photographers that are not in your circle.