Setting Boundaries As A Pro Photographer

In a photographer's line of work, there are quite a few things that can go wrong. Not to be negative about the situation, but as with any other business, you should be prepared to deal with certain “sketchy” situations and set yourself some boundaries which you'll never cross.

Having boundaries and knowing exactly how far away they are is worth it for you and is good for your business. It will let you predict the outcomes (financial and intellectual) and allow you to improve on time management. Right off the bat, you’d probably think that it doesn’t change that much, but once you start applying it in the real world, you’ll see the difference.

All this might sound a bit abstract, but it is really a rather simple concept. With almost all clients, negotiations for service and payments are simple and similar:

  1. They tell you what they need.
  2. You give them a quote.
  3. They decide whether they are ready to pay that, or not.
  4. They negotiate again (almost always, bartering is part of the game).
  5. You iron out the details between the deal.
  6. You draft up contracts which you both sign.
  7. You do your job.
Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

During that negotiation process, there are some anomalies that are quite common:

  1. Clients will often expect you to work for free, or for exposure (which is the same thing).
  2. Clients will often have unrealistic expectations.
  3. Clients will ask for you to deviate a lot from your style.
  4. Clients will expect a “verbal agreement” to equal a contract.

Thoughts On Working For Free.

This issue has been discussed over and over again, but as long as it is still an issue, it needs to be discussed even further. There is nothing wrong in doing a gig for free. Really, you gain experience, you have some shots for your portfolio, it's all great. But never do it for a client who can pay you for that, but refuses to because they undervalue your time and hard work.

Free gigs should be done for charity organizations for example, even if it is more than a few pictures at an event. Do a photoshoot to raise some money for that charity, do some campaign photos for a certain social issue. That is excellent, and it should be encouraged.

It will serve the purpose for everybody, you will be fighting for a change, you will have material for your portfolio (which will be better in value since you’ve done it for a good cause) and you’ll gain experience.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Doing a free gig for a company however, will put you in a never ending loop of free work expectations. Basically, once you do a gig for free for a company, you won’t get paid by that company, ever. They will always expect you to work for free, and that is really hard to change.

If they recommend you to another company, it will be under the same conditions: “Hey, this guy did our corporate portraits for free, he will do it for the recommendations, try him out”. The next company will give you the exact treatment.

Shield yourself from that, always give them a quote. If they turn you down, move on. There are plenty of gigs, you just need to be persistent. Never undervalue your work.

Managing Everyone's Expectations And Deviating From Your Style

This is very tricky to handle, and it is probably what will keep bugging you on every second or third gig. Clients will have unrealistic expectations, that is a given. But you can’t blame them as well. They don’t understand the process, they aren’t photographers. All they know about photography is what they see in the media. They basically think that you can do magic.

Even though you are doing magic in their eyes, there is only so much you can do. That is why you should explain what can be done, what can’t be done, and what they’ll get before you start the gig.

Leaving your client with unrealistic expectations and not fulfilling them, will end up as bad publicity for you – and you don’t want that. Manage that properly, spend some extra time to explain everything to the client. Show them examples of previous work, make sure they understand exactly what they’ll get. This is best for both parties.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

You should also decide how far you can deviate from your own style to suit the client's needs. Sometimes clients will appreciate your work and like the level of professionalism, but they will prefer a different visual style. Maybe completely different from your own. There is a line you should never cross. Remember, you are the one setting that line. This is important since you want your work to be recognized as your own even without proper reference. Additionally, the visual style you are going to develop will be a nice touch when your portfolio is displayed and/or viewed.

The Importance Of Contracts And Their Place

Probably the most important thing when it comes to the business side of photography. Before you start as an official business (registering the firm and so forth), it is wise to sit down with a lawyer and draft some contract templates which you will use in the future.

Having contracts signed for every gig you do is a layer of protection for you and for the client you are working for. Basically, you have a legal agreement between both parties that certain compensation needs to be made for services rendered. Both have time limitations and both have repercussions if one of the parties fails to fulfill their part of the agreement.

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In this contract you will be setting up the terms under which your photographs can and will be used, the time period until that is valid, and what happens afterwards. This is the legal level of protection for misuse of your photographs, and the repercussions if that contract is broken.

Additionally, draft up model release forms. This adds a level of protection for you. Since the usage of the photos will be limited to the client, it is always neat to have it on paper that you own the rights to the photos and that the models are also allowing that. Not that you won’t own the rights anyway, but you won’t be able to use them for commercial use unless you are able to supply a model release form.

It is also wise to have templates for each contract and a model release form in your bag at all times. Not that you’ll stroll on the street and find a client who will sign the contract right there, but it is nice to have the template for them to read it.

Knowing Your Limits

Don’t get into the notion that you must accept every client. Turning down clients is part of the job. You won’t always strike a mutually beneficial deal. If the conditions aren’t beneficial for you, there is no point in working that gig.

At the end of the day, your time should be worth something, and if that value is not met there is no point in bothering. Value your time, value your skill, value your product. And be realistic of course.

If you are consistent with your prices and boundaries, the marketing you will be getting will follow those too, which makes negotiations easier. If you do 5 headshots for $500 under natural light (as an example, values are totally random for the sake of argument) and you do that as a minimum, then clients will eventually know that and won’t try to undervalue you. Quite neat in the long run.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

Photo by Dzvonko Petrovski. All rights reserved.

One other thing that you might want to shield yourself from is the client during the shoot. You’ll have to make it clear that suggestions are welcome, but not every 20 seconds. Having the client hanging on your back like a dark cloud will just frustrate you, and ultimately affect the final product. That will cost you both, but ultimately it will cost you more. There is nothing worse than bad publicity.

To Summarize

Setting boundaries for yourself – some lines that you wouldn’t cross, keeps you away from unwanted situations and clients which won’t be beneficial to you.

Avoiding working for free, and having a consistent minimum quote is beneficial for you in multiple ways. Word of mouth marketing will bring you clients which are ready to meet your quote, and they will know exactly what they are getting, making negotiations easy and saving up precious time.

On top of that, keeping your style and being both forthcoming and clear with your clients keeps a consistent notion of quality, making your negotiations even easier for you.

On top of everything, protecting yourself and your business with contracts vetted by professionals (lawyers) keeps you and your business safe and helps to keep uninterrupted cash flow.

Essentially, time restrictions for payments then forces the client to fulfill their end of the deal on time thus, giving you better insight on how the financial status of your business. As a result, it gives you more flexibility for investments and so on.

Model releases will improve your stability on the side of the law, but can also bring some extra income from stock photo earnings after the usage contracts expire.


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About the author

Dzvonko Petrovski

Photographer who loves challenging and experimental photography and is not afraid to share the knowledge about it.

  • chris pook says:

    Good piece. V sensible! Not working for free is the same in many lines of business!

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  • Allen Cook says:

    I’m just putting things in motion, so this is a great overview of things to consider. I think it’s wise to decline some gigs. Not every photographer/client relationship is a good match. No photographer can be all things to all people. It’s also true that a photographer doesn’t necessarily have to tolerate a client’s temperament just for the sake of money if it isn’t a mutual “fit”. One must be true to oneself. You nailed it Mr. Petrovski, there are plenty of gigs. Cheers!

  • Juliana Briggs says:

    I like that puppy dog photo with all the dogs


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