How Much Should Photographers Charge Per Hour?

The short answer is, of course: As much as possible.

The long answer depends a lot more on where you personally fit into the photography industry and your local market.

In this article I am going to explore the seven critical factors that determine how much should photographers charge per hour, along with an example of how to calculate a reasonable billable rate.

how much should photographers charger per hour toronto commercial business photographer jp danko blurmedia photography

Warning – We Are Going To Talk About Money

Money is a touchy subject for a lot of people – and it seems especially so for photographers.

Everyone’s personal circumstances are different, and we have a global audience with drastically different markets and ideas about income levels – so the numbers I am presenting in this article are what I would consider realistic for a typical middle class Canadian – but please feel free to make adjustments to suit your own income goals and local market.

If you don’t read any further, just take two minutes to watch this clip from the Cosby Show – I clearly remember watching this episode when I was a kid, and its something that has stuck with me my entire life.

What You Bill is Not What You Earn

Say it with me – what I bill per hour is not what I earn.  What I bill per hour is not what I earn.  What I bill…OK you get the point – but for some reason this seems to be a particularly hard lesson for photographers to learn – especially those just starting out.

The reality is that all professionals who bill by the hour – such as lawyers, engineers, architects, accountants etc. bill their clients at a minimum two to three times their take home pay rate.  For example, if a lawyer earns $60 per hour – they would typically bill at least $120 to $180 per hour.

For photographers who own and operate their own businesses (often as the sole employee), the ratio of billable rate to take home pay is even higher, as we will see.

Quick Tip!

To estimate how much you will earn in a year based on an hourly rate, simply double the hourly rate and move three decimal places.

For example $35 per hour is approximately $70,000 per year.

($35 per hour x 8 hours per day x 5 days per week x 50 weeks per year = $70,000)

How Much Is Your Time Worth

If you are a recreational photographer and you practice photography purely because you love it and you would do it for free – that is awesome – do us all a favor and just do it for free.  Seriously!

There is nothing wrong with working for free – as long as everyone knows you are working for free.  The problem is when photographers fall into the trap of working almost for free.  Photographers that undervalue their services are not doing themselves any favors, and are in fact contributing to the wholesale undervaluing of the entire industry – but that is an argument for another day.

If you are a part time photographer, you can look at what you earn in your day job to gauge how much your time is worth.  If you earn $30 an hour at the office, chances are you’d like to earn at least $30 an hour from your photography.

If you are a full time photographer, you can work backwards from what you need to earn in a year to support your family and your lifestyle.  Or, you can figure that if you had to quit photography to put food on the table, you would presumably have a suitable full time job and rate of pay.

For the purpose of providing an example, the average income for a married person with a family in Canada is around $60,000 per year.  That’s about equivalent to $30 per hour.

How Much of Your Work Is Non-Billable?

Nobody that charges by the hour is working on something that they can bill to a client 100% of the time (nobody honest about it anyway).  So, the question becomes, how much work do I do that I don’t get paid for?

For a photographer, this is a substantial portion of time.

Think about everything you do on a daily basis that is related to your photography business, but does not directly earn income.

Email, answering the phone, proposals, bids, social media, promotion, your website, blogging, personal projects…the list goes on and on.

I estimate that I easily spend 50% of my time as a photographer doing work that I can’t bill to a client – and that is probably on the low side.

That means that in order to earn that $60,000 a year goal, I would have to bill $60 per hour, not $30 per hour.

To adjust your billable rate depending on your own ratio of billable versus non-billable time, take your target hourly rate, multiply by the total number of hours per week you work, and divide by the number of hours you bill to clients.

For example, if I want to earn the equivalent of $30 per hour for a 40 hour work week, but I can only bill 20 hours, I have to bill $60 per hour.  I am still working 40 hours per week, but only 50% can be billed to a client so my billable rate doubles.

($30 per hour x 40 hours per week total / 20 billable hours per week = $60 per hour)

Pay in Lieu of Benefits

As independent small businesses, photographers are on their own to cover the costs normally paid as benefits to salaried employees.

Of course, benefit plans vary greatly, but most companies cover some portion of dental, medication, vision, life insurance, sick time etc.

Where I live in Ontario, Canada, salaried employees may occasionally work in lieu of benefits – such as when they are picking up extra shifts or working overtime.  In these instances, they are normally paid an additional 18% on top of their regular pay rate “in lieu of benefits”.

If you live somewhere that does not have universal healthcare, the value of a corporate benefit plan that covers health insurance would be substantially more that 18%.  If you live somewhere that has social dental, medication and / or vision plans, the value of a corporate benefit plan would be less.

For the sake of this example, I am going to equate the value of a corporate benefit plan to 18% of my adjusted billable rate.

That means that I have to add $10.80 per hour to my $60 per hour billable rate to cover the cost of benefits – bringing me up to $70.80 per hour.

($60 per hour x 18% = $10.80 per hour)

Who Wants to Work Until They Die?

Not me, that’s for sure.

Problem is, we all need to eat, live somewhere, and have something to do between the time when we stop working and when we kick the bucket.

If you’re a self employed photographer, you’re not getting a corporate pension – so tough luck – you’re on your own.

Therefore, saving for your retirement is not a luxury or an option – you must build it into your photography business plan.

How much money you actually need to save for retirement depends a lot on your personal circumstances.

Where I live, the maximum annual contribution to a registered retirement savings plan (RRSP) is 18% of your net income, which is roughly 10 to 15% of your gross income.

For this example, I am going to plan on putting 15% of my gross income away for retirement.

If I plan on earning $60,000 per year, I need to save $750 per month – or approximately another $9 per hour.

That brings my billable rate up to 79.80 per hour.

($60,000 per year x %15 / 50 weeks / 20 hours per week = $9 per hour)

Vacations Aren’t Free

You might have noticed that so far there are two weeks out of the year we are not accounting for.

We are assuming that we are on vacation for those two weeks and as an independent small business, cannot earn income.

However, Canadians typically get 4 to 6 weeks per year of paid vacation – Europeans a little more, Americans a little less.

That means that if I want to take more than two weeks off and still reach our target $60,000 per year, I have to adjust my billable rate to make up that lost time.

For our example, I’m just going to stick with two weeks of vacation because I would have to start the math all over from the start based on working 46 weeks in a year instead of 50 – but you get the point.

‘Cause time equals money,
And money’s all right,
So I’ll be working past nine.
And those f@%king Europeans who vacation from September,
They ain’t in their right mind.

We’ve got deadlines to meet!

The Arkells – Lyrics from Deadlines

What’s Your Overhead

Finally, we have to consider our overhead.

Again, like many of the other factors, overhead varies greatly depending on a photographers personal circumstances and business model.

At a minimum, overhead would include things like: camera upgrades, computer equipment, home maintenance or rent, software, cellphone, internet, advertising, web hosting, transportation, insurance etc.

Most photographers drastically underestimate their overhead, and if you are a recreational or part time photographer, the lines between what is overhead and what you are just buying for your own enjoyment blur together a little.

But, for our example, lets put an overhead budget together:

Camera Upgrades – say maybe a new body and maybe a lens, and some lighting gear every three years – roughly $2400 per year, or $200 per month.

Computer Equipment – say a new computer every three years too – roughly $600 per year, or $50 per month.

Home Maintenance or Rent – this can vary a lot – but lets say a modest $200 per month would cover a home studio.

Software – upgrades, Photoshop CC etc. – $100 per month.

Cellphone & Internet – I pay around $200 per month.

Advertising and Web Hosting – depends on how heavily you advertise – but say $100 per month.

Transportation – again depends on your mode of transportation – but easily $200 per month.

Insurance – say $100 per month.

That all adds up to $1,150 per month in out of pocket expenses (and that is on the very low home studio end).  To cover $1,150 per month in overhead, or 23% of your target annual income, you have to add another $13.80 per hour to your billable rate.

That brings our total billable rate up to $93.60 per hour.

Show Me The Money!

OK – so here is how the whole example breaks down.

If we bill $93.60 per hour and we work 40 hours per week but only bill 20 hours per week, and we take two weeks of unpaid vacation, in one year we will gross $93,600 per year.

($93.60 per hour x 20 billable hours per week x 50 weeks per year = $93,600).

Now we get to play Bill Cosby and figure out where the money goes.

$10,800 goes to pay for benefits (18% of $60,000), $9,000 goes to retirement savings (15% of $60,000) and $13,800 goes to cover overhead (23% of $60,000), leaving us with our target income of $60,000.

($93,600 – $10,800 – $9,000 – $13,800 = $60,000)

The Bottom Line

In the end, we can see that a photographer’s billable rate should be at least triple of what they plan to take home as pay – and even four times would still be reasonable in most cases.

How Much Do You Think Photographers Should Charge Per Hour

What have I overestimated?  What have I underestimated?  What do you think photographers should factor into their billable rate?  Do you agree that a billable rate three to four times of take home pay is reasonable for photographers?

Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!

  • https://www.facebook.com/viviana.dangelo.00 Viviana D’Angelo

    thank you for this !

  • Joshua Targownik – Targophoto

    You can’t charge based on your own lifestyle, expenses, and financial needs. If that was the case, you could just tell photographers to charge enough to retire in one year. All you can really do is find numbers that make it “worth it” for both you and your client. If your work isn’t “worth it” for your clients (too high a fee), they won’t hire you. If the money and future benefits* of the job aren’t worth your effort, you won’t be happy taking it. *Future benefits may be getting great shots for your portfolio, making connections with important people, etc; these have a potential future value that may cause you to take an otherwise underpaying gig. You can also choose to take a gig that doesn’t feel worth it if you simply need the money, but as time goes on, you should try to work your rate up so you are always happy with the deal. So what do you charge? As much as you can, but low enough that the client will book you (and book you again), and high enough that you consider it a fair deal. Bidding is a tricky game, and it takes time and experience to get a feel for the numbers. As your career goes on, you’ll be approached with new experiences, asked to shoot things you never have before, for clients you have never worked with before, and you will have to take chances with your bids. Luckily, as your work gets better, and as you acquire more steady clients, you can keep upping your rate. Forget about your rent, how much gear you buy, insurance, and all that; clients don’t care about that. They care about what you can do for them, what your value is to them. If you want to buy a new camera, fine, but don’t expect your clients to pay for it. Buy it if you need it, make great pictures with it; Your clients will pay for those.

    • Josh Targownik, targophoto.com

      P.S. When I was starting out, I decided to make my day rate equal to the absolute minimum amount of money I needed to survive for one month. I figured if I booked just one full day a month, I could live. Divide that by 8 and it gives you a pretty good starting point for a general hourly rate. I know this goes a little bit against what I just said above, basing your rate on your own expenses, But you do have to start somewhere, and it’s a good rule of thumb.

      When I had made enough to cover my month, I would always charge a little more for my next gig, to see how much people were willing to pay for my work.

      Also use sites like craigslist to see what the market rate is for different types of photography.

      • http://www.pavelkounine.com/ Pavel Kounine

        Craigslist is not an accurate portrayal of the market. Where I’m from, it seems to cater to bargain hunters and amateurs.

        • Rob Stathem

          I absolutely agree with Pavel. Craigslist caters to people who want things for FREE or dirt cheap. I’d stay clear from Craigslist. Also, I’d stay away from freelance sites like Elance and the like. The people on those freelance sites who are seeking services, have no understanding of the value of a service or product.

    • Dangerous

      I agree with your point (that clients don’t care about your finances and only want a good price for the job), but I think you’ve missed the point and audience of the article. It seems that JP is targeting other photographers here and trying to warn about all the things that need to be factored into a professional budget. You don’t have to share it with the clients, but make sure you don’t end up screwed.

      • sam

        IS this from the popcorn one? best chef episode ever!

      • Josh Targownik, targophoto.com

        You do have to make sure you don’t end up screwed, but I don’t think about my cell phone bill, insurance, or rent when I put together a quote. I base my rate on the client and the work involved (and maybe a few other factors).

        The problem with basing your rate on your expenses is that you can’t predict how many jobs you will get or how many hours you will work. So all you can really do it try to maximize each job; Charge as high as you can without charging too much. Charging to much will either get you a NO response, or stop that client from coming back for more. It’s a fuzzy line, and part of the game.

    • Rob Stathem

      Joshua brings up some great points! I would also suggest looking up the Red Book of Advertising. These can be purchased (for a crazy amount of money) or you can find these at your local library and get the info for free. The Red Book gives you a ton of industry specific info (yearly income, total yearly money spent on advertising, size of company, etc, etc..) You can look up restaurants (if you’re a food photographer) and find out the yearly income of a series of restaurant chains and then determine your rate based on those figures.
      I also think it goes without saying that a photographer should charge accordingly based on their experience. If you’re a commercial photographer with over 20 years of experience, than, of course those with more experience should be charging more than photographers with only 3 or 4 years of experience.
      But, I think the best way is to research the market and find out some information about your clients that you’re targeting. The Red Book is an AWESOME tool, I highly recommend it and it’s updated every year!

    • Havico

      Where was this image taken? I am so, in love with this kitchen!

  • Simon Wells

    That makes perfect sense. I’m just a photog for fun but in my day job the right price is the one that produces the right amount of work. If you’ve got to turn work away you can afford to charge more. If you work on take home as a third of the charged amount 10% extra in the charged amount might put off 1 in 10 but it means your take home goes up by 30%

  • http://www.chriscameron.co.nz Chris Cameron

    I think an hourly rate is absolutely the wrong approach.
    We should be charging for usage plus expenses
    Apart from that the above points are valid, you need to ensure you’re charging enough to survive / prosper.
    You need to calculate what a job is worth to the client then ensure there is enough time and work available to be able to survive working for those clients.
    ie if I am shooting conveyor belt type pack shots for a online catalogue it may only be worth $10 a shot but I may be able to do 1000 a month. But if I am shooting a one off ad for a multinational it may only take a day but I could still make the same $10,000 for the month.

    • Doug Levy

      Nooooo. Say no to hourly billing and do what chris says

    • http://www.pavelkounine.com/ Pavel Kounine

      Are you basing charges on the type of usage and its reach? If so, you’re almost there, but not quite.

      It’s very common for commercial photographers, which is the category your examples seems to fall under, to charge:
      1. Production fees (i.e., your expenses in delivering the shoot as per request).
      2. Licensing fees. This is where usage of images (and where, and by whom) come into play.
      3. Creative fees. This is your labour, based on whatever formula you use. This is the exclusive topic of the article.

      Your creative fees should generally remain the same. It is your licensing fees that are variable based on a whole slew things. Commercial clients generally want this all broken down in the invoice; you can’t just combine it into one simple number and present it to them as the price all while omitting the details.

  • https://www.facebook.com/Michael.A.Williams.1965 Michael Williams

    All the market will bear.

  • stanleyleary

    Please don’t propagate an hourly rate. This is like working as a Day Laborer. You don’t won’t to here, “By the way while you are here and I already have you for the hour please shoot ______.”

    You need to know what you need to earn and maybe you do this as an hourly rate. You should charge by the project.

    If you charge hourly rate and you get better and more efficient then you make the same amount later when you are better.

    Let’s say you take an hour and half to do your first few oil changes and then over time are down to about 10 minutes. The shop will charge a flat rate even if you take longer, but when you start to do better you and they can make more money. They can then afford to pay you more per hour because you can change the oil in more cars.

    Avoid quoting hourly or daily rates.

  • http://www.catch-your-moment.ch Pascal

    I think it is a good calculation basis and shows starting photographers what they have to think of. Especially that they work 40hours, but can’t bill 40 hours. To be honest I’m a aprt time photographer based in beautiful Switzerland(Europe) and I bill more than $93. I have calculated a hourly rate of about $110. And I think this is in between what all the professional photographers based in my location bill per hour and what the people are willing to pay.

    It’s a good start, thanks for sharing

    Pascal

  • http://tahoeshooter.com Jon Peckham

    Don’t charge hourly. Charge a flat rate period! Hourly creates too much tension with your clients . .

  • CYang

    I think what makes people panic about this article is the term “hourly rate”.

    I think this article makes perfect sense and I am amused by the type of responses it is getting. First of all, the author is using an “ideal” world in the example – this means not all photographers will have the same schedule, same bills to pay etc. Second of all, what the author is saying is when a photographer charges people for their time and service they can’t only consider one factor. They must consider all factors. Sure, there are some jobs that take less time to complete and other that take more but what the author is pointing out is make sure at the end of the year what you earn will cover all the costs that you need to pay. For every job, your billable rate will change, but the rest of the benefits/vacations/overhead etc won’t – therefore your actual hourly rate will change by project (i.e. the $93.60 that he used here isn’t going to apply for all projects – but that’s the average he wants to achieve at the end of the year). Every hour that you spent working on shooting/editing/finishing up a photo contract is an hour spent that you should charge. That’s hourly rate.

    Simple isn’t it?

  • http://www.stanstudio.com Stan Rowin

    Sorry to be so late to this conversation.

    In 2010 I wrote an article for a website which started: “They lost me at the “Cost of Doing Business” calculator. You know, the formula everyone starts you out with: Your overhead expenses + desired salary = your total annual cost ÷ number of billable days = your CODB.No matter how many times I played with it, the number of billable days that I desired was never as high as the number of days I actually worked. My desired salary never approached by my actual salary. So the calculator failed me. Lots of stuff they taught me in those photo business seminars failed me. I had to find a better way to price my work and survive as a new photographer.”

    The full article is currently archived here: http://bit.ly/1iC8bue

    Photography is a strange product. In some cases you have to price hourly. In some cases you shouldn’t. But many photographers, and their mentors, refuse to believe that in most cases the market sets the fees, not the photographer. The sooner you learn the market’s “rules” the better off you’ll be.

    • golemB

      Sure, the market sets the rates. But “the market” means both buyers AND sellers, and if photographers fail to demand high enough rates, the clients will think that unsustainable rates are normal. Also, I think the point of this article is to encourage new or less-business-minded photographers to charge enough so that they (and other photogs) don’t get screwed.

      To those who don’t know much about the costs of running a photo business (even/especially if you’re the only employee), $93.60 may sound high and hard to explain to a client. They need to understand how to set realistic prices so they don’t drag themselves and others out of business.

      • http://www.stanstudio.com Stan Rowin

        GolemB, you’re about a decade too late. The market might be made up of buyers and sellers, but because there are so many photographers chasing so few jobs the clients have the “market force” and too many of the photographers say yes to anything just to pay the rent. You can yell all you want, but this is the way things turned out.

        Then you get to the troublesome fact that no one knows what the “market rates” are and you have innocent photographers low-balling each other because they just don’t know. For instance you say “$93.60 may sound high and hard to explain to a client . . .” If that’s your “hourly rate,” you are lowballing everyone that I know, including my assistant.

        For extra credit reading you can read my decade old article:
        “Photo Darwinism: Things your mother never told you”
        http://stanstudio.com/Boston_Photo_Blog/?p=932

        The strongest will survive: Those with the best portfolio, and those who have the lowest overhead choosing to be the cheapest.

        Sorry . . .

  • http://www.arizonaprophotographer.com/ Jonny

    I’d like to reiterate a very important, if not THE most important, point of this article:

    “If you are a recreational photographer and you practice photography purely because you love it and you would do it for free – that is awesome – do us all a favor and just do it for free. Seriously!”

    Say it with me!!
    “If you are a recreational photographer and you practice photography purely because you love it and you would do it for free – that is awesome – do us all a favor and just do it for free. Seriously!”

    Bravo!

  • Amoor

    Great article !

  • http://batman-news.com Carl Valle

    it never ceases to amaze me that people like dentists and lawyers think it’s okay to pretend to be photographers and work for free doing that… and then even encourage other nitwits to do the same… bunch of untalented morons shooting weddings with aps cameras and passing it off as professional work… any other profession work so low in quality would get you barred from practice or thrown in jail, but not photography any monkey with a dslr can do a wedding …

    • Kathy Brown

      There are plenty of “professional” photographers out there who shouldn’t be charging for their services. I have been working on my photography skills for a number of years now. The fact that my work has been mistaken for a professional’s by people who teach photography speaks volumes. I am now in the beginning stages of starting my own business, specializing in an untapped market. My fees will be based not only on what I think I am worth, but on what the market will bear.