The dirty D – is it ever okay to offer discounted services as a photographer?
The answer isn't just black & white.
I’m not going to sit here and preach that I’ve never offered our services for free.
Because I would totally be lying.
Nine years ago when I first picked up a big girl camera (cue violins), I had a big dream of shooting portraits but had no way to gain experience.
So I reached out to a local magazine who I saw hired one of my favorite local photographers and figured, wow, she’s sooo good, and if she works for them, it must mean something!
I e-mailed the editor who said she would hire me for a once a month gig that involved driving around and photographing different stories for the next month’s magazine.
In return, I’d get a 1/4 page ad. The editor mentioned that the photographer friend I had was actually leaving the magazine because she got WAAAAAY too busy due to the the referrals generated by the magazine.
AWESOME! That meant I could work at the magazine for free for a few months and totally have myself set up for LIFE.
I worked there for four months.
The first month I spent a full day (which I may add was taken out of my holiday pay at my full time job) driving around to various uninspiring locations, photographing in bad conditions and bad light, snapping away at subjects I didn’t really care about.
When I peeled open the magazine after my first job, I saw my ad shining brightly at the bottom of the page and felt proud. Until I scanned upward and saw it was placed under an article addressing incontinence. The article title? “I think wee have a problem”.
Yes folks, my foray in to professional photography was overshadowed by incontinence.
That time, I had worked for free, but it didn’t work for me.
And working for free rarely does. Working for a byline, or photo credit will not pay off if you’re not clear about the return.
If you work for free you really have to know what you’re going to gain from the situation.
It should be – this is your time, energy, camera equipment, editing. This is your LIFE. Having said that – I occasionally donate my time – there are situations where discounting has worked, but there is a right and wrong way to approach it.
When discounting has worked for us (listed below)
Especially popular for wedding photographers, styled shoots involve collaborating with vendors to create a storyboard to inspire potential brides.
Usually the goal is to get the shoot published. We’ve volunteered our time for styled shoots that suit our vision and clientele.
At the end of the day, you want to showcase what you want to shoot – so make sure if you’re working a shoot for free, you get EVERYTHING you need out of it – and nothing less. Otherwise, it’s a waste of time.
Don’t be afraid to be a voice in the collaboration.
Shooting for publicity
This one is a gray area for photographers.
And one you really need to look at with a realistic point of view.
When was the last time you cracked open a magazine, saw an awesome photo, saw the photo credit, Googled the photographer, loved their work, and booked them?
Chances are… never.
Don’t let publications tell you they don’t have a budget for photography.
I was in graphic design for three years prior to going full time as a photographer, and while some clients’ briefs had no room for photography, some allotted several thousands of dollars for photo shoots. And this wasn’t even a major advertising firm.
HOWEVER. And this is a VERY personal HOWEVER – this is how I feel.
Advertising budgets aside, if you have an epic shoot, and one of the images gets noticed by a high profile magazine for women, who need the high res file sent over that day to meet a deadline – what do you do?
Do you negotiate a rate for that image or do you hand it over for the sake of publicity? I’ve done both – and here’s what happened.
The first time, I never heard back from the magazine when I asked for compensation. Fine. They probably found someone else who did it for free.
The second time, I sent them the image and request they send me a copy of the magazine and a PDF of the article which we posted on our website with bragging rights. For us, it was worth it.
Push ego aside and decide whether handing over an image of yours for free is worth the publicity.
Even if you don’t get bookings from the image… you get published.
Which is a type of social proof. And that is cool.
Shooting to build your portfolio
When we first moved to Maui we were presented with the situation that we needed to rebuild our entire client base and start our business from ground level.
Even when we got inquiries, potential clients wanted to see images of Maui, not the Sunshine Coast of Australia.
So we sucked it up and shot for free. Not EVERYTHING, mind you. But we chose one maternity mama, one family and one couple, all of whom lived locally, and offered them a free session with watermarked images they could share around.
While this didn’t result in people banging down our door for business, it did allow us to add at least a few images in the area to our portfolio, and allowed potential clients visiting from elsewhere to see what we could do.
If you’re just starting out, again, it’s not going to be overnight that you have a client stream and can support yourself completely off of photography.
Set time aside to shoot for free, and create a buzz.
IMPORTANT! Make sure the clients you’re shooting are YOUR clients, meaning they fit the genre and demographic you want to shoot in the future.
Don’t just pick up a camera and offer free portraits for all.
Be extremely picky and make it work for you.
Communicate to the client that their shoot is for portfolio building.
Invoice them the full amount you would have charged then add a 100% discount so they see the value in what you are offering them!
Add value instead of subtracting dollars
As business owners, we all have a certain amount we need to make in order to stay afloat.
But who wants to just survive when you could thrive?
Thriving won’t happen if you continually discount your rates – they’re in place for a reason, right?
Another approach might be to add value instead of cutting into your profit.
Haven’t shot at a wedding venue before?
Offer the inquiring couple 5 hours of shooting at the price of 4.
You will add the venue to your portfolio and at the same time will be doing yourself a favor by not cutting in to any profit.
At the end of the day, deciding whether or not to discount your pricing is a personal decision and there are ways to offer your talents that will and will not be in your favor at the end of the day.
Keep your business plan in mind and do it smart – make note of how you benefit from the situation, even if it means making a list of pros and cons. If you don’t reap any benefits, don’t even think about doing it!
PS – The photographer who worked at the magazine I mentioned above? We caught up for lunch. Turns out she quit because she wasn’t getting any business from the ads.
WHAT DISCOUNTS HAVE WORKED FOR YOU? POST THEM IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.
Article by Love & Water Photography