Before You Shoot for Peanuts, Consider the Risks

Ummm… this is a Rant, so be warned.

I stated in the last post that I would tell you why I would prefer beginning photographers shoot for free rather than dirt cheap. And I mean that totally. I am not saying you should shoot for free, I am saying to cut out the low-ball quotes that drive the industry down. Yeah, I would prefer you do it for free than to have you quote $40 for a half day industrial shoot… got it? When you quote ridiculously low pricing, you are giving the impression that it is worth what you quoted. And that impression hurts everyone… even you.

I see lots of posts and questions in different forums that go something like this: I am not a professional, but my friend’s boss asked me to do some pictures of his family. I was thinking of charging $35 because I am just starting out and don’t feel comfortable charging too much.”

OK… and the sentiment is not terribly wrong. If you aren’t yet a professional, and feel you work is not up to par, then charging a professional rate isn’t a good idea.

But let’s look at what you are saying about your work, the work of others, the professional photography business in general… and how you fit into all of this.

First the snarkiness:
“Hi, I just finished reading ‘Corporate Tax Filings for Dummies’ and I would love to do your corporate taxes for you. Of course, I am not a professional tax preparer, so I will charge you only a few sheckles.”

You going for that? Jail ain’t that bad if you can save a couple of hundred on your tax preparation, right?

“Hello, I am a brand new heart surgeon, and I understand that your operation is very tricky… no problem. I don’t charge full rate!”

“There is no way I can charge you full rate for this plumbing job Mr. Jones, I am just a beginner. Just got my tools last week. Let’s just say… $20 bucks?”

Yeah, I know… we aren’t plumbers or doctors or tax preparers. We are photographers. And you know what? We have value too! We really do!

I get asked all the time what is a good beginning rate. I say… there is no such thing. There is lower professional rate, professional rate, and wow-I’d-love-to-get-some-of-those-gigs rate. There are discounts. There are coupons and specials and look-kid-I-like-you-so-I’m-gonna-make-you-a-heck-of-a-deal rates.

I think that you are either a professional or you are not. Not a big fan of that ‘gray’ area in between. Find out what the rates are for the shooters in your area. If you want to be a ‘little lower’ than the going rate, that is fine. Competitive pricing is NOT “low-balling” in my mind. But know where the line is between competitive and stupid-low. And if you can’t figure that out… well, maybe being self-employed is not a good plan.

I tell my students, that there is no way that you can be competitive at some of these crazy prices I see quoted. $35 for a family portrait. $125 for a catalog shoot with 30 images. 4×6 prints for $1.25… are you crazy?

Here’s the thing… if someone wants you to shoot a catalog for $125, maybe you should simply do it for free and not worry about the money. Tell them that you are a beginning shooter and you want to shoot the catalog, but that a shoot like that should run $xxxx.xx, and you couldn’t do it for that money. But since you are new, you’ll do it for free. Cause you need a catalog of little black rubber gaskets really really bad since you want to be a fashion photographer someday.

(Sorry.) More after the jump.

Two things happen. The client understands that there is a value to the work that you do. And you have established a rate that makes it easy for you to do a good job, come back next time and do it for the rate you want. Or the next photographer won’t seem too out of place quoting the rate it should be.

You have set a rate for yourself… and you may not get it when starting out, but damn it… you have to set a rate that makes sense.

There are other considerations as well. I have heard them all, I think.

“If I am too high, they won’t hire me.”
OK… let me get this right. You want to do work for people who won’t pay you what you are worth, so you low-ball it to get the job that won’t pay you what it is worth so you have the opportunity to do even more jobs at a rate that won’t pay you what it is worth. Do I have that right?

Is that really what you want to do?

“I am a brand new photographer, so I don’t feel that my rate should be more than a slim slice over crap.”
Will that ad that they are placing in the magazine then not work as well? Will the magazine discount the ad rate? Will people looking at the ad say to themselves, “Well, that photo looks like someone who was new and didn’t charge so much so I should run over right away and buy something from this company so they can hire a real photographer?”

Ummm… no. They will receive whatever they receive and be done with it.

And what if you do a really, really kick ass job for them? And the ad pulls like crazy? And you shot it for $32.68… You think when they call you and breathlessly tell you that the ad rocked and you did such a great job and they want to do it again and you say “Cool! My rate is $750…”

Client on phone: “… … …”
“But I thought it was $32.68 again?”

(There are times when shooting for cheap or free makes no sense at all… ya know.)

Go ahead and tell them how you did cut rate work two months ago but now you are a real pro and need to charge real rates. Go ahead. Tape it and send it to me… seriously. I wanna hear this.

But if you had said: “Look, I really want to shoot this stuff.” And they say “we really want you to shoot it. How much?” And you say… $750 is my rate. And they say that is too high, we only budgeted $147.57… then you have to negotiate.

Do you simply give it away, or stand there and tell them that the price you quoted wasn’t really a, you know, price… It was something you just… well, made up. So you are happy to do it for any price they are willing to pay.

Insane! (And don’t you DARE shoot it for $150… that is bone dead stupid. Clients don’t tell US what our images are worth, we tell THEM… and then do whatever we want in the form of discounting. (And don’t tell me about how so-and-so says “ALWAYS walk away”… simply bullshit. I have been around too long and KNOW what happens in the real world. There are times you do and times you don’t. If someone wanted me to photograph Mohammed Ali, I would pay whatever they wanted… heh :-))

Back to the ad client… hey are running a freakin’ ad! Placement? Film? Contracts? Helloooo?

Ads aren’t shot for free or for peanuts. I don’t care what you do it for, but it better be close to rate. Or do it for nothin… At least you are not driving the ability for someone else to shoot it at a rate that makes sense. You are screwing yourself on a shoot like that, but you are at least leaving the door open for yourself and other professional photographers.

Photographs have a value. (And no, iStock, it is not $6… thanks.) They do have value that is intrinsic. I believe that to my core.

Now to address you emerging folks with some plain talk about building your book. Every shooter I know had to get a book put together. Testing with models and MUA’s, buying food to shoot, still-lives and other props added up. It is the name of the game. And many of them did a free shoot now and then… now and then. Got it. Not every job… and not when the client was simply playing them… don’t get played. If they can afford the rate for a 6 time insert, they can sure as hell afford you. Be competitive. If the rate for the established guys are about $1000 for that kind of shoot and rights transfer, then come in at $900, $800 even. But not $175. Seriously. Do it for free before you drive the RATE down in the dumps… someday you may need to get the rate that is standard, ya know. Doing it for free at least keeps the rate alive.

Now again, do understand that I am NOT saying that you SHOULD do it for free. Not at all… I am saying I am less bothered by free than by the grinding slide of rates going into the toilet… that hurts us all.

Even you.

Shoot for your book. Shoot what you need for your book. I don’t care how you get the stuff for your book. (Note: a 12 page catalog shot of round rubber gaskets will NOT be in your book… are we on the same page with that? Just cause it is a ‘tear-sheet’ doesn’t mean anyone wants to see it. OK… stop it. Go ahead and show it IF you are asked if you can shoot round black rubber gaskets.)

AND HERE’S THE DEAL. IF you do one for free, while QUOTING the real price… you do it once. One time. Get your gasket catalog, or your fashion shot and add it to your tear sheets… and charge the rate next time. That is fine… That won’t tear the rates down. But if you do it a second time, then you are not a professional, not even a pre-professional. You become a sucker for people who use your work and think nothing of you. Believe me… that is not what you want to do in this, or any business, that depends on your personal brand. I would never want my brand to be “cheap and free sucker guy.” Would you?

And when your book is complete… it is ready for you to step up to the world of professionalism. It really is, folks. Be competitive, be industrious, be aggressive… ‘sall good. Just don’t tear the pricing down because YOU think YOU are not ready.

And if you aren’t ready, don’t do the gig.

Next rant will be on why I don’t necessarily believe that Cost of Doing Business is the right way to find what to charge for photographers.

Hey… thanks for joining me on this little rant. Follow me on Twitter, see my 365 project here, and if you are considering taking a workshop this year, my Lighting Essentials Workshops rock… they really do.

See you next time.

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  1. You are always a ‘refreshing’ read Don. Thanks.

  2. Just to say it again. Doing stuff to build your portfolio is not a reason to do things. I mean unless your shooting for an amazing publication it won’t matter any more or less than if you just shoot something for your book without a client. In fact your likely to do better work with no client.

    Good post.

  3. Hooray for this Rant! I have to admit to being guilty of this line of thinking – once, just once, I promise – when scheduling a wedding. Not having a wedding portfolio to speak of, I felt it was in my best interest to low-ball, just until I got some images to show. When the idea of shooting a wedding for such a low price loomed ahead, it just dragged my spirits to the ground. Then I actually sat down and crunched the numbers on the lowest possible price I could charge and still make money: it was at least 4x higher than my quoted price. Ouch. Thanks for the post, and looking forward to the next rant!

  4. Good post! It makes a lot of sense really. I rather see the free shoot for the beginner than the 500 images with 2 edited for 40 dollars [I see this a lot, once it was 20 dollars…someone actually tweeted that :( ]. Seriously. That makes a mockery of the person who posts it and the entire industry.

    • Yes… a mockery we don’t need!!!

  5. Another reality check post … great article Don.

  6. I have shot for free. But it’s not because I’m desperate to shoot something. I’ve shot for free for people who have the potential to give me work, but only if I can convince them of the value of what I have to offer. The people I shoot for free for, are not people who are coming to me, already convinced of the value of what I’m offering them. They’re the people that I’m going to and saying, “you need good images.”

    This is me saying, “Here, try my product once, and if you like it, this is what it will cost in the future.” Ever notice that the free samples at Costco are new products? No-one sets up a table and pours samples of Coca-cola for people to try. Everyone can immediately imagine the taste of Coca-cola in their mouth, and knows what Coca-cola does for them. No-one can immediately imagine what Mrs. K’s tasty wraps taste like. So, the lady in the hair net offers a taste. But not an unlimited free supply.

    I have approached real estate agents with the offer of one free listing shoot. That way, they have nothing invested, and I believe they will see the value in what I do for them, and call me next time. When I offer a free shoot, I also let them know, this is a $x dollar shoot. If you are happy with what I do, and want me to continue to do it, that’s how much it will cost. I chalk this up to a marketing cost.

    I would never low-ball or shoot a wedding for free (unless of course it’s a favor for a good friend). Those people are not going to become paying customers in the future (hopefully!).

    I shoot for free to create a market where one does not exist currently. If it’s up to me to create the desire within the client for something that they have never experienced (for example good images of their product), the best way I know how is to blow them away with my images.

    I guess it’s kind of like giving someone a hit of crack. You won’t keep giving it away, but are pretty sure they’ll come back for more. That’s the confidence I have before offering a free shoot: they’ll be back for more.

    • I don’t think you are shooting for ‘free’ – I see this as a well thought out, well coordinated marketing plan. Bravo to that!

      Money is not the only exchange… you are gaining access to potential clients, and your point is a good one. IF you dont knock them out, they don’t come back, so you have got to make it work well.

      Really great marketing ploy, and putting your work out there makes you a PART of their process.

      Thanks for this great comment!

  7. Well written! Everyone with a digital camera should read this. On secont thought….EVERYONE should read this!

  8. Thanks for the rants Don; great reading as usual. I really hope this is getting through to the new photographers out there.

    There are some vigilante photogs in my area (boston) that take the time to go through CL and flag the silly requests for free/cheap “resume building” work. The proliferation of these requests means that there have been enough photographers out there shooting for nothing to make people think it’s a valid market.

    I know someone who got a $300 wedding shooter, in Boston! Not only does that damage the market in the short term, but it creates a word-of -mouth buzz that takes a long time to fade out.

  9. Thanks for the rants Don; great reading as usual. I really hope this is getting through to the new photographers out there.

    There are some vigilante photogs in my area (boston) that take the time to go through CL and flag the silly requests for free/cheap \"resume building\" work. The proliferation of these requests means that there have been enough photographers out there shooting for nothing to make people think it\’s a valid market.

    I know someone who got a $300 wedding shooter, in Boston! Not only does that damage the market in the short term, but it creates a word-of -mouth buzz that takes a long time to fade out.

  10. Well said!

  11. Ha ha. You’re on a roll! Keep ’em coming. PARTICULARLY interested in your next topic so bring it on!!
    : )

  12. YES!

    I completely agree. People USUALLY realize “free” isn’t forever. But…people can drag “cheap” on for a long, long, time.

    Don’t be the cheap guy.

    While “free” doesn’t pay the bills, neither does “cheap”.

  13. Good Stuff!!!

  14. Well done! Great read!

  15. Excellent post. One additional thought: quoting the right professional price, or shooting for free would also make everyone do their homework on pricing – either by finding out what it’s really worth, or by admitting that they don’t know and inserting 0 instead. I know it’s not easy to figure out, but there’s no ‘P’ mode when you want to be a photographer that gets paid for what he does.

  16. I think that doing it for free also becomes as sinful as doing it for peanuts. If you are willing to do it for free for this one time, the next project might just go to the next idiot who will do the work for free. It is hard to admit, but clients are settle for decent quality images rather than mind-blowing marvelous work because they get it for next to nothing. If Time magazine can use a stock image for less that $50 dollars as their cover image, think where the market is heading.

    The only way to survive this market would be to create a niche for yourself, not through pricing, but by the quality of your work. The rest will follow. I would suggest everyone pick up a marketing management book by Peter Drucker before thinking of becoming self employed.

  17. great article
    I ,,love,, guys who have above average rates in day job (IT for example) but will to shoot 3day festival for 100bucks.
    I will bookmark this.Thanks

  18. It amazes me what people think they can get for nothing or next to nothing when it comes to photography. I’m tired of: “it’s just digital, it doesn’t cost you anything to shoot” – ok. Camera. Lens. Flashes. TRAINING. EXPERIENCE. And then they see your images. And your portfolio. And then think that Uncle Bert can do the same thing because he read on the Intersweb how to shoot a wedding. He has a NiCanon… And HIS camera’s flash is built in!

    I charge money because I want to continue to be a professional photographer. If I wanted to be a hobbiest, I wouldn’t charge anything. (Note: That was not a slam against DH!)

    Great article, Don. When can you tell us more about the June “extravaganza” in Columbus, OH with MPEX?


  19. All I can say:

    If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!

  20. So true in the freelancing world, I am not a photographer but a translator and the same applies… Thank for this post

  21. Great rant….. Hope they hear you….

    Ty Michael

  22. There was a time when I got all worked up about stuff like this and then i realized that while i was taking what i ordained to be the ‘high road’ – it was a very lightly travelled path. While i can’t speak for Heart Surgeons or Plumbers, although, I can unclog a toilet and therefore might give heart surgery a whirl someday, I have successfully worked in various occupations where freelancers thrive – or don’t. I have been hired even though my rate was higher than the competition and i have lost jobs because I have been undercut which used to grind me.
    The reality is that ‘undercutting’ is a fact of commerce, it has been going on since the caveman (although he just clubbed the competition to a pulp) and will continue ad infinitum. As Photographers we view it from our myopic vantage point, however, it happens whether you are a photographer, designer, plumber, or worm picker. I wonder how many of those who sermonize about casting these demon ‘under cutters’ into the fiery abyss are not themselves guilty of practicing the very thing when they shop at Walmart or hire that ‘not quite legal’ handyman/gardener… is this that old ‘cast the first stone’ catcheroo rearing it’s ugly head?
    While it can be cathartic to fire up the old rant-o-meter from time to time, it’s also important to keep a foot planted in reality.

    • The fact that it is a fact, is fine. I will not accept that young photographers simply ‘should’ know this stuff through osmosis. It is something I like to do… to educate and teach. You may see this as a wasted rant, I see it as restating a POV and hopefully keeping some folks who may not have thought about it on track.

      It is too easy to simply say that “everyone does it, so I don’t care.

      That would also make for some pretty dull conversations.

      As for all being guilty by shopping at Walmart. We may be causing some issues for the local mom-n-pops, but that is not the same thing as the SUPPLIERS of the product being forced into making something at a loss.

  23. Sorry Don,
    Kept coming as invalid code and then this… mea culpa – i guess.

  24. Well said Don, I’ve been a reader of your website for over a year, and I can’t agree more about this article. Most people just doesn’t have enough grit to say no to low rates though, their excuse is that they want to keep the client coming back for repeat business. Stupid.

  25. For some reason this got me thinking about Willy Loman’s plight in Death of A Salesman.

  26. Great article! I am a beginner photographer and have toiled over what to charge to get my portfolio going, to build my clientele, etc. So I have done a few things. I joined local photography clubs that do joint shoots sometimes hiring models, sometimes for trade, sometimes for a fee. I have done TFCD. And I’ve done mini-sessions for friends. I did a mini-session photo fun day where the sessions were free and the CD was $20. I made it clear that this was a one-day-only! special. I got some great pics, but it took me 3 weeks to find time to edit them all while working another full time job and college. I got a pro account at smugmug and posted people’s pics there hoping they will purchase prints off there so I can make more money to offset all the time and energy and the cost of equipment, of the annual charge of smugmug, etc! I’m really hoping people order. I won’t be doing the CD thing anymore. I’m really glad I said it was a one-time only thing. I think it really deters people from ordering quality prints when they have a CD they can upload to shutterfly or wherever and get 50 free prints or whatnot.

    I also have a friend that wants me to be a second photographer at her wedding, she was wishing she could cancel the first photographer but she had already signed the contract before she found out I was a photographer and saw my work. I told her I could be a second photographer as long as it’s ok with the other photographer and as long as it’s not in the contract that they don’t want other photographers. She asked me how much I would charge. I thought long and hard about it. I’ve never done a wedding before. I decided I would do it free of charge as a wedding gift. I told her it was only because I’ve never done a wedding before and would like the experience, but not the pressure. She then told me that she paid $800 for the other photographer. I said, Well, that’s about what I’ll be charging once I get the experience. So happy I said that now that I read this article, I realize if I would’ve done it for $100 or $200, I would’ve been driving down the price and making the other photographer’s price seem like too much when I really dont think it is too much. Man this is a touchy business, and I really see now how much you charge really matters to everyone and our futures.

  27. Hahahahahahahah….
    I’m so much feeling you in what you say in your article..
    I had a phonecall last week from a fellow photographer, that I actually though he was a real professional, who was asking me how much I would charge for a shoot.
    After a few minutes of conversation I found out that he was committed to his client to shoot about 100 packshots of clothing on a still-table and then the lookbook for the company with all the clothes worn by a model, for just 350 euros! I really got shocked.. I told him, I was not even considering to take the job for less than a couple thousands… This is really hilarious…
    People, photographers of this planet… don’t do this to yourselves and to our profession… It doesn’t matter how much you need the money, or how not good the results of the delivered work will be, on purpose or not. It even doesn’t matter if you’re not a real professional. …But you will never become one, if you give the impression of a cheap one, who probably is not sure of himself..

  28. EXCELLENT POST! I just always hope the right people are listening to things like this. To bad not enough are. Keep it up.

  29. Great post that should be essential reading.

    It’s funny but of all the magazines that I’ve shot stuff for in the past couple of years, the ones who have had no problem with paying rate are all still in business. The ones who have replied to my quotes (usually calculated with Fotoquote) with insultingly low counter-offers because other photographers have supplied them lowball prices, are all today out of business. The magazines that is, although possibly the low-pricing photographers as well.

    I’ll be interested to see your CODB thoughts as I just today finished the draft of a post about using it as one component of determining price.


  30. How do you write what we all need to read right at that moment? Every single time. Thank you, Don.

  31. I’ve lost count of the number of gigs I’ve missed out on due to the client haggling me down against pretend photographers pricing. You’ve totally nailed it; to charge insanely low rates is to devalue the entire industry.

    The non-discerning client doesn’t care about the nuances of photography; that the lighting or white balance wasn’t correct in the stuff done by the cheaper guy. They are paying for a guy with a big camera to take pictures that are slightly better than they could have achieved with a P&S, and that’s it.

    I recently lost out on a wedding because a guy was offering $500 worth of stuff (and by that I mean cost price of physical commodities such as prints, album, etc), the coverage of the day, post processing, etc, all for $900. Of course the client was going to choose him. Now this may sound like sour grapes, but by the time he’s spent money on the goods, and factored in his time, his hourly rate must be a few cents. If that. Hardly a profit.

    How can we compete with that?

    • We don’t.

      I think we need to aggressively show the difference between a partner in the experience and someone who wants to do it for a few dollars.
      Photography HAS value. We need to show them that.

      I rarely haggled money as a wedding shooter (dabbled briefly for a year, didn’t much care for the experience, although I loved the shooting part), and would supply written estimates based on the value of them. I would point out that the only thing they ended up with was the book and the images. That I wanted to be a part of creating something that would be far more of a long experience than shooting it and dumping the DVD on them.

      However, there are some people who want all the cheap stuff they can get.

      THEY are not my client and they are NOT your client. We sometimes miss the point that not all couples are right for us and we are most definitely not right for all couples. I would at one point simply say “Oh my, well this is awkward. I am a professional photographer dedicated to creating lasting, loving images of weddings. You are looking to save money and just get pictures. I understand, and wish you well. Check Craigslist and Backpage, you should be able to find someone there to meet your expectations.” And head slowly for the door. You will know in about 15 seconds whether to keep going to the car and leave. Or not.

      Also, pre-pricing guidelines kept me from too many of those situations… “Weddings starting at $2750″ is a pre-qualifier. You wanna $500 wedding shooter, then I aint your guy.

  32. You’re quite right Don. Some people want snaps, some people want art. I know my craft and know what I want to deliver.

    Thanks so much for all of your contributions to the photographic community; I’ve been following your work for a while and appreciate your insight.


  33. I think the issue here is WHAT is the right price range? For newcomers who really have value and want to start charging the right amount, or a tad less to start, they honestly have no clue where to begin… so they think, “Well, a guess a hundred bucks is a lot.” That’s because this great article you wrote, and many, many others out there don’t actually offer any real world examples of what people charge.

    Okay, so let’s say I’m ready to start charging now. I just started out and I’ve got plenty of portfolio building free sessions out of the way. Where do I go to find out good rates for all the possibilities… like a wedding? A newborn session? A beach shot? A studio head shot? An eight hour thing or a 30 minute sitting?

    In order to set good rates, I would have to know good rates. Where can I find that? You didn’t list it here. No one does. Everyone says, “Set your rates right! Set them at market or just below!” Okay, what’s that? For what kind of shoot? You can’t just say “take cob times 4 plus the moon and number of midgets plus pickle and there you go.” These formulas don’t really work well and people just starting out have no basis of numbers to plug in. No experience in what it costs.

    So, you wind up surfing the web. You look for competitors in your area. You hit up their sites and look for rates. But guess what? Only the cheaper folks actually publish their rates. The ones you really want to emulate never publish their rates, you would have to book a session with them to find out. So, you see the $100 guys and think to yourself, “Hmmm, I guess a hundred bucks is just right!”

    For what it’s worth, it took me a long time to hunt around for competitive local rates in order to set my own. And to this day I struggle with the balance between the fee for my time vs. the fee for finished product. In the end, the people who can benefit from an article such as yours are the inexperienced ones. These people have absolutely no clue what to charge for a 4-hour product shoot involving 45 pairs of shoes. They have no clue what to charge for a half-day beach session profiling jeans that will end up in an ad. They have no clue what to charge for a real estate agency shot of a corporate building. They have no clue what to charge for corporate head shots, or what licencing fees are normal, or anything. So, instead of scaring off the customer, they say, “Hmmm, is a hundred bucks is fair?”


  34. Great Rant and well worth the read.

    Carl from T.O.

  35. Rant or not this is really good to hear. I’m transitioning from being a student photographer to “professional” and so far I’ve been getting less jobs now that I’ve started charging (before I shot only for free/”exposure” meh we’ll see what happens to me

    • I just received an email from a photographer that stated:
      “If I charge for my work, no one will hire me. I’ve tried even charging a little bit and still no bites.”

      OK. What does that tell you?

      I can think of a lot of things, but he doesn’t want to hear them.

  36. Amen! Thank you Don.. it’s been said but always needs to be repeated to keep everyone up to date! Thank you, Thank you!

  37. Right on the money with this article! I’ve been a musician, in the past, and that’s what frustrated me the most. The paying gigs were an insult and it’s basically because of the same exact thing. Too many folks willing to play a wedding party for $200 with a 4-piece band – $50 each for what might be 6-8 hours by the time you figure in travel time, setup time, set time, and tear down time. I’ve seen people accept even less.

  38. I have some experience that I’d like to share on this. In the past I’ve had to reinvent my book a few times. A couple of years ago, I decided to get back into shooting food and environmental portraits. I talked to a feee weekly paper and began shooting for them. Their rates were – low… even after negotiation, and the average image quality at that time was poor. I was very honest about my motive when we met – they were very happy to bring me in and give me some choice assignments. I was able to shoot food at some of the hottest restaurants in the southwest and took some other great assignments. They were paying for a quick and dirty natural light image, but I would bring my studio lights to shoot the way I wanted– sure, I got some odd looks and questions from the businesses, but boy did I get some nice portfolio work and covered my cost while not undercutting any commercial rates. I even sold usage to a few of these business. Yeah, I gave the paper amazing value for their money, but how else was I going to add images of $50 appetizers to my portfolio?

    I’ve always had trouble charging enough for my work – I think most of us have this same issue. To keep me honest to myself, I decided to put my rates on my website. If my phone rings, I know I’m talking to someone who has had an opportunity to see my rates. It keeps me from trying to undercut myself when times are slow or when I really want to do an assignment…

  39. “Next rant will be on why I don’t necessarily believe that Cost of Doing Business is the right way to find what to charge for photographers.”

    I own the JH books, and I read/think about CODB all the time. Do you favor a modified CODB approach, like making an adjustment to price based on regional market practices, or is the CODB completely flawed somehow? Looking forward to your next rant. I read this site as often as I do Strobist, and that’s saying alot.

    • Hi Michael,
      Yes that article is coming this week. Got a little delayed while checking some items out.

  40. Thanks for the post Don. I’m so grateful for you finding me and allowing me to get to know you and your blog. Great stuff!

    There are many similarities with photographers and assistants on this issue, but in a slightly different vein. Of course, the rates that assistants are making are significantly less than that of the photographer, and sometimes less than the MUA, hair and wardrobe stylists, and even catering/craft service. And nowadays, with tighter budgets and what-not, it seems like the assistants rate it the first to be cut, or done away with entirely. Consequently, I’ve had a few photographers tell me that they are taking a hit on their day-rate in order to pay me… so won’t I please be a nice guy and consider working for less, just this once.

    Over the years, I’ve accepted a few of these cut-rate jobs. I’ve also walked away from many, only to wish afterward, that I had taken it, because it seemed like forever until the phone rang for the next gig. If I do accept the gig, I’m just on-set with a shameful weariness that bogs me down, because I feel like I’m just a glorified baby-sitter or second-rate errand-boy, or whatever. A few times the photographer has called me again, saying they had another shoot with another tight budget, like the last time. I usually just say I’m already booked or tell them straight-up that I can’t work for less than my standard fee. Either way, you’re sort of screwed.

    But you’re right, and I’ve talked and written about this myself. Working for anything less than your full day-rate just seems to cause nothing but bad juju, all around. I think it’s harder for an assistant to say no, however, just because they aren’t making as much money to begin with. And now, there is a lot less work. We easily justify working for less money because we’d rather stay busy rather than worry about when the phone is going to ring again for a gig. I try to tell other assistants that if they feel it’s necessary for them to take a lower rate that they also do a little bartering where maybe they can trade for some studio time or borrow equipment. I think this is especially helpful for newer assistants. It’s a little bit of a win-win.

    I know one photographer who takes many newbies under his wing, teaching them a lot about his lighting, philosophy, and direction on each shoot. He won’t pay them. A lot of his work is low/no-budget music, but he needs help with gear because he has to work fast. He doesn’t mind that a new assistant doesn’t know anything. Most photographers can teach an assistant what they need to know for a specific shoot. When he needs an experienced, reliable guy, he calls me, and pays me. We understand each other. New assistants… make sure you and your photographer understand one another! It’s great to get lots of first-hand tutoring, but that can only go so far.

    Just like a good photographer, a good assistant will promote himself, build good relationships, and find the right opportunities. Hard work, a good attitude, and persistence will go a long way, even today.


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