The Rules for New (Paid) Photographers

Every community has rules and everyone who wants to join that community needs to know those rules. That doesn’t mean that you can never break them but you should know what those rules are — and the consequences that come from ignoring them. That’s true whether you’re trying to join the country club or the community of people who make money from their photography

1.     Know the value of your work.

This is the hardest rule to follow, which is one of the reasons that it’s broken so often. It’s also the rule that raises the most complaints from established photographers when they see less experienced shooters ignore it.

Assessing the value of your work isn’t easy. If you’re hoping to shoot events, you can look at the amounts that local competitors are charging for their shoots and pitch your own prices in the same range. Be sure though that you’re comparing like for like. There’s a difference between the kinds of budget packages (and often, low-quality imagery) you can find advertised on Craigslist and the unique work of top photographers like Christian Keenan.

If you’re selling individual usage licenses, use software like fotoQuote to make sure you’re negotiating in the right ball park for the buyer. Above all, don’t sell your work for a credit.

2.     Know the value of your equipment.

One of the differences between professional photographers and enthusiasts who make the odd sale is that professionals get to write down the cost of their equipment. That means though that they also have to work the cost of buying new gear and renting additional tools into their quotes, increasing their prices. For enthusiasts, a new lens is a birthday treat that has nothing to do with the cost of business and everything to do with the price of entertainment. By not adding expenses to their bills, they’re able to undercut professionals.

Changing that attitude is difficult: the camera, the lens and the lighting gear have already been paid for. One way to compete fairly is to think of that extra cost as the price of your growth as a photographer. As you expand your skills and gain experience, you’ll want to buy new equipment and broaden your talents. You’ll only be able to do that if you charge for that equipment in your quotes.

3.     Learn… and keep learning.

If the cost of equipment is one difference between a professional and an enthusiast, another is consistency. Enthusiasts shoot lots of duff pictures but occasionally produce a great image that’s worth something to a buyer. Professionals do the same thing, but they know they can produce enough images of a sellable quality on each shoot to win the confidence of buyers.

The only way to achieve that consistency, and maintain the right level of quality for buyers of paid photography, is to learn from professionals and keep learning from them. Be prepared to assist an event photographer, take workshops and participate in forums as well as reading books and buying magazines. If you’re going to charge like a professional, you’ll need to know as much as one.

4.     Act like a professional.

You’ll also need to act like one. That goes beyond shooting professional-quality images consistently and charging professional prices for them. It includes communication, which should be fast and responsive, and delivery which should be in the format and size the buyer wants. You’ll need to be sure you have all the permission forms the buyer needs and that your images don’t breach anyone’s copyrights.

Professional communication begins with the image description itself. Tell buyers what they’re looking at, indicate the sizes that are available and tell them how to order it. The fewer questions the buyer has to ask you before the purchase, the greater your chances of making a sale and contributing a valuable service to paid photography.

5.     Find your own style.

While you should be learning from professionals, you shouldn’t be copying them. Mimicry is particular rampant on microstock sites where a successful composition quickly generates a flock of similar images hoping to cash in on the demand. Professionals win jobs not by copying other professionals but showing buyers what they get when they hire them. They have a clear line that, even if it doesn’t suit every job and every buyer, is popular and useful enough to give them a niche in the market.

Look towards developing your own style and your own brand of photography, and you’ll be able to develop your own photography business without treading on anyone else’s toes.

6.     Shoot the boring stuff well.

For enthusiasts, photography is fun. Even failing to produce a great image can still make for an interesting day and an enjoyable experience. For a paid photographer though, some shoots are more interesting than others and work often means squeezing the creativity out of a portrait of a CEO or a shot of a new office building. If you’re looking to build a business out of photography, you have to be prepared to take on subjects that are less inspiring than a watery sunset, and produce high quality images in bad light, with time constraints and without breaking the budget. That’s not always fun but even the dull jobs have to be completed as professionally as the inspiring ones.

7.     Don’t give up the day job.

This may be the most important rule of all. It’s getting harder and harder to make a living out of photography, even for established professionals. Part of that is down to the influx of enthusiasts but shrinking demand, the power of the big stock agencies and the decline of print media all play a role too. It’s become easier to make some money out of photography today, but it’s always been difficult to make a living out of photography and it’s even harder than ever now.

Follow the rules and you can expect to make some sales. But don’t give up your regular source of income until your photography sales at least match your salary.

Which rules do you think new photographers should know?

5 comments for this post.

  1. Aloha Said:

    Know how to use post-processing software well and tastefully. The recent missing fingers incident over at Vogue and the ban of the Lancome ad in the UK is something we have to think about as pros.

    Also, Learn the business side. Competition is fierce and a pro has to learn how to market himself/herself.

    Thanks for this post!

  2. April Said:

    I was enjoying this until the last point. If you have a "regular source" of income or a "day job" chances are you're not a professional photographer. You are possibly a stellar photographer with a great skill but this does not mean you should do photography for a living.

  3. Luca Photographer in Venice Said:

    I'd suggest to place point 7 with a a sound business plan,
    this plan may well advice to keep the day job but I believe this is only a consequence of frequent scenarios than a rule.

    What is of the utmost importance is to plan where to go, how to get there and check progress realistically.

    This point for me would be number 1 rule.

  4. Tom Zimberoff Said:

    My criticisms are not personal; but the author of this blog has a very shallow understanding of the photography business, which endangers the young or inexperienced photographer who would follow it. Laurie, whomever she is (and her work should be fully accredited) will have her comments in quotation marks. For instance . . .

    “Know the value of your work . . . Assessing the value of your work isn’t easy.”

    Value is not for the photographer to decide. In any market, it’s up to the customer to determine value. It’s up to the photographer to determine a PRICE. A price must not be determined by what others might be billing for similar shoots, but solely by what is profitable for you. That is the basis for competition. Not understanding the difference between value and price can be fatal to business.

    “If you’re hoping to shoot events, you can look at the amounts that local competitors are charging for their shoots and pitch your own prices in the same range. . . If you’re selling individual usage licenses, use software like fotoQuote to make sure you’re negotiating in the right ball park for the buyer.”

    Well, that certainly IS fatal advice. (Btw, it is untenable to conflate “Event Photography” with “Commercial Photography.”) Here’s why looking over your shoulder at other photographers’ prices—and even using fotoQuote is spectacularly dangerous: you’re taking a survey.

    ♦  Surveys do not always account for more than a basic usage fee, yet there are usually additional kinds of fees and costs to consider in the bottom-line price of a photo shoot.
    ♦  Surveys can be skewed by the number of respondents, which may include only a small percentage of those photographers who were actually polled.
    ♦  The survey respondents from one regional market may outnumber those in another. If you’re not given that information, the survey will be tainted and misleading, because what might be a tantalizingly high fee in Schenectady might be low by New York City standards.
    ♦  Surveys become out of date as quickly as prices are susceptible to change.
    ♦  Buyers use survey results to keep a cap on usage fees.
    ♦  Finally, surveys do not single out photographers who have used best practices to determine pricing and profit structures. Consequently, any carelessness on the part of the respondents (especially the fewer there are) will lead to artificial prices, whether biased on the low side or the high side. You have no way of knowing how many, if any, of the respondents regularly mark up their billed expenses, let alone whether they billed any expenses at all. And you have no idea what their actual costs are.

    I can find fault with the rest of the less than concise thinking in that blog, but I’ll leave it at this for now. It pains me to see the perpetuation of thinking that contributed to the decrease in licensing fees across the board in this industry.

  5. T. C. Knight Said:

    I realize that this site caters more to the enthusiast who wants to make a few bucks, but I have to agree with Tom. There is some dangerous advice here. The very basics of pricing HAS to begin with the Cost of Doing Business. Day job or not, that has to be covered.

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