The Photographer Myth
When I started in photography, it was a hobby that allowed me to unlock my creativity, stay curious and get out of my comfort zone. At first, my photography involved shooting landscapes around New York City (where I was living at the time) and in various countries during my travels. It was thrilling, intriguing, and fun all wrapped into a new adventure each time I left home with my camera. Since I was not getting paid for the work, it was a passion project that was entirely my own. It wasn’t until I began photographing commercially did I realize how much more went into running a freelance photography business. Yet I often encounter situations where people believe that because I’m passionate about photography, I should do it for any price or even for free. This is the photographer myth.
As photographers, many of us are seen as “starving artists” who do what they love because they love it. But beyond being artists, we are also professionals, business owners, managers, salespeople, strategic marketers, customer service representatives and creative directors all wrapped into one. We take on these roles to keep our businesses running and (hopefully) thriving. For many of us, that is because we count on our business to make a living. So although we are indeed artists, we invest the same amount of time, practice and money as any other business owner or professional working to provide the best service possible to their clients.
Common Photography Myths
All things considered, photographers often face situations that other professionals do not. We are asked questions, offered goods, and are targets of assumptions that we continually must address. And while I don’t believe the intentions of others is to come off negatively or offend us, I think it’s important to bring awareness to these situations so we can take a step forward in busting the photographer myth.
Photographer Myth #1: Photographers work for exposure
It is often assumed that in the age of social media, exposure has a direct impact on revenue. And while that may be the case for some, exposure typically doesn’t pay the bills. Andrew Scrivani, a well-known food photographer, once spoke to this point. As a frequent contributor to the New York Times’ social feed, he’s found that their postings of his images and crediting him does not have a huge impact on his social engagement.
I, too, have found this to be true. I had decided early on in my business that I would not use social media as a tool for customer acquisition. After tracking data around social engagement and customer conversions over several months, I determined that social media did little to increase my revenue. Sure, some prospects may visit my social accounts to verify my legitimacy or get to know me better. But overall, it’s rare that someone will find me on Instagram or Facebook and book a photo shoot based on that encounter.
Photographer Myth #2: Photographers work in exchange for free products and services
Some prospective companies will offer their products and services as a trade for free photography. Fellow photographers have spoken to condiment companies offering oodles of mayonnaise, pizza dough and even coupons in exchange for free photography. I personally have received offers of free meals at restaurants and various other food products.
The problem with these trades is that they are significantly imbalanced in value. Let’s say the client is asking for 5 images in exchange for a box of snacks. The 5 images will take a minimum of 10 hours (though likely much longer) to produce when considering prepping, food styling, shooting and editing. In the best case scenario, the snacks may be worth $50. That means the client is asking to pay the photographer $5 per hour (in snack value) for their work. After expenses, taxes and fees, that comes to about $2.50 per hour -- 65% less than the lowest minimum wage in the US. No photographer would be able to survive on these rates.
Photographer Myth #3: Photography should be cheap if the photos are simple
On the surface, many images seem very simple. Concepts like a bowl of cherries, stack of cookies, or single sandwich sounds very straightforward. This is why it’s common for clients to wonder why such a simple image might cost hundreds of dollars. The answer is that it costs hundreds of dollars in time and materials to produce.
Let’s take the bowl of cherries as an example. As the photographer, my first step is to put time into planning for the shot. What type of cherries are we using? Should there be stems or no stems? How big of a bowl? What type of bowl? Will there be other props in the shot? Which angles are we shooting? What type of table surface should the bowl be placed on?
Next, I’ll need to go shop and pay for the materials which include everything from the props to the actual cherries. On shooting day, there is lighting and table setup and staging, selecting the best-looking cherries to include in the shot, and of course, shooting. Lastly is post processing which takes hours to filter through the images and edit them.
Considering this, photographers must charge according to the time required to create the image. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to assume that a conceptually simple image will take no more than an hour. However, as seasoned professionals, we know from experience the actual time it will take to produce such an image.
The Value of a Photographer
Most photographers have a formula for their rates. It’s typically based on a combination of their cost of living, cost of doing business and the value they offer with consideration to their skills and experience. This is similar to the way a senior accountant in San Francisco with 10 years of experience and an impressive client portfolio would charge more than a Chicago-based staff accountant right out of college. Highly skilled and experienced photographers will have higher rates because the quality and value they offer is higher.
When I was working full time as a product marketer with years of experience under my belt, I was never approached to offer my services pro bono. Nor did the companies I work for ask other professionals to provide work for free. Most other professions could say the same thing. No one would come into an appliance store and ask for a microwave in exchange for bottles of ketchup. Nor would someone ask a plumber to fix their sink as a trade for social media exposure.
Yet, as photographers, we are asked regularly to de-value our time, skills and expertise. The work we produce contributes tremendously to a company’s brand, the customers they attract and ultimately their bottom line. Our value aligns to the value we offer to our clients. We are not starving artists but rather creative professionals who get to do what we love and use that passion to capture the very best in the world and enable companies to put their best foot forward in order to grow and succeed.