This is a tale of two photography students. One sold some pictures to a client and was bummed out. Another failed to land an assignment but ended up feeling good about the experience. Why?
I’m of two minds when it comes to photography students taking on professional assignments. On the one hand, it is great experience and may represent the beginning of a long and prosperous career. On the other hand, most photography students have neither the technical skills nor the business savvy to compete in today’s visual-communications marketplace.
Most are better off, I believe, taking internships and working as assistants before heading out on their own. However, if the student can provide professional-quality photography to meet the client’s need, then I firmly believe there should be no “student discount.” Lowballing, for whatever reason, hurts the entire profession.
The Student Discount
When clients approach photography students with offers of assignments, however, some may be looking to pay peanuts. And sometimes they succeed.
Why? Students may be well-trained in the process of creating marketable images. But most, I have found, are woefully unprepared when it comes to discussing with clients the use and pricing of those images. We, as instructors and mentors, need to be able to offer advice and counseling to our students about the business aspects of visual communications.
One of my favorite courses, which I taught at City College of San Francisco during the late 1990s, was all about preparing students to enter the world of business. The students learned about the nature of entrepreneurship, they wrote business plans, prepared budgets, researched clients, and studied the legal and ethical issues related to professional photography. In short, the students were prepared to deal with clients on a business-like level.
I’m not sure how many courses like the one I taught exist at colleges and universities today. When I was teaching the business course, many of my professional photography colleagues said that they learned their early business skills by trial and error. Once they became professionals, they joined organizations such as the American Society of Media Professionals and Advertising Photographers of America.
These organizations perform a valuable service by providing information on the business aspects of professional photography. Wouldn’t it be great if, as a routine matter, all visual-communication students were provided instruction on the standard business practices pertaining to their chosen field?
A $50 Job
OK, now back to the tale of two students, both in a college-level photography program. One was contacted by an individual who wanted 10 photographs to put on his Web site. The offered price? Five dollars per photograph. She agreed and e-mailed the photographs.
Now, $50 is not an insignificant amount for a student. Many students work full or part time, and the costs associated with college life — room, board, transportation, books, etc. — are high. However, as we began a class discussion about the value of photography, this student looked more and more crestfallen.
The hardest thing for her to understand was that there was no “right price” for her photographs. Photographs aren’t like shoes or hamburgers — you can’t add up the cost of the raw materials, tack on some profit, and arrive at a price. Ultimately, I explained, price is based on usage, and the “right price” is arrived at through a negotiation between the photographer and the client.
Perhaps five dollars per photograph was the right price. But what made my student unhappy was that she felt as though she had no say in the matter. There was no negotiation. She was afraid that if she had asked for more money, she would have jinxed the sale.
Setting Your Own Price
The other student came to see me before her first meeting with a prospective client. Together we developed a list of questions for her to ask the client: What type of photography was involved? What uses were planned? Were there any other possible uses? For how long did the client wish to use the photographs? What was the press run?
Some things, such as copyright ownership, we decided were nonnegotiable. Most importantly, I advised the student not to quote a price at the initial meeting, but to try to get a sense of the budget. The client, upon first contacting the student, had asked for her hourly rate. Wisely, the student said she would have to research the going rate for the type of photography the client needed.
After the first meeting with the client, the student came back to see me. We discussed the project, which included environmental portraits for an annual report, shots for the company’s Web site, and also some event photography.
I explained the fee-plus-expenses method of estimating photography assignments, and suggested some resources for finding out what this type of assignment was worth in her regional market. We also talked about the fact that there are other things of value in addition to money, such as getting a great portfolio piece or establishing an ongoing relationship with a client. However, these are uncertain, whereas money is certain.
Ultimately, the student determined a fee she would be happy with and presented it to the client. At that point, it became clear that the client was looking for a “student discount” even while wanting professional-level photography. Fortunately, the student held her ground and did not negotiate a price below her bottom line.
She did not get the job. Initially, she was unhappy — she had lost what she considered a lucrative assignment.
But after we talked for a while, she came to understand that she had conducted herself professionally and had made a good impression on the client. And her idea of “lucrative” was based on her proposed fee, not on what the client actually had available to spend.
I told her that I was proud of her — she had learned, through a complex process, what the “right price” for her photographs actually was. In this case, that price was more than the client was willing to pay. I am certain that the next time, or the time after that, she will find a client willing to pay the right price.