• Should I list a digital wallet as Photography or Computer equipment? What about scanners?

Although your accountant might care, the calculator doesn't — so long as you account for every expense once and only once.

  • I'm a staff photographer freelancing on the side; how does this apply to me?

These costs, and probably more, still exist for you. Your employer may bear some of them, such as your benefits, some marketing, camera allowance and office space. Some staffers have even been known to use company equipment and supplies, but this is almost always against company policy, and possibly, the law.

You may be able to get away with cutting corners and costs, but consider this: Almost all staff photographers will at some point in their careers have to make it on their own. If you price yourself low, it's very hard to get your clients to pay you more for similar work later. Hence, besides undercutting those in your market who don't have the advantages of being a staffer, you may be undercutting your future. The solution is to estimate what these costs would be if you were self-employed, then enter them to get a handle on what's a fair price. Mark Loundy wrote about this in his July 2003 News Photographer column.

  • I have no experience in business on my own, how can I know what my expenses will be?

Each input category has explanatory details that should help you get started.Tap or mouse over the sample figures to get more details.

Our sample figures may be close for you--or not. But try to be realistic. For instance, if you need to replace your desktop computer system every three years, and your average computer system price is $3,000, then you need to budget $1,000/year for that hardware. If you also, have a $1,500 laptop you need to replace every three years, then you add $500 to that total. Remember to add software costs, including upgrades (often annual) and new purchases. Similarly, if you work out of your 2000-square-foot home, taking up about 200 square feet for your workspace and storage, then your "office or studio" expense will be 10 percent of the annual costs for your crib. You also need to realize your startup costs will be very high if you need to purchase new equipment and original software licenses. During your first years in business you'll also be likely to spend more time on workflow issues, marketing, sales and education, leaving less time for paying work. Account accordingly or face unpleasant surprises.

  • Is my "break-even" number what I should charge as a "day rate"?

Many experienced photographers avoid charging time-based fees to their clients. "Assignment" or "creative" fees are more popular for several reasons. First, experienced photographers with extensive equipment closets can often solve problems more quickly. They shouldn't be penalized by lower payments. Similarly, if you work more slowly or less efficiently, you shouldn't necessarily be rewarded. In addition, it's very hard in most situations to give your all to more than one assignment in a day. Giving less might endanger your future. Moreover, travel and other logistics often preclude multiple assignments, and if you do manage to cover multiple assignments, you will endure some wear and tear.

Nevertheless, you need to watch this bottom-line number. It helps serve as a target for you to figure your MINIMUM pricing for jobs, based on your internal estimate of how long it will take. You also need to look at the value you're providing your client. The same picture on the cover of People magazine provides that large-circulation client (with large advertising rates) with more value than it does a small weekly newspaper. For more on that subject, please check out our Pricing page.

  •  My calculated daily photography cost is three times what even a major metro newspaper is willing to pay me. What can I do?

The short answer is: Find and serve other clients, get a staff job or pursue another career. The longer, more complicated answer is to convince the client to pay you more. But that has been very difficult in recent years, since other photographers in most communities are lined up to accept low fees in exchange for chances at newspaper glory. The reality is there are few, if any, photographers who make a living just freelancing for newspapers. They find other clients, other professions or significant others to subsidize their photojournalistic efforts. Of course, this raises another set of questions about how and why you should accept fees below your break-even rate:

  • If I accept a low-paying job will it lead to other opportunities?

Examine this one carefully. Credit lines don't pay bills and they rarely lead to higher paying work. More realistically, some assignments can pay your expenses or grant you access to unique places or situations that you couldn't get to otherwise. If you hold rights to your images, and they're of value beyond any embargo period and you have good markets for them (see Contracts and Stock Photography), it might be worth it to lose money on such a job. You might find portfolio or contest images on certain assignments. But you need to weigh those advantages carefully.
Your portfolio is worth nothing if you can't afford to stay in business long enough to reap its rewards. And since portfolio use can be considered advertising, you need to be sure you have the rights to use your own images to sell yourself. Some publication contracts take those rights away. Also, although editorial assignments generally don't require model releases, advertising does. If you don't have model releases for the people pictured in your portfolio, you are taking a risk. The same holds true for stock photography sales, which are more valuable for commercial use.

  • Are there intangible rewards that come with the low-paying "opportunity"?

Again, be careful. It's a good thing to love the pictures you're making or the causes they depict, but love won't (at least reliably) pay the bills – and sometimes it can exhaust the patience of others who love (and may be supporting) you. In order to do good works, you must survive. Take too much work at too low of fees and your business won't. There's an old saying: "You can't lose on every sale and make it up in volume."

 Ask yourself: Are you subsidizing a client's business (at the expense of your own) by accepting less pay than you need — let alone want? And are you undercutting your future?

 These are real questions to ponder. Let fairness, good information on business practices and how much you think you owe your client or its causes guide your decisions. There's nothing wrong with contributing your work to charities you believe in. But are the stockholders of a mega-media conglomerate such a sympathetic cause? Should you be the only person working for free at a non-profit's event? How much is the person earning who asks you to work for free or cheap?


Introduction, FAQ's and category pop-up information © 2012 Greg Smith