That Cheap Photo Job Will Be the End of Your Career

One of the most difficult things I found at the beginning of my professional career was discussing money. I’d happily accept anything that came my way and was pretty short-sighted at the implications it had, not only for myself but the local working community and the economics around that.

All too often, you will have someone approach you asking you to cover an event, and they’ll say they only have £30 or some small fee that they expect will suffice. Or maybe you approach someone and aren’t entirely sure of your worth and again quote a silly small figure.

These small paying jobs will probably be responsible for you not stepping up in terms of career progression. Not only that, but you will damage the economics of how other photographers work in the local area. To put it into context say Mr A offers a high value product that is ‘standard’ in terms of what is expected. They charge their standard fee and have done so for a period of time to which they can get regular contacts.

Mr B, on the other hand, is entering the market and, unsure about how to put their worth on their work, undercuts Mr A by a third (this may or may not be intentional). Mr B will get work, possibly regularly, and if they have a desire to progress then the quality of work produced will be comparable to the standards as set by Mr A. But when Mr B starts to understand that their fee is far too low for the level of work being produced, asking for a raise from regular clients will prove to be difficult, or be met with contracts being terminated.

Mr A will find themselves having less work as it is being completed by less experienced people who don’t understand the value of professional commissions, and Mr A will be pushed into lowering their prices.

Lowering prices breaks the market. In the same way we have seen in recent global economic progress, events or changes – whether it is local or global – can push prices up or down of a market product or service.

As a photographer I don’t want to whine about the expense of running a business. Anyone with a full frame DSLR and workflow will understand that we require specialized equipment to conduct a job to meet a brief as set by our clients. But don’t forget that while equipment is one side of the issue, skills are the most important part of any business.

You can have all the gear and no idea. Or, you can use what you have got to the fullest of its capabilities through applied knowledge and understanding. Professional photographers understand that it isn’t about Nikon or Canon. It isn’t about Speedlites versus SBs. It’s how gear is used that really matters.

Which brings me back to the original argument. The time you have taken to learn, develop and acquire a decent working practice means that those £30 jobs that you think will work in your favor will probably lose you a lot more in the long run.

A client asks for an event to be covered, a 3 hour event and wants edited images delivered fairly quickly. The client feels that £10 per hour shooting the event is a reasonable fee.

3 hours of shooting can lead to hours, if not days, of editing. That £10 per hour quickly disappears into the void and the job that you are editing will stop you from taking on another contract. If you do decide to take on another contract you will become behind in your workflow and may upset both clients. Either way you lose.

I’m not saying that the minimal budget jobs shouldn’t happen. I happened to photograph someone for the price of a coffee a few years back, and that person has become one of the UK’s top fashion models. We still keep in touch, and she still buys me coffee — and gets me work.

The point is, if you know a low paying job is going to lead to a lot of post-production, then it has to be one hell of a proposition. Otherwise, if you do take it, not only do you damage your own ability to break into a higher market, but you also break the market for other photographers in your area.

If you go into regular £30 jobs, don’t expect to upgrade your equipment… ever. Don’t expect to pay the bills, and don’t complain about it.

About the author: Scott Mains is a UK-based photographer specializing in fashion and editorial portraiture. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: Discount B by urbanwoodchuck, low prices by washed up, Hand by Code52

  • Dazam

    Photography as a serious career is pretty much over for most people anyway.
    It happens.

  • jdm8

    Those rates might not even cover the cost of transportation.

    The problem is that it’s a bit like the prisoner’s dilemma. Maybe it isn’t a great match, but, this sort of thing happening constantly eventually devalues the work for the industry as a whole.

    It’s an unfortunate consequence of market economics, an oversupply of service capacity pushes down the market value of the service.

  • Joshua MacLeod

    this is absurd. competition is good for consumers and good for markets. this article supports tacit price-fixing practices. if area photographers banded together and overtly fixed prices on their services, that would be illegal. suggesting that tacit price-fixing is a good idea is dangerous ground.

  • Joshua MacLeod


  • GD

    Work for free, or for full price. Never for cheap.

  • Joshua MacLeod

    that’s how lawyers do it. and it works well for them.

  • dude

    Produce high level results, and you can charge what you want. It is the way of the market, and will be so for years to come.

    There is so much whining about “market-devaluation” and the influx of newcomers who don’t know how to use their SLR’s. Waaaaaaaaah. I have yet to lower my rates, and in fact I have raised them considerably over the last two years.

    The influx of newbies is helping, rather than hindering. I look around in my market and I see some very, very good photographers charging very high sitting fees and print charges. Then I see obvious newcomers. Their sites are pedestrian and their photos are amateur. All they seem to be doing is reducing the amount of people who want to hire me on the cheap. And for that, I thank them.

    I’ll say it again. Produce quality work and you can charge quality prices.

  • Tam Nguyen Photography

    Is it just me or PetaPixel’s post quality has been mediocre lately? Especially the ones that are either written from a guest, or ones that quote an article from somewhere else.

  • Aaron Cole

    I think another problem is that photographers seem very hesitant to add pricing for their photography on their website. How does photographer B even know what photographer A is charging for a service? If photographers would list the prices they charge then at least new photographers coming into the business would have an idea of where to start. The only way to do that now is to call each photography business and pretend to be a prospective client.

  • Alan Dove

    “Lowering prices breaks the market?” No. Efficient pricing is the whole damn point of the market.

    Charge what you think people will pay. No more, no less. If others can charge less for the same quality of service, without going out of business, then you need to match the lower price or find another line of work.

  • nobody

    I dont think that is what he is implying, he is saying if you work for peanuts you will always be a monkey. I’m not sure where you live but in my city we have one of the highest “photographers”-to-citizens ratios out there. What he describes is very very real. I can go on craigslist in my town and find 3-5 photogs a day that will do senior portraits for $50.00, weddings for $600, and entire family portraits for $100. It’s absurd, the amount of wanna-be’s now is making it impossible for the real pro’s to make a living, and the sad part is 90% of everyday people can’t tell the difference between an awful, average, or great photograph, so they gladly pay the $50 to have the hack job do it.

  • seriesrover2

    In just about every facet of life, consumers have a price range to pick from…thats the number one parameter that people look for from attorney’s to TV’s to food. Everything. Quality and value are highly regarded but for most, and assuming a minimum level of quality is met, those become second.

    The thing photographers are insisting on these days is that its an all or nothing experience. Either free (to build up a portfolio for instance) or high price to cover all the extras that they want the consumer to have. The problem professional photographers are facing is that there’s now a growing middle ground that they don’t want to have exist, and telling people not to do it won’t work.

    Pro Photography needs to adapt. The gear is expensive but photographers want all the upsells to make their money. They want to have numerous consultations, post-processing, slideshows, flip books, phenomenal lighting rigs, online storage, art prints, and web galleries. Whilst no one can doubt that this experience and the results are fantastic, its often just not in the budget that people want or desire.

    Consumers are often calling for just the original images – whats wrong with that? Since it fits well with the supply & demand ethos I would think that would work well as business model. Why do any editing – charge one price for all the jpegs and a higher price for RAW. Other than transitory storage why have any online storage needs? Charge a base rate for time and then a set price for the images. I’m generally open as to why this won’t work?

    Is there demand for high quality at any price? Of course! But there are multiple business models that can co-exist. I will say though that 30ukp is a bit silly on the low side…but it doesn’t have to be thousands upon thousands either.

  • nobody

    I was just about to say the same, this “disqus” thing blows, I’ve had 4 comments not get posted to replies. What a worthless pile.

  • Joshua MacLeod

    Yes, perhaps you’re right–he does seem to be talking also about quality of photography. That said, he does say, “Lowering prices breaks the market.”

    But isn’t that just what competition does? If there’s more supply than demand, prices go down.

    I guess if someone suggests that low-cost providers stay out of the market, maybe that’s not price-fixing, but it probably isn’t in the consumer’s best interest.

    Also, I’m curious: if 90% of people can’t tell the difference between good and bad photography, why should that 90% pay a big premium for good photography?

  • Joshua MacLeod


  • Alan Wright

    A steady stream of new to market photographers assume they only have to compete on price so charge super low prices for their time. Everyone has been in this situation, then realised that it’s an unsustainable business model. You then adapt your prices to what the clients in your area or field will accept and hopefully make a living or do something else.

    Budget pricing only works if there’s enough jobs out their to continually sustain you, unfortunately an overly saturated market place means this is now far more unlikely.

    One things or sure though, the steady stream of new talent isn’t going to stop so you’l need to stand out from the crowd (but not by being super cheap ;)

  • Scott Mains

    In no way am I implying a fee fixing scheme. It isn’t ethical with regards to business practice. The guy that responded to this pretty much hit it on the dot.

    One of the most difficult things for anyone entering in to the professional market, especially from a self taught background, is understanding the economics of how an individual uses their time in conducting their business.

    From experience, someone who commissions a photographer, whether it be a couple getting married, or an events promoter. They are diving into an area that is new to them… the commissioning of professional arts, or documentary works. They (in some cases) have no understanding of the value or the length of time taken and apply an arbitrary value. Seasoned professional photographers will understand that but people entering into the professional market won’t.

  • Alberto Oliver

    What a luxury to live in a country where photographers are considered real working pro people worth a payment and that can even stablish their own fee according to their personal and economic interest. And not in a place wherethe only thing you expect is not to be harrassed by the police, get your gear stolen or be shot by some crazy gangster.

  • David Rychart

    Exactly. If damaging “the economics of how other photographers work in the local area” causes them to lose their business, it’s their own fault. They need to offer a superior product at a premium price. And if there’s no work in the area for that level of photography, they need to find a market which CAN support them.

  • Scott Mains

    I think it’s nice to read and write about experiences in business for people who are entering into the professional market. Whether you feel that the quality of the article is mediocre, the simple lessons I have had to discover myself have been anything but.

    If someone else’s experiences can be articulated to help out someone else, then what is the harm?

  • David Rychart

    Only “unfortunate” if you’re on the supply side. If you’re the customer it’s pretty damn awesome.

  • Mansgame

    Does anybody just get to write an article for Petapixel? This doom and gloom scenario is not exclusive to photography and is only the result of old timers who are threatened by anything remotely new. But guess what old timer, times change. Maybe you can change your pricing model or maybe you picked a career whose time has come and you need to change course.

    For photography, for decades, photographers enjoyed a sort of exclusive club. A professional camera cost thousands of dollars AND learning to use it was hard so for many who had an eye for photography, it was hard to break into. Because of the exclusive nature, photographers were made to be geniuses at work and could charge large sitting fees and use the price per picture model on top of that. Well that’s gone. Forget it.

    Even a $100 point and shoot gets a picture that’s good enough for people so if you want to be a professional, you gotta be really good and do things that people can’t do alone.

    As far as pricing goes now, there is a market for every price range and as you grow, you change your rates. It’s not rocket science. If you have to give a discount to those who helped you start your business then so be it- they’ll tell their friends and refer you and get an extra satisfaction that they get a discount which their friends don’t.

    The sky isn’t falling chicken little. I promise, but a career in photography is unlikely unless you work for ESPN. Maybe give grad school a chance.

  • Alberto Oliver


  • Joshua MacLeod


    I’m curious what you would counsel to new a photographer who discovers that he cannot get work at higher fees–at least initially. After all, it takes time to develop the relationships and portfolio that will garner high fees. Ought he to leave the market entirely?

  • Mansgame

    So what does a photographer who doesn’t produce $4000 quality wedding pictures supposed to charge? Nothing? Not even bother?

    What about the starving couple who just want pictures to do? Not take any because they can’t afford $4000?

    Get real.

  • jdm8

    Do you have a Disqus account? It works better with one rather than trying to post without.

    But I do agree, Disqus can be very annoying.

  • seriesrover2

    It works when you can push up the prices with no competition. The only competition are other lawyers – you can’t [well, not really] go court for low cost.

    It doesn’t work when there is other competition that consumers can insist on – they *can* do it easily and at a cheaper cost. The quality or the experience won’t be there but they can still get something. Its less similar to a lawyer and more like a chauffeur – they’re going to get a more refined ride and better quality experience with a chauffer, but they can also drive themselves if they don’t care about the ride.

  • Scott Mains

    Anyone entering into the professional market faces an uphill struggle. Marketing, expansion, networking, not to mention paying the rent can’t be done effectively on jobs where the client assumes a silly low fee is acceptable and the amount of people entering into the market is increasing.

    I’m not on about higher fees above the line of what is expected for a job. I’m on about the people who are unfortunate enough to not compare the level of their work to the amount they should be paid.

    A little while ago, I was shooting an event, on a regular basis. The client thought £30 was acceptable. I took it as I needed the work. As time went on I realised that no matter what way I go around it I couldn’t produce what he needed within a certain time frame, and the job I was getting paid for worked out at well under £4 per hour. £2 under the national minimum wage.

    By doing this work for a client, I missed out on other opportunities and was in a position where I had to consider leaving that area of photography, as even 5 nights a week still made me struggle toward paying the bills and eating.

    I spoke to some other photographers who balked at the idea that I was doing work for that little, they said raise your fees to a level which you feel comfortable charging.” If the client isn’t happy then explain to them why, if they still aren’t happy move on.”

    Some clients don’t know how to commission, and they can use their personality to bolster an argument. Some photographers don’t know how to charge, and they will quickly find out that it isn’t sustainable, and they won’t know why.

    There is no harm in speaking to the competition (other photographers). The competition do the same thing as you, and more often than not they will be happy to talk about all things business related.

    Not only do other photographers, hell even awesome clients do it too, they will share info. You may end up educating a client as to why a certain job isn’t worth X amount. If you lose the client, then that is their loss. If a client can’t understand why something costs what it does, then they may need an economics lesson.

    Truth is, a lot of people I have worked with, haven’t been happy to talk about money. There is still some taboo about it. This article is written for photographers to understand their worth and put a value that can sustain their professional career upon.

  • Joshua MacLeod

    Agreed. I was being cheeky. Lawyers have the benefit of all sorts of market barriers to competition.

  • Joshua MacLeod


  • Antonio Carrasco

    Author complains about not earning enough for photography. Then grabs photos off the internet to accompany his article…

  • Tzctplus -

    If you hate competition so much leave the field. SImples.

  • Mark

    Pro tip… Don’t give your raw files away.

  • Salvador Peña


  • seriesrover2

    I can understand it goes against the grain of conventional thinking, but why is that – just curious, do you want to retain copyright / ownership?

    In the model I’ve suggested above you’ve got no use for them since the photographer is doing the capture only…the client is responsible for everything after that. I can see it depends on what one is photographing…I was predominantly thinking of weddings I must admit.

  • seriesrover2

    Isn’t that kind of the problem though, even if you’re good, very good even, its difficult to stand out from the crowd? Being good isn’t good enough anymore.

    Now, if you can stand out from the crowd and gain that reputation then thats great, but that can only work for a small number of people. Price becomes the other competing parameter for other pro’s.

  • seriesrover2

    Exactly. If you want to buy a TV and can’t really tell the difference between a $1000 TV and a $5000 TV, what reason is there to spend the extra $4000?

    Perhaps a better example for the guys here – if your wife wants a $4000 sewing machine instead of the cheap $200, wouldn’t you question the need to spend the extra $3800? Wouldn’t you ask whether it was really necessary and think of all the other things you can spend instead? Photographers need to understand that joe public want good photos, but they don’t get all religious about it.

  • Scott Mains

    Images were used with permission, and I don’t shoot for stock.

  • LightbulbIT

    The problem is, your work is in the hands of the person you give it to. If they use 40 filters on it and it looks like it dropped out of a cow’s ass, if someone asks who took the pictures, your name is on it. THAT is why many photographers don’t want to do this. You name (and reputation) is on it. You have no opportunity to say “I just took the pictures”. Once the consumer says you took the picture, you delivered the product. If it’s good, they will take full credit. If it’s bad, “that’s the way he gave them to me”. It’s a no-win situation. You cannot publish your best work when you are just shooting. None of the pictures that you see the best photographers shoot are straight out of the camera. They ALL have done minor tweeks and fixes, from skin flaws to adding their signature style. You have none of that opportunity to put your best product out and represent yourself by giving the control to the amateurs who don’t have the aesthetic sense not to HDR the hell out of the photo.
    Keep your RAWs and control what goes out with your name on it.

  • Jeremiah Washington

    Both of you are wrong, especially when it comes to photography, pricing the right amount is what will keep you afloat. when some novice come into the picture, doing mediocre work, and charging less,that takes away customers from the people who were charging more, thus less money overall for both parties. The ponit of consumers buying products is to keep the flow of money going, the more money that is being “saved” the worse for the economy, it is very apparent at a small scale. Thats like basic business. i

  • Eric

    We are talking about running a business right? We are talking about turning our skills and abilities into a product our clients value enough to pay us money for right?!?!

    Right. We are not talking about some transcendent magical industry that doesn’t need to play by the rules. We are talking about a business and if you can’t provide value to your clients (value being largely determined by the subjective quality of the product you produce for them and the price you charge) someone else will.

    “when some novice come into the picture, doing mediocre work, and charging less,that takes away customers from the people who were charging more, thus less money overall for both parties”

    Do you read the stuff you write?

  • Mansgame

    Hey you don’t have to give them, but I will! What the hell do I care? I’m not going to sell them prints. I’ve already got paid for my time. If they want to re-edit the pictures, I’d rather they use the RAW files than the JPG’s and mess up my reputation more.

    Also, are you going to be alive 40 years from now when technology in post processing software is exponentially better than it is today? What gives you the right to with-hold that from them?

    So you go ahead and think it’s 1975 and you can use that model. I’ll give a customer what they want.

  • Mansgame

    If they’re going to use filters then they’re going to use it on the JPG’s too. Moot point.

  • Mansgame

    It sounds like you’re more concerned about what the competition is doing than what works for you.

  • Mansgame

    But did you pay for them?

  • Scott Mains

    A link to the photographers website was all that was requested.

  • Scott Mains

    When starting in business what is the best point of reference? You can read through business practice handbooks for an eternity, but until you speak to the “competition” you aren’t going to have a solid idea of how to do things.

    Plus, sharing an interest with the other folks that work in the area helps. If they need an assistant, I help out, and vice-versa.

  • arnau

    you should maybe publish minimal fees list…. it could be a solucion?

  • Tim

    Most photographers entering the market are in a catch 22 situation and think it’s a good idea to offer low prices to get their foot in the door, the problem is that lots of people, especially in this current economical climate, are buying a DSLR and suddenly thinking they can make money out of what they love doing – being a photographer. But what do they do – quit their day job and risk losing their house/not being able to pay the rent? NO, they try and introduce themselves gradually by doing the above. I’ve been in that situation in fact i was offered exactly £30 to photograph an Indian dance class after foolishly handing over (for free) some photographs i took of the same dancers at a public event (which she pulled apart shortly afterwards) Because i had done this the woman who owned the dance school was able to “low ball” me, and when i told her £30 was too low for 3 hours work she complained and said she was unwilling to pay me more as i wasn’t a professional photographer (which i wasn’t). She may have pulled apart my photographs but she seemed happy enough for me to photograph her event – strange that isn’t it?! It’s EXACTLY as Scott describes it in the article, and if you don’t listen you will get stung the way i did and stuck on the bottom rung, As luck would have it i managed to land a permanent job as a consultant that pays considerably more than £10 an hour (and dosen’t involve post processing dozens of images i don’t have very much interest in) a couple of weeks before the event so i was able to tell the silly cow where to go, but no doubt there was some other chump with a DSLR willing to do the job for the price she wanted.

    I strongly believe that if you are wanting to be taken seriously in the photography business get yourself some recognised qualifications, that way when a client offers you £30 for a day’s work you can politely point out that you are a qualified photographer and you have bills and rent to pay and mouths to feed. After all you can’t live under mummy and daddy’s roof for the rest of your life, can you?

  • Tim

    leave the field to the amateurs, why not? i’m sure they’ll work it out eventually. Only the crowd will have gone home by then and the game will be over