“Spec Work” Does Not Pay the Bills
Spec work basically means that you work for free to build your portfolio prior to actually getting hired to do a job. This is great and the first time around seems like a wonderful idea. Think about it, a cool magazine reaches out to you because they seen your posts on facebook groups. If you don’t have any experience, you may think the best way to get your feet wet is you take a couple of free gigs to get some exposure. They only exposure that you will get likely is that of being a photographer that works for free.
I want you to imagine that you are getting a cup of fresh roasted coffee from that great independently-owned coffee shop in your area. You know, the own that roasts their own beans and has really friendly staff and you feel comfortable knowing that they can make an amazing cup of coffee. Now, imagine what would happen if you said this to them “I want a cup of your best coffee, large, black and I want it now. In return I will tell my friends about you…” Chances are you will still have to pay the 4,500 won for your coffee.
Like it or not, that is how the industry treats a lot of photographers. In Korea, there are two things helping them as well, your visa and your attitude. While working on an E2 teaching visa you are technically not allowed to be “employed” anywhere else. This is used to a great advantage for companies and publishers who find a great foreign photographer and don’t want to pay top dollar for photos. The other part is that when you first start out, you may be shy about charging the right price for your work.
I will not get into the legality of your photography business while in Korea. That is something for you to decide. However, I have mentioned it before but if you do have a “business” you must and should keep it separate from your school or work. That means don’t flash cards or have dollar signs flashing around. There is no law that says that you can’t get exposure but if everything about you says “I make money” it will catch up with you.However, the real battle is to actually get the right fee. They want you to go a festival an hour away and get some shots for them. Cool! your first working gig! Now let’s look at the costs.
Your Basic Costs
- Transportation: 25,000 won (includes return bus ticket and taxi fare)
- Food and beverage: 15,000 won (lunch, snacks and a coffee)
- Half-day rate: 250,000 won
- Processing fee: 50,000 won (2 hours work)
- Writing fee: 50,000 won (based on approx. 100 won a word)
- Random charges: 10,000 won (batteries, tape, etc)
- Basic Total Cost: 400,000 won
Now if you are thinking that is high, you still have to add in your markup. Think about it. This is a no frills basic estimate. How much money are you making off of this? NOTHING. If you are thinking about your “half day rate” then you have to think about everything that you bought in the last few years for photography. The lenses, camera, cards, flash, bags, strobes, softboxes, programs, etc. That is what your day rate covers along with and more importantly your time. Think about it, do you really want to go out into the ass-end of nowhere to shoot a flower festival? Probably not.
Now here is the kicker, you have tallied up your costs and have given the magazine a reasonable estimate of 500,000 won for the festival coverage. What are they expecting to pay? NOTHING. That is not to say that you won’t get credit for your work. They will put “words and shots by _____” under the title. You might even get a copy but most places will make you buy that as well unless you specifically ask for it. So, you might think well digital photography is free and I am not buying film but that is not the point here. The point is that you basically gave away 400,000 won plus your markup.
The Reality of your “work”
The thing here is that most of the magazines are using your work to make money. The content of the magazine is what gets them sold which in return gets the magazine advertising revenue. Now, they may say that they are just a “small publication” but most ad space is not cheap especially if it is for a full page ad. So keep that in mind when you get asked to provide some pictures or do an article for a publication. Sure the first few times may get you established but sooner or later they have to pay the
piper er… photographer.
It does not mean that all magazines are bad or that they are the only ones that do this. One of my biggest issues is with shooting events, as the photographer is often putting in a lot of work during the actual event and is usually paid the least. Now, if you are volunteering you time to help out a cause or something that is fine, but at least cover your costs. So with that in mind, one of the things that always leaves me with a bitter taste is when I don’t follow my own advice. With that, I will admit that my biggest challenge is giving a proper price and I have taken the lowest prices you can think of and put in a ton of work to get barely anything in return.
So again, with the same basic criteria as before, but this time you are charging a full days rate minus the “writing fee” but including a higher processing fee. You could also add in a fee for using your photos for promotion materials and if they use your photos in local magazines and newspapers. So lets say that your estimate is around 800,000 or even 1,000,000 won which is still far below what even wedding photographer charge these days. For most events that is a reasonable price. The trouble that I have with this is that most event planners will scoff at the price and demand that you “give them a discount” in return they will “give you credit” and “get your name out there”
What does “Credit” get you?
Here is the issue, getting credit does not cover your time or your hard work. A lot of times, they will try and cut your price by saying that “they can get you more jobs” The truth of the matter is that this rarely proves fruitful. Think about it, the planners are busy and they are not going to be standing around telling people how good of a photographer you are or try to get you another gig. The people at the event are not planners and will not need your services. If you do your job right, most won’t even remember that there was a photographer there until they see the pictures.
One of the biggest slaps in the face is when you look at what the other members of the event are getting. The event has to rent the room, bring in a caterer, buy alcohol, rent sound equipment, and find a band. Now, some events have flown in a band, imported fine wines, got rooms for the guests of honour and given fine meals to all. Do you think that any of these people are taking a punch to their bottom line by doing this event? Likely not, so why should you? Now again, it is not the event planners who are out to screw over the photographer, not at all. It is your job to state what exactly you need!! Don’t think for a second that anyone is going to pay you extra because you did a good job and didn’t say anything. Your hard work and awesome shots are bonuses because in their minds they got an awesome photographer for next to nothing!
Don’t Hate, Just Be Realistic
So with that, I hope that you don’t think that I hate any publications or events that I have worked for in the past. It is quite the opposite. What I want you to take away from this is that you must find your rates. Going back to the coffee shop, the reason there are so many around is that they have a set fee that is competitive with the other shops along with a unique style and quality that people enjoy. You don’t question the price of that iced americano because you see it plain as day and you know what you are getting. The same should be for your clients.
Finally, you might ask the reality of getting the above rates here in Korea. Well that is tricky but it is not impossible. Yeah, if we could all get 1 million won a day for taking pictures that would be awesome. However, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t figure out your expenses and rates. You can get your own exposure from generating an online presence and working with various agencies inside and outside Korea. If you set the standard, not all will bite but you won’t be out any money either.
The Hard Lesson Learned
One of the best jobs that slipped away recently taught me this very lesson. Before then I was scared of the business side of my photography. I just focussed on my photos. If I got a job that paid me something, I was happy. I really hated setting a price for my work as I thought that people would be angry with me or worse yet be insulted especially if my photos didn’t meet the quality that they expected. At any rate, I got an email from a company that was interested in my services. I was excited and took a long shot with the estimate.
This was for a multi-day job that involved a bit of travel. It was not overly technical and had some pretty easy set ups. So I gave a high estimate thinking that they would never go for it. They instantly accepted however the job fell through as the host company had their own staff photographer. The lesson that I learned here was is that people are hiring you because you produce a great product. They have seen your work and think that you can do the job well. Why else would they spend the time to contact you? So why would you give a price that does not cover your expenses? what are they going to do for you in return? So with that in mind I want you all to sit down and figure out what your rates are. Write them down, put them where you can find them and update them as often as you can. For more information watch the Adorama TV video below as it puts this into perspective and check the rates from the London Freelance Photography guide.