Photo Darwinism: Things Your Mother Never Told You

Jul 14, 2015

Stanley Rowin

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Photo Darwinism: Things Your Mother Never Told You

Jul 14, 2015

Stanley Rowin

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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They lost me at the “Cost of Doing Business” calculator.

You know, the formula everyone starts you out with: Your overhead expenses + desired salary = your total annual cost ÷ number of billable days = your CODB.

No matter how many times I played with it, the number of billable days that I desired was never as high as the number of days I actually worked. My desired salary never approached by my actual salary. So the calculator failed me. Lots of stuff they taught me in those photo business seminars failed me. I had to find a better way to price my work and survive as a new photographer.

I had a marketing and sales background that I could use as an advantage. If you don’t come to photography with my background, I suggest that you start by learning as much as you can from the established pro-photo business blogs and forums. Most are free and probably just as good as paying a lot of money to sit through a seminar. On the other hand, paying for a seminar might be worth it if you tend to drift into “multitasking” while reading at a computer.

In this series of short posts I’ll deconstruct what they tell you in those seminars and give you some of you guidance on how to survive as an independent freelance photographer in the 21st Century.

The blogs and seminars are good at teaching basic business information, like accounting and marketing skills. Much is common sense, like: “follow up with a phone call.” Keep in mind that a lot of what they teach is not hard science, but theory, based on a perfect world. And unfortunately there is one variable that most of these theories don’t account for: human behavior. Also, very few are good at telling you how to actually set your fees, which is what you really need to know.

How does my dry cleaner know how much to charge to clean a suit? How does my local farmer’s market producing “designer tomatoes” know how much to charge for a tomato? Amazingly, after millions of dollars spent on the business training of photographers, people are still clueless about fees and rights.


Beginning professionals are rarely told that taking the picture is the easy part of the photo business. For the majority of you, finding work and making a sustainable living at photography will be the hard part.

“Retail” photographers, portrait and wedding photographers, who deal directly with consumers, have their own issues, which we will not be covering here. We will be dealing with the unique issues that face independent freelance photographers.

Annie Leibovitz, David Lachapelle, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, Herb Ritts, Mark Seliger and a few other photographers have been able to create a “brand” for their work. People hire them as much to be swept into their “glow,” as for their talent. Chances are you are not currently in their league or approaching their stature. Let’s be generous and assume that 15% of all pro photographers are near their stature. That leaves the rest of us 85% in the center of a bell curve.

Let’s be generous again and say that the majority of the people in the center of the curve are good, competent professionals. We can successfully deliver almost any photo asked of us. In the Boston metro area, where I live, I estimate there are over 500 photographers all going after the same work I am. Few of us want to be known as “hacks” that deliver generic images. Unfortunately, what we feel is irrelevant. What the client and market perceives is what is relevant. So how can we stand apart from the crowd? How do I determine my prices?

The day I decided to move photography from a passion to my profession, I realized I had no knowledge of certain things like: how to use a view camera, load a Hasselblad and how much to charge. They only give general pricing info at those pro-photo business seminars. The local trade association had pricing seminars, but the resulting fees, where photographers would do mock assignment bidding, were all over the place.

Rather than going to school, I chose to assist established photographers. They paid me to learn. The people I worked for were open with me about fees, usage and copyrights. This is probably the best way for beginners to get actual local pricing. Another way is by asking clients. When you don’t get an assignment, call back and try to find out the price they are paying, and to whom. Also use your common sense and learn some negotiating skills. Whenever I give a price, and the client says yes with no hesitation, I immediately think my price was too low. When they moan, or have to get back to me, I know I’m in the correct ballpark.

The wrong way to price is to use a generic formula, like the Cost of Doing Business Calculator. This will tell you if you can pay yourself a salary, but not what you should charge. Occasionally experienced professionals will work for a rate below their CODB in order to get certain assignments. They just won’t discuss it. You might also find that when economy goes bad, pros with big fixed overhead expenses start lowering their prices to just to pay their bills. They just won’t advertise it.

Eventually I learned another rule of Pro-Photo Economics, the one no one dares speak about: Commoditization.


No matter how hard we professional photographers fought, when the clock ticked into the 21st Century, our old business models started to fall apart. We fought against, and were unprepared for, the onslaught of micro-stock, pro-am digital cameras operated by talented amateurs and the resulting commoditization of photography. It’s not that the value of the image is reduced. In fact photography is valued more now than ever. It’s just that the majority of people needing photos now don’t want to pay what we pros once charged for them. The “download it free” mentality spilled over from music to photos. The music industry’s business models eventually evolved, but new, profitable e-commerce solutions never developed for photographers.

This had a minimal effect on high-end advertising and editorial work. And if you are in the top 15% of the industry, you probably can continue to get premium pricing for your work.

But 85% of us seem to be dealing with new pricing models that we are unprepared for. Formerly we were able to license images by asking the client to prepay a fee based on the difficulty of the shot and the circulation of a printed page, whether or not anyone actually saw the page.

When paper started to disappear and electronic communication took over, that pricing model met resistance.

Now clients are asking to pay a percentage of what we previously asked for, because there are no current royalty guidelines for online use of imagery. Actually there were pricing guidelines for stock imagery, before iStockPhoto changed that world. There are new royalty arrangements being developed in the music, movie and video businesses, but none for the photography business.

The middle-of-the-curve photographers have new issues that we haven’t had to deal with before. An over abundance of people trying to get their photography published, easier ways to publish photos, photo buyers inundated with imagery, and reduced income per picture, just to name just a few.

So how should photographers market themselves now? The same as before: with unique images of high quality. But how do they get those images seen through the clutter? And what type of client will pay a premium for quality, and which are paying for just “good enough?”


At one time the Internet was going to be the “Great Leveler.” Small companies would be able to play on level playing fields with the large multinationals, thanks to smart web search engines like HotBot, Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos and later, Google. Unique photo stock libraries were going to suddenly be noticed thanks to the “long tail” of the Internet. Then things changed and a new reality set in. Micro and free stock photos killed the resale of generic photo imagery and eventually started to erode the pricing of assignment photography. And we are in the midst of a two new revolutions. The Internet didn’t change the fact that large companies could consolidate and hinder the ability of small companies to be seen. And there’s the The Grand Convergence, which we will address later.

So how do the middle-of-the-pack photographers get their work shown, and more importantly, how do they get assignments? For years people told photographers not to view their work as commodities. And for the top 15% of the industry they were correct. The top shooters can “brand” their work and their reps can get a premium price. Unfortunately the middle-of-the-pack should have viewed their work as commodities and learned to market their work as such. None of us wants to think of our work as generic, but in reality, clients view most of us as interchangeable. The sooner you learn how to deal with this, the better the chance you can succeed in this middle pack.

First learn how they sell soap.

“In this recession, we learned consumers are looking for value,” said a VP at Dial Soap “but ‘value’ doesn’t mean just low price.”

If you have to sell your photo services in the middle-of-the-pack (and most of us do have to SELL our services), your clients have to be shown that you are giving them a better value, meanwhile you have to create an income stream high enough to earn a living. That’s the key to survival in the middle-of-the-pack. “Proof of value” might mean more to the client than the quality of images.

You can pay a marketing adviser a lot of money to figure this out for you. Or you could learn to market yourself by talking with clients, people who did, and more importantly didn’t hire you, relatives and friends who can be objective about your work.

But still, how do you get your work see through all the noise?

Generalization, Segmentation and Specialization and Search Engine Optimization

I started out as a still-life product photographer. When more than half of my clients went out of business in a previous recession (Polaroid was my largest client), I realized it was time to re-market myself. I started to mail targeted mailers of editorial portraits to national magazines. I continued to send targeted product portfolio mailers to companies needing products shot. I didn’t let the magazine clients know that I was actually a generalist. They thought I specialized in editorial portraiture.

Meanwhile the Internet came along and I created specific sites that were aimed at targeted markets. The sites used search engine optimized techniques to turn up at the top of specific searches.

For instance, a few years ago I started to realize that I was getting a lot of calls from attorneys to do their headshots. They were willing to pay premium fees because they had the money, and I showed them the value I added to a headshot. The word of mouth grew and I thought I’d add a specialty of lawyer headshots to my portfolio. But I didn’t want it to dilute my normal portfolio. So I bought and had a designer do the pages aimed for their specific market.

Meanwhile I have an editorial portfolio at and a small product portfolio at It’s all about the marketing of soap and what they call “shelf space.” In my case the shelf space is on Google’s searches. Simple math states that only 10 people can fit in the top 10 for each listing. If I get 3 of them, that’s three fewer competitors on that first page.

So am I a specialist or a generalist? Yes, both, especially if it increases my income.

You should continue to use the time-honored mailers, and phone calling. But you should figure out how clients use search engines to find new talent, especially out-of-town clients. Type in your city followed by the word “photographer” and also test “photographers.” Then try a search with your specialty and those two words. For instance: “YourCity Corporate Photographers”

Are you on the first page? Who is? How did they get there? So go out and buy the URL “Yourcity-Corporate-Photographer” and stick a website on it already.

Another thing you might see is that some leads from Google are more about bargain price, than quality. Some of the leads that come from search engines and photo portfolio portals are capable of paying the higher prices. This is when your negotiating technique will be tested.

If for some reason you constantly get low price requests, try to analyze what search terms were used to get to your page. There are easy ways to track this by looking at the raw data in your “hit logs.”

The Grand Convergence

At one time your phone was plugged into the wall by a wire and your TV signal came through the air. Now that’s reversed. The iPad is blurring the distinction between a TV program and a magazine. Magazines now deliver video through their iPad and smart phone portals. Check your local TV or radio station’s website. In the US they are starting to look like newspaper websites (see or

It seems that media as we know it is converging. At this point, no one knows who will be the final controller of media. Just as AOL or Earthlink once probably provided you your Internet access, now your cable or phone company probably does. In a decade, who will supply your Internet content? How will you find your content? Will broadcast TV disappear because of it’s rigid scheduling, or will it find a market like movie theaters have. They are re-marketing themselves now more as social events than simply viewing events.

Just as Google, your Internet provider, movie producers and TV networks are posturing to decide who will decide the future of media, photographers have to decide if they want a piece of this larger market. Eventually most imagery will be published electronically. Should you add video? Or is it even more competitive, with higher capital expenses?

Who will be deciding your future business model and fee structure in this next decade? Individual photographers in the 85% of the curve won’t have much say. Who is speaking for you?

About The Author

Stan Rowin lives and works in the Boston Metro area. His work spans a variety of subjects from nuclear power plants to athletic shoes, surgery to bank annual reports, iconic scientists to ironic musicians. You can visit his various sites by clicking the list below:

This post was also published here, it is © Stanley Rowin and shared with permission.

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We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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