I had never planned on being a photographer. In fact, I wanted to be a lecturer at my university and was more or less on the right path to do so. Then, when I finished my Masters, I hit a wall. I decided to get a job and come back to do a PhD down the line if I still wanted to, but as soon as I secured an office job in London, I knew I didn't want that either. There were only two things I was thoroughly enjoying at that time: photography and writing — nothing has changed on that front. I wasn't sure how to make money out of the latter, but I felt I could make money doing the former as I'd had offers from friends, family, and acquaintances. So, I dived right in.
The First Year of Full-Time Photography
The next year or so was difficult. I had no idea about running a business and no mentor to teach me, so I found all the problems with my shins. Of all the errors I was making — and there were plenty — one was particularly detrimental, and the worst part was that I didn't realize it was an error at all. I was getting new clients most months, repeat work, and building a decent portfolio in a niche, which seemed like the perfect scenario, but I was naive; the clients I was getting were, for the most part, not what my fledgling business needed.
Photography was absurdly competitive when I started, and it definitely hasn't got easier since then. With each passing year, what a photographer needs to know how to do seems to expand, and never into other areas of photography. Photographers are expected to know how to create videos, edit social media content, be a social media manager, understand SEO and blogging, understand advertising, and so on; it can be exhausting. My assessment of being in the perfect scenario was right in many ways as I was working in a niche, building my portfolio, and creating highly specific and specialized content for brands. I was still fresh out of university, deeply in debt, and making money — really any money — from my passion was so deliciously novel I was comfortable throwing out 90-hour working weeks.
So, what was the problem? The clients were all paying very little and while I could get a decent volume of them and repeat work, this is a false economy.
Attracting Low-Paying Clients Is a False Economy
It took me a few years before I fully understood the problem I was dealing with. Although I had made changes that rectified some of this false economy I was grinding away in, I hadn't grasped exactly what the problem was. I knew they weren't paying enough for my work and time, but it wasn't until one of my biggest repeat clients tried to whittle down my price for the 50th time in two years that I had a clarifying moment.
The primary problem with low-paying clients is that you end up having to work so hard and so long for little money that you never have the time or the energy to canvas for the clients you really want. This is the heart of the false economy; you think you're growing, and in some ways you are, but as a business, you're creeping backward, not forward. You get stuck in an infinite loop of working for low pay unless you break out of it, which can hurt. I told them my price wasn't moving, and they said they couldn't afford it and they'd find someone else; I gulped and replied "that's fair, best of luck" and we never worked together again. The next month was brutal, and I earned less than I had for a long time, but I spent the same number of hours canvassing for better clients, and within two months, I'd found one.
The secondary problem with low-paying clients is a bit of a generalization, but one I have found to be true and so have many others: they are often awful to work with. My all-time longest-serving and highest-paying client, who I won't name, is an extremely wealthy business. They demand quality from me, but they know I deliver it and I'm reliable. During one shoot some years back, I said to my contact at the business that I wasn't sure we had quite enough on the docket for the day and (in jest) that I hoped they weren't looking for a partial refund. My contact said — quite seriously might I add — "we spend more per week on hand soap for the office bathrooms than your day rate, I wouldn't worry." This sounds like a throwaway point, but in my experience, the clients that pay the best are also the best to work with.
Conversely, I once had a cheap client who paid me for a product shoot. I delivered the results, and he rang me in quite a tizzy because the quality of my images was "awful." I told him that was simply not true while I scrutinized my files for imperfections. It turned out he was looking at the images on his phone in an area with poor signal, and they hadn't finished loading. This happened several more times over the course of the week, and when we completed the work, way over the deadline I had set myself, I politely parted ways before the next job landed in front of me.
Avoiding the Trap
I will caveat this by saying that sometimes you need to do whatever it takes to get by. I have done that, and I have broken my own rules before because I needed the income for whatever reason — there's no shame in that. The trap you want to avoid is that rule-breaking becoming your day-to-day life. From analyzing my own failures, here are a few things I've learned when it comes to getting the right clients:
- If you're getting clients but they're all low-paying, they may see you as a commodity and that's your fault; you've positioned yourself in the cheap part of town. Focus on setting yourself apart from everyone else.
- Be careful you aren't pricing low because you're insecure, unsure what the price ought to be, or embarrassed to ask for what you want. A tiered pricing strategy also worked well for me.
- Find your dream client and work backward. Can you find out who they work with? Can you find their marketing agency? Are you — if you're honest with yourself — shooting at the level they expect?
- Break out of the local jobs. I did this early, but unless you live in a major business hub, local work will rarely be valuable, particularly if you target a niche.
- As soon as you find a client you like working with and that pays well, ask them if they know of anyone else who might find your services useful — this question is incredibly effective.
Good luck out there.