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The PRO-Files: How To Get Value From Every Assignment When Starting Out As A Professional Photographer

There are many ways to find value in a photography assignment. The easiest and most obvious, of course, is monetary value. The client needs a photograph, the photographer sets a price, and if the client proceeds the value is clear: the photographer is paid fairly for his expertise. As much as it’s generally a good policy to never be paid in exposure (“people die from exposure,” as the old joke goes) there are in fact other ways to be fairly compensated, other ways to receive good value besides cold, hard cash. It could be an assignment with such a high profile as to have a meaningful impact on a photographer’s branding and sales efforts, or simply a job that offers unique access to an otherwise off-limits location. Perhaps it’s a shoot that will produce a creative result that would be a boon to any portfolio, or an opportunity to work on a project that is personally meaningful. The trick, of course, is being able to accurately assess what that value is for any given assignment. Whatever the case may be, it’s imperative that a photographer receives fair value or the assignment simply isn’t worth it. That’s the lesson advertising photographer and Sony Artisan Tony Gale says he learned many years ago from a portrait master, and it’s something that’s stayed with him to this day.

Advertising Photographer and Sony Artisan Tony Gale shares some of the best advice he ever got about making a living as a photographer.

What Do You Need From The Job?

“I heard the photographer Norman Jean Roy speak years ago,” Gale says, “and one of the things he said was, ‘When you're doing a commercial shoot, you either need to be making a bunch of money or getting great work. If you're getting both, that's great. If you're not getting either one, you should walk away.’”

“How are you going to benefit from this shoot?” Gale says. “The hypothetical exposure that everyone says you'll get – that's not value. Getting good pictures is value. I mean getting exposure because you're on the cover of Vanity Fair would have value, but getting exposure because some web startup is going to put you on their website and somewhere buried there might be your name – that's not value.”

Consider The Possibility That It Won’t Net Out In Your Favor

Gale says this mindset has also helped him to be on the lookout when clients approach with a too-limited budget, which he says too often correlates to disproportionally high demands that make an entire project more difficult. That, therefore, should factor into the photographer’s equation establishing fair value.

“With the exception of some editorial stuff which never pays much,” Gale says, “I find that the commercial jobs or corporate jobs that have the lowest budgets often tend to be the biggest pains. When the client comes in and their budget is low, they sometimes end up wanting the most. Whereas the clients with bigger budgets tend to be more, 'This is what we want. We're clear on it. We're not asking you for the sun, the moon and the stars, here’s the pictures we need and when we need them.' But whereas you get some smaller company and it’s, ‘Can we just get a few more shots? Can you do this extra retouching we said we didn't want?’”

Gale says there’s nothing better than experience to benefit a photographer’s ability to deduce appropriate value and become more comfortable saying no to the jobs that just don’t add up.

“Like anyone,” he says, “when you’re first starting out there's certainly a point where if someone is going to pay you, you're going to do it. Now with experience, I'm much more comfortable saying I can't do it for that and walking away. That mostly happens with people that just reach out to me out of the blue. I'll get an email, asking what I charge for a shoot. I need to know more so I'll ask if they have a budget and every once in a while they will will tell me.”

“In my experience most people, even if they have a budget in mind, don't want to tell you,” Gale says. “Editorial tends to [provide a budget] and some clients are that way, but I assume they're all hoping that you're going to come in lower than their budget. If it's one of those situations, I make sure that I'm not coming in low. I'd much rather come in too high and then we can talk about it if they want to work with me, but I don't ever want to come in low. Especially because the shoots that are vague at the beginning tend to have more things come up that are difficult to anticipate and I want to make sure I'm covered.”

Make A Thorough And Thoughtful Assessment

Gale has taught photography at the college level, and he regularly shares this advice with his students—particularly when they are proposed paying work. “When I have students who come up because someone has approached them for a job,” he says, “I'll walk them through, asking, what kind of shoot is it? Is it something you want to do? Are you going to get good pictures out of it? If their budget is limited, is that still going to work for you? Are you still going to be able to get what you want, something that's usable for you? Think about how much time is involved. It's easy to think it's just a few pictures, but then depending on how you work in post, you might shoot for four hours and then spend 16 hours retouching. The $300 that sounded great for four hours suddenly isn’t so great.”

When the stars align and an assignment provides good pay as well as the possibility of producing great work, that’s when Gale says you’ve got to jump on it. It’s the ideal place to be as a working photographer, and it doesn’t happen all the time.

“I don't think there's anyone who only shoots photos that are going to be perfect portfolio pieces,” he says, “but certainly as you get better clients the likelihood of that goes up. I bet Richard Avedon was still shooting stuff he could shoot in his sleep in his 50s. It wasn't exciting, but it was work. I do think any day you're taking pictures is better than almost anything else you could be doing, even if what you're shooting isn't that exciting. If you don't shoot frequently you can get stale and it takes a bit to get your eye back. It's better to be shooting as much as possible.”


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