Should Spouse Photographers Work For Free?

When I started my career as a photographer 15 years ago, I worked with many families and models for free. It was always TFP (time for print). This is a great way to get started if you do not have a portfolio to back up your business. Should you work for free? For cheap? For how long?

Sometimes doing a little strategic volunteering is a good strategy for military spouses. Even now, there are many times that I still do free work when I want to update my portfolio. I also occasionally offer extremely discounted sessions to get a certain picture.

Free work should only be done with a purpose in mind. When you're doing TFP/CD work you need to see it as a tool to learn and grow--especially if you are not already established. Charging $50 right off of the bat with only snapshots of your child in the bathtub as a reference is not going to make you very much money at all.

Your portfolio is your resume. No matter how much your family thinks of your work, a stranger is going to judge it based on the quality of the photos.

After a PCS move, working for free can be a good way to market yourself. It also allows you to update your portfolio with new locations. For example, when we PCS’d from Texas to Colorado, the scenery was a huge change. Doing a few TFP sessions I added more depth to my portfolio to reflect where I was. Not only that, it gave me a chance to explore the amazing places to do portrait sessions.

Hidden Cost: Ignoring overhead

Many military spouse photographers don’t make an accurate assessment of their costs and then don’t understand why they aren’t making any money.

Oh boy, cost is a BIG thing you need to consider as a photographer-- especially after the previous section about free work. Free work is only for a short period of time, a few sessions at most. So after you have done some TFP, how do you figure out what to charge?

I am all for free work if you learn from it. But at the end of the day profit is what matters. A lot of times we photographers start out in the financial hole because ofthe cost of equipment.

We have to dig ourselves out of that hole to get to the profit. It takes hard work to get there, and lots of time. It won't happen overnight. So don’t expect it.

Instead, challenge yourself to really look over everything that costs you money--and I do mean everything. The cost of all of your equipment is an investment in your business. Things like gas, insurance, electricity, CDs, thumbdrives, website design, hosting, business cards, education, software....the list goes on and on. These are your business expenses. They all play a role in how much you should charge.

One tool that can help a military spouse photographer figure out costs is the National Press Photographers Association’s business calculator. It is fantastic tool that will give you a rough estimate of your expenses and costs that you need to cover in order to make a profit. First the tool helps you estimate your expenses. It shows you what your overhead cost will be. Your overhead is how much you need to make in order to cover everything, AND make profit. Seems like a lot doesn't it? It really isn't.

Hidden Cost: Discounting Your Time

Say that you need to make $1000 a week to cover your overhead. You could do 10 families at $100 or 20 families at $50. But what you need to also consider is your time. Time you spend going out and shooting. Time for the babysitter. Time driving to and from the location.

The biggest time expense is the time you use to edit each session. If you are unfamiliar with editing it may take longer than normal to edit a session. Roughly, editing a session for me can take anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on the content (10-75 photos).

You have to go through photos, find the right ones, edit them, package and burn them, upload them etc... That time expense can cut your profit in half. You're in this business to MAKE money, not give it away. Right?

If you do not edit your photos that is a huge problem. Why? Because your work is a reflection of you, and your business.

You can have the technical know-how when it comes to photography, but there are situations where something is wrong in a photo and editing comes to play. You know those times where there is some crazy cat photo-bombing in the background, or a light pole that is placed ever so annoyingly in the sweet spot on the left side of your model-- yeah those times.

I NEVER advise any new photographer to give out raw files to clients...ever. You want the very best of your work to be a reflection of your business so that potential clients want to hire you.

So editing is key, and if you do not edit your own work you will have to hire someone to do it for you. That can add up, too.

Hidden Cost: Selling Yourself Short

Even the best military spouse photographer cannot always book eight sessions a day. You won’t always have work. That is something you need to factor in too when starting a photography business.

Sometimes you will work more, sometimes less. That's just the nature of this industry. I will also add that different packages offer more profits as well.

So you need to gauge your pricing based upon YOUR expenses and needs in order to see a profit from your business. This is why many photographers offer a flat rate that is higher than their overhead, or a tiered system that will cover cost.

This is why I strongly disagree with photographers selling themselves for $50 portrait sessions. Those photographers drive down their own profit and destroy the market as a whole. That practice creates clients who expect cheap work.

Military spouses with creative careers like photography have to be on their toes to create a niche for their business every time they move. The key is to remember that you are in business. Making a profit means that you ferret out those hidden costs and set your prices accordingly.

PHOTO CREDIT: Crystal Johnson

Crystal is a full time photographer, mom and wife. She lives with her amazing husband and son at Fort Carson, CO. For the past 15 years it has been her passion to capture her clients special moments and memories. When not working she enjoys a good book, and tall glass of southern tea.

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