When should you start getting paid for your photography? I can actually answer that in four simple words… When you are ready.
But what does that mean? When you are ready?
Let’s face it – we have all met the photographer who has owned their prosumer DSLR camera for three months and because they get 50 likes on every photo that they post on Instagram, they are convinced it is time to turn pro and charge for every click of the shutter.
And then we have also met the anxiety-ridden photographer who takes beautiful images but is afraid they are not good enough because he or she only gets 50 likes on every photo that they post on Instagram.
I hear photographers complain about amateurs turning pro and making it clear that they feel being a professional photographer should be the equivalent of being a brain surgeon. They think that because they’ve jumped through hoops and spent a lot of money to get a certificate that says they are a Master Photographer, they feel that nobody else has the right to call themselves a photographer unless they are willing to subject themselves to the same process. Those photographers are just lazy and don’t want the competition and thank god – photography is NOT the same as brain surgery.
And – well, I could go on with the scenarios…
So how do you find any value in my “when you are ready” answer?
The short and simple answer about making money as a photographer is that you do what you do to the best of your ability and then you find people dumb enough to pay you for it. That is how creative people have earned money all throughout history. It’s not a photography thing. Understand that not everyone will like your work and there is nothing you can do about that. Find the people who do like it.
You are ready to get paid when you can find someone who sees enough value in your work to pay you for it. Period. That’s how some people get paid after just three months – they found the people dumb enough to pay them. These photographers are often better at marketing than they are photography and if that’s the case – good for them. If their client is happy and they got paid, it is not up to another photographer to judge.
You are ready to get paid for your work when you have the guts to look somebody in the face and tell them what it’s going to cost. Remember some of those lessons that your parents taught you…. you don’t get what you don’t ask for… and the worst that anyone can say is “no”. No photographer gets every job they bid on. Period.
How do you know what to charge?
People frequently ask me if they should be doing some jobs for free or at least offering a discount on their rates so that they can get the first few clients. What’s the best way to get started? I’m going to tell you what I did and what I still do to this day.
When you reach that point in your photography where you feel that you want this to be more than a hobby, do some jobs for free. Treat those jobs like they are the most important jobs that you have ever had, even though they’re technically costing you money because you’re not getting paid.
The reason for doing that is to gain real world experience. In other words, experience where there’s a client, somebody that you have to answer to, someone that you are taking pictures for that is not you. You’ve got to make another person happy, because believe me, that is a huge step in the growth of a professional photographer. You have to get over that hump of realizing that once you become a professional it’s not all about you. It’s about your client. It’s about what theywant.
That means if you’re going to be a wedding photographer, you’ve got to learn to be able to deal with women on the most insane day of their lives. If you want to work with business people, or even corporate business people, you have to learn that corporate business people are some of the worst communicators in the world. They expect you to read their mind. If you want to be successful with clients you can never let yourself be in a situation where your best answer is to say “I assumed.”
This is all part of the life of a professional photographer.
So do take advantage of the opportunity to shoot some gigs at no cost, simply to get the experience. But when you turn that corner and decide to collect money, you have to be brave and tell people what you are worth. That means that when you are ready to start charging money, before you take a dime, do the research. Figure out what you need to be charging as if you were a full-time professional.
Pricing software is not the answer. I don’t believe in the software because I don’t think you need the software. Instead, I will share two excellent resources for pricing. I would encourage all of you to get involved with one of these because they come from organizations.
PPA, which is the Professional Photographers of America, has an excellent set of tutorials and pricing guidelines that are available to its members. A PPA membership is only $220.00 per year and it’s worth it just simply for the equipment insurance that you get included as part of your membership.
If your work is more along the lines of commercial advertising photography and that, check out the American Society of Media Photographers or ASMP for short. Both of these organizations have excellent pricing guidelines and utilities that will help you break it down and get a great understanding.
Never offer discounts!
Before you actually charge money, you need to know what it’s worth for a few reasons. Even for that very first paying customer you need to know what the value is. Then you are NOT going to discount your rate. Never, ever, ever offer discounts on your rates. Once you have done a discount on your rate you have taught your client how little your work is actually worth.
If you figure that you need $2,000 and you do that job for $50 why should somebody ever pay you more than $50 for that job, ever? Don’t think of that very first client as disposable. Every client counts. Every client, while they may not be the ticket to your future, may know somebody and make a recommendation to somebody who is the ticket to your future. You don’t want that first client telling a future client that you are cheap.
If you feel the need to do the job for $50, then you need to find a way to structure the pricing so that you’re not giving them everything that you would give them for $2,000. You’re going to give them less. You’re going to take some things out of the offering so that you can afford to do it for $50. And you are going to give that client an itemized breakdown of what you are charging them for and what they could be receiving if they paid an additional fee.
I know that some of you are still feeling disappointed because you want me to tell you that you should start charging at six months, or it should be eight months, maybe a year, or two years. It’s going to be different for everyone. It’s going to be different because some people are better salespeople than others, so they’ve got the guts to ask for money sooner, quicker, faster.
My moral criteria for charging money
It will different for everyone. Anybody that tells you, or any article that you read or any YouTube video that you see where they say, “You’ve got to shoot for at least six months. You’ve got to shoot for five years….” That’s a big bunch of baloney. The simple reason is everybody learns at a different pace. Everybody puts in a different amount of time and effort. Everybody starts with a different creative skill level. No two human beings are going to be in the exact same situation as far as their learning curve. Got it?
It really comes down to a matter of morals when you are ready to make the decision to charge money. Are you able to deliver a quality product at a professional level. If you’re not sure about what it means to be a professional check out this article.
I’ll give you an example, and this is one that I feel very strongly about. I am all for having a “go for it” attitude and fake till you make it, but you have to respect the importance of whatever it is you’re photographing. If you’re photographing a portrait, okay, cool, then fake it till you make it because if it doesn’t turn out you can bring the person back again and do it over, at your expense, of course, but you can do it over.
A wedding is a completely different story. I’ve had photographers post a question in my Facebook group like, “Hey, I’m going to be shooting my first wedding this weekend. What’s the best lens to use?” That question has been posted more than once. In my reply I will ask the person, “Have you ever shot a wedding before? Is this your first time?” And generally the answer will be, “No, it’s my very first time. That’s why I’m asking the question. I really thought you’d be able to help.” The next question I have for them is, “Are you getting paid? Are you the primary photographer?” They’re like, “Oh yeah, yeah. That’s why I’m so excited. It’s my first wedding and I’m getting paid for it. I’m doing the whole thing.”
Here we are four or five days before the wedding. This person’s getting paid to photograph the most important day of this couple’s life and they have no idea what they’re doing. What are they doing to figure it out? They’re on Facebook. Wow. That to me is completely unforgivable. That is the ultimate moral sin for a “professional photographer.”
When you think you are ready, you need to have the guts to evaluate your work honestly. If you can’t tell me what depth to field really is and how to use it, if you don’t understand how to get a dark background outside without actually having high speed sync, and if you don’t understand the inverse square law, in my opinion you have no right photographing this couple’s wedding for money. Do it as a second shooter. Do it as a backup shooter, but to be the primary photographer, that’s unforgivable.
Making money as a photographer is not rocket science. Believe me, I’m all about technology. I love the internet. It’s an amazing thing, but business, especially the business of photographing people, requires you to interact with people. The whole “I’m afraid to talk to people”, “I’m afraid to ask people,” all this kind of stuff, get over it. If it’s that much of a problem for you then you shouldn’t be looking to turn professional. I am sorry, but you simply shouldn’t.
You’re ready to get paid for your photography “when you’re ready.”
Now go pick up that camera and shoot something, because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!