Click to enlarge and read the full article as seen in Canadian Musician (March/April issue 2012).
If there's one thing we as artists, specifically photographers, struggle with more than asking for money... I don't know what it is.
Seems like every artist in the beginning stages of their career comes across the daunting task and begins the inner battle of deciding what they're worth and what to charge for their creative services.
It's true, vision and creativity is a difficult thing to place a price tag on. How does one even begin to place a dollar figure on something that doesn't even exist yet, with little to no experience behind you to prove you can create it? How can you perform with the weight of money and expected performance on your shoulders? How do you charge friends for something they think should be free? How do you ask money from another starving artist?
It's easy. You just do it. And it doesn't have to be as scary, or as difficult as you think it will be. It also doesn't have to ruin any relationships you've already spent time and effort building.
Why you need to charge money for your photography services.
Ninety percent of small businesses fail within the first two years. With few exceptions, working for free is the fastest way for freelance photographers to become part of this 90 percent. Photographers like any other business owners need income to survive, and the industry itself as a whole relies on it's own community to stay alive. If all photographers stopped charging money, the community and support system we rely on to find work would collapse. Its a (sad) fact of life that money makes the world go round and the business of photography is no exception.
Charging a fee for your photography establishes value and respect. These are extremely important characteristics of any successful business venture. You can't get caught up worrying about other people's financial situations. Helping out a 'starving artist' for free because you want to be nice isn't accomplishing anything, because guess what? Technically as an amateur photographer you are too! Let's shed some light on this topic in another way. Let's pretend said starving artist waves down a cab and askes the cab to drive him home - 20 blocks away. The guy sits in the car and says Hey driver, listen times are tight and I really need to get home in a hurry. Except I have no money to offer you. What do you think the cabbie is gunna say? Guess what pal, can't help you. Times are tight for everyone - take a hike.
(See 12 Excuses For Shooting for FREE - And Why They're Bogus)
More importantly, imagine 5 years from now when a client you shot free pictures for actually has a budget, let's say $2,500 for a large project requiring two days of shooting - who are they gunna call up? The photographer they used back in the day that gave up his time and talent for free? Or are they going to ask around or go online in search of new professional photographers to work with that cost roughly $2,500? 9 times out of 10, it's the latter. Who would you rather be? The guy who gets the call for free shoots ("networking opportunities") at the local rock club on 90's playback night, or the guy that gets a call once a month from a marketing agency when they can afford you and your rate - let's say, a rate of hundreds or thousands of dollars? I think I know the answer.
Truth is, we've all been there. The excuses for shooting free work are endless. The most common being that its to build a better or more diverse portfolio. But in your initial stages as a photographer you can shoot nature, the city you live in, small concerts, friends and family for free as much as you want to build your portfolio. It's important you understand that when a stranger comes knocking at your door for photography - that is your cue to start building a name and brand for yourself in the industry beyond your comfort zone by charging a fee. It's not your cue to initiate the same freebie/portfolio conversation you've been having with friends and family.
How (much?) to charge for your photography services.
When I was just 16 years old I got to say I was a professional photographer. Why? I shot my first wedding and charged the bride and groom $300. Such a low price that most pros would laugh, but it was something at least. Some people would ask, though, how could I charge anything when I was still so young? The answer is: I had spent countless months building my skill set shooting nature, architecture and portraits for close friends and a family, plus I shot a family wedding and all things considered I was feeling good and prepared to charge for my work. I was confident in my talent and ready to take on something new and outside of my bubble, and I wasn't about to do it for free.
The question then became, what do I charge? I did some research on other, much more experienced photographers in my area and found that they were charging roughly $1,500 and up for weddings. Great! I knew that if I was significantly below $1,000 any bride and groom would be silly not to sign on the dotted line. Plus, I had nothing to prove - they had already inquired with me for the work - which means they like my website of nature and portraits and believe in my ability to translate that same vision into wedding photography. I didn't need to sell them on me, I needed to sell them on the price. This would become the single most important business skill I ever learned. How to price myself.
There is no one-price-fits-all formula in photography, because pricing almost always depends on the client and requirements of each shoot. But here's some advice to get you started and help you get it right.
Being a photographer is definitely no walk in the park. It takes a lot of hard work, time and effort to get anything remotely like a consistent income flowing your way. It also takes a lot of time, many years in fact, to learn every facet of the business and get comfortable in your own skin - especially when it comes to charging people for your time and creativity. Even if you're the most talented photographer it's possible you'll struggle to make a living - especially at the start. But one thing is for certain - shooting for free won't help you change that fact. Start charging people, even if it's only enough to cover your gas or train ticket, clients don't need to know the why behind your price. Just charge them something so that if nothing else you can start to compensate for your expenses, and one day you'll see yourself staying in the black. What's more is you've helped keep all the photographers around you in business as well, by helping maintain the idea that photography is a service worth paying for and just because every grandma and their fat cat owns a camera doesn't mean everyone can take a good photo.
Ultimately one day making a wonderful living doing what you love will be the fruits of these labors. Just hang in there. And believe in yourself.
Thanks for reading and good luck!
Follow me on Twitter @mattvardy and share your comments or questions. I will happily answer all of them!
On a day-to-day basis I'm hard at work on many photography related things, which also includes my work at livemusicTO. livemusicTO focuses on the music scene in Toronto; hosting events, blogs and artist interviews as well as live music photographs.
Thanks to my 'job' over there I'm often browsing many live music blogs and websites trying to stay in touch with what's cool and currently revolving around Toronto musically. Time and again I notice a few things that bother me a bit and I think a lot of photographers are missing the mark. The frustrating part isn’t necessarily that they aren’t talented enough or don’t have enough passion, it’s simply that they’re using the wrong techniques or equipment to get the job done right. Some common faults: poor timing, bad clarity, too many of the same images and wrong flash or camera settings.
I think what a lot of young photographers forget is that the power of a photograph lies in its ability to tell a story. And this applies as much to live music photography as it does nature photography. If all your photographs are the same close crop of the lead singer or drummer for example, you’re missing more than half of the “story”. The collection of photos as a whole should ideally share the experience of being there. If the viewer leaves your gallery only knowing the colour of nail polish the lead singer wears, you’ve missed the mark and the lasting value of your images will be lost. Sure, one photo might be spectacular, but if the pose you’ve captured is almost identical to the other 100 images you made public… it’s going to be less memorable.
I recently had the opportunity to explore these ideas when I photographed Aaron Gillespie (The Almost, Underoath), Parachute Band and NineOFive at a concert in Ajax, ON last month. In my attempt to tell a story, I discovered some keys to success that I’d like to share with you.
So this concert wasn't your typical high energy club show. It was inside a church, the venue had seating and so the crowd wasn't able to move a whole lot. It posed a great challenge for me to tell a story or capture the live energy. Sometimes it helps to add context to the event by showing the crowd lined up, the posters lining the halls or the catering/production/sound checks. Sometimes as a photographer you have to create energy for yourself. Find crazy perspectives no one else will think of, that help tell a story, share a message or portray energy whether or not it was even there.
A stranger should be able to look at your photos and know exactly what they missed if they weren't there. Hopefully what they missed was a damn good time, thanks to your photos. I don't claim to be an expert on the topic and I'm not always the best at practising what I preach, but I hope some of these tips help you next time you're out shooting a live music event. - Matt Vardy.
I’ve always been a fast shooter. I don’t know what it is about me, or my way of thinking, that makes me work so fast (and efficiently, I hope?) but I often get “the shot” I envision much faster than expected sometimes. I think it comes from experience mostly, and knowing how to handle situations. Case in point, (and little known fact) some of the more popular shots in my music portfolio such as There For Tomorrow, Mayday Parade, We The Kings, Breathe Carolina and Steve Aoki were all one minute shoots done backstage at concerts. There was zero time to setup. I literally took around 3-5 photos before these artists were dragged away from me by managers and/or media.
Being prepared for anything and, more importantly, being able to adapt to anything have probably become the two most important things in my life let alone my photography.
So back to the title of this post – the one minute photoshoot. I’d like to share a very recent experience with you and a few things I learned along the way as I made the best of a situation as fast as I could.
On day 4 in the recording studio with Lights I arrived ahead of everyone else, and as I walked through the halls of the building I noticed a heap of furniture against the white brick wall. (*my creative mind screams* Awesome!) I must have walked by this at least half a dozen times before on previous days, but never really thought much of it. But this time was different for whatever reason, maybe because I was feeling more comfortable and had the freedom to explore before the day got started. So amongst the chairs, electronic pianos, guitar cases and road bikes (common recording studio stuff, right?) was this humble little black leather couch. I’m thinking… white brick wall + hard wood floor + couch = cute/simple portrait of Lights on couch. Perfect, right!? I cleared the stuff away from around the couch, snapped a quick test shot and went inside.
Lights arrived shortly thereafter and we hung out for a bit, played some iPad video games and I realised this day was already going to be pretty relaxed - no one was really feeling the need to get down to business right away. Turns out we were waiting for a few special guests to arrive and there was some time to kill. This gave me the opportunity to ask if I could take a couple portraits outside in the hallway. “Of course!” she says after I showed her the test shot on my camera and what I had in mind. That was key - and in a more difficult situation would have meant half the battle won because if I was working with someone who was more uptight than Lights (i.e. 80% of most people), showing a rough idea of what I want to achieve helps them visualise the end result. It also proves you know what you’re doing, and by already having an idea in mind this reinforces the fact that everything will be quick and painless.
Regardless of how much fun we were having in the studio that day, I knew she was there to get work done – not necessarily be harassed by me for photos unrelated to the project at hand. So being conscious and respectful of that, I wanted to make it quick. I grabbed my 7D outfitted with a 10-20mm Sigma and off we went to the hallway. I was in such a rush that I didn’t even think to grab one of the two flashes I had with me as well.
I had a rough idea of the exposure I needed thanks to the test shot I took earlier. But when Lights sat down, I took one shot and examined it and a couple things were going wrong: a) I didn’t like the look of her on the couch and I thought maybe this was a terrible idea and b) the shadows on her face were really dark because I had no flash/reflector/nothing. Now, the funny part about this whole situation is that Lights is a really cool person and if I asked her to wait a minute while I ran and grabbed a flash it would be no big deal at all. But I’m so used to shooting under pressure with people on tight deadlines that the thought never even entered my head. Also, as a photographer you always want to appear like you know what your doing - if you’re running around switching lenses and making weird faces or sighs your subject is going to lose interest in you. So I did what I do best I guess – I adapted. I needed to capture as much light as possible. I ramped up my ISO to 1600, decreased my shutter speed to 1/40 and brought my aperture down to 4.0. I knew this was the slowest shutter speed I could get away with - because the most important thing at this point was to ensure the photo was crisp and clear regardless of how dark it was. I knew I could bring the RAW files to life again later in Photoshop.
I snapped a few more shots and something still wasn’t quite right – it didn’t feel like Lights. It didn’t feel like me either, if that makes any sense – the composition was uncomfortable and wasn’t fun or engaging at all.
Something had to change, so I asked her to lean forward or rest her arms on her knees and I took one last shot. I glanced down at my camera and I knew that was it. That was the shot - the best I could do with the equipment I had and the crazy deadline ticking in my head. I showed her, she was happy, and we both went back inside and got to work! It was a nice reminder that you don’t always have to have a million flashes and hours of shooting time to get a great shot:
So to summarize the point of this post:
1) Always be prepared - have a vision in mind, play it out in your head
2) Know your equipment like the back of your hand - what are the limitations
3) Make the best of situations - stay calm, find solutions
4) Be professional - be courteous of your subject
and most importantly 5) Have fun - be approachable and sociable
…because it will show in the photos.
After viewing some incredible portfolios today of my peers and fellow photographers, and watching some amazingly creative videos as well... I've come to realize how extremely talented so many people are in this world - especially within my own world or little bubble called Toronto. The talent brewing here, like many other places no doubt, is staggering and growing at an overwhelming rate. It's truly humbling to watch and be inspired by those around me.
It reminds me of a story my high school art teacher, Percy Payette, once shared. He shared this story to us (the grade 9 or 10 visual arts class) during our very first drawing lesson. Drawing is something a lot of people are rather shy about - most people think you're either good or terrible at it - there's no in-between. But Payette was determined to teach us otherwise, and shared this story...
The story he shared (as best as I can remember) was about one of his first classes in drawing school at college/university where he was studying fine arts. He sat beside a kid who was, in Payette's opinion, absolutely amazing at still life drawing. From day one, Payette said he was constantly looking over the shoulder of this guy sitting next to him in class, and felt absolutely terrible about his own work. Payette did his best to emulate his style, but always came up short and he thought for sure that he would fail, or that drawing just wasn't his thing. The guy sitting next to him in the studio just seemed to have all the style and grace in the world in his drawings, something Payette just didn't seem to have. He assumed the guy was getting straight A marks, too (of course, right?), and was surely a class favourite. It was going to be a depressing semester for sure, sitting next to this creative genius.
One day Payette built up some courage and decided to actually talk to his classmate and let him know how much he admired his style. After all, it seemed like the right thing to do, maybe they could get along and Payette could learn a trick or two. So he did just that - tapped the guy on the shoulder and said, "Hey man sorry to interrupt you but I really, really like your work. I just thought you should know that it's truly inspiring. I wish I was as good at this as you are."
And the guy replied, "I feel the exact same about you and your work. I've been watching you and wish I was as good as you are, too." Payette couldn't believe his ears. This guy must be joking, right? The creative genius likes HIS work? Yep. it was true. They had a good laugh, and from that moment became friends and fed off each other's creativity.
It was just an amazing story to hear and a great reminder that no matter how much you might doubt yourself sometimes, there may be someone looking over your shoulder wishing they could be as good as you. There are a million different styles out there, in drawing just as there is in photography, and there is no "right" or "wrong".
Once the story was finished, Payette jumped into our first drawing lesson and we all felt totally empowered and willing to give it a try - whether we thought we were good at it or not - he told us anyone can be taught how to draw and he's absolutely right. Sure enough, I was looking over the shoulder of the guy next to me and I thought his work was absolutely amazing, but in the back of my mind I knew that he might feel the exact same about mine.