Turning down photography work – when the alarm bells ring

When that job just isn’t worth doing

cup of coffee on wooden table top

Sometimes it’s worth waiting before saying yes…

The other day, I had a phone call from another photographer asking for some advice. They had accepted a job, at a price, without first working out how long it would take, or some of the additional costs it might require…

This reminded me of a situation I encountered a few years ago, where what seemed like a great bit of work came along, that I almost rushed into.

I’d made some notes at the time, which form the basis what I’ve written here. I’ve changed a few minor details, so as not to directly identify those involved, but I hope the gist of the events is helpful to fellow photographers wondering if they should ever turn down paying work?  (hint – the answer is YES)

Running a business

There are a lot of ‘Business of Photography articles‘ on this site, covering various aspects of running a photography business. Many are based on my experiences in a variety of different business environments and reflect my belief that being a professional photographer is foremost about running a business, not taking photos. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the photography, but this isn’t part time for me.

The aim of your photography business is to make a profit – at least if like me, it’s what pays the household bills. To make a profit on a job you need to understand your costs (fixed and variable) and the income it will bring in.   Sometimes it’s all too easy to forget this…

The Call

It all started with a phone enquiry about some location based work for a manufacturer of commercial interior furnishings, at a location here in Leicester they were working at.

That’s great, interiors are what I do, and it would seem to be a great way of being paid and getting some useful portfolio shots covering this particular type of work. Note that this is not the same as doing work just to get such images/credit.

Their customer’s building, where they wanted the photographs was local, so I actually knew the building layout and what the lighting was like.
The client was also potentially looking for photography from a range of similar installations around the country – the number of photos needed was known at each location.

So far, this was looking great – just the sort of client we want. Repeat business is a key to creating a sustainable business. It takes far less effort to ‘sell’ to an existing client than finding new ones.
Now, those things that started raising questions in the back of my mind…

Pile of satuma oranges on market stall with price ticket

The display looks good – what’s underneath?

We discussed how much the work will cost – The photos were required for web and print promotional use.

I pitched a rate that was on the lower side of our (published) rates. Still profitable but aimed at a small company client (I’d looked up some basic details of their business whilst on the phone).

Too much I’m told – there will be more work in the future.

Ha – I’m used to this one. I tell them that should they book a block of work (multiple locations) in the future then the quantity will attract a reduced rate.  No, I never believe the ‘Jam tomorrow’ line. At least they didn’t try and say that they would give me credit for the work  (photo credits didn’t pay my grocery bills the last time I checked).
There are a number of ways of offering a ‘bulk buying’ discount, but they do depend on having a good grasp of your costs and a pricing structure that allows it.

I point to our published rates and say that this is already a good price (one good reason for having some published figures).

The rate is tentatively agreed.

I always say that rates are subject to written confirmation, this is because the subsequent understanding of quotes over the phone can easily ‘drift’.

Now the switch… The client mentions that they also want to ‘give some free photos’ to their customer, and that this should include exterior shots of the building.

Ah, exterior shots. This is the first mention of this.

I point out that there will be a licensing charge for such use. More importantly I say that their customer will need to license the images from me – but, depending on usage (i.e. how useful it is to me, I’m thinking) the license may only be for a nominal small sum.

This doesn’t go down well, but when I point out that the small sum could be paid by the client, it’s agreed.
I leave it at expecting a written confirmation of what thy want, which I will respond to with an offer.

With new clients I always ask for something in writing – it’s a way of responding with our terms and conditions attached.
After half an hour on the phone, I’m left with a bit of a feeling that I don’t have a good connection with this client.

Next, an email with attached brief for the work arrives – fairly clear, although they seem to have expanded the number of shots to include more general ones for their customer.

As per normal I reply, setting out what we could do and for how much. I include normal caveats regarding exterior photography and the weather. I also emphasise that any use by their customer will need additional licensing – I point out our payment terms and that the quote is subject to our normal terms and conditions.

A reply comes back accusing me of going back on what I’d said in the phone call (w.r.t. licensing) and once again mentions ‘free photos’ for the customer.

Despite this, the quote is considered acceptable and there is even the offer of a 50% deposit on our fees.

This is the point I say “no thanks”, using the fact that we are not prepared to offer ‘free photos’ to their customer, as my ‘way out’.

As you might guess, this isn’t perhaps my number one reason, but always be careful in your responses, so as not to back yourself into a corner.

Why say no?

Businessmen standing at buffet lunch

There are free lunches, but watch for the cost.

Well, I don’t have a feeling of trust – this is that little voice in the back of your head that comes from many years of business experience (much of it not in photography).

The licensing – I don’t believe the client genuinely accepts the concept of any restrictions on ‘their photos’.  The client doesn’t want me interacting with their customer in any way whatsoever – I’m wondering if they may well have already used ‘and some free photos’ in their dealings with the customer?

50% deposit? We’re a commercial business and send invoices.

Once we’ve got the 50% (of what they have already said was more than they wanted to pay) who’s to say we will ever see the other half.

I’ve heard examples of ‘we don’t think the photos are good enough, but we’ll let you keep the deposit’.

Sure, I’d have legal redress, but for 50% of a half day’s work, it gets near to the ‘not worth bothering’ level.

I’m also feeling that I’ve already broken one of my rules of not being unduly swayed by the promise of future work in an area that I like working in. I’ve pitched a bit low – this is purely my fault and something we’re all prone to do on occasions.

However I do feel I’ve benefitted from our policy of never agreeing new work on the phone, and requiring written confirmation. I’m also pleased at resisting pressure to diminish our licensing rights.

The real giveaway was that feeling of relief I felt when I hit ‘send’ on the email declining the work.

Some years later

After having the conversation with the photographer who called earlier, I remembered the notes I’d made about that job that I turned down. Reading them again reminded me of other situations where the temptation to say “Yes!” to an offer of work had to be carefully thought through, and the delay of getting details in writing had been worthwhile.

I’ve posted the events here in the hope that it’s of help to some newcomers to the business, in that even us more ‘experienced pros’ have the same worries, and can (potentially) make the same mistakes.

If the same call came in again, there are aspects I’d do differently, since we have a more structured enquiry handling process, and a more carefully thought out licensing and rates set-up.

But then again, I’ve also learned to appreciate you have to accept that some jobs should be walked away from…

Sure, I -could- have lost some future work, but sometimes I really do feel you should listen to your gut instinct.

  • michael baister

    Great upload, I’ve had this experience on a couple occasions and you’re right “gut instinct” is worth listening to. In the last twenty years of making a living out of commercial/advertising photography I count myself lucky to have only been shafted on a couple of occasions, one was before Xmas, from a client who wouldn’t have made it in the first several chapters of “difficult clients to stay away from” book. Granted the job had it’s problems, all on the clients side, but as usual, we accommodated all the difficulties and carried on to finish the job, alarm bells should have rang at this point, then job finished, images looked really good, sixty days latter, still hadn’t been payed then after another three weeks of negotiation I was payed, nearly a grand short of the original invoice! I’ve learned a lot from this, and being a bit of an old hippie, karma is alive and well, I didn’t get the money owed, but I did get some satisfaction.