This is inspired by a post on Black Star Rising, about two recent job-posting for photographers. The short version: one job offered no compensation other than credit (this posted by a PR-firm on behalf of a “high-profile” client). After having written three paragraphs for a comment, I decided instead to post my thoughts here.
It is of course preposterous for a company to “hire” any type of creative talent for credit only. If you’re small fry and have no budget but can do some trade, that’s one thing. That happens all the time, especially among small businesses, and it can be mutually beneficial. I’m talking about clients that until some time in the last decade, would never have thought twice about paying full price, but who now expect your work for little to no compensation.
Say no to clients like that. Refer them to microstock, where they will have a better time finding photos that fit that kind of budget. Don’t slave for clients. If you’re going to slave for anyone, do it for yourself – build your own stock photography portfolio, or whatever tickles your creative fancy. As long as you do it well.
It’s about confidence, professionalism and having the know-how to back it all up.
There IS a market for photographers with the skills listed above, a niche and the ability to tell a good client from a bad one. But, you still have to be willing to work hard – at times for nothing – to get to the point where you can afford to be picky. It’s like that in all creative industries from acting and writing to graphic design and photography. With the increased availability of inexpensive technology, amateurs flood the market with mediocre products, driving down the price on low to mid-range projects. The freelancers and small studios are the first to feel this crunch, as their clients start using amateur prices as bargaining points.
This is where, if you consider yourself a professional, you have to show the client that you are worth paying for. Show them what the difference is between you and the amateur. It’s like the web designer who must convince her small business client to pick her over the client’s nephew, who – using a downloaded copy of Dreamweaver – will “do the same work for a fraction of the price”. But it’s not the same work, and the designer has to be able to show that or lose the bid. Photographers have to show, that their work is not the same as that of someone’s uncle who happens to have an expensive DSLR with a big lens.
There will always be people willing to work for free and clients who won’t pay what the work is worth. It’s pointless to complain about. Instead it should motivate you to get focused and set yourself apart. Adapt or be destroyed, that’s how it is in any business. For decades, photographers had it good, but now that the mystery of “creating a photograph” is all but gone, the nature of the industry has changed.
You have to specialize and build a reputation in just a couple of areas (eg. weddings and seniors, architecture and landscapes, fashion and glamour). Pick the one you love the most, because you’ll be competing against others who love it too, and that will show in the work. If you half-ass it, that’s what you will end up as. Some niches are harder to compete in than others, so research is required. I’m not telling you to give up on your dreams if they happen to be in a field that is highly competitive. Just be realistic about it and plan accordingly.
As I see it, the value is not so much in the work itself, as in the ideas and personality behind it. Anyone can take a photo, but only you can make it look like one of your photos. So, make your clients want you. If they want you, they will pay. If they just want some schmuck with a camera, tell them to go to hell. Work for free if it’s for a cause you want to support, but never work purely for the promise of future opportunity. Getting paid is so much more fun.