8 Reasons You Can’t Afford the “Budget Photographer”

I know, the blog headline is a little clickbait-y. It’s, like, one step away from “She Had Thoughts About Client/Creative Relationships and Wrote Them In a Blog Post. What Happens Next Will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF TO THE MOON AND BACK.” But hey, that’s another post for another blog.

This past week, an ad for Fiverr kept popping up in my Facebook feed. You might know the one. Accompanied by a mostly illegible logo that displays the word “logo” (genius!), the text suggests you can hire a “professional graphic designer” to create a logo for your business for just $5, or more like $3.50-4.00 after service fees.


Anyone working with those rates would have to design several logos per hour to start scratching the surface of a living wage, which is impossible, unless they’re working with the same clip art template over and over, and putting very little time into communication with the clients who magically drop 60-80 projects into their laps each day. I’m going with impossible, or at least unsustainable long-term.

Of course despite what they claim, Fiverr and similar sites aren’t meant to provide a steady 40-hour work week to users who have embraced the explosion of the “gig economy.” The great thing about freelancing is the ability to work with a variety of clients, choose the projects you work on, and turn down projects that are not a great fit.

While I’m not a graphic designer, I can think of several corners that cheap designers are probably cutting at that rate. Research. Legal. Editing. Craftsmanship. Legal is a tricky one. Your business could get into heaps of trouble if your designer, after their last 100 projects have blended together in their mind, accidentally creates a logo that is directly lifted from a copyrighted mark.

Famous last words before cease and desist letter from Nike arrives

What I cannot get behind is new writers and creatives insisting that they’re comfortable writing an article for $10 or providing photography services for $12/hour or “exposure” because they’re “just getting started.” Everything about that is unsustainable, for the workers who get burned out after a few months, and for the companies that are figuring out that they can get 100 people to respond to their Craigslist ad looking for a photographer to create profit-generating but low-quality imagery for their website for $100. You guys, I can’t even.

We’re all about photography here, so here is my list of reasons why choosing the lowball photographer is a poor decision, complete with cheesy free stock photos to illustrate several points. Clients, avoid the headache and potentially damaging experience of hiring the person undercutting every other photographer, and providing a level of service to match. Creatives, stop being that person.

1. You Get What You Pay For

The old adage is true. You get what you pay for; pick two: good, cheap, fast. But yes, it’s also true that many artists and designers are not very business-savvy, so every once in a while you might hit the jackpot and receive some amazing work for cheap. But if “the jackpot” means taking advantage of an eager artist who hasn’t figured out their business model yet, what kind of win is that? Save the haggling skills for a garage sale or flea market.

“My budget for this car is $650 – is that okay? I would be happy to give your dealership an excellent Yelp review to make up the enormous difference!” [Ed. note: Beware using these free stock photos for real, unless you’re putting them through rounds of retouching approved by a lawyer. I don’t think Apple would be cool with a phone that resembles an iPhone being used WHILE DRIVING.]

2. Your Image

Visual branding (logos, graphics, photography, detail work) is the first thing that people see when they visit a website or social media page, setting the tone for user experience. From a business standpoint, it only makes sense to commission the best work when you want to create the best image. Coming from an art and design background, it’s unfathomable that so many businesses place such little value on their brands, or waste time taking chances on the cheapest options.

3. Cutting Costs

Running a photography business, even on a small scale, is expensive. Cameras, backup cameras, computers, hard drives, backup drives, software, insurance, web hosting, marketing, administrative costs, business registration, and finally, paying themselves, are just a few essential costs. If your photographer is charging a low rate, they’re either, a) not covering their costs, or b) cutting costs in one of the following areas: file backup systems, insurance, software (and using a pirated copy of Photoshop), equipment, or their own salary. With all of the other administrative responsibilities involved with running a photography business, photographers usually cannot bill 40 hours per week. The check from that event you photographed for $75/hr is not going to go as far as you think, so get out of the mindset that what you charge is what you make.
“I think this tin can telephone creates a more down-to-earth, authentic communication experience for my clients! It has nothing to do with my ability to pay my cell phone bill.”

4. Your Professional Relationships

Sometimes your photographer is working directly with you, but if part of your business is working with clients, there’s a chance your photographer will be involved with them too. Perhaps the photographer gets a better offer one day and decides to flake on your important client shoot (you did sign a contract, right?). Or they show up without a backup camera and their camera body stops functioning. Or they’re on location at your client’s offices and a light stand falls and breaks an expensive piece of decor. Or injures someone (did you know that even the most basic photography insurance plans cover bodily injury up to $1-2 million?). A professional photographer is prepared for all of these situations and would gracefully handle each one, keeping everyone’s reputation and relationships in tact.
“Hi Steve, I’m attaching the new imagery I created for your website. While the images from our shoot are great and I definitely didn’t lose them when my hard drive crashed last week, I decided to take a more metaphorical approach for your site. The blank void suggests the all the possibilities for growth when working with your company!”

5. Long Term Relationship

If you’re hoping to develop a long term relationship with your photographer, both sides need to benefit in order to maintain the relationship. Unless they are independently wealthy or have steady income from another source, your budget photographer is going to realize that undercharging clients is an unsustainable system and will wise up and make changes, or be forced to put down their camera and start waiting tables next year. Then the cycle of looking for a cheap photographer begins again, starting by wasting money on some bad experiences because the price looked attractive.

6. Undercutting the Market

If a truly great photographer is undercharging because it’s a part-time gig or they have wealth to live on, they are doing a great disservice to photographers who rely on commissioned work to make a living. If a photographer doesn’t need the money to stay in business, there should be no question about turning away cheap clients. It creates an unsustainable standard for their business, and everyone else. Looking for work to build your portfolio? There are so many great charities and non-profit organizations that would greatly appreciate donations of pro-bono services. Visit your local animal shelter.
“You know Mittens, you’re playing right into their hand. They can take away the fuzzy pink toy whenever they want, and it’s so obvious that you’re desperate for playtime.”

7. Service

If a conversation regarding a potential project starts with the client trying to negotiate down my quote to an insultingly low rate, insisting they can edit the photos themselves to save some cash, or micromanaging before the project even starts, my eyes are already rolling. If I’m working on several projects per month at an unsustainable rate, it’s not a good experience for anyone. I’d be working overtime with not-very-nice people cranking out job after job just to cover costs of operation, then going home to work over more on the business, accounting, and marketing side. Ideas and creative choices don’t happen on a clock. If I’m treating myself like a machine, that machine will eventually run out of fuel, and I can’t possibly provide top-notch service for loyal clients who understand the value of commissioned work.

8. Value

A photographer’s take home pay is a small percentage of the rate they quoted after overhead costs and taxes. The numbers are not arbitrary; if a number goes up or down, so does the amount of work or the scope of the image license. But if your photographer doesn’t place value on their work, why are they convincing you? And if you don’t value the work, why bother commissioning it? If you do value the work, there shouldn’t be any question about entering a mutually beneficial business relationship that results in great work, and a great experience.

The information in this post came from personal and business experiences, realizing that people prefer learning about dry topics when they’re in list form and accompanied with humorous stock photos, and lots of books and internet resources. Here’s my recommended reading and resource list:
Pricing Photography – Michal Heron and David MacTavish
American Society of Media Photographers – Pricing Guides
National Press Photographers Association – CODB Calculator
Signing off,
Chicago-based photographer specializing in food, interiors, portraits, and seamlessly inserting cat photos into blog posts about completely unrelated topics

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