Why It’s Your Fault That You’re Undervalued and Underpaid

Why It’s Your Fault That You’re Undervalued and Underpaid

Have you found yourself frustrated by being nickeled and dimed for your work? Does self-doubt about your skill and imagery creep in as a result of the prices you are asked to shoot at? You’re not the only one.

But what if the problem wasn’t the bargain-hunting inquirers? What if the problem was a failure with your replies to their inquires? In this article, I will give you an approach that will assist you in getting the value you deserve for your time, experience, and artwork. 

BTS of styling for a beer shoot in my studio.

We all start somewhere. When I shot my first wedding around 2005, I charged $350. When I shot my last wedding in 2018, I charged $4,000. Similarly, my pricing for product photography increased sixfold between 2018 and 2021. My prices have increased radically over the years, yet I've remained fully booked in all seasons with customers that feel my prices are fair. How have I managed this? I've understood one truth: you charge for the value of your work, not for the deliverables. 

Do you ever get this phrase in your inquiries: "I just need a shot of... real quick"? "Just a few shots... nothing big"? This is a routine offender in my inbox. I recently received this message from a client of mine who got a contract for their product to be in a major grocery store: "I just need one shot on white, real quick. Can we do [insert a very low price]?" Using what I've learned, I was able to get the price up to $400 for the one shot on white, and neither the client nor myself felt taken advantage of. Let me tell you how. 

Clients don't understand how long it takes to produce work. In their imagination, a "real quick" shot on white means you put the product on a white background, take a quick snap (which turns out perfectly because you have "an expensive camera"), run it though your magical filter, and email it. Boom. 15 minutes. The client prices on deliverables ("just one photo"), and so, they pitch a number that feels like a slap in the face to us who know the time it would take to produce it. The reality is, though, that since they are not photographers, they don't understand the amount of time, mental energy, and expertise that goes into their requested images.

If you're feeling underpriced as an artist, it most likely has nothing to do with the value of your work and everything to do with the client's understanding of the process of creation. 

In order to close the gap between the price at which the client valued the job and the value you put on it, you must educate your client on the process. Give them a brief breakdown of the job. This breakdown should include: the time spent on client communication, brainstorming, gathering props and supplies, booking models, setting up your gear, shooting, tearing down, uploading files, editing, exporting, and delivering the final images. You can create a template email and tweak it as needed to streamline your process. 

I think best on paper. This is a sketch for in preparation for my monthly shoot for Big Easy Bucha. As you can see, there is a lot of time put in before the camera is even turned on.

I conducted an online Instagram poll with the statement: "I think people undervalue/underpay creatives because..." for followers to fill in. Creatives from all corners of the industry chimed in. Fellow staff writer Ali Choudhry said: "Low barrier to entry means just because everyone can do it doesn't mean everyone should."

While the market is oversaturated with "photographers," it shouldn't bear on the value placed on your work. If someone can do the same work as you for cheaper, then you need to complete a self-critique of your own work. If your work doesn't stand out, your problem is not the competition. Rather, you need to find what unique twist on the art you can bring to the table,and market that. There should only be one you. 

The answer that came most overwhelmingly from creatives was perfectly expressed by Hannah Lopez: "They don't understand what it takes to produce the outcome."

They don't understand what it takes to produce the outcome. And whose fault is it that they don't understand? It's your fault. I have absolutely no idea how long it takes to make handmade pasta, but if I did, I imagine I would not grumble so much when the pricing on the menu seemed inflated. It's our responsibility as creators to inform the client how much time and expertise it takes to deliver their images. 

So, next time, if you find yourself receiving a figure that feels insulting, don't take it personally. Take a moment to price out the job and send them a quote with an explanation of the scope of the work. 

What has been your experience? Have you felt underpriced and undervalued? Have you tried the approach to educate the client? I would love to read your input in the comments.

Michelle VanTine's picture

Michelle creates scroll-stopping images for amazing brands and amazing people. She works with businesses, public figures, sports & products. Titled “Top Sports Photographers in Miami” in 2019 (#5) and 2020 (#4), she was the only female on the list both years. Follow the fun on IG @michellevantinephotography @sportsphotographermiami

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Thank you for your reply. I (the writer) am a woman- just a quick correction. I appreciate your thought-out answer. I feel like we are saying much of the same thing: charge for value of your work not for the number of deliverables which is often what the client bases their rate on. Also, the article is written for photographers who feel they are not receiving the rate that is representative for their time and skill level. A photographer, like yourself, is making 8 to 14K a job they are not the target reader for this article as you clearly have understood how to close contracts that are to the value of your work. There are many photographers that feel discouraged by the rates they are being offered and a predominate reason for that gap is because clients don't always understand what goes into producing the work. An extremely talented and highly booked maternity photographer sent me a screen shot the other day of a client inquiring "Just a 15-minute session... nothing big" and the client's budget was $150. I told the photographer to explain the entire scope of the process: from planning, to packing, driving to the location, shooting, providing a proofing gallery, editing, uploading to an online delivery platform etc. Within a short 15-minute conversation, the client understood and agreed to her regular rate. The problem is clients who send very low budgets don't typically have an understanding of the scope of the work. This strategy to educate the client in these scenarios has been proven effective over and over.

Thank you again for your reply. I agree with you on many points and thank you for contributing good feedback. I checked out your work and it is very good. You have a great sense of sleekness and a cool modern look. I agree my original title may have been better. I agree that the fleetingness of quick online posts has contributed to a drop in prices in certain industries. I think you're overly focused on the title and not on the guts of the article- you're extrapolating the title too far. I'm sorry for your misfortune with the turn in the industry and I'm hoping that this turns around for you soon.

I won't disagree with you on the clickbait title. My original title was "Undervalued and Underpaid: This May Be Why" but I was advised to spice it up.

I am a bit concerned that the higher ups at Fstoppers are micromanaging the titles that their authors use. That seems really petty and "small" of them. As if they are more concerned with clicks and revenue than they are with quality content and doing everything in a non-controversial, educational kind of way.

Thank you for that Tom. I actually asked for feedback on the title and decided to take it. The responsibility falls on me. I'm quickly learning that these more bold titles may not be my voice because it seems to trigger people to harsh responses and retract from the content of the article. I even got super cutting messages in my DMs on instagram! "You should starve!" Among others. It seems to retract from message of the article: which if read, is actually very positive. It encourages photographers to ask for value they deserve.

I appreciate the explanation, Michelle. At least now I know that the article itself is your voice, and that the title may or may not be yours, so I will try not to judge the article by how accurately it aligns with the title.

Normally when I read an article, the main thing I am asking as I read is, "how accurately does the title reflect the content of this article", and I assess the content on that basis. But I will try not to do that with your articles in the future.

Interesting article, also applies to all professionals who sell their services.

Yes, very much so. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

I am referring to the commercial world, not the family portrait/wedding etc world which is probably different, so unless the client is new in the business they have an idea about what goes into making photo and what the photo is worth to them. For example a PR photo is worth $XXX and the same photo used for advertising is worth $XXXX

If a (commercial) photographer is regularly "educating the client" they need to step up their level of clients to those who understand what goes into making a photograph. In your example I think the client's "budget" wasn't $150 it was just a number they pulled out of...thin air.

If it comes down to telling a client that you charge what you charge because have expensive cameras and need to charge to pack your gear to go the location....well that's not good.

Sometimes a client will have a certain amount of money set for the project because that's what they paid last time and that is what it is worth to them. Then it's to the photographer to either do the shoot at that $, convince the client their photos will make a difference and is worth the additional cost. Or pass on the project. I have done all of those reactions.

This was a really great article Michelle! Super positive and inspiring to read. I am not a professional photographer but I do have to set rates for sponsorship deals and this really helps. A lot of people don’t realise what goes into making videos and the planning etc. i am exactly like you with pen and paper and mind maps for everything I produce. Great article thank you Michelle. 🙋🏻‍♀️👍🏻📸❤️

Thanks so much Lucy Lumen ! I'm glad you enjoyed it. That's the same sentiment that many colleagues have expressed. Sometimes in this content-hungry market brands don't realize the scope of the work for what they are asking and hence send pricing that is too low for the shoot.

If you negotiated the shoot "up" to $400 and feel good about it, I think you may be the problem the rest of us are experiencing.
What's being said here is nothing new. Customer education has been a well covered segment of business development for decades. We all know this here. Customer education is not the core problem.

We're in a weird phase of things these days and blaming the photographer is a bad look because it ignores the actual problem. Currently, the customer is almost always the problem. We are quite often dealing with a small business owner who is wearing 8 different hats and wearing them poorly. This is new. They don't know what they don't know and here's the point. They won't and can't be taught. They do not want to be told about all the steps to getting the right shot. They won't listen. Ive seen the eyes glaze over and the ADD kick in. They want it now, their way, and for cheap. Because they heard of someone else getting it for that price or someone else doing it for that price. They don't want to hear about how anything gets done. Most of them don't even respect their own product and really just want the money to start rolling in. They look at us as a nuisance. They also don't respect business relationships. They want it cheap once and they'll move on to the next cheap once photographer.

The scary part of this is that I've seen this problem creeping upward as small companies get big. I'm seeing companies who would have previously operated in the $40K budget space choke and negotiate and ultimately run away from 6K quotes for the same work. I'm seeing VP's of marketing booking photographers with no Creative Director and no Art Director on the project. I'm being asked how it could possibly take 3 days and require a food stylist to shoot 50 unique food product flat lays. I'm seeing this at companies that clear 70 Million a year in sales.

I can get onboard with the idea that there may be a way we can educate some of our customers. But it is certainly not as easy as just telling us we need to be doing it. We are,it's just so wild right now I'm not sure there's a good way. I am very certain that we are not the problem.

One big problem I notice from a lot of beginner photographers is just because they can shoot something unique doesn't mean they can sell it. A big chunk of what I do now in this career is admin and sales. The least amount is actually shooting. I make way more now shooting less than when i started.

Explaining why my work takes more than a couple of hours to do has been the biggest struggle, yet the largest payoff. However, it wasn't easy to wrap my head around when I was a beginner...

Great feedback. Thanks for sharing. I'm glad that you've found increased payoffs when you've focused on sales and giving the client a little better understanding of the scope of the work. Since I've shifted my pitches, and education I've been able to shoot WAY less at up double or triple the rate I did before. Happy Labor Day!

Great article Michelle. Unfortunately, artists make poor business people in many cases. Knowing your worth and expressing a greater value is key for sure, but you also have to know your clientele. Bargain hunters are never going to be my clients, so although I do explain the process and value of what I do to each potential client, I'm also okay when they say no and actually prefer it because they are going to be a huge pain! lol

It's always easy to make excuses for why your business is not doing well, why you can't find clients, etc, but I love your title because it's right on in my opinion. There are plenty of photographers out there making over six figures a year (I know a BUNCH personally) so there is no shortage of work out there.

Thank you Pete Coco I think your input was very well worded. To say that the market has changed is also true as some have mentioned. There is more than one reason for low prices as you say. Photography when we were younger, (I believe we are the same age- don't let my wrinkle cream fool you) was not practiced by as many people. I used to have 3 or 4 serious photographers in the city that I would have to go against for contracts. Now, I have triple that. I've had to work very hard to be honest with myself about my work and find a point of differentiation. The work being great is not enough anymore if there are 9 others with similar great work. Something which worked 5 years ago may not be effective today. Thanks for your great insight I agree with you completely.

Great article Michelle! I work with a lot of small - medium size businesses who benefit from receiving some education from me around what goes into a shoot and it allows me to charge more than if I didn’t go through that education step. Also, I don’t often get push back when I suggest hiring a location or bringing in a food or props stylist once I explain the benefits of that extra cost and how it will elevate the finished work.

When I send a quote, I will also break down everything that’s involved on the quote sheet I.e planning, equipment, lighting, set up, tear down, processing, etc etc so that they can see how much work is involved on the photographers’ part. So yes, I definitely agree with you, great read 🙏

Yes, it is a good practice to suggest solutions to make the shoot go easier like another assistant or in our case a food stylist.
I have the usual items on the invoice, fees, crew, pre- and post production but you really have line item cost for setup and teardown? I have learned that if there are to many line items someone on the other end will go thru them and ask questions...LoL

Hey Mike, ah to clarify it’s not broken down into an individual cost per item, but it will be listed as Creative Fee is £X inclusive of pre-production, post production etc etc so they can what the creative fee is made up of. I agree, costing out set up would be a bit much 😅

It's interesting that you mention this. I have a "packages and prices" sheet which doesn't really go into detail about the breakdown of the cost. It may be an interesting part to add to the package. Thanks for your great feedback!