by J. Rae Chip

It's no secret that the photography world has more suppliers now than ever, and it's much harder to sell photography now than it was 20 years ago.

But you should sell your work. 

From time to time, I hear photographers say they gave their work away in exchange for exposure. I'm not saying to never do that because there is a time and place for everything, but you should sell your work. I know a fair amount of photographers who utilize the creative commons business model. And again, I'm not saying to never do that, but you should sell your work.

Some of my peers in the professional photography business use a pricing strategy called "freenomics." Essentially, it means they give away their goods and services because working for free will bring more customers into the market. It has worked for Trey Ratcliff, owner of Stuckincustoms, with his HDR photography. In fact, it brought him so many customers that he was considered to be the inventor of HDR, even though the technology is older than his business. So why did it work for Stuckincustoms?
Trey Ratcliff is not a business dummy. Stuckincustoms penetrated the market, grabbing as many customers as possible and converting more. He even created more photographers, which created a market for his workshops and whatnot. By pitching the idea that watermarks make art less beautiful, he inadvertently (or maybe it was on purpose, I'm not Ratcliff, so I can't say), created a world in the HDR photography realm that helped him profit off his competitors. People see a brilliant HDR photograph and want to buy it. They can't find the author of it (because it is not watermarked), so they assume it belongs to Ratcliff. They visit the Stuckincustoms site looking for the photo, but they can't find it. Nevermind, though, because they've already forgotten about the original photo and found a few others they want to buy instead.

Ratcliff allows people to use his work on the internet for purposes that don't generate a profit for the consumer. Essentially, his Stuckincustoms uses a freenomics strategy.

You should sell your work. Ratcliff has already flourished off the freenomics model. Of course, he's not the only one using it. And it doesn't make his business any more or less legitimate or ethical. However, he has grabbed a majority of the HDR photography market using that technique. So much so, that if you try to use it, you won't be able to keep up with Ratcliff's established business. So try something else. Develop your own pricing strategy for your business.

J. Rae Chip Productions uses a different pricing strategy than Stuckincustoms does. And again, that doesn't make us any more legitimate or ethical. Our business model generates profit for us. Ratcliff's business model generates profit for him. And they're completely different.

Some of the threats to the photography business world are the decreased costs of equipment. DSLR cameras have become inexpensive. Most cell phones can now take a good enough photo that the news will use those photos in publications. Adobe Systems Incorporated has started utilizing a subscription-based price system instead of their traditional methods, making their software seemingly much more affordable for the consumer to use.

Selling photographic prints has become increasingly difficult because of the increase in photographs that are supplied to the market due to lowered production costs. Therefore, unless you are already established as a photographer like Ratcliff is, it probably will not benefit you to give work away for free unless you conduct good research. Pricing your work appropriately is obviously important, but you should do so in a way that will make you money. Your income should overtake your expenses.

There are those who say "I don't need to sell any of my work. I'm just a photo hobbyist, so I don't need people to pay me." I don't understand. If your work is good enough that someone wants it, your work is good enough to make a bit of money. To me, that's a way of selling yourself short. It doesn't matter if you're a full time professional, how much experience you have, or who you are... you should make money off your work if people want it.

I've also heard people say they can't make money off their work because people don't want to pay. Well... as an industry, photographers are saying that their work is not valuable enough to pay for because everyone is giving in to people who say "I really like your work, but I don't have a budget." Don't believe them! No matter how bad the economic conditions are, people still have money. Because the U.S. and the E.U. are in simultaneous recessions doesn't magically mean that there is no money on this planet. A recession means that people are not spending. They spend money only on what is important to them. How does giving work away for free help at all? All it does is tell them that photography is not as important as getting their hair done or going out for dinner.

I was approached by the Chick Fil-A nearby about photographing a banquet. They said "we really like your work, but we don't have a budget." They lied to me. Of course they have a budget, or else there would be no banquet. They're a Chick Fil-A. They were just being cheap, hoping some photographer, somewhere would take the bait when they said, "we will tell everyone who asks that you took the photos." 

And I'm sure someone took the bait. And I'm sure they got screwed, because it was obvious to me when I spoke with the manager that Chick Fil-A just wanted free-quality snapshot work, and that they did not have the intention to spread any information about who took the photos. 

My best advice is to be smart. You're not going to become rich by working for free. Often times, you'll hurt your own potential, and you'll hurt the industry as a whole. Value your work enough to ask people to be respectful enough to pay you for it. J Rae Chip Productions has given work away before. We broke into certain markets by doing "trial" work for clients to build portfolio work, and show them what we were capable of. But today, if someone asked us to shoot a horror scene for "exposure" we would definitely say no. Portfolio work has to be done in a smart way, too. Clients must be evaluated to determine whether or not they actually have the potential to benefit the business if free work is given to them. 

Ratcliff has said on the record that if people can't afford his work now, that he trusts they will pay for it later. That seems to work for Stuckincustoms. J Rae Chip Productions did a "trial" shoot for a high-profile client back in 2007, showing them what we could do with a little fake blood. That turned into hundreds of bookings that generated real profits. We researched that client and discovered their success and networking connections. We did good work for them, and they talked about us to their connections, who wanted to pay us. 

You might be wondering what the difference was between them and the Chick Fil-A. That client was in the fashion industry and was asking us to deliver quality work that they could publish next to other great work from more established photographers. We decided that having our photos next to other photographers, wearing clothing designed by great designers, had the potential to generate $xx,xxx for us. Chick Fil-A wanted us to photograph a private banquet for employees who had much lower incomes than the networking connections of the previous client. We estimated that the Chick Fil-A gig could have generated us $x,xxx. $x,xxx was less than what we would have charged for the banquet shoot. However, $xx,xxx was much more than we would have charged for the hour shoot we did.

In closing, how you price your product is completely up to you. But at least I hope I've convinced you why you should make money off your hard work as well as some tools to learn how to determine what free work to do and what is just someone trying to rip you off.