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Photo Writing is the web version of the Photo Writing mini-magazine produced by Limephoto and Emil von Maltitz since 2010. As of 2015 it is now completely online. Feel free to browse through the articles and please leave comments in the comments section if you would like to engage with us.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

So You Wanna Go Pro?

Model portfolio shoot for Natascha

Although I am writing this article as a photographer, it applies to any vocational change where we have to consider whether turning our passion into a job makes sense. Obviously for some, making sense doesn’t matter, but for many others it’s a ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ call. You either shudder and turn your interest towards a different (possibly more lucrative) outlet, or you rub your hands together and say ‘right, let’s do this thing!’ I did the latter, but made some serious mistakes along the way, the first of which had to do with cash. So, let’s take a quick look at finances in that case.
Start-out photographers often look at the pricing structure of established professionals and think to themselves, ‘Geez, that’s expensive. Surely I can do better than that?’ Wedding photography is a perfect case in point where you can literally find photographers for anywhere between R1,000 and R40,000 for a day of shooting (apologies to readers from the rest of the world; I’ll be using the local currency to illustrate the article, but it’s easy enough to convert at roughly 1 US Dollar = 11,50 Rand, or 1 Euro = 13,50 Rand. For the same reason living expenses are based on South African earning and expense values, but the premise holds regardless of where you live). Chances are the start-out photographer can price themselves substantially below the competition. What they don’t realise is that their lower, more competitive pricing, is also unsustainable.

Photographed on assignment to shoot a lodge in Kenya's Mara area

Looking at the finances, let’s start with the easy stuff: the photographic equipment. Most photographers going pro already own some, if not all of the equipment that they need to shoot professionally with. Usually they have been acquiring gear for some period before quitting their day jobs. Regardless of whether you already own it, it needs to be factored into your pricing. It may become necessary to replace gear at some stage. For the core basic equipment for a generalist photographer (here I have placed a realistic low price for entry-level to enthusiast gear with the occasional second hand pro offering thrown in. I have put new the pro-level gear in brackets)

Camera body - R10,000 (R37,000-R54,000)
Flashes x 2 - R7,000 combined (R14,000 combined)
tripod and head - R3,000 (R10,000)
light stand - R900 (R1,500)
wide angle zoom - R8,000 (R16,000)
mid-range zoom - R6,000 (R15,000-R21,000)
tele-zoom  - R5,000 (R18,000-R23,000)
memory cards - R4,000
miscellaneous including batteries and cleaning equipment - R5,000
Gear Bag - R1,500 (R6,000)
Total - R50,400 (R126,500-R152,500)

Then there’s the processing that you have to do. You’ll need a computer for that. Again, starting simply let’s assume that the photographer is going to try it out with a laptop, something like a 13” basic Macbook Pro. Then you need to consider that the images have to be backed up somewhere. At a bare minimum that means a 2-4 terabyte backup drive (Most working professionals either have multiple hard drives or a server of some sort plus they back up onto internet based subsciption sites - I personally use Smugmug).

Computer - R15,000 (R30,000-R67,000)
Hard drive - R1,000 (R3,000)
Total - R16,000 (R33,000-R70,000)

What about the software? To be entirely honest most photographers start out using cracked copies of official software. But, most ultimately end up paying for the real thing once they start making headway into the industry. Either way, eventually you are probably going to have to fork out for software. The good news at the moment is that the  Adobe photography package costs R110 a month rather than a flat out fee of approximately R10,000 (I won’t get into the onerous rental of software, but will grudgingly admit that in its current guise, the Adobe CC plan is better value than the original boxed version - especially as Lightroom is included in the deal). It gets trickier the more specialized you get though. Plugins and specialist software start to add up. Just as an example I use Imagenomic Portraiture, the Nik Collection, Open Directly, LRTimelapse, Iridient Developer and PTGui for some of my specialised work, all of which I have had to pay for.

Software R110 per month (R12,000 upwards for all-in non-subscription based)

Theoretically, we have now dealt with the production costs of creating an image. There’s more to running a business than just the cost of the business though. Somehow the photographer has to make enough money to live off of as well. This is the bit that start-out photographers seem to forget about when they calculate their rates. How much does it cost to actually survive? As an exercise try calculate these monthly expenses and work back to how much should be charged for a job (I am going to use the example of a young professional photographer without family and mortgage, and working from home rather than from a studio which they have to pay for).

Monthly Rental - R3,000
Vehicle repayment - R1,500 (can be a lot higher)
Fuel - R1,500 (assuming relatively low mileage or fuel efficient vehicle)
Insurances - R2,500 (vehicle, health and equipment)
Phone and Internet Provision - R800
Food - R3,100

(I am going to be called to task on the above as there are a significant number of South Africans who live on considerably less than the above amounts. These basic numbers are what the average  independent professional middle-class South African can expect as monthly expenses - some start out photographers will skip the insurances and might already own a paid out jalopy, thereby significantly reducing their monthly bills, but with the cost of significant financial risk). These numbers tell a scary tale: without taking equipment into consideration the start-out photographer has to make R12,400 a month to break even and survive (without beer money and definitely without a markup or profit). Now factor in the cost of equipment. To be fair I’ll use the tax man’s three year write-off of equipment. So, using the most basic of equipment that brings us to a monthly cost of R1,954 (photographic equipment, computer and software). This brings the monthly break-even to R14,354.

Putting aside what the photographer would like to earn, what are the realistic work goals that can be achieved? Starting out, most photographers are going to spend the bulk of their time building portfolios and marketing themselves. Still, there’s the hope that some work will come their way. Simply for ease of illustration, let’s consider a wedding photographer. Theoretically it is possible to shoot 8 weddings a month (2 weddings a weekend) using the intervening weekdays to process images, create wedding albums and deliver images. Speaking to several wedding photographers this is an absolute maximum and the photographer will feel like death at the end of it. More realistically a successful wedding photographer will count on 4-6 weddings a month with the help of an assistant (= greater cost). A start-out photographer will be lucky to get one wedding a month.

Photography students on an African Impact wildlife photography workshop
Okay, so charging R14,000 for a wedding is still a lot lower than the prices of some of the established photographers (here in Durban an established ‘good’ wedding photographer will cost anywhere between R12,000 and R40,000 for the special day, but this usually includes an album which also costs close to R3,000 to produce and invariably means there are two photographers). The actual costs to shoot the wedding need to be born in mind, so ultimately the start-out photographer needs at least two weddings (which actually mean for close to twelve full days of work) to cover their basic living and equipment costs. Then there’s the fact that if you are only starting out there is almost zero chance that you will be able to charge more than R6000 or R7000 for your first few weddings (Many start-out photographers try charging less, but they tend to be one’s who haven’t looked at cash flow issues). Add into the equation that it costs money to shoot a wedding (albums, hosting a webpage or gallery, prints and the cost to get to the wedding venue and back, any batteries that need to be bought and potentially the cost of an assistant or second shooter). Suddenly you need to shoot 3 or 4 weddings at that price to be able to just cover your costs of living.

Don’t for a second delude yourself into thinking that becoming a photographer will make you lots of money. But, if you want to be successful, you need to very carefully look at what it costs to run the business and your lifestyle before you work out what is a sustainable fee. With all this in mind, there is still the client’s perception as to what is a ‘good’ price for the photography. I have yet to figure this one out. I have had situations in the past where two different clients with similar jobs have responded completely differently; the one complaining the quote was too high, while the other client with exactly the same quote responded that it was a bargain. My assistant and I joke that we should put a set of prices on a dartboard, blindfold ourselves and throw darts to figure out a quote for imagery. It doesn’t get easier working for large, wealthy companies either. If anything I have found the more affluent the client, the more likely they will try to negotiate the quotation down.

Knowing what you need to flourish, if not just survive is the cornerstone to effective quote building. It allows the photographer to set a bar below which she will not work. Diving under that bar can also set nasty precedents and the photographer will find it very difficult to charge higher rates thereafter. Step One of creating your business plan as a photographer needs to be a realisation of what it’s going to cost to work as a photographer. Do this successfully and apply it effectively and it could make the difference between turning photography into a sustainable livelihood, or going broke and heading back to a more stable - what others would call ‘real’ - job.  

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