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.

Print Friendly

About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

Related Posts:

  • No Related Posts