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Today, we’ll talk about turning down underpaid photography work. At first, this might seem strange: some money is better than no money, right? No, I think it’s actually wrong, and on many counts. Read on to find out why!

The Faroe Islands Photography Workshop

Running a business isn’t easy, and especially so if you have never run one. This is true whether you had any formal business training or not. If you want to make a living out of photography, if you want to get into this business and stay in it, there are two basic principles you’ll need to remember:

1. While we all love photography and have fun doing it, your aim is now to turn a profit. If you just want to shoot for fun, there’s nothing better than being an amateur photographer;
2. Running a business, you’ll have business costs, investment costs, equipment costs, bills, taxes, insurances, etc. that need to be paid before you’ll even think about making any money. 

Let me give you a classic example of the latter, to help you understand what I mean. Amateurs can just go and get whatever new cameras they want, as long as they can afford it. Professionals, on the other hand, should buy a new piece of equipment only if it makes business and financial sense, no matter how much they want it.

So, let’s see, with numbers based on a hypothetical example, how this will turn out. This, in turn, will help you understand why turning down underpaid photography work actually makes a lot of sense. Of course, your numbers may vary according to your local, to your personal situation and to what kind of photography you do, but the concept behind them pretty much universally applies.

Let’s say that you have worked out that, to make a living, on a yearly base you have at least to cover:

1. 10.000 euros in fixed household costs (rent or mortgage, utility bills, car insurance, home insurance, maintenance, etc.);
2. 6.000 euros in groceries, fuel and other daily expenses;
3. 9.000 euros in business costs (gear, software licenses, advertising, accounting, etc.);
4. Plus, if you have a studio, you have to factor in its costs (bills, rent / mortgage, amortisation if it’s yours, maintenance, etc.);
5. Plus, if you have employees (assistants, secretary, etc.), you’ll have to factor in these costs as well.

Skipping point 4 and 5 for now, and without even considering the capital expenditure to start the actual business (cameras, lenses, flashes, etc.), which amortisation counts as a cost for a number of years, you are looking to a total of about 25.000 euros a year just to survive. This, without factoring in money for unforeseen expenses, accidents, extras, holidays, saving money, buying a new car, etc.

Adding these in, let’s say you’ll need to net at the very least 35.000 euros per year – after tax, that is – from your photography work to make a living. I am not talking about saving money, getting rich, or anything. I am just talking about making a living. To give you an idea, in 2015 Italy 2.000 euros net a month is considered a decent salary, but certainly not one that will not make you rich or even wealthy. Depending on where you live and what your tax rates are, netting 35.000 euro per year means you’ll have to make something in the neighbourhood of 50-60.000 euros before tax, even after deducting your business-related expenses.

If you live in Italy as I do, you’ll have to be ready to pay about 40-45% of your income in various taxes, depending on what your income level is.

Now, depending on what kind of photography you do, you’ll have to decide how you want to get paid and how much, in order to reach your 40-50k euro/year goal. 

This means that if you work on assignment, you’ll have to set up your rates accordingly; if licensing images is what you do, you’ll need to calculate your licensing fees accordingly; if you do any teaching, you’ll have to determine your workshops’ prices accordingly; if you sell artwork, you’ll have to price your images accordingly; and so on.

Since we don’t live in a void, however, to determine our rates and fees we also have to look at the market around us and know where we stand in it. For example, if the average photographer in your local asks for 1.000 euro for a full day wedding coverage, not factoring in prints / books / etc., and the most expensive one asks for let’s say 10.000, then you’ll have to decide where you want to position yourself in that market.

The Dolomites Photography Workshop

Comparing your qualifications, your credentials, the quality of your work, etc. with those of your peers is a good starting point. If you have been published, if your list of clients is impressive, if you have been awarded any qualifications or certifications, if you won any competitions, and so on, then your rates might be higher than the next guy. What will give you ultimately a precise answer, though, is the market’s response once you go out in the real world.

So far, so good, right?

Well, something like that. Enter now what I’ll call The Underpaid Photographer. Generally, these are newcomers on the business, or perhaps passing-by amateurs. Whoever they are, they are those who never turning down underpaid photography work. Ultimately, they are those who undermines other, more serious, professionals. They are the guys that, even if unwillingly and unaware of it, work towards ruining the market for everyone: ironically, themselves included. First of all, why would someone do such a thing? Many possible reasons:

1. They didn’t do their homework, and think that making a few hundred euros for a day’s work is great, certainly better than earning nothing;
2. They are new on the business, and fall for the usual tricks that bad clients try to play on them: accepting a very low fee “is good for you” because “you’ll get exposure”, “you’ll develop your portfolio”, “you’ll get referral customers”, “you’ll get more work from us in the future”, and so on;
3. They are amateurs, have another job and do this on the side, so they don’t need to make a living out of it;
4. Whatever other reason they might have.

Let’s say now that you work on assignments, and let’s consider i.e. architecture photography as our sample field from now on (you can adapt this to your chosen field of photography). Let’s also say that in your area The Underpaid Photographer asks for 500 euro per shooting day plus a small fee per image, for a total of – say – 600 euros per assignment. When a customer calls, you’ll give him your estimate; your client will then shop around (if he hasn’t done so already) and once he gets to talk with The Underpaid Photographer either you won’t get the job, or you’ll have to lower your original rate (let’s say it was 1.000 euro per shooting day plus images) to the level of The Underpaid Photographer or thereabouts.

Let’s assume you’ll be able to close at 800 euro, including image licensing fees, etc. That’s great, isn’t it? 800 euro for a day’s work sounds like a good deal. Well, in reality it’s not. 

Even forgetting the fact that one day of work is never only one day of work if you include preparation, traveling, post-processing, delivery of your images, etc., making 800 euro per assignment you’ll need to do something like 56 assignments per year to make your 45k goal. That means slightly more than 1 assignment per week, every week of every month.

A pretty tall order. Tough, you are probably not going to make it.

Cinque Terre & Tuscany Photography Workshop

With your original rate of 1.000 euro plus image licensing fees, for a total of, let’s say, 1.200 euro per assignment, you’ll need about 37 assignments per year – or 3 a month: more manageable, but still a lot.

If you can get that many assignments and are happy with your rates, fine. If not, you’ll either have to raise your per-assignment fee, add some other forms of revenue to your assignment work (licensing images multiple times, selling prints, e-commerce, etc), or lower your costs and expenses.

While the latter options are doable, to a degree at least, the first and more sensible one (raising your fees) is not going to work, as we have seen, due to the presence of The Underpaid Photographer. Unless, of course, you are able to offer your customers something he doesn’t, to make it worth it for them to hire you even if you cost more.

The first thing coming to mind is quality. You are better than The Underpaid Photographer. You know it, online forums and chats know it, and your friends know it. How to make your customer know it as well is your business – and your problem – in a day and age when everyone and their aunt get a digital camera and call themselves photographers.

First of all, prepare a portfolio; even people not blessed with a great eye can understand if an image is better than another, especially if helped by someone (you, in this case) pointing out i.e. how non-straight lines, distortion, perspective errors, exposure errors, etc. are absent in your architectural images, while at the same time accenting the strength of your portfolio.

Competitions, qualifications and certifications are something else worth pursuing. Awards, or a jury of your peers deeming you worthy of a Qualification, anything attesting your level and professionalism, definitely counts. A client list could be good, too, if you have a worthy one and your other clients authorise you to use their name. However, in the end, many customers will simply act according to the bottom line. Sadly, they’ll mainly care about your fee.

These are the customers you don’t really care about.

The reason is simple: no matter how much you lower your fees, there will always be someone offering less. To the point that, someday soon, you’ll end up shooting for free: which, evidently, is not going to help your bottom line. 

Lowering your fees and rates will turn into a rapid escalation towards leaving this job to people born with money, or to people who – for whatever reason – don’t care about working for little money, or even for free. So, before entering into the downward spiral of lowering your fees, before becoming The Underpaid Photographer yourself, you might want to consider the following steps:

1. Improve your work, improve your portfolio: a strong portfolio goes a long way with higher-end customers;
2. Think about what to offer to your customers besides “I’ll come and get pictures of your building”; think about something that would make it clear that you put a lot of time and thought in what you do;
3. Improve your professional image: get Qualified, get certified, get published, win competitions, etc.;
4. Start advertising and promoting yourself to the customers you really want to get.

In short, don’t be like every other guy or their aunt. Invest time, energy and effort in building your skills first, and your business later. Always remember that to become a photographer just having a camera, while necessary, is not enough. It’s a craft, an art, and a business: all three of these aspects need lot of work to perfect.

Last, since jobs do not generally fall in your lap by themselves, in the end you might consider whether it is easier to try and get 10 jobs paying 4-5.000 euro, 50 jobs paying 800-1.000 euro or 100 jobs paying 4-500 euro. You might consider whether it is easier turning down underpaid photography work, and go looking for better assignments, or work for pennies all your life. It might sound harsh, but it’s not too far from the truth.

Personally, I’d go for the first option. While your mileage might vary, please – please! – do not ever become The Underpaid Photographer. Don’t be that guy. While of course you are free to do what you want with your life, not only you’ll probably starve or have to change your job to survive, but you’ll also ruin the market for everyone else as well in the process.

To end this post, a word for the guys on the other side of this conundrum. If you need to hire a photographer, ask for his portfolio, for his CV, for his credentials and qualifications, for whatever you need to see in order to choose the best photographer, the one you really like. Then, however, respect his professionalism and don’t try to drive too hard a bargain, using The Underpaid Photographer’s rates as leverage to lower his fees, and eventually kill his business and everyone else’s.

Pushing fees down might save you some money in the short term but will also end up taking the best photographers out of the picture (pun intended), leaving the business to The Underpaid Photographer. This, in turn, will lower the quality of the images you are going to get, lowering your own business image if and when you use them, and ultimately depriving you of the beautiful images you love. Don’t force a photographer into having to turning down underpaid photography work: if he gives you a fair estimate, be ready to pay a fair price for a good job.

Thanks for reading this post, I hope you enjoyed it! Why don’t you share it with your friends, or drop me a comment to let me know how you feel about this?

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