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Dear JLark: How Do I Make The Leap From TFP to Paid Clients?

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Natasha Johnson and I had a conversation today, for the sake of length, I included the important points that I wanted to address, but the gist of the conversation was:  I’m shooting TFP (Time For Prints) how do I start getting paid shoots?

I want to preface this with an important disclaimer.  EVERYONE starts as a Beginner.  Those we call “experts” “successful” “rockstars” “leaders” simply began before you.  It’s a time and experience investment NOT that they are better than you.  That said I think it’s REALLY important to understand that it takes a lot of courage to not only swallow pride and ask for help, but especially to do it on a public forum.  I have heard ad nauseam opinions expressed to the tune of “These people are what’s wrong with our industry” { I was one of ‘these people’ for a time, and so was everyone that says it ;) }

The problem with our industry as I see it is that people are more inclined to judge than help, by taking cheap shots at the fledglings joining our flock we teach them to fear seeking information or aid from the more experienced, and so the learning curve is longer, and by extension the standards of price and quality are pulled down because our client base sees a mess of mediocre work and ridiculously low pricing that makes it hard to discern what the standard amount should be in focus of price or quality.  That all said, so help me if I ever see anyone make a mean, judgmental or harsh comment on any of my articles towards any of these people asking for help!

So Let’s go through Natasha’s current place step by step:

My question is how do I advance to the next level of finding clients who want to pay for my work?

I started photography almost ten years ago shooting landscapes, which I still love, but have spent the past two years shooting women’s portraits, which has become my passion.  I am very fortunate to be in a position where I do not have to shoot genres I don’t like in order to sustain an income, (my husband is a general contractor).  I shoot women exclusively, and have become clear on the genres I want to pursue – glamour, boudoir, and head shots.

(c) Natasha Johnson

Excellent, you’re off on the right start… if you don’t NEED the money there is no reason to focus on shooting for money.  We are raised with the belief that our value as an adult is measured by our ability to be a productive member of society contributing financially, paying taxes on our wages back to the whole.  Too many people are so close to their passion, and compromise and shoot what doesn’t set them on fire, because it is the “responsible” choice.  Responsible often a misnomer that really means the safe choice, the cowardly choice.  It’s fear disguised as logic and practicality.

You can create art for art sake, shoot because you love it, shoot because you have something to say, shoot because you can not bear to not shoot.  My first question to how do I make money at this is: Why do you want to make money at it?  Especially if you don’t need it?  The answers are usually more money is always good; but in actuality I think the deeper need is validation; because if someone else is willing to part with their hard earned money in exchange for your artistry which is a luxury and not a necessity to their survival, they have in essence validated the worth of your art and you as an artist.  This makes us feel better about the time, energy and money we expend on something that is nonessential to our survival.


I am active on my social media pages, I show the work I want to get paid for and I enjoy networking but I can’t seem to gain enough traction to make the leap to finding paid work. I get inquiries from girls who love my work but do not seem to want to pay, regardless of what my price is.

(c) Natasha Johnson

Tell me about your pricing and your packages, and how many images do you return from a session?}

Ok… be gentle lol This was my last response to an inquiry – a young woman friends with a model I shot.
“My current rate is $85 for a session. For that, you will receive the session, low res jpegs of what was taken (minus eye blinks, etc.) and your choice of 5 retouched photos (high res, unwatermarked with permission to print). Additional photos you would like retouched are $10 a piece.”
And I don’t have print packages or anything, just digital right now.
I return anywhere from 150-250, sometimes more, sometimes less.

A few things:  1 I never offer sales or discounts on my sessions, and I don’t often “sell” via Facebook or any other social media.  Maybe 5% of my annual posts link to something I’m selling or ask for money or purchases.  I’m a firm believer in the idea that the best way to market as an Artist is to show your work, and show yourself.  What I mean by this is be genuine, and authentic, let people know you.


 


 

Most of your problem is with your price point.  Let me be very clear:  There is NO problem with you charging a low rate as a photographer, as long as you understand what that means.  In ALL businesses there are 3 types of businesses:  Low Cost High – Volume, High Cost – Low Volume, and a Medium Cost – Medium Volume.  When you operate at a Low Cost model {which you are at $85 a session} what you are doing is telling your clients that you’re a bargain; which means you will attract people who are focused on the value of the cost not the value of the artistry.

The only way to make a profit at this price point is to shoot a LOT of clients.  Your problem is that you’re not showing any value for your work in the way you have your sales set up… let’s take a look:
150-250 prints.  At $85 for them you have assigned a value of $0.34-$0.56 per image.  You can’t get a candy bar in a vending machine for that much.  You just taught your clients that your work has less value than the pack of gum at the cashier counter, which is why they aren’t paying you.

The $85 is not necessarily the problem, what that encompasses is.  For example, if you were returning 10 images then you have told them the value is $8.50  5 prints the value of your work is $17.00 1 print your image is valued at $85.00

Let’s say that another more high end photographer is shooting a collection and returning 10 retouched images at $850 guess what the value of her images are?  $85 a piece.

Now let’s assume “high end” is a photographer making $2,500-5,000 a session.  If she was returning 250 images at that $2500 price tag she’s valuing her work at $10 an image.  In our above example for you returning 10 images you’d be at $8.50, which is relatively close to the same work value.  {This starts to give you an idea in the difference between what your price tag, and what the value of your work is.}

Instead of the print value let’s look at the time:  In order for you to make essentially the same money as our high-end example overall, if she is making $5000 a month she would need to do two session at $2500, at a value of $10 a print.
If you adopted a close value and were returning 10 images at a value of $8.50 per print, $85 a session you would have to do approximately 59 sessions a month totalling $5015… that’s 2 per day as opposed to 2 per month… process that for a moment… again there is NOTHING wrong with this model… as long as you have the ability and desire to shoot that many sessions a month My good friend Matthew runs a very successful very high volume studio, but part of that is understanding how to do that and what the value of the sessions are to turn a profit.

Now let’s step away from the value of the print and assume your charging by the hour instead of by the product, and lets say prep, shooting, and retouching that you spend 5 hours on a session. Let’s say you both are also returning digital files only so there is no overhead.  Our high-end studio is investing 10 hours of time to hit that 5 grand monthly mark.  You on the other hand are investing 295 hours a month to hit the same goal.  {This isn’t including branding marketing business… just shooting hours.}  Her value is at $500 an hour while yours is at a little less than $17 an hour.  I’d like to draw attention to the fact that there are PLENTY of people who do not get paid $17 an hour at jobs they hate.

(c) Natasha Johnson


I started doing it this way because so far, except for 1 headshot I’ve done, I haven’t had a paid client yet. All of these girls I’ve shot are TFP building for their modeling portfolios. It worked out better to let them choose their favorites because I would make the choices and LOVED them, but if they didn’t like what I picked, they didn’t post, so I was losing the eyes of their network.

I agree with you that the photographer and the model are rarely in agreement if asked to pick their favorite image of the session… that isn’t necessarily the issue.  The issue is that you are presenting them with too many choices, and that is diluting the potency of the impact your artistry makes… You’re offering them photography in bulk essentially.  When do we buy in bulk?  When we want a great cost value, not great quality.  Think back over the past year to anything you bought in bulk… were the items particularly expensive?  Nope.  What made you purchase them?  The cost value?  Yup.  We buy because it’s on sale, buy one get one.  We buy because it’s discounted to pick up multiples.  You’re following a wholesale model right now and so your potential clients are valuing it at the level YOU set for it.  They’re just listening to you.

When I shoot a session, here’s how it goes {And I think this would easily work for you to adopt}  They come in, they spend time with my in house hair and makeup artist, we do the session.  As soon as we’re done I tell them to go ahead and get cleaned up, pack up all their things and come down to the viewing room when they’re ready.  In the time it takes them to get all their things together all the images are downloaded onto the computer.  I’m not terribly far off from you in the thought that the shutter fires around 150 times a session.  I go through and cull the images, as you said above:  Blur, flash didn’t fire, blink etc.  I also get rid of any of the ones that I don’t love… You said “but if they didn’t like what I picked, they didn’t post, so I was losing the eyes of their network.”  Well worse than them not sharing the work is them sharing work that makes their waist look tiny but doesn’t showcase your best ability as a photographer.  

I get rid of anything that I am not 100% proud to have my name on and shared everywhere.  This usually takes me down to about 75 images or fewer.  The model comes down and we look at them together, we’ll go through and she gives them a yay or nay.  So she is still picking her favorite images, but she is picking them from a preselected batch that I already know I’m happy to have online.  Model has selection power, you have only images you want to share with the world.  Everyone wins.  In my case I’m looking for 15-30 images because I do Portfolio Boxes for my clients via Finao.  They are the ONLY company I recommend.  I love them.  Their products, their prices, and their customer service.  I talked so well about them for so long they ended up picking me up as a sponsor!  Which is awesome because everyone knows I genuinely feel that way about them, it’s not just a paid advertisement.  

More importantly you are the artist. They are coming to you for your vision, and you are not giving it to them if you are not making the choices from the time the shutter fires, until it’s completed in its final retouched format.

(c) Natasha Johnson
I just don’t want to look foolish. That’s my only concern. I know $85 is a really low rate. I’ve tried higher rates before with no takers, so at $85 and no business, I’m kind of embarrassed

Let me tell you perhaps the most important thing in this blog:  It’s completely foolish to worry about looking foolish.  You can argue that you look foolish raising your rates to value your work when you can’t get a paid session at $85, and I can tell you that you look foolish sitting at $85 for 250 images valued at $0.34 a piece!  People will read this blog about you and some will call you foolish for all your “mistakes” and “bad business”  and others will call you Brave, and be grateful that you had the courage to write me and let me post this, because they were too afraid to ask for help.  I have 40+ apprentices in 17 different countries, and more than half of them came into the mentorship shooting only time for print and really feeling like their demographic, their location, their country, their talent, their lack of photographic or business knowledge would prohibit them from getting where they wanted to be.  They felt foolish even considering that they might be able to do this.

I don’t want to look foolish is another way of saying I fear rejection.  And I can tell you the more successful you get the more rejection and ridicule and judgement you encounter because you are a more visible target.  You would not believe some of the comments, some of the emails I have gotten, from other artists, from people that believe my work is endangering the immortal souls of the girls I photograph, from feminists telling me I’m part of the problem and encouraging the objectifying and sexualization of women.  I’m told by people that I only picked up a camera a few years ago, I haven’t paid my dues, I don’t deserve to teach on stage, that I’m an extortionist and take advantage of my clients… I picked up a camera with no experience I was called foolish, I said I was going to build a business I was called foolish, I built a thriving wedding business with $8-12000 sale averages per event and then decided I wanted to give them up and I was called foolish, I wanted to teach and I was called foolish, I wanted to start the Reliquarian and I was called foolish.


 


 

You will always be thought of as foolish, and that opinion comes mostly from fools, and from people that have never even shared a cup of coffee with you, or a conversation.   I think not doing what you want, raising your rates, shooting what you love… to not spend your time in a way that makes you feel fulfilled and happy, because of someone else’s opinion who does not have your life, or walk your path… I can not think of anything more foolish than that.  

I also understand that sometimes we just need someone else to choose a side for us.  We have hope in one ear that sees our potential, our value and tells us that we can do this, and that we deserve to walk the path we know we are meant to, and we have fear on the other side whispering that you can’t, that you are not good enough, that you don’t deserve it, that you’ll make a fool out of yourself.  Let me assure you the voice saying you can’t is a damned Liar.  You and I have been connected on social media for years, I see your work, I see your talent, and I see your personality.  

Your work is worthy of being paid for, but my belief in that means nothing if you don’t believe in that, and you can not say you believe in it, unless you are willing to say no to people that want it for free.  {They won’t ever stop asking either, I get at least 20-30 inquiries for TF* a month}  Even if I have a personal project I am working on I only shoot with people that already booked me for a paid session.  To let someone say “I don’t want to pay you” whatever their excuse as to why is; and respond to that by shooting them for free… it dishonors every client that did invest in you {even if it’s only one person}.

I’d rather shoot someone that values my work, than reward someone for thinking my time and talents isn’t worth their investment.  In short, one of the first things, the most essential things you must do if you are truly ready to make the leap to treating this as a business is to treat it like a business.  How do you make the leap from TF* to Paid Clients?  Step One:  Stop saying yes to TF* sessions.  You’ll be surprised how many will pay you for your work if that’s the only way to have your work.  Think about it.  If the grocery store, the gas station, your hair salon, your favorite clothing store, your landscaper offered you their services for free… would you turn them down?  As always we tend to find, we are where we are because we chose the path that led here… time to choose a different path, and that first step is always the hardest and most brave.  The simple truth is, no one else will start valuing your work until you do <3

 

 

 

I’m looking for more content, and amazing artists, I want to feature you!  Send me a question or suggestion for an article to my Facebook and please include up to 5 of your favorite images and your website.  If you want to go fast you go alone, if you want to go far you go together… let’s go together <3