Stop Hating On Cheap Photographers

Stop Hating On Cheap Photographers

Almost weekly I see an article online or a comment about how cheap photographers are undermining the industry or that they are ruining it for us.

Personally, I just can’t buy into this. And this goes for  pretty much any genre of photography to. I will try to not turn this into a rant, but there is a pretty high chance that it will. My first paying job was for $50 and in recent years I have been working on jobs for around 200 times that budget. At no point has a cheaper photographer stolen my work. And at no point have I undercut someone else and stolen their work.

Photography is an odd career in that it is a mix of creativity and a kind of technician role. Some view it as a sexy profession, while others see it as a bit of a dead end career path. The response that you get from your partners parents when you tell them you are a lawyer is going to be pretty standard across the board, the response you get when you tell them you are a photographer is a little different. It can range from disappointment to hero worshiping. And I think a lot of this is related to the topic. Are you a $20 a photo photographer who hits a button at a supermarket or are you a $3 million a year photographer who shoots around the world? There is a huge range of jobs, pay scales and quality of both professional work and client requirements. So it is easy to see how people start to get angry that other photographers are working for less money or just for free. 

But I promise you, it wont have any effect from your career, here is why.

Spending Mentality

Clients have a budget. I have never sold a $2000 wedding package to someone with $300 and likewise, a $300 photographer has never convinced a $2000 couple to go with them. In recent years I have moved over to working in advertising. During this time, I have never worked successfully with an agency who don’t like what I charge. In the past I made the mistake of lowering my rate to work with an agency or to price match another photographer who was in their pay scale. The problem is that they will be working in a different way, with different overheads and different practices to what I am use to. They have different expectations and requirements. I always regret doing this, I work more than I feel I should and the images are never of any use to me. I tend to only take on two types of jobs, portfolio work where I pay out or cash cows where I get paid enough to do the job. Lowering my rate leaves me in no man's land. There are people I know who charge far more than me. I once accepted a job which was a considerable pay hike from my usual. This was as catastrophic as the lower paying jobs. Never in my life have I felt so out of my depth, lost, and scared during a shoot. I was in so far over my head, I didn't understand how they worked and I looked very out of place. It doesn't matter how cheap you pitch your work to Vogue, if you are not on their list of photographers who they respect, you wont be getting their work. And if you charge Vogue prices, the local photographer shooting for a small boutique isn't stealing your work. When someone with a smaller or bigger budget contacts me now, I just say no. That work isn't meant for me.

Knowing Your Worth

Knowing your worth is more than simply stating a price. There is a merit to what every photographer does and offers that goes beyond money. There is no way that I could do night club photography. The mix of late nights and needing to be sociable with drunk people is far beyond the scope of anything I could cope with. The fast delivery times and systems that are required to do this 5 nights a week are just not for me. I would also imagine that a nightclub photographer wouldn’t want to spend 4 days prepping to shoot once a week and sometimes only once a month. And if you do want to be mercenary about it. I know a pack shot company who are very cheap that make millions a year. Your image or day rate also doesn't suggest your annual salary. Your worth is your ability to deliver a product that is needed and to make it work in the price range that your clients can afford leaving them a good return on investment. There is no shame in shooting 100 weddings a year for $300 and delivering just JPEGS for those who can not afford more. It is a service that is wanted and that actual takes a lot of skill and hard work to achieve.

Knowing Your Client

I don’t shop at high end food stores for my weekly grocery shop. I see food as fuel unless I am going out. I train a lot and eat a lot. I can not afford to put high end produce into my mouth at the rate I consume it, so I am not at some niche high end store each week I am down at Walmart. Some clients do not need Annie Leibowitz level photography. Some need an intern to take some iPhone images, others have a few hundred dollars and a smaller number have a few thousand. Then at the extreme end, a very small number have a million or so as the images are so important to their brand. It is important to know what your client needs. If they go for someone cheaper, that photographer hasn’t price cut you, they simply offer a different service at a different price point. You were not the photographer for that particular client, much like Whole Foods isn't the grocery store for me, Walmart didn’t price cut them, they offer cheaper food and I am happy to eat them as I spend my money more on eating out (I can't cook).

Stop Watching Other Photographers

This is more advice than it is a reason why, but trying to follow other photographers price points is a thankless task. If someone you know charges $100 less than you, don’t worry about it. If there is a new photographer charging half of what you do for weddings, ignore it. I have no idea what my friends charge. Mostly because I am British and we find it awkward, but more than that, I simply don’t care. It does not effect what I am going to charge. I worked my prices out from what the clients I want to work with expect to pay. I then went away and built a portfolio of work that they would want to book.

How do you work out what packages you offer to clients?

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John Dawson's picture

Ha! It would likely be worse in English English. 😉

Excellent

Rob Mitchell's picture

Nice one. Down to earth and realistic.

Scott Choucino's picture

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it

Mark Harris's picture

Great to hear this side of the argument voiced. While we're being honest, there is also the question of why our industry has such a large low-budget sector. One of the reasons is of course that it's such a fun job, so inevitably there will be people who are willing to earn less or work harder to essential indulge their hobby, instead of sitting in an office or on a production line. That's just how it is, and we can't complain about that any more than gigolos can complain about the weekend warriors who offer services similar to theirs for free (or board and lodging...).

Scott Choucino's picture

I fully agree. It also takes a good decade of 7 day weeks honing your craft to be able to charge the big money. Most don't have the work ethic to do this. Hence the larger low end.

Bill Wells's picture

The issue in your article missed the point of what is really being said.

It’s not just cheap photographers. It is the number of new photographers that are cheap.

Today, if a person can scrape up $399, they can be a photographer.

If you think this increase of photographers is not affecting you, you are mistaken. It has already affected you or will in near future. Our question is how we deal with it.

Lowered expectation of quality and the acceptance of lower quality has impacted the industry. Fueled by social media, the trend is, “it’s good enough”. Setting ourselves apart with great quality work is far from enough.

When was the last time you sold a package that did not include digital images?

Established photographers and organizations like PPA did not push for it. In fact, they pushed against it with “just print it” campaigns.

Remember the phrase “shoot and burn”? That didn’t come out of thin air. It was happening and after time it became the norm.

Photographers are no longer looked at as skilled professionals.

You may have heard, “Mary down the street is a photographer now, anybody can do it”. It has diminished the value of professional photographers and devalued quality images – two major blows.

I live in your average small town. In the past there were 4 or 5 photographers (excluding Olan Mills, Sears, JCPenney’s, etc.…) servicing this area. Today, there are 200+ photographers. All with Facebook and Instagram photography business accounts.

I no longer do HS sports but just a few years ago, I was doing $40,000 per year in action images. Today, that market is 3-4k at best.

Anders Madsen's picture

I have to disagree with you.

Scraping up $399 will make you the owner of a camera but there is so much else involved in being a photographer than simply pointing your camera in the right direction and click the shutter.

I will agree with you that the influx of new photographers makes it very hard to compete in certain genres, though - family portraits is probably hit the hardest by part time photographers who can offer to take your pictures outside of normal working hours at a much lower price, since they basically just need to cover their equipment cost.

However, like the article states, these are not your customers if you are a serious, working pro. You need to offer something more than the spare time photographer or you will go under.

Bill Wells's picture

Hi Anders,

You said "Scraping up $399 will make you the owner of a camera but there is so much else involved in being a photographer". I do have to disagree. What you are saying is incorrect in whole and only correct on a philosophical level, at best.

I am not a videographer not even close. But there is nothing to stop me from adding videographer to my website or social media. So legally I am a videographer. I can provided video services.

You are defining the position I was taking.

Then you state, "However, like the article states, these are not your customers if you are a serious, working pro.".

Again like I stated in my original post. They have already changed the fact that we provide digital images. They have put downward pressure in most genres. They have already devalued the photographer and printed images.

Here is the other thing, 85% or more will fail in the first year. But unlike any other industry, for every one that fails there is 1.5 ready to take their place.

I do not have the answer or a solution. I just know that denying the existence or impact is not the answer.

Scott Choucino's picture

It doesn't matter how many cheap photographers there are though, they still won't get high end jobs. No client worth their salt will take the risk of skimping on a photographer when so much work has already gone into a campaign.

Markets change, but if you have a skill you can apply it to where the money is. Shooting big brand social media content is a great payer and has good cash flow due to the volume. Ad campaigns and high end weddings will also always have money and the need for high end photographers. The key is to adapt to the changes in times rather than blaming cheaper photographers in my opinion.

Bill Wells's picture

"It doesn't matter how many cheap photographers there are though, they still won't get high end jobs. No client worth their salt will take the risk of skimping on a photographer when so much work has already gone into a campaign."

You shifted gears and jumped to product photography. If you are talking about product photography, I'm with you. It has not had much impact - yet. But it is very real for many photographers. It is those other photographers that I'm talking about. In other words 95% of working photographers.

"The key is to adapt to the changes in times rather than blaming cheaper photographers in my opinion."

This is a stock answer and I do agree with. However, people move to ways of making income outside of photography. In other words, they don't make a living with photography. They develop presets, create training schools or work for apple marketing department. That is what the very top of our industry is doing. If I'm not mistaken you offer workshops don't you.

Do not misunderstand, I'm not saying that moving to other forms of income producing is a bad thing. Fact is I'm grateful for such training, seminars and workshops.

I'm one of those "cheap" photographers.. not by choice.. but the industry i cater towards has little to no money. I'd love to charge 1000.00 a shoot.. but the artists and local performers i shoot can only afford so much.. their incomes are a tip jar and a portion of the bar profits for the night.

These people are amazing.. and need promotional material and i love telling their story.. That mentality of "if you werent so cheap, they'd have to go hire a real *professional photographer* is bs.. before i came along.. it was a camera phone.. or a friend with a camera.

Bill Wells's picture

I'm not sure what type of performers you are photographing or what services you are offering. But you should be commended for this "labor of love".

Do you do other types of photography? Have a website or facebook business page?

As wedding photographers we sometimes think, shouldn't people with little of no money have good wedding photography. We do support our military with a free wedding once a year.

Occasionally, we may offer someone who can not afford us a free or almost free wedding. There are a lot of good people who don't have large amounts of disposable income. We do very little of this, just because we can't and we never do it if we are asked.

Scott Choucino's picture

Exactly, when I worked with bands, there was no way I could charge more, they just don't have the budget. My needs in life changed, rather than getting annoyed at the money available, I moved to food photography where there were bigger budgets.

user-206807's picture

Very nice, and true, article.
I share most of your feelings here.

Jeff Walsh's picture

This article hit one point so perfectly. Stop watching other photogs. If people spent more time focusing on their clients, building their own brand, and expanding their market they would seriously dial back the bitching. However, if you go for easily accessible clients, and you didn't expect it to turn into a price war, you may want to reconsider your business mindset. There's two types of client's/work out there: high volume low price, low volume high price. Either you're shooting a billion shots and selling your work super cheap, or you're being very selective and creating a demand for a limited supply. Neither is right or wrong, just different. The problem is when people expect high price for jobs in a over saturated market.

Wedding photography is my favorite example. If you just went off this site, you'd think every wedding in the world is being shot by iphones for 50 bucks. Yet, there are plenty of photogs getting 5k, 10k, 20k for weddings. They just found the clients looking for that high end and created a supply and demand around their work.

Bill Wells's picture

Your remark "The problem is when people expect high price for jobs in a over saturated market." Is exactly the point I was making. Plus the smaller the market, the more pressure on value and price.

Jeff Walsh's picture

I know, which is why I really liked the article and agreed with that point strongly

Bill Wells's picture

Now you got me really confused. But that is fine, I'm just a husband and stay that way most of the time.

In one paragraph you say, problem is expecting high price for jobs in saturated market. Then in next paragraph you say, you just have to find the right clients. My head is spinning. LOL

Jeff Walsh's picture

Not sure how that's confusing. The problem is that people want high dollar for a product that's wildly easy to come by (highly saturated market). No business is able to do that. You can't charge $50 for a Snickers candy when everyone else sells it for a $1 and expect people to pay your price. To equate that to photography, you can't charge 10k for a wedding, when the customer base you're presenting yourself to is seeing photogs charge 1k.

In the next paragraph I state that since the problem is what I just explained, one thing people can do is leave the market where competition drives the price down, and enter a market where your price is more reasonable. A third option, which I touched on, is creating a demand for your work in a highly saturated market. By doing this, you can charge the higher price because your work is far more in demand than others.

Bill Wells's picture

So let me understand. You say you can't charge $50 for a snickers when others sell them for $1. I'm with you.

What confuses me is the next paragraph

A) Best to move to less saturated market. I assume you mean like product photography. Not in original post.

B) Add more peanuts to that snickers then you can sell it for $50. In the first paragraph you can you can't charge more now you say you can.

They are just a bit contradictory. I actually agree with both.

Jeff Walsh's picture

A) Yes, that's what I meant/implied when I said change markets

B) Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying. Because you added more peanuts, you can charge a little more because it's slightly different/better. Now, add better chocolate, higher quality ingredients, ect ect and suddenly YOUR Snickers is worth more than all the other people selling them, and they can only get it from YOU. Which means limited supply, and if you create a high enough demand, you can get $50 for that candy.

Bill Wells's picture

I understand.

Now let me ask this? In the attached image there are 2 computers.

Computer A sells for $2,000

Computer B sells for $999.

Which computer is the better deal?

Jeff Walsh's picture

Are they exactly the same? Brand, components, everything? If so, the cheaper one. If they are different brands but same components then which ever company has done efficient marketing and branding would be able to charge more since they've "established" themselves as a brand name. Its not always about what a person produces, but it is about the value the market places on whatever it is they are buying. The market is never wrong because the market is always the decider of what they'll pay and want.

Bill Wells's picture

Thank You.
I just wanted to demonstrate the problem.

Usman Dawood's picture

This is such a good article and you've put into (much better) words some of the sentiments I had.

Well said!

Eric Ventress's picture

“Stop watching other photographers” is great advice for more than just this one topic. I hate the feeling that whatever is trendy (colors, framing, subject matter, locations, etc) is what everyone “has” to do. Like... just shoot what makes you happy. Find your niche, and screw what everyone else is doing. (Which compliments your entire article)

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