No Pay = No Value


A Common Dilemma

A common dilemma for photographers who are either starting out or trying to branch into a new genre is how to establish their credibility and reference material. Clients are ready to hire you to shoot ‘X’, but unless you come as a referral from a trusted friend, they expect to see high quality work of ‘X’ in your book before hiring you. So how do you get the first couple of images of ‘X’ into your book? It seems like a never-ending catch-22.

If you happen to have ‘X’ in your proverbial backyard you could just take a few nice shots and be off to the races. In most cases, especially those that eventually represent lucrative and unique opportunities, ‘X’ is a very access-controlled resource. It’s not readily available to you.

By the way, ‘X’ can be anything from designer fashion, interior design, food, celebrities, industrial sites, travel destinations, or anything else.

In our sharing and open-source economy, many photographers tend to resort to the ‘trade for’ trick to gain access. It is a reasonable strategy, but has some serious pitfalls for the photographer and the industry that are good to discuss.

A recent email discussion I was part of started with: “I want to approach a few companies for a possible collaboration. I would photograph ‘X’ in exchange for images to go on their website.” In essence, the offered deal is as follows: you give me access to ‘X’ and I will give you images in return that you can use. On the surface this seems like a fair deal…


…here is the problem: If you make that deal with a company, they get a lot of value out of it. Ordinarily, they would have had to pay a good amount of money to get professionally shot images for use on their website. Depending on the circumstances and the client, you are talking anywhere in the range of hundreds to thousands of dollars. With your ‘trade for’ deal, you are offering them the same value for essentially the inconvenience of having to lend you some of their product for a day or two, and the manageable risk of damage/you not returning the product. To most businesses, that is a minor effort and equals ‘free’.

Of course, the company does not know if your images will be any good, since you are still establishing yourself as an expert on how to shoot ‘X’. Most likely they have talked to you, looked at your other work, and have some sense that the images will at least be passable. And you, of course, want to knock it out of the park. On the remote chance that you swing and miss, well, they have nothing to lose and stand a lot to gain if you hit a home run. So why not?

Before long, companies start to figure out that if they hold on long enough, and dangle the ‘for your portfolio’ carrot for the right amount of time, you might just do it for them. Most photography needs that aren’t on a tight deadline, or have other dependencies like printing or advertising budgets tied to them, can be had for free (no guarantees on the quality, however). You and the rest of the industry ends up being the sucker in this game.

The other economic reality is that one can never raise prices unless those raises are justified through external factors. If oil goes up, airline tickets go up. But if everything else is the same, nobody is going to pay you more this time than the last time. After all, you wouldn’t either. So if you start out with ‘free’ for one particular company, any referrals you may get out of it will always be pegged to the price of $0. If you balk, they will just find the next guy who needs work for his portfolio.

Just don’t do it!


So then how do you get ‘X’ into your book? Without ‘X’ in your book, said company is unlikely to pay you for your photography, so how do you get it without giving yourself an unfair deal? There are two main alternatives: You either restructure the proposal in a way that it becomes a fair deal, or you find a way of shooting ‘X’ where you are not giving anything away.

Any collaboration or deal works best if everyone involved has an equal amount of skin in the game. Everyone is then motivated to make it a success. That means that you, the company, and anyone else involved in the production (talent, stylists, assistants, & post production) have to get as much value out of the shoot as the effort applied.

Maybe the company lets you keep the product afterwards (assuming that you or your talent have use for it). Maybe the company can offer you access to other resources that you would have to pay for otherwise. There are endless ways to work those angles. But first, you should look up the market value of the images you are about to produce and ascertain how the company is going to use them. They need to compensate you for the work at market value in tangible ways. Resist the temptation to discount the market prices, because you are new at shooting ‘X’. It doesn’t matter. You are a pro. You shoot for market rate, period.

Now we started this discussion because you are afraid nobody is going to hire and pay you to shoot ‘X’ when you have never shot ‘X’ before. In the end, it is about risk management. The company wants those images, but it is a safer bet for them to pay a photographer who they know can shoot ‘X’.

Another way to manage that risk is to eliminate risk for the company. If they are not on a tight timeline for the images, you could offer to shoot ‘X’ for them with a contract that stipulates that the company will pay you market rate for the images. However, the payment is contingent on the images turning out to their satisfaction. If you fail, they don’t owe you anything, but they also don’t get to keep the images. If you knock it out of the park, they pay full rate. Be firm on them not having the images either way, so they cannot play you. Get it in writing.

The other thing required is to be confident in your personality and your abilities. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you walk into a meeting with a confident, can-do attitude, and a personal brand that speaks of trust and accomplishment. Don’t mistake this for being cocky or arrogant, or overplaying your hand – that will not do you any favors. There is a very solid middle-ground between the artist fearful of not measuring up, and the overconfident, loud, and obnoxious creative.

Invest In Yourself

An image created through collaboration which Jan Klier used for Workbook 36. Win, Win!
An image created through collaboration which Jan Klier used for Workbook 36. Win, Win!

All the options discussed here so far were about how to get ‘X’ into your book by working with a company who needs images of ‘X’ and is able to pay market rate for them. There is, of course, the alternative of doing this as a personal project.

Doing so may require an investment on your part. You may have to pay for talent, stylists, props, location, and product to do the shoot. Consider for a moment that having these images in your book translates to tremendous future business opportunity. Those images have real value that is worth paying for in more than just your time and sweat. Why not pay to get just the right images into your book?

In business, the rule of thumb is that any company should invest 10% of its revenue in marketing once established, and an even bigger percentage during growth phases. If you run a $200K/yr commercial photography business, you should spend $20K throughout the year on marketing. That does not include the cost of doing business, such as your accountant fees or your studio lease. That 10% is for actual marketing, like promo mailers, email blasts, source book fees, etc.

So what if you took a portion of that marketing budget and funded Concept Projects that add new and different material, such as ‘X’, to your book? You may have to buy or rent the product, or pay a stylist who has methods of obtaining access. You also will have to pay the rest of your team. One of my recent concept projects had a self-funded budget of $4K. Ultimately, it will open new doors that are well worth my investment.

When you pay everyone, you get better talent choices and everyone will show up and be committed to the project. People getting paid have skin in the game. You have skin in the game. And you establish immediately how much value this type of work has, instead of setting an unsustainable bargain price that is hard to recover from.

Note that I called this a ‘Concept Project’, not a ‘Spec Project’. A ‘Concept Project’ is something that ultimately has no buyer. Spec work is funded by you, with the hope that you ultimately find a buyer. This distinction matters when you speak about this work to others. Spec work, just like free work, has pre-established negative connotations.

When you do Concept Projects, make sure that they don’t represent a specific brand. Otherwise, it will look like you shot for that brand, and this will be misleading or require a long explanation, both of which undermine the placement in your book.

Take your business seriously and invest into it! 


What Others Say

On the never-ending debate of free vs. paid work, here are two helpful references:

Seth Godin, master of putting complex issues into succinct posts wrote this several years on the topic: Should You Work For Free?

Rob Haggart at aPhotoEditor posted this flow-chart specific to photography: Thinking of Working For Free?


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