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I recently had a mail exchange with David Sumner in Melbourne, Australia in which we discussed the apprehension that photographers starting out sometimes feel when handing over photographs to their clients. David said “I develop this fear that nobody will like the images and I’m almost afraid to charge a fee just in case”. I offered some advice that I thought I’d like to share with you today, and would like to thank David for the thought provoking communication and allowing me to use this as the basis for today’s Podcast.
It’s Only Natural
The first thing I’d like to say is that it’s natural to feel nervous about the client’s reaction to the images from a shoot. I recently read a blog post by Joe McNally in which Joe talks about this apprehension while waiting for word back from his assignment clients, and Joe is one of the best photographer’s in the world. The point is though, people worry about this, regardless of what rung of the professional ladder you are perched on. That said this fear of rejection can be so great, that it prevents a budding photographer from taking on any assignments at all. It can be paralyzing, and that’s not a good thing either.
Assuming that you have a good grasp the techniques and skills that you require, you have the vision to create good photographs, and you have a desire to make some money at photography, here are some things for you to think about as you prepare to charge for your work.
Charge with Confidence
Firstly, do not feel guilty for charging for, or even just wanting to charge for your work. If someone likes your work enough to have approached you to do a shoot for them, it means you are doing most things right already. If they want the photographs, and you decide not to do it, because you feel bad about charging, then the money will go to another photographer, and you will not grow as a photographer. You have to get over this apprehension, and I’m going to offer some advice and methods to help you do so. How you proceed is up to you.
Personally, when I decided to start doing paid assignment work, I was confident in my ability to either nail the shoot with my current skills, or being able to quickly learn the additional skills necessary to confidently take on the work. I have not yet overstretched myself, but if I got close to doing that, I’d probably employ one of the strategies we’ll talk about shortly. Basically though, when you can interact with a possible client with confidence, it becomes so much easier to talk about money. This is always helped of course by being able to show a portfolio of images that will help to convince your client that you are up to the task.
I’ve done some work without a relevant portfolio though. I got the jobs based on the work that I already had out there, and a bit of a leap of faith on the client’s part. I’m possibly even a little over confident though, and some people aren’t prepared to put themselves in that position without a little something extra to help them on their way.
Practice Makes Perfect
One thing you can do of course is to try to emulate the shoot that you are being asked to do, if possible even before you say yes to the client. For example, if you are asked to do a family portrait shoot, ask your brother or sister or friends families if you can practice on them. For family shots of course you would likely not be charging, but you’d gain invaluable experience shooting family portraits. If you are required to shoot the family indoors, using say strobes and umbrellas or soft-boxes, you have to make a decision as to whether or not you are prepared to invest in this equipment beforehand. If you can, pick up what you will need, and practice the hell out of it. Use Internet resources like the Strobist Web site, and again, practice with your own family or a friend’s, and build enough confidence to be able to go back to your potential client and say “yes, I’d love to work with you on this project” and start to negotiate a price. The amount you charge of course will depend on where you live, and the saturation of the market in your area. It will also depend on your own skills of course, so because we’re really talking about you getting started here, you do not want to falsely inflate your prices. Quote what you know other pros in the area are charging.
If having practiced the sort of photography you’re being asked to do, you still don’t feel that you coming up with the goods, I suggest you turn the assignment down. You might simply need more time to develop the skills required. If you feel that your getting the images, and you have maybe been able to get some feedback on the work from a friend that you can trust to tell you that the photos stink if they did, then we’re probably back to the point that David is in that you are now simply afraid to charge for fear that the client won’t like the images you shoot. The chances are that the Client will love the images, but just based on that, you still aren’t prepared to negotiate a price.
Work For Free, On Your Terms
I always maintain that total honesty is the best practice. Try talking to the client. They can either trust you and go with your proposal, or decide to ask another photographer. If the latter, just take this as a sign that you need to develop your skills and in turn confidence further, and turn this into motivation. Don’t let the rejection hurt you, after all you were just being honest. You will have earned the Client’s trust, and that may come back to you in a positive form at a later date.
If the client is open to your ideas, explain that although you are confident in your photography skills, you don’t feel that you have enough experience in the type of work they are requesting you to do, to take it on as a paid assignment. You could either offer to do the work at a reduced rate of say 50% or even 25%, just to cover your costs. I’m a strong believer in getting something for your time, but it does not necessarily have to be a direct monetary payment. If part of your problem is that you simply do not have a portfolio of images in the line that the client is looking for, offer to do the work in exchange for access to subjects that you might otherwise not be able to photograph. As payment, you could ask that the client arranges to get a model or property release signed, allowing you to use the images you shoot in your future marketing or even to sell the work for commercial use. This would put you in a position to possibly make something for the shoot after all.
Only If You Initiate It
Note that I only support working for free if it is you that initiates it. If someone comes to you from the start, saying that they want you to shoot for them, but they can’t pay you, think long and hard before accepting. The chances are that this sort of client will never have any money to pay you, and you’ll just become their photographer lackey. You could even get a reputation as the guy that works for nothing, and then other clients would start to call on you to work for nothing, which you obviously don’t want to happen. Ideally you’ll walk away from this kind of offer, unless the work will greatly enhance your portfolio, and the client is willing to help get model releases signed etc. In that case, then you make the call, but read on to see what you have to do to stop yourself from becoming the photo-lackey.
The only reason you are going to do the job for free or for a greatly reduced fee, is because you want to build your confidence and your portfolio. You should draw up an assignment contract as you would if you were going to charge. This shows the client that you are serious and prepared. You should even include the fees that you would charge if you were going to, but then write that off with a 100% discount, and state why you are doing so. You should also include a statement to cover the fact that the client will sign a model or property release that will allow you to use the resulting images in your marketing or even to sell commercially. Draw up your model releases as a separate document and get them signed, before the shoot, if possible.
Limit Free Shoots to Three
Remember that every shoot you do to build your own business, is taking money out of the pocket of other photographers. To avoid this becoming a habit, or a way for you to overcome your own lack of confidence, decide on the number of free shoots you do, before taking this route. You could give yourself say three shoots to build the confidence that you require, and to build a small portfolio to base your future marketing and negotiations on. Promise yourself that you will start to charge from the fourth shoot, and stick to it. If a client that you worked for free for comes back to you requesting another free session, point out the undiscounted rate that you wrote in your agreement for the first job, and tell them that you are now confident that you can do the work professionally, and are now charging for your services. If they don’t come up with the cash, walk away from the negotiation.
The Pressure Stays On
Of course, just because you’ve decided that this will be practice for you, you should not allow yourself to take the pressure off. Your client has thought enough of your work to ask you to do the shoot in the first place, so you should not let them down. All of the best practices that would usually be followed should be followed. Have a pre-shoot session with the client to fully understand their requirements. Create a check-list of shots that they require, adding any ideas that you pre-visualize yourself, assuming the schedule has the flexibility for a little extra shooting.
Make sure that all of your gear is in good working order. Have a backup camera body and make sure that your cameras’ sensors are clean. Make sure that you have more than enough memory for the images you will shoot. Get all your batteries charged and lenses clean too. Check that your cable releases work and the strobes are firing as planned. If you are using wireless lighting, make sure that the channels are all set, ready to go. If you could not avoid getting some new gear for the shoot, use it as much as possible beforehand, making it almost second nature. The last thing you want to do is to fumble around with your gear in front of your client.
If something should go wrong, stay calm. If you start to panic, the subjects will become uncomfortable and this will show in the images, and if your client is overseeing the shoot your panic or lack of confidence will look very unprofessional. Things do go wrong, but how you handle the situation can make you look like a competent pro, or a complete hack.
If you have a way to make a backup of the images you shoot in the field, either to a laptop computer or portable storage, or maybe to multiple card slots in the camera as you shoot, do it. The sooner you get a backup of your images the better.
When shooting, capture anything that could work, even if it is not on the shot-list. If you impress your client by coming up with something cool that they didn’t think of, you will come across as a true pro, and it will certainly go a long way to getting you a second assignment. I shot a bunch of images with foreground bokeh like image 1885 below, during an assignment that I did in 2008, and these ended up being some of my client’s favorite shots, and were used in the book, despite the fact that they were not on the shot-list.
After the shoot, unless you have been requested to submit every image you shot to the client, do a strong edit. Don’t send the client 22 identical shots that you took just because you weren’t confident that you’d nailed it. (Chances are you nailed it in the first one or two frames, but you shot the other 20 anyway. ) You should give the client options, and include what you think works photographically. In fact, I often find that the client likes images that I really don’t care for, so it really does pay to include images that work, even if not your personal favorites, just avoid multiple seemingly identical images. Mark the images that you shot on their request accordingly, and show anything that you shot off your own bat accordingly as well. Part of your job is to make the task of looking through the resulting images as easy on the client as possible.
Nail the Shoot for Yourself
There’s a lot more we could talk about here, but the main point is that even if you end up shooting an assignment or two at a reduced cost or even for free, you should do everything you can to really nail the shoot for your client and for yourself. After all, the payment that you are receiving here is in portfolio images and confidence. Don’t waste the chance to capitalize on your time investment, until you are able to charge a fair price for your skills and your time. And remember, that if Joe McNally is concerned that his clients might not like the images he submits from an assignment, then you don’t have to feel bad about being apprehensive yourself.
Joe McNally’s blog post in which he mentions apprehension regarding the client’s reaction to photographs shot on assignment: http://www.joemcnally.com/blog/2009/08/14/joes-version-of-children-of-the-corn/
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