A photographer peers through a camera lens.

Why CODB isn't what it's cracked up to be in photography

January 25, 2021

Spend enough time on photography forums and Facebook groups, and you’ll see beginner photographers getting the same advice: “you need to figure out your CODB (cost of doing business) before setting your prices.” 

It’s usually accompanied by another bit of unsolicited advice: “raise your prices; they’re undercutting the industry.”

Is it good advice? Sure, for the seasoned photographer — nobody wants to work for less than they’re worth. But too often, it ends up hurting early-career photographers who don’t have the experience or client base yet.

A calculator and a notepad sit atop a pile of bank notes.

For a new photographer, CODB is about as helpful as a broken flash. There’s a time and place for it later. But at this stage, it’s unnecessary; it’s missing the bigger picture. 

It’s okay (even smart!) to start with low prices

There’s a reason the best photographers can charge thousands of dollars for their work: they’ve earned it. They’ve developed their craft over decades, mastering lighting, posing, and composition. They know how to prompt their subjects with just the right cues to get magazine-worthy results. And they deliver. Again and again. Like Judd Apatow’s films or Steph Curry at the three-point line.

Making the jump to professional photography is a different story. It takes time and practice. Not just when it comes to the work itself, but also what kind of experience you provide. If you haven’t put in the 10,000 hours, you’re not going to have the same kind of consistency in quality as the best photographers. And you shouldn’t charge like them either. Not in the beginning, at any rate.

A photographer plans their next shot, sitting behind a tennis net.

It's okay to invest in your business by growing at a loss if you’re still growing. Most businesses aren’t profitable in their early years. Facebook took five years to turn a profit. Amazon didn’t turn a profit until its seventh year. It’s the same story for your favourite restaurant or the mom-and-pop shop down the street. 

It’s an ordinary part of doing business. You’re priming yourself for growth.

What is CODB, anyway?

Put simply, your cost of doing business is a tool to measure your expenses and financial goals. Think of it as a formula:

Desired Salary + Business Expenses (Equipment, Props, Studio Costs, Insurance, Software, etc.) / Annual Hours Worked (Shooting, Editing, Marketing, Business Administration)

Long-term, you want to ensure you’re charging more than your hourly cost of doing business. So, if your desired annual salary is, say, $60,000, and your annual business-related expenses amount to another $12,000, you’ll need to charge enough per hour for however many hours you intend to work in a year — while factoring in the time spent working beyond the shoot itself. 

There are calculators out there that will help you in determining your CODB, but for now, remember this: your pricing should only reflect your CODB once you’ve developed a steady client base.

Focus on building your skills

The earliest years in a photographer’s business are the hardest, because the customer acquisition cost (what it takes to get a repeat customer) is very high. Once you’ve got them, they’re yours for life. Maternity portraits, newborn photos, family portraits… they’ll come to you for everything. But it takes effort to get them first — that’s just how it goes.

Credit: Tasha Knight Photography & Design

When you're getting started, there’s only one thing you should be concerned with: mastering your craft. 

The best way to do that? Shoot constantly. And shoot all kinds of settings. Birthday parties. Bat mitzvahs. Ballet recitals. Anywhere there’s people. 

Do model calls. Street photography. Shoot your friends, but shoot strangers too. You’re building people skills along with your camera skills — and the ability to adapt to your environment.

It’s okay to charge less than your CODB during this stage. Think of it as a form of education. You’re training yourself to be better.

Three ways to maximize free or low-cost shoots:
  1. Ask your clients for a Google or Facebook review. Building up a heap of testimonials will pay dividends when you’re trying to attract new customers.
  2. Use free shoots and model calls as a way to build your portfolio. Want to get into the wedding game? Get a model in a white dress and buy a cheap bouquet. The more clients can visualize what you offer, the more readily they’ll book you.
  3. Send your clients an invoice with your ideal rate, and then add a line item with a discount for what you’re charging them. That way, you’re showing your clients that your services hold value, and they feel special about getting a deal.

There’s an advantage that comes with lower prices (even free shoots) at this stage, too: lower client expectations. You’re giving yourself room to make mistakes so that, in the long-term, you can grow.

But what if I’ve already done the grunt work? When can I raise my prices?

You can raise your prices when you’re getting a reliable supply of clients. If you’re not getting booked steadily at $50 a shoot, you’re not going to get booked at $500 a shoot. Aim for steady progress over quantum leaps.

Credit: Marlboro Wang Photo

As you build a name for yourself, it becomes easier to attract new clients too. Plus, the ones you’ve already developed will stick with you through price increases because they’ve built a connection with you.

But as you raise your prices, make sure you’re conveying your value to customers. Make them see why you stand out from the pack. Tell them a story beyond the photos.

Read more: How your photography pricing is losing you dream clients

We can help you get there

We created Focal’s free Business Accelerator program to set your photography business on the path to success. Through one-on-one mentorship sessions, we’ll help you take a hard look at your business, your customers, and yourself — then chart a course for the future, so that you can earn what you’re worth.

Find out how photographers are using Focal's Business Accelerator to reach their ideal clients.

Join The Business Accelerator

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