Don’t Let Your Photography Clients Sell You Short

In reading through the 70+ comments on last Tuesday’s post, “12 Excuses for Shooting Photos for Free — and Why They’re Bogus,” I found two complaints interesting from the “will work for free” crowd.

The complaints are, to paraphrase:

  1. I don’t owe anything to pro photographers; they’re just whiners who can’t compete anymore.
  2. How come pro photographers don’t help “noobs” like me learn to get paying work, instead of just criticizing me?

So you don’t owe anything to pros, but they owe you something? OK.

Let me be clear. In debunking excuses for working for free, I am not trying to discourage young photographers from breaking in to the business. I am not a bitter pro photographer fearing encroachment on “my domain.” To the contrary, I have long been committed to helping people become successful photographers with a sustainable business.

The key word here is “sustainable.” That means not giving away your work for free, and not selling it at rates that don’t make sense financially.

So, for a moment, let’s stop using our obvious verbal skills to debate one another on Black Star Rising, and let’s focus them where they may actually yield a financial return: our prospective clients.

I Will Gladly Pay You Tuesday…

Anyone who hangs up a shingle as a photographer will soon get a call that goes something like this: “I don’t have much (or any) money, but if you’ll do this job for me, I will make it up to you on the next one.”

Stay in the business long enough, and you’ll hear this promise a thousand times.

I am reminded of Wimpy J. Wellington, who said to Popeye, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.”

Or to quote Oscar Wilde, “While a first marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence, second marriages are the triumph of hope over experience.”

Over two decades, I have never experienced the promise of future work by a lowballing client as a promise kept. Therefore, I have given up hope. And you should, too.

Here’s how to handle a client who tries to sell you short in this way:

Client: Boy, am I glad to find you. We often have assignments in [enter your city here] and really like your work. The thing is, we only have $400 for this assignment. But I can make it up to you in the future, as we frequently have a need in [enter your city here] and would love to work with you on an ongoing basis.

You: Wow, that’s great. So you’ve had a lot of shoots in [enter your city here]? Who were you working with before finding me?

Client: Um, er, different people. I’d rather not say who.

You: Hmm. Well, you know, your offer sounds enticing, but $400 is a little low. How about this: since you’re going to have a frequent need for my services, let’s assume that you’ll have 10 assignments for me per year. That works out to $4,000. So, what I’ll do is charge you $500 for the first eight, and then the ninth and tenth ones will be free. That way, you’ll be able to stick within your budget for the year, and I’ll be assured of a continued relationship and a revenue stream I can count on.

Think I’ve ever been taken up on this? Nope, and I’ve proposed it easily a dozen times. Yet, were I able to find a client willing to make that commitment, I would uphold my end of the bargain.

Getting the Price You Deserve

Notice that in the example above, I did not say “no.” I just wanted a firm commitment rather than a vague promise.

In the same way, all aspiring professional photographers should have a firm game plan for their business, rather than vague, romantic goals.

When I speak with prospective clients, I ask them, “What budget are you trying to work within?”

In most cases, they are straight with me. But even when they state a figure that is unreasonably low, my response is not “no.” Instead, I say something like, “Let me look this over, and I will send along what I can do for you.”

And then, in short order, I do. And, guess what? I often get the assignment.

Not only that, but the client makes a point to tell me that I am the only one they talked to who bothered to present my position, contract, fees and expenses, and to provide a reasonable justification for them.

So rather than twist yourself into pretzels trying to rationalize doing work that doesn’t pay the bills, why not focus on valuing your own talents — and learning how to communicate their value to clients?

31 Responses to “Don’t Let Your Photography Clients Sell You Short”

  1. Good example...
    But in my local deals, low ball clients, they gone (never come back, never reply email) if they don't get what they want to rip off. There is no Negotiation at all

  2. I do not have a lot of experience with photography, but enjoy this thread because of my experience with web development, which I used to do.

    I would get the same offers all the time. "Once my company becomes big, I'll surely pay you."

    "You can build your portfolio."

    If you set yourself up as worthless, then people will treat you that way. Your word of mouth will be to other people who say, "This guy will do it for free to build his portfolio." Suddenly, you have a portfolio and no way to pay the rent.

    If you're undercutting the pros, the problem is not as much those who are working having problems...the problem is you're actually undercutting yourself.

  3. wow-this thread has really hit home for me--great points and ones I am wrestling with as I try to launch a photography business. Fortunately, I have experience in business; have read the Photography biz books (yours too!!). I always follow your advice and keep the dialogue going and if I feel the "value proposition" (ie trade discounted work for explicit, real marketing opportunities to an outlet not necessarily available to me) will work- I will try and find a "win-win" for all--but it is a struggle!! Thanks for the great ideas--much appreciated.

  4. Over the years I've learned the hard way that doing work for free or low cost almost never results in paying work from those clients down the line, nor do they usually do you the courtesy of referring you to clients who do pay. Now I usually limit my volunteer work to non-profit organizations, and I most always do things for them that don't involve photography. Oddly enough, though, I did some photos of an event for a local non-profit two months ago. It wasn't anything they asked me to do -- I just went for fun. I had no expectation or hope of ever getting any future work as a result. I put together a little slide show for them, though, and they were so happy with it that they hired me -- at my going rate -- to photograph some of their programs and produce a slide show to present during a fundraising event last month. So, it's not out of the realm of possibility, but one paying assignment in 20 years coming from something I did for free doesn't recommend itself as a business strategy.

    What I've struggled with is this. A prospective client calls and describes what kind of photos he/she wants. I ask follow up questions on how they intend to use the images, etc. Then I ask what kind of budget they have for the project. If you're talking to an experienced media buyer at a large company, they usually have no problem sharing that info. But being in a smaller market, more of my clients are small business owners who either turn into a deer in the headlights -- like they've never even contemplated the question -- or they do have a figure in mind, but they won't tell you. They just want to know how much I would charge. I write up a detailed proposal based on how much they want photographed and how and where they're going to use the images. If I get the job, I know I was at or below what they were willing to pay. But it's almost never that they call back to say "This is more than what we had in mind," so that I can either explain why the job costs what I estimate it should or so that I can find out their budget and suggest what I could do instead to work within it. If I haven't heard from them in a while, I know they're either out price shopping with other photogs, or they've already hired someone else to do the job but haven't given me the courtesy of telling me their decision. When I call to follow up and see if they've reviewed the proposal or have any questions, they're usually not very forthcoming or may just be too embarrassed to say they didn't know how much professional photography costs. But I'm always the one left feeling that I've been playing a guessing game. Do you have strategies to recommend when the prospective client is being secretive about their budget?

    Thank you.

  5. I'm a graphic designer and a photographer. Right now, I'm working on a project that straddles both fields.

    The client's been trying to find photos that will work in his design, and he's finding that good stock photos comes with a hefty price tag.

    That's the kind of price tag that Martha finds inspiring. So inspiring,in fact, that my rates for design and photography projects like this one are going up.

    Thanks for this post, John.

  6. Excellent post. There is nothing like selling yourself. You know what you are worth if you are a professional. The other folks don't.

  7. Every photographer I know would love this article. Shared!

  8. I think the real people who are undercutting pros are the big companies we love so much, such as Nikon, Cannon, and Sony. They are the ones who spend millions of dollars on developing technology that is continually undermining the value of a photographers work. They turn around and market their cameras to boneheads who think that because they’ve just bought a coolpix, they can shoot your otherwise paying client's event just as good as you can, because I mean, that's the way the advertisement on TV portrays it! The core of the issue really boils down to the competitive technology war waging between name brand camera and electronic companies. Let's face it, no camera will ever replace a true pro, but big companies want paying customers who think they have a camera that's as good as a pro.

  9. Well, I understand the point about camera manufacturers, but I think it's a stretch to blame them for undermining the professional photography market.

    I think part of the job description of "professional photographer" these days is that of a teacher – you have to educate clients about the differences in image quality between, say, at Nikon Coolpix and a D3, and convince people as to why it's an advantage to hire someone with pro gear.

    The unfortunate fact (for pros) is that many clients simply don't need or want quality. Technology has changed the market forever. You have to deal with it. You have to become a better teacher and salesperson and develop a client base that actually needs and wants quality work.

    The current challenge is that there are actually some talented photographers out there who start out with amateur or semi-pro gear. You just gotta hope that, at some point, they understand there is a fee threshold for actually making a living in photography and begin to charge accordingly.

    The problem for established pros is that there is currently a steady influx of "newbies" always willing to undercut professional, livable rates, and that influences the entire market.

    So my advice to those just starting out is to develop your business acumen along with your photography skills. Do some research. Figure out what profitable rates are and learn to sell that to clients. It really is hard to raise your rates once you've established a reputation for low rates or freebies.

  10. I don't think camera manufacturers are to blame for some photographers' misfortune. They're doing what they're supposed to do, their R&D guys keep making cameras better and better and better.

    The difference between what we do and the "boneheads who think that because they’ve just bought a coolpix, they can shoot" was well as we can is... experience.

    Professionals have the production experience to guarantee the results. We're properly equipped with both the hardware and the brains (experience) to insure that nothing gets in the way of getting back with the pictures. The boneheads? Not so much.


    FWIW: At the beginning of my career I photographed an annual report for free just to get one in my portfolio. It was for a United Way agency under the aegis of an outfit called Volunteer Opportunities in New York City. VO had a pretty good designer who showed me a great mock-up of the book with large, full page images and a nicely designed cover. She promised a glossy print job on heavy stock. It was just what I was looking for in a loss-leader.

    Several days of photography and a month or so later she delivered a four page booklet, images the size of postage stamps printed down the outside edge of one page, two color... black ink on cream colored paper. It looked awful!!! The client decided to save paper and money, cut the printing budget and left me standing there with my thumb up my you-know-what whistling "Dixie" with not so much as a "thank you."

    I did make some great pictures which I used in my portfolio anyway, never showed the annual report to anyone.

    As George Bush said, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice..... uhhh...... well, we don't get fooled again!"

  11. Joe makes an excellent point about volunteering to do photography for good causes. I've learned (the hard way) that this is a excellent way to be taken for granted.

    As in, every time you come to an event or anything else that's associated with the organization, you're expected to be totin' your camera in case some photo op comes up. And forget about being paid because you're doing it for a good cause.

    So, next time you hear the words, "You won't be paid," coming out of some event organizer's mouth, say, "I'll have to pass. Good luck with your event." Then hang up.

  12. Joseph, I think my last comment may have been unclear. What I was trying to say is that the goal of a company that makes and sells cameras is to sell more cameras. Basically, if you want to sell more cameras, you have to make a camera that has features the other companies don’t, and sell it at a competitive price. A technology war has been waging between big camera companies for years, and every time you turn around, it seems like they have a new camera out with more features and better technology.

    A large majority of consumers today incorrectly believe that by purchasing a DSLR, they will be able to take pictures the way the professionals do. People get this impression from commercials which advertise the cameras in this way. Because of this idea, many people are choosing to have friends or family with DSLR’s shoot weddings, events, and even portraits for free. They will certainly realize the truth when their camera does not output pro grade material because there is more to making a pro photo than pointing and shooting. My point is that in an effort to sell more and more cameras, the big companies are costing the professionals potential clients, even if they don’t mean to.

    I am not against the advancement of technology; I just resent the way the big camera companies market their products, creating this unintentional backlash on professional photographers! I also do not support any movement in the industry to make DSLR’s more consumer friendly in an effort to sell more cameras; or in other words, dumbing down the features to make them more point-n-shoot reminiscent.

  13. @ Daniel Persinger who wrote: "I just resent the way the big camera companies market their products, creating this unintentional backlash on professional photographers! I also do not support any movement in the industry to make DSLR’s more consumer friendly in an effort to sell more cameras"

    Hey man, there's always been some uncle or cousin or brother-in-law with a hot camera competing with the pros and there's always been that advanced amateur waiting in the wings to have a shot at being published, nothing much has changed with the advent of hi-res digital SLRs. Remember... owning a good camera won't make one Irving Penn, it just makes one a camera owner.

  14. @ Daniel Persinger...

    Oh, just an afterthought re your being irked by "many people choosing to have friends or family with DSLR’s shoot weddings, events, and even portraits for free. They will certainly realize the truth when their camera does not output pro grade material because there is more to making a pro photo than pointing and shooting. My point is that in an effort to sell more and more cameras, the big companies are costing the professionals potential clients."

    I get steamed when I see a photographer's web site (yours, in-fact) that says right up front: "I take the photos, you keep the copyrights!" You're doing more harm to the professional photographer community than any camera manufacturer can.

    You need to read...

  15. I’m doing what is right for me, my business, and my target demographics. I’m not going to apologize to anyone for my business model, or for costing my competitors clients. I read the article, understand it and respect that point of view. I have my reasons for choosing to do business this way, and I don’t have to explain myself. Some of the most successful photographers I know sell the copyrights. At least I’m not doing it for free right…which was the whole point of this blog post. I making my money, so don’t start attacking me and the way I choose to do business simply because I do things differently than you do! Try a little more respect and a little less criticism.

  16. This is great, and completely accurate. The truth of the matter is, as long as photography buyers are uneducated as what professional photography is and what separates the pros from the hacks, there will be a long line of wanna be pro-shooters willing to work for free or damn near free..

  17. @ Daniel Persinger who wrote: "Some of the most successful photographers I know sell the copyrights."

    NONE of the successful photographers I know do that! I don't understand why you have to give up your copyrights. Once you've done that, even *you* can't use your own pictures (like, on your own web site to promote your services). Can't you just let your clients do whatever they want with the pictures ("all rights, non-exclusive, in perpetuity throughout the universe") without giving up your copyright? I think you can.

  18. One more thing: I can guarantee you that I know more photographers (successful and not so successful) than you do.

  19. Yeah, it's aggravating when photographers who call themselves "pro" don't even know the difference between a license and a copyright.

    Are there rare instances when you might want to sell a license with perpetual exclusive rights to usage? Maybe not advisable, but it's possible, and the emphasis is on SELL. If you are going to give up any income on future sales of images, that client better compensate you accordingly, and you have to educate them as to why.

    Blaming the "market" is stupid. Photographers who are undervaluing their work are driving the market, not clients.

  20. Good for you jerk.

  21. Does anyone have something positive to add?

  22. Joe, you’ve got an awesome website, a fantastic portfolio, a lot of experience, and you have even won some great awards. You should feel proud of yourself for your accomplishments! However, if you want your opinion to be respected by other photographers and by readers of this blog, you should stop making comments that personally attack others. I understand the difference between licensing images and selling the copyrights, and have used both methods in the past. I have chosen to use the method that is right for me and my business. You have chosen the method that is right for you. I hope your business has the utmost success.

  23. It's not that I'm trying to be gratuitously critical, Dan. This discussion went from Working For Free, which is what it should be about, to your rant against camera manufacturers enabling wannabes to compete with you and ruining the market for all photographers.

    My reply was that there have *always* been wannabes working for extra cash (as opposed to running a biz) and diluting your opportunities. As if that's not enough, there are also photographers who give it all away (you, among them) for peanuts who are doing more harm to other photographers than Canon, Nikon, Sony, et al ever will.

    You're not in the same business as I am. I'm in a business to business market, I license images for publication. Judging by your web site, you're in a business to consumer market and should be selling prints (the traditional milieu of wedding and portrait photographers). Historically, your market has been most hurt by people scanning images and reprinting them for distribution to friends and relatives rather than ordering prints from you. You'd benefit most from restricting access to your photographs to increase print/album orders, not giving away the images.

    Ever since Kodak produced its first Brownie, Uncle Fred has been lurking behind a professional at a wedding or event making pictures over the pro's shoulder and cutting into the pro's bottom line. Nothing much has changed in the years since.

    Photographers (and this applies to B2B as well as B2C) need to tighten-up their business practices and start behaving like an industry rather than a bunch of loose canons to preserve their markets. Cooperation, rather than ruthless competition, is the way to go.

    Take a lesson from the automobile manufacturers: remember when they *all produced* electric cars for California? Where are those cars today? Why are they gone?

    You don't have to give away your copyright, nobody does. If your competition is doing that and forcing you to do it too then maybe it's time to invite them to lunch and discuss how this practice hurts everyone.

    I like to know who I'm "in the room" with so after I read your rant I visited your web site to see what you do. Sorry to hold you up as an example but it's right in the open that you're doing it (and likely most of the guys you compete with in Bakersfield are doing it too).

    You can do better, I wish you all possible success!

  24. Joseph, I have been thinking a lot about my business model. I realize now that it would be more in the interest of my business to license my works rather than sell the copyrights. When photographers sell the copyrights, they are giving up all future opportunity to use those images in any way. I was drawn to selling the copyrights because of how simple and easy the process is in comparison to licensing. I have decided to revise the way I do business because of the very legitimate points that have been made about selling the copyrights, and because of the benefits licensing my work would bring. I may still allow my clients the option to buy copyrights, but at an additional price rather than by default. Thank you for some professional insight and direction.

  25. Dan, I hate to throw a wrench into the machine, but licensing your pictures may be just as problematic for you in that "retail" customers (brides & grooms, HS seniors, hot-rod owners) seeking pictures may not understand the concept. Similarly, stating that you sell copyrights (to the same customers) may sound good, especially in light of the competition, but it's not something they really understand.

    My point was that, in your end of the photo biz, that discussion... licensing vs copyright... isn't even germane. You simply make pictures for a fee and sell prints, those are the components.

    Licensing & copyright probably shouldn't even be discussed until your customer raises the issue, at least that's how it feels to me. Customer says, "so, are there any restrictions as to how I can use these pics?" You say, "Yes, these prints are for your own enjoyment, please don't allow them to be published in magazines or ads, that would require a license and additional payment." Or you say, "I try to keep this as affordable as possible for you so that when you want extra prints you'll return to me for them, please don't scan them and make your own, it's how I earn my living."

    It's not necessarily going to come up in every situation and if it doesn't, don't even bother getting into it. On the other hand, if you get the vibe that someone is coming to you for X and then they're gonna do Y, you might want to mention it in a non-heavyweight way. You still want to be a nice guy and make the sale.

    In any case, giving it all away up-front as you have in the past, especially if nobody's asking you to, is a silly tactic. It's the last bargaining chip you have, hold it in reserve, don't play it immediately.

    Good luck!!

  26. This discussion seems to have gotten off track at bit, so I'll bring it around. The most popular line we always hear is, We don't have a budget, but we'll give you credit. I remember an old colleague years ago who started Contact Image and his advice was, make the money, the name will follow and he was right.

    Don't sell yourself short. Now I'm not saying, here's my prices, take them to leave them, In fact I feel that if you have a good client, one that keeps coming back and back again on a daily basis, it doesn't hurt to help the client out once in a while, so long as they know they owe you one as well. The occasional extra print or DVD, but mark it as such on the invoice as NC, so that there's a record of them knowing. Business is business and everything cost money. Today's photography business is more costly then ever. Camera, lighting, computers, office operations, insurance and more insurance, marketing and advertising, legal fees, and tons of paperwork. Many times a client who sits in his office sees you as making a windfall based on your prices, but they are not taking into account that their office, parking, phone, lights, computer and water cooler is being paid for someone who has to pay the bills like we do. Everything costs something. I remember the days, back in the days of film, when colleagues would come up and ask to "borrow" a roll of film. Ok, that was like handing out ten dollar bills, many to never see again. I guess the bottom line is, help the clients that help you, start off on the right foot with them and develop and understanding and relationship. Once you start out cheap, it very hard to justify increasing your rates later, but you can always bring them down for a valued customer. Turn away the ones that can't afford it, of in the end, they are paying someone what they want for other services. As Peter B Kaplan, once said, you don't walk into a restaurant and order a steak and pay what you want, you pay wants on the menu. And don't just talk about copyright, go out and register your images, even easier online now. It will be most rewarding later one knowing that they are if someone steals from you later.

  27. Hi
    an interesting post. I'm based in the UK, but the issues are just the same!
    I generally avoid doing work for free, but occasionally I'll do some work for free if I think its genuinely a good opportunity for advertising my skills and services, and if I think the photos will be good for my portfolio eg tyring to move into a new area of photography. So, if you do decide to do some work for free my advice is try to turn it into an exchange of some sort ... exchange of services, free advertising etc.

  28. why am i being charged $500 dollars to be a photographer at an awards show. this price is being quoted to all photographers because the owner says that they will make their money back

  29. I think most people had issues with the tone of your previous article.

  30. The whole industry has fucked itself in many different ways, especially because there are no standards. If there were standards though, could it still be called art?

  31. Pricing, pricing and pricing the biggest question in business. Why not to share older version of Fotoquote for free for everyone? That might put the standard to the business. All those people would upgrade it at some point, good business for everyone.

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