It’s not for me to say!

Some of you are amateurs, and some are pros, and some would like to be pros. And when I say “pros”, I mean not “people who know how to make photos” (many hobbyists are good shooters), but “people who engage in photography for a living”.

Teaching in Timmins

Michael Willems Teaching in Timmins

“Should I go into business?”, people ask me.

That is becoming very difficult. There are many reasons for this: everyone has a camera now. iPhones make acceptable pictures. The perception is that if you have a big camera, you know how to make pictures. And that cameras “do it all, automatically” now. And Uncle Fred will work 48 hours for credit, for no pay. As a result, photographers who shoot for a living are having trouble getting paying clients. Or are getting laid off.

But there is another reason, too. Many of us are afraid to ask for proper money.

Take an on-location family portrait. It will take me at least five hours to do one – counting the hours spent packing, driving, setting up, shooting, taking down, driving, loading, editing, exporting, making USB keys, billing, and so on. Five hours at my hourly rate of $125 is $625, plus tax. Now perhaps I can cut corners, do it more quickly, and include less, but it’ll still be hundreds of dollars.

When I recently had a client query, the lady thought it was “disgusting” that this would cost a few hundred dollars. I have been told “ripoff” to my face more than once. A certain PR company last year asked me to do food shots in a restaurant: budget: $50 (my price was around $2,000).  The sad thing is that they got someone to do it for that $50. Not well, I am sure, and undoubtedly he will have had to spend the same hours I did, or more, but he was perhaps a hobbyist delighted to be “given credit”. I have been asked for family pictures four times this month; each time, after cost is discussed, the potential client has gone away never to return. The perception seems to be that a family shoot should cost $100, and prints $1 each. Instead, it’s more like here, and those prices certainly don’t make a photographer rich.

Now let’s compare. A car service costs me hundreds or thousands of dollars for a few hours work. I went to a vet yesterday with my cats: time taken by vet and staff perhaps half an hour, of which perhaps half was vet time; cost: $183.06. See a plumber or a psychologist or a dental hygienist, and it will cost you hundreds of dollars. No-one argues or complains or shouts “ripoff”.

Much of the problem is with photographers themselves. New photographers, who will “do it for credit”, and photographers who are unable to explain the value of their work. I have as much value as the vet. Value is simply a measure of expressing scarcity, of course, and what I provide is scarce:

  • Extensive knowledge.
  • Years of experience.
  • Creative insight and ability.
  • Extensive problem solving ability.
  • $30,000 of equipment.
  • Fast lenses, not consumer lenses.
  • Fast, water-sealed cameras.
  • Six speedlights and four studio strobes, not “a flash”.
  • A car full of accessories.
  • Business ability (contracts, invoices, and so on).
  • Reliability.
  • Computer equipment, software and skills.
  • Printing ability and skills.
  • Speedy delivery.
  • People skills.
  • Spares for everything.

…the list goes on. Here, this is just my flash accessories bag:

And here’s part of the location shoot equipment to be packed before a shoot:

So what I provide is scarce, and hence I will not do work for less than a reasonable hourly fee, and I expect there is still a market of people who will pay that reasonable fee.

But if we are not good at explaining the value we provide, I fear professional photography will die.  The picture above was taken at a yacht club, where I spent many weeks making great pictures: I figured people who can afford hundreds of thousands for a boat can afford a few hundred dollar for a large, handmade, permanent artistic print to look at during our long Canadian winters. Alas, only one yacht owner bought a print, and at a discount. Many of you will have said “amazing picture” when seeing the shot above. Liking a picture is fine, but if that liking does not translate into paying, the liking means very little.

The result is simple: as a society, we will no longer have artistic pictures of our boats or our families. Instead, we will have many iPhone snapshots. That is a huge artistic loss, but it is not for me to say whether overall this is good or bad. Many photographers complain; blame society; blame Uncle Fred; blame new photographers for ‘spoiling the market’. But I think these blame games are not productive.

Instead, new photographers, you need to find your niche. For me, I will simply use my skills for those who do see the value, and I will teach, and write (that way, at least society keeps some skills alive).  Making quality shots for people who know quality, and teaching and writing, are very rewarding. As are family shoots and weddings, including destination weddings.

So, Oakville and world: I am open for business! You will not get $2 prints or $100 half-day shoots; but you will get efficiency, enthusiasm. artistic work, inspired teaching, and above all: world-class quality in all I do.

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11 thoughts on “It’s not for me to say!

  1. Some have no problem wasting $200 on a night out drinking and clubbing, but won’t spend that amount on a session that will produce photos to last much longer than a cheap buzz.

    Very good post, well said!

  2. While I can’t AFFORD to pay several hundred $$ for a photo shoot, I certainly understand that were I to pay that, it would have been worth it. What kills me are the $50 prints, or $1000 for the digital rights to the family or wedding photos. On top of the $500 for the shoot. I’ll pay for their time, or I’ll pay for the photos. But I hate it when they try to gouge you on both!

    (We had a friend do our wedding. He is professional, but mostly has a sports niche. We offered to pay him, but he did it as a wedding gift. We will gladly pay him to do our family portraits until the end of time!)

    • Your use of the word “gouge” suggests you think you’re being taken advantage of. Do you have any idea how long it takes to make a professional print, and how much the paper, ink and printer cost? Any idea how much the photographer is making? When I do the math, it’s less than half of what a dental hygienist makes. Am I worth less than that? Really? That’s “gouging”?

    • You may want to ask your friend how long he spent on the wedding. I mean altogether. In total. Preparing. Packing. Driving. Shooting all day. Unpacking. Loading. Editing. Saving. Burning. A wedding well done takes a full week to do. 40 hours x $100 per hour = $4,000 and up. May seem like gouging to you, but it’s not. Ask him how much his equipment cost – the camera fairy dropped the $30,000 of equipment in his home? Ask him how long he spent learning. Etc.

  3. I am a beginner as far as photography and don’t anticipate having the time or resources to develop it to a professional level. With that said, if I were to ever charge someone, I would need to know what the market would bear, not necessarily what I would like to earn to compensate me for the time and resources spent getting to a professional level.

    I repair computers part time. I have a brother who does the same. We are at about the same level of competency and experience. He asks for, and rarely gets, a rate twice of what I ask for and get. He also lives in a much different market. I have had to adjust my rates to what the local market will support, even though I’ve been told countless times that I should charge more. I could charge at a comparable rate to the “big box” stores with their in-house techs (ironically, less competent, usually), but I would have fewer customers.

    So, in order to have any business at all, I must adapt. My skills may be worth more, my experience may be worth more, but if nobody will pay what they’re worth, I must charge what they will pay. Or they will pay nothing.

    • In principle, that’s true up to a point. But only in principle, and only up to a point.

      In practice, if it means the market will only bear the equivalent of minimum wage, well, then creative people will simply no longer engage in photography. Which may well be what happens, if people consider pricing “gouging”.

      My camera and lenses alone cost $20,000. Canon may or may not be ” gouging”, but that’s the fact. Pricing must pay for that. You repair computers, eh. Imagine you need a data scope worth $50,000 to do your work, and you need many years to learn your skill. Then, you find the market bears minimum wage. You’d not be doing it, would you? And that is what will happen to professional photography. It’ll go away as a skill, if its price is considered gouging.

      You work for an hour on a computer: it takes you an hour. I shoot for an hour: it takes me four hours. Imagine that in your case. Now are you still happy to charge what you charge?

  4. When you hire a professional photographer you pay for a creative session then pay for the products you need or want. You are not paying for their time, but you are paying them for their “vision” or “opinion.” Not the paper, not their time, not the equipment, etc

  5. I would agree that I hear more photographers complaining that the market has taken a nose dive as far as what their clients are willing to pay. However, I can not disagree with the complete logic that if people are not willing to pay for exceptional quality, the people providing it will evaporate. Yet those which are truly providing a quality of service and product will survive it … but only if they properly identify customers that share an appreciation for getting it right. The others will degrade into an abyss of pricing down to get the business and that is a race to the bottom. There is absolutely no argument that it takes skill, equipment, knowledge, to really get it right… attract the customers that share those values to survive.

    • True, Patrick – but it is a numbers game. Of course the art wil survive, and so will photographers, in the same way that saddle-makers and calligraphers have – I am sure there must be at least two or three calligraphers in North America.

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