Learning the Business Through my Mistakes

My Mistakes:

Living in Korea or elsewhere as a photographer, you will no doubt get a few photo gigs here and there. While the attraction of earning a little money from your hobby (at this point) may be enticing, you must be careful while you are working here. Here are a few tips (made from the mistakes that I have made over the years)

1. Keep Your Business a Business and Your Job a Job
Too often we photographers in Korea blur the line on what violates our visas. Be careful because if you are a working photographer (making an income from your photography) you could get nabbed by immigration. While the likelihood of this is rare, all it takes is a phone call from a jealous co-worker to put you into hot water.

Awhile ago, I was doing a charity gallery for a group that helps orphans and one of my co-workers blatantly asked me if this violated my contract and visa. I looked dumbfounded for a second, I never even considered that this would interfere with my job, but looking around, the place was filled with my co-workers and bosses, the photos were also hanging with price tags and sold stickers. Nothing was made of it and I told my curious co-worker that I was making no profit off the sales as it was going to charity. I dodged a bullet there, but for the rest of you, be careful.

This also goes for self-promotion too. If you brand yourself as a photographer, you may get into trouble as immigration may see you as “self employed” and thus violating your visa. I would suggest keeping all promotional material out of the office.

2. Set your prices up front
One of the things that I still have a problem with is setting a price for my work. It seems everyone has a different price and I find that each job has a different one too (depending on travel and whatnot). One of the biggest problems that I have had is not being clear on the price because I was not confident of my own work.

What I recommend is that you have a sit down with your clients and the first thing that you discuss is the price and what they get for that price. Then state the time frame for payment, which should be before the shoot. Why I say this is that many times clients that I have had and did not pay before the shoot will use that as leverage to get a bargain from you or extra editing/reshoots or what not. You’ve done your work, your are giving them the quality and photos that you agreed on, it should be a done deal.

3. Be Firm with Pricing and Packages
There is that old saying about “give an inch and they take a mile” and it is true in the photography biz as well. When I first started I had no confidence in my work. This worked to the advantage of the clients and many times as they got a lot more from me than they would have normally received because I was afraid of upsetting them.

To give an example, one time I did a photo shoot and threw in a short slideshow of the work as an added “freebee” Well it soon became extra work for no extra money. I had to re-edit the photos and rework the entire slide show. When I was finished, the clients ask for “a deal” because the work took so long. I was annoyed but because I knew them, I reluctantly accepted. I was a huge mistake. Make sure your clients get what they pay for and nothing more.

4. Be wary of Friends asking for your services
If you have a nice camera and take decent photos, many of your friends and family will ask you to do some work for them. It is a simple thing that when people see that you have passion for your hobby or work, they well want to utilize your services. I would stay away from these jobs unless you are very clear about the above topics.

I have been burnt by this a few times where I would do a portrait shoot or engagement photos for some friends and then have them gouge me on the price because you find out that they were not coming to you to give you some work, they were coming to you to knock of $500 from the regular photographers price. While this may be fine for good close friends, often it is friends on the periphery that will do this to you.

An example of this was a few years ago I did a wedding shoot for a friend of mine. I gave him a discount because I knew that he was strapped for cash and couldn’t afford my usual rate. However, I neglected to talk to his would-be wife about it and soon received numerous emails later about styles and poses and locations. It was a slap in the face. She was asking for stylish shots like the ones she saw from websites that were charging $3000 and they were paying a lot less, only a few hundred actually. The reason was that they knew I could pull off the shots and I was eager to please because they were “friends”. Set your prices and set your packages, EVEN WITH YOUR FRIENDS.

5. Be Confident
Some people can just smell weakness and will use it to their advantage. Many times I have felt that I wasn’t worth the price that I was charging because I was just starting out. Be very clear in your initial meetings and be confident in your ability. If your clients feel that you are confident and professional, they well see that in your photos later. However, if they get a sense that you are nervous, weak and not confident in your own work, they will use that to their advantage.

Here is something to think about. The people that hire you, hire you because they have seen your work, heard of you (good stuff usually) or both. They would not have hired you if they felt that you were a horrible photographer and are hoping for the best. So with that in mind, when you show the final work, make sure that it is the best work that you can do and make no excuses about it. Do not say “well, this is the best that I could do because the lighting was bad” or “The pictures are a little off because of the conditions at the shoot” stuff like that will always take the power out of your hands no matter how good the photos are.

People have a strange way of acquiring a new skill set when it comes to saving money. Clients who have no idea about photography suddenly become more critical than the editors of National Geographic or GQ magazine. Just like the parents of the children you may teach some how become very knowledgeable about English education and the latest teaching styles (without actually speaking the language) when they think that they can save a few chon-wons on the newbie teacher.

Be confident and tell your clients that these are the best photos from the shoot and that it fulfills the agreement that you’ve made. After that, there should be no more arguing (unless the shots are sh*t). Stand up for your work and don’t make any excuses.

6. Don’t Take Jobs If You Don’t Have the Time
I have often overbooked myself and paid for it in the end. You think that if you can squeak out for a bit and get some shots that you are done. However, many of us here, are juggling our primary job, a blog or something, and then the photography business. You have to realize that you need a certain about of time for each job. So even though you may think that stacking jobs is cool, often times it affects your creativity and post processing as well.

Remember, the pro’s usually have an assistant or two working for them. They handle a lot of the editing and whatnot. Most of us here in Korea, it is a one-man (or woman) show. Keep the jobs simple and finish them in a timely manner.

7. Get Credit for YOUR Work
In this age of digital files, people email and/or post everything to facebook. Make sure that if you take photos for your clients that they give you credit for your work. I have seen a number of my shots pop on facebook with no mention of who took the shot. People assume that if it is in one person’s profile, that they possibly took it. It also takes something away from the professionalism when the shots get mixed up with party shots or “lesser” portraits. By Lesser, I mean shots that maybe don’t have the same quality or time that you put into your work and then people will just naturally assume that it is less professional.

Another thing that you must make your clients aware of is that while they are the models and perhaps purchase the photos, you still own the rights to those photos. If they have a problem with that, they may ask to purchase the rights to the photos. I include this here, because often times especially when making photo slideshows for my clients, I have had the request to include some of their shots in the video. While this may seem innocent, it does take something away from the body of work. If you have the rights to the photos, you maintain the rights to use the photos as you see fit. The video also represents you and your work.

You may wonder about this, but people usually do this when they want to pass the video off in emails as something “they did”. With a few shots of their own, people will pay no attention to who took the rest of the photos. You need to make sure that the photos you give to your clients are a representation of you and your business, not just a reflection of the people in the photo. With this being said, you may want to write up some release form or wavers for your clients.

That is it for today. Have a great weekend and get out there and shoot!


  1. Lenny Reply

    You bring up a number of great points not only in “Learning the Business Through My Mistakes” but your other topics as well. I post all of my photos to Flickr and I love to read the comments. I have found however that if I want people to really notice and comment on my photos they have to be HDR. I love HDR but it seems to me that regular (non HDR) photos don’t cut it anymore. They seem ordinary by comparison. I don’t think this is a good thing. Some photos ops call for the HDR treatment but others don’t. Since the HDR genie is already out of the bottle I don’t think we can put her back in. If you want to boost the number of views you get on Flickr for your HDR photos I suggest that you also post them on HDRSPOTTING.com. You need an invite code to register but you can find them easy enough on any search engine. Some of my photos are approaching 5000 views – far more than I have ever gotten on Flickr. Yet they link back to Flickr so that helps boost the number of Flickr views also. If you have trouble finding an invite code let me know and I will help you find one. It is definitely worth posting your HDR photos there. One suggestion about your blog. Is it possible to make the white letters stand out a little more? They seem too faint for me to read easily. I am looking forward to reading more of your topics.

    • jt Reply

      Lenny, thank you for the excellent comment. You are right about the HDR situation. I remember hearing one of the Photoshop Guys talk about the same thing. He said that when people look at his portfolio it is always the HDR shots that people point out. I must admit that after reading your comment about hdrspotting, I have renewed interest in it. I have a code but for some reason I just haven’t been posting too much these days.

      As for the blog you are right. I edited the code the make the main font stand out a lot more. I appreciate the interest and I am glad that took the time to make a great comment as I think it will totally improve the blog’s readability.

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