Reflecting on my 3rd Year as a Full Time Photographer
During my first year of working as a photographer, I felt like I was on borrowed time. My second year was a lot better but I often felt like it could all come crumbling down and I’d have to go job hunting. Finally, in this third year, I feel like I’m really doing this and can continue working as a photographer for the long term.
I’ve learned so much in these three years. I’ve always approached these wrap-up posts from the perspective that I want to share what would have been helpful for me to know at the beginning. If I could sit down and have coffee with the slightly panicked me of three years ago, here are the things I would cover.
This year, I’ve learned to approach pricing from a more practical perspective instead of an emotional one that’s tied up with my sense of self-worth. At the beginning of the year, I made a couple of calculations of how much I would earn based on some rough estimates of how many hours I could shoot in a week. Most weeks, I’m out photographing things between 8 hours (an easy week) and 22 hours (a very busy week). For the time being, I only charge for the time I’m out shooting and only include licensing on larger commercial projects. This will likely change as I find myself doing increasingly technical architectural and design projects that require a lot of highly detailed compositing work which ends up taking much more time in the editing room than some of my more straightforward lifestyle shoots. In those situations, I might start to add a retouching fee.
Anyway, with all that in mind, I calculated how much I’d make for the year if I charged $80/hr, $125/hr, $150/hr, $200/hr, $250/hr and $300/hr and then made calculations for a slow year and a busy year.
Here’s the math:
In a slow year, if I’m shooting 8 hours a week for 52 weeks, this would get me $33,280 in revenue which doesn’t take into account taxes, expenses or vacation - all of which significantly reduce the net income. Also, before you get all hyped up on the idea of making $124,800 while shooting only 8 hours a week, remember taxes increase, as do expenses and editing time if you’re shooting for clients that pays $300/hr. For a busy year, same considerations so don’t go signing me up for any yacht brochures or handing my email over to a Porsche dealer. About 50% of my revenue gets eaten up by taxes and expenses (equipment, travel, Lightroom, this website).
No week is the same and no project is the same so all of that was to create some mental structure for myself. I’ve written a bit about my approach to pricing and explained that I have 3 pricing tiers. I try to stick to those tiers as much as possible, which makes it possible for me to focus on my work instead of the financial pressure of working for myself.
Sometimes it feels taboo to talk about art and money but I have no interest in living as a starving artist. Nor do I want to chase the influencer life or commercial photographer life, constantly stressing about my next big pay day. It’s important to me to make enough to buy the fancy kibble for my cats but I’m not stocking up on Louis Vuitton bags. In my first year, I took on just about any project that came my way and sometimes that meant 4 hour shoots that paid $150 (total). This year, after going through and calculating my potential revenue at each hourly rate tier (with the understanding that about 50% would be eaten up by taxes and expenses) I realized that saying yes to those types of projects put me in a situation where I would not be able to sustain myself financially for the long term. It also became clear that that time would better be spent on the blog (which is essentially marketing), a personal project (which recharges me, highlights the type of work I want to be doing, or builds up a new skill set), or a mental health activity (reading, working out, catching up with friends) which are crucial in the long term viability of the freelance life.
Currently, I charge about 70% of my projects at $200/hr. This is minimal production, often on-site or shot at my home. These photo shoots generally take just a few hours. Anything that can be broken down into an hourly rate lands here. I do a handful of projects for friends and family at $80/hr. It means a lot to me when my friends trust me to take their engagement photos. I love working with friends and want to be available to them, so this is my way of doing that while acknowledging our relationship. On a side note, I no longer do projects for friends or family for free. I have in the past and have sometimes felt resentful when I’ve gotten extra requests or long emails full of questions. I don’t want my feelings to sour for a month or two on a friend because of a creative project so I charge for my time. It keeps me mindful and it keeps my friends from texting me at midnight with photoshoot questions. Finally, I have a $150/hr tier for repeat clients and non-profits. I don’t like raising rates on folks that I work with consistently so in my 3 years, I have raised rates each year but have kept my rates the same for recurring work.
Outside of those tiers, I have 3 retainer contracts that have their own structures. I appreciate consistent work and good working relationships (sorry I’m probably going to say that like 26 more times) so I don’t futz with those too much. In year 3, I’ve also done 3 projects on trade. I get a lot of offers for random trades and it’s not something I’m totally opposed to but it needs to make sense. A project that requires 3 hours of work and pays me in $38 worth of protein snacks is dumb. A project where I get to work with people I like and get something I would spend money on either way sometimes works for me.
Lastly, I have a few projects here and there with budgets over $5k / $10k. These sorts of projects usually have some complicating factor that make them expensive. A brand wants to buy full rights to everything I create or wants a lot of say in the process. Or I have to bring in a producer to secure a location, talent, figure out travel and everything else. Or I have to photograph 30 locations in 2 weeks.
Finding Work and Financial Stability
I’ve been contemplating writing a post about how to make it as a photographer. My entire post would be that you have to hustle in year one to build great relationships and ruthlessly prune shitty clients. In year 3, I LOVED all but 3 projects (if we’ve worked together and you’re reading this, it’s not you). I worked on 55 projects. That’s 52 projects that I enjoyed thinking about. 52 projects where I liked everyone I worked with. 52 projects that left me happy and energized.
My philosophy on photography and life is that there are projects out there that are perfect for me and projects that make no sense for me. When I get pinged about a project that’s a dreadful fit, I don’t twist myself into knots trying to find a way to make it work. I think through the people I know and recommend them. Alina Tsvor is great at fashion and sports portraits, I am not. Huge Galdones is the photographer you should be emailing if you’re looking for someone to shoot a huge food event, not me. Got a high-end wedding coming up next year in Michigan? You should email the Stoffers. Nolis is also great at sports photography and music portraits. Looking for someone to get up at 5am to shoot a sunrise timelapse, Craig Shimala is your guy. Do you need something photographed next week when I’ll be out of town, get in touch with Lucy Hewett. Want that Pacific Northwest vibe but in the Midwest, holler at Andrew Glatt. Got a technical project in mind that’s architecture focused or some weird, editorial shoot that goes till 3am, check if Michael Salisbury has time. Want help producing a big project, you can email me but I’ll just email Marc Moran for help. Want that glossy still life stuff you’ve seen in magazines, Ryan Segedi is your best bet. I believe there’s enough work for all of us and more importantly work that specifically fits all of our talents and preferences. By skipping on projects that don’t fit my skills and preferences and pushing them towards photographers that are a better fit, I, first of all, get to feel good about myself (like a photographer matchmaker) but more importantly I keep my time clear enough to work on the things that make the most sense for me: restaurant openings and reviews, hotel shoots, travel projects and branding work for food and travel brands, interesting architecture projects, fun videos for social media and so on (basically all the stuff that’s in my portfolio). The more I focus on these things, the better I get, the more work I get, the more fun I have and repeat.
If you’re just starting out with photography, let me say this whole “there’s a perfect project for you” view isn’t quite true for you. There’s a period of time that you need to take to hone your craft. For some people that time is a few months. For others it’s a few years. I did creative work just for fun for about 6 months before I got my first paid project. Then I freelanced on the side for about 4 years. I finally stepped into a full time creative role where I had the opportunity to work on my skills while getting a steady paycheck for a year. Then I finally went off on my own. This isn’t about paying your dues. Fuck that nonsense. It’s about developing your technical skills and becoming confident in your unique vision and perspective. If you’re feeling unsure of yourself and your work, I’d recommend finding a good photo editor and getting constructive feedback. I worked with Meredith Marlay in my first year and would highly recommend her. It’s good to have a fresh perspective that comes from a helpful place.
Anyway, I get exasperated when I see photographers taking projects that are a terrible fit and creating mediocre work. I understand the impulse, the fear that the next project won’t come. I’ve experienced the doubt that creeps in when my email inbox was silent for a week or when I got passed up for a project that I really wanted. It’s hard. The only thing I can say is that so far, another project has always come my way. The silence ends.
In terms of financial stability, creating a corporate structure (Sandy Noto Photography) and paying myself a set amount each month has allowed me to weather through slow periods.
I will say, all these things work for me in year three. A lot of photographers chatted with me about their experiences when I was starting out and almost all of them warned me that year one is the hardest. That has definitely been true for me, year one was the hardest and I deeply appreciate the work I now have.
Is it marketing or sales?
When I was starting out, marketing and sales kind of baffled me. I mean, I worked on marketing emails at my initial job where I spent 4 years doing freelance on the side. Then I worked as a Digital Media Manager for a restaurant group and a large part of my job could be described as marketing and branding but the restaurants weren’t starting at zero. I had some ideas starting out especially about marketing but no clear direction particularly with sales.
This blog is marketing. My Instagram account is marketing. These things allow me to showcase my work in a passive way without directly hollering at anyone specific (inbound marketing). At this point I have enough work coming in without too much effort on my part but I’m ambitious. There are magazines and brands and publishing houses I’m itching to work with and I don’t think sitting around for 5 years waiting for them to find me will help me get anywhere. So I’ve been trying to figure out this component, where I have enough work to sustain my life but I still want the experience of working on bigger projects or with specific brands I admire. I don’t have this figured out. I honestly don’t know if I ever will fully crack the marketing and sales nut. Holler at me if you have tips on this or have a great person I should connect with.
I’m always kind of experimenting, trying things out. In year 3, I signed up for a photographer’s directory called FOUND. It was inexpensive ($40/month which isn’t too bad but all the little expenses add up) but also ineffective so I have nothing to report on that. I also worked with Creative Picnic, a marketing agency and quasi representation service for photographers. It was an interesting experience. I did get a lot of agency meetings. I’m currently taking a pause. After 9 months, it got to be too expensive to justify the cost ($600/month) without consistent work coming in from it. During a slow period, I emailed Jake Stengel, who has a great photography blog, to ask about the meetings. Was I doing something wrong? Is it just luck of the draw? He, very kindly, responded that it’s a bit random and that everything just takes way longer than you think it will.
So even though it sometimes feels futile, I’m doing a few marketing things. Mostly, I’ve decided to focus on the things I enjoy. Instagram is kind of fun (though it often also feels like playing a rigged slot machine). I like blogging and I think in about 8 years, I’ll be interested in teaching some component of photography. I figure at that point a decades worth of blog posts will give me a good syllabus starting point. Putting together a postcard pack to celebrate every new year is very fun. Direct outreach, or just plain old emails if we’re talking in normal speak, aren’t my favorite but I do like a lot of the people I interact with. So that’s where I’m at with marketing and sales.
Before starting this novella I asked people on my Instagram stories what they would like me to cover and negotiations was a frequent request.
I’ve worked really hard to align my work as best as possible with my preferences for life. I don’t like the sensation of instability so I created a corporate structure and pay myself a salary. I don’t enjoy photographing music festivals, so I recommend other photographers (at this point I’ve said “no” often enough that I don’t get asked to photograph them anymore). So with negotiations, I don’t like them. As often as possible, I avoid negotiations.
My pricing is pretty set. All my hourly work rarely gets negotiated. Usually when someone asks for my rate, I explain that I work hourly, give them my $200/hr rate and 90% of the time they say cool and we move on to finding a date that works for everyone. Sometimes, they say that they don’t have enough budget and then we discuss their budget. This is a grey area. Sometimes we find a middle ground. Sometimes I recommend someone talented but less busy or less experienced. Sometimes they try to offer me $38 worth of snacks as compensation and I make fun of them on the internet.
Negotiations do happen pretty extensively on big budget projects. Usually with a larger project there are a lot of components so the budget isn’t just my take home. It’s some combination of assistants, travel, a digital tech, catering, location, producer, expenses, retouching, equipment and licensing. The beginning of these discussions are always a little tricky because I need a sense of how many people I need to rope in to make the vision possible and how much is allocated for the shoot. Then it’s a game of trying to make the vision possible with the budget.
When I was starting out this post, I went back and forth on how much to share. Did it make sense to share my pricing? Did it make sense to talk about my perspective on photography work. Ultimately Eli (my husband and life troll) argued that I tend to approach things systematically and as fairly as possible. I don’t play mind games in a negotiation. I only enter negotiations on projects that I believe I’m a good fit for either based on my experience, skill set or price point. So I approach a negotiation from the perspective of how to make the creative possible not how to maximize my take home (as long as it meets by hourly base and in some cases my licensing and retouching requirements). In a situation where I’m figuring out the budget, I also want to be sure that everyone else on a shoot is paid fairly. I believe in being paid fairly so it would be deeply hypocritical for me to pay my assistants with idiotic promises of “exposure” or “experience”. Exposure can’t pay for that fancy cat kibble. Long side note here, sometimes I let people shadow me on a shoot where they’re learning. In those instances, I have no need for an assistant and the person is using the experience to see how I work and I usually try to limit these to 2 hours max. I don’t pay people in those instances. On shoots where I need an assistant to carry stuff, to set up lights, to 2nd shoot, I always pay whoever is assisting me.
Anyway, back to negotiations, when the other side has the same focus on “how to make things possible” things tend to go well. We talk, we figure things out, sometimes we compromise, sometimes we’re perfectly aligned. There have been times, in the midst of a negotiation where I become concerned that the other side is being unreasonable. This year, I went through a 2 week negotiation with a design firm. There were multiple issues right away. First they kept introducing new parameters, like wanting to do 2 distinct shoots in one day when that wasn’t clear at first. Then different people would unexpectedly hop in on the negotiation chain. I was already feeling wary when another new person jumped into the negotiation and basically asked to halve the budget and double the work for each day that was set for photo shoots. I ultimately passed on the project by refusing to accommodate the budget change. My advice on negotiations is to walk in optimistic, focus on the creative and be willing to walk away if your baseline isn’t met.
If it’s bad at the beginning, beware
That brings me around to one of the odd things of year three. 52 of my projects were “write home to mom” levels of wonderful. I am stupidly happy with work 95% of the time!
I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about the three projects that were duds. For one of the projects, the client was great but I was photographing an event. The attendees were difficult to work with and photograph, so that was just luck of the draw as I’ve shot plenty of lovely events where I’ve ended up making new friends.
The other two came in as referrals. There were a lot of warning signs at the beginning. For both projects the producer/contact point was distant, very slow to respond to emails, and mostly absent during the shoot. They didn’t make up for the absence by being warm when we did communicate. In both cases I spent a lot of time and effort pinging the client repeatedly for information they were responsible for sharing. Both projects were unsatisfying to work on and then both clients took an incredibly long time to pay their invoices and weren’t apologetic.
In my experience, when a projects starts bad it doesn’t turn good. It’s just a slog all the way through. Heed the warning signs and bail early if you’re getting bad vibes. One bad client ends up occupying far more mental real estate than they are worth.
Focus & the future
It’s wild to me that I’m starting on year 4 now. For the PDN emerging photographer competition, anyone that has been working for less than 5 years is eligible. So I tend to think of myself as very early in my photography career. I’ve worked on things in these last 3 years that I wasn’t sure I’d ever get to. Each year has been better than the previous year in varied and unexpected ways. I’ve become a better photographer and a savvier business owner and met new and wonderful clients who have gone on to become friends. I have no idea what the next year holds but I couldn’t be more excited to get started!