Photo Darwinism: Things your mother never told you (Pt 2)

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Continuing my 2011 article on the business of photography:

Beginning professionals are rarely told that taking the picture is the easy part of the photo business. For the majority of you, finding work and making a sustainable living at photography will be the hard part.

“Retail” photographers, portrait and wedding photographers, who deal directly with consumers, have their own issues, which we will not be covering here. We will be dealing with the unique issues that face independent freelance photographers.

Annie Leibovitz, David Lachapelle, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Herb Ritts, Mark Seliger and a few other photographers have been able to create a “brand” for their work. People hire them as much to be swept into their “glow,” as for their talent. Chances are you are not currently in their league or approaching their stature. Let’s be generous and assume that 15% of all pro photographers are near their stature. That leaves the rest of us 85% in the center of a bell curve.

Let’s be generous again and say that the majority of the people in the center of the curve are good, competent professionals. We can successfully deliver almost any photo asked of us. In the Boston metro area, where I live, I estimate there are over 500 photographers all going after the same work I am. Few of us want to be known as “hacks” that deliver generic images. Unfortunately, what we feel is irrelevant.  What the client and market perceives is what is relevant. So how can we stand apart from the crowd? How do I determine my prices?

The day I decided to move photography from a passion to my profession, I realized I had no knowledge of certain things like: how to use a view camera, load a Hasselblad and how much to charge. They only give general pricing info at those pro-photo business seminars. The local trade association had pricing seminars, but the resulting fees, where photographers would do mock assignment bidding, were all over the place.

Rather than going to school, I chose to assist established photographers. They paid me to learn. The people I worked for were open with me about fees, usage and copyrights. This is probably the best way for beginners to get actual local pricing. Another way is by asking clients.  When you don’t get an assignment, call back and try to find out the price they are paying, and to whom. Also use your common sense and learn some negotiating skills. Whenever I give a price, and the client says yes with no hesitation, I immediately think my price was too low. When they moan, or have to get back to me, I know I’m in the correct ballpark.

The wrong way to price is to use a generic formula, like the Cost of Doing Business Calculator. This will tell you if you can pay yourself a salary, but not what you should charge.  Occasionally experienced professionals will work for a rate below their CODB in order to get certain assignments. They just won’t discuss it. You might also find that when economy goes bad, pros with big fixed overhead expenses start lowering their prices to just to pay their bills. They just won’t advertise it.

Eventually I learned another rule of Pro-Photo Economics, the one no one dares speak about: Commoditization.

More on marketing your photography in the World of Commoditization next.

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