How Declining Work Enriched My Career

When I was starting out as a professional photographer, I felt I had to be all things to all people. Any work that came in, no matter what genre of photography, how boring or bizarre, I said yes. If a company came to me with a request and they said they couldn't afford my quote, I'd bend myself in to unnatural shapes to accommodate them, because some money is better than no money, right? I eventually came to the conclusion that this was unsustainable and I began to say no and to quote those awful click-bait titles, you'll never guess what happened next.

You most certainly can guess what happened next: a profound and positive change came about in my working life. I originally wrote this article breaking down what I thought were the chief motivations behind the change and what I would suggest others change, but in all honesty, I don't know if it's good advice. I do my very best to never speak on subjects I don't know enough about and never to project a false image of success (hence my recent article on failure), so rather than a prescription for my fellow photographers to achieve more success, I'll explain what I changed that how it had a large and positive change on my career.

When I first leapt in to full-time photography, I'd always had this sense that I wanted to only do things that furthered my career. That is, despite money being limited, I would rather struggle and spend my time working on photography than get a part-time job to supplement my income. This is a risky strategy and I'm not sure it's a smart one, but it didn't help that I couldn't concisely articulate it. Then a friend of mine who created a start-up around the same time I became self-employed relayed some advice she'd received from an experienced and successful business person on the topic of time management and it went something like this: "ask yourself, is this task helping to move my boat forward?" I thought that by only working in the photography field I was succeeding in doing that and that any part-time job in an unrelated area was a distraction from the cause. My intentions may have been right, but my execution was wrong.

If it was a photography job, I was going to take it, even if it wasn't an genre of photography I was pursuing a career in or under-paid. At first, declining work is difficult. How I saw it in the very early stages was that I would spend 3 days working on a project I didn't really want and I'd make a little money and some connections. People have to do things they don't like all the time in the working world, and would I make any money or connections if I said no? Probably not. Therefore, the risk didn't make sense to me. While in the absolute foetal stages of your photography career, this might be a necessary evil, but few people ever start a photography career without experience or a skill set. So, what I ought to have done is resist that opportunity for a small pay day and instead take the philosophy of moving the boat forward more seriously.

You see there are two parts that I didn't properly separate out. The first is financial compensation and the second is career furthering. If the money is right, I will (and I argue should) do the job; few photographers ever get rich and so you can't be too picky with the work you do. If the job will further my career, I will do it. However, there are fine lines and this isn't another article on whether you should or should not ever work for free. This is about turning down jobs that don't meet your terms.

If a photography role wasn't in my area and wasn't compensating me at close to or above my rate, I'd turn it down. However, if a job was in my area but not meeting my rates, there was a time I'd contort everything I could to fit the budget, but this proved to be counter-productive. The problem with being completely subordinate in negotiations is you're powerless and it puts you in to a cycle. You end up working too long on jobs that aren't ideal for poor compensation on the premise that it's better to work than not work. This is a false dichotomy. By spending your time on jobs that aren't paying what you would like, you aren't looking for jobs that are. This brings me on to my next points: value and better use of time.

By declining underpaid roles, I achieved two things. Firstly, I established my worth. That company had a sense of value for my services and although we might not be a correct fit now or even ever, we may be in the future when they have a better budget. I've heard a few veteran photographers say similar sentiments on this topic and everything I've experienced so far points towards it being correct. Imagine a company gets quotes from two photographers, one is too expensive and won't budge and the other comes down in price to meet their budget. The photographer who came right down in price usually received the verbally agreed deal that when the client grows and has a better budget, they'll come back to him and pay him more. They won't. When they've got a bigger budget, they'll almost always go to the photographer who said no in the first place as that photographer has established that they are worth more and seemingly better. Whether they're actually better or not is irrelevant, we all believe that money buys quality and it extends to hiring photographers.

Secondly, I free up time I can spend networking and canvassing. Before I worked for myself, I was under the illusion that the photographers I'd heard of that are known in the industry just sat there and got fully booked. Then, when I joined the industry, I spoke with many of them who corrected my view. I'll quote my article from earlier this month: "I've spoken to a whole host of top photographers in the industry — photographers working with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue — and they still set aside a day a week to canvas for new work." So, when you turn down that job that isn't paying what you would like, start searching for ones that will. The chances are, you won't make the same money in the same time frame, even though it's a low amount to begin with. What it does for you instead (at least it has consistently for me), is propel your boat towards your destination rather than entering in to that cycle of just staying afloat. To give a real world example, without going in to specifics, some time ago I had what is still my worst month of all time. I turned down jobs that were simply terrible pay and unopen to negotiation, despite the fact that I could have used the money. Instead I ploughed my time in to nurturing connections with brands I had a symbiotic relationship with and searching for a higher breed of client than those offering me terrible pay. The next three months after that drought were the best I had ever had and some of the new clients I worked with became regular work I still do business with today.

I couldn't in good faith prescribe to everyone that turning down work will lead to a better career. What I can say, with a degree of certainty, is to keep that boat moving forward you sometimes need to sacrifice the short-term relief for the long-term goal. There are plenty of clients out there who will appreciate your determination for the best possible quality and your drive for excellence. They also know that they have to pay for somebody like that. "Pay peanuts, get monkeys" isn't always true, but there's truth to it. Conversely, it seems that if you accept peanuts, you'll get treated like a monkey. If you can justify your price as fair for your services, then stay steadfast when people lowball you; no matter your price, you'll always be too expensive for someone and there are plenty of clients out there willing to pay for quality.

Lead image by Aleksandar Pasaric used under CC0 License.

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LA M's picture

True of any profession where you have to "go get" the money yourself....time management and even more importantly "activity management" is the way to cut down on work that does nothing for you.

As soon as some potential client says "I can get you...blah blah blah" I tune them out and move on to more productive uses of my time.

I'm much better for it...I've scored much better assignments, made more money and travelled quite a bit.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

Fantastic words! I always appreciate this kind of insides and the humble way in which you present them.
Is clear for me that quality is not the more important thing in business photography. there's a lot of great photographers out there struggling to get a job, and a lot of them that are not so good who happens to have very well paid work every day of the week, in my opinion. And is not an unfair thing. When it comes to work, be a person people are happy to spend time with, be responsible, flexible, meeting the deadlines, become very important things. For me, is about relationships, connections, share, be a part of something bigger than oneself, be happy and enjoy the ride. Otherwise is not worth it. No matter how good you are

And completely agree about the price issue. There's a lot of comments in youtube photography videos this kind: "yeah but you have a gazillion medium format camera..." and things like that. So what? A taxi driver has to buy a car and an expensive license so he can work, if you open whatever business you think on you have a lot of numbers to meet, almost every self-employ working person starts making a big inversion so he can see things happen. Not necessary to go there neither, people who like mountain biking, snowboard, skydiving, you name it, sometimes spend fortunes in his passion. Your passion is photography, you are a professional photographer? well, then what's the problem. Buy the gear you need. Work, save and buy. If your style doesn't require a MF or even a FF is ok, but if you think that to have a MF camera can improve your work, then buy it. If you don't have the money start saving it or ask for a credit like every other entrepreneur.
And when you put your price, don't sell yourself cheap. Don't low your rates so you can meet a poor budget. Give everything you have, put all your passion in your work and ask for a fair price. Respect yourself and work with people who value you.
That's my view, of course, everyone is different and have different circumstances, who in part shape our opinion. Anyway, that was my contribution to the subject.
Have a great day man!

Dave Coates's picture

Could you clarify what is meant by "...canvas for new work"? Being relatively new to photography, I guess I am not sure what this means. In my head, I am seeing someone going door to door, but I doubt that is right.

LA M's picture

Depending on what your work focus, email, see in person potential customers/clients

Robert K Baggs's picture

As Leigh said, it tends to me calling or emailing for me in this profession.

Andrew Feller's picture

I am literally in the middle of this right now... on the tail end of a job I should not have taken that was outside my wheel house AND under budget, while at the same time on a job inside my genre and about right in budget. The epiphany I am feeling is hard to describe, but damn its like a brick to the head.

Aleksandar Pasaric's picture

Great article Robert. Cover photo of the article was taken by me, I uploaded it on pexels so its free for use, however, since you are a photographer you should mention that photos in the article are not taken by you...

Robert K Baggs's picture

Hi Aleksandar, I only use my work when I'm discussing my work and CC0 images otherwise which require no attribution. I've added credit at the bottom which I'm always more than happy to do and often do even when no attribution is necessary under the license, on this occasion I didn't think to. I in no way meant to insinuate that I took the images and it hadn't occurred to me that people might presume I did; I'll be more careful going forward.