Notes from the VisCom Classroom: A Tale of Two Students

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.

No Remorse

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.

32 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: A Tale of Two Students”

  1. Just getting into the commercial photography business and this is a real eye opener ... Looks like more reasearch to be done. Thanks

  2. Your font's contrast is too difficult to read. Please do not adhere to "Web 2.0 standards".

  3. Im currently looking into photography courses as a change of career, and Ive thought about this aspect a lot. I hope i can find a course somewhere relating to the business of photography because it feels as if a new student or graduate would be a little fish in a very big pond.

  4. I'm not sure where to start, but, what an annoying article.

    As a media buyer, I have to say, the price of a product or service is determined by the buyer and seller, and not a third party like Mr. Weintraub. Despite Weintraub's best efforts to influence deals, peer pressure, it's a futile effort. Just leave buyers and sellers to set their own prices, and get out of their business.

    I've encountered many people like Mr. Weintraub in the business, and they've always annoyed me.

  5. As a photo student myself, I found this to be a very useful article.

    p.s., the font was not difficult to read at all.

  6. Take it from a PRO.... Photography is no proper job, it´s a passion. Mix in money, and you are bound to fail.

    Get a proper profession, and do photography as a passion on the side.

  7. "Joe" is clearly a douche who would love to suck in a few uneducated students at the "student discount" rate.

    This is a VERY educational essay for prospective photographers on appropriate methodology for pricing photography. As a working commercial and editorial photographer for 25 years I can tell you it's very good advice and avoid the "Joe's" whenever possible.

    I've encountered many low ballers like "Joe" and they've always annoyed me.

  8. black on white? perfectly ledgeble here ....

    I'd be interested to know what the second girl asked for?

  9. This is poor advice.

    The low price offered to the student photographer factors in the risk cost. This cost would be perceived by the client to be high as the student photographer has no track record in terms of delivery.

    An established photographer with a track record presents less risk. They can also be sued if the project goes pear-shaped.

    Student photographers would be well advised to take a job and treat it as valuable work experience. The most valuable pay-off at this point is a reference, which helps establish a track record, and lowers the risk cost for the next buyer.

    Once you're established, then you can charge established rates.

  10. Fine article. I wish every art school offered a course (or series of courses) such as the one offered by Mr. Weintraub. I myself am in the middle of reading the Graphic Arts Guild's Handbook of Pricing & Ethical Guidelines. As Marshall Arisman states in his introduction, ". . . not only a practical source of information; it is a textbook on the field itself." And, um . . . Joe, Billie, Peter are all douches in my honest opinion. Great idea to foster ignorance over experience you three.

  11. I agree with a lot of the comments here, there are a lot of un-discussed nuances with this or many other design jobs that weren't covered by your post. But that said, you are right in the fact that "how to survive in the business world" is rarely taught in photography of other design classes. Quite a shame.

  12. Yes, after I turned pro, dealing with clients was more challenging than the photography. Thanks for sharing.

  13. Someone found a photo of mine on flickr and asked if they could use it on their company's homepage to help illustrate/sell their product/service. The image was licensed as CC but with no commercial, so I was happy he asked me. I quoted a fee of $50 which I thought was low, but wouldn't scare off the company. But I never heard back from them again, so obviously $50 was too high. A company that makes thousands on each installation of their product can't afford to pay $50 for their homepage? This is I guess what happens when so many photos are available and so many people are willing to give photos away for free just for the experience. I've known of people charging (and receiving) $750 for an image for a homepage and I thought I was doing a disservice by charging so little 🙂

  14. I'm a copywriter and frequently mentor up-and-comers. It tell my 'students' to know their worth to prevent being exploited.

    And that once you know what you're worth, to accept that sometimes selling services for less is part of getting experience and credibility.

    Telling student to stand ceremony on price will guarantee fair remuneration for so long. Creative professionals need experience and credibility to succeed in the long term.

  15. the one thing I don't get and I agree with Joe to a point is that the proven very good photographers would expect to get payed more than the standard rates because of their experience, the same holds for students, because of their lack of experience and the possibility they may not get the photo you want at an event and you therefore lose the possibility of getting that photo, they will get payed less. The same holds true for any other profession; good home decorates get payed more while new ones will work for less to get the opportunity to add to their portfolio, new artists aren't going to be able to charge picasso rates to a mom and pop shop down the street, this isn't because we think less of them but because they are less proven; they may not do as well as we'd like but they'll get paid none the less, thats the chance that business are looking to take with student photographers. Photographers as a profession, and thats what they are, shouldn't be treated special.

    I work with photographers, they do usually get underpaid, but I also work with students and I have a difficult time because they all have it stuck in their head that because they have a bit of experience tinkering with a point and shoot, read a few things on the web and know how to use photoshop(like I or any other technically inclined person can do) that they can demand copyrights and high fee's while not even providing the camera.

  16. "Joe, Billie, Peter are all douches in my honest opinion. Great idea to foster ignorance over experience you three."

    Beginners will soon learn we're right.

    All start-ups need to go through a phase where they must *prove* themselves capable of completing business tasks. The skill of the photographer isn't in question - the ability to deliver on time - is.

    In areas where there is much competition for work - and photography is one of these areas - then providers must differentiate themselves in order to win jobs. If they go up against a competitor who has years of experience, they must offer something the other competitor does not, or they will not win the job. Beginners have a high barrier to entry in this respect, and all they really have to bargain with is price.

    Photographers don't have to accept the work, of course. But the problem is there will always be someone who will - and that person will be one step ahead next week when they have a reference under their belt, and you do not.

    Trust someone who has been there, done that. It seems unfair, but it's called "paying dues".

  17. It often seems as though the 'professional' photography industry is running scared now that any Joe can pick up a DSLR body, throw it in fully-automatic mode, and deliver pictures that are just fine by many client standards.

    The comments on risks are all relevant. Also relevant is the level of quality desired. An analogy would be going out to eat... one might be quite happy with McDonalds where another wants a 3 or 4 star experience. It would be unreasonable for McDonalds to charge a 3 star price. It is just as unreasonable for anyone to complain about McDonalds selling their wares for so little, when dining can obviously be worth so much more.

    Ultimately, the price has to come down to whatever the client and the photographer can both feel good about. It's ok to be the McDonalds of photography if it pays the bills and satisfies your personal needs.


  18. I just came across your site surfing through digg, and am really glad that I have found your site. I love photography and really want to expand my knowledge and learn more about it all...thanks for starting an awesome blogzine.

  19. I have been in a similar situation to your student, and, luckily, through knowing a professional photographer, I was able to achieve the happy medium - determine the market rate, ask for it, and get it.

    Great to see an article opening the eyes of people new to the business, whilst also reminding those professionals who forget that once, a long time ago, they may have made a mistake which they would not (being on the other side of the fence) would call "Lowballing".

    Great work!

  20. Article's author is a jackoff. Blow it out your ass, you know-it-all failure at life.

  21. As a person looking to break into photography (in the middle of getting my small business license, have had a couple of small gigs so far), I really appreciated this article. It's so hard to figure out what a "fair" price is for your work, knowledge, experience, and time is. I haven't formalized any kind of "rate" yet, but am trying to, especially for online sales (trying to get my website going - url just points to a blog at the moment). Also trying to figure out package deals for things like weddings/events/architectural shooting. The advice not to undersell yourself was a good reminder. Thanks. I look forward to reading more from you - wish I could have taken that old class when you taught it.

    (weird - comment system is not recognizing my email as valid...)

  22. The reason one student felt bad and the other felt good is because you talked one into feeling like an amateur and a sucker and you talked the other into feeling like a "professional" sacrificing their short-term well-being for the good of the industry.

    In my opinion, the one working for the good of the industry is the sucker. The industry isn't going to pay her rent come the first of the month.

  23. Thanks for such an interesting article. I'm not a photography student, but have come across this same problem in relation to graphic design and websites. It's so tough to determine a fee when you have no prior experience in the business side of things. It is a shame that universities don't tutor you in the negotiation side of web design.
    I still feel that with your first job you will naturally need to offer a lower rate until you gain a good portfolio and some form of a reputation in the competitive market that is photography or graphics. After all, the company is taking a risk going through a student. They are, to a degree, doing them a favour. But hopefully after a job or two they can get more money for their work that is comparable to it's true worth.

  24. @bleaknik: there's no such thing as web 2.0 standards...

  25. The first example DID have a fair price. Look at what royalty-free collections are charging.

    With low-ballers like the second client a strategy I've used was to counter offer with an even larger discount than he was asking for..... but only on the second job.
    This has avoided unprofitable clients, and established some long term ones.

    The photographer I apprenticed with taught me the "flinch" method of pricing a job.
    When quoting a job, if the client flinches at the price, tell him that it will also include XYZ.
    If he doesn't flinch, tell him that of course, XYZ would be an additional charge.

  26. My friends and I are starting a media business and I am the photographer part of it. I found this article to be quite an eye opener. Thanks for posting it.

    ps: good font. i think that guy is just trying to be..."THAT GUY"

  27. I tend to agree with you on this article, media buyers be damned. People talk about selling out cheap and "paying your dues" but the "paying your dues" often already existed in the form of spending hours upon hours honing their craft, working two or three jobs to buy their equipment, and getting a solid enough portfolio together to present. Seems like everyone wants someone else to pay their dues, but never want to pay dues themselves. Media buyers, if you're worried about a delivery on-time, set up a penalty in advance in case you get a late delivery, or just say if it's not in by this time, there's no paycheck coming. If you low-ball them outright, they have no incentive to deliver on time vs. late anyway.

  28. The cost of a late delivery, or no delivery, is high. Publishing deadlines tend not to be flexible.

    If I hired the student photographer, I would pay them the same rate as anyone else. However, I would be unlikely to hire a student photographer. The risk cost is higher than any fee a photographer could charge.

    This is less of an issue in the newspaper world. If editors want the shot, they'll pay regardless of source. In this case, demand exceeds supply.

    This situation is not true for most commercial photography, however. Technical skill is an essential baseline, seldom a differentiator. Reputation and relationships separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Young photographers should focus (heh) on how to establish reputation and relationships.

    That is the business of photography.

  29. As a photography teacher, I found the article to be very useful. In life education comes in many forms; one would be foolish to expect a graduate of engineering to easily slide into the workforce without some challenges. Photographers have to learn the "ropes" of business, true, but I will certainly be sure that my students go out and try and ask fair prices for their photos and build from there.
    Education flexibility an empty fridge=work at any price
    Experience connections a full tummy=ask what you may.

  30. I can't resist. I have to add a little more. In my many years in the business, I've noticed, good photographers get good rates.

    I've also noticed a lot of second rate photographers complaining about what other photographers are getting paid, but it's none of their business. Let the two parties, the buyer and seller find their price, butt out.

    I have to also iterate that peer pressure in markets is a futile attempt to manipulate prices, it's silly. The profession of photography is better served by good competition and ambition.

    And yes, telling new photographers what market rates are, is good education, and serves them well. But nothing beats good photography.

    The ASMP ( ) is a great organization, and hosts great meetings, but stay away from the bozos that say "Lowballing, for whatever reason, hurts the entire profession." Mingle with the photographers who say, "My day rate is five grand." You'll learn more from those people.

  31. An easy way for photography students to make some money.

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