Cheap Photographers Only Kill Themselves, Not The Industry.
First, thanks for all of your input on the first blog post of this series. As usual, your comments are far more interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking than anything I write here. If you haven’t read through those yet, you should. What’s interesting to note in the comments there is how the tone of comments changes through the 100+ of them. They start off friendly enough and then somewhere in the middle a few feathers begin to get ruffled. That’s fine. That’s welcomed. It’s a very interesting time in our industry right now and it’s good to have passionate discussion about it. The smart photographers will sit with open minds and get a bit introspective and take a look at their own business practices. The stupid photographers will sit from on high and just point fingers OR sit at the bottom and think, “I’m banking an extra $1,000 a month that I don’t claim with my $800 camera!”
Anyway. Check out that photo above. It’s some stop light advertising for a wedding photographer advertising weddings starting at $350. Man… that’s cheap. Is this person part of the problem in our industry? Absolutely not. I admire the hustle. I admire the fact that they are trying. Now – if you are the type of pro photographer that looks at that and says, “This is everything that is wrong with this damn industry! You can’t be a pro charging $350 for a wedding! What an A-hole!” Yeah, if you’re that photographer let me challenge you.
Think of the brides out there who don’t have a budget but want some photos of their weddings. Maybe there are young couples getting married who don’t have the parents to pay for a big event or they don’t want to start their young family in debt but they would like someone to come take some pictures. Are you saying that if they can’t afford a $3,000+ photographer then they don’t deserve photos? Are you saying that if they can’t afford a Mercedes then they shouldn’t be allowed to drive? Shame on you. Not everyone can afford pro level prices. That doesn’t mean they can’t have some level of photographic services available to them.
Let me tell you a little something about my journey being the cheap photographer after the jump…
I started out shooting bands seven years ago for free. Then I charged $50. Then I charged $75. Then I charged $150. Within a year I was up to $250 and I leveled off there for awhile and I was busy shooting bands. My goal was to shoot 10 bands a month at $250 each and fill in the rest of my financial needs with second shooting for Marc and and any other jobs I could gather. After a year of marketing to bands I was shooting 20 bands a month at $250. I doubled my goal and darn near became the Olan Mills of music photography. You know what happend? I almost lost my business.
This is what happens when you are the low ball cheap photographer. You either don’t get enough work to stay alive and you have to quit the business or you get so busy being the low ball cheap photographer that you can’t keep up with the workload and you have to quit the business and that’s what happened to me. You can only stay cheap for so long before you have to make a change to your pricing to either stay alive because you aren’t getting enough work, or to get fewer clients so you can keep up with the workload and actually have a day off from time to time.
Some of you may be reading this and think, “20 bands at $250 each = $5,000 a month = $60,000 a year.” and you’re thinking you would LOVE to have that “problem”. If you are young, single, no kids, no pets, living in a crap apartment and drive a crap car and have no plans of paying taxes then yes… $60k a year shooting seems really nice but let me tell you what it’s like in the “real” world.
First of all, thanks to our tax codes you can go ahead and take about 30% of that and give it to the government. If it’s not in income tax it will go to taxes somehow so just budget for that. I want to buy a house one day and to do that as a self employed person I have to show that I actually make money doing this. If I don’t claim my income on my taxes then I have no paperwork to show that I have income when it comes to buying a home so I claim every penny I make. It’s very tempting to hide income and it’s quite easy to do as well but one day it will catch up with you and you’re going to be hosed. Render unto Caesar and all that. You just have to.
So our $60k just dropped to $48k a year. How much does it take you to live? Let’s put you in a $900 apartment + utilities, add some car insurance, a set of tires, a new transmission for your crap car, a 24-70 2.8 lens, food, and some beer money. Life can easily cost around $2,000 a month in many places. Especially places that actually have 20 bands a month to grace the doors of your business. That’s $24,000 so you have $24,000 left in income for the year.
Wow! That’s a ton of money! Awesome!
Now throw kids into the mix and your life easily got $1,000 a month more expensive. Now we have about $12,000 a year in profit. Not bad. $1,000 extra bucks a month. Oh wait. You’re shooting 20 bands a month. That’s a lot of driving. I totally forgot to add gas in this mix. Oh yeah, and you need some insurance on that new lens. You think you’re going to get 20 bands a month coming in the door without some sort of advertising, networking, marketing, and web presence? Nope. Tap, tap, tap on the calculator and I can tell you for certain that when I was bringing in $5,000 a month on bands I had about $250 left over every month. It could take four months to replace a $1,000 camera. Please note that you haven’t bought so much as a new pair of socks with this budget. You’re eating cardboard three times a day as well. Want to take a vacation? No can do. Want health insurance? Hahahahahahahaha! That’s a funny one! You want health insurance. Silly photographer! You’re ONLY bringing in $60,000 a year. You can’t afford health insurance. Better budget for some vitamins.
Look at the workload as well. 20 bands in a month. It was rare that I shot more than one band in a day so that’s 20 days of shooting. You have 10 days left to do the post production, answer emails, network, spend time with friends and family, sleep, etc. You’re in a dying marriage. You’re trying to keep your business alive. You’re trying to be everything to everyone. Husband. Dad. Artist. It’s a hard life that can lead to a divorce lawyer. Not that I know anything about that at all. Replace divorce lawyer with car wreck or cancer or broken arm. You’re barely staying alive bringing in $60,000 a year and I was living in a cheap place and driving beater cars. I did have a small studio space and that was part of my marketing. I was competing with other young music photographers and I had to separate myself from the small pack of us in Atlanta and part of that was stepping up from the coffee shop office to a studio space.
I was so covered up in work that I couldn’t keep up with it. I either had to start raising prices or I was going to die. I once figured out that I was making about $5 an hour. Note that I quit a $10 an hour job for this. Hmmmm. Nice job Zack. Be your own boss and make less than a slacker in a copy shop.
Did you visit the site of the photographer in the photo above? Notice that they are out of business. No idea what they are doing now with their life. Maybe they raised their prices, ditched the brand, became a better photographer, and now go by the name of Joey Lawrence.
When I started raising my prices I didn’t get as many clients as I used to but my income stayed about the same. It helped me take a few days off. It helped me take a breather and work on my business. I started diversifying my income and started attracting new clients. I could start focusing on my craft again. I got my very own set of Pocket Wizards after two and half years of shooting full time. I started to see the value of what I do. The clients I attracted saw the value as well. And that attracted new business.
My pricing for bands is a tad higher than $250 these days. I’ve seen real growth in my business and at some point I’ll have to blog about the fact that I am not where I am today without the help of others to get me here. I didn’t do it on my own and I still don’t do it on my own. People like Michael Weeman, Erik Dixon, Kara Pecknold, Sherri Innis, and Dan Depew have helped me as I’ve branched into new opportunities and those new opportunities continue bringing in opportunities. I still hustle. I still have to continue pushing. There are photographers that are far more expensive than I am and there is an army of shooters under cutting me to the bone… but I stay afloat. I’m still alive. I still don’t have health insurance. Still haven’t purchased my home. Still shooting Alien Bees instead of Profotos. I don’t fret over the cheap photographer. I actually tip my hat to you and say “Good luck and good shooting.” It’s a hard life but at the end of the day… for those of you who can’t seem to do anything else with your lives… photography is the greatest job in the world no matter if you’re getting $50 or $50,000 for a shoot.
This isn’t the post about pricing you may think it’s becoming. That’s for a different time. I’ve laid this all out to make the point that cheap photography has it’s place. It has it’s place for clients who can’t afford much and it has it’s place for photographers trying to build something from nothing. It’s part of becoming a full time working photographer in an age when so many want to become a photographer. I have a lot of respect for John Harrington. By a lot I mean boat loads. I understand what he’s saying in this post about shooting for free but I have to wonder… how in the hell did he get started as a photographer? I’m pretty certain he didn’t buy a camera one day and start invoicing $1,000 a day the next. I don’t think he landed his job at The World & I magazine without some sort of portfolio of work that I can only imagine was made up of pretty cheap photo shoots. Maybe I’m wrong. I am the antithesis to every point he is fighting against in that blog post and I’ve built a career off of it and from what I can gather – I didn’t kill the industry doing so.
Hyundai didn’t kill Mercedes. McDonalds didn’t kill Ruth’s Chris. Wal-mart didn’t kill the mom-n-pop shop… oh wait.
Up next… Microstock. Now there’s something to look at.
Sometime after that I want to have a discussion about shooting for free as if that discussion has been beaten to death already… because guess what… Shhhhhhh. Don’t tell anyone… (I still shoot jobs for free every now and then.) Shhhhhhhh.