[Pho.Talk] Start Charging for your Photos when the Market does THIS!

As a photography hobbyist, at some point, you will wonder if you can make some income from your craft and turn it into a profession.

Indeed, this small desire in me was how I started shooting commercially as a freelance photographer in Hong Kong.

Been there, done that - I can tell you the imposter syndrome is real. Creatives are naturally idealistic people who aim at perfection before feeling comfortable to start charging.

But this article is not about the age-old, vague, romantic idea of ‘believe in yourself’, either.

Here is an entirely objective, logical step-by-step framework that you can apply to assess your own situation. Not only does it tell you when to start charging, but it puts into perspective for you the fundamentals of running a photography business.

The single most reliable sign that you should start charging is when the market asks for your rates after seeing your work. Whether or not your photos are good enough is not the central issue - there is no objective way to assess this. Focus on putting yourself in a state of mind that enables you to convert every enquiry into a booking.

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How do I Know that my Photos are Good Enough?

This is typically the first question hobbyist photographers ask themselves when first seeking to take on paid photography jobs.

The answer to this question is that unfortunately, your photos will never be good enough. There is no such point in pursuing an art at which you can rightly proclaim yourself to be good enough. That is the spirit of integrity in making art.

You see, this answer doesn’t tell you much about when to start charging.

This is because the question wasn’t relevant in the first place. Let’s get a little philosophical - bear with me!

Why is it NOT a Relevant Question?

We photographers conceive the situation like school - we think of it as working hard in improving our craft so that we meet a ‘pass’ mark, and get accepted into paid jobs.

The more you build your craft, the better you get, and thus the larger and more prestigious the jobs you get to shoot.

We think of the photography business like being promoted up the years at school.

But if you think carefully, school is not a satisfactory analogy for the real photography business, mainly for these reasons:

  1. Is there even one definite ‘pass’ mark?

  2. Who decides on the ‘pass’ mark? What constitutes a ‘pass’ anyway?

This is not to say that you can forget about quality of work altogether. Producing good work is an important thing in itself and that goes beyond saying. Just that it lends little help as an indication of when to start charging.

Business Reality I - Is there one Definite, Blanket Standard of ‘Good’ Work?

Photography is a highly subjective area to assess, and therefore any general conception of ‘goodness’ is purely imaginary and personal - it is all in your own head.

The reason why you get a relatively objective way of assessment in school is because some committee in the schooling institution comes up with a marking guide.

Once you move into the business world, everyone minds their own business and no one issues such a guide that applies across all photographers, used by all clients.

On the side note, have you not seen terrible photographers (in your opinion) get hired?

In the sense of starting to charge for photography, questions regarding the general required quality of work eventually leads to nothingness.

Business Reality II - Who Decides on what is ‘Good’ Work?

‘Even if there is no general rule’, you may say, ‘there must still be some criteria in every individual case’.

Indeed, and that is decided by each individual potential client, which generates infinitely many different standards of ‘goodness’.

And since you are the photographer and not the client, you will not be able to pre-empt what the client thinks before they actually see your work.

The closest you can get to knowing if your work is ‘good enough’ is to having a client tell you. But otherwise, you must accept the fact that you will simply not know.

In other words, if you wish to proceed to charging for your photos only after you have found out about the elusive standard of ‘good’ work, even only narrowing down your enquiry to your target clients, you will never proceed.

There is a Time for Everything - Listen to the Universe!

We saw why it is unprofitable to rely on the ‘good enough’ benchmark in deciding when to start charging for photos.

And speaking generally from the level of running a business, the longer you have been in the game, the more you realise that there are things you just cannot find out by yourself.

But the Universe will gladly give you the nudge you need, if you stay in touch with what It has to say.

Here is the most reliable way to assess if you are ready: Has anyone asked for your rates?

If so, congratulations, you are ready to charge!

Let’s examine this benchmark in greater detail.

Why is Market Feedback the Ultimate Assessment?

What needs to happen for you to get paid as a photographer?

Two things - you willing to administer your photography services, and the client willing to pay you in return.

The first of these two criteria has already been met, assuming that you are reading this article because you are interested in providing photography services to earn money.

So this leaves us with the latter wanting to be fulfilled, that some client has to pay you.

At the heart of the matter is whether the client trusts you with their money. Everything else, like camera and gear, shooting experience, quality of photos, university degree, are simply not to the point.

As we concluded earlier on, the only way to know if your work looks good to a specific potential client is to have them tell you.

And if they ask you for your rates, this automatically indicates a preliminary approval of your work. The very fact that they asked how much you charge means that your work has reached their standards of acceptability, and thus ‘good enough’, if you wish.

How does this Usually Happen?

It all starts with the potential client seeing your work.

What that platform is depends on the type of photography you do. Here are some typical genres of photography for your reference:

Wedding/ Family/ (Senior) Portrait Photography - Facebook/ Instagram/ Prints & Albums

The target audience for these types of photography are mainly private citizens, either as an individual, or as a family unit.

At some point, everyone will go through (some of) the stages of graduation, marriage, and forming families. And because it is such a remarkable point in one’s life, these important life events are naturally always brought up unintentionally, either through face to face gatherings, or social media activity.

For instance, Facebook reminds users of friendsversary; Instagram reminds users of old stories; we throwback and pull out old prints in nostalgia once in a while.

The most powerful platform on which to get your work in front of potential clients in this case is therefore social gatherings, whether virtual or physical.

First Photography Paid Job Instagram

This seemingly scammy message, for your information, turned into one of my very first paid portrait sessions. That was how I got started - just like that!

Product Photography - Website Portfolio/ Word of Mouth/ Photography Agency

This category can potentially involve a large range of clients, consisting of corporates of varying sizes.

For the starter photographer, you would mostly be interested in shooting products for smaller companies.

It is important to make it clear who you are trying to get your work in front of. Large corporations typically have a dedicated PR/ marketing team to take care of photoshoots. They understand that branding is of utmost importance, and usually go through photography agencies to hire the best of the best.

This is quite another story about how to book large jobs, rather than starting to charge for your photography.

For small businesses though, hiring a photographer is often a do-you-know-someone type of situation. In some extreme cases, the owner could be operating on a one man band and will rely on his own resourcefulness.

That could mean being introduced to a photographer through an acquaintance, or simply looking for product photographers on google.

Whichever photographer with a suitable website portfolio comes up in the top few, he will reach out.

Food Photography - Instagram

Generally, restaurants or food providers do their menu or social media photoshoots in either one of the following styles - they either want staged, neat, still-life shots with a studio look, or that they go the lifestyle route featuring more styling and artistic variations.

The type of jobs that concerns the beginner photographer more is the latter. Restaurant chains or food brands nowadays depend heavily on Instagram marketing to get their service providing out there because Instagram is the largest platform for sharing images.

Depending on where you are located, Instagram is an easy tool to find dining options and confectionary gifts too, thanks to the map and hashtag functions.

Most F&B companies see the value of posting ‘Instagrammable’ food images and this ‘lifestyle’ aesthetic is increasingly adopted even for menus, which were traditionally shot in a more staged manner.

Restaurant managers are therefore on the lookout for foodie accounts on Instagram with a matching aesthetic, who could potentially give their photos the ‘Instagram’ look.

What do you do when this happens?

Maybe you have been getting inquiries already, maybe you haven’t. It doesn’t matter because if I am reading your mind correctly, eitherway, you are working towards getting booked for the first job ever.

It would be beneficial then to get a taste of what to expect when an enquiry indeed comes up again, because getting asked about your rates is quite a different thing from being booked.

Generally, you will need a few things to get a prospect through the sales funnel:

  1. Portfolio - best if tailored to the type of photography the prospect is asking about

  2. Reference boards - borrow images from the Internet to create a moodboard (read more about Moodboards in my earlier article ‘First Portrait Collab Shoot: Industry Norms, FAQ’s, Do’s and Don’ts’ - it is an important part of providing excellent customer service) specifically targeting at the project the client is asking about, and

  3. Pricing/ scope of services - ideally this will be the penultimate step before closing the deal

This probably sounds to be quite a lot of preparation work, but just start doing it and you will slowly get a hang of the sales process.

Let’s Prepare your Mindset - Unlock your First Gig!

The idea of adopting a reactive approach to market feedback might feel like playing defence.

That is to some extent true, given the business realities of the photography space, as I have analysed in my earlier article ‘Guide to Starting a Freelance Photography Business with No Experience’.

But a more accurate way of describing this position is ‘defend to offend’.

Indeed, you don’t have much control over what a potential client might think of the quality of your work.

But getting yourself ready to work as a photographer take way more than just producing ‘good enough’ photos. The list below puts you in the right mindset as to what takes you from getting an enquiry to a happy client!

Research the Potential Client

When you get an enquiry, except for reading the message or email, suppress any impulsion to make a hasty response and go check out their website immediately.

If they don’t have a website, or that their imagery is mainly on another platform, say, Instagram, check out what they are currently doing first.

You will need to know their aesthetics inside out so that you can come across as a photographer who ‘gets it’.

Ask Questions about the Specific Job (Strategically)

This is a critical step in any negotiation process. You need to know what exactly is the counter-party hopes to get out of the transaction so that you could properly bundle and price your service offerings.

There is a fine line between coming across as inexperienced and being thoughtful. You can ask too many questions, and there are stupid questions.

I know how it feels to be hit hard-on by reality because we like the idea of there being ‘no stupid questions’.

It is never an easy process to navigate the subtleties in the business world, because no one can fully hold your hand and walk you through - it is your business, at the end of the day.

But rest assured, because as long as you are aware that you need to learn the business etiquette, you will get there before you even realise!

Be Willing to go Over and Under

Creatives are very kind souls, and one of our biggest fears is to be taken advantage of.

But when you first start, this is a fear that you must put aside.

You need to first know your true value before you can judge if someone is walking over you.

This is different from being blindly trying to please your clients, but do put in the effort to do a little bit of extra for them - they are your very first clients, the seeds from which your network of clients germinate!

What this looks like in practice might be to arrive super early to ensure everything is properly set up, shooting slightly overtime just to get the perfect shot, getting water and food for the crew just in case they are tired and hungry, etc.

Maybe these costs and spendings seems a lot to you know, but when you look back in a few years, the rewards your acts of kindness go on to yield will totally dwarf these.


In this article, we talked about

  • Why it does little to wonder if your photos are good enough to start charging,

  • Why you should listen to the market in deciding when to start charging, and how that happens,

  • What you can do to put yourself in the right state of mind for your first photography gig

More sharing coming soon!

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Keep shooting, keep creating!

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