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10 Dirty Little Secrets of the Commercial Photography Industry

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In an industry that’s overcrowded with photographers trying to get a piece of the client pie, commercial photography has an irresistible allure, especially to those new to the industry. Social media fails to show the full picture of what goes on behind the scenes, and photographers rarely talk about the many downfalls of being a commercial photographer.

In this article, I get (super) real about what some of those downfalls are.

#1. On set, you are often just a means to an end

For many photographers who are new to the industry, imagining themselves on set shooting for a commercial client conjures visions of power and the freedom to use their creativity in ways they see fit.

The reality can be much different.

Although the photographer is the captain of the ship, he/she is there to serve a very specific purpose- to get the shot, no matter what it takes. The bigger the financial stakes in the outcome, the truer this is.

Nobody cares if you are sick or tired or aren’t seeing your creative vision materializing due to uncooperative talent or weather that has different ideas than those you pictured in your head.

You were given a creative brief by the client, and it’s your job to bring it to life. They may have millions of dollars in revenue riding on your ability to get the shot.

They are not there to hold your hand.

I recall a shoot I did where the client (end-user) and ad agency decided on the talent, and one of the talents they chose was a little boy who was afraid of dogs. (The shoot was, of course, of kids with dogs.)

I knew before even showing up that their talent pick was going to be a problem. I pushed back against their choice as much as I could until it became clear that my opinion was falling on deaf ears, so I decided to pick my battles, let it go and hope for the best.

On set, after shooting the kid and dog for over two hours without getting the results the art director was happy with, I turned to her and said: “Just to be clear, what specifically are you hoping to see?”. Her reply was “I want to see an organic, authentic connection between the little boy and dog”.

I could shake my head about the ridiculousness of the situation later, but in that moment my only job was to make that happen, regardless of the grimace on the kid’s face every time the dog drooled. (The shoot was in Florida, so there was plenty of drool). The good news here is, I finally did get the shot, and the client was happy.

This story drives home the point that you are a means to an end. You are the tool with which the client gets the product they need- the images.

Your feelings, your ideas, your frustration, your health, etc, often take a backseat to the job at hand.

Tip: Do your best to use your voice, stand up for yourself, and express your creative ideas, but also know when and where to pick your battles. Always be professional and keep your cool, no matter what the situation is.

And try very hard to hire assistants that can read your mind and meet your needs without you even needing to ask, and gather a team that works great together. It makes all the difference in the world.

#2. Companies often seek out retail photographers instead of commercial photographers in order to save money

A few years ago I started discovering that my portrait and pet photography colleagues who had little experience doing commercial photography were bidding on the same commercial jobs as me, nearly always with bids that were a fraction of the ones I was submitting.

I was increasingly losing bids to them, and I had to think hard about why they were even up for consideration in the first place when they had little or no experience working on commercial photography projects.

Although I can never get in the heads of corporations and ad agencies, I imagine their thinking goes something like this:

“If we can get good results for 80% less money with photographer B than photographer A, even if photographer B doesn’t have the experience to successfully plan and manage a production, whatever downfalls that photographer has, and/or problems we’ll have on set are worth dealing with to save that much money”.

There may be a $50,000 difference between ‘really good’ images from photographer B, and ‘really great’ images from photographer A. The client may feel that ‘good’ results are ‘good enough’.

They know they are risking having to do a re-shoot and hire a more experienced photographer to create the images the lesser experienced photographer couldn’t, but if they don’t need to re-shoot, they’ll have a lot more flexibility in their budget.

Re-shoots are definitely a risk in these situations, because most retail photographers don’t understand the difference between a ‘portrait’ photo and a ‘commercial’ photo, and that’s not something the art director can really walk them through on set, nor is it their job to.

But even if the photographer delivers 90% portrait photos and 10% commercial-ish photos, it’s can be worth it to the client because they are saving a grip of money.

With the money saved in hiring the inexperienced retail photographer vs. the experienced commercial photographer, the client will be able to license more images for longer, and even potentially have more talent and more locations, simply because photographer B doesn’t have reasonable expectations in terms of what they can accomplish and how much things cost, and they are willing to work themselves into the ground in order to try and deliver on what they promised.

I can’t say I really blame the client for seeking out and hiring retail photographers for commercial work.

But it doesn’t make it suck any less for those experienced commercial photographers like myself who lose bids to retail photographers who may or may not be able to produce the results the clients need.

Tip: No matter what kind of photographer you are, be sure you feel confident you can deliver on what the client is asking for before committing to any project. It’s a terrible feeling being knees-deep in the shoot and realizing you are in way over your head. (Been there, done that.)

Plus, when you take on work you are ill-prepared for, you are taking away jobs from fellow photographers who work hard to land them.

#3. The promise of ‘future work, ‘exposure’, or ‘photo credit’ are increasingly common but still B.S.

Although this has always been a problem in the industry, I’ve seen more and more of these ‘offers’ over the past handful of years, and I think there is a parallel with dirty little secret #2 above.

Most retail/wedding/portrait photographers know that the promise of exposure or future work is totally hollow promises when coming from individuals who hire them, but they may think that the commercial world is different, simply because they don’t have much experience in that area.

“I’m so excited Big Brand wants me to shoot for them, and they’ve told me about needs they’ll have in the future, which means I’ll not only get to do this shoot but many more for them as well”.

The truth is that rarely happens in the commercial photography industry.

Agencies and brands often flit from photographer to photographer, with little or no loyalty to one photographer.

They are constantly ‘refreshing their branding’, and seeking new and better looks.

They want to ‘modernize’, or have a unique look and style for each campaign.

I’ll never forget the words of a highly esteemed colleague years ago when talking about a major household brand and how they chose photographers. “They’ll pick any old rando”, she said.

Of course, repeat jobs depend on the client, and the smaller, local and/or regional clients sometimes have ongoing or repeat projects for the same photographer. (If you want to shoot for the same clients every month, pitch your services to local and regional companies.)

That said, oftentimes those smaller clients are also looking to save money, so they may think that they’ll get what they want by offering those meaningless ‘payment types’.

Regardless of who is offering ‘exposure’, ‘future work’, or ‘photo credit’, the client is using these words as a ploy to woo photographers who the client thinks don’t know any better.

The client hopes the words carry enough power to result in lower bids, more concessions made by the photographer, or even a photographer who is willing to deliver great value to them for free. (Insert angry face emoji here.)

The way that I always respond to these ‘charming offers’ is to get the shoot specs, and then send them the same estimate for the work that I’d send to any other client who didn’t expect me to work for peanuts.

They can either take it or leave it.

Spoiler alert: these clients nearly always ‘leave it’.

Tip: Never spend much time on an estimate for an inquiry like this, but also don’t discount the possibility of working with the client in the future.

After they tell me they can’t afford me I often respond with “I would really love to work with you, so when you have more room in your budget, please get back in touch.” This has happened before, so you never really know.

#4. YOU are responsible for your crew’s mistakes, and sometimes even your client’s mistakes, regardless of who is at fault

Unprofessional is the photographer who says to their client “my assistant screwed up” when a mistake is made on set.

Your job is to suck it up, be responsible for your crew, apologize to your client/talent agency/producer/whoever, and work with them to try and mitigate the damage and proceed forward in a positive way.

If you have a new assistant on set and they accidentally knock over an important strobe and break it, it’s your job to get a replacement STAT.

If the caterer doesn’t show up, it’s your job to make sure your client and crew still get fed.

While a producer can help with these things (if and when you have the budget to hire a producer), the responsibility still ultimately lies with you to ‘fix it’.

It’s not fair, but it’s a reality.

This ‘boss of all’ position can be really intimidating to new commercial photographers, but it’s something that’s unavoidable if you want to be taken seriously as a professional, and ideally, work with that client again.

Show up, take the reins on set, be the boss and be accountable. That’s how every shoot should go.

Tip: If the thought of this intimidates you, do as many collaborative test shoots as you need until you feel confident in directing a crew and taking ownership of a production.

#5. Most new commercial photographers have no idea how to price, and many clients don’t know the value of an image, so it’s like the blind leading the blind

Join any commercial photography forum or Facebook group and you’ll find it filled with posts from photographers asking ‘how much should I charge for this?’

They’ll rarely get a straight answer, mostly due to the infinite number of variables in each photography job that make it impossible for other photographers to quote, so they often turn to Google to find the answer.

Google isn’t the most reliable resource for commercial photography pricing, with advice given on various websites including the arbitrary and unfortunate suggestions of just charging 3-4x a personal use license, or charging based on the number of pixels wide a photo is, for any kind or duration of commercial use. (Please don’t do either of these things.)

So these photographers move forward, mistakenly thinking the resources providing these suggestions are credible and trustworthy, and they charge the clients rates that even they themselves don’t understand, and worse- that aren’t even in line with industry standards.

The client comes back to negotiate, and because the photographer doesn’t understand their own pricing and has no resources or experience to draw on, they don’t know how to properly make concessions or lower value to reduce their own prices.

They are also providing terrible education to the client and doing damage that more experienced commercial photographers have to try and undo when the same client contacts them for future shoots.

To complicate the situation, the client, unless they are an experienced art buyer at an ad agency, may use their own past personal experience working with a photographer as a basis for comparison. “A commercial photographer can’t possibly cost more than the person I hired to photograph my wedding.”

Or that client may have already worked with a commercial photographer that was so green at the time they did the shoot that they were charging retail rates to their commercial clients.

And that client might not have the slightest clue as to what needs to go into a production. To this production.

The photographer might not either.

You end up with two parties going back and forth trying to negotiate when neither of them really know what they are doing.

The lack of transparency on both sides is frustrating, but unfortunately it’s unavoidable, which is a topic for a whole other article.

There are many reasons for the increasing downward pressure on pricing in the commercial photography industry over the years. IMHO, this is one of them.

Tip: If you don’t know how to properly calculate your commercial photography pricing, educate yourself on how it should be done before sending a single estimate or bid to a client.

The rest of us will thank you.

#6. Companies and agencies don’t care about your payment terms

Ahhh, the most fun part of being a commercial photographer.

Getting paid.

I use the term ‘fun’ both literally and facetiously because, in the literal sense, it’s pretty awesome getting five- or even six-figure checks. But in the facetious sense, it sucks big time to chase down payments for months.

The term ‘feast or famine’ applies to photographers in the commercial world as well, which makes waiting for payments stressful at best, and financially debilitating at worst.

If you’re smart, you’ll have payment terms in your contract and on your invoices.

The most common payment terms in the commercial photography industry are net-30, which means that the client has to pay you the balance due (what’s remaining after the project advance), within 30 days of invoice receipt.

That’s all fine and dandy, but the problem is this:

Many companies have been extending their payment terms on payments made to vendors to 60, 90 or even longer payment terms. (Four months is insane, but it’s happening.) This often happens with big brands that hire advertising agencies. The agencies might not get paid for 90-120 days.

If you have net-30 payment terms in the contract they signed, and your client hasn’t paid you within 30 days, they are technically in breach of contract.

But it’s unlikely you are going to get an attorney involved for an invoice that’s just a few weeks or a month (or two) late.

You also won’t want to tarnish your relationship with your client and risk any future work with them by angrily breathing down their neck and repeatedly saying “pay me”.

But if cash flow is tight, as it is for many photographers, your life might be on hold for that one check.

It’s crazy-making to check your mailbox every day, not having any idea when exactly you’ll get paid.

Tip: Always have a phone conversation about payments at the outset of your projects, before you do any work for the client. They need to understand what you expect, and you need to make that very clear.

Also, require that the project advance covers 100% of expenses, so at least you won’t be floating those costs until the client decides to pay you. (You are not a bank.)

If the thought of having to wait for a month or more for payment makes you ill, don’t plan to work with any advertising agencies or large companies, and stick with working with small and/or local clients, who often can pay you more quickly.

#7. You’re really not that special, even when they try and make it seem like you are

Receive enough client inquiries and you’ll start to get a sense for the boilerplate emails they use to reach out to photographers.

Hi __your name__. We have a shoot coming up for our client, and they really love your work and we’d love to work with you. We think your style is the perfect match for what we are looking for for this particular project, and the client is excited at the prospect of you creating images for their new campaign.

Awesome!

The only problem is, the art buyer sent that exact same email to five other photographers.

They make it seem like you’re a top contender (or even the only contender) for a shoot, but make no mistake. No matter the size of the client, the chances are very good they are talking to multiple photographers about the job.

And if it’s an advertising agency contacting you, always assume it’s a triple bid scenario (at least three photographers bidding against each other on the same project.) I’ve queried many photographer’s agents about this, and even the ones that rep top commercial photographers say that 100% of agency bid requests are triple bids these days.

The only time this isn’t the case is if you have such a unique style that it can’t be duplicated by anyone else. Or the client is inspired by images you created for a personal project you worked on, and they want you to create those exact same images for their campaign.

One of the best moments of my career came when I received an email from an art director who was working for one of my dream clients (a major international brand), and she made it clear in the email that I was the only photographer she was talking to, she had followed me for years and had specifically chosen me to do the work. I had to read it twice just to make sure it was real.

Those situations are much rarer than the ones where a handful or more photographers are contacted, who would all do a really great job on the shoot.

No matter how much glowing praise the potential client gives you, always assume that you are not the only photographer being considered for the project unless they tell you otherwise.

Tip: Communicate with the client, find out what they need. Determine what their pain points are. Ask what didn’t go well on their last shoot. Find out how you can meet their needs better than anyone else. Emphasize your strengths in phone calls. Talk about how you’d solve problems for them. Be easy to talk to. Be nice.

All of these things will increase the odds of you becoming the only one they want to work.

#8. There is no such thing as ‘the right price’

You may think that there is a fair market value when it comes to licensing fees and creative fees and that when you offer those rates to clients they’ll say “great, that’s what we expected”.

You may think that the stock websites are a good reference tool, or that that one article from 2013 has solid advice about day rates. That if you just use the right tools, you’ll arrive at the right price that any client would accept.

The truth of the matter is, the ‘right price’ is quite simply, the one the client is willing to pay, and the photographer is willing to accept.

If you let out a deep sigh after reading that, I don’t blame you at all.

It’s crazy-making.

Imagine how agencies feel when they send out for bids from three different photographers and get three wildly different prices back.

I recall one shoot I did where my bid was just under $100,000, and I asked the art director on set what the other two bid amounts were. He said the low one was $37,000 and the high one was somewhere around $225,000. Talk about variance!

Knowing how to properly price commercial shoots comes from time and experience, and also knowing your business well enough to know exactly how much revenue you need to be generating.

You have the right to ask for whatever prices you feel you need to charge for a job.

Tip: There actually is a ‘right price’, and it’s the right price for you. Do the hard work to calculate your operating costs and photography fees, decide which pricing tools you’ll use for licensing fees, and present your pricing with the confidence.

You have worked hard to develop talent and skills that help your client generate revenue, sometimes great revenue.

You should absolutely be getting a cut of that revenue too.

#9. At the end of the year, the job sometimes goes to the highest bidder, regardless of anything else in a bid, or the talent and skill of those being considered for the job

The biggest bid I ever sent was around $275,000, for an early December shoot. (I think the licensing fee alone was somewhere around $80,000.) It was a pretty basic concept and the images didn’t seem all that important to the company, so I interpreted it as being a ‘budget use’ shoot.

End of year shoots for major brands are often done to use up their remaining marketing budget for the year so they’ll get at least that much budget if not more for the following year. Knowing this, I packed as much stuff in the production as humanly possible.

I didn’t end up landing that job due to geography and timing. They decided to go with someone local to them because they were concerned about the time they’d need to travel to me in California. Since it was right before Christmas, they were working on a very tight timeline.

I was told my bid was very competitive, which made the loss even more painful.

I’ve heard stories of talented, experienced photographers losing end-of-year jobs to photographers with poor skills (e.g. not good photos), simply because the other photographer bid double what they did.

Of course, you never really know if the client really is just trying to use up budget or if they have a legitimate need for a photo shoot and don’t have much budget to spare.

It’s all part of the guessing game that makes commercial photography endlessly challenging and interesting.

Tip: Always ask your clients what kind of ‘production value’ they are seeking for a shoot because the production value will give you an indication of what kind of money they are working with.

In the story I outlined above, my client’s response was ‘very high’, so I knew they wanted premium everything. (Premium talent, premium locations, unrestricted exclusive use licensing in perpetuity, etc.) Premium everything = premium cost.

#10. Ad agencies will use your treatment to inspire a photo shoot that you bid on that they award to a different photographer

This last one is the dirtiest of the dirty.

Sending a creative treatment (a photographer’s visual and written interpretation of a job), along with a bid or estimate is an industry-standard practice these days, with most agencies and many companies expecting this creative PDF from photographers they are considering for a job.

The treatment contains, among other things, the photographer’s unique approach to the shoot, including comp photos, style guide, written interpretation, post-processing/retouching examples/inspiration, and other unique and creative ideas the photographer has for the project.

Treatments are often a personal form of expression on the part of the photographer, and sometimes they can even provide insight into the photographer’s unique style.

Sending a beautiful detailed treatment off that you worked really hard on can sometimes feel like you’re sending a piece of yourself to the client.

It’s totally worth it to increase your chances of landing the job, but here’s the rub:

The client can take that piece of you, give it to another photographer, and pay them to recreate your style, ideas, and work.

Damn… right?

Unfortunately, it happens.

And unless there is a clear case of copyright infringement, there really isn’t anything you can do about it.

Sure you could call up the art buyer and pitch a fit, but do you want to risk developing a reputation as being ‘that guy that went ballistic because he thought someone copied his ideas’? Probably not.

Unfortunately, this is a risk that every photographer runs who sends a treatment to a client.

You need to find a balance with your treatments between providing too much information, and not enough.

Tip: If you are concerned about this possibility with a particular project, you can elect to share more verbal information in a call with the art buyer (or creative call) than what you share in your treatment.

Ultimately don’t let this low risk prevent you from doing everything you can to land jobs that will feed both your wallet and your soul.

In fact, it’s exactly those jobs that make all the challenges of commercial photography so worth enduring.

At the end of the day, when you feel pride in seeing your beautiful, heartfelt, inspiring photos out there in the world, sharing a little piece of your soul with all who see them, everything in this article becomes a distant memory.


About the author: Jamie Piper is a commercial animal photographer, visual and social media agency owner, author and educator based in San Diego. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. Piper’s agency’s Instagram is filled with cute dog and cat photos, and she teaches other photographers how to avoid the many pitfalls of commercial photography and stop underpricing their work through her educational website CPR: Commercial Photographer’s Resources.


Image credits: Header photo by William F. Santos

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