The Black Box of Advertising Photography Meets Business 101

This is not a rant. It’s a page out of Business School 101.

If you’ve ever seen/heard one of my speaking engagements, you’ve probably heard me talk about the Black Box. It’s the name I’ve given to “what the world of advertising photography looks like to a new or aspiring photographer.” Something goes it one end of the box (the request, the pitch, the job offer, etc) and something comes out the other end (finished images, photog getting paid, satisfied client, etc). And what happens in between is a total and complete mystery to most. Only the people who are operating in the industry, within this Black Box, know what goes on inside.

Most established photographers in my shoes, sadly, want to keep that box black – or perhaps a deep shade of grey. It’s been a hobby of mine to turn this box inside out or at least pass out a few flashlights. This entry is another little step in doing so, in sharing what some might call the gory little details.

And to that end, here’s an anecdote I’d call interesting (I’m not being ironic here): I lost out on a two day, 4 shot advertising job last Friday because I was underbid by another shooter by $30,000 on relatively low-production value job. This happens all the time. You get jobs, you don’t get others – I’m totally un-phased by this anymore. On this job however, I was initially shocked at how there could have been such a price gap in such a small, short job. I quickly chalked this to likely a younger shooter who might not have “known” what he or she was doing. Those kinds of things happen all the time too, I’m never angry about that kind of stuff. It just usually means that the less-experienced photographer either: (a) won’t be in business long because their low fees put them in an unsustainable situation, or (b)will develop a bad reputation since they likely underestimated how expensive it would be to pull together all of the details to get the shoot properly executed – the shoot will be rocky and so will their future in the biz.

The ironic twist to this story is that neither of my routine hunches from above turned out to be true. Instead, I’m pleasantly reminded that it’s much more complex than this. When I learned which photographer was awarded the job, a quick visit to his website illustrated that he’d been in business for 17 years. Now, the fact that someone out there is at least good enough to shoot a national campaign, do if for 40% less than I’d do it for, and make a living–perhaps modest or perhaps not– while doing so, must be good news for somebody.

Thus, what’s the point? If you don’t know it already, the market it broad and can sustain numerous price points. You must know where you fit into the market. Lowering prices or overhead might be effective. But raising prices might help too. Of course I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job, but only moderately so. It would have been a creative and compelling campaign as I’d have shot it. But ultimately that’s BUSINESS. I would NOT have done the job for the lower rate, or even close to it, and I feel good about it. I’m actually happy to receive occasional reminders that there are a range of business strategies out there; mine is just one of many, and it works for me. I think it’s blind and old fashioned to whimper about somebody else’s low rates – and I’ve written at length about it. Sure, it would be great if we could price fix and everybody who could hold a camera was steeped in sophisticated, inspired work with money gushing out of our pockets, but that’s not the case. It’s Business 101 and ultimately it’s up to each of us to operate our own successful gigs. Nothing has changed in my world other than that I’ve received a pleasant reminder that I’ve got to do a better job of demonstrating why my work is worth $30,000 more than somebody else’s.

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