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Tuesday, 21 April 2015


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I (and likely many others) was expecting a version of the old joke:

How do you end up with a million dollars as a professional photographer? Start with two million.

Best regards.

When I was doing freelance photography I made the decision to only look for clients that had money. Why spend my time chasing clients who could not pay, even if they appreciated my work.
That worked out well for a number of years until I left professional photography.
The best excuse I received was from a non profit (I already gave them a discounted price) for slowness in paying. They said that they were 'managing their money'. My response was that I was trying to manage my money and that it was hard to pay bills if my clients did not pay theirs. The cheque came quickly.

Stick to the professionals as much as possible. The general public is a lot of headache without much money. (Sorry, I think you're great, but I've been through that wringer enough times.) And personally, when I give my services away, which ain't often, I assume I'll never see a dollar from that client ever. I work for my psychological satisfaction, my belief in giving back to the world. And only work/volunteer for non-for-profits that know how to treat volunteers. They'll make you feel good about it at least.

And there I thought the way to make a million dollars in photography was to start with two million. I do believe a good source for determining fair pricing in various genres and regions in order to help some of those who would work for free realize the value of their work would be a good start, provided the quality of work is acceptable to the client. Education on both sides is crucial to maintain the health of the industry. I think many times neither side understands the real value of creative work because it's not as tangible as more common goods and services.

For me, the Golden Rule of market perception has always been: "Something for nothing, isn't worth anything."


I think one of the reasons that people feel photographers charge too much is that they look at the fee, divide it by the number of hours you work (in their sight), coming up with an hourly fee that looks astronomical. If you spend two hours making a portrait, and charge $800, well, that's $400 an hour...$16,000 a week...$832,000 a year.

It might help that when you get business cards, you also print up a simple statement of why your service costs what it does, to give to your clients -- that you will not only spend two hours making a portrait, but will spend four more hours doing computer adjustments and making the prints, to provide a completely professional product. You also have to pay for equipment, materials, overhead, travel time, taxes and all the rest...so in the end, you profit is actually quite modest, and lower than other professional services they routinely pay for.

Then, of course, there's the asshole problem. I once actually thought of writing a book simply called "Assholes," about people who seem to enjoy making life hard for others. They don't do anything exactly illegal, but they're always looking for an edge or a "win." They can torture professionals, even when there's a contract involved. I mean, really, if you have an $800 contract, and the guy refuses to pay, can you profitably take him to court? If you have money to burn, you could do it for the principle of the thing...but few do.

Good topic. But news? No news. (Unfortunately - not now, no more.)

It's perennial for intangible products, or products whose use unfolds only in the mind.

Can't eat a photo or pound nails with one, so why pay for it? TV is free and so are YouTube videos. Need a photo? Just Google for some. Fine unless it's your professional life that's on the line.

A great source of information is sites specific to web developers, especially designers and artists. I recommend, just as a "fer instance", Sidebar (http://sidebar.io/new), "a list of the 5 best design links of the day." Relevant stuff shows up there all the time. All the time.

Today a search on "clients" gave me "Prequalifying Clients", "Designing With Your Clients", "Clients Requests Art", and "WeeNudge: Teach your clients about the mysteries of the web". And so on.

A lot of the techniques ought to be useful for photographers as well as graphic designers and other web professionals.

The problem, in a nutshell:

"I could just take the pictures myself. I'm only asking you because you have a better camera than me."

"How to make a million dollars in photography": Invent photo a gizmo and market it to photographers. We will by anything!

The supply of "photographers" is large, and the actual demand for their work output is relatively small. Therefore there will always be huge price pressures.
Remember, it's perfectly legal and practical to get married without any photos, or photos only by friends or even passersby.
Most people don't *need* a portrait, and for most who do, somebody in the office with a DLSR can do it just fine.

This all supports one theme of the post - don't work for the public, work for buyers of the product you make.

So the way to get paid (be it $1 or $1million) is to seek out buyers of some solution your provide. This will almost never be the general public.

One of the "enticements" I hear almost all the time is "the exposure would be good for your work." GAWD! I hate that as though I just fell off the pumpkin truck.
My other is when I did work for a MAJOR catalog company who constantly complained that my printing charges were too high yet (at that time) I had to run from Philly to Camden for the prints (the gas evidently was free) and then after delivery wait 120 days to get paid!
I stopped shooting commercial for that reason.
A friend of mine who shoots for Vogue and Elle in Paris, on the other hand gets an obscene daily budget.
Obviously, the Europeans place a higher regard on their photographers than the U.S.
My two pesos (venting fee)

+1 for only working with 'professionals'. I worked with a high-end portrait studio during college, and all I learned was that I never wanted to work directly for amateur 'clients' any more, and promptly spent the rest of my career either working in-house or freelancing for ad agencies. BUT, this doesn't negate the 'direct-to-business' work. Some of the most well paid photographers I know work B to B, but they have many of the same problems that photographers working for amateurs do; just because you own a small business, doesn't mean you aren't looking for someone to work free. You would think it would be different, but no...

How To Make a Million Dollars in Photography?

Starting with about five million ought to be about right.

Goodwill is something you give, not something you get.

How To Make a Million Dollars in Photography?

Start with two million dollars, ....

I like Brad B's suggestion.

What I have noticed, though, that people don't appreciate the actual money value of the work delivered. It's as if you've made it up on the spot when you tell them. When I've provided reduced price photography in the past and been asked afterwards for my regular rate, people recede into the shadows. Promises of future work melt away in the face of a euro amount that could actually sustain a business.

The public are a fickle lot. Reminds me of the couple that decided to sell jewelry at discount prices from a cart in a shopping mall. Everyone assumed there was something wrong with it, and they couldn't give it away. They then decided to charge premium prices for the same goods- business skyrocketed!

Would you do it for stock in the company? ;-)

When you assume -
you make an ASS out of U and ME.
No good deed goes unpunished.

Another way of looking at it. Sony rx100 used to sell for $600. Many people bought it. Hasselblad adds a wooden grip to it and asks $2000 for the same camera. People complain that it is not worth the money. They are probably right. If your portrait photograph is worth $60 dollars in the person's mind you are trying to sell it to, he will not pay $200 for it even if you ask. And if you offer a generous 50% discount he still thinks it is overpriced.
Some (many) photographers, just like many other service industry people, have inflated view of the value of their own service. Expenses are one thing, and unfortunately some services are not worth the expenses they incur.
Most of the shoes are nowadays made in China or Vietnam. There are a small handful of makers in UK and USA who still make handmade shoes. They cost 100 times what the normal Chinese made shoe costs. Very few people buy them. Most people don't see enough value in them. Some people are so rich that it really doesn't matter what they pay for their shoes or for a photograph, or for a Hasselblad Lunar. But they didn't become so rich by overpaying for everything.

Funny to read this today. This morning I got an e-mail from Voice of America Online. They'd seen some photos I'd done that ran on Atlantic Monthly's website. They (VOA) wanted to use them in exchange for a credit line. The enticement was that they had 40 million unique visitors to their site last year. I responded by asking the requestor if she was a volunteer for VOA. Did she get paid? Did she get benefits? She was not a volunteer. I asked her if she was ashamed of asking middle class taxpayers to work for free. She thanked me for my quick response to her initial e-mail. Very frustrating when the government that just slurped up your big income tax payments comes back and asks for more free stuff.

Haven't commented here in quite a while but found myself talking about this very thing today with another "semi-pro." (we both work in other fields but earn a part of our income from our photography.)
I have worked for "free" and will do it again.
I find that I get treated the worst when I work for cheap, not free.
When I work for free I make very clear what I will and will not provide and what my expectations are of the client...set expectations in advance. Truth is, most potential clients want more for nothing than I'm willing to give or don't warrant free work for any variety of reasons. It's a rare situation...but I've never been treated badly.
Work for cheap and you get abused though...because the client has already done their homework and knows the dollar value of great work and figures you are slashing your price because you are not confident with your work...and can be abused as such.
And if I have an assistant or otherwise cannot complete the work solo...no free lunch. Assistants get paid.

"And, ironically, charging too little is often just an encouragement for people to think that you charge too much."

Yes! One reason that I would rather sell one of something for $1000 than sell 10 of them for $1000. (And in reality, it is more like you'll sell one at $1k instead of one and $100.)

Edward S. Curtis received millions from his patron JP Morgan- all of it for the creation of his opus, The North American Indian; not one cent of it went to a salary. After usurping his copyright, the Morgan heirs later sold most of his legacy to a rare book collector for the not so princely sum of... $1,000! Curtis died penniless.

When his wife sued him for non payment of child support, the judge inquired as to his financial arrangement, and he replied, "I work for nothing." When asked why on earth why, he replied, "Your honor, it was my job. The only thing... the only thing I could do that was worth doing."

A close friend remarked on the plight that befell Curtis, "Unfortunately, this has too often been the fate of other great achievers in the realm of music, art, books and explorations. Belated honors are vicarious compensations."

After years of getting bit, I eventually transitioned to invoicing full price and then placing a discount before the bottom line. My tax accountant encouraged me on this because often times I have tangible costs or inventory of supplies being consumed. The invoice is better matched to the cost of goods sold and keeps the auditor happy. As long as the line items are accounted for, it doesn't really matter what you do below the "sub-total" line. This is especially important for those of us who have to charge sales tax. Freebee items can trigger red flags in regards to tax evasion.

Nothing is free now. It's not "vanity", but practical reasoning to show people what the real costs are.

When dealing with the startups and other businesses looking to take advantage of you, never drop below double your lowest possible discount rate. They'll stiff you for half the invoice amount no matter what it is. The big retailers are very bad to deal with because they have turned their Accounts Payable departments into revenue sources. 10net30 means they'll pay in six months for 50% of the invoice.

I have no problem giving a discount to clients. They pay full freight for the first two jobs and I'll discount some cost on the third.
Have found this works for both of us.

Choose your customers carefully....

John Camp hit the nail on the head. when the GFC hit Australia hard I had quite a few clients - publishing houses, magazines, pr companies etc- just refuse to pay their bills. They knew perfectly well that solo operators like myself were not going to take them to court. The whole business model now stinks.

The best way to make a million out of photography is to dream up some thing to sell to photographers. Photographers are used to shelling out bucks all the time to enjoy their hobby.

Some further thoughts on this theme which is destined to run and run. Photography was an early victim or casualty of digital change. In the next twenty years a whole raft of middle class, middle grade occupations (including the law according to some people who know more about this than I) are going to be wiped off the map by the ongoing digital revolution. I wonder what the trolls (who are mercifully absent from here, thanks to our esteemed moderator) will do as their occupations vanish. Contrary to popular myth, revolutions were/are started by the middle classes (especially when they are under pressure) so the next twenty or thirty years are going to be interesting indeed. Sadly I won't be around to see how all this plays out . . .

I see a strong corollary between these two posts and the sales pitch promise of social media. While many photographers are gathering "likes" by the truckload, banks are resistant to exchange those for cash. Hmmmmm.

Is anybody out there making a predictable, quantifiable return on all their sharing, tweeting, etc.? It seems to me that to do all that work (and give away the rights to the images to the social media conduit), you'd have to be making a lot of money that you wouldn't be otherwise.

Is anybody?

Related to photography, do you think the designs of book covers have become more routine compared with 30 years ago?

In response to Ed Grossman: I believe you've hit one important nail on the head. Unless you have a workshop to sell all those "likes" and "followers" garnered on social media are economically meaningless.

Free or even very cheap puts you at the bottom of the list. It just says you are desperate for work, so you much not really be any good.

Free, makes you a loser in the "buyers" mind and they are right.

Free, and exposure - worst than no exposure, spend the time marketing yourself instead.

High priced quotes will get you noticed and set a expectation of high quality, low quotes will do just the opposite.

Free is for losers, find another occupation.

Brad B. is exactly right. I have had good experiences of late selling used items on Kijiji, but every time I have offered something for free, it becomes a huge hassle. People picking up freebies have asked me to deliver things great distances away, have been no-shows to meet up at a set time, have demanded extra items I don't have because their freebie "is worthless without it" and have picked up items they will never have any use for (because it is an accessory for something they don't own) when all I was trying to do was ensure it would go to someone who could use and appreciate it, rather than throwing it away. I'm done giving items away for free - if I can't assign it some sort of cost so that others will see it as having a value, it sadly just goes in the trash.

I never had an issue with people paying since they didn't get anything from me until the time of payment. I did encounter a LOT of what you described though as people were often convinced I took a shot that wasn't in the deliverables. Wedding were the worst (do you have more of Aunty M?).

There's a lot of bad work going on out there but my experience has left me a lot less sympathetic. Hearing someone complain about paying a large outfit $800 for what amounted to 5 shots actually evoked a chuckle as I knew I'd have given them 20-30 quality shots for half that.

As a part timer I've pretty much given up on paid photography and now only shoot what interests me. Video is where I'm going but won't be making the same mistake I did with photography.

I fell into the same trap as a lot of people. I had a camera, now how can I get part of that expense back? Take photos of people! One thing lead to another and suddenly I had a full studio in my basement, and other gear I would never have bought except -- to try and make money, and I probably broke even(ish) after a couple years. Why? To try and recoup costs of the original camera (now sold & replaced several times over). I learned a lot in the journey and don't regret. Running a shoot, working with people, learning lighting essentials and discovering I could create work that touched people was an awesome experience.

But in the end that wasn't why I bought that first camera and that is the makings of a Greek tragedy/comedy.

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