Most photographers I know struggle to put a price on their work. This is especially true for newer photographers who haven't found a peer group that can tap into experience on rates for photography.
Talking about money can feel taboo generally, but especially for photographers and when it feels directly tied to our success. But I'd argue that talking about money and business literacy is essential in the music photography world if we want to create and sustain value for our work in the music industry.
Sharing rates as photographers
Recently, I launched a Photography Rate Spreadsheet focused on music photography. The intent was for fellow music photographers to self report rates across editorial, brand, in-house, festival and tour clients so that we can get more clear and transparent idea of rates in our industry.
It's expanded to sports photography and film and television thanks to Heather Barry and Leigha Jenkins, respectively. And hopefully this is just the start. Why? Read on.
What is pay transparency?
Pay transparency is the act of sharing pay, rates, fees and other forms of compensation in an open manner. Some fields such as tech jobs make transparency a standard component of employment, via salary bands. Other fields may have compensation tiers, minimum wage, and so forth.
Photography has no such protections or standards in place.
Why is pay transparency necessary?
For freelance creatives and photographers in particular, transparency about rates has been historically almost non-existent. The general reasons for this are ego, fear of competition, and jealousy or feelings of doubt.
I would argue that pay transparency is essential for fields like photography. Why? Because we don't live in a vacuum. We don't work in isolation nor do our clients and prospective clients.
Pay transparency helps us all for several reasons.
Pay transparency helps create standard rates
First, pay transparency removes one of the essential hurdles that newer photographers face: not knowing market rate of what to charge for their services.
Veteran photographers often lament that newer photographers undercut them and cite this as a reason for declining value in their craft. Being transparent about rates addresses this by giving newer photographers the knowledge of what fair rates are, allowing them to make informed decisions about their worth.
This sharing of rates helps establish a standard when pay transparency is widespread community knowledge.
Standardized rates help all photographers
I've always been as open as I can about rates and giving advice about what I would charge for photography jobs. The reason is half altruistic and half selfish.
The altruistic aspect is self evident. Helping people is good.
The self serving part? I give out pay info and help with rates because the next time the client needs photography, I want my full rate. By sharing information about I would charge, I'm betting on making a more sustainable future for myself and all photographers by encouraging others to charge what I feel I'm worth. This act helps prevent inadvertent undercutting. I want you to get paid so I can get paid.
This is precisely why photographers should be open, even when it comes to competition. We should all be advocating for the highest rates possible that respect our talents and value.
This is a direct example of the kind of empowerment and confidence that rate transparency instills when it's normalized in a community.
The fear and fallacy of undercutting
A major fear of photographers being closed about what they charge is a fear of undercutting. When this reason is cited as a reason not to share rates, a few considerations come to mind.
If your rate is all that keeps you valued by clients, you're already dispensable
Rate transparency doesn't change a client's emphasis. If all they're concerned about is saving money, there's always someone cheaper — including those who are willing to work for free. You don't need pay transparency or a spreadsheet to see that.
Pay transparency isn't the enemy with cheap clients
Being transparent about certainly won't save you from the people working for free or cheap and it never has. You're already in a compromised position with low value clients and this has nothing to do with being transparent about pay with the larger photo community.
In fact, being closed about pay only helps clients who would take advantage of photographers who feel like coming in low for jobs is necessary to secure a job.
The best clients equate a low price with low quality
There will always be budget clients, and this is perfectly fine. But I'd argue that for the best clients, a low price is viewed with concern and suspicion. There's a Goldilocks effect for pricing and viewing services. Very often, you don't want to be at the extremes, especially if you're very low or very high compared to other rates.
When you undercut, not only are you leaving money on the table, you're making yourself a target for doubt, being viewed as inexperienced and low quality.
Being just cheaper won't matter to the clients you want
Cheap photographers don't have a unique value proposition. The photographers do are the ones who often find they can leverage their talents more than just a competitive price. More importantly, simply being the cheaper option isn't going to get one very far with the clients most photographers actually want.
Individual vision, skill, talent, ease of collaboration — these are the qualities the best clients value in those they choose as partners.
Client-photographer relationships are build on trust and unique value propositions. Reliability, consistency, rapport and so more. When budget cuts truly constrain, clients that one has built a relationship will almost always be up front about it. Undercutting isn't something that magically turns good clients into cheap clients.
If you were on the fence about pay transparency, I hope that this article has given some considerations as to its value. The Photography Rate Spreadsheet is open to all and I hope will serve as reference. We're looking to expand beyond music photography and sports photography, so if you have a specialty — particularly for event/live photography — let's make it happen.
Photography can feel like a lonely endeavor until you find your community, and even then, it can be a struggle to find openness of knowledge and generous peers. Not everyone has that solid group chat or friends with experience. The goal of this spreadsheet is to give everyone a resource, regardless of experience, clique or social following.
Whether it's locally, among your peers, in your specific genres or at any scale, the future of photography will only be strengthened by rate transparency.