Saying No To Jobs And Getting Paid

This post by Andreas Bergmann explores some of the business aspects of being a photographer. Mainly, Should you work for free, and should you accept under paid jobs

Walking a tightrope

One of the hardest lessons to learn, and not only learn but accept and incorporate into your way of doing things, is that sometimes you just need to say no to jobs. For your own sake, for your client’s sake, and for your career’s sake. I think this is proportionally harder the earlier you are in your career as a photographer, and making these decisions can feel like walking a tightrope, but I sure would have benefited from someone sitting me down and telling me this a looooong time ago. So today we’re going to talk about saying no to jobs, and getting paid.

Before we get started tho, the subject require a disclaimer. I’ve spent a lot of time talking this over with photographers from my own local network, a whole bunch of photographers way up the food chain from me, and I’ve arrived at some thoughts I believe to be useful for most photographers, especially new ones. But, obviously this isn’t always true for everyone, so don’t take it as a recipe for success, take it as a bunch of thoughts and ideas you can build on and draw inspiration from in your own life as a photographer.

“That isn’t in our budget”

Stacks of gold

Imagine the following: Your price for doing a commercial shoot that will be published in X countries, in Y media over the next Z months is say… 2000 space bucks. It is completely irrelevant what any actual price would be, so we’re going with “space bucks” as the currency since I’m a sci-fi dork. Your client informs you that the budget for this shoot is only 500 space bucks, and eagerly awaits your reply. I’ve been in this type of situation more times than I can count, and the first myriad times it happened I was so dazzled by the fact that someone actually wanted to hire me, that I just said yes. I was sure that the next time the client had more money they’d come to me again, happy to be able to actually pay my actual salary this time. I was equally certain that the goodwill I had generated would really pay back over time. Unfortunately neither of those assumptions tend to be true.

Why saying yes might be a bad idea

  • In the mind of the client, your value is now 500 space bucks, and when they have 2000 space bucks for their next project, they’re gonna go with a photographer that is worth 2000 space bucks. They’re certainly not going to go with the one worth 500, and that my friend, is you. This isn’t some malicious intent from the client’s side, put yourself in their place. If you have 2000 space bucks for hiring a stylist, would you rather get a stylist that is worth 500 or 2000 space bucks?
  • You start acquiring a reputation for being easy to haggle down to 50% or 25% of your initial bid, which means that if your client-base is connected, which is true for most of us, every one will start doing it, and you’re gonna have a damn hard time changing that reputation. Especially in a business where word of mouth is so important.
  • The goodwill you might get, will not be the reputation as “that awesome photographer who sometimes takes jobs for almost nothing out of their good heart”, it’ll be a goodwill that is dependent on you being much cheaper than you’re worth, and that isn’t, in my experience, a goodwill that is useful for anything. The whole “I owe you one” thing will be out of politeness, not out of feeling that you’re actually owed one, because you still got paid. This is a crucial difference between compromising on your price, and sometimes doing jobs for free because you want too.
  • If you ever, at some point, want to start insisting on your prices, a lot of your former clients will be pissed off that you’re suddenly much more expensive than you used to be. Not only will that cost you financially, but it’ll very much cost you quality-of-life wise when you have to deal with a horde of disappointed people insisting on haggling with you.
  • You risk ending up feeling somewhat bitter at the job, because you know you’re not getting paid what the work is worth, and you’re still expected to deliver the quality of work you were hired for. I know this has happened to me more than once, and it really, really, really sucks because feeling bitter or annoyed at a client while shooting for them, has all sorts of negative impact on your performance as a photographer.
  • From a larger the-business-of-photography perspective you’re also fucking things up for every other photographer out there, especially new ones. Most established photographers do not just sell their ability to take an acceptable picture, but their vision, style, experience etc. So they’ll be fine. But if all aspiring photographers are in a massive race towards the bottom, you’re making the initial years so much harder for yourself and every one else.

Why saying no might be a good idea

  • In the mind of the client, you’re now worth 2000 space bucks, not a penny less, and if they ever need a 2000 space bucks photographer, they’ll have you in mind. Obviously your quality of work needs to match your price, this isn’t a magic way of convincing every one that you’re the new Chase Jarvis. But if you deliver work of the right quality, then you’ve solidified that your value is actually 2000 space bucks. If you want to do 2000 space bucks work, you need to solidify this with potential clients, not undermine it.
  • Your reputation wont suffer one bit. Yes, you might loose out on a 500 space buck job, but if you’re a 2000 space buck photographer, then you need to be a 2000 space buck photographer, not a 500 space buck one.
  • Nobody will be angry, offended or anything like that, there is nothing wrong with not having the budget for the product you’d like, and it certainly isn’t the products fault, if the product is priced fairly. You’re that product, and you’ll suffer no blame for this. If you’ve already compromised with the same client on the other hand, this might be an uphill battle, but it only gets worse the longer you postpone it.
  • Your sense of self-worth as a photographer will be much stronger, especially after you’ve gotten your first 2000 space buck job from a client you turned down. I promise!

The controversial alternative

So, like the elephant in a china store that I am, I’m going to walk right into the death-trap of very strongly held opinions that is working for free. I know this is a subject that really divides people, and I can totally appreciate the opposite view, but I think that aiming to work either for the price you’re worth, or for free, is better than compromising on your price, and here is why.

  • You will not be building a reputation as a 500 space bucks photographer, you’ll be, at worst, building one as a 2000 space bucks photographer that does free jobs sometimes, which is a much better place to be. As long as you don’t over do it.
  • You will be building actual goodwill, not goodwill dependent on your low prices. People will actually feel like they owe you one, and most people really want to pay back good deeds, so you might be able to use that resource down the line. This obviously depend on whether you do a free shoot for a poor theater friend who needs a press image, or for a huge corporation. I’d never, ever, advocate going free for someone you know has the money.
  • In my experience, people will not assume they can get you for the same price next time (free), because it is clear that this isn’t your price, it is a one off thing you do because you really like the project, so the chance that they will actually hire you when they have funds, is bigger than if you do it for half the price.

At this point I feel it is important to point out that I actually don’t think you should do a ton of free work, not at all. It can very quickly become eroding to both your business, and to the photography business as a whole. It quickly ends up being about as destructive to us all as most photography “competitions” are, but that is a post for another day. The main point I’m trying to get across is that if you’re going to accept compromising on your price, it might be a better idea to forfeit your price entirely, for the reasons above. I assume a lot of people will disagree with me on this, and I can appreciate the opposing views, so this isn’t at all a end-all be-all opinion, but it is where I stand on the subject for the time being, and I’ll be totally happy to debate it in the comments below, or in a private conversation via email. I’m always ready to be educated. Now, onwards to something less toxic.

How do you say no the right way

Warm friendly hug

So, you’ve decided to say no, now all you have to do is do it. I know all too well the creeping doubt, the voice that keeps going “I should just get those space bucks, they’re better than nothing” and all that. A lot of photographers, and other introverted artsy people, also just have a damn hard time not trying to please everyone, I damn sure have. You just have to learn to deal with those things. First of all, you’re not indebted to someone because they want to hire you. Secondly you’re not that different from any other product someone might want to acquire, and good luck trying to convince Nikon that they should sell you a bunch of D4′s for a quarter of the price. Now, what you need to get across is this:

“I’m sorry to hear that it doesn’t fit within your budget to hire me, but to provide the quality of images I do, that is my price. I do however look very much forward to working with you should the right project come along, and thank you very much for considering me.”

Obviously you need to word it how you word things, since you’re the one they’re talking to, but that is really how simple it is. Don’t apologize for your price, don’t apologize for yourself, don’t make long explanations of why your price is what it is, just say that it is. If you start explaining the details of your price, you’re inviting “But what if we don’t get an assistant along and also do it in this cheaper place with lesser gear” debates, and that isn’t productive for anyone. If you’re good at what you do, the price you’ve told your client is the best way to achieve the desired image, not some crazy bloated budget with leftover for riding a limousine around with 10 bottles of champagne after each workday.

If you know a photographer with lower prices than your own, it is always an awesome idea to refer your client to that photographer. Not only are you doing your client and the photographer a favor, you’ll also implicitly be building your status as someone knowledgeable in the field, so add that if possible.

Disagree?

I’m sure a lot of people will disagree with this, and I really hope you either comment down below or send me an email so we can have a nice debate about it. Like I said, I’m always open to being educated, and I’m always eager to get opposing views and arguments, in fact I savor it, because if the debate is on the ball and not just a lot of ad hominem and straw men, it will increase everyone’s understanding of the subject.

About The Author

Andreas Bergmann is a commercial photographer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow his work on his blog or his Facebook. This post was originally published here.

  • Rick

    Accepting space bucks??? Yeah, like that will ever cause anybody to value your work. Any sensible sci-dork photographer would never accept anything less than latinum as it can’t be counterfeited and doesn’t tend to lose value like Altairian dollars. (And don’t even get me started on what a farce galactic credits have become.)

  • http://www.birgitengelhardt.de/ Birgit Engelhardt

    So true! I also made the experience that working for a bit makes your work worth less. Too many times already, though I’m still studying (design, though). It’s something one needs to learn – and then be reminded of it from time to time!

  • Andreas_Bergmann

    Birgit Engelhardt, yeah, I feel like I’m constantly walking a thin line in this matter, because there are a lot of really cool projects that I really want to take part in, but I mean.. I also have to pay rent and like… at least pretend to think a little about my future and all that :P And awesome that you’re studying design, do you have a portfolio one can check out?

    Rick Oooooooh, damn you got me there, latinum bars would obviously have been the right choice here. I mean… we all know rule 102. And lets not even pretend that galactic credits are even part of any sci-dorkyness. I mean sure, they come from a nice fantasy world that happens to take place in a sci-fi setting, but to call it sci-fi still somewhat offends my senses.

  • Robert

    Thanks for the wise post. I needed to hear that I’m not indebted to people just because they want to hire me…

    • Robert

      Oh and find me at robertboscacci.com!

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Yeah, this is an important emotional thing to get over. I mean I TOTALLY get the whole “OMGOMGOMG someone wants to hire me” thing, because the first many times it feels like a damn rainbow being shot straight at you, but you really aren’t. You’re simply a service someone wants to purchase, and if they can’t afford you, so be it.

      On a side-note,I like your reel, and your website. The website is clean, professional looking and very nice, and the reel is cool. Also you need some cudos for going “I’m a cinematography student” instead of “I’m a cinematographer”. I think straightforwardness and honesty, which I guess ends up meaning integrity, is a super important thing in both business and art. So dude, props!

  • Joe

    You forgot to mention those jobs that come along where you work for free but get ‘a great free marketing opportunity and we might use you again in the future’. Avoid like the plague and tell your friends about their crappy behaviour.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      You’re totally right, I should have pointed those specific jobs out because the amount of time you hear “but we have a great gig coming up down the road” is just astounding, and they SHOULD be avoided like the plague, with the polite reply “I’m so sorry I’m not within your budget for this project, but thank you for considering me and feel free to contact me for your next project” :) Thank you for pointing this out!

      • Joe

        Thanks! Depending on the circumstances I will offer my services for free but certainly not to a for-profit company that offers nothing in return except promises. I always say, If you are dealing with a business act like a business, they would not give me something for free so why should I give them something for free.
        It can be hard to convince students of the merits of this argument but they soon learn one way or another…

        • Andreas_Bergmann

          Exactly, it is much better to pick some specific projects and offer free work for those, like a brilliant non-profit thing that is aligned with your ideals of being an awesome human being, or a project that you know will be awesome creatively or some such thing. But the whole “you’ll get exposure” thing from businesses is about as toxic to the photography ecosystem as most photography “competitions” where the winner gets her or his picture bought for an ad campaign. Also known as “getting 1000 photographers to work for free, while paying only 1″

  • Carl Wells

    This has been a fantastic article and I just wanted to add my 2c or .02 space dollars as it were.
    If you are doing something for free let them know what that quality of work is ‘worth’. They then know #1,you do charge for such work (you are a professional rather than an amateur photographer) and #2 will refer you or use you again with that figure in mind.

  • http://twitter.com/ralphhightower Ralph Hightower

    The only problem with looking for them to pay for a 2000 space buck project is that your budget may actually be, for you, and 8000 space buck budget. Do you take the 2000 space buck project?

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      I’m not entirely sure I understand what you’re saying here, but as long as we’re not talking galactic credits then we’re good, I think ;)

  • donall26

    I agree, it all boils down to self worth and what you perceive it to be, great article.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      thank you so much, and yeah, at a very basic level it does totally boil down to your personal sense of self-worth. Which I guess is something most artistic people often fight with, when it comes to their work.

  • Africashot

    I wish I had read this before I had to learn it the hard way!

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Haha, me too! Which is why I wrote it ;) Figured it might spare a poor soul or two out there the same bs I had to go through to correct the situation.

  • Prexx Photography

    As a starting out photographer, I’ve experienced what is described here and I struggle with it every day.
    I definitely agree with this article and it’s no doubt it is a valuable lesson.
    Thank you =)

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Oh hey, I think most, if not all, of us have banged our head against this wall a million times over. And the ridiculous amount of doubt you have after saying no can be frustrating as hell. But yeah, a pleasure to share, and while I don’t think the struggle with yourself will ever be over (well, getting a producer to filter contacts definitely helps, but still) I can guarantee you that with time and self-confidence as a photographer, it becomes less frustrating to deal with :)

      • Editorwoman

        I am a veteran freelance journalist in the U.S. and much of your article is applicable to my field. I had been thinking of saying “no” to a project because the client continues to try to get more for less from me with each consecutive assignment. Now I am sure I will walk away from this “opportunity”. On-line publications are having an especially difficult time monetizing their sites by selling advertisements and as their initial venture capital money dries up and investors clamor for a return on their investment it is the paid editors and freelance journalists who get squeezed.

        • Andreas_Bergmann

          Yeah, the squeeze usually travels down the chain pretty fast. I see many photographers assistants getting squeezed even harder when the photogs get the squeeze, but it has to stop somewhere if we’re going to stop it turning into like… a hobby :)

  • Jordan

    Great article, but next time just use dollars, reading “space bucks” every few lines really got annoying.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      Well, since I’m from Denmark I would have used Kroner, which I’m sure would have confused more people than space bucks :P I think I did it to try and avoid any debate about actual prices since they vary so much, but none the less thanks for the feedback, I’ll consider involving less sci-fi dorkery next time ;)

  • disqus_81ixdF2SJ3

    a. ‘Your price for doing a commercial shoot that will be published in X countries, in Y media over the next Z months is say… 2000 space bucks’

    b.’Your client informs you that the budget for this shoot is only 500 space bucks, and eagerly awaits your reply.’

    There is a continuum of abilities of 1). photographers, 2). what is deemed acceptable image. As long as the client is able to find the right match, everyone is happy. What I do see are 2000 SB photographers bitching about the 500 SB photographers accepting the job.

    Great article about how to position yourself in the industry, but please remember, others may position themselves differently and still satisfy the client.

    G

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      This is very very good point, and one I think is a failing on my part to point out, so thank you very much for bringing it up. It is important to realize that there will always be photographers that are more or less skilled, and more or less expensive, than you. And if your price is 2000 SB, then you won’t get the 500 SB jobs. So yeah, you’re absolutely right.

      I don’t see this as a problem per se, the situation, but more something you should be aware of. If you want to earn 2000 SB you need to be at a level where you deliver something that can’t be delivered by the 500 SB photographer, which in the end is a good thing for the industry, the client and photography in general… I think. But that’s a gut reaction so I might be wrong ;) I often am :P

  • ikke

    Reading all this, I start more and more questioning if only the dutch market is so critically ill or that I know the wrong persons. I decided not to walk the market-path a long time ago (even though everyone is saying I should), but some of my friends did. They’re work is excellent, but still they’re struggling. Even for half the price they barely get hired. They say there are simply to many people with camera’s fishing in the same pond. According to one, it’s not ‘what you’re worth’ anymore, but ‘what you can get’. Everyone know’s someone with a camera and with the ‘greedy dutchmen’ in crisis, the quality doesn’t get much attention anymore. Are there more country’s where the market is so over-saturated?

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      I think this is a pretty multifaceted question, and a very good one, but I’m going to sort of split my answer up into parts.

      1: I think the market is more saturated at some levels of photography everywhere. As I see it the bar to entry has been lowered significantly with the advent of digital becoming something most people have access to. On the other hand, this saturation has raised the bar to entry into paying-my-rent level work significantly, which makes a lot of people struggle. I also think it is very much dependent on which part of the market you’re in. A lot of small businesses now have someone employed that can take “decent” pictures so a lot of low level corporate headshot jobs, corporate event jobs etc. have disappeared. these factors mixed together means that some levels and parts of the market are _really_ hard to compete in.

      2: I think in this market competing too heavily on price is a dead-end. Obviously you can’t insist on doing your level of work for 2000 SB if everyone is doing the same work for 500, but I think there are other ways of dealing with this than entering the race towards the bottom. Figure out what makes you special, what makes your work unique, what you deliver that noone else does, and specialize. For instance, I’ve ended up being really good with people, like, really good, I can make the most weirded out intimidated awkward person relax in front of the camera, this is a niche for me, it means that I’m talked about in that way, this separates me from being just a technically competent portraiture photographer, without me needing to rise to the creative level Leibovitz (working on that tho ;) ). I also grew up around theatre and circus, I’ve been looking at it all my life, I know when a contemporary circus artist is about to do a drop, a stand or whatever, this means that in my area I’m probably one of the best photographers at capturing “that moment” in stage-art photography, this is also a niche. I’m not, AT ALL, the BEST photographer in my area, nowhere near it. I mean we have people like Helle Moos around here :P but I think it is more productive to think specialization and “my style” “my niche” etc. than “compete on price” alone.

      3: No matter how we twist and turn the experience of less-work available, or it being hard to start earning a living, there IS a need for beautiful photography, and as far as I can tell even more so now than ever before. And while some parts of the market have gone and died, a lot of other ones have opened up, so from more of an attitude stand point, I don’t think it is as bad as some people make it out to be. The market has changed a lot over the past 10 or so years, but I don’t think it has dwindled that much, just shifted. So I guess the final advice is, which is an echo of much more informed and better photographers than me, specialize, work harder, get better and keep pushing :P I still have months where paying the rent sucks because it basically means 2 weeks of spaghetti and ketchup, but I also have good months, and they’re getting more common, so I have faith :)

      That said, I know nothing about the dutch market specifically, so… take everything I just posted with a grain of salt ;)

  • Matt Strader

    Always felt that costs for some videos are way too much. 2000K for a wedding video is stupid-ridiculous. Say all the hot air you want to, no wedding video is worth 2000 dollars. If you charge that you’re a pirate no ifs ands or buts about it. You can’t rationalize that much money and it’s probably why so many folks in the biz are hurting. They’re too stupid to realize that people are wising up and telling us to F. off, they’ll go to Best Buy, buy a really good HD camera, and DIY their own video. And I can’t blame them. I’d do the same thing if I wasn’t a video producer. All that being said I’m referring to Wedding videos and less. I’m not aiming this at the people that do local commercials or higher for business that make way more money than you charge for a video. Don’t get me started on Wedding Still Photogs. What a pirate racket that is.

    • Andreas_Bergmann

      I have no idea about american prices to be honest. Converted it is 12000 (app) danish kroner, which taking the time I’d spend editing the video, my relative experience etc. into consideration, doesn’t sound completely off-base, but then we have completely different costs of living, taxes etc. here, so yeah… besides “interesting”, I’m not sure I can add anything really meaningful ;) thanks for the comment none-the-less, and I’ll certainly agree that some photogs, as in all other businesses, demand too much compared to what they deliver, but my life is too short to care much about them :)