Rate And How It Defines Your Photography Brand
How Stormy Daniels shaped my rate structure.
When I first started out as a professional photographer, rate was the single biggest hurdle. What do you charge for your services? What is too much? Too little? What does your rate say about you as a professional?
My dad took me aside, and told me I had two choices: go cheap, and work a lot, or go expensive, and work less. I decided to fill my portfolio, so I’d go cheap. I’d offer a half and full day flat rate. Expenses included. Copyright included. I’d make it easy: clients had 30 days to pay their invoices. I’d accept all credit cards.
And it worked, much to the consternation of my competitors. And by consternation, I mean vicious open hostility.
One day a colleague stopped me in the halls of the US Senate, where I started my career, shooting news pics for the thousands of special interest groups on Capitol Hill.
“YOU ARE RUINING PHOTOGRAPHY FOR EVERYONE ELSE!” He shouted. And I mean, SHOUTED.
I thought about that, it actually bothered me for a few seconds. Then I shrugged and went to some exhilarating hearing to get very exciting photos of a very handsome CEO testifying in front of a congressional panel of engaged listeners. Not one word in that previous sentence was true. Except “I went to a hearing” and “to get photos”.
But that colleague was wrong. I wasn’t the problem with the industry, the challenge was the industry was changing. Film: replaced by “digital”. Rates: dropping like a heroin addict at a methadone clinic. Copyright issues were cropping up as the Internet replaced every other form of media. They saw me as the villain; but I wasn’t the problem. I just adapted faster than they did.
However, in the end, that business model of shoot cheap and shoot all the time was a catch 22. Yes, it built my portfolio: but with demanding clients who’d book a “day” that stretched past 15 hours at that daily rate. 15 hours is two days of shooting, but all in one stretch. They’d glare when I had to stop and pee. They’d look put out when I’d break to eat.
I adjusted my business model to compensate, defining a day as “eight hours with appropriate breaks”, and adding basic protections for myself. But once you set a rate, and a work structure, it’s hard to change. To this day I have clients who call for a 15 hour day, and seem put out when I tell them the rate is more than two eight hour days, because there’s an added cost for me getting up at 4 am for the “fun run”. One of three things happen: they decide that early start time isn’t that important, or they hire another photographer, or they pay and I chew coffee grinds to wake up.
Fast forward a few years. Rates were sky high for green screen photo executions, what are seen now as green screen photo booths. Then, rates were about $3,000 a day. You read that right. A day. How do you think we were able to ramp business up so quickly? Then photo booths became ubiquitous—and rates plummeted. I just had a request for price for an event held in three different cities, on three different days, and the entire budget for all of it? Less than that $3,000. (Um, between us? Yeah, no.)
And the potential client asking for those services was miffed when our bid was higher. He did find a company at his budget. He informed me they were “a similar firm at a substantially cheaper rate.”
My reaction? Not to call this competitor and scream they were ruining the market. (Yes, I can guess who it is.) But to realize, despite what the client said, the two services (mine and this competitors) were not the same. Not even close. In fact, the fact this client thought we were the same is either a lack of proper marketing on my part, or complete, willful ignorance on the part of the potential client. If this client really didn’t (couldn’t) see a difference, then they should go with the competition. I need to evaluate my marketing, and make sure I’m clearly explaining how we are different, better, and unique from our competitors.
To the potential client: Best of luck. Call me if (when) it doesn’t work out.
Arrogant on my part? Probably. But I know, for our niche, we are the best. I eat, sleep and breathe making us the best. I know we charge a fair price for what we do. I know my current clients feel the same way. I know they value what we do. I know they see us as partners, not hired servants. I know that is the relationship I want. I don’t want to be the cheap guy. I want to be the expert. My rate reflects that. What we charge is fair, but not cheap.
I know this because of how our best clients treat us. How they ask for our advice. I know this because Matthew and I were sitting in Las Vegas at an expensive Mexican restaurant at Mandalay Bay, and when we went to pay our bill, the waiter told us it was covered. We looked over at the bar, and our client waggled her fingers at us. I know this because HBO sent me a gift box that barely fit through the door when I was in the hospital. I know this because clients tell me we are important partners in their Photo marketing strategy. These are our core clients. The backbone of our business. These are the clients I’d skip sleep for, altogether, if they needed it. Because I know they’d only ask if it was really important.
I don’t want the cheapest dentist, and a client shouldn’t be shopping for the cheapest photographer. Because the old saying is true: the $20 hooker will give you the clap.
All of that said, if you aren’t selling on price alone, you better be that leading expert in your niche. High end, sophisticated clients will treat you well, will value their relationship with you, will be loyal to you, until you don’t deliver. Then things aren’t so nice.
Therefore, my advice on rate is simple. Who are you as a brand? Are you the La Quinta, solid and passable for a one night stand? Or, are you the Mandarin Oriental, the undisputed leader in a crowded field of luxury brands? Are you a corner hooker or a call girl? Red Lobster or Smokey Bones? Hair Cuttery or a pampering day spa? You need to decide, because that decision will forever shape your brand— and decide the Johns — clients — that hire you.
(Yes I said that. Read previous post on being -mildly- funny.)
Think of Trump’s Washington, DC hotel. It’s occupancy rate last year was less than its competitors. But the reported profits were higher, according to CNN.
Like Stormy Daniels*, they worked less but earned more.
Dad would be proud.
*For those who aren’t political junkies, Stormy Daniels is (reported by ‘fake news’, like CNN) Donald Trump’s hooker. I threw the reference in mainly to aggregate my web master, Angel Ramos, who forces me to write these blog posts, and supports Donald Trump. Two aggravating things in one package. But, despite this, Angel is the type of professional I value. He is exactly the partner to my company I am describing US Event Photos strives to be to our clients. Despite receiving at least ten emails a day for services like his, I’ve never considered switching to another provider. In fact, I recommended him to my dad.
Some clients help us produce our best work. Our core clients are like that; their partnership inspires us to reach higher. Carpet One is one of our core clients, and we shoot their executive conference twice a year. Their stories unfold on stage in a way that’s hard to tell in one photo. So I started thinking in terms of a series of photos, that when viewed together, show a complete narrative.
This is a client that helped us grow as artists, simply because of who they are and how they treat us in that partnership.