Photographers dont work for free

From my limited experience as a start-up photographer I am facing a few dilemmas which I presume all fresh professions do when they start building their photography business. What inspired me to write this post is first-hand experience with the matter (or matters) and online material from well-known and award winning commercial photographers who brought some perfectly valid arguments to the table. The two things I would like to talk about here is: don’t take assignments that are not relevant to your photographic style and dont work for free.

I am certain that there have been a few occasions when you have been asked to take some pictures for friends, friends-of-friends, relatives and even strangers about them personally, their pets, their babies, their house, their food and basically anything that can be photographed. If you are nuts for photography like myself, I’m pretty certain that you have jumped at the opportunity and responded positively with genuine enthusiasm. After all you are seeking recognition for your photography skills you have acquired which place you above the average camera-phone user. Pairing that with a good quality camera and people will start noticing your work. Congratulations! You started creating traction and some basic foundation for your forthcoming business. People are now aware of you and what you do. Excited by the interest expressed, you amplify your attempts to take upon any photographic assignment thrown at you while at the same time you create a public profile (website, blog, social media service, etc.) and start promoting your work outside the “friends” zone and into the general public. That’s when things take a twist for the worse. The pitfall is that you slowly realize what you like shooting but the projects arrive with the same diversity. Suddenly you are considered the “shoot-it-all” general photographer who will run errands for free which is actually hurting you and your upcoming business.

So, rule number one, do not take upon assignments which are irrelevant to your photography style and genre. You like weddings? That’s where you need to focus. You enjoy portraits? Shoot portraits and portraits only. You like fashion photography? That is what you should stick to. Do not be afraid to refuse an assignment. This sets the correct direction of your business and builds on top of its basic foundation; to take specialized pictures. You want to be known as the person who takes all kinds of pictures but doesn’t have a specialty or do you wish to appeal to a specific group by creating a specific portfolio? How many times have you heard a bride looking for any type of photographer, or a fashion magazine hunting down for a good “all arounder”? No one. These people search for the best they can find in the area that fits their needs. They take time to research through portfolios, websites and actual established agencies and fine grain the results to a very small bunch of professionals and they pay big money for their services; this brings me to my second point.

Do not work for free. There has been a general misconception and an ill-trend by businesses and the general public that photographers can work for free and that is ok to ask about it. You can literally hear people’s thoughts when quoting you for a price asking themselves “My 8 year old has a camera and takes good pictures, how more difficult can this be”? Some even dare asking the question. In such cases you should politely turn them down by implying that they can have their 8-year old taking the editorial picture to be published on their website. People fail to acknowledge photography as a service. In the same sense where lawyers get paid to settle disputes or accountants get paid to prepare the fiscal statements of a company, photographers get paid to provide a service and sell a final product. You would not dare walking into an architecture firm asking for house designs and demand to get them for free. Best outcome would be to be laughed at and the worst would be to be kicked outside by the angry owner followed by a stream of inappropriate words. For the pure photography professional, selling his services and pictures is his income that will pay off the bills and the investment in gear. Acquiring photographic equipment is expensive and there has to be a way to compensate for these assets; given credit and recognition – another trending excuse widely used – will not get someone far. On the contrary, it may lead the professional to bankruptcy.

Then there is the time allocation for an assignment. A photo assignment does not start and finish within a three to five hour photoshoot. We do not get paid for these hours only. Far more things happen from the time the contract or deal is agreed upon until the delivery of the photographs. Talking out of my limited experience with fashion photoshoots theres’s a few things that I have noticed when it comes down to one:

  • There’s the research of the client paying; as photographers we need to investigate the firm/individual and match their product and business nature with the style of the photographs.
  • There’s the research for time and place. It is a long and daunting task to find a place and the exact time for a photoshoot. We often spend hours or days visiting places and visualizing the sets, drawing charts and diagrams and observing how the scenery changes with time. There are a million things that can go wrong on location and we have to think about most of them and how to tackle them if things don’t work as expected.
  • There’s also the logistics like equipment wear, equipment renting, damages that may occur, model reimbursement, location renting, etc.
  • And then there’s the most time consuming chunk of the job; the post-processing. Depending of the complexity of an assignment, post processing may take a very long time to complete; weeks, months perhaps. It’s a very thorough process that takes skill and will differentiate average looking pictures from brilliant.

Given these few examples above and someone may start getting the draft picture as to why photographers cannot afford not getting paid.

That being said, being fresh in business means that you cannot start charging the same amount as the well-known professional simply because there is nothing to show that will justify the asking price. There has to be a plan that will allow you to progressively charge more. But do have a plan or you risk falling into a dangerous trap; settling for less. Never undervalue yourself and ask for less than what you are worth; you undervalue yourself, your business and you risk being labelled as the cheap alternative. When you down value yourself and offer extensive discounts in order to draw more clients, you will always get paid low. A business or individual who can afford to pay for a proper job will always go to the more expensive photographer, no matter how good your work is. You may be as good as or even better than the more expensive photographer but clients will always choose the expensive one because it’s generally accepted that price defines quality; mediocre pricing assumes mediocre work while a higher price dictates a higher quality of work.

As a conclusion, a good piece of advice I heard on the subject comes from Chase Jarvis, (a well-known commercial photographer): If there is a time that you may take upon an assignment that does not fit your style and you do it just to pay the bills, you do it but you don’t post it anywhere and you don’t talk about it. But certainly dont work for free; this last line was a personal addition.