Avoid One of the Biggest Traps Newly Professional Photographers Fall Into

Avoid One of the Biggest Traps Newly Professional Photographers Fall Into

Taking the leap in to professional photography is daunting and full of traps for you to fall into, but there's one that you can jump in willingly and without realizing it's a trap at all.

There is a plethora of well-hidden mistakes you can be lured into as a photographer — believe me, I've made a lot of them — but few were as harmful as one that I made for nearly a year: accepting low paid work. I'll first explain how the first year as a professional photographer typically goes and why low paid work seems par for the course. Then, I'll unpack why it most definitely isn't par for the course and in fact could see you stuck in the lowest income bracket.

Being a New Professional Photographer

Few photographers are lucky enough to grow organically on the side to a degree where they can turn full-time professional without much of a leap of faith. For the vast majority of us, we get to a stage where we can see the potential for making money and a career in our beloved hobby, but for it to truly materialize, we'll have to stop other obligations and dive in face first.

The careful of us will have some savings, some leads, and a support network that will allow us the time to grow. The braver of us will have little to lose and try to brute-force their way to success. I was somewhere between the two; I had not a penny to my name (but rather debt from university,) some paid work under my belt, and a decent support network. I set myself modest targets to initially achieve, and without clear direction (or a niche that I bang on about so regularly), I was spread-betting and taking work where I could get it. Occasionally, that wasn't a bad route for me and I'd get multiple jobs in a month, but more often, it felt like I was clawing at everything and hanging on to self-employment viability with my bloodied fingernails. No matter how hard (read: long) I worked, I couldn't necessarily increase the flow of work. So, I specialized with the sort of imagery I was looking to create, and then I focused on getting paid by companies in that area to do so. This saw more regular work, but with it came the exacerbation of an already persistent problem: pricing. That is, low paid work.

When I say I was shooting anything for money, I mean anything. Here is a welder making a giant drill bit on an industrial estate near where I used to live. Thankfully, they paid fairly, though!

Vicious Circles: The Trap of Low Paid Work

To hit my targets of monthly income in the first year, I had to be industrious, void of ego, and willing to take what came. I would often quote for a job, and if it came in lower than I wanted, I'd have to take it because I couldn't risk them walking away; I had no power or control over the situation. But, money's money right? I wasn't in a position to be turning down pay, and it's not forever anyway. Except, it just might be forever.

You see, by accepting those jobs that aren't worth taking on, you're not growing in the direction you want or at the pace you want. But worse than that, you're sacrificing the most important resource you have: time. In that, the vicious circle lies. You see, you're taking these low paid jobs, and you might be busier than usual, but that means you don't have the time to canvas for clients that you do want. But if you're not earning much money, how can you possibly turn down work? Well, you don't necessarily have a choice.

After a while of being locked into this cycle, I reached a precipice. One of my regular clients (who had initially paid me reasonably well, but then whittled it down with every repeat job) offered me my largest assignment yet. The work would be my biggest ever fee and I'd hit target for two months in a row just off one job. Perfect. Except, I sat down and diligently worked out how long the assignment would take to complete, how much it would cost me in (unpaid) expenses, and the level of consistent creativity necessary to repeat the standard of work for that long. Well, it would have taken me the best part of three months, hundreds of dollars in expenses, and taxing my brain to within an inch of its life. So, I came back to the gentleman with a counter-quote (which in retrospect was still painfully low), and he hit the roof. After all the work he'd sent my way, I was going to charge him more than before?! I calmly laid out the facts: that after all things considered, he would be paying £10 ($12) per commercial image shot and fully retouched, which if I discounted creativity and could just pump out hundreds of ideas over three months would probably equate to (and I'm being generous here) £3 per hour.

We parted ways and I never worked with him again. The next two months were painfully difficult, and I didn't earn much at all. I spent every day wondering whether to swallow my pride and go back to him, cap in hand, and hope he doesn't lower the offer further. But I knew it was necessary to move my boat towards the destination I intended, and in the third month, I secured one of my favorite clients (even now that's still true) who paid me fairly and were a dream to work with. They also held a much higher prestige, which led to more work.


For those not interested in a fleshed-out discussion of the trap, I'll lay it out simply and briefly: by accepting very low paid jobs, you're stealing success from your future. I have no doubt there are instances where low paid jobs lead to something great, but they're going to be rare. You're honestly better off (and I wish I could have told myself this) getting a part-time job instead and aiming for bigger fish with your photography.

Did you fall into this trap when you went full-time? Are you currently in this trap right now?

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Brian Knight's picture

I thought this is what you had to do to build up a portfolio. I'd be interested in hearing what advice other seasoned photographers have on this subject.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

I’m in the same boat, freshly-minted Pro photographer starting out with studio and real estate work, and my solution is to offer one or two pro-bono sessions of each photography genre, with retained licensing rights to display the images taken as part of my marketing portfolio, and if the client likes the work and wants more, I charge full, non-discounted rates.

If the clients balks at that, and declines, doesn’t matter, as I now have something in my portfolio to use for advertising, and I canvas for clients more willing to pay my rate, which is not negotiable.

For the record, I too am in the debt-loaded, minimal resources position, but I won’t stoop to reducing my rates to work for peanuts, as paying for my time, my gear, my travel, must be compensated fairly, and if I don’t get paid fairly, I simply bow out of the proposal. I need my clients to understand right from the start, otherwise I’ll be penny-pinched for a long time, and I want to avoid that.

michaeljin's picture

I don't think that there's advice that's universally applicable here. A lot is going to depend on the market for the photography that you want to do as well as what kind of resources you're starting off with.

Jordan McChesney's picture

I don’t take on clients, I haven’t quite gotten around to navigating the client side of Japan. However, I can sort of relate to the “underpaid” point. While I don’t do paid work, I do undercharge for my limited edition fine art prints. Being a nobody means that I can’t really place “name value” on my prints, like more established photographers. This results in my smallest prints having me take up to 3 hours out of my day to get and send prints for a glorious profit of... 20usd, less than I make for an hour at my actual job. (My largest one nets me 70usd)

I’ve been told by the print director at my shop that I should raise my prices, but I’m not selling anything, even with my insultingly low prices. Even my wife asks me “who would pay $50 for a picture?” So I feel trapped, but I don’t feel like I have any way to get out of it, yet.

Andrzej Muzaj's picture

On the other hand, Jordan, if someone does not know your name, what will help them judge the value of your works? I assume that your potential print buyers are mostly non-photographers, so they can't really say more besides "I (don't) like it". The price tag, however, is something they can relate to. Is it expensive (for them)? If so, it might have some "objective" value. If not, it probably hasn't.

Also, at this point, they can start to do the "emotional math": "Do I like this piece enough to pay XXX$ for it?". Now - perceived value is very much different from the physical value, so some prints can go really high in price, especially in fine art world. Therefore, I would encourage you to price up your works. If you're not selling anything right now, you can't loose anything. And if you can make X money by selling 2 prints or 6 prints, I would go with two - less work, lower additional costs (printing, package, shipping), better margin.

As an additional resource I recommend Futur youtube channel - Chris Do does an awesome job with explaining business parts of creative industry: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gIw-PBNXWgE&t

Jordan McChesney's picture

Yeah, I can see both sides. On the one hand, I know that keeping my prices low devalues my work. However, on the other hand, I know that most of the value placed on art is the name of the artist. For example, if someone buys a Nagi Yoshida print for 600,000 yen, then it’s later found out to be taken by some no name photographer, it will lose all value. Nothing about the image itself has changed, only the person who pushed the button. My current prices are entry level prices, because I’m sane enough to know my name holds no value, regardless of quality. I do plan on raising them if it does gain value, but I also hope to sell standard prints at an affordable price, because I do believe art is for everyone, not just the wealthy.

As for clients, I haven’t taken them on yet, but I’ve already got strict rules if I ever do. 50% up front and they cover 100% of all my expenses, non-negotiable. I’m more comfortable being strict there because it’s business, not art, at that point, thus it’s less personal.

However, what I’d rather do is workshops. I have no idea how one gets into doing them, but I feel like workshops lead by knowledgeable foreigners is an untapped market in Japan. Unfortunately, I have to move at a slow pace, as I have a full time job, and a baby, but I am slowly working on finding these things out.

Alexandra Giamanco's picture

Here's another "annoying thing about photographers": Posting vague, unhelpful articles about how not to take low end jobs, but not what to do precisely to get higher end jobs. The reasons for this are: 1. Fear of being copied and having hundreds of photographers ping your clients too, 2. No actual plan because you're either married to a client, or know them through some other nepotism form, 3. For FStoppers and others to keep their SEO up by posting a bunch of text without regard to the fact that all this text is completely useless.

How about stop these articles of "this is how I became successful" that don't really tell anything of value. How about talk about what exactly we should write to make someone not hit delete on an email? Or talk about how no one ever answers emails anymore and all photographers who are successful have some sort of "buddy" or "coworker" or "wife" pushing them through. There's no way for most photographers in Florida to quote a client $1000 for anything. That's a stupid bragging myth. How about just make it clear that without a solid portfolio created through actually learning about photography and not piecing things together off the internet, and without a solid marketing college education no one will be successful on actual merit in this day and age when wannabe photographers turned "photography" into a commodity and nobody has any respect for us anymore even though without photographs these companies would not be promoting or selling anything. The day you people start talking incessantly about why photographs matter, and I mean educated photographs not moronic snapshots as seen on B & H promoting professional gear, that would be the day this field of work may have some respect restored. The day "engineers" quit trying to imitate someone's talent in some stupid app, that would be another day when talent and true creativity will restore respect for this industry. Until then, there is no hope for people to charge what they deserve. None what so ever.

michael butler's picture

It is a tried and true business practise to trade market share for profit in the start up phase of a new business and new photographers need to understand this. But more importantly, your work is not going to be as good as it will in a few years nor do you have much of a portfolio to show off so why would you expect the same rate of pay as someone who has several years of commercial photography under their belt? Go back and take a look at your earliest images that you were paid to produce and I'm sure you will see there was a lot of room for improvement. So why would any business pay the same rate for a new photographer as they would for a more experienced one?

So I see nothing wrong with accepting a lower dollar figure when you start out, you are at the beginning of a long apprenticeship. The bigger mistake, I know because I made it many times when I started, is doing work for free. I soon learned that no one respects free work and you will never make up the loss later on. And that goes for "trading" as well, you soon learn that in a trade, each party overvalues their contribution and undervalues the other guy's so no one is happy.

Deleted Account's picture

Just a clarification of what "apprenticeship" means:


If you do not serve an apprenticeship, you are essentially self-taught and working to your own standards.

We usually do not want our professionals, e.g. doctors, dentists, lawyers, to be self-taught. We appreciate the formal instruction and vetting process.

Best of luck, everyone.

Mike Ditz's picture

A self taught doctor, dentist, or lawyer can really mess up your life. A self taught photographer will disappoint with bad pictures or failing to deliver. But no one is going to die or go to jail.

Mike Yamin's picture

I've been caught in this trap MANY times over the course of my 12 or so years as a full-time photographer and I still fight the battle often. You have to ask yourself, what, if anything, would I shoot if I didn't need the money? How would I shoot it? If someone told you that you could only shoot one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? I mostly shoot people, food, and interiors, but people would be the one thing I couldn't live without. That tells me I need to home in on that.

So, shoot only the thing(s) that truly resonate with you, in a way that truly resonates with you, and do your very best every single time. If you think you might be tempted to cut corners on a job, don't do it. For me, it's usually money that causes me to half-ass things and I always regret it. I get mad that I'm not getting paid what I really want in order to do my best work, but then I look in the mirror and realize I didn't demand what I think my best work is worth, so it's really my own fault... either that or start shooting video, because the average a-hole doesn't think they can do it themselves, yet.

Deleted Account's picture

Nice photo of the welding operation. Were you using a welding lens as part of your gear?