Can we talk about the business of freelance photography and the need to be picky about the jobs you accept?

To hear it from some "experts" in our industry all that matters is nailing down a job, assignment, project or purchase order for anything with a check attached, but the reality is that clients will let you work nearly for free, against your best interests, and on poor terms for as long as you want. And it probably won't be a long or happy tenure in the business as you must make enough money to turn a healthy profit (or why else be in the business?) and you must honestly enjoy what you do for your living. Right?

I've had two recent potential clients approach me, offer projects and request bids. One was a full day photographing people in a retail location and the second was a three part request that would have me shooting in industrial environments here in Austin and in northern Mexico, as well as acting as a supervisor or consultant for a second photographer in a different country. 

After receiving the bid request from the industrial concern I did a little digging
and vetted them with a colleague who had worked in a freelance capacity for their company several years ago. He was less than rosy about his experience. Then I dived into the request for bid and it seemed like one of those situations where production quality would be decidedly secondary to getting the maximum number possible of images per day. The shot list was endless and there was a request for shots in and around our working locations that were specified as having to be done with drones. I knew I would not be happy or want to be responsible for the quality control of a remote photographer, I don't consider drones fun or highly creative and the overall presentation of the job came with the presumption that I would "sharpen my pencil" and give this client special consideration on price.

It all added up to remind me of jobs, presented like this, that I was inexperienced enough to accept back before a string of frustrating and unhappy experiences taught me some things about business that I won't disregard. To wit, if it doesn't feel like the job for you then you need to let it go. 

How do you know it doesn't feel right? Hmmm. For starters any negotiation that begins with an "ask" for special pricing is probably a non-starter. Any job, the scope of which is out of proportion with the reward is something better left alone. A cautionary review by someone whose business has worked with the business in question is very much of a red flag. Finally, you can tell by reading a request for bid or request for proposal just how inexperienced or manipulative the requestor is and just how much hand-holding and explanation you'll be required to provide without having the option to bill for that time.

While eventually getting money is always a good thing you have to weigh the costs of doing a job that is chancy, will not generate work for your portfolio, falls outside the style you are comfortable with, and which creates the potential of having to spend days with people you might not like. Better to self-assign something that will move your career forward than to do unsatisfying work that's fraught with possible peril. 

After reviewing the requesting documents I crafted an e-mail explaining that I was not the "right" photographer for the industrial project, thanking them for considering me and wishing them good luck.

The second project was a potentially good assignment that was killed by attorneys. I was working on an estimate request for a client who had selected me as their choice to photograph employees and models in a retail environment. I'd worked with the primary requestor at two different companies previously and had always enjoyed working with this person. All of our previous work together had been smooth and straightforward; a mutually satisfying working relationship.

I submitted the estimate and, at the client's request, crafted a letter of agreement. And that's when things started to slide off the plate. The company's legal department got hold of the letter and started adding clauses and demands that were unreasonable, moved to change payment terms and, ultimately wanted total control over how I would be able to use the images I would create. 

I was honest with the original requestor. I don't have the bandwidth to engage in back and forth negotiations with a legal team for the better part of a working day just to secure....a working day. Rather than re-write and re-write a proposal and then settle for less than I deserve I declined to move forward with the assignment and apologized that I had not been more detailed in our preliminary conversation. Our e-mail exchanges were cordial and straightforward. We salvaged our personal relationship but I probably (almost certainly) won't be working for the present company. 

Many companies are guilty of not understanding the limited time bandwidth of individual freelance artists. While the companies have salaried lawyers who can spend days or weeks crafting new ways to tip the value scales in the direction of their own companies (after all, they are paid salaries) the same is not true for artists. When I sit down to estimate a job I am entering into a speculative task. Sometimes I'll get the work and sometimes not. A good estimate on a multiple day job can take hours to complete and there is no guarantee that you'll make back the investment in time with a future payment. 

If the estimate is for a smaller job and must go through a prolonged negotiation process it's conceivable that you could spend more time in the process that you will in billable hours on the actual job --- should you even get the at the end of the process.

While you are negotiating, waiting for a response and responding again you are in a holding pattern. You can't get much else done and, psychologically you become stuck waiting for a final resolution one way or another. If you compromise and compromise and then can't overcome something small like the need for an advance on a cost heavy project you end up losing the entire project after much time and emotional investment. 

Better to know what is and isn't negotiable for you and to set tripwires that cue you to end the negotiations before they proceed down into a tar patch. Once you hit an impasse and butt heads with a client's legal team there is no "win" left for you. You might get the job but you'll probably resent it. 
You might feel that capitulating on some aspect that's important to you is a necessary evil in this one instance to ensure you get the job but you'll find the next negotiation will be tougher and you'll probably lose more on each encounter. "I got the job! But I had to reduce my rate, hand over all rights, accept 90 day payment, give up the right to use any of the images in my portfolio and I had to stand on a chair and bark like a dog in order to get paid." I never want to be the guy who has to say that. Better to know when to walk away. Just try not to burn bridges with people who can't overrule the lawyers. It's probably not their fault.

A very wise photographer once told me, "You don't get rich with the clients you accept, you get rich by knowing which clients to fire." I would add that it's even better not to get into business with some businesses in the first place. Then there is the 80/20 rule which says that a vocal 20% of your clients end up getting 80% of your attention. Better to focus on the best clients and not spend your time putting out fires... Just a few mid-week thoughts....


Dave Jenkins said...

A rule I have always tried to follow is to avoid accepting business that could put me out of business.

Gato said...

One of the happiest days of my time in professional photography was the day I first had the confidence to fire a client.

Gary L. Friedman said...

Wise words. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

Michael said...

Thanks Kirk, I always enjoy your writing, and appreciate the variety of topics!

typingtalker said...

Presenting yourself as a "freelance" photographer sounds ... cheap. To me. Why not just "Photographer"?

A freelancer lives in a cheap apartment and works out of a 15 year old Corolla. A Photographer runs a business, has an office and a studio, a beautiful house and a place at the lake, experience, an impressive portfolio and lots of clients. A freelancer responds to demands from the legal department by rolling over or nearly so. A photographer says, "Those are my prices, my terms and my conditions. I'm very good at what I do and my prices are reasonable. That is how I work. Thank you for your time."

I exaggerate but not by much.

Bassman said...

It's not just creatives who suffer from bad clients. I've worked as a tech & operations consultant, and any number of prospects want all of your consulting wisdom before they even agree to hire you. Or, ask you to work at a serious discount in exchange for some ill-defined future engagement. Or, want you to commit to a schedule when they don't know and can't specify what they actually want from you.

Or just seem too unpleasant to want to spend a lot of time with.

Kirk Tuck said...

Hmmmm. I use the term freelance to make a distinction between an artist who is entirely self-employed and a photographer who works on staff, on salary, for one company and with little to no control over how they will work and what they will get from the relationship.

As you know, this blog is not a marketing tool aimed at potential clients but at people with an interest in commercial and other forms of photography. No one here will stereotype us as "car sleepers" based on a shorthand term that brings quick understanding to a discussion.

There is no stigma attached to the term "freelance" in my area and indeed in my experience. I'm very successful, I've upgraded from a Corolla and now sleep in a 2003 Camry. Much nicer seats....

Frank Grygier said...

"I'm very successful, I've upgraded from a Corolla and now sleep in a 2003 Camry. Much nicer seats...."

That sounds like a line you should in your next book. Still laughing.

Mike Rosiak said...

I "freelance" in IT, but call myself an "Independent Consultant." Maybe I make more money that way?

Regardless, your hard-won life lessons apply to most of us small business types.

David said...

No freelancers are cool. They are like Spiderman, because he was. Staff photographers Photoshop their images. Thats what Stan Lee teaches us.

Malcolm said...

Your comments apply to all small businesses. I'm currently looking at a software engagement I quoted for a year ago that is still ongoing. I quoted a fixed price, and I have been paid, but spec creep and technical failures have meant that I haven't really made a profit on it. I have realised that, even if you're a nice guy, you need to be hard-nosed when it comes to business or you'll get rolled over. A good read, thanks!

Dave Jenkins said...

Another great chapter for the book "Kirk Tuck on Commercial Photography" that, if it were written and published, would probably not sell well because not enough people are trying to break into professional photography these days. It's no longer the fad thing to do, and more jobs are now available in fields for which most of these people are better suited anyway.

Nick Davis said...

You are right on the money again, Kirk. Some jobs are best done by other people, so that they can enjoy all the grief that comes with them. There does seem to be an increase in the number of jobs where the client wants to control everything, strangely enough they are often the ones who are offering the least remuneration. Having the confidence to say no is empowering, some of them even respect you for it.