In the world of professional photography, the value of our work doesn’t always line up with our client’s budgets. But as tempting as it is to take the money and run, holding firm can often be more profitable in the end.
First off, I get it. I am a professional photographer am I make my living from my photography. If I don’t book enough work, the dog doesn’t eat. I like the dog. I want him to eat.
When we first start off in photography as a hobby, we are paid in adulation. We spend all day shooting, all night retouching, and all afternoon posting, all in exchange for the hope that someone somewhere will notice and enjoy our work. Even if it’s just that dude you were kind of friends with for like a week in high school taking the time to click “Like” on Instagram, that little bit of feedback fills our confidence jar and propels us to keep shooting. The more likes we get, the more we tend to shoot. The more we shoot, the better we get. The positive feedback loop may not always be conscious, but it sure is effective.
Eventually we reach a point where we are good enough to someday receive an unexpected email one morning from a stranger asking about our rates. Since this is the first time we’ve gotten such a request, there’s a good chance we have absolutely no idea what to say. What do photographers charge? 20 bucks? 2 million bucks? We have no idea. We pick a number out of thin air almost certain to be well below market value and email it back. We figure even if it is below market value, we’re just getting started and we shouldn’t expect a lot. And, hey, even if it isn’t a lot, at least it’s something. Maybe even enough to pay for that new lens you want if you can get it used off of eBay. Of course you book the job. Why wouldn’t you book the job? Unbeknownst to you, you’ve just offered to shoot the job for 1/10th of the price of any other photographer. You didn’t charge for usage. You didn’t charge for pre production. You didn’t charge for post production. You just gave all the images to the clients without any restrictions. You put in three weeks of work, but only charged for four hours at a discounted rate.
Years later, as your career progresses and your business model begins to take shape, you’ll look back on the experience and realize that not only did you undercharge that client, but more than likely you actually lost money on the deal. Time is money and you offered far too much of your time in exchange for far too little of their money.
If the preceding story describes you, don’t take it as an insult. Almost every photographer has a similar story as they are starting out. And as we progress from getting paid in likes on social media to getting paid enough to pay our mortgages, we necessarily learn to access the total value we are providing to our clients.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that clients will understand that value. No matter how successful we may become, there is no point at which you won’t be approached by clients wanting to engage your services for far below market value. More often than not, there is no malice involved. The clients aren’t professional photographers, so how would they know what elements go into creating one of your images? In the imaginations of many, photographers just hang out all day with their friends on the beach, then show up five minutes before a shoot, take a couple snapshots that are only good because the photographer owns a really nice camera, then jet off to Bali for some rest and relaxation. All the client knows is that their Aunt Jean just took the whole family to Walmart for family portraits for $300 and they don’t understand why it should cost them any more than that to shoot their entire advertising campaign.
Okay, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but just a small one. The truth is that you will get a lot of emails from potential clients that either don’t value your work in the same way or simply don’t have the budget to afford what you are currently offering. And because we as photographers often start out just happy that anyone would enjoy our work at all, a feeling that never truly goes away, we tend to want to accept every job that comes our way. Even if we are being undervalued, the human brain has a weird way of being able to trick us into thinking, “well, at least it’s something.”
I am not immune to this. I have definitely fallen prey to the “something is better than nothing” way of thinking and have done work for far less than it was worth. Just recently, I was approached by a mid-sized fashion brand to shoot another campaign for them following a successful campaign I had shot for them a few years ago.
I remembered the campaign for two reasons. One, I was very happy with the final images. And two, I remember making the grave mistake of producing the campaign myself without engaging my producer. While I am plenty capable of producing small shoots myself, which is what I was originally led to believe this would be, project creep quickly began and what I originally thought would be a couple days of shooting had morphed into three months of production and a great many sleepless nights. I pulled it off. The project was a success. But it’s execution left some seriously negative sense memory, to the point where when I got the recent email from them about another project, my body had an instant physical reaction. A chill ran through my body.
Because, money is money, I still had to consider taking the follow up assignment. But as I was going back to take a look at my previous bid from a few years ago to generate a new one, it was quickly apparent that not only had I squeezed blood from a stone in delivering the job, but I had done so at a ridiculously favorable rate. I had made the mistake of underestimating the amount of work required. I had not held firm on my rate. And, while I ended up making solid money on the deal, I did not make nearly enough to account for the amount of time and stress I spent completing it.
It was a mistake. An understandable one. But not a sustainable pattern in the long run. So, while the client was undoubtedly expecting me to come back with a bid featuring similar numbers to our first campaign, I instead opted to give them the “real” numbers. I included my producer in the bid and accounted for all the production hours that I now knew would be required to give the client what they would be asking for. I quoted my actual day rate without any premature discounts. In short, I gave them the full accounting of the value I was providing and offered to do the job on those terms, rather than simply accepting what was being offered.
As I expected, the client passed. I had made the mistake of establishing an impossible to sustain rate in their head on the previous campaign. To the client, it would seem as if I were suddenly raising my prices through the roof. In actuality, I had simply erred in my estimate the first time around. And while, on the first project, I may have been able to convince myself that something was better than nothing, in the long term it created an unsustainable situation. So, even though it could have been a repeat client, what is the value of a repeat client if it only leads to repeatedly undervaluing your work? There are only 24 hours in a day. And time spent working with one client is time not spent working for another client. By undervaluing my time, I am losing money that could be made elsewhere.
In my humble opinion, pricing is the single most difficult part of being a commercial photographer. Unlike selling commodities where every product is identical, you are instead selling a variable product to completely different clients for completely different purposes in completely different situations. Trying to hit the bullseye on the numerical value of that work every time is a challenge that will never cease to exist. The ever changing nature of the marketplace only makes the task that much more difficult.
But establishing your value, knowing your value, and effectively conveying that value to your clients is the only way to run a successful business over the long term. Once you establish yourself as a professional photographer, likes are no longer enough. We all bend over backwards for our clients, but you have to understand that that flexibility has value. We go the extra mile, but that mile has costs involved.
When you are approached by a client asking for a bid, and offering you a job at below your market rate, you need to take into account the total costs of goods sold and know the value of your time. What are you getting versus what you are giving? You have to calculate the net profit you need to achieve in order to sustain your business and grow your company.
And if the job on offer doesn’t meet that threshold, sometimes you just have to say no. Even if it hurts in the short term. In the long term, maintaining your standard is what will pay the bills.