Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Ask Jillian - How to charge friends and family?

For my first installation of "Ask Jillian" I have a question that constantly haunts most photographers! How to handle friends and family?

Since I don't like talking to myself (in public), I'll be giving made-up names to our friends who post anonymously. Today, our question is brought to us by "Muriel."

Muriel writes:
I am CONSTANTLY struggling with what to charge close friends/family for photo sessions. I just finished my first year of photography and it was a successful one (luckily!). But I'm still starting out and can't afford to do a lot of discounted sessions. Especially when right now, that's mostly who I'm doing sessions with. But I also want them to use me so that they'll tell other friends/family about me. What do I charge them??
Well, Muriel, congratulations on a great first year! Let me start off by saying that the answer to this question will be different for every photographer. The only "wrong" policy is not having one. In the end, it's all about making decisions and communicating them clearly. Here are some steps to guide you (and everyone else) through creating a policy.

1. Delineate your audience into clear-cut groups.

(Caution, "best friends" is not clear-cut and it's hard to tell someone "I'm sorry, you're only a 7 on the friend scale, and my discount is for 8+ people." )

For example, these are mine:
-Immediate family (my parents, siblings, and their spouses).
-3AM Friends. Friends who I would feel comfortable calling at 3am if I had a nightmare and vice verse. These are my closest friends. I don't have many and they respect my time.
-Everyone else. That's right, everyone else with whom I have a relationship is in this group.

You will need a different policy for each group. You might choose "cousins" or "vendors" or "my kids' friends' moms", but try to keep it as simple as possible.

2. Know your worth, and communicate it with everyone.

Never give anyone a free or discounted shoot without telling them what you would normally charge for that shoot. Make sure they know the value of the session that they are getting.

For my friends, I let them know what the full cost of the session is whenever the subject is first approached. "Sure, normally my sessions are $xxx, but I like to offer one at-cost session to good friends." Now when they go off and tell others about me, they know exactly what I charge, even if they received a free session.

3. Set boundaries on your generosity, and communicate those too.

In my policy, which I don't mind making public, my immediate family gets as much of my photographic talent as I can force them to take. Of course, we live 2000 miles apart, and I'm only home twice a year. My time is always free to them and products are at-cost.

For my 3AM friends, my wedding and portrait photography services are free, and products are just above cost. Again, we are only talking about a handful of people whom I seldom see. I have done one wedding for a 3AM friend; I stayed in her bedroom the night before her wedding, and we stayed up giggling and talking in the dark.

Everyone else - this is the group where the policy really comes into play. Everyone else gets one at-cost portrait session. This just covers the cost of my editor; my time is free. Products are full-price, but I do provide them the high-resolution images. Weddings are full price.

Also, I only do a limited number of these sessions a month and only if I have the available "free" time. So if they want a "right now" session and my calendar is looking full, I give them the option of paying full price and booking sooner or doing "at-cost" when I have more free time. You need to keep openings in your calendar for paying clients and for "you" time. It's okay to be protective of your time, and those who are deserving of your generosity will understand this.

4. Set expectations for delivery times.

This applies to regular clients too, but it is increasingly important for friends and family. Let them know that since your regular clients need to come first, it will take X weeks to get their photos back to them (probably 2x your normal delivery time). Since you aren't being paid for your time, you need to make sure it fits into your leisurely time. It's best to communicate this before their shoot. If they need more expedited handling, offer them a full-price session or refer them to a friend.

5. Sign all the normal contracts.

I'll be honest, I don't do this with immediate family, but then again I have a really incredible family. With friends and coworkers, I do still have model releases or portrait contracts signed. For the 3AM friend's wedding, they signed a normal wedding contract. (Except the final cost came to $0.) This not only protects both parties, but also helps you communicate to them that you are a professional...not someone with a hobby.

So, Muriel, one idea would be a "Friends Of Muriel February Special"...invite your friends to book a session in February for a special price. Let them know that all sessions will go back to normal price of $XYZ in March. If it generates a lot of interest and makes your friends happy, you can do it again next year during a slow month.

Alternatively, you could decide that your policy is to always give a percentage off for friends and family. Or to never discount at all, and only do full session prices. Another approach with many benefits would be to offer free upgrades to friends and family who purchase sessions at full-cost session.

For exactly "what" to charge...only you will be able to select a price, because only you know your friends' income level and interest level. Choose a few price points between "free" and "full price." At each level, how many friends do you think would book? Do you think those bookings would generate adequate future business? Do you think those friends/family have networking connections with people who are your target client base? Try to think more long term rather than the just short term income they would generate. But if, long term, the discounts won't help your business, you should not feel bad about charging full price if that is what you want your policy to be.

For another point of view, try this previous post: "Leaping from Hobby to Profession"
Another good read from the blog, on pricing in general, is at "The Psychology of Pricing"

I encourage everyone to chime in with other opinions and personal experiences!! I, quite frequently, do not have the best ideas, but our conversation can generate brilliant thoughts!

If you have an "Ask Jillian" question, please email Jillian at

Jillian Kay is a wedding & portrait photographer from San Jose, CA. By weekday, she is a mild mannered software engineer. By weekend, she is a joyful and energetic force behind a camera! Jillian enjoys tackling the tough questions about client relationships and helping others see win/win solutions. When not working, she loves taking walks, blog-stalking, visiting with friends, and enjoying life!.

And here are a few photos I took (at no cost except that I wanted to get to hold her) of my 5 week old niece, Eden. :)


  1. Thanks Jillian for posting this. When I went from hobby to pro, I created those definitive circles and it has worked extremely well. Something that happened recently was a new client asked me to discount my prices because of who she was and I told her no. I did not want to discount myself as a photographer. Have a great day.

  2. Super helpful post. Most of my clients are relatives, friends, and friends of friends, and I've been giving bigger discounts than I need to, so I think I'll come up with some rules like you have here. Thanks!

  3. #2 is a huge thing. Setting the normal price from the beginning usually gets the people accepting of ANY price you give them down the road. I occasionally offer a friend a discount one time, then go to regular price and they are fine with that transition.

    As mentioned in here, ALWAYS put the full paying clients first. Your friends and family won't be angry with you if it takes a while because they already care for you; your new client is unbiased and you can set a bad impression pretty quickly.

  4. Tira - Great! I'm glad to hear that something similar worked well for you, thanks for sharing your experience!

    Christopher - I highly encourage you to make a policy...any policy. Mine is probably more "open" that what many would suggest, but it's all about finding what works for you.

    Tanya- Exactly! Thanks for backing me up. :) Those are really key points.

  5. Thank you so much for this post Jillian!! Its so funny, I'm dealing with this exact thing right now, of what to say to friends, and how to deal with it.. I appreciate your insight. Also, I have found that acquaintances and friends of friends seem to be really hard customers, I had a horrible situation recently and I almost swore to never photograph a friend again.. but that is just silly...

  6. This is an awesome post! I was just having this discussion with one of my friends recently and her idea was for me to not offer ANY discounts. But that's just not in my personality. Many of my close friends are nowhere near my target client price point-I can't even afford me!

    I love the idea of making the lists and setting expectations. This advice is so very helpful.


  7. Hey,
    I just discovered that side a few days ago and I LOVE it. Thank you so much for all the hard work you put into this just to make it easier for other people.


  8. Jillian,

    Thanks for the tips. I've been struggling with some similar situations lately.

    Where do your spouses 3am friends fall in this (If you have a spouse). Would they be every other friend?

    Also, what if you attend a friends wedding not as a photographer. Do you leave the camera at home? Or do you take pictures and would you just share them on a DVD?


  9. John - thanks so much!!

    Katrina - Exactly, those can be the hardest customers. Setting boundaries and expectations up front helps a lot.

    Lakaye - I couldn't do "no" discounts either! I probably am more giving than many would advise, but oh's mine to give, and I manage it so it doesn't get out of control.

    Manon - Thanks! There's a ton to learn here so keep coming back!

    Chad - Honestly it hasn't come up yet...most of them are single. ;) And the one who's married...well, her husband avoids the camera at all costs. My best guess though...If it were something for them together, then it would follow 3am rules. If it were for his business or personal, then I'd expect it to be under the general rule.

  10. What a great blog...awesome info here. It's a hard business. Nice to have support. Thanks

  11. This is a cool site! I'm glad I found it :-) I look forward to seeing more stuff :-)

  12. Wow what an intersting post! I was wondering about the same exact thing a few days ago. I give some of my friends big discounts, and some I photograph for free. I give my co-workers discounts as well and get new clients through word of mouth. Thanks so much for posting this!

  13. Thanks for this article. Very thought provoking and something I've been NEEDING to think through. haha


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