Protographer vs Fauxtographer – The price wars and the cost of running a professional photographic business
Sitting at one of my favourite coffee shop Arnold’s on Kloof I am trying to write a this extremely difficult article which I know is going to make me unpopular with a portion of the photographic hobbyist community and is going to contain a lot that many don’t want to hear but just because someone doesn’t want to hear something doesn’t mean it isn’t true or doesn’t need to be said.
Being dyslexic probably makes me the wrong person to be writing this but seeing no one else has, here goes.
I have for the most part, tried to stay out of the amateur pro pricing debate that has been raging on many forums but, after reading a few articles and many comments from both sides, I think there is a component to the debate that has been missing and really needs to be discussed.
The real issue is that photography like most industries is one from which many skilled professionals earn a living and the crux of the matter can be summed up in those three words, Skilled, Professional, Living.
So let’s tackle this in a roundabout way, you will see why as we progress, and start with the professional aspect.
Running a Professional Photographic Business
Any business has costs attached to its running, some obvious, some not so obvious and photography is no different. The aim of any healthy business is to make a profit and that means that the business needs to examine is costs and build a sustainable pricing model where it is able to fund itself, pay salaries and realise a profit.
Some of you may already be saying that surely if you are a one man show your salary is the profit but this is where most often go wrong and any good financial expert or business coach will agree. The mistake that is often made is not separating yourself from the business as they are in fact two separate entities. Your salary allows you to live and the profit allows your business to expand.
Most professional photographer’s rates are not a thumb suck; they are based on careful calculations, so the question then is how can so many entry-level or hobby photographers charge so much less?
The answer is simple; they are either weekend warriors where photography is a second income or they haven’t done the sums and are in for a nasty surprise. In fact in both scenarios at some stage they will hit the same problem.
Don’t believe me; well let’s look at some of the costs involved with running a professional photography business.
Firstly let’s look at the obvious costs:
Camera Body and lenses R18 000.00 – R30 000.00*
CF/SD cards R2000.00**
Computer to process files R8000.00***
RAID Drive/Storage R4500.00****
OK let’s assume those are the bare basics and go through them one by one.
* Yes you can get cheap camera bodies and lenses but the fact is they are not going to last and are missing some vital features that entry-level pro bodies include. Also those cheap kit lenses are going to take a hammering and really can’t produce the results that you will need to be able to charge what you will soon realise you have to. Just for the record, some pros have gear that is worth up to or in excess of R500 000.00 and trust me, it’s not just for show…
** You are going to need to invest in high quality cards like those from Lexar because when you are out shooting the only thing safe guarding your images till you get back is the card. With the Consumer Protection Act in effect, losing images because of a cheap card could cost you more than you think in fact in the case of a wedding, you could be sued for the full cost of the wedding…
*** You are going to need a decent reliable computer with a good screen to be able to retouch your images properly.
**** Fact is that at some stage your hard drive will fail… You will need a RAID drive to safeguard your images while you are working on them or you will need some form of backup where you have more than one copy of your files.
***** Ok so how many of you have legal software? This is a prerequisite for running a professional business, pirating all your software is not acceptable as you are making money out of the software.
So your basic setup costs and I do mean basic are around R50 000.00. I know many are saying that they can’t afford this so my question to you is would you employ a plumber who arrived and didn’t have the right equipment or go to a mechanic who doesn’t have a lift and puts your car up on bricks?
Think carefully about this one…
Ok so we are now R50 000.00 in the red and it gets worse, far worse…
Now that you have all the fancy gear you will need to insure it, oh wait, that’s not a problem as it’s insured under your household insurance policy, Right?
Actually it’s not! If your gear gets stolen or damaged while on a paid shoot, your household insurance will more than likely not pay out as its will be deemed to be commercial use. So let’s add another R800.00 onto your monthly expenses… You can just skip the whole insurance issue all together but if your gear gets stolen or broken, well you can kiss your business and any money you have put into it goodbye…
Next how do you get to your shoots, well in most cases you drive but what happens if you have an accident? Once again many assume your private insurance will cover this but most insurers view travelling to shoots as an additional risk and may not pay out unless you are covered for a combined use which will probably set you back another R150.00 pm.
It seems expenses are just starting to creep out of the wood work and we haven’t even gotten started.
Let’s stick to the car, which has to be serviced regularly and at some stage needs to be replaced. Ok so let’s say worst case it needs to be replaced in a year or you are currently paying it off now. You need to find money for that every month so add around R2000.00 to our monthly expenses. Then you have expenses like tyres that need to budget for so let’s add another R150.00 per month to cover tyres and servicing.
OK let’s quickly look at where you are:
- We have an initial outlay of around R50 000.00
- We have monthly expenses that so far total R3100.00
But now that you are working on your own and for yourselves, what happens if you get sick?
With the cost of medicine you cannot be without medical aid so let’s say that comes to around R800pm and also you need income protection, to cover you if you are injured and can’t work and that will cost you around R800.00 pm so your monthly expenses just jumped up to R4700.00.
Next you need a phone to be able to communicate with our clients which will cost you anything from R500.00 pm and you will need to be able to email large files to your clients so let’s say that will cost R450.00 pm for ADSL (remember you also pay Telkom a mandatory telephone line rental fee).
Now some of that fancy gear you bought is going to need to be replaced in about 4 years so you can expect to spend around R31.000.00 and that needs to be budget for. This works out at about R650.00 pm.
Right so what happens if you are on a shoot and someone gets hurt? You can get sued so you need Public Liability insurance which will set you back around R250.00 pm if you are lucky. Then you need to cover yourself in case a shoot goes wrong and you are left footing the bill so let’s add another R150pm.
Right so we are now sitting at R6600 per month and you still haven’t eaten, paid electricity, rent, been to see a movie, etc. so those probably look something like (keeping probably unrealistically low as possible and missing countless items):
Personal rent, assuming you are working from home R5000.00 pm
Electricity R500.00 pm
House hold insurance R500.00 pm
Basic Car insurance R550.00 pm
Food R3100.00 pm
Clothing R250.00 pm
Entertainment R1600.00 pm
TV license R25.00pm
Car License R38.00 pm
Petrol R1500.00 pm
I am sure this is unrealistically low overall and I probably have missed some items like toiletries etc but let’s just say you are now sitting at around R19000.00 pm.
Yikes how did you get here and at R19000.00 you are not having much of a life are you?
Now at some stage you are going to need to look at getting some lighting, Speedlights and additional equipment but the odds are that you are not even close to coming out on what you are earning so those are just wishful dreams.
Oh we forgot about the holiday that you are going to need to get over the stress of just trying to stay afloat so let’s add another R500.00 pm and then you still need to make a profit otherwise your business for all intents and purposes is far from successful which means adding on a 20% margin. So you actually need about 24000.00 pm.
Realistically in this economic climate, most can expect about 6 full days a month and don’t forget these are just the basic expenses; the top end pros probably are closer to needing R35000 pm. Yes some photographers are getting more work but they are at the top end, lower down most are struggling.
Oh dear, you forgot about tax so you are probably closer to needing R29000.00 pm
So based on needing R29000.00 pm and having 6 full days of work, you will need to charge R4800.00 per day and that’s nowhere near the life style you would be aiming for and running on the bare basics gear wise.
Based on this, your hourly rate should be around R600 per hour. So think carefully about what you are currently charging and whether a pro at R900.00 an hour is really overpriced or if in fact they are probably right where you should be?
Some may try arguing that you don’t need a lot of the stuff and pirated software is ok but then you are not running a professional business and can’t criticise those who do, they are in the right here.
Now add the fact that at some stage you will need better gear and probably an office/studio, or will need to rent a larger flat/house.
So by now we should all agree, even if it’s grudgingly, that we should be charging about R700.00-R900.00 per hour but in most cases a lot of entry-level photographers I have spoken to have expressed concern that their skills or technical ability are not good enough yet. Many don’t believe clients will pay them those rates so they go in cheap to get the work till they get better. Worse still a lot don’t have camera gear that can deliver the results they need…
People, you have a real problem here. You need to charge the correct rate to make a living and build a business but many can’t because there work isn’t good enough so most won’t actually survive and make it as photographers and those who do and do improve their skills are facing a bigger problem.
What do you think happens when you try put up your rates to where they should be?
That’s right, someone battling who doesn’t have the skills does exactly what you started out by doing and undercuts you.
What price cutting has done is send the wrong message to the clients, many of whom now believe that the pros, who are in fact pricing correctly, are overpriced.
Additionally trying to go into a market and substitute low prices for lack of skill is extremely reckless and is detrimental to your future and to your clients. You could in fact be responsible for a client’s entire, marketing campaign failing which could result in the company going under and people losing their jobs.
This bring us onto the Topic of Skills
How do you improve your skill and where do you learn?
In the old days you didn’t just pick up a camera and you were a photographer, far from it. There were two ways you became a competent photographer, being that you either studied photography at an accredited institution or you assisted a photographer for a number of years and learned from them.
In both cases you essentially studied for a number of years, and it wasn’t a case of picking up a camera, doing a 1 week course and that was it, it was long hard work. Eventually you paid your dues and you earned the right to call yourself a professional photographer.
Today it’s the opposite where many pick up a camera attend a short course and they are professional photographers. The sad truth, to put it bluntly, is that they are not… There is so much more to photography than having a fancy camera and a little bit of knowledge.
Yes there are a few that are naturals and can pick up a camera and from day one produce fantastic images but for most of us its only hard work, lots of studying and hours and hours of shooting that make us good enough to rightly call ourselves pro’s.
What is missing today is the fundamental basics of photography. These are missing because they are not always obvious and because often those “teaching” photography don’t know these themselves. I am often shocked when giving talks at how few “pro” photographers understanding even the basic concepts like inverse square law and soft and hard lighting effects. Without knowing these fundamentals, you will never be able to produce the images you aspire to and produce the quality of work that you need to be able to charge enough to make a good living.
Yes some manage to wing it for a while but in the end they get tripped up and battle to retain large clients. The blunt truth is that great photography requires immense skill and we as photographers also have responsibility to our clients as do mechanics and other professionals. I am sure very few of you would trust your car to an unqualified mechanic. If not, then why would you essentially do the same thing to a client?
So how do we gain this skill to be able to offer our clients what they are paying for?
The answer is simple, you work hard and you study as much as you can. There is wealth of knowledge online but you need to be prepared to go look for it and to work through it. This isn’t something that you can sit back and expect to happen and it’s going to take time and you need to be realistic and able to fund yourself during this process. There are also great photographers running workshops but one workshop won’t make you a photographer, it will only teach you skills that you need to expand on and these workshops will again cost money. Also just copying another photographer lighting isn’t going to make you better, it’s going to make you a copycat who can produce a few results but never understands why you get the results.
I often get asked how long it will take till you are good enough to charge what you need to. The answer is both simple and totally unhelpful being it will take you as long as it takes you. It’s going to be different for each person and even once you have the skills, you are only halfway there as you will still need to learn how to market yourself and sell yourself in the market place because shockingly enough, clients are not just sitting around waiting for you…
Another important aspect is to stop listening to your friends. Most of them wouldn’t know good work if it hit them in the face so all the praise and flattery you get from them isn’t going to help you in the slightest. A better approach is to go online and look at the work of really great photographers and try learning from them. You can ask photographers to critique your work but them be prepared for honest feedback, even if it’s not what you want to hear.
Some have asked why the pros aren’t getting involved and giving back but is it any wonder that the Pros are extremely reluctant to help those that are threatening their livelihood by send the wrong messages to clients?
As newbies you are up against maters of light and composition who can capture truly mind-blowing images and like it or not, you need them on your side and you need them to start sharing their knowledge again. Cutting price is not going to achieve this…
At the end of the day, the truth which many of aren’t going to like to hear is that only a few will go on to become successful photographers. This is not a situation that is unique to the photographic industry, it happens in all industries but what you need to do is realistically look at where you are and whether you will be able to make it and whether you are adding value to the industry or seriously hurting it…
You will need to ask if there will in fact be an industry left by the time you get near to the top and will it be able to support a photographic business?
Just a short note for the clients…
Imagery is the single most powerful tool that you have in your marketing arsenal. A single image can stop someone in their tracks, unleash a flood of emotion, create desire and most importantly speak for your product or business when you are not there…
Well you have seen the numbers above and you can see that photographer’s charging between R700-R1000 per hour, are probably basing their pricing on very similar criteria that what you or any successful business would base theirs on…
So ask yourself this, why do so many of you risk the success of your products or businesses over a few hundred Rands? I have asked this question and I have had numerous answers ranging from “we didn’t know better”, “we went with the lowest quote” to “they said they were a professional; photographer”
My question then is when was the last time you asked to see a photographer’s portfolio and checked to see that they can shoot what you are looking for? More importantly, did you compare their work with other photographers?
Have you considered aspects such as does the photographer have professional indemnity insurance and who will pay for the models, props etc if the photographer really blows the shoot and you have to shoot again?
Will the photographer be able to handle aspects of a shoot like ensuring model releases are correctly signed so that you don’t end up getting sued by a model who didn’t give you the permission to use their image that you though you had?
We can’t force you to stop buying cheap but this is one industry where you get what you pay for and you get one shot at capturing your markets attention…
This means you need to make that shot count…
If you don’t, you run the risk that your competitor will…