Understanding Your Artistic Worth: Pricing Yourself As A Photographer

At a Sotheby’s auction in 2018, a painting entitled “Girl With Balloon” by the anonymous street artist Banksy sold for 1.4 million dollars. As soon as the gavel struck, the artist remotely activated a mechanism built into the frame that shredded half of the image. In that instant of vandalism, the artwork doubled in value.

Banksy intended to shred the entire piece, but the apparatus failed half way through its run. If he had succeeded in the total destruction of the painting, would it still have doubled in price? It’s impossible to say. The value of almost all things creative is based on perception.

Seeing ourselves as others see us—self-perception for lack of a better phrase—is almost impossible. Our motivation to be better visual artists is a visceral drive. We’re constantly seeking a higher technical or artistic plateau. A plateau that doesn’t exist. This quixotic pursuit stems from the simple fact that creative professionals are forever restless. When we produce an image that matches our unique vision, it makes us happy for a week or so before we start seeing the flaws. This prompts a renewed verve to make our next creation better. And so it goes until our skill and creativity get noticed by people who want to pay us. So how do we take all this abstraction and quantify it? It starts with understanding the marketplace.

Here’s a hypothetical. I write a book and Netflix wants to develop the story into a limited series. How much will I get paid for the rights?

First and foremost is the story. Is it compelling? If so, will it have narrow or broad audience appeal? Say it’s a story about a commercial photographer and her journey coming from nothing to shooting major advertising campaigns. This has narrow audience appeal; the subject matter is limited to people who care about the advertising photography world.

Now let's say the story is about a photojournalist who uncovers a secret society in Europe that manipulates global currency rates. She’s got the story of a lifetime, but publishing the piece is sticky: her lover is a part of the secret society. Much wider audience appeal; much more money.

Continuing with this example, let’s say I have half a million legitimate social media followers. The knee-jerk reaction is my piece is worth more because the book comes with an audience. That’s partially correct, but, if I’m Netflix, I’m also interested in how many of those social media followers are not yet Netflix subscribers. If eighty percent are not, then my little story just gained more value.

I’m using a Hollywood story to illustrate concepts about commercial photography because most people have been exposed to a ton of movie industry reporting and have a basic understanding of how a book becomes a movie. In this example, the majority of the factors that determine value are out of the author’s control. Just as many of the factors that determine if you are awarded a job are out of your control. Understanding this fundamental concept will go a long way to helping you strategize the business side of your creative self.

The most important thing to grasp is that your talent is a commodity. It’s a difficult thing to hear, because your work is unique, and, according to your mother, you are very special, but, to raise the value of your commodified existence you must consider all of the following:

Industry Politics

Your bid and its line items get distilled into one line on the advertising agency’s budget, for a campaign that was approved by the client. Also, when you bid, you’re typically bidding against two other photographers.

Having a relationship with the agency or the client offers a significant leg up on the competition. If you have one, don’t be shy. Use it to your advantage.

Selling Your Vision (Maybe)

There are two types of photographic jobs: the kind that requires your creativity, and the kind that only requires your technical skill. The latter is far less glamorous, but it is part and parcel of your job description, so don’t let it taint your enthusiasm. Having a reputation as a consummate professional is an exceedingly persuasive quality.

A job requiring your creativity necessitates you have faith in your vision. The inherent insecurity that comes with being an artist can challenge that faith especially when trying to read the client side of the table. You fear your ideas won’t resonate, and you’ll lose the gig. I will tell you it is far better to confidently present your concept and then, if need be, adapt it. Vaguely articulating your ideas in a piecemeal way, as you try to discern what the other side wants to hear will decimate your chances. Boldness has genius, power, and magic. Adaptability is how you stay in the game. I’d rather be known as the person with the crazy vision who took that intensity and adapted to the needs of the client than the person who had the milquetoast approach to the project.

Producing Skills

Bids are sort of an artistic expression in and of themselves. It shows the client the problem solving creativity behind executing the shoot. It is also demonstrative of your skill level and experience (or the experience of your producer).

Client Relations

Advertising photography is suffused with a lot of persnicketiness. No matter how absurd the criticism or request foisted upon you, maintaining composure is a critical trait. On the set you’re allied with the agency to make the client happy. That’s not to say you shouldn’t express a little creative eccentricity, just don’t let it become too big for the room.

Full disclosure: I went through a brief period of being a legend in my own mind. Needless to say that didn’t last too long. But from that personality failure I learned how to respectfully, instead of oppressively, push back on bad ideas from the client side. It’s all about communicating effectively and confidently when presenting what’s best for the client. Which brings us to...

Experience

Production is managed chaos. Nothing ever goes to plan, and your ability to adapt quickly goes a long way to adding value. The best way to learn how to wrangle chaos is to get out and get exposure. Experience brings efficiency; the more you do something the more quickly you can get it done. That is worth money.

Your perceived value isn’t just about shooting pictures. You have to be a polymath with the ability to pitch, produce, problem solve, and schmooze. If you don’t have a schmoozy personality, work with a producer who does. And keep in mind having the gift of gab isn’t a prerequisite for success. In fact, I despise the notion that extrovert is better than introvert. It’s cultural nonsense. There have been plenty of times that my loquacious, obnoxious self rolled into a room like a live hand grenade and was politely asked to leave only to have the reserved introvert be awarded the job because they were a better fit. The beautiful thing about the creative industries is everyone is valid. That said, make the effort to understand yourself and your audience (client) and always play to your strengths. Pretenders parish quickly in this business.

Let's Talk About Money

The most important consideration in calculating your fees is knowing your minimum acceptable day rate. Remember we’re talking about assigning value based on perception so there are no guidelines, but knowing your internal floor is a solid first step.

A quick note, if someone ever asks you to work on the cheap with promises of bringing you in for a better paying job in the future, the answer is always “no.” A “yes” will mark you as the person willing to work with low budgets, and those are the only type of jobs you’ll get asked to bid on. It may be hard to hold fast on this, but trust me.

If you’re an experienced photographer, as in you’ve been shooting for seven to ten years, 1500.00 to 2000.00 per day is a reasonable minimum to consider for regional advertising jobs in the major markets like New York and California. These are jobs where your images will be seen, at most, state wide. Obviously, there are no borders online, but consider how much exposure the client can afford to purchase via social media channels? Also, understand that very few things in this day and age go “viral,” so don’t ruminate on that possibility at the expense of moving a deal forward.

As you get into national and international advertising, your images will be seen by exponentially more people, so it’s justified to think about 5000.00 to 10,000 per day—again, this is if you’re shooting in the major markets like New York or California. You’ll be able to tell where you fit in that range based on the experiences you’ve had so far. The idea here is to have an understanding of your minimum worth in the advertising space.

Now we have to talk about asking for money for usage. Smaller clients will be horrified at the thought of paying for usage because they don’t understand it. Larger clients, in an effort to avoid legal entanglements, will want to “buy out” the rights to our work. The proper term is “unlimited time and unlimited use.” In this scenario, the copyright remains with you.

When talking to a smaller client, you’ll have to determine if educating your client is worth the energy or if it’s easier to bake your usage into your photography fees. If a smaller to medium client accepts the idea of a usage fee but is nervous about the time limit, give them five years. It may seem like a long time, but, if their budget is limited for photography, they most certainly won’t have the money for a massive media buy of billboards and other national exposure channels. Again, it’s all perception.

With a larger client, the time of use will be a negotiation. In contemporary times most clients will want unlimited time, unlimited use, which comes with a price. However, determining usage is a bit of a dark art. Go with a number that’s not absurd, but is higher than what you think you should charge, and use that as a starting point. The thing to remember: if you’re in the realm of reason, you’re not going to get dismissed.

The idea here is to understand your skill in capturing images has value, as does the art you produce. However, that value is flexible depending on a myriad of variables, including what part of the world you’re in, your experience level, and the size of the client. All these things and more have to be considered. Oh, and don’t make the mistake of many. If you get called to bid on a job for a wealthy company like Apple, that doesn’t mean a lottery pay day. The department you’re shooting for has a budget which is in line with the rest of the advertising world. Also, when bidding for a library shoot, keep in mind there is an expectation of unlimited time and unlimited use. Make sure your day rate reflects that.

Which brings us to the most asked question in this business: what am I worth? Let’s go back to Hollywood and the notion of perception.

Jennifer Lawrence makes about 20 million dollars a film. This is not an arbitrary number; it's dictated by the ambition of her agent pushing against what the market will bear. Her breakout picture Winter’s Bone paid her 500,000. The film resonated with audiences and catapulted Miss Lawrence’s profile. A higher profile means exponentially more fans; more fans means more bankable dollars for the studios. When producers pay her fee, they’ve calculated that they’re going to make a profit on that expenditure. It is a combination of her skill, her experience, her popularity, and her availability. She can only make so many pictures in a year. This is a wildly extreme example, but the principles are the same.

Take five experienced creative professionals, strand them on a tiny island with just enough food and water to keep them alive, then after a year, ask them how their careers are going. Every single one will tell you that they are incredibly busy, but they’d love to look at your project. There’s a lesson here, but don’t overdo it.

There’s more, tons more to this, but it’s the type of information that comes from doing. If you’re spending excessive amounts of time reading contradictory opinions in online forums about how to price yourself, stop. Take the information above, step up, and toss your hat in the ring. This business is highly competitive. When a job doesn’t award, it doesn’t necessarily mean you bid too high. It means you weren’t the right fit for reasons out of your control. Think about a casting call for a movie: dozens are called, one is chosen. Those that were not, relentlessly try again until they get their moment. As a photographer, your odds of getting work are significantly better than an actor, but the same rules apply. Be bold, be aggressive, be indefatigable, always create new work, and never let them see you bleed.

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