Friday, March 30, 2007

So you wanna be a photographer?

The other day, one of you readers posited this:

Hi John,

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?
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.

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.
Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Bart said...

This is freaky....becasue I'm doing exactly this. First thing I did was practice my style. This has been a few years in the making but persistance pays off (I hope). Next thing I did was to ask around some friends and offer free photo shoots and get some nice photos for a website (which I published just last week. It isn't flash but in time it will grow).

I asked my 'clients' as well as family 2 questions. 1) how much would you pay for this photogrphic service and 2) (after getting a mini-portfolio together) Would you pay $xyz for a service like this. This way I was able to arrive at a price that wasn't too expensive for the target market but wasn't undercutting myself either (BTW, most people can't answer #1 at all but will certainly know the answer to #2)

Hopefully that side of things will take off and I can move on to other avenues for income (weddings, special events and whatnot).

One thing I have found for sure, it's a building's a cliche but it has to be said.... 'it won't happen overnight, but it will happen' (on the proviso that you stick to your guns and don't expect to be a pro photographer in a week)

Anonymous said...

Some comments/questions for Heather:

- The yellow lettering blends in with the model's forehead on your home page and probably sends a less-than-desired first impression.
- " Bandwidth Exceeded" twice on your fashion page (this may be more as more people visit your site).
- I didn't realize at first that there were more than a few images because I do not usually need to scroll horizontally. Some on-page scrolling navigation might be good.
- I think Gmail will allow you to be to the outside world and still use Gmail as your e-mail provider. This could remove some of the "professionalism" questions that a Gmail account can cause.
- Do you have model releases from everyone? Would model credits and copyright dates make sense?

Anonymous said...

One bit of advice I'd offer is to be very careful about using a friend's wedding as a learning experience. Even if you are doing it for free, if they think they have a wedding photographer they will probably have many expectations and might treat you as an employee. Either of these could make this a former-friend very quickly in a wedding scenario.

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