By Barry Schwartz
Social media can be a lot of things; thankfully, not all of them anxiety-producing. For a professional photographer such as myself, social media can be a window into how other pros deal with known issues of running a business. As an educator and professional, it is a tool that helps me step outside myself and keeps my thought processes from becoming too ingrown. For an educator, social media is a way to stay current with the pain-points experienced by students and emerging professionals – even mid-career photographers; complaints and confusion are ever-present.
I recently came upon a post where a photographer commented unhappily about the price of a potential car repair from a mechanic, comparing that estimate with how difficult it can be for photographers to figure out what to charge.
I responded that the estimate was based on what the market will bear, combined with what the mechanic felt their services were worth in comparison to their peers. That’s how all kinds of businesses keep their doors open. They were the same calculations that went into my fees during the twenty years I was a building contractor, and these days similar to how I calculate fees as a photographer. All business owners have specific expenses – personal and business – that must be addressed to stay viable, and everyone achieves stability in their own way; however, that does not mean the process is opaque or unique to each profession or even to each person. It boils down to: what to charge?
There were lots of sympathetic comments about the post, including the often heard complaint that pricing is an opaque, dark art, and that photographers as a group hold their pricing cards tight to their chest, revealing nothing. In fact, in the States, there are lots of ways to uncover what photographers charge for their work. Think of it as open source intelligence; no secrets.
On aPhotoEditor, there are posts from Wonderful Machine that describe, in considerable detail, the briefs of projects, the resulting negotiations, fees, and expenses, all revealed in the actual contract, including the Terms & Conditions (look under “Pricing & Negotiating”). The owner of aPhotoEditor, Rob Haggard, has been posting a new series, “How Much Do You Make”, where people describe in varying amounts of detail (sometimes per job) how much they made in a recent year, Gross and Net, who their typical clients are, and even their workflow. These descriptions are remarkable in lots of ways, but not for being secret: anyone can read them. They even get posted on Instagram.
Consultants and reps who negotiate with commercial and advertising clients – even editorial photo editors – tend to have a good idea of standard pricing. Project pricing depends on a number of variables, including (but not limited to): the difficulty of the project, the client’s size, standard fees for support trades and vendors, usage length and breadth, and how the photographer’s experience and style factor into pricing. Bidding is both science and art, but the most important factor is prior knowledge, because consultants and reps develop bids all the time. Win or lose, they have their noses to the ground and a community they are engaged with. These folks can sometimes be hired by the hour or as producing partners, where they help develop proposals with the idea that if the photographer gets the job, so do they.
I find lots of photographers will discuss fees; I do, and so do most of my friends. I had one friend where, for some obscure reason, we were asked to bid on the same projects so often we would automatically check in with each other about the project and not only discuss pricing, but how we might light and even produce the brief.
I’m a member of several online photo groups where pricing discussions are common. It’s worth joining professional – or even semi-professional online groups, even as a lurker. Trade associations in the States, while not allowed to proscribe fees, can certainly enable the kind of community conversations where pricing is discussed.
The process of bidding all by itself is a way to find out how one sits among the competition. Valuable feedback can come in the early stage of developing a proposal when clients indicate what their preferred budget is. Even if the job goes to someone else, potential clients may reveal if pricing was the losing factor or if it was something else – knowledge to be incorporated into future pricing. Those factors could include style, personal connection, ability to think and respond quickly. A critically important aspect of business is people skills. If there is any art involved, it’s in knowing how to negotiate, which is not a dark art at all but a learnable skill, however much anxiety is attached to the process for both photographer and client.
Budgets can be remarkably variable. One of the reasons a client may request bids from several photographers is to verify that their wish-list for deliverables can be realistically attained: they may need feedback from photographers in order to meet their own internal requirements for the project. They honestly are not sure. This is standard operating procedure, not secret or deceitful. These negotiations are a reality for all kinds of gigs at every level of expense. People skills come into play here, as well, because even if a photographer is not awarded the project, other people will remember if they were difficult or easy, pleasant or abrasive – the bidder with the better behavior is much more likely to be asked to bid on further projects and thereby gain more knowledge.
Fine art pricing, where the artist decides in advance of a sale what the price for their art should be, can seem like the most opaque and arcane and secretive of all. However, it’s easy to see what other photographers are charging simply by going to galleries, where a puzzled photographer can look at work similar to their own and even compare how far along they are in their careers. I’m referencing actual, physical galleries – the kinds with doors on the front. Things can be learned by going to websites: fine art photographers list clients, exhibitions, and shows on their websites; more links for learning. Alternate venues that display photos, such as coffee shops, art fairs, restaurants, online marketplaces, and open studio tours can be valuable for research. Everyone starts somewhere. If an artist becomes part of a gallery’s stable – a somewhat unfortunate, yet accurate, term – the gallery owner will work out with the artist what they think the market will bear based on their own experience, just like commercial reps and consultants.
Wedding and commercial event photographers often publish rates right on their websites. Their fees, just like those of other kinds of photographers, are based on a specific set of services which may be listed in detail. These groups of professionals are particularly free with their knowledge, up to and including entire conventions devoted to their trades.
In editorial the budgets are not a secret because, with a few exceptions, publications, not the photographer, set the fee for an assignment. While not terribly negotiable, editors respect the need for additional expenses, such as travel, stylists, and rental equipment, all of which can increase the total fee. For instance, it’s not unusual in either commercial or editorial work to claim a rental fee for owned equipment.
Successful photographers in every genre at every level of experience lose out on jobs all the time; no one gets them all. One of the reasons such folks are able to stay in the game is because they are aware of all the factors above. Business is hard, but not impossible. If mechanics can remain viable with all their competition, so can photographers with theirs.