Everyone Is a Photographer. Why Should I Pay Your Fee?

Everyone Is a Photographer. Why Should I Pay Your Fee?

During a recent night out, I was asked the question: "What do you do for a living?" It was the perfect opportunity to practice being excited about my work, so I launched into my story. This was followed up with a question that often comes up in these conversations: “Why would someone hire you to fly around the world when they could save time and money hiring a local photographer?”

The question could have been rephrased: “Everyone is a photographer these days. Why should I pay your fee?”

Great View

Architectural photography has proven to me that house buyers are willing to pay a premium for additonal features, like a great view.

Could I ask you to do some basic calculations with me? How much money would you need per year to cover your living costs, your business expenses, and to leave a little extra to build your business? In the UK, it is roughly £60,000 ($77,000).

How many shoots can you realistically handle per year, assuming you’re involved in the entire process from pre-production to delivery? Is 50 per year a reasonable number? That means you need to be making £1,200 ($1,538) as a minimum per shoot just to make it as a “somewhat successful” business.

I did this calculation to determine a price to charge my architectural clients. During the fee negotiation process, one of my clients told me that my fee was almost the entire fee he was charging for his design. Why should he give up most of his income simply for photography? I caved and offered him a cheaper option (half the fee for half the time), but it got me worried about the state of the photography market. If my minimum fee requirement was significantly more than what my clients could afford, how sustainable is my business?

I found the answers to these questions in an episode of the Tim Ferris Show. For those of you not familiar with the Tim Ferris Show, it is a long-form interview podcast where the host, Tim Ferris, interviews world class performers across a variety of disciplines to tease out common practices that can be applied to any discipline. I've learned more about the photography business from the Tim Ferris show than from any book or course about the photography business.

Nandos design

Nandos core business is selling chicken meals, yet through the interior architecture of their restaurants, they appeal to an audience who love design and want a unique experience.

The episode that spoke to my questions was an interview with Seth Godin. Seth is a leading expert on the topic of marketing as well as being a phenomenal communicator. He did a similar interview on the Chase Jarvis Live podcast. Both podcast episodes bring out principles from Seth’s latest book, “This is Marketing.” The episodes cover principles like making your service for the smallest viable audience. Just that concept alone was worth listening to the episodes.

Smallest Viable Market

A friend of mine did this shoot for a business called Hefthd that repairs antique axes. They're doing a great job of providing a service to their smallest viable market. Photo is by Dale Reubin: www.dalereubin.com.

Any photographer who is trying to find an audience for their work should listen to the podcast episodes. At the very least, it will challenge you to think about the practices you've always been doing that you've assumed to be useful. Personally, I changed my entire business focus.  

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58 Comments

Previous comments
William Howell's picture

And I agree with you, man I would love to give up my primary job and just do photography. That would be my dream come true!

Jonathan Reid's picture

I wish you all the best in following your dream!

Carl Murray's picture

In the eternal words of Shia LeBouf "Just do it!"

"Why would someone hire you to fly around the world when they could save time and money hiring a local photographer?”
The question could have been rephrased: “Everyone is a photographer these days. Why should I pay your fee?”

That's not the same question at all! If a corporate, wedding or agency wants shots in Greece then it's cost effective to hire a Greek photographer rather than fly a photographer out.

Jonathan Reid's picture

How about if I rephrased it, "Everyone is a photographer these days. Why should I pay your fee if I can get it cheaper elsewhere?". In other words, what do you offer over the local guy that would make me pay a premium? This is the question that the podcast answers for me.

Dana Goldstein's picture

It’s not about cheaper elsewhere - agencies and their clients don’t have the budgets they used to, which is why there are many photographers who are better situated geographically specifically because they’re one of the few who do what they do in their area. They benefit from scarcity.

Jonathan Reid's picture

It depends on what you’re looking for as a customer. My clients need consistency and reliability. They know with 100% certainty what they’ll get from me. Paying the extra airfare is a small additional cost relative to the overall fee.

Lee Stirling's picture

I agree with Howling Basset. The "article" took the question that the author fielded during his night out, thoroughly twisted it, and used it to force a segue to plug the podcast. I, for one, would have appreciated a more in-depth look at the value, from a business standpoint, of hiring photographers to go around the world instead of using local talent.

Presumably, a photographer based, for example, in Tangier would have a more intimate knowledge of that city, contacts with more local people and officials, access to more interesting locations when lighting is prime, and familiarity with local permitting and regulations to name several advantages.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I can see how you think that was the question, however, as I was the person being questioned, I can very much confirm that I was being asked “why would they pay extra to fly you there instead of using a local photographer?”

R. P.'s picture

The question could have been rephrased: “Everyone is a photographer these days. Why should I pay your fee?”

Nope, that was not what she asked. She stated why hire you and not a local photographer.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Who is the she you mention? If it is Howling Basset, she specifically mentions it being more cost effective. If you meant the person that asked me the original question, he wanted to know why someone would pay the extra fee to fly me over.

Its a question of cost.

Christian Santiago's picture

Damn, we got some grouches in the comments today. This is a FREE website full of daily content. It would be impossible for Fstoppers to make nothing but original content at the volume which they post. They'd have to start charging for the articles in order to pay the writers enough to take the time to do it.

So yea, a lot of the stuff on this site is sharing content that's already out there. And I am ok with it because there's so much of it out there that I am frequently not aware of it all. This podcast is a specific example. I have heard of Tim Ferriss once or twice but never checked out his work. This little anecdote as encouraged me to give him a listen.

I would love it though as a follow up if the writer could elaborate further on how he used Tim's advice to reshape his business model. I think it would be useful to see the tangible changes made and if he ever found a good retort to the condescending question he was asked.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Thanks for the contribution Christian. I would love it if you let me know if you found anything useful or thought prevoking from listening to the interview with Seth Godin.

Regarding an article on the subject, here is my commitment to you. In a few months time, once I've had a chance to assess the effectiveness of the changes I've made, I'll write a followup article detailing the changes I've made and whether or not they were effective.

Jen Photographs's picture

Just a quibble: because Fstopper benefits from affiliate and product sales, this site isn't totally free.

John Dawson's picture

Is that Peter McKinnon polishing that axe? :-)

Jonathan Reid's picture

I had to google Petter McKinnon. They could be doppelgängers.

user-206386's picture

And so we come back to the conversation about self-employed versus staff photographers. My job is not disappearing any time soon!

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’m not sure I follow Laz. Care to elaborate?

user-206386's picture

Oh, there was an earlier discussion on an article about whether or not one should be a self-employed photographer or look to be a staff photographer for a company/institution. I am the latter, but have been the former, and will never go back for the reasons you mentioned in your article.

Jonathan Reid's picture

To be a staff photographer sounds like a dream job!

Over 30 years ago I read a three part series called "Survival in the Photo Jungle", written by a NYC based commercial photographer.and published in Popular Photography. He talks about pricing, handling potential clients, advertising, spending money on gear and generally making money in a saturated market.

This is not a direct quote but the first paragraph from the first article is "There are thirteen pages of photographers in the New York City phone book and I am unlisted." The difference between then and now is that then you had skilled professional photographers, today you have people shooting with their phones and passing them off as "professional grade photos". I actually saw a guy with a business card saying "professional cell phone photos". This is why I do photography for fun and on the side. I got tired of explaining to people why my work is better, they simply don't care. Price is more important than quality. You have to convince people why you are the better choice. The guy who wrote the three part article said he didn't take photos, he provided solutions to visual problems.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I like that. It’s actually pretty close to what the podcast recommends.

Doc M's picture

Good evening, I thought I would add to this as the problem mentioned in the article is not solely one related to photography. Rather it is one related to all service industry businesses. Why should you buy a Mercedes when you could buy a Chevy? I am a doctor. You will not find my name in a book or on a website. There are no adds for buy one get one free. I do not negotiate my fees and while I am not cheap I feel that I am of value to my clients, my product speaks for itself. The only way to schedule with me is by referral. It took me 25 years to get to this point but I am now at a point that people find me from all around the world. This is the same is with any business, you get what you pay for. If you want cheap you can get cheap, but do not expect great to be in the same sentence. Without the basic premise of truly understanding the cost of business it is impossible to stay in business. After that you must determine what you consider a fair wage and then provide a service worthy of that wage, if you do they your customers will find value in you. If you are $1 then your $1 customers will value your work. If your are $100000 and can provide that level of service then your customers in that finical range will find value in you. In the 25 years of mentoring I always stress that you must provide a fair trade of services for value if you do that then you will never be without work. There will always be people who will charge. $1 but there will also be customers who are no longer satisfied with the work they get for $1. Lastly I have always preached find a hole and fill it. Don’t compete with e erroneous else. I write this from a hotel room where a patient needed my services paid my fees and flew me to his state work on him as my costs were less than the losses he would incurred by not functioning as he needed to. Obviously, there are doctors closer than 3000 miles to him but I offer skills that match his need and as such my value to him is great. Strive for more not less, don’t take offense by turning down low offers. Just be worth what you charge and the clients will find you. I hope my insight helps. As for my photography I am closer to the $1 model so hopefully you are not competing against me. If you are then I suggest that you work you a$$ off and get better because while I am among the best in my field I am certainly it in photography. Cheers! Have an amazing career!

Jonathan Reid's picture

I love this comment, thank you so much for your thoughts. When someone buys a Mercedes, it’s not because they want a vehicle, they have other desires which are satisfied by a Mercedes, like status or a love of design. Seth argues that by learning to see what your clients really want and then tailoring your service to meet that desire, you’re actually serving the market.

I had to take a long look at my business to see what specific want/need I was solving with my architectural photography. I was able to find a relatively unique edge, which I now focus on.

I appreciate how you brought in your medical experience. Congratulations for getting to the heights you’re at in your career!

Jen Photographs's picture

This article feels half written. How about a synopsis of Seth's and Tim's approaches? How did adopting their tips/knowledge improve your business? How do you answer that question now?

On a personal note, I'm deaf and cannot benefit from podcasts. A summary would be beneficial.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’ve had this conversation with someone else in the comments. I’ve agreed that I will do the synthesis once enough time has passed for me to gauge the effectiveness of my new strategy. Hopefully it will be a good read.

Jeremy Center's picture

I don't think the author answered the question asked in the headline.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Did you listen to the podcast which I said answers the question?