Re-Launching Your Career as a Photographer

Today, I watched a Ms. Carol Cohen speak on “relaunchers” at a Ted Talks Conference. (see link). “Relaunchers” are people joining the workforce, after years of being away – for various reasons that she enumerated in her talk. Similarly, I am acquainted with friends  or applicants to our studio who are considering photography as a career, perhaps after years of working as something else; as well as photographers who are reinventing themselves by moving from one genre to another.

Let me see if I can echo her points or add some tips to help those who find themselves at such career crossroads, and especially those who are in -or moving into – photography.

1. Do a self-analysis. Take an inventory of your knowledge and skills, and check where you may have fallen behind. You may need to re-invest in yourself by doing self-study or attending seminars, workshops, or even going back to school to make yourself more up-to-date and better qualified in the field that you are entering or re-entering. Do also a matching of what you’ve got with what you want to get into.

2. Announce your plans and dreams. You have a whole network of friends, who may be able to connect you with someone who might consider taking you in. You may want to keep announcing your intentions on Facebook and other social media, or blog about it. I remember that when my daughter, Sacha, was graduating with a Masters in Computer Science (Human-Computer Interaction) from the University of Toronto, she blogged about her ideal job and her qualifications for such a job on her personal blog site, as well as on other sites, including IBM’s, where she was working as a research assistant. That blog led her to being hired by IBM Toronto.

3. Aim your arrows at your targets. Do a little (or a lot) of homework and identify the companies that you feel or think you would like to join. Do your research on these companies. Do their culture, thrust and policies match what you are looking for? Find someone who knows them and get a referral or recommendation. Even if you didn’t know anyone who knew someone from the companies that you are targeting, do send your resume with an application letter that enumerates your strengths and possible contributions to those particular companies. Do not just follow a template to mass-produce your application letters. Make an effort to connect with the people you are writing to by giving them information about yourself sure that they would find useful and relevant. Indicate your intentions in a cover letter. I’ve received resumes without accompanying cover or application letters, and those go straight to the wastebasket. Some application letters (or the part of resumes that indicate an applicant’s objectives) are so badly cut- or copied-and-pasted that obviously, they were not written with us in mind. They also go straight to the trash bin.

4. Be humble. If you have been away from the workforce for many years, or if you are entering a new field after years in another, you may need to start at the bottom again, or at least, to slide down a few, or quite a few, notches from where you left off. Ms. Cohen spoke of internship programs for “relaunchers,” and of many success stories involving those who didn’t mind re-starting as interns. If that is the only way for you to get in or get back into your new career path, then be humble enough to accept an internship or apprenticeship position. This may include accepting a job at a much lower salary or fewer perks.       Don’t worry – if you are really good, your new bosses will recognize your contributions to the company, and move you up by promoting you. You will certainly need to work much harder to climb up, than those who have been there and never left. Be nice and helpful to those whom you may be overtaking, as there is no need to antagonize anyone. If you are truly deserving, your officemates – as well as your boss – will know and acknowledge that.

5. Persevere. Be prepared for disappointments, but keep going.       There may be a lot of reservations in the job market place about taking in someone who is older for an entry-level or junior position, but rewards await those who don’t give up easily.       Just make sure when you do get your foot in, that you can make yourself valuable to your new company. If being an intern or apprentice is the only way to break into your new career in photography, then just do it!

Biddings in the Creative Industry

I maintain a Facebook page for those interested in the business of photography, and I often ask for writing prompts from the members of this group. This week’s featured questions came from Elmer Pueblo, an enterprising young man who runs a production house. His dad, who was with Akerlund & Rausing (a packaging firm), was my client.

Elmer Pueblo: I have a topic. Is the bidding process good for the photography industry or the advertising industry as a whole? Should we participate in such a process? Is it a waste of time or (is the) effort worth the trouble?

Before I answer your questions, let me start by saying that the bidding process in the photography or advertising industry is not the same as in other industries. Participants in biddings for industries other than advertising are pre-qualified – so whoever wins has been predetermined to have the capability to deliver on the project. Therefore the aim of the exercise is to find a contractor who can accomplish the project at the least cost. Bids are submitted sealed, and they are opened in the presence of all bidders.

In all the years (2016 is our 43rd year) that we have been in advertising, we have been asked to bid for photography projects several thousand times, but I have never been invited to the opening of bids. Not even once.

I learned very early in the game that what is done is not “bidding,” but collecting cost estimates, which unfortunately are not really treated as cost “estimates” but as quotations, but that’s another issue altogether.

Advertisers may insist on bids, but since they probably do not monitor bids or the bidding process which their ad agencies conduct, I suspect that agencies still manage to push for their preferred photographers, videographers, stylists and other production suppliers. I have met many retired art directors and account executives – some who had even risen to become heads of their ad agencies – who intimated to me that even before they ask for bids, they already know whom they would like to work with, and to whom the project would be awarded. As long as quotations are within the range, or within their budgets, then they can assign projects, not to the lowest bidder, but to photographer whom they feel is right for the job. This system of choosing a photographer sometimes benefit and sometimes prejudice the same suppliers, so I don’t know if we can say that the practice is inherently unfair.

I personally suspect that biddings are held only because clients insist on them. If the art/creative directors had their way, they would just select the photographer (or videographer) whom they like. And because the bidding process is not strictly enforced, they still manage to do so.

It would still be ideal if ad agencies would prequalify their bidders, so that competing photographers are more or less in the same level of expertise, and in what they offer in terms of equipment, facilities, and manpower, but maybe because we are dealing with creative folks, we supply creative services, and we are in a creative industry, it might really be impossible to expect iron-clad, tightly guarded, honest-to-goodness bidding procedures.

Given the experience, through the years, of winning some bids and losing some others, I would prefer to trust and believe that the bidding process –while not strictly enforced – is still basically fair, and all that I ask is that we continue to be invited to bid for projects. If submitting bids is what we need to get a chance at being hired, then I would appreciate every invitation to bid.

To answer your questions:

1. “Is the bidding process good for the photography industry or the advertising industry as a whole?”

I would like to see the day when there is a strict, fair and credible accrediting body that would rank creative suppliers (photographers, videographers, stylists, etc.) in terms of expertise, facilities, equipment and other criteria, so that those that are invited to bid belong to the same category or ranking. When this happens, then bidding might truly benefit clients and ad agencies.

The bidding process might also encourage or force photographers to study their costs and margins, to ensure that the bids that would make them win would also bring in profits. That might then help professionalize the photography industry.

2. “Should we participate in such a process?”

I think so. As I wrote earlier, if we don’t participate in biddings, we don’t get a chance to get jobs. While I accept all invitations to bid, I also work to suggest ways to improve the bidding process. (I can share stories of these attempts, in case anyone is interested).

3. “Is it a waste of time or effort worth the trouble?”

I don’t think it’s a waste of time, but we do need to involve ourselves in introducing and suggesting improvements not only in the bidding process, but also in the general conduct of business in the creative industry – since this is where we are.

Doing Photography for Free? Ask Yourself These 10 Questions!

You’re young and passionate about photography, and you don’t know how to break into professional photography except by giving away your services. In other words, you’re willing to work for free. Listen up, before you do!

In any business transaction, cash is preferred. Cash gives you the freedom to spend it any way you want – to enroll in photography courses,  pay for advertising space, spend on marketing materials, buy a new camera or lens, pay an assistant,  book a holiday at your favorite resort, or to save for a special purpose.

However, there may be occasions, especially when you are just starting out, when your client offers you no cash or very little cash. Should you accept? Should you still do the job? Before you do, ask yourself two important questions – “What’s in it for me?” and “What else can I get instead of cash?”

Hopefully, by thinking through such offers, you can maximize your non-cash benefits from this less than ideal transaction.

When you are being asked to charge low or not to charge at all, ask:

  1. Is everyone on the project working on a voluntary basis, or are you the only one being asked to work for free?

It may be a worthwhile project, especially for charity or advocacies, and maybe everyone is really pitching in, then doing photography for free may be a worthwhile effort. Even in business, there are a few situations that may justify rendering your service for free. In the U.S., ad agencies and design studios are paid to pitch for an account, but in the Philippines, they are not. So, if everyone is pitching in to pitch for an account, being there with them (creative team, account management group) from the very start may land you the account when they do.

However, if in either situation – charity or business – the designers or ad agencies are being paid or their other suppliers are being paid, then it is only right that you should be negotiating to get paid.

2. Can you get products and services in exchange for rendering your services?

They’re called gift certificates or gift checks (GCs), and you can get them in exchange for the discounts that you are giving away. Hopefully, they’re just for the discounts, and you’re not being paid the full amount of your photographer’s fee entirely in GCs. It is also important that you are selective with which GCs to accept, otherwise, you will end up with worthless certificates that you are not cashing in, or if you redeemed them, you will have products that you will never need, want or use, or cannot even give away.

Check the expiration of those GCs and make sure they have far dates. (The law now provides that no expiration dates should appear on GCs.) If your client has several branches, ask for GCs that can be negotiated at any branch. GCs that allow partial debits and new balances carried over would be better than GCs that demand that you redeem them in full (no cash change given, and no balance carry-overs allowed).

3. What can you get for the discount that you are giving?

If your client’s budget is smaller than the fee that you have in mind, and you can’t make him budge, can you negotiate for faster payments? Can they bring down the number of requirements, or number of hours that you need to work? Can they take care of paying your assistant, or paying for out-of-pocket expenses such as prints, transportation, food, USBs, etc.

4. Are you being promised lots of future jobs in exchange for a sizeable discount on what is possibly your first job with a client?

Avoid giving discounts now for jobs that are still to come. You cannot give away what you have not yet earned. Instead, charge in full for your first job but offer to give them rebates, in terms of credit memos to be applied to future jobs. That way, you give discounts on those promised future jobs when those jobs actually come through.

5. Can you think in terms of pesos and centavos, instead of percentages, when computing how much you are giving away in terms of discounts? 

Instead of thinking 20% of P10, 000, think P2, 000. Maybe this will help you realize how much you are giving away. If you are doing a project for free, don’t just think free. Instead, think how much you could have charged – P5,000? P50,000? P100,000? and think of that amount as how much you are giving away. The word free does not help you feel how much you are losing. Then, keep a record of those discounts and free jobs and see how much you actually gave away in a year. You’d be surprised.

6. If you are thinking of getting free publicity in exchange for free photography, can you get photo credits in respectable, legible, recognizable size and in a form or style that will help you reach paying clients? 

Get at least your website or email address in your byline, and do ask for bigger type sizes (points). A better arrangement would be for you to be credited in the same way as the author. If the author has a byline for writing the article, you should see your name displayed just as prominently in both the article and the table of contents, especially if you are the only photographer contributing to the article.

7. Can you get editors or publishers to do a full-feature article on you as a rising talent? 

If the people who approached you for free photography are publishers or editors, this is a possibility. It does not cost them any money for their writer to interview you and do an article on you. Just make sure that the magazine’s readership is the same as your target market.

8. Can you get advertising and marketing mileage in exchange for your free or discounted services?

Ask your clients or customers to allow you to distribute your card or flyer at their event. Whether wedding or trade show, you have an opportunity to pull in possible clients, if you have a place where you can give away or display your marketing materials. In addition, if they have invitations, souvenir programs, banners or other materials announcing the event or the event’s program, you can get your name and email address (better still, your website) on all of them as sponsor. Again, just make sure that the market that they are targeting is the same as yours.

9.  At weddings or events, get your client or customer to treat you like a guest with your own seat at a dining table, and allowed to mingle with guests so you can at least do some networking, or do marketing even with just the people across the table from you.

Just because they are paying you dirt does not have to mean that you should be treated as such. If you were covering a conference, can you have a free hour or so not doing photography but mingling with delegates or speakers so you can learn from the speakers or market your services to the delegates?

You might be able to learn something that can help you do better photography or better business in the near future. How much is that worth to you? How much would that be if you were to pay to get in, for example, in a conference on entrepreneurship, business management, photography, advertising, weddings, or any field of photography that you want to get into? Especially if that the only or the best place to learn it, then working for free or a low pay may be worth something, after all.

10. Have you set the conditions when you would shoot for free, and when you would not?

So that you don’t become an overeager photographer who will get a reputation for being an easy target for free photography, write your own conditions for shooting for free, or when you would insist on getting paid, and stick to them.

Ultimately, the test on whether you should work for free or a low pay is this – compute how much it will cost you to do the job, and how much it would bring you in terms of benefits. There may not be any cash exchanged, but there should be an exchange of benefits, preferably equal or in your favor. In the end, nothing is really free, except when you give away your services and get absolutely nothing in return.

Why should you?

To Specialize or Not to Specialize – That is the Question

The question posed was whether it is advisable to focus, as a photographer, on a niche, or to not specialize at all.

Depending on who you are, where you are at the moment, or what you prefer to do or dislike doing, this is a question that only you can answer, but let me share our own experiences to help you analyze if you should focus on a specialization or be a generalist. Maybe it’s not just one or the other, but maybe it’s possible to combine both.

Let’s put that question aside for a moment and let me ask you to consider a more challenging question, “What can you do in your career as a photographer such that, for some time, or hopefully for a long time, you would be the only one doing it?” In other words, instead of just hoping to be one of the best, why not work towards being the only one who can deliver the kind of photography that you like to do?

To tell you how John’s photographic career started in 1970 and developed through more than 40 years would answer your questions, but that’s a long story. Suffice it to say, that in the beginning, we were not choosey. Not having equipment, skill, studio, knowledge, experience, contact, clients or connections, we really did not have the right to be. John simply told me that all he wanted to do was shoot, so I looked for and took on any job for him – doing IDs of company employees, reproductions, slides, product shots, photo coverages (what you now call event coverages), cars involved in accidents for insurance claims, food, CEOs and board members for annual reports, industrial shots, even photographing a fashion model while trying to hide his nervousness at doing this kind of a shoot.

He tried many things. He never said no to anything.

Then, with each negative experience, John began to define what kind of photography he preferred to do.

After finding out that none of his shots of a friend’s wedding came out, he decided that wedding photography was not for him.

After being bawled out by an impatient CEO, he told me he just wanted to shoot products. They don’t need to be talked to, they don’t become impatient and they don’t shout.

After being ribbed by a client who recognized him doing events coverage, he told me not to accept any more coverages for him.

As the first few years went on, and with greater confidence, more opportunities, better contacts, bigger investments in equipment, more wisdom perhaps, he began to articulate what he liked and what he did not like, and to target the companies that could give him his preferred assignments.

Since he enjoyed long drives, but didn’t have a car, he aimed to shoot for a car company, which in the mid1970’s, was General Motors. He also aimed to get a free car.

He liked the challenges of industrial photography, going down 3000 ft. underground for Benguet Corporation, or climbing construction structures for Engineering Equipment, Inc., or doing aerial photography for various industrial accounts.

When things were quiet – or when there were long weekends, then off to Banaue, Ifugao he went, doing documentary photography.

He did not mind doing product or food shoots in the studio, but if he read something in the newspapers that excited him, that would send him trying to be a photojournalist. He just could not stay put.

Then, his biggest and most challenging break came in the 1990’s, when he was asked to do car photography, not just on location, but in a studio – first a studio that clients rented out for us, and eventually, our own car photography studio in 1992.

We were not the only ones doing studio car photography, there were at least two others, but John’s biggest advantage was that he was the only one with his own car photography studio. He therefore became known as a car photographer.

However, the Philippine market for car photography was not big enough, and we could not be shooting cars everyday. We continued to shoot products, food and beverages, special effects, large set ups, as well as industrial and architectural photography, and with G-nie Arambulo joining us in 1992, we entered the highly competitive field of fashion photography (for her, not for John). Plus, she enjoyed photographing people – corporate, lifestyle, travel and quickly learned to excel in the other specializations that John was known for.

Again, this is our photographers’ choice and may not be what you want. It was a conscious decision for them – to do different photo assignments, and not to limit themselves to one kind. Like food, our photographers craved for variety. We had to have a good mix of studio and location shoots. Even when we would have many assignments of the same kind, we would break them up so that we could do a day of food photography between days of car shoots, or a fashion shoot between days of shooting products. A challenging special effects shoot is always a welcome break, and takes away the routine of doing studio shoots.
To go back to offering a photography service that nobody else is doing – that seems to provide the ultimate advantage. But it is not an advantage that will last forever.

The bold move that we made in 1992 to pour life savings into building a car studio gave us a competitive edge that did not get replicated by a close competitor until five years later. In advertising, five years offer a big headstart. Through hard work and God’s grace, we’ve somehow managed to stay a step ahead.

But one of the important things I’ve learned in business is that you can’t be the only one, or the one at the top, forever. Whether it’s the way your studio is built, or the style with which you shoot, or the special equipment that you are using, I know that there are a few other photographers, or maybe a hundred or a thousand more (now that it’s digital) following in your footsteps while hoping and trying to overtake you.

A word of caution: While there are competitors out there, learn not to focus on them. Focus instead on pursuing your passions, following your heart, what you like and what you don’t like. This should be the basis of your decision as to what field or fields of photography to pursue, to specialize on.

Could it be that for photographers, the operative meaning of “specialization” is not the verb “to specialize” if what it means is to limit oneself to one field of endeavor or one genre of photography, but the noun, “specialist” which means to be the most knowledgeable, experienced, capable in your field?

Years ago, someone in the audience at the Filipinas Heritage Library seminar on photography asked the same question you asked, Alan. Should he specialize or be jack-of-all-trades? Does not being a jack-of-all-trades make him a master-of-none? How come, he asked, that John Chua is not “master of none?” The AIM business professor who was the speaker before us then clarified that John is not what you would consider a jack-of-all-trades. “John is a serial specialist. He learns one and masters it; then he moves on to another, and masters it; and so on. It can be done. You, too, can do it. Just give yourself time.”

Maybe it’s John’s, and G-nie’s personality and their varied interests, their long years in the profession, or maybe the fact that John can’t stay put – it’s all this that drives them, not towards one specialization, but to being how that AIM professor called John – a serial specialist.

To give Alan more definitive answers, here again are his questions:

How important is it to establish one’s self in a certain niche of photography?

Yes, it would be nice to be known for a certain niche of photography, so that your name is top of mind for that kind of photography. But unless you’re at the top of the heap of photographers in that field, and maybe even if you are, it may not be wise to limit yourself to one specialization. A few photographers who limit themselves to one specialization – like putting all eggs in one basket – may succeed but they must be quite fantastic guys. For the rest of us mortals, especially young professionals, diversifying might help keep us in the running, and the cash register ringing.

Or should one do as much photography in as many fields as he can until he finds a niche/area that he/she will be successful in?

Only in the fields of photography that you are interested in. You may be spreading yourself too thin if you tried to be in too many fields, especially those that you are not happy doing.

(If) you want to be a successful fashion photog, must you turn away wedding or event photography projects even if you are just starting?

I know many wedding photographers who do well as fashion and portrait photographers – they seem to be complementary fields – since they all involve photographing people.

Event photography assignments could lead you to many prospective clients. But do develop your interpersonal skills so that you can talk and direct them, and not just shoot them. Photograph them in their most flattering poses. (My two-year old granddaughter reprimanded the photographer at her school: “Don’t shoot while I am eating.”) Events photography is not just a photography job – it offers marketing, networking, prospecting and socializing opportunities.

Dealing with Difficult Clients

There are difficult people everywhere – not just clients. Co-workers, employees, bosses, even ourselves, can be difficult at times, some more frequently or more prolonged at being difficult than others. Through the years (Adphoto was established in 1973), I have learned to be patient, but still would not sacrifice dignity and self-respect for business gains. Here are a few stories from the past.

Story No. 1: Some are worth pursuing.

Prospective clients who may be loyal to their current photographers may be difficult to win, but they’re worth a good try.

Once, I was really embarrassed to overhear an art director say that he was not interested to see me. I was in the waiting room just outside his door, and I could hear him say repeatedly to the accounts person who was going to introduce me that he was happy with his photographer, and emphatically add that he didn’t need another. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to see me to take a quick look at the portfolio of the photographer I was representing – John.

I knew that I could not win him by claiming to represent a better photographer – besides I wasn’t sure if John were indeed a better photographer. After all, I didn’t know who the other photographer was, and couldn’t compare.

Neither could I insist on his checking out our portfolio, as he was obviously not in the mood. It didn’t even help that the accounts person seemed to have imposed his authority over this art director to compel him to see me against his wishes.

While I nervously waited to be called in, I tried to assess my chances. Before I could even start, I was already losing, so how could I reverse my “good fortune” (note my sarcasm) of meeting this man who did not want to even meet me? In my head, I could hear myself haughtily say, “If he does not want to see me, well, I don’t want to see him either! There are other fishes in the sea!”

Maybe that’s how I would deal with him – by using the “rejection technique” or “reverse psychology” – a concept and strategy I learned as a student in U.P. (I was once majoring in BS Social Work, and had quite a few psychology classes, including “Abnormal Psychology.”)

I tried to be as pleasant as I could possibly be, even as I gave him opportunities to turn me away. Telling him that I could come back when he would not be as busy, he waved his hand, and said, without looking at me, “No, no, it’s okay – you’re here already.” I told him that I appreciated that he liked his regular photographer, and that I appreciated that kind of loyalty. Assuring him that I was not there to try to take business away from his preferred photographer, I made no motion to open the presentation portfolio that I was carrying. I simply said, “Maybe you can just consider us a back up photographer, when your regular photographer is not available,” and promptly thanked him for his time. I was eager to leave the place, and was turning towards the door, when he called out to me, “Ma’am, may I have your card?”

Maybe he was just being polite, but I consider his asking for my business card as a minor victory. However, I had to hold off the temptation to turn around and try to hard sell to him. The proper follow-through was still to play hard-to-get. I casually handed him my card – not even with two hands as I have learned from Japanese clients – and just said, “Thanks for your time.”

The next week, my minor victory turned to triumph. He called our studio for a shoot appointment. True enough, his regular photographer had an assignment and could not accept another, not even from him. I learned (much) later that he was too embarrassed to then ask to see our portfolio, so he called up a colleague in the industry to inquire about us. We were highly recommended.

We did the job. Soon, we became his favored studio – and our business relationship even developed into a personal friendship. John and I would get invited to not only their office parties, but also their out-of-town company outings. For as long as he was in advertising and design, we did all his photography requirements.

P.S. He has retired from the industry, and his ad agency no longer exists.

Story No. 2: They Don’t Like You When You Come Collecting.

There was a time when John was photographer (he still is), while I was everything else. Following up Accounts Receivables was one of the responsibilities that I loathed, but I had no choice – there was nobody else to do the job.

One afternoon, I visited an ad agency because my persistent calls to their accounting department were not producing results.

At the lobby, I asked to see the head of their accounting. The receptionist called his local number, and then turned to tell me that he had left for the bank. I looked at my watch – I had an hour before banks closed, so I decided to wait.

Before the hour was up, he walked out into the lobby. I greeted him. He was shocked to see me, and turned to the receptionist to scold her. “You said she was on the phone,” he said in a very firm but toned-down voice, not meant for me to hear. Before she could say anything, I butted in and said, “Actually, I called earlier, but I decided to drop in, since banks are almost closing. I came to see you and I’ve just arrived.” Recovering, he said, “Come in,” and led me to his office. As I walked away from the lobby and into the inner offices, the receptionist and I exchanged knowing looks.

When I visited to collect a check a week later, she and I actually talked and laughed about that incident, but I chose not to confront the accountant with his attempt to elude me. I think I saved both the accountant and the receptionist from being embarrassed, and I saved myself an account.

Story No. 3: Not all difficult clients are worth saving.

I’d like to think that there are no difficult clients, only difficult situations, but I was much younger then, and was not patient or wise enough to know the difference.

In the 1970’s when we were still new in the business, I had a client who wanted us to reshoot the product shots that we did for him. I graciously agreed, trying to reassure him that we would reshoot at no extra charge, if he were not happy with our photography.

I proceeded to inquire what he didn’t like, and what he would like, and he just said, “I don’t know.” He added, “once I see the photos, then I can tell you if I liked it or not.”

Trying to persevere, I thought that I could get him to define what he wanted by going through a process of elimination. Holding one photo, I pointed at the elements one by one, and asked, “would you like this here,” or “how would you like this positioned,” or “would you like this to be more prominent?” but he refused to answer my questions.

“I will tell you if I liked it or not, when I see it,” he repeated.

“Would you like to be present when we do the shoot, and you can then decide at that moment?”

“No, I can only tell you when I see the photos.” (This was during our film days).

I gathered the prints, and told him, that we needed to know beforehand what he wanted us to do. “Sir, we are sorry that we can’t do your photography. Please give us a call when you can give us clear instructions as to what you want done.”

He never called, and we’ve never encountered him since.

Story No. 4: We all need to be respected.

Once we had a client who, in the middle of my meeting with him, was approached by his marketing manager. He was shown some materials, of which he obviously did not approve. As if forgetting that I was there, he scolded, berated and shouted at his manager.

I was very uncomfortable being physically in the middle of all this (we had nothing to do with the materials in question), so I stood to excuse myself, but he motioned me to sit down. As he continued to scold her, I couldn’t help but wish that I could tele-transport myself to somewhere else.

After they were finished, with me as their most-embarrassed audience, he proceeded to discuss photography with me as if nothing happened.

At my next visit, I delivered his orders – Duratrans for his store displays. Fortunately, he was happy with them.

I did not expect to see his marketing manager again, but she was there. I could not believe that she would still be there, and I could not make myself ask why she was.

Rightly or wrongly, I was not eager to service his business, and did not call on him again.

12 Ways To Help Photographers Collect Payments Sooner

This writing prompt came from photography educator Leo Santos: When working for big clients, is it normal to wait 3-6 months before they settle payment?

Dear Leo,

While it may happen, it is not normal for big clients to take three to six months before paying their photographers.

There could be different reasons for delays in payments. It’s not always due to clients’ lack of funds, especially if you are talking of really big clients. It could be insufficient paperwork (no purchase order, missing delivery receipts, no completion reports, erroneous amounts or inconsistent details, etc.), unauthorized additions to work orders and other such details. It could also be, that while they may have funds, payments to certain payees are not being prioritized. There is a saying – “The crying baby gets the milk,” so maybe photographers need to “cry” a bit. There are a few tips below on how to get attention from clients who should be paying us.

In the many years that we have been doing professional photography, I have noted that the most important factor that helps photographers to collect payments promptly, is the industry practice. If there are already industry norms that are favorable to photographers, let’s not ruin the industry by loosening up those standards just to get in. Follow those practices, and work to improve – not loosen – them.

When it comes to collecting payments from customers, we look with envy at wedding photographers – they collect downpayments when they get booked, which is about a year before the wedding to be photographed. A few days or weeks before, they get another partial payment, and they get their final payments when they deliver the last photo album. They almost do not have any accounts receivables to manage. John would even joke that they are lucky – because if the future bride and groom should break off their engagement, wedding photographers still get to keep the downpayments.

Second in rank – as far as advantage in collecting payments are concerned – would be portrait photographers, who are on cash basis.

Editorial photographers, unless they’re regular, salaried employees of the magazines they work for, get their checks after the newspapers and magazines are published.

It seems that at the bottom of the heap are advertising/commercial photographers. Direct clients usually pay within 30 days, but if billings have to be coursed through their ad agencies, then the minimum waiting time is 60 days.

The following tips on collection techniques are, therefore, probably most useful only to those who do commercial/advertising photography:

1. Be clear about when you expect payment, and don’t be shy about what you need/want/require to collect. Your cost estimate or quotation, as well as your billings (formerly referred to as “invoices”) should indicate if you require downpayments, and when these – as well as final payments – are due. In fact, on your billings, do not just write, “Balance due: 30 days.” Instead, write the specific date when balance would be due – for example: “Balance due: November 30, 2015.” Accounts Payable Officers are too busy to have to check today’s date, and compute when it would be 30 days hence. Write the exact date when you expect to be paid. It might even help to have a red rubber stamp that emphasizes that due date.

If the job is long-term (stretching over a few weeks or months), then, between downpayments and final payments, you should indicate that you would make progress billings. Information about progress billings should include when such progress billings would be made, how much and when payments would be due.

It’s also not enough to write them down. You may want to read these details to your client, as you hand them your billings.

Don’t be shy about asking for a downpayment. Don’t apologize. You don’t need to sound harsh or strict – just say it as matter-of-factly as possible.

2. Offer a prompt payment discount. A two-percent discount may be more than what you’d earn from the bank if you have collections to deposit early, but it’s a small concession to grant so that you won’t have to spend a lot of valuable time following up your receivables. It might be an attractive incentive for your clients’ accountants who are looking for ways to minimize expenses and earn a bit extra for their companies.

3. Do your paperwork properly. Attach properly signed Purchase Orders, Delivery Receipts and Job Completion Reports with your bills, so the Accounts Payable Officer does not need to chase a hundred people to know that your bill is good to go. While you’re at it, make sure that you submit your bills to the right people, and that the supporting documents are properly and legibly signed.

4. Here’s a little trick that I learned from a management newsletter that I used to subscribe to. Print your bills on colored paper. There is no law that says your bills have to be on white paper.

What good does this do? When you are following up collections and you’re facing a harassed, overworked and overloaded Accounts Payable clerk, who may try to dismiss you by pointing to the stacks of invoices and bills that he has to process, and may tell you that he still has to look for YOUR bill, then you can point to the green, blue, pink or yellow one somewhere in that column of papers. (Just hope that you are the only one who picked up this tip or you will see a multicolored heap of bills).

5. Track all the steps that your bill goes through – from the time that you hand it to your client or his agency print producer. You shouldn’t be calling the Check Disbursing Officer week after week after week just to hear that your check is not ready. Where is your check, or your bill, exactly? Is it for signature? Is the voucher to accompany your check still being prepared? Is your bill missing? You can’t be asking the Check Releasing Officer where your payment is – he wouldn’t know. In large corporations, his only job may be to release stacks of checks that are brought to him at the beginning of each day.

I once studied this series of steps with a BIG client, and counted about 56 change of hands. There was a time when I learned that our bill was stuck with one of the accounting clerks because he was waiting for the supplier (that’s what we are called) to pick up the sheaf of papers from him, and to take it to the next guy, several tables away from him. I learned to visit him and some of the other 50 plus hands whenever I was in the area – to see where my future check was and to help it move along.

You don’t have to do this study with every client, but it helps to know where the possible bottlenecks are, and how you can get your paperwork moving.

6. Go and meet all the people who do all the paperwork that results in your getting a payment. They would be more eager to help you if they have met you personally, and you are not just a voice on the telephone that’s pestering them.

7. Be polite and considerate. Say “please” and “thank you.” They’re people, too, and they probably work on papers all day. A bright smile and a cheerful tone may be all they need to become eager to process your check.

8. Don’t just call to try to collect. Visit. Send a note. Be a friend. They’re busy – and so are you – so you don’t need to spend a lot of time with them, but even a quick phone call to greet them when they’re celebrating an occasion – a birthday, an anniversary – is enough to thaw the ice between you.

9. Show appreciation for prompt payments. You might event want to give annual certificates, rebates or tokens of appreciation to clients with the best or highest payment histories.

10. Go higher. Don’t just meet the people who do the paperwork. Meet presidents and vice presidents – these are the people who make decisions and give out orders to attend to you or streamline their processes. It’s probably not going to be easy to just walk in to their offices, but maybe there are industry, trade, civic, sports or social occasions where you can meet and become casual friends with them.

11. Join a trade organization of fellow photographers, especially in your field, and be an active member or officer. There is strength in numbers – your organization can make representations for better and quicker payment schemes with your clients’ counterpart organization. In advertising, the officers of the Advertising Suppliers Association of the Philippines work on certain industry projects with the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies of the Philippines and the Philippine Association of National Advertisers (these may have been superseded by newer industry organizations), and these shared activities provide opportunities for mutually-advantageous agreements that may include better payment procedures.

12. Be good, be very, very good at the photography that you do for your clients. One of the most sure-fire ways to collect is to make your clients want to work with you again. If they want you to do their photography, they will find ways to make sure that they don’t owe you – especially not long overdue accounts.

A word of warning. I sometimes see photographers rant on Facebook against their clients who owe them money. Avoid embarrassing your clients on social media, or even face-to-face. There must be a way that you can collect without losing the patronage of your clients.

I hope these tips help. Perhaps fellow photographers would like to share other tips to help all of us improve our cash flows.

Raising Prices: Two Stories

In any business, pricing is not, and should not be, an arbitrary decision. Neither should raising prices. How we price is based on a seemingly simple formula, Price = Cost of Doing Business + Profit. I say seemingly, because gathering data to arrive at the cost of doing business is not an easy task. It requires keeping records of ALL business expenses, computing for breakeven points, depreciation values of equipment, return on investments (ROI) and many other accounting works. However, this article will not deal with how to arrive at pricing. Instead, we shall concentrate on two real stories about raising prices.

These are our actual stories at Adphoto, and I hope that telling them would encourage other photographers to share their own experiences.

IN 1989, when a few photographer-friends and I were trying to form the Advertising Photographers of the Philippines, I met Eddie Go – a well-respected and successful photographer – and his wife, Lydia – an equally successful food stylist. (Eddie Go has passed on, and his son has taken over as photographer-partner to his mom).

They were a few years ahead of us in the business of photography, and I looked up to them. Even without looking at our rate sheets, Eddie suggested a pricing experiment. He challenged me to raise prices, and he predicted the results. I don’t remember his exact words, but the message was essentially this: “Raise your prices, and you will find that you would lose some of your clients.” He continued with his prediction, “but in the end, you will find that your profitability will go up, and you would actually be grossing higher than before you raised your prices. Even if you did not earn more, you will be surely be working less for the same amount! ” Challenging me further, he asked, “Would you rather accept 100 jobs at P1, 000 each, or 10 jobs at P10, 000.00 each?” To seal his argument, he reminded me, “We’re in services, Harvey, not in selling retail. There is only so much that we can do in a day.”

Suffice it to say that I heeded his advice, and benefitted from the wisdom he shared with me.

Our next pricing challenge was in year 2000, when the Philippines was suffering from a deep economic slump. President Estrada was being tried for corruption and no one wanted to invest in the country. Everything had stopped to a standstill, as the country stayed glued to the court proceedings being broadcasted on TV like a riveting teleserye. There were not enough advertising jobs, not just for us but also for everyone, and our facilities, equipment and people (among them three photographers and one digital artist) were all under-utilized. We didn’t know where the country or the industry was going.

We needed to do something – to have “one, big, hairy, audacious goal” to lift us from the flat lines that we were experiencing. Searching the Internet for ideas, we got excited over developments in digital backs. But they were scandalously expensive – at more than a million pesos for a piece of equipment that was small enough to hold in one hand. I emailed Phase One, and told them that we were interested in their product, but there was no way that we could buy something that expensive yet had neither seen nor touched. They sent a quick reply, and said they would send someone to the Philippines to demonstrate their product.

If they came just for us, all the way from Denmark, I feared that we might feel pressured to buy, so I offered to organize an audience of the top 10 photographers in the country for his demo. If we decided not to buy, maybe somebody else would. I also volunteered to introduce their sales and marketing representative to possible distributors in the Philippines. They said not to worry, their man was going to Japan and Manila would be just a hop away. We were assured that he would come, whether he makes a sale or not, as they needed to reach the Asian market.

We hosted this demo, and the 10 photographers whom we invited brought in 20 more. But at the end of the evening, although everyone was excited at the features and capability of this new piece of equipment, everybody felt that this was not the right time for such a heavy and risky investment. One photographer said to me, “But, Harvey, you could buy a van with that kind of money.” On the other hand, we were convinced that this was the way for us to wake up the industry that was in doldrums. I answered him, “But, you have a van and we have a van, but we can’t shoot with our vans.”

At the end of that evening, we were the only ones who signed up for an order of a Phase One digital back. Aside from real estate (our Bautista home and studio), this was the biggest single purchase that John and I had ever made. I had to bring out our entire life savings to purchase this tiny piece of equipment. It was one of our biggest gambles. We could only pray that we were doing the right thing.

As soon as the digital back came, we had to master the equipment and the software. And we had to go full-blast in marketing this new, expensive “toy.” We prepared samples of our digital work, a Keynote presentation enumerating the advantages of a high-end digital back vs. film, and made a list of agencies for our sales blitz.

At our first presentation to an ad agency, everyone looked excited and convinced, but the moment of truth came with the question, “Would it cost us more to go digital?” John and I answered at the same time. He said “No,” and I said, “Yes.” We looked uncomfortably at each other but to John’s eternal credit, he said, “Well, pricing is Harvey’s territory,” and literally took a few steps back to motion me to walk up to the microphone.

Nervously, I repeated the benefits of going high-end digital, but one of our clients impatiently demanded, “We know, Harvey! How much more would this cost us?”

“Just enough for us to recover our investment.” I looked at them, and saw that they did not quite accept that as an answer. I knew that what they were expecting were not words, but numbers. With as much courage and confidence as I could muster, I said, “15% more.” The split-second while I waited to see if they would approve or disapprove was like eternity, but that magic number must have been acceptable because I did not see any disapproving looks. I heard a couple of clients softly mutter, “OK.” Again, silence for a few seconds, and then they stood up and applauded our presentation. They excitedly approached our computer to see more images, and to ask more questions – no longer on pricing but on the capability of the digital back. Before we left, they had asked for our earliest availability for a photo session- which was the following day.

The biggest surprise was that we did not have time to continue or finish our planned marketing blitz. Our clients – folks from both agencies and advertisers – took care of spreading the word.

The representative from Phase One computed ROI based on the number of films (4×5 and 120mm) that we were using and spending on in a year. This, plus what we spend on Polaroid prints, is the expense that the back would replace. My rough computation on possible ROI was based on one photographer using the digital back, but not everyday. I knew that our computations were not 100% accurate, not foolproof and not guaranteed – everything still depended on how well our new pricing would be received.

The response was overwhelming! We were overbooked! All clients were requesting us to use our digital back. All three photographers had shoot assignments, and the only way to accommodate their shoots was to insist that the assignments would be, not on location, but all in our studios. We had three large format and medium format cameras readied in three studios, but we only had one back. As soon as the first set up was approved, and the next layout was being set up, the digital back was shuttled to the other studio for the second photographer, and on to the third photographer, and back again to the first photographer. In the meantime, we had to find ways to keep clients entertained so that they would not notice that the digital back was not where they were.

Those were exciting times.


In six months, we had earned enough to recover our investment and to order another PhaseOne digital back, and before the year was over, we placed an order for the third back.

With three backs, our three photographers were happy. They could shoot in the studio or on location, and most importantly, our clients were happy. We delivered on our promise.

PhaseOne found a distributor in the Philippines, and we helped them reach a greater market by acting as their “unofficial” showroom. Other photographers who were interested were invited to come to our studio for a demonstration and discussion of the features of PhaseOne digital backs. In return, PhaseOne gave us discounts and allowed trade-ins of older models for newer ones.

To be continued (if you are interested)… The Year After: It’s Not Always Rosy in Digital Photography.

Premium Cameras. Premium Prices.

A photographer asked me this question on Facebook: “I’ve always asked myself: “When is it best to use expensive camera gear? Some clients are really just cheap, and I have gear priced at their price points. Is it fair to use non premium camera gear that can also do the job?”

Different cameras offer different features. It would be foolish to simply look for a more expensive camera without matching what it can do with what you need to accomplish with it. On the other hand, you probably can’t get better paying clients (or higher-value projects) if your equipment is all second-rate.

I remember that in the 70’s, when we were starting, we could not afford the more expensive studio flash systems. John and I bought Styrofoam ice boxes from the supermarket, put a hole in the bottom, inserted a handheld flash there, put aluminum foil inside and tracing paper in front, and voila, we had an studio flash. But, oops, not quite. It still looked like an icebox, so he painted the outside matte black. Hmmm…

We knew, however, that we could not attract better paying clients with such crude imitations, so we continued to save, save some more and save even more to be able to afford the legitimate studio flash systems.

It was the same with cameras and other equipment. However, so that we don’t live or work always dissatisfied with what we had, John always says that the best camera is the one in your hands. He also admonishes our younger photographers not to look for what we do not have. But there are instances when a more demanding photography job requires the use of better, more premium cameras.

For about 20 years, John was exclusively using one brand of camera – mainly because he had a whole gallery of lenses to go with that camera. When we started using DSLRs, we simply replaced the old film camera bodies with a third-party (another brand) digital camera body that we could use with the same array of lenses. But at some point, he had an assignment to shoot an airplane, flying over him. That required a camera with a much faster burst/continuous-shooting mode than what his third-party digital camera body then could give him. Without hesitation, he switched brands, and he has been loyal to the second brand since then. It’s the brand that he now represents, but only because he’s still happy with it.

Your question is, “Some clients are really just cheap, and I have gear priced at their price points. Is it fair to use non premium camera gear that can also do the job?”

My answer is: If you are a professional photographer, you have the responsibility to give your clients your best, not just your “good enough.” You can’t charge more if your skills, equipment, facilities, services –all that you offer your clients – are non-premium (read – cheap). You may argue that “some client are really just cheap,” but maybe – please don’t take offense – that’s the kind of client that you attract with your “gear priced at their price points.” If you want to attract better paying clients, then it’s necessary to offer something better that would make them willing to pay more. You may say that this is a chicken-and-egg situation – which comes first – but I would like to think that a business person needs to take the first step. He takes risks, but his client shouldn’t.

Just look around. A mall like 168 in Divisoria attracts bargain hunters. If you wanted to attract high-end clients, you would sell in Greenbelt 5. Between these two price points are a whole spectrum of shops and shoppers, and they build their shops, choose or train their staff, and sell merchandise according to the clientele they wish to attract.

It’s a business decision, of course, and as a photographer, you can start or be (by choice or force of circumstance) at any point in the spectrum. Just remember that everything in your business – including your equipment and pricing – must be consistent with that decision. Consistency – that must be the key to better business.