Welcome to the Bradley Otto Photographic Services Blog! This is where I share my thoughts, ideas, opinions and experiences -- good or bad -- about the reality of earning a living as a freelance professional commercial photographer. Thank you for reading!
Would you walk into a Mercedes Benz dealership and say, “I see you want $100,000 for this new Mercedes. I saw a Honda down the street for $25,000. Can you match that price for this Mercedes?”. Sounds silly, right? Yet, I get confronted with that “logic” nearly every day from potential clients who are seeking to hire a commercial photographer!
I was recently contacted by a potential client who needed a business headshot and an “environmental portrait” of himself in his office. I told him I’d be happy to provide him with the photographs he needs for $200. He replied, “Well, I talked to a Brooks student who said she’d photograph me for only $25. Can you match that price?” Uh, no.
In a similar case, a potential client contacted me regarding product photography. After he described his needs, I told him I could provide his product photos for $25 each (which I considered to be a bargain low price). He balked and said, “Well, I saw another photographer on craigslist who charges only $5 each for product photography. Can you match that price?" Uh, no.
A realtor contacted me regarding architectural + interiors photography he needed to market a new listing. I quoted him what I thought was a very fair price for his project. He replied that his previous photographer charges only half my price and he wanted to know if I’d match it. Uh, no.
There is a reason a Mercedes costs more than a Honda. There is a reason an original Picasso costs more than an original Jones. And, there is a reason a professional photographer with 25+ years experience costs more than a photography student or a guy who just got his first camera and decides to advertise himself as a “product photographer” or a “real estate photographer” on craigslist. Talent, skill level and years of experience all count for something and it is only right that the price reflects all of that. I may not be able to match their low rates, but I believe I deliver work that is simply worth more than a newbie’s or an amateur’s photos. Not all photographers are equal.
I’ve been a professional commercial photographer in California since 1990. During that time, I’ve successfully done business with a wide variety of individuals, mostly small business owners. Naturally, the clients who’ve hired me have come in a variety of personality types ranging from reserved business pros to laid back and kooky creatives. I’ve always prided myself on being able to accommodate just about all types of people who choose to hire me as their commercial photographer. I guess I have the right personality to get along easily with just about anyone. At least that’s what I thought until I met someone I’ll call “Client X”.
Client X contacted me regarding product photography of his custom baseball-style hats he sells via his e-commerce website. I first met with Client X in a public place where he gave me about a dozen or so hats to photograph for him. His instructions were pretty standard — the hats were to be well lighted and shot individually on a white background, positioned at approximately a 45 degree angle to the camera. Sounds pretty easy, right? That’s what I thought. Boy, was I wrong!
Client X’s surfer dude manner of speaking and his disheveled, unshaven, 30-something pothead appearance — all topped with a baseball cap — gave me the impression that he was a bit of a slacker who came up with the idea of selling custom baseball hats because he couldn’t handle the responsibility of a real job. I sensed there was something "off" about him, but he seemed harmless. To be perfectly honest, the term “hobo” came to mind — a word I hadn’t thought of in many years. Taking all of that into consideration, I felt some compassion for him so I offered him an exceptionally low "per item" price for my services. He looked like he could use my help and I figured this would be just about the easiest gig I had undertaken in a long time. Big mistake.
When I returned to my studio, I got to work right away photographing Client X’s custom baseball hats. I used my best Nikon camera, sharpest Nikkor lens and studio lighting gear to ensure top quality results. After performing the photography phase of the project, I spent three or four hours doing the Photoshop post-production work to ensure a pure white background and to create a perfect “drop shadow” below each hat, just as my client had requested. In my professional opinion, my photos turned out beautifully, and I believe any reasonable client would have agreed. I eagerly posted them to a private online album and proudly notified Client X his photos were ready to review.
I was expecting the type of comments I typically get from my clients like, “Wow, these photos look GREAT! I can’t wait to get them onto my website!” But, there was no such reaction from Client X. Instead, he criticized the images with comments like, “They aren’t EXACTLY aligned. I can see the hat in photo #3 is at a slightly different angle than the hat in photo #5. He asserted that the height of the camera kept changing -- even though my camera was on a stable, unaltered tripod the entire time I was shooting his project. His list of criticisms went on and on. It ended with “This was a complete failure. You need to re-shoot ALL of them!” I was stunned. I’ve never had anything close to that type of reaction to any of my commercial photography.
It turns out, the baseball cap wearing, hippy-dippy slacker dude-hobo, Client X, is the most “anal”, obsessive-compulsive human being I’ve ever met! Given his physical appearance combined with his particular psychological disposition, he inspired me to coin the phrase, “obsessive-repulsive”. LOL
A trained psychologist would have immediately recognized Client X as a textbook example of someone with OCD, and probably a cluster of other mental health issues, too. I wasn't so observant nor quick to recognize there were some kind of mental health issues at play. I ended up shooting, re-shooting and re-re-shooting Client X’s hats (all for no extra charge) in an attempt to win him over as another satisfied customer. I spent countless hours on this “simple” project. I even created a custom template to place each hat into to ensure consistent placement, which I thought would be fool-proof. But, my efforts were all in vain. He showed no appreciation for all my hard work. Instead, he kept riding me harder and harder. He even invented new complaints. He said he needed to see both of the eyelets on the front of each hat, that the flat billed hats needed to be shot approximately two inches lower than the curved bill hats, and many very odd and specific additional requirements that he had never previously mentioned to me in any way. His list of requested corrections and nit-picking complaints escalated and evolved over a period of several months. In effect, he kept moving the finish line so I'd never be able to reach it.
At some point, I seriously began to wonder if maybe I was an unwitting test subject in some kind of secret psychology experiment designed to see just how far a perfectionist (like me) will go to please an impossible-to-please business customer. I still wonder.
One night, I had finally had enough and I told him I was giving up on his project. I wrote him a polite and professional email to explain my position and my ongoing frustration with his unusual behavior. I made every effort to be diplomatic. I told him it had become very apparent that we were a mismatch and that I was not the right photographer for him. I suggested he find another photographer and I even provided him with the website URL and phone number of another local commercial photographer. He responded to my thoughtful email with rage, hostility and anger -- all while claiming I was the one being hostile and angry! He peppered his email with insults about my lack of professionalism, sub-par photography skills, laziness — even accusing me of not understanding the basic photography concept of composition! All very, very strange. Delusional. But, I was confident I had finally done the right thing by cutting him loose. He’ll have to become some other photographer’s problem.
Happily, Client X is now an ex-client. This unfortunate experience has taught me is that there are people out there with serious mental health issues. Some of them own small e-commerce businesses, and some of those people will occasionally hire a professional commercial photographer. I hope I never meet another "Client X". If I do, I hope I can recognize it right away and avoid another unpleasant ride on the crazy train.
Let’s say you own a business that sells a product we’ll refer to as “widgets”. Not very original, I know, but I want to keep this as simple as possible. Now let’s say your widgets are manufactured by a factory based in Bangladesh. Naturally, you’d like to get your hands on the widgets at the lowest possible price and sell them to your customers at the highest possible price. Donald Trump said it best, “Buy low, sell high”. Business 101, right? So you negotiate back and forth with the manufacturer and you finally wear them down to the point where they agree to sell you their widgets at a record-breaking low price. Score! You pat yourself on the back and celebrate your business acumen and negotiating genius. Visions of a skyrocketing bank balance are dancing in your head. Life is good.
Here’s the problem. Although that kind of price beatdown strategy may be appropriate and smart when it comes to purchasing mass produced goods stamped out in large quantities by a factory in Bangladesh — it’s naive to think you should apply that same strategy when hiring a commercial photographer to produce strong and beautiful images to sell your widgets. Yet, so many business owners, art directors, or those responsible for hiring a commercial photographer don’t seem to understand the difference! They negotiate with the commercial photographer in the exact same penny-pinching way they negotiated with the manufacturer in Bangladesh. Big mistake. You see, there’s a huge difference between the production process of widgets vs. the creation of effective commercial photography that your business relies upon.
The widget machine can be programmed to spew out thousands of uniform and nearly identical products day after day. It can continue stamping them out for years on end, if necessary. The widget machine doesn’t know or care about the price of the product, so consistency in the product is mindlessly maintained by the machine. Your bargain hunting tactics have not insulted the widget machine in any way. The same cannot be said of the commercial photographer.
The professional commercial photographer utilizes a skill set that includes visual arts, aesthetics, psychology, and marketing insight. He must be attuned to the the current social climate (zeitgeist) to produce strong images that will have the appropriate impact — attracting buyers for your widgets. Each photograph is a functional work of art that is the product of the photographer’s many years of training, highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, and a very clear understanding of how and what the image will communicate to the viewer/customer. If someone were to ask him how long it took to take a particular photograph, he could honestly answer, “My whole life”.
When you hire a commercial photographer, you’re not hiring a machine, you’re hiring an artist and professional. We’re human. We are affected by our sense of just how much we’re being respected and valued by our clients. If you expect your commercial photographer to perform his best, you need to demonstrate that you respect his expertise and that you value the importance of his service. Chiseling away at his price for or making comments like, “Your price is too high. I’ll just get my stock boy to do the photography” just insults the photographer and it won’t encourage him to deliver his best work to you. Keep in mind, no one will buy widgets from your e-commerce website if the photos look amateurish and they don’t show your product looking it’s best. Pay your photographer what he’s really worth, maybe even throw in a bonus — my favorite clients typically do — and save the bargain hunting for more appropriate times.
Architectural photography is a specialty within the commercial photography field. There are many unique challenges to properly photographing the interiors and exteriors of a large structure, whether it’s a commercial space or a private home. To ensure the images are successful and pleasing to the eye, special attention must be given to vertical lines, composition/vantage point, and the high dynamic range of the lighting, where there is often a huge disparity in exposure between indoor light vs. outdoor light. Proper architectural photography requires special lenses and other gear, advanced photographic techniques such as exposure bracketing and/or HDR processing, significant Photoshop/post production skills, lots of practice, and often many years to master.
Unfortunately, the experience and high skill level of the architectural photographer are too often underestimated and undervalued by those who are in a position to hire the photographer. Many whose businesses rely on professional looking architectural imagery to promote their own services to the public — interior designers, architects, builders/contractors, property managers/realtors, etc. — often resort to snapping their own promotional photos with an iPhone or other point-and-shoot camera and posting them on their (otherwise) professional website! It doesn’t make any sense to me that someone who has so much riding on the beauty and presentation of the architectural imagery would think of it as a quick and easy DIY project. Why would a business person who has no photographic training nor the proper equipment, suddenly think he/she is capable of stunning and memorable architectural photography suitable to promote his/her business? It puzzles me. But, I confront it every day.
There is another category of client that bears discussion here. Namely, the business person who acknowledges that he/she probably should hire a professional photographer, but grossly underestimates the time and effort that the photographer must commit to complete their project. For example, virtually every day I see ads on craigslist from realtors looking to hire an “experienced and professional architectural photographer” to photograph their latest listing — but, they’re only offering $50 for the complete set of images! Keep in mind, this may be for a home that’s listed for $1M and the realtor is expecting a $25,000+ commission. Something’s clearly wrong here. So, I’ve taken the time to speak with some of these realtors. It turns out, they all share a common misconception regarding how long it takes a pro to photograph the interiors and exteriors of an average size single family home (Answer: 4 hours), and they have no clue how many hours must be spent to properly Photoshop edit the images to make them ready for publication (Answer: 10-15 hours). When one considers the negotiations via phone and email with the realtor, prep work, travel time, photography, post-production/editing, and digital delivery of the images, the photographer has at least 20 hours committed to the project. Offering a pro commercial photographer only $50 to photograph a single family home is equivalent to offering him only $2.50 an hour!
In addition to underestimating the real time required to produce professional looking architectural images, clients often misunderstand and undervalue the specialized knowledge and techniques that may be employed by a professional photographer to get “Architectural Digest” quality images. For example, architectural photographers are often confronted with the problem of bright outside light visible through the windows vs. the relatively soft and weak artificial light of the interior spaces. We’ve all seen amateur photos where the indoor scene looks okay, but each window is nothing more than a bright white rectangle, looking like there must be a raging blizzard outside — even if the home is located in Palm Springs! The opposite effect is also very common — the outside view is properly exposed, but the interior looks like a very dark cave. Although our eyes have the ability to take in and properly expose both the indoor and outdoor lighting simultaneously, today’s cameras simply aren’t capable of that kind of simultaneous exposure range. The camera has to choose to expose properly for the indoor lighting and color temperature or for the outside lighting and color temperature, but it can’t do it all in one image. A professional architectural photographer will have certain tricks up his sleeve and knowledge of a variety of suitable methods to defeat this problem. The resulting image should look very close to what we can see with our eyes — balanced and complimentary light both indoors and outdoors in the same image. Of course, the issue of proper indoor vs. outdoor exposure is just one category that requires specialized knowledge, and there are several others.
If you own a business that relies on great architectural photography to attract clients, to promote your work, or if you’re representing a building or home for lease/sale, you owe it to yourself to hire an experienced professional photographer to create those images for you. If you’re not a trained and talented photographer with the proper equipment, skill set, specialized knowledge and Photoshop expertise, architectural photography is not a DIY project! Amateur photography on your website or in your promotional materials won’t impress anybody, and it only makes you appear to be an amateur — and very possibly you’ll be perceived as a cheapskate, too. I’m hoping that someday professional architectural photography will be recognized and appreciated by all business owners as a smart investment that brings a significant ROI for their business.
Lately I’ve noticed an undesirable pattern of behavior coming from certain clients and potential clients. This has become such a troublesome issue that I must address it publicly in hopes of deterring this irrational behavior in the future. If you are one of my clients, or you are considering becoming one of my clients, please don’t make this mistake.
Many of my clients first discovered me via craigslist.org. There appears to be a general assumption that service providers (like me) who advertise on craigslist are only semi-professional and/or desperate for business, so we’re willing to work for rates far below the “standard rates” in the business. This assumption is completely UNTRUE!
Just because I advertise my services on craigslist.org, it doesn’t mean I’m less professional, less experienced, less skilled, less talented, or that I deserve lower pay than a similar service provider who doesn’t advertise on craigslist. Yet, there are people who apparently make those illogical assumptions.
I received an email inquiry via craigslist from a potential client who wanted me to quote him an estimate for a particular photography & Photoshop project. His query included the admonishment that my quote should be “a craigslist appropriate price”. I don’t even know what that means! I assume he meant I should be offering my services at a discount, based solely on the fact that he found me on craigslist.org.
I was prompted to write this post due to a recent unpleasant exchange I had with another potential client who had requested a Photoshop project quote. He telephoned me to explain his project and to get a cost estimate. Right from the beginning, he peppered the conversation with hints that he was very wary about doing business with someone he found through craigslist.org, and that he expected to receive my services at a bargain-basement price. He even added, “I would do the project myself, but my time is too valuable to spend doing Photoshop work”. What a snob! Despite his insulting attitude, I quoted him a very reasonable rate for his project. Apparently, it was higher than he was expecting, because he became noticeably irritated, and rushed off the phone with the parting comment that my rate was “far too expensive” and that he’d just have one of his employees do the project instead. The exchange is even more pitiful when one understands that the price I proposed for his Photoshop work was only $2 per photo!
Another craigslist client contacted me regarding product photography. He explained that he had five products (I believe they were jewelry boxes) that needed to be photographed at his location about an hour away. He needed them to be photographed on a seamless white backdrop, five different views of each product (25 total photos). In addition, all the images were to be professionally Photoshop edited by me and delivered ready to use on his e-commerce website. I quoted him a very good rate for his job, but he balked. He said my quote was much higher than he was expecting to pay. When I asked how much he thought my services would be, he stated his budget was “$10 - $15 total”! Ah, the craigslist effect.
I understand that craigslist.org is an open forum for just about anybody to advertise just about anything with almost no oversight or regulation. That means there will be shady characters, desperate people, and creeps to be found there. However, that open forum also attracts the exact opposite -- legitimate, talented, professionals (like me) who are simply utilizing craigslist for it's intended purpose. Please don’t make the assumption that I’m desperate, only semi-professional, or just looking to build my portfolio so I’ll work dirt cheap. I treat all my clients with respect and I handle every project with professional care, I deliver professional quality work, and my rates reflect a proper compensation for great services -- even if you did find me on craigslist.