Taking the leap in to professional photography is daunting and full of traps for you to fall into, but there’s one that you can jump in willingly and without realizing it’s a trap at all.
There is a plethora of well-hidden mistakes you can be lured into as a photographer — believe me, I’ve made a lot of them — but few were as harmful as one that I made for nearly a year: accepting low paid work. I’ll first explain how the first year as a professional photographer typically goes and why low paid work seems par for the course. Then, I’ll unpack why it most definitely isn’t par for the course and in fact could see you stuck in the lowest income bracket.
Being a New Professional Photographer
Few photographers are lucky enough to grow organically on the side to a degree where they can turn full-time professional without much of a leap of faith. For the vast majority of us, we get to a stage where we can see the potential for making money and a career in our beloved hobby, but for it to truly materialize, we’ll have to stop other obligations and dive in face first.
The careful of us will have some savings, some leads, and a support network that will allow us the time to grow. The braver of us will have little to lose and try to brute-force their way to success. I was somewhere between the two; I had not a penny to my name (but rather debt from university,) some paid work under my belt, and a decent support network. I set myself modest targets to initially achieve, and without clear direction (or a niche that I bang on about so regularly), I was spread-betting and taking work where I could get it. Occasionally, that wasn’t a bad route for me and I’d get multiple jobs in a month, but more often, it felt like I was clawing at everything and hanging on to self-employment viability with my bloodied fingernails. No matter how hard (read: long) I worked, I couldn’t necessarily increase the flow of work. So, I specialized with the sort of imagery I was looking to create, and then I focused on getting paid by companies in that area to do so. This saw more regular work, but with it came the exacerbation of an already persistent problem: pricing. That is, low paid work.
Vicious Circles: The Trap of Low Paid Work
To hit my targets of monthly income in the first year, I had to be industrious, void of ego, and willing to take what came. I would often quote for a job, and if it came in lower than I wanted, I’d have to take it because I couldn’t risk them walking away; I had no power or control over the situation. But, money’s money right? I wasn’t in a position to be turning down pay, and it’s not forever anyway. Except, it just might be forever.
You see, by accepting those jobs that aren’t worth taking on, you’re not growing in the direction you want or at the pace you want. But worse than that, you’re sacrificing the most important resource you have: time. In that, the vicious circle lies. You see, you’re taking these low paid jobs, and you might be busier than usual, but that means you don’t have the time to canvas for clients that you do want. But if you’re not earning much money, how can you possibly turn down work? Well, you don’t necessarily have a choice.
After a while of being locked into this cycle, I reached a precipice. One of my regular clients (who had initially paid me reasonably well, but then whittled it down with every repeat job) offered me my largest assignment yet. The work would be my biggest ever fee and I’d hit target for two months in a row just off one job. Perfect. Except, I sat down and diligently worked out how long the assignment would take to complete, how much it would cost me in (unpaid) expenses, and the level of consistent creativity necessary to repeat the standard of work for that long. Well, it would have taken me the best part of three months, hundreds of dollars in expenses, and taxing my brain to within an inch of its life. So, I came back to the gentleman with a counter-quote (which in retrospect was still painfully low), and he hit the roof. After all the work he’d sent my way, I was going to charge him more than before?! I calmly laid out the facts: that after all things considered, he would be paying £10 ($12) per commercial image shot and fully retouched, which if I discounted creativity and could just pump out hundreds of ideas over three months would probably equate to (and I’m being generous here) £3 per hour.
We parted ways and I never worked with him again. The next two months were painfully difficult, and I didn’t earn much at all. I spent every day wondering whether to swallow my pride and go back to him, cap in hand, and hope he doesn’t lower the offer further. But I knew it was necessary to move my boat towards the destination I intended, and in the third month, I secured one of my favorite clients (even now that’s still true) who paid me fairly and were a dream to work with. They also held a much higher prestige, which led to more work.
For those not interested in a fleshed-out discussion of the trap, I’ll lay it out simply and briefly: by accepting very low paid jobs, you’re stealing success from your future. I have no doubt there are instances where low paid jobs lead to something great, but they’re going to be rare. You’re honestly better off (and I wish I could have told myself this) getting a part-time job instead and aiming for bigger fish with your photography.
Did you fall into this trap when you went full-time? Are you currently in this trap right now?