Knowing Your Value As A Professional Photographer
Money, money, money, money, money. I've had a lot of questions about this subject and I just, I felt the need to address it. Part of this workshop was I wanted to do a really extensive Q & A, which I'm actually gonna jump into pretty soon here, but really addressing and focusing on money, right? And there's so many facets to this. I talk and touch on those quite a bit through this workshop, but ultimately, what could you make? What can you expect to make? Let's be transparent here. I will just tell you straightforward when you're operating as a commercial photographer and you're doing, 10 to 15 commercial photography jobs a year for Fortune 500, you can make an amazing income. You can make upwards of net couple million dollars a year. There are photographers who have found incredible success by shooting purely just commercial campaigns. Now, if you are focusing more on editorial work for magazines, it's a little more challenging. And I wanna share just this personal story with you,...
because I think it really paints the picture of just how hard it can be to make a living as a photographer. My very first photograph that I ever got printed was for Transworld Surf Magazine. After doing an internship for them for about four months, I remember kind of having this dream and this goal, I wanted to do print in the magazine. This is one of my biggest dreams and desires, right? And I've always been a goal setter. And I remember basically once I sort of understood the editorial process, like what the magazines were looking for and how I could submit more efficiently and how I could kind of fall into the regime of what they were looking for in the magazine throughout the year. I was like, okay, well, there's this wintertime issue. That's always the best photos of California. And so me being a young surf photographer, I was like, I'm gonna spend all winter, every day and I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna shoot photographs and I'm gonna create something good from central California, from the kind of foggy beaches and rough wild surf that's near my home. And luckily there wasn't a lot of photographers around here. So I realized that there was value in being in a place where there wasn't a lot of people and there's this outer reef that breaks. It's called Rodent Reef. And that's kind of the secret code name for it. But ultimately there's this outer reef that breaks. It's a big slab. And what a slab is, it's a wave that basically hits a shallow rock shelf and all of its energy and weight and momentum just throws hucks over this thing. There are often waves that are whiter than they're tall. And this reef was like very, unridden, really dangerous. And I remember going out there, planning it out all winter long. I'm like I've got my friends who have a jet ski. I'm gonna go out there. It's 5:00 a.m. It's a pumping Northwest swell. I'm up the coast. And I basically jump on the back of the ski and I got my water housing, and it's all dilapidated, my camera equipment, that I could barely afford in there. And I get towed out to this reef and they're gonna tow into this wave and I'm super excited. I'm gonna shoot photographs that I finally think are gonna be worthy of the magazine, because until then I just kind of shot average B roll stuff, around the county. And once I really had a chance to sink my teeth into the magazine and understand and kind of become a student, again, researching learning what they needed, I had a better idea. So I was shooting photos with a more focused vision. I went out there, I'm shooting photos for this certain issue where all the best images of California are really compiled into. And I remember getting out to this reef and it's foggy. It's a terrible day. It's kind of drizzling. It's a day like this. I wouldn't even wake up early to go shoot surfing on a day like this, but I was young and I was hungry and I literally would've done anything to get out there. And I remember sliding off the back of the jet ski, looking at them, realizing that I was about to be left alone here in 150 feet of water where great white sharks are known to be. And the only thing next to me is this big buoy that's dinging back and forth and these elephant seals or sorry, these seals are just sitting on it. And I'm like, I wonder why they're all up on the buoy? Probably 'cause they don't want to be in the water and I'm sitting there and I've got this little boogie board I'm sitting on, it's floating. It looks like a potato chip for a great white or something. And I look at this reef and it's just this mega slabbing thing, scary. I wanted nothing to do with it. And so I'm sitting there with my water housing and all of a sudden the jet ski goes away right out into the distance. And I'm like, there they go. All right here I am. I'm like basically a mile out to sea by myself at this reef and I'm sitting there and I'm freaking out. My heart's palpitating and I'm realizing that I need to get closer to the wave in order to get a shot, right? That's good. I had a 24 millimeter lens on my camera. It's in a water housing. I'm just sitting like this. And I'm trying to line myself up with some sort of semblance of land on the shore to give myself like some kind of, you know, angle perspective. I see a couple waves come in and I'm like, oh my gosh, that thing's scary and I'm paddling away from it. And then all of a sudden I look out at the horizon and I hear before I see it, I hear this kind of whining of the jet ski, hee, hee, like way out. And I realize that the whole horizon is rippling. And what I thought were set waves, were nothing. Like these were ripples, this was a set wave. And this thing was a monster. It was so big. And I see these guys like specs on the face of this wave and they they're on, the guy's being towed in by the jet ski. And they're coming in really fast and I'm starting to paddle away and I stopped and I'm like, I have to get closer in order to get a shot, that's even remotely good. And I start getting closer, getting closer and I'm kind of holding up the camera terrified and the guy let's go of the jet ski rope and he crawls under the lip just like sliding underneath the lip. And all of a sudden this thing hits the reef and just the whole wave, like upheavals and lands on his head. And I was like, I don't even remember if I actually took the photograph. I just remember being so shocked that that guy, all this effort, all that energy and the guy took one of the worst wipeouts I'd ever seen. And I'm just like, I was spellbound. It was insane. After everything kind of the chaos, falls away and the white water and the explosion, I see him way on the inside. He's got his life vest on and the jet ski scoops him up and they come back to me and I'm like, oh my gosh, get me on here. And they're like, he's like, hey, I gotta take him into the shore. He's not doing it, he's not breathing well. So you can paddle in, yeah? And I'm like, and they just take off. And so then I have to paddle in, right? And the way it, it's funny is I thought it was scary out there. The scariest part is the stretch, when you go from where it's kind of shallow, reef to shore because that's where it gets really deep. And that's where there's this huge gap. And I remember paddling in and just being so bummed, so worked, so wiped out and having like a couple images. And by that point that the kind of the skies had cleared. And I remember stopping and taking this one lineup shot of the reef and the beach and everything. Anyway, I get home, I call my photo editor, Pete, who I'd been working with at the time. And I'm like, I tried my best. I'm so bummed. Like, I don't know what I got for you, but I think I might have gotten a photograph, that's kind of interesting. But to be honest, it's nothing compared to what, I was used seeing in the magazine. And so I sent my images and a couple weeks later I got an email from Pete. And again, this is like the first time I'd really ever in my life had any sort of like, been really submitting images or anything. I'm kind of just working blindly here, right? So this submission process and he's like, hey Chris, thanks for sending your photographs. There's a couple moments in here. I can't promise anything. But if you send through some high-res, we'll try to see what we can mock up. Maybe we can use something and I'm like, okay, great. Send him the high-res photographs. And then a couple weeks later, he's like, hey Chris, we're gonna use something. Can you please send through your bank details to our bookkeeper, etcetera, etcetera. And I'm kind of connecting the dots and I'm like, oh my gosh, like all this work, all this effort, I'm gonna get something printed. This is so epic. I'm so excited. And I send in my high res photos and you gotta keep in mind, there's this kind of tumultuous point in my life where I had quit my job. I had quit school. I was trying to prove to my parents and really everybody else that surf photography or shooting for magazines was worthwhile, that it was worth not going to college for, that it was worth, leaving a job and a career behind for, and to be honest, I had no idea if that was the truth. I just, I was sort of willing it to be. And I knew that maybe in some way, by getting this first paycheck, right? That I could prove that it was worth that time and that effort and that energy was worth it. And all of a sudden, I remember the day came, magazine shows up at the door. I run, I grab the thing. And it says, it's like the best of California on the cover or something. And I grab the, I don't even look at it and I run into my room and I'm sitting in like the darkest, like loneliest corner of my room and I peel open the pages and I'm kind of just flipping through. And I see, there it is, there's this photograph, it's a three quarter spread. And on the right side, it's a tiny little inset lineup. And the spread is this moment, this gray foggy moment, right before the lip kind of hits the surfer in the head, right? And I was like, oh my gosh, that is so wild. Like that my name is on the bottom of that image and I was blown away. And then I just tried to hold it all in. Like, I didn't even really say anything to my parents. I kind of like, I think I left it like out on the counter of the table, like open so they could see it. And then a couple weeks later, or rather a couple months later, if you're used to getting paid by magazines, 'cause that's normally how long it takes. I am going out to check the mail. And all of a sudden I see this envelope and there's a little self in window. And then it says my name and I'm like, oh my gosh, there it is, my first check. And I grab this thing and I'm like, I mean, I'm literally opening this thing with precision. Like I trim the end, I slide the thing out. And I slide it out in the way that I could read the whole thing, like this way to this so that I see the money at the end, right? And it's like, and I'm, it's like, Transworld Media paid to the order of Chris Burkard, and I'm just sliding this thing open. And I see, I see the numbers one, five, zero, zero. And I'm thinking there's supposed to be another zero and a comma in there, right? There's no way on God's green earth that I just got paid 150 bucks for all that effort for all those three months of gas and food and sleepless nights and early mornings to make that. I mean, literally gas alone in a week was costing me 150 bucks just to basically drive up and down the coast to try and chase surf all day. I was blown away. And the first thing I thought about was I'm gonna have to do this so much to make a living doing that. And so why I'm telling you the story, why I'm telling you the story is not because I want you to be totally bummed out at the realities of what you can make, but in the beginning it was rough. And I absolutely swallowed every ounce of pride that I had. And I realized that in order to make money as a photographer, I was gonna have to be very creative. I would shoot weddings. I would shoot senior portraits. I would go to local surf shops and I would basically knock on their door and introduce myself and be like, hey, I'll shoot the interior of your store for like 50 bucks, 200 bucks at a time or whatever that was. I'll edit the photos. You need photos for your website. I would even run out on the pier and take pictures of random people surfing and then jog up to them on the beach when they get out and be like, hey, so and so, I got some photos of you. Do you wanna buy them on a DVD for like 20 bucks? I mean, literally piecemealing work together. And that was the first couple years of my career. That was it. And it was really only until I started to have a little more consistent work with the magazine, started to kind of assert myself as like, they would hit me up and they'd be like, hey Chris, where are you this week? Or we're doing a contest. Is there any way you're in Oceanside? And I'm like, oh yeah, I'll be there in the morning. And they're like, wait, isn't that six hours away. I'm like, yeah, no worries. I would drive down there and just make myself be there. Or if I knew things that they were covering or things that they needed covered, I would make myself there. I would make myself available. And so it was consistency and time and effort, months and weeks, and of years of really committing myself to being there for them to filling a void where they didn't know there was a void. And that was ultimately what got me on retainer with working for the magazines. And I worked for Transworld, Surfline, Water Magazine and Surfer for the course of about 10 years of my career. That was that. And when I got a retainer, that meant that they were giving me basically $1,015 hundred, $2,000 a month to retain me as a photographer, committing to pay me that much in order to use that many of my images, right? So this retainer amount really, really helped to create a little bit of consistency in my career. I also, at times in my life have gone on retainer for brands like Patagonia, where I was being paid upwards of $18,000 to $20, a term or a quarter or a year to basically fulfill their needs for the surf department to have images for advertisements and website. And so the reason that that retainer kind of comes into play is when they see that they're paying you enough money to necessitate basically forming a more formal relationship. It's an easier cleaner and more affordable on their end form of partnership than just trying to cut you a check every time, right? So it isn't uncommon for a lot of photographers to basically have been on retainer for magazines, been on a retainer for brands, and then eventually, sometimes you end up going on staff, right? So going on staff means you're actually an employee for these brands. A lot of times, as a retainer photographer, working for magazines, working for brands, I'm just sort of a independent contractor that's getting paid. And yeah, you're, you're also having to, be audited at the end of the year as an independent contractor and basically sending in 1099 and all that. So one of the considerations is that I realized early on that after really doing my first few commercial assignments, my first few commercial licenses, that the best way to make money was going to be that route, right? Shooting for the brand rather than shooting for the magazine. But there was sort of a pathway, right? By shooting for the magazine you're allowed, you're able to get exposure to the brands who could then hire you to do that. So for example, what might pay 1$50 bucks to $250 bucks in a magazine, and again, I am talking about the surf world, the world that I came from, this has nothing to do with the Vogues and the men's journals and the outsides of the world. That's a different market, there's different budgets, but within the surf world, what would ultimately pay $150 to $250 bucks for a spread? You could charge a spread to an advertiser, like a Volcom or a Quicksilver, a Billabong or whatever, $1500 to $2000 bucks, because that image was being used as a commercial image, right? It was being licensed to represent them, not editorially, right? So there was a much greater value there. And I started to realize, okay, so I need to work with athletes that are connected to these brands that can pay that amount, right? And that was really how I started to make more money, right? And then again, my personal projects, like I spoke about my books, films, these things started to get exposure outside of my tiny little circle of surf photography and started to get an audience with. I remember one of my very first image licenses was to like, Daphne's California Greek, it's like a Greek restaurant. And they wanted images for their wall of all their restaurants. So I licensed images from my book for their wall of their restaurants. I remember, again, a wine label reaching out and wanting images for a handbag. I remember there was a couple corporate offices that wanted large commercial prints, not just a personal print for someone's home, but large commercial prints on their walls. So, the value of the work was starting to go up. And at that point, I started to also try to understand that, okay, these people are outside of my normal market. I can charge slightly more. So without getting too much into the weeds and the nuances there of what to charge and how to charge people, I want you to understand that it is a slow process. One of the beauties of, I think for me, starting in the surf industry was that there was a rate card that everybody worked with, right? If you were a senior veteran, you'd been shooting for 10 years, you'd charge probably at the upper echelons of that rate card. For me, you know, the rates would be like, you know, maybe $2,500 for a outright buyout and then, of an image, and then $1, for a spread and a $1,000 for a full page. If I was selling images to a brand, right? But all that washes away, the moment you're outside of one of these secular industries, right? I would envision like there's other industries, maybe like the skate industry and the snow industry where there's similar rates, where basically everybody's kind of operating within this. And to be honest, a lot of the photographers were willing to share their current rate card because it was good to keep the industry standard at a even playing field. But as we start to elevate beyond this, there is no right and there is no wrong way to say, this is how much to charge. This is how much not to. I think the key when it comes to money and the conversation around money is that it should be a negotiation. It should always be. That's why it's called negotiation. You come in high, they come in low, you come in just above their number. They might meet you somewhere here. If you give somebody a quote for an image, for the value of what you're trying to do. And they immediately say yes, you can know darn well that you left some money on the table. And that's just a harsh reality of negotiating. To be honest, as time's gone on, and as I've explained before, having somebody else negotiate for you will go a long way to keep and preserve the artistry of that relationship. I personally don't want to be having those conversations about the value of the imagery or the value of my work, right? But one of the key components is that I also do know the value of my time. Now, when it comes to your time, this is a slightly different scenario. Because if you're out on a magazine assignment, you might be out on a Nat Geo thing for 60 days at a time, right? Or if you're out shooting an assignment for Surfer Magazine, you might be on assignment shooting surf in the Caribbean for two weeks at a time. You're not making a day rate. You're making your rate based upon what they're going to print and what they're going to use. So it's all based upon the work that you put in. Now, typically when you're going out and doing a commercial job, or you're doing a job for a brand, you're working under a day rate and I wanna explain a little bit the difference of what a day rate is and licensing and kind of how and when to kind of separate that. So typically what happens is if a brand comes to you and you you're gonna bid out this job for them, there's a couple ways to go about it. And again, I am not the best person to explain this because there are people who literally do just this for a living. And if you're taking my advice of not getting good at something you don't want to do, you'll realize that I haven't spent a lifetime's worth of understanding these nuances. What I do understand is that my day rate has slightly escalated over time because I've worked with larger and bigger brands. And I know what to charge in that realm. So the very first and foremost thing is that when you're working with brands, you do your research, right? You reach out to an agent, you might reach out to other photographers. You might reach out to other producers, try to find out what the budgets are, try to find out what other people are charging and base your numbers somewhere around there, right? Now, if you reach out to somebody and they low balled the rest of the industry and you did the job for basically free, well, maybe you wanna raise your prices a little above that because you feel like your time is worth more. But typically when you are bidding on a job, you're gonna be offering them a couple different scenarios, right? One of them is, hey, I'm gonna give you my day rate. My day rate is maybe $2,000, maybe $3,000, maybe $4,000 a day, $5,000 a day, $8,000 a day. What have you. That's all in, like you own, you could potentially own all the work. There's no license. There's nothing attached to that. This is just my pure day rate. And if you're doing it like that, your day rate is much, much higher. Now, when you're negotiating a day rate, you have to keep in mind that this is something where the number will change based upon the licensing attached. If a brand wants you to go all in, hey, what is it gonna cost? We own all the work. We own the work in perpetuity and we just want to pay you the highest day rate, basically. You're gonna give them the highest number, but what that does is then all the licensing, the two year licensing or the web or the print or the in perpetuity, or however you wanna establish all those things, however, the image usage is being defined, is kind of wrapped into that day rate. And your number goes up, okay? That's really comes down to what you need to do to do the job, right? Remember, our production expenses, that's separate, right? We're not talking about that. We're talking about you taking the time out to go and shoot this thing, to oversee the creative, to do all these things. What is it worth for you? Okay? That's really a personal question that nobody can answer for you. I can't take a look at your work and say, well, your day rate should be right in the $2,000 to 4,000 range. No, this really evaluates the brand. It evaluates you, your time. What else do you have on the table? Who else is vying for your time? And ultimately, have you establish that notoriety to charge this much? Have you worked with brands that are paying this much? You can then realize that, hey, they don't have the money to pay that day rate. So what do you do? Well, it's a sliding, it's a tipping scale, right? This is how this works. If they can't pay your day rate, what do you do? Do you lower your day rate? You can, but then you need to also lower the usage terms. You never want to concede to everything. You want to take something away if you're also lowering the amount, okay? And that is how you retain some of that, I would say, you retain some of that ownership over your time and your work. If someone comes to you and you say, hey, I need $5,000 a day to do that job. And they're like, we only have $2,000. And you just say, okay, that's not the way to negotiate. You would say, okay, I can do it for $2,500 a day. But instead of giving you all the images outright or in perpetuity or for a two year license, this is now a one year license. And this is now for web and print only. And if you want any external marketing, you're gonna have to renegotiate, why? Because you put the power back into your own hands to where you have the opportunity to basically go back, talk about the image usage again, and make some more money in the long term, okay? That is really one of the healthiest ways. And this is really what an agent or rep or a producer should be helping you to do and to manage okay? So I want you to understand that there is no right algorithm, right? There is no real software that can spit out a number that's perfect. Now there is software out there that can help you. There are programs out there that can help judge based upon the industry, based upon the client, the time, the energy, the amount, right, and help spit you out a number. What that software is called, I'm not sure, But I know there's quite a few photographers that do use it, but I feel like one of the absolute best ways that I would go about it is to reach out to other people in the industry to try and get a quote on what was charged and what was used and how you went about it to consider talking to an agent and really base it upon that. I would say that one of my first, one of the first things I ever licensed, it was to a wax company, right? A surf wax company. And I remember reaching out to another, I reached out to four or five surf photographers, and none of them would give the time of day, but there was one guy who was rad, David Pooh, who said, you know what? This is what I've charged in the past. And he was just transparent, you know? And he was like, obviously I'm this part of my career. I've been doing this for 20 years. I'm gonna be charging this amount. But I don't think it would be ridiculous for you to charge a portion of that or whatever you feel. And that's exactly what I did. And I remember his generosity and his time that really set me up for success. So I wouldn't be afraid to reach out to people. I wouldn't be afraid to aim for the stars, aim high. Again, your day rate should be a projection of what your time is worth and that time and the worth of that time can raise higher and higher. There are jobs in full transparency where I've worked for Fortune 500's where my day rate has been upwards of $20,000 plus a day because I'm commercially directing and I'm doing something where I'm operating a huge crew of people and all that responsibility's falling upon me. I've had day rates where my, my day rate for pure photography is upwards of $10,000 plus, because again, I'm working on a huge commercial campaign for Fortune 500, but during the same period of time, I've also worked for smaller brands, maybe even the next week, maybe even the next month where I've done a job for $2,000, for 5,000 a day, for something along those lines. Because of the fact that I liked the work, I liked the brand and I wanted to do that for them. And yes, the usage is trimmed way, way, way, way down, right? So they're only getting the images to use for maybe web or social or something along those lines. So trying to find that scale and how it tips in your favor is really what you want to be looking for when it comes to money. And my hope, my goal is that, is that nobody's out there working for free, that everybody's out there putting food in their mouths and putting food on the table for their families, and that they are able to realize that photography in many ways, and sort of the language of photography is the hardest part to learn.