You Don't Deserve to Get Paid for Your Photography

You Don't Deserve to Get Paid for Your Photography

It really doesn't matter if you make excellent images that make your clients look their best, or that they're using your creative brain and technical mastery to sell their product. Clients deserve massive discounts, and, sometimes you just need to give them a load of images for free because they feel that they did you a favor that one time — conveniently forgetting all the other free and massively discounted commercial images you gave them.

You're Not Worth It

That's right, all you full-time professional photographers — you're not worth as much as you say you're worth. Why? Because image makers are a dime a dozen, and the concept of a fair wage doesn't matter when you're a freelancer in a world saturated in freelancers. You don't have rights, so, either you just get over it, or become a corporate lawyer if you want to make some decent money. Failing that, you should have just been born into wealth, so you then also develop an unhealthy disrespect for people who don't make as much money as you, who you can exploit for your own financial gain.

"Um, Actually, You Should be Paying Me for the Privilege"

As we all know, wedding photography is super easy. All you do is turn up and take a few photos. How handy a number is that? You get to dress up, eat some free food (maybe), and you have the absolute honor to document the most important day in the lives of two complete strangers; who, coincidentally, also don't respect what you do for a living, despite going to the bother of hiring a professional photographer. You see, their nephew has a "professional camera" and an artistic mind — he would have done it for nothing. $3,000 for just one day?! Who do you think you are? Frida Kahlo? A weeks worth of editing the faces of people who are the personification of love, should be more than enough to cover the rent for your one-bedroom apartment situated next to a cabbage pickling factory.

bride and groom walking down the street after wedding

"Here's a shot list. Make sure you get everything, or you're not getting paid"

Image courtesy of David J. Fulde

"You Need an Hour to Photograph a House?"

Listen buddy, you were just offered €118 to photograph a slightly above average looking home for an Airbnb profile. Those clients have the right to demand that you shoot the property on an absolutely perfect day, in the middle of Spring, on the west coast of Ireland (note: Irish Spring is wet; real wet). You should probably put all your other clients on the back-burner because, let me repeat: they're paying 118 whole Euros. Disregard the fact that you need to pay for fuel, tax, rent, camera depreciation, food etc., or that a single night's rent of that property will net the owner three times the amount that they will pay you for those professional photos, which help them make more sales. Yes, the images will earn them money, but how good will that slightly above average semi-detatched, with a sliver of a sea view, look on your portfolio? 

professional photography of a contemporary kitch

Pictured: The lovely kitchen of a person who appreciated good photography, and paid me well for it.

"Think of all That Tasty Exposure, Bro."

Yeah, you took the time to scout a location, find and hire a professional fitness model/athlete to photograph performing complex stunts, and used expensive gear to shoot high-paced scenes, but this shi**y clothing company needs to sell some merch, yo. You don't expect them to pay you for your work, do you? Give them a break, man — they're just a small business trying to bring people together with positive vibes (by freebooting images on Instagram). I thought you were chill. Here, have a cheaply made cup with a generic inspirational phrase and some ClipArt on it. "Love your content! *many inane emojis*" 

professional sports photography of parkour athletes jumping over rooftops

An awe-inspiring shot from the king of Instagram articles on the internet.

  Courtesy of Andy Day

You Are in Fact Worth Every Penny

To be serious for a minute, I don't have a problem with a little quid pro quo. What really gets my goat is people taking advantage of hard working, often struggling, freelancers like me. I've learned the hard way to say "No". It's not easy to refuse any work when you're starting out, but don't let people use you. You deserve to paid fairly.

Do any of our readers have a story about a tight or manipulative client. We would love to hear about it in the comments below.

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47 Comments

Jeff Walsh's picture

These comments are going to get interesting. I'm most looking forward to the people who won't read the article, but will still comment as though they did.

Jerome Brill's picture

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Christopher Doelman's picture

True. Photographers are worth it. But unless the photography freelancers are willing to turn down lower paying jobs, the race to the bottom is inevitable and only the photographers with unique offerings will prosper. That's the market we are in. We're in a crowded marketplace. This is not unique to photography.

Dennis Johnson's picture

" do you want quality or a low price?" but photographers just need to learn to say NO. the buyer will always try to buy against a lower price and until we say NO this will keep happening.

Deleted Account's picture

The reality of the market is that each photographer is ultimately looking out for themselves in the end. When someone is struggling to get started they will do anything to get a few gigs and that will often times mean free work.

To expect the entire industry to cooperate is going to be as successful as abstinence only sexual education.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Amen, Chris.

Brandon Ericksen's picture

What’s killing photography as a profession is kids with digital cameras who think they know what they’re doing. I took portraiture class with this kid, well he was in his early 20s. And his assignment was to take a portrait of me he was in a group of a few other people. He did not know how to control exposure on the camera, yes the freaking exposure triangle he did not know it. Portraiture class was a restricted class you had to take other classes to get to it. He had gone through 21 (B&W film) 31(digital)and Photoshop to get to this class and did not know how to use a camera. I see the same guy’s Instagram and he’s taking generic bland food portraits and passing himself off as a professional. Combine people like that with extremely cheap business people who don’t want to pay anyone anything and you have what we have now .

Deleted Account's picture

Photography is easier to get into. Maybe not as easy to be good at but until the clients are all photography experts it won't matter.

Brandon Ericksen's picture

Very true, especially when many businesses don't want to pay for it.

Deleted Account's picture

Photography is an expense. If adequate results can be had for cheap/free they will 100% take that over paying premium. Photographers can easily forget that the audience looking at advertisements (using photography) typically aren't informed enough to know if the creative was high quality.

dale clark's picture

I always love hearing “ we’ll give you credit” or “ We are just starting our business..we don’t have a budget for photos”.

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

Many starting business'es do that. Make sure to answer properly so they get educated. Yet eventually they'll get what they want as it's not always necessary to hire a high-end professional just to shoot some demo's for their product or a restaurant interior etc. If the business is doing fine at their pace financially then it's their choice to choose amateur imagery.
For some reason I don't think it's worth to pay a web developer to make my website when we have Wix, squarespace etc. and they probably think the same thing about other asking them to do cheap websites. It probably means that i'm not really educated enough in that area as a client until someone proves me wrong.

Eric Segarra's picture

This article touches a nerve. While I am not a professional photographer who earns his living from photography, I do shoot a lot on a daily basis. As a result, and after seeing my posted photographs, I have been contacted by real estate companies, NGO's, restaurants, and even private businesses asking for use of my photos. And yes, you guessed it: all for free. Even a local Virginia distillery that I photographed during a visit asked me for all the photos for free, and after they sold me a bottle of their average whiskey (which they were certainly not giving away free for publicity's sake). To all of them I have said no to free distribution, but I have gone out of my way to offer the photos for a small fee, or my services for a paid gig at their business facilities. Result: 100% no answers. All of them (and I do mean all of them) stated that they will get the photos somewhere else. I can only surmise that the "somewhere else" they were talking about referred to a photographer that would give them the photos for free in exchange for the proverbial "give you credit" offer. I kind of feel sorry for those trying to make a real living for themselves and their families in the photography business today. Cheers to those who succeed.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Good for you for sticking to your guns, Eric. If everyone did it, these companies would eventually have to start paying someone. Unfortunately., though, there will always be someone in a desperate position. Hopefully some of them will read this article.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

We also hear this over and over. People we've never had contact with before reach out and ask us for quotes for shoots. We used to spend time putting together a quote and explaining what we could do that would be different and more efficient than an 'amateur' only to be turned down over and over for what we assume is a drastically lower quote or a photographer that promises the moon only to deliver the backyard garden (at least based on the resulting images we see).
Now, we don't provide quotes to non-referrals unless they are willing to talk budget up front. Sure, we MAY lose work, but, we know we are certainly not wasting time drafting quotes for nothing.

WILLIAM WILLSON's picture

You know what I do for free,...what I want. If you are using my time (the most valuable thing in life) you pay me for it. If not, then let your "nephew" shoot the images. This is probably one of the most important days of your life, quality costs money, hire a pro. This article is right on the money.

liliumva's picture

It's sad, but this is often the reality for creatives in this industry right now. Some clients are always trying to shortchange the creative by asking for free, or greatly undercut quotes. I've always said each photographer has a level of client to their own level. This is why you see really cheap photographers charging $50 for 2 hours and 40 shots. It hurts to see it but that's their thing, and if they want to kill themselves by making the quota with hundreds of clients rather than a handful, well.... they will be part of the statistic of failing businesses within 5 years. That in itself is sad, because they think that's all they're worth ;/

Indy Thomas's picture

Thus it ever was. I started in the 70’s and the complaining was the same. It just seems more visible because the market is actually larger.

Scott Mason's picture

Indy, that's good to know.. A lot of people like to go on the "nowadays photgoraphers are ruining the industry.." rant without any retrospective.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

The barriers to entry today are much lower though. Everyone has a computer and a phone, if not a high quality camera (at least comparatively to the era you guys are discussing). So the tech is a negligible cost. Marketing with IG etc is essentially free.
And, the big bonus, there is a flatter learning curve to 'decent' images because nobody is waiting for film to come back (nor are we paying developing costs, or maintaining a dark room).
I don't disagree, this is an age old story, but, right now, it seems to be worse. Perhaps I just don't like the kids playing music on my lawn these days.

Indy Thomas's picture

The reason it seems worse is you weren't working in the 70's or 80's most likely. When you are in the forest there seem to be a crapload of trees around.
While anyone can get into the game relatively easily, it is another thing altogether to be competitive. This is true of any field. You may be the cool kid in band in high school as first trumpet but that is a long way from making a living at it.
There are a ton of newly minted "photographers" who get paid for two gigs and leap into the business without a clue. They live at home and their mom cooks dinner for them. It is another thing altogether to actually pay for all your expenses with photography.
The grievous error most make is thinking that their first gigs are the future of their career. Thus they stick in frantically low paying fields such as weddings, portraits and the ultra -loser: sports.Too many aspire to fashion and end up being that creepy guy that pays girls for photos.
They got their first jobs from friends and think that the next will come from some stranger with a big wallet that wants a three day destination wedding in Cancun. Nope.

The person that wants to succeed in the field has to have a clear business plan targeting a market that actually has money it WANTS to spend. That is rarely the retail client.

Secondly, they need a near obsessive focus on marketing, networking and building a portfolio that doesn't stink. The amount of time they will spend will be enormous and will span YEARS.
The fact is that the field is full of people complaining that it is too competitive because they have been doing this for 3 months and only have 4 jobs done and only two were paid.

I will note that most successful people I have encountered over my life have been fastened to their work with an intensity that most do not have. This, in turn, means they often have relationship problems unless their partner is on their wavelength.

Sure its hard, just like the law is hard or medicine or piano.But people do it and when you hear their story you will find that it took many years to get there. That's why the successful have gray hair.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Spot on across the board. Except that I can’t know because I wasn’t there. I’ve done A LOT of reading and talking with those that were. I don’t feel it the way they do, but I can understand.
That doesn’t change my agreement with your premise that drive and unflagging effort leads to success. Which, I do agree, is a different kind of success than the entry level I was talking about. Touché.
I’m picking up what you’re putting down.

Guy Incognito's picture

Can we assume that all of the bold, quoted sub headings in this article are things people have actually said to you? Like "Think of all That Tasty Exposure, Bro." - Someone actually said that to you during a fee negotiation?

Thinking about someone actually saying that sans sarcasm makes my f*cking skin crawl.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Maybe someone did say that at some time, but I'm ashamed to admit that this did in fact come from my head. In my defence, I was channelling the douchiest type of person I could think of.

Guy Incognito's picture

Well, you certainly made me picture the sleaziest dude-bro I could.

EL PIC's picture

“You Charge How Much .... For Taking Pictures !! “
One of the most memorable experiences I had with a possible client ... before escorting her out the door.

Jerry Kelley's picture

It takes me one hour to photograph an average 1500 to 1800 sqft house. One hour for driving time and one hour in Photoshop. Another 30 minutes for billing and uploading. I charge $150 for that. The agents can not tell the difference between a good photo and a bad photo but the can tell the difference between $1 and $2. While I'm photographing the house I've had many home owners wanting to see my photos. I show them and they all say, wow these are great and the ones the agent shows us are lousy!

Agents tell me any photo, good or bad, or none at all will sell a house. Many times I've been told all they will pay is $35 to $50 for a house. I gave up and stopped doing RS work.

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

That's understandable. RS agents are cheap and that's a fact everywhere. I believe if anyone is doing RS they should gradually move towards designer, architectural clients and eventually bigger companies.

Indy Thomas's picture

118 Euros for AirBnB shoot? They are going wild. They only offered me $85 for 35-50 images that should look like a Dwell magazine shoot.

Michael Yearout's picture

It takes me 2 hours or so to photograph a 3,000 sq.ft. home and the same amount of time in Lightroom and Photoshop to process the 25 photos. I charge between $300 and $399 depending on the client and use. So, let's say I spend a total of 5 hours (none of my shoots are more than half an hour away), so let's make it 5.5 hours. That's $55 to $73 per hour. And yes, there are a lot of run and gun photographers in my area that charge half my rate, but my clients know I will produce images that sell the home or rent the home, and they are happy to pay my rates.

Deleted Account's picture

The industry needs to organise and standardise prices. I can only think your professional organisations are worthless (beyond networking and pro tips).

Jon Kellett's picture

The trouble is that:
a) In many jurisdictions that is pricefixing and therefore illegal;
b) Unless the pricefixing is formalised with penalties for non-compliance, undercutting will continue.

Frustrating for sure, but what can you do?

Julian Ray's picture

"there's an app that can do that now!" is one I'm hearing more and more.
Great article Mike. Thanks

Terry Poe's picture

That's a good one! Hilarious, satirical and so true!

Stephen Zielinski's picture

Fair wages is an oxymoron. Those who hire labor intend to exploit those they hire. Exploitation occurs when someone pays out value that is less than the value created. Exploiters may be unsuccessful. But that was not their intention.

Capitalism sucks. It sucked in the past; it will suck in the future.

dale clark's picture

At the end of the day it’s up to the photographer to make their way regardless of a saturated photo provider market. We’ve dropped about 50% of our RE clients over the last couple of years to focus on a select few. This has allowed us to really grow our non RE commercial and Architecture side of things. We now have a group of non RE clients, that continues to grow, that use us regularly and we get paid quite a bit more. Plus, a fantastic group of the best RE agencies. I love my job more than ever and could not be happier.

dale clark's picture

Look above at the comments. Organizing, Standard pricing, anti- capitalism, blah blah blah. Throughout history, especially modern history, industries have always faced competition. The ones who work thru such will hang around. The world has had hair dressers/stylist, etc for ages. However, great stylists still charge big bucks and are booked weeks in advance. Even with the big chain $3.99 haircut places opening all over the place, the same great hair dressers maintain and add new clients. If the $3.99 hair stylist can't break out and eventually gain higher end jobs, that is a problem they need to work out for themselves. If a photographer cannot get jobs beyond super cheap or work for free clients.....thats a YOU problem.

throughout history one thing has never changed: "Non Performers despise performers"

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

Absolutely agree with you. But a lot of artists choose mediocrity in place of hard work and desperation in place of business savy.

Vladimir Vcelar's picture

If they ask me for discounts or freebies, I always ask the client what they consider cheap or free; if they know and can explain, I simply give them the telephone no. of the local technical arts campus. "Exposure"?; again what exactly is exposure and how do they envision exposure translated to dollars. If they explain their position, I simply walk away. As a client, you need to pay for services rendered, not the other way round; it's called business. It's one thing to feel sorry for the client, but who feels sorry for you when you need to pay the rent? That's why I choose my clients, not the other way round. Not being arrogant or snobbish, but if you make a profit from my skills without reimbursing me, you are a cheap-ass crook! I'll do a lot of free shoots for those who provide a service to the community, like poor schools and clinics, whose budgets are tight, but don't come to me as a "professional" and cheat me out of what is owed to me.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go and shoot a wedding for free, LOL just kidding, I have to PAY for that privilege... in the hope that no-one notices me!

dale clark's picture

You are 100% correct. BTW, I love the cartoon. Someone actually made a youtube video a few years back with actors saying the same thing.

Scott Mason's picture

"A weeks worth of editing the faces of people who are the personification of love, should be more than enough to cover the rent for your one-bedroom apartment situated next to a cabbage pickling factory."

Love it. And I enjoy the playful sarcasm, as dark as it is.

william hicks's picture

We have a new clothing company pulling that kind of crap here in Arizona. They want models to buy their clothes so they can then use photos of the model for commercial purposes. Why do so many businesses want to get something for nothing. It's okay for them to want a profit but not the talent

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

Every business is interested in saving costs. If they are not looking for high-end professionals to do what they need then it will be their problem eventually due to lousy marketing and lack of good visuals. Although, some companies might not do very well financially and cannot afford a proper shoot. So what do they do?Hustle for freebies. In my country, everyone is just looking to save a penny no matter what, they say it's good business, a cultural thing, entrepreneurial spirit. So you stand your ground and negotiate. :)

Vaidotas Darulis's picture

I don't think it's fair to blame the clients that don't really know much about photography, how much it's worth etc. It is kinda of our duty to educate the clients, communicate to them on why it is what you are offering is worth much more compared to amateur work etc.. Those clients are the ones who help us make a living in the first place by doing something more interesting than working in a corporate environment, doing presentations on ,,sustainability'', editing excel sheets all day or reviewing business KPI's. It's ok to know what you are worth, but don't feel entitlement all the way through, try to put yourself in the clients shoes. If the client is not willing to pay you much money, just go away from that and don't get smug about it. Focus on getting the clients that DO pay.

Deleted Account's picture

Saying No, and saying it boldly, can be a beautiful thing. People will always try to take advantage, comes in all industries and jobs. Just say NO and keep moving forward.

Ian Aberle's picture

I've seen teams in my own area move to use sites like Unsplash – which I still don't understand the business model as I cannot see how they make money giving away everything for free – for photography resources as opposed getting new photo assets shot.

"These are good enough AND they are free!"

Dan Bulacu's picture

Free stuff... It happened to me to make and give free images, but only when i considered them as a gift, of my own free will, not when asked (that erases the whole meaning of a gift). Many a times those brought back payed jobs and long lasting friends. Little gifts once in a while can be a cheap way for publicity, but done properly, you have to keep a balance...