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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A MILLION TIME YES !

Jan Kruize's picture

It's simple.... people pay you what you are worth for them. When they don't want to pay you the price you ask you simply have to become a better photographer.

Eric Chen RR's picture

Totally agree!

Lyle Barker's picture

Good article...

Have to disagree. Rates have been plummeting in the commercial world due to undercutting tactics. 50k/day jobs are now being done for 5k/day by a lot of the top photographers. There are the occasional clients that are still willing to put up larger budgets for better work, but as someone else has mentioned, the bottom line is consistently becoming the most important factor clients are on the hunt for.

Excellent, well put. The only thing I would add is to still push yourself to do those bigger shoots. I found that if
I stayed in one spot (career wise) the lower pack would catch up. It's important to keep moving up and not
get too comfortable at one level.

Kirk Darling's picture

Something to remember about "budgets" for retail portrait photographers: Portraits are a luxury. Never underestimate a client's budget for luxury.

Essentially you are competing with everything they're going to spend for luxuries for some time into the future. They can spend it with you or on some other luxury. It's up to you to convince them your luxury will mean more to them than something less personal.

For instance, I have done this: I have photographed children and entered the sales session with a 30x40 of my own selection, completely finished. I have rarely carried one back to the studio once the mother has seen it, even if they didn't intend at first to spend that much money on a portrait.

Never underestimate a retail client's budget for a luxury. Let them put it on layaway, if necessary.

Antonio Bokšić's picture

Well said! I agree with every word :D

Damir Spanic's picture

Good read. Thanks.

Good article. I think a lot of other comments are correct. I charge what I charge and if they are happy they are happy. My niche is photographing vintage and sportsman racing. The only "rate" i negotiate is travel costs. I can book my own travel and meet them there or I can travel with your team and stay with your team as a block. So long as I have room for all my gear. This has gotten me the privilege of flying on private charter planes and staying in some nice places.