The other day, one of you readers posited this:
Hi John,Consider, for example, Heather Drake, whom I met recently at an Advertising Photographer's of America meeting here in DC this past Tuesday. Heather has a full time job, is taking classes at the Art Institute of Washington, and, she - STEP 1 - Has a website, STEP 2 - has not let the fact that she doesn't have many assignments keep her from making great images in the style and type of work she likes.
I have a simple question for you, one I'm sure you get a lot.
How do you go about building a portfolio when you are starting out without undercutting established photographers for a certain time period, even if you intend on staying in the business long term? It seems a catch-22. Without charging less why would a client go to an unestablished, unproven photographer when there is an established one charging the same price?
Of course, her site's not finished (check the Fashion, Beauty and Celebrity sections), but she's headed in the right direction. She has taken the first few steps. She also has the financial backing (i.e. she has a job that pays the bills, even if she would rather be doing photography) so she's not forced to take the jobs that undercut what she's worth. Yes, her website will improve, get finished, but she's moving down the path, not stationary, paralyzed by her own inaction.
Before someone will give you a paying assignment (worth having), you have to proove you can complete an assignment. Yes, I know, seems a catch-22, as suggested. Yet, it's not. Give yourself an assignment! It's called....self assignments! Read the paper, find out about the latest parade in your area. Go to high school or small college sports, and practice. You want to be a wedding photographer? Offer to cover a friend's wedding as a guest that will not cost them anything as you won't eat, or if you are a guest at a wedding, cover it as if you were working. After two or three, you'll probably have the beginnings of a portfolio that you can use to get paying work. Portrait photography? Offer to make portraits of friends and family, and then use those in your portfolio.
Once you have a portfolio - and by that I mean a website - where your work is displayed, once a client determines, based upon a review of your work, they they want to give you their assignment, then they have deemed you worthy of the work, and capable of completing it. Period. At that point, it's all about what that assignment is worth. If you don't know, start looking around for guidance. Ask the question "What budget are you trying to work within?" See where they are coming from. Tell them you'll work on the paperwork for the assignment, and then do so. Call a few other photographers and ask them what they'd charge. Post a message on a photo forum that has professionals on it that have done assignments like the one you're being asked to do. Be thoughtful about the estimate, and then put it in writing, including the proper rights package, and then send it along via PDF attached to a cover-letter-type e-mail.
If they said their budget was $200, and everyone you got counsel from said it was an $1,100 assignment, send the estimate near that knowing you may not get it, and chalk it up to good practice. And, as it says on the back of the shampoo bottle, "lather, rinse, and repeat." Eventually, fair budgeted assignments will come your way, and you will (slowly) grow your clientele to be fair paying. If you take every $200-job-that-should-have-been-$1,100 at $200, you'll never have the fair paying clients, or, at the most they will be few and far between. Further, you'll be surprised at how many people tell you $200 and then approve your $1,100 estimate. Sometimes, they are just trying to be cheap, but know what they really have to pay.
If being a professional photographer was easy, everyone would be one. Many many people are photographers, or hang out their shingle and call themselves one, yet are not among the professionals, nor are they even aspiring professionals. They are just stepping in and dilly-dallying around, not being serious about it as a sustainable profession. About 2% of actors actually earn their living as actors. I submit that less than that are professional photographers.
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