And You Call Yourself a Professional?
“I’m consulting with a wedding #photog studio selling against a studio doing $500 weddings. Our new ad – “We fix $500 wedding photography.”
I repeat, I was half-joking. I knew it might be a bit controversial given the fact that people who inhabit social media tend to be reactionary and don’t always stop and think before they react. (Me included) But I guess I wasn’t prepared for death threats – again. More on that later.
The point I was really trying to make was that people who call themselves professional photographers should think about industry standards when they sell on the cheap. Denis Reggie once said, “Don’t price yourself on what you can afford. It was years before I could afford myself!”
In the example of the $500 wedding, that’s WELL under the national average for a decent wedding package. But don’t even fixate on that number. It could be higher or lower. The point is, doing things on the cheap isn’t a good business model.
Everyone who owns a camera – and that seems to be everyone period – thinks they could be a professional photographer. How many times have you heard “You must have a nice camera” after showing off a portfolio-quality image? We’re already battling a severely under-educated clientele. The client thinks ANYONE can do our job. We’re fighting mass competition and a public that doesn’t know better. The LAST thing we need is someone within our own ranks making it even harder.
Some will say: “So what’s the big deal? So what if some new weekend warrior or part-time hobbyist who shoots weddings on the side wants to make a few bucks?” Here’s the so what.
When you undercut the market so severely you accomplish several things.
a. You cheat the client. This is the worst point. That’s right, the client who’s once-in-a-lifetime special day has just been handed to the cheapo wedding photographer is not going to be well-served. A true professional photographer has skills that Uncle Harry doesn’t. The better the skills the more longevity in the business and the better the chance the client is going to get images they want to come back for.
It’s impossible to run a sustainable business over the long haul, deliver good quality and care for the client at lowball prices. I’ve been around a long time. I’ve seen dozens of businesses fail using this model and more importantly (and more to the point) have seen dozens of brides’ wedding memories ruined by photographers who had no business being there in the first place. There’s no do-over on a wedding. It takes a decent budget to get a decent result. Good reliable gear with backups cost money. Training cost money. Quality wedding prints, albums, books and gallery wraps cost money. If you sell a bride a cheapo wedding album that falls apart because you couldn’t make enough profit doing the cheapo wedding shoot, how does that serve the client? These are people’s lives you’re messing with. What could have more value than the wedding album – the first family heirloom of a brand new family? Think about it.
b. You are selling yourself short. If you do it on the cheap, you are probably losing money or coming close to it. Maybe you’re working for minimum wage once you pay your expenses and grunt out a few bucks for yourself. You’re worth more than that. Have some self-respect. Don’t whore yourself out. Ask yourself, “Am I really only worth $8 an hour?” Pricing is the hardest part of any photo-related business. But it’s called a job because it’s hard. Don’t be lazy. Get training in how to competitively, fairly and appropriately price your products. There are lots of resources out there. Learn. Apply. Do. Don’t decide you’re not worth it. I think we’re all worth it. We deserve to be fairly compensated for our time, our education, our practice, our overhead, our gear, our licenses, our insurance, our taxes, our cost of goods sold and everything else that goes into doing it right. When you devalue yourself you leave potential business on the table – cheap weddings/portraits are just that, poorly executed products. They don’t take into consideration add-ons, e.g. frames, albums, big prints, canvas prints, etc. The single biggest mistake most new pros make is under-pricing, not under-exposing.
c. You’re dragging down an entire industry. If you come into the market as a weekend warrior and start selling cheapo weddings against established businesses who have already set the industry standard, every cheapo wedding you shoot diminishes the industry. You’re participating in self-destructive behavior which is against your own interests. How can that be smart? Quoting John Harrington, “When someone sells a commodity for $10 that everyone else is selling for $100, it devalues that commodity. If the commodity was easily selling for $100, why would someone – anyone – sell it for $10?” While I would prefer a different word than “commodity” I concur with his thesis.
If you want to learn how to effectively, fairly, accurately and reasonably price your photography, there are lots of places to go for help. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) – http://www.ppa.com/joinppa/ and Wedding & Portrait Photographers International – http://www.wppionline.com/join.aspx have tons of information on how to run a wedding and portrait business without devaluing the client, the photographer or the industry.
Now there is a group of cheapo wedding photographers attacking me for taking this position. They are threatening me with everything from un-following me on Twitter – (how will I go on?) to assault. That’s right, some of these fine citizens have threatened my life. Another sent me an email saying he was coming after me and would go for my eyes first. These people are sick and they use the Internet like a weapon. Because they are either too lazy, or untalented to learn how to do this job right, they feel like my call for reasonable pricing at the low-end of the market is a personal attack on them. They feel badly (at least privately) about their situation. They know they aren’t serving the client, themselves or the industry, but rather than do something about it, they try to make me into the devil. Well it won’t work. This isn’t the first time I’ve received death threats. It’s a creepy world but I’ve survived worse. I’ve been in this business for more than three decades and I’ll be around long after all of them have moved on to their next job asking that ever important question, “Would you like fries with that?” I won’t stop trying to defend the industry I love, even if it offends a few jealous Internet trolls along the way. I have very close and special friends who feed their families in the wedding and portrait market. I don’t intend to stand by and watch their livelihoods destroyed by these people. If these folks simmer down and take time to ask for my help, I’ll offer it gladly. I don’t want to see them devalue their clients, themselves or our industry. I’ll help them even though they are acting like idiots. I love the photography industry and spend most of my days trying to do everything I can to help photographers. And I will continue to do that no matter how many people attack me, listen to my podcast, read this site, attend my workshops, buy my books, collect my prints or follow me on Twitter.
In closing, remember this – photography is an incredible career field if done right – if you get the reputation for being cheap you won’t last long – because you’ve got nothing to fall back on. Develop your skill set first, then your marketing, then launch with a product that has the value it should and more importantly value that will last – cheap candles burn fast and they’re gone.
My friend and long-time photo industry expert Skip Cohen contributed some ideas for this post. We’ve spent a lot of time together talking about the challenges in our industry. He’s a huge fan, as am I, of the well-intentioned weekend warrior who takes time to do it right, who learns to price according to industry standards and the needs of the target-audience. We both have friends who are part-time photographers. There is always going to be a place for the new pro, the part-timer, and the person who serves special niche markets that can’t afford top of the line products. However, while we know there has to be a low-end price point, it doesn’t have to mean low-end quality and it doesn’t have to be SO low that it brings down an entire industry.