Thursday, March 22, 2012

Bill the Craiglist Photographer

I recently came across a post by a photographer in an online community who had been asked to shoot a wedding for $300.  Of course the opinions on working for that price create a lot of emotion, but in this economy Budget Brides are prevalent and photographers just starting out are starving for work.  It's hard to disseminate facts in those heated social media threads about these topics so I thought it would be interesting to break down the life of a 'craiglist photographer' and see if indeed they could make any money with their rates.  What is the bare minimum for working as a photographer in the budget market?

Let's assume our photographer (lets call him Bill), decides to photograph weddings.  He buys a used Nikon D300s (he's on a budget and doesn't need a backup camera right?) for $1400 and two lenses (a 24-70 for $1600 and a 80-200 for $900).  He'll buy a spare battery (you know, just in case) and two memory cards for a total of $200 because he found them in the sale bin.  Bill will skip a flash at first because he's a natural light kinda guy.  So his whopping total for equipment (let's say he's using a school backpack for a camera bag) is about $4100.

Now Bill can advertise by Craigslist and Kijiji and other such free sites.  That's his demographic.  And why shouldn't people get affordable photography?  Not everyone is a millionaire after-all and his art should be accessible!

Also, he won't get insurance because it's a rip-off and he'll just take cash for payment so no need to let the government know he's in business.  Hey, it's a bonus to his customers as they won't have to pay sales tax. Also, let's just say that his local municipality doesn't need to know he's in business, so the business license can be kind of ignored.

Bill does like to spend time on the internet getting awesome so he has a Kelby Training membership and is a card carrying member of NAPP because they are cool.  So that's about $200 because he found a promotional coupon and the sites are awesome so totally worth it.  He won't worry about those old stuffy professional associations like PPOC or PPA so he'll save $ there.  Joe McNally came through town so he spent $99 on that seminar so he's got the latest training.

For clothing Bill realizes that it's a wedding so he should look sorta nice.  He digs a pair of old Docker Chino's out of his closet that used to fit him well in high school.  Then there is that polo shirt his grandma bought him.  And he has a (reasonably) clean pair of black sneakers.  All set.

So for the whopping total of $4400 Bill is ready for prime time.  Look out all you old dusty pro's, Bill is on the scene and he's breaking the mould.  He's getting couples the photography they can afford, and rightfully so, screw the opinions of his peers.

In his first year Bill booked 10 weddings!  He knew lots of 'professionals' in his community that had a similar amount of weddings or even fewer, so he must be doing something right.  About 3 weddings in he realized he should have a flash.  After-all he had been reading Strobist online.  So he bought a SB-700 for $350 because the SB-910 was too much $$ (rip-off).

Some grandma at a wedding complained about his clothing while he was there (nosey old cranky lady) so he went to Walmart and bought a shirt, shoes and pants for a total of $150 for everything.  His total investment to date is $4900.

Now it's year two and he has booked another 10 weddings.  Things are looking up!  But uh-oh.  On wedding two his D300s failed.  Something is wrong with it.  Because he bought it used it has no warranty.  And he has a wedding this weekend and no camera!  He borrows a camera from a friend, but his batteries don't work for it and his friend only has one battery.  So he has to buy a battery for that camera because one battery never gets him through a whole wedding.  Damn, that was $100 wasted.

The D300s costs him $300 to get fixed.  Bill realizes the D300s is getting kind of old and behind the times so he is going to invest in a used D700 because it's full frame and rocks.  He gets one for $1500.  Also he picks up a prime lens for the bargain price of $100 (a 50mm f1.8).  Now he has a pro kit!!!  Except that darn flash he bought kind of sucks.  It takes forever to recycle and doesn't have much power.  Plus he was thinking he'd like to get one of those Gary Fong puffer things because that would be cool.  So he springs for an SB-900 and a Fong setup for $600 total.

Bill has now spent $7500 dollars on business expenses.

Sometime in year two, about wedding #15 a mother of the Bride complains that his photos are terrible.  She wants a refund and threatens to sue.  He just wants to get rid of her so he refunds the money and hopes she will go away.  That's not fair.  Why sue him?  It's not his fault the wedding was in a dark hall and he only has a small flash,  What does she expect?  She just wants something for free and is pushing him around.

But he made it.  Two years, 20 weddings (19 that he was paid for) and he made some coin.  He can tell his friends he is a pro photographer.  He has 1500 likes on his Facebook page and his photos are real, artistic and totally his style.  Brides rave about him and recommend him to all their friends.  Sure he's away on weekends from his family, but the money helps pay the bills.  He has a full time job anyway so this is all gravy!

So out of curiosity how much would Bill have charged if he made $0.  Yes I mean how much money would Bill have charged these clients so that he could work for free.

Lets assume a couple of things.  Bill works on average 8 hours at each wedding (some more some less) not including driving time to and from the wedding.  He doesn't edit the photos very much so after the wedding he does a couple of edits (really basic) and burns the Bride a disc.  She gets the disc the next day.  Time to dump the photos on a disc, do some quick edits and drive the disc to the Bride the next day is 2 hours.  He spends an additional 1 hour total responding to all her emails and talking to her before and after the wedding not including the 1 hour he spent meeting her to book the wedding at a local Starbucks where he showed her his portfolio on his iPhone.

Bill's total cost for materials for a wedding are about $5 for two DVD's and two paper sleeves to put them in.  He doesn't use the printable discs, just the Memorex ones and he Jiffy Markers the name on them.  He spends about $20 in gas on each wedding driving around (he has a small economy car).  He doesn't store photos after the wedding so he doesn't have to buy extra hard drives (hey it's their responsibility to backup their photos he gives them).  He's a computer addict so his computer cost him nothing as he had it anyway to play World of Warcraft.  He stole Photoshop and Lightroom from the Torrent Site so that was free.

Total investment on his part to shoot 20 weddings in two years?   $8000.  We can't take into account the time he spent away from his family so we'll just let that go.

OK so he was paid for 19 of those 20 weddings (remember that one cranky Bride??).  If he had made $0.00 for photographing those weddings he would have charged $421.05 per wedding.  If he was your typical Craigslist photographer he would have charged $300 per wedding so would have lost $2300, meaning he would have paid each Bride $115 for the privilege of photographing their wedding.  If he was on the high end of the Craigslist photographers he would have charged $500 per wedding.  So he would have made $1500 profit over two years.  That's $75 per wedding.

Given that his total time investment for each wedding was about 11 hours, as a $500 wedding photographer he made about $6.82 per hour.  The minimum wage where I live is about $8.00 per hour.  So he would have made more working an entry level fast food job.

You might argue that he still has his cameras and equipment and you'd be right.  But at 20 weddings he has shot those cameras about 40,000 frames.  They still have life in them (shutters are rated about 150,000 frames) but they are getting out of date.  The D800 is out already and all the pro's are using it.  His customers are always asking him what camera he has and it really bugs him.  Plus the government found out he wasn't registered as a business (he tried to claim his equipment as a work expense) and now he is getting audited.  Someone also called the municipality and reported him for not having a business license.

And remember, he has no insurance.  No serious backup equipment or lighting.  No studio or business location.  Doesn't attend expensive high end training every year.  Bill doesn't belong to any professional associations.  Has paid no taxes or license fees.  He has stolen software and isn't backing up images anywhere for his customers.

What happens to the typical Bill?  They quit.  At some point they realize they've made no money and people are taking advantage of them.  And it's a shame because you know what?  Bill was actually a very good photographer with a natural eye.  He was someone that genuinely loved photography but his spirit has been crushed.

The final straw was when he was asked to do a wedding for free to "help his portfolio", but the Bride arrived to their initial meeting in a Mercedes.  When he left the meeting his Chevy Cobalt broke down on the way home and he didn't have the money to fix it.

And there are 50 more 'Bill's' to replace him after he quits.  All with new shiny Canon 60D's or Nikon D7000's that they got for a Christmas present and who are jumping on the life-long dream of being a professional photographer.  They are photographing families at beaches and parks for $25 session fees.  They are building their portfolios at weddings and photographing aspiring 'models' they meet online for free.

This is all great for a photographic industry that is geared toward making money from the Bill's of the world selling him online seminars, Lightroom plugins and flash modifiers so that he or she can become the next Ghionis or Yervant.

If you've read through this whole post, good for you.

I'm not trying to he hard on photographers that are in this position.  We all start somewhere.   Realize that I'm on your side and I understand the sense of self-worth and confidence it takes to charge fair money for your craft.

You are worth it and by charging too little for your art you are simply letting people take advantage of you.  They don't love and respect you as a person or artist, they are bargain shopping in the clearance bin.

You don't want to be the clearance bin.  


Unknown said...

You dont know how close to home some of this hits. (or maybe you do!) VERY poignant piece, and very well done. I applaude you.

Neil Gaudet said...

Thanks for the comment. I appreciate it. I think this post probably in parts hits home with most of us when we start out in this photography journey. Some will be angered by it, and I think they are missing the opportunity to see themselves in it. Some will read it and see (hopefully) how they can avoid being Bill. No matter your level in photography, I really believe we need to understand our own worth and not sell ourselves short.

Phillip Haskins - Photographer said...

Well written Neil. While there are times I undercharge it is only due to specific referrals and other reasons that I won't go into here. Needless to say a wedding is a lot of work and I intend to come out of one with left over cash to use elsewhere but usually for new equipment or repairs.

Neil Gaudet said...

I think one thing photographers need to remember though Phil, and I didn't mention this in the blog post, is that when you under-charge intentionally you are hurting the industry for those photographers out there trying to make a living at this. If you're just working for gear money, that might fit well for you, but it can devalue the art in your community.

I don't generally worry about it because for me, budget shoppers aren't my customer. I'd rather do an excellent job and offer the highest quality product to people that are willing to pay for it. But it is important to go into things with your eyes wide open as to the impact you are having on your own craft by undervaluing it.

Appreciate you visiting the blog Phillip!

Alex said...

Your post hit closest to home as anything I have ever read this year. I see myself in it, as much as I have wanted to just charge $300 for a wedding just so I could actually book one, I always stop myself. I have two pro DSLR's, both with battery packs, a set of pro lenses, and lighting gear. I have been formally trained and professionally trained. But I dont have enough experience yet to charge$1500+ on a wedding, so I am biding my time, getting a university degree, an once I am done I will attack it full force. It kills me when I see weekend warriors who have less experience then I, making that extra $500 from a wedding. But I wait, and it will be worth it! Thank you for your post.

Neil Gaudet said...

Thanks for the comment Alex. I appreciate you dropping by the blog.

I would suggest second shooting at a wedding to get your feet wet if you haven't and if wedding photography is something you want to do. $1500 is really not expensive for a wedding, I think you will be surprised that shooting a year's worth of weddings at $1500 won't really pay the bills as a full-time job either. I know that sounds crazy, but it's true. I've been there. Not to say you shouldn't start at that price point, just don't expect to be rolling in money.

Pricing is a tough issue, but making a business plan, figuring out costs for a business and most importantly valuing your art and yourself as a person is huge. So many photographers just don't have the courage to ask for their worth.

JackAZ Photography said...

Very well written Neil. An oft discussed topic that is so often one sided. Very nice to see you recognize both sides of the coin. On the plus side of "Bill" quitting - cheap gear for sale on Craigslist!

Neil Gaudet said...

Thanks for commenting Jack. Glad you visited the blog

John F. Opie said...

When I was in college, it was before the PC and the Internet, but your story remains the same: I was the photo editor of the yearbook and we had a fairly constant stream of students who were getting married after graduation coming in to see if someone could do their wedding for cheap.

It took me two years of part-time weddings to figure out how to actually make money at it. I found a niche where some cultural understanding and discrete donations got me access where none was usually granted and at some point I actually started to make money. Leased Hasselblads followed, close working relationships with the local pro shops and labs, and I was established.

Had more work than I could handle and it was killing me. Weekends were non-stop work and I slept on Tuesday. Up at the break of dawn and I lived on caffeine and nicotine.

I sold the business and went back to grad school. Best thing I ever did. I have great respect for professional photographers who are dedicated and making a living at it. None for those who spend lots on equipment and have no skills.

And yes, I wish I had bought the 'blads instead of leasing. The photography skills have returned to being a hobby...and now I vastly prefer to be the amateur, in it for the love. And I don't do anyone's weddings whatsoever...

Neil Gaudet said...

Thanks John, awesome addition to the conversation!

Libby said...

Hilarious and sad at the same time. I knew one of these guys back around 1990. He was low balling weddings trying to get started with a Canon 35mm. He shot a wedding on a Saturday. then had a house fire the following week. All of his negatives went up in smoke. I helped him recreate some bride and groom formals because most of his gear burned up too. We had to pay for the tux rental for the groom and get flowers too. It was not a good time at all.

DPOAB said...

Lets think about it another way. When i start my job I got paid $320 for the month (about $640 inflation adjusted) after tax. I worked 50+ hours a week with no overtime but food, housing and medical were included so my hourly wage was about $12 (inflation adjusted) after tax. Not bad but not rolling in it either. Over the years, my skills improved, my value went up and my pay increased. Today my pay is much higher to the point where lots of people would very much like my job. Of course most of them want to start where I am, not where I came from.

Photography is no different than ANY other business. Entry level sucks. Low pay, low benefits. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who somehow think being a photographer is different or unique. Comments about photographers who "undercharge" demonstrate this. It is in fact impossible for a photographer to under or over charge. The transaction is inherently fair. Photographer proposes a price, customer accepts the price. Both agree on the value of the product/service. Assuming there is no outside/illegal influence, all transactions are fair because both sides agree.

DPOAB said...

Lets say you are a $2000 a shoot wedding photographer. That means you are saying your pictures are worth 4X what "Bill" the $500 craigslist photographers are worth. If "Bill" is stealing even one of your customers, the problem is you, not Bill. I make about 4x what an entry level person does in my work but I have absolutely NO worries that my boss will replace me because I know I am "worth" far more than 4x what an new person is. In fact, I am worth so much more that I cannot even be replaced by 4 entry level people trying to do what I do. How many "professionals" complaining about "$500 Bill" can say that they can get more good pictures than four "$500 Bill" photographers tossed at an event? Houw about seven "$300 Bills." Dumb luck says that 7 of these guys are going to get some good shots. What are you doing Mr. Professional to ensure a bride doesnt just croudsource her wedding?

If "Craigslist Bill" cant move up from $500 weddings its because of his skills - or lack there of - and not because of "Joe" or "Andy" shooting $400 weddings. And none of the "gear" discussion has any relevance. Spend some time on Flickr and you will know that talent and a P&S can beat the pants off no talent and a D3/5D. And ANY working pro in 2005 would have KILLED for what the lowest end DSLR can do today. THOUSANDS of weddings were shot with Nikon D2H (4MP!!!) and D2x (12MP!!). If I could travel back to 2005 and offer a working Pro a D2x or a D5100 which do you think he would take? Take a look at this -|0/(brand)/Nikon/(appareil2)/533|0/(brand2)/Nikon

DPOAB said...

And that is a D5100. Offer him a D7000 and he would do cheetah flips. So unless everyone was getting ripped off from the beginning of time until the D3 was introduced, its not about gear.

In case you think my personal example is rigged, my full time profession is the Profession of Arms. I started in the Army at the very bottom as an E1. I am now a senior officer. I am paid well because of what is between my ears. I advanced past the point where my worth was measured against how much I could carry for how long or how fast I could dig. Four brand new Lieutenants could not do what I do not because they would not try hard (I have sen that and its not pretty) but because they lack the 25 years of knowledge and experience I have. I can solve more complex problems faster and with a better success rate - just like a professional photographer should be able to solve more complex lighting problems (all we do is capture light) faster with more success. The difference between me and McNally is he "sees" the light I dont, sees the light in ways I dont and makes light in ways I cant. And he does all of it faster and more consistently. I have no illusions that gear has anything to do with it because I know he could beat me with mine as well as he could beat mine with his.

Neil Gaudet said...

Hi Libby, yes that is something you hear of every once in a while. Usually from Brides after someone has ruined their wedding images. While it sounds heartless, they are kind of getting what they paid for. If I buy a cheap item at a Dollar Store, I expect it to break and be in the landfill, no so if I buy a good product elsewhere.

DPOAB: You kinda lost me when you started talking all gear. You are absolutely right though, people should charge what they like. Low or high. That's not my argument. I'm happy there are $300-$500 photographers out there to serve that niche. I don't even want to compete there.

I'm trying to explain to people that are charging that much and think they are rolling in money as a result that they are really working for free or actually losing money just for showing up. If you don't believe me, just do it for a while and see how long you can stay motivated and in business.

If someone wants to charge nothing for their time, even new people, that's up to them. I really just hope they are aware of what they are doing to themselves. They aren't hurting me. The $500 was never going to call me in the first place. :)