Making a living as a photographer has never been more challenging. We’re being asked to deliver more work for less money. Expectations for transfer of copyright are being demanded in the form of a buyout or work for hire agreement. Newspapers are letting go of their photo departments and transferring the picture responsibility to a writer, toting nothing more than a smartphone. And new photographers are entering the competitive arena who are willing to work for far less than a seasoned professional would ever consider fair.
Yet, despite all these external challenges, the greatest obstacles lay not with others but with ourselves. It is often the choices that we make not just as photographers, but as business people the reduce the viability of making a living as a photographer. Here are some common ways that many photographers self-sabotage their work and their careers and some remedies to combat them.
Undervalue Your Work
So many photographers, especially when they are new, worry about how much to charge a client. Unsure as to how to value their own work, they fixate on losing a client, because they asked too much. The result is often underbidding and accepting far less money than the job or the assignment was worth. To their thinking it’s better to do the job for less, than to lose out on the job entirely.
To value your work, you have to realize that are doing more than selling a singular picture. You are marketing and selling your skill, your experience and your professionalism. For example there are no shortage of photographers who produce headshots. So, to differentiate yourself, you have to sell the experience rather than the final photograph. The value of hiring you means that they not only get a great photograph, but having a fun and inspiring shoot. The client will feel that their money was well spent not only because they have a great headshot, but because you made the shoot relaxed and enjoyable and you delivered what you promised in all respects.
Getting Into Debt
Photographs have a love affair with gear. We’re often pining for the latest and greatest in cameras and lenses and lighting. We’ve convinced by the advertising and the write-ups, that we have to have that latest piece of kit to make the next best photograph. To stay competitive, we think we need to whip out the credit card and wait with baited breathe for that package to arrive on our doorstep.
More than likely, you can do a great job with the kit that you have. Many a professional career has begun with nothing more than a single body and lens. But if a shoot demands a specific camera, lens or accessory, a better decision is to simply rent what you need. Whether it’s through your local camera store or online service such as BorrowLenses.com, you can spend a fraction of the cost of a new purchase by renting. If your pricing your services correctly, it will be paid for by the client. If you find yourself repeatedly renting a lens that its more cost effective to buy it, do it. You’ve justified the purchase at that point because you know it’s helping you earn a living.
Being a Generalist
Visit the website of a photographer who doesn’t want to be pigeon holed into one niche and you see a photographer who is all over the place. On their site, you see portfolio for their portraits, their weddings, their sports, nature and wildlife and their boudoir. As a client visiting the site for the first time, you can’t figure out what kind of photographer this person is and whether they would be capable and competent to fulfill the demands of the job.
The only person who cares about you being a multi-talented generalist is you. A potential client wants to know that you have the experience and skill to be able to satisfy their needs as a photographer. A bride looking for a photographer for her special day is not going to care about your great wildlife pictures. A mother looking for a photographer to shoot her family doesn’t want to see a gallery dedicated to boudior. Think about the clients you want to serve. Imagine yourself as that person and create a site of a photographer that you would hire. If the other genre of photography is important to you, create another website dedicated exclusively to that body of work.
Look Unprofessional on Paper
Nothing reflects more on the professionalism of a photographer than the paperwork they produce for a job which includes, estimates, invoices and even e-mail correspondence. Too many bad estimate/invoices are sent out with omissions including detailed descriptions of the images being requested by the client, usage and licensing terms, clarification of responsibilities of the client and the photographer and payment terms. Such mistakes lead not only to unnecessary confusion, but can also result in a photographer losing money.
Create estimates that are well laid out and easy to read. Include detailed descriptions of what’s being requested based on the e-mail and phone conversations with the client. Include important details such as the deadline and the mode of delivery to the client. Use a software like BlinkBid for easy formatting of estimates and invoices. You can also research professional estimate online by visiting the blog, A Photo Editor where actual estimates and invoices from working professional photographers are shared.
Working Without a Contract
Every photographer has story of a job gone terribly bad, which was made all the worse because there was no contract. Whether it was a verbal agreement or just a favor for a friend, the agreement became less than satisfactory for both parties because of differing expectations. Tensions and anxiety runs high and both side are left with a nasty, bitter taste in their mouths.
It’s the photographer’s responsibility to clearly identify what services are being provided and at what amount of compensation. The contract, often the estimate itself, clearly communicates all aspects of the job from pre-production, production, post production, payment and compensation. Any and all negotiations will be reflected in the final estimate and will be signed off on before one pixel is exposed to light and thus eliminating any confusion later.
Overdosing on Learning
There are so many resources for learning new lighting and Photoshop techniques. Whether it’s learning online or attending live photo training seminars, there are amazing way to improve your skills as a photographer. The problem arises when too much time is spent learning, but little time spent actually putting all that knowledge to practice. Whether the knowledge is gained from free YouTube videos or from an costly photo workshop, there is no return on investment unless a photographer takes those new skills and begins developing a new body of work.
There is no better way to learn than by doing. So, after acquiring that knowledge, the priority needs to to apply those new skills. Whether it’s a paid job or a personal project, a photographer has to schedule time to make these shoots happen, preferably soon after the workshop experience. Those notes you’ve scribbled down from a workshop aren’t going to make much sense 3 months later when you finally get around to making images.
So, there are many obstacles that a working photographer has to face making a living as a professional, but we can improve our chances for success by not being our own worse enemy.
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