📸 Skai Chan Photography

Why Can't Professional Photographers Take up Cheap Jobs


  1. Photography equipment needs replacement and upgrade Without a doubt, photography equipment is expensive. They experience constant wear and tear, and even instant damage during the photoshoot. Photography equipment also requires upgrades like your smartphone to improve in terms of both efficiency and quality.

    Therefore, if the professional photographer were to charge low photography fees, he may not even be able to get his photography equipment replaced when needed.
  2. It takes time and effort to produce good photographs Producing good photographs require lots of time and effort from the photographer during the pre-production, actual production and post-production phases.

    If the photographer were to charge low photography fees to target the mass market for clients with low budgets, he would have to handle more clients to survive. While he has more projects on hand, he won't be able to fork out the time and energy to do a good job.

    Eventually, it will affect the quality of his work; producing photographs of lower quality. His reputation will then be affected.
  3. Clients with low budgets give the most problems From my experience and feedback from many friends of all trades, clients with low budgets tend to give more issues. This is because they are tighter with cash and yet want to utilise the photographer's services. They want a bigger bang for the buck and at the same time, they don't see the need to pay more for better or more services.

    The most common problems are that they will push for discounts and have a high version of expectations for photo quality.

    Firstly, when a client is constantly trying to get a discount, it will make the photographer feels pressured and constantly fear being taken advantage of. Instead of focusing on getting good pictures, he has to put on his guard to avoid the client using his words against him.

    Next, dealing with this kind of client will only exhaust both his brain cell and time. Eventually, he will find himself spending much more time than he can afford.

Good things likely don't come cheap, seriously.

In case you're wondering why some photographers can take up cheap jobs, the "photographers" are either (1) amateurs, (2) hobbyists, (3) using cheap equipment, (4) desperate for jobs or are actually (5) outsourcing the jobs or parts of the jobs, including post-production.

I foresee most of the photographers who are taking up cheap photography jobs won't survive in the long run, except for hobbyists who have other main sources of income and those who are outsourcing. The reasons are hobbyists are happy enough to get to shoot and thus getting any tiny amount of pay is a big bonus, while photographers who do outsourcing are more businessmen who are utilising the time of others. The rest of the "photographers" will realise they are unable to replace their damaged equipment or upgrade to better ones with the money they make from photography.

Nevertheless, new budget photographers would continue to emerge to fight over the pie.

I got to know a photographer who started professional photography at least eight more years ahead of me and used to be working under a local photography company. He was, of course, fully utilised by that company and thus, had much more experience than most photographers of the same length of experience. He shared an experience with me where one of his clients had a very low budget and he took it up and used his old cropped body DSLR camera to do the shoot. He probably had the skill to work with the non-full-frame camera, but the main point was that he wasn't doing his best, on purpose, due to the low pay.

I wouldn't have taken up the project; and if I were to accept it, due to friendship or whatever excellent reason, I would have sucked it up and done my best; after all, I have to maintain my reputation.

To begin, my usual rates are low for the quality of my work and the extra effort I spend, even though I'm not of the master grade standard yet. Many more experienced and well-established photographers are charging way higher than me. Of course, there are also many market spoilers, including new "photographers" and full-time photographers; it hurts the market badly. In the short term, it benefits consumers but in the long run, they will suffer from degrading quality of work, especially when the good photographers decide to quit the market.

Let me share my personal experience and walk you through the thought processes of why I'm unable to take up cheap projects, even if it's for charity.

Case study

I had a friend who was one of the founders of a local social enterprise. I was quite amazed by what she had been doing. I appreciated her high EQ and selflessness. She was also generous and treated me like her younger brother although we hadn't met many times.

On the other hand, she appreciated the quality of my photography work and probably my personality and sincerity. She took the effort to find out more about me by reading my writings. She knew I was struggling and she wanted to help me, local talent as she claimed, by offering me photography jobs. I thought it was great to work with the team to help the underprivileged while getting some supposed-to-be consistent income, although I wouldn't be rightfully paid.

The most interesting thing was that my friend had a wide connection and given her project's popularity, she could get free photography services somehow, from both kind souls and opportunists; although I wouldn't expect excellent quality work from every volunteer.

I was told that my friend had been using her saving to keep the project ongoing for years. I knew nothing about her financial status, although she might have had some strong backup through her previous jobs. I was lost when she asked me to give her my quotations; I didn't want to cause high damage to her pocket but at the same time I had to live and support my photography equipment.

I was careful not to give her the wrong impression that it would be a long-term collaboration. I highlighted the projects should be sustainable for both her company and me.

#1 Catalogue shoot

Discussion and anticipation of problems
From my experience, I could foresee the upcoming problems for the first catalogue photoshoot. I tried as hard as possible to explain to my friend the constraints. She understood and accepted my explanation, although I wasn't sure if she understood all the photography stuff. She gladly accept my proposal to keep things very simple and I repeatedly highlighted that I wouldn't be doing any advanced editing since she didn't have a high budget (as claimed by her).

We proceeded with the first shoot without negotiating the fee. I went in mind that I might not even receive any cent in the name of charity, although I knew she would compensate me.

The heavy and bulky equipment
Since I had to set up a white backdrop on location, the number of equipment I had to bring along was gigantic. The backdrop alone was heavy enough and I had to set up additional light to light it up to make it white in the photographs, partly to remove the creases of the cloth. I couldn't afford to hire an assistant; besides, it's not easy to find someone who knew how to manage the equipment and how I would store them inside the different bags - different photographers would have different equipment and storage anyway.

Planning the equipment was a headache because I could only bring extra items and not fewer items. At the same time, I had to make sure I was able to transport and set them up alone.

I had to use a trolley instead of my small hand truck due to the amount of load. It was frustrating to load and fasten the equipment securely onto the trolley. Taking a taxi over added to the cost. I felt bad for taking up the driver's time as I loaded and unloaded the equipment.

Setting up
I arrived more than an hour before the stated time to begin the shoot. Transporting the equipment and setting them up caused much discomfort to my back since I had an old injury. It took more than an hour to get the makeshift studio done up properly.

As expected, the shoot overrun but it was way beyond my plan that it would drag till the mid-afternoon. The art director for the first session was a perfectionist and that fitted my working style. I wasn't sure of the actual plan but my friend seemed to be worried about the speed of progress. She took over the second session for other designers' outfits and it was done much quicker, which was better for me in terms of effort and time, but I was worried about the quality, including the consistency.

Small items like tapes and tiny clips were small business costs although it would cause the extra time to replenish them. However, damages to the main equipment, such as the cloth of the backdrop did crash my heart a little. The six by three metres wide cloth was dirtied, partly due to the kids around. Unfortunately, a piece of oily chicken dropped onto the cloth and the kid repeatedly failed to pick it up, spreading the damage further.

By the time I finished packing up, I had already spent around seven hours there. I was deadbeat and couldn't do anything after reaching home. It took a few days for me to recover, just like after doing an intense workout.

Payment amount
My friend then informed me that she would pay me an amount, and I supposed she had planned it to be a three-hour shoot. The rate alone was much lower than my usual hourly rate and it didn't even cover the time for setting up and dismantling the equipment and the extra time taken for the actual shoot.

Income and worries
Therefore, I calculated that I had only made around one-third of what I would have earned usually. I was dead worried about the sustainability of my equipment because there was a high risk that it would be damaged during shoots, especially for grand projects in that I had to do a big setup with more equipment like this. The usual major and minor wear and tear of equipment, the life cycles of all the batteries and the shutter count of my camera added to my woes.

It wasn't the end of the terror.

Low quality products
As agreed, although it was a portrait shoot, there would only be basic editing (exposure, colour, cropping) required. However, the creases of the background cloth were as obvious as I had anticipated. If they were not being treated (edited), the photographs would look very cheap.

Photographer's reputation at stake
Regardless of the quality of the work, my friend would still use them on the website and all social media accounts. The problem was that all viewers would acknowledge that it was the photographer's problem without knowing that it was simply due to the extremely low budget. My reputation was at stake.

The extra crazy effort
Being a perfectionist and upholding my reputation, I did a crazy thing, which was to edit all the photographs voluntarily.

Professional V.S casual editing
The quality of such an editing job to smoothen the background was again, dependable on the amount of time and effort spent. Many people could easily do the job fast but the result would be having tiny parts of the subject and the outfits being cut off at the edges. Given that even Adobe Photoshop's AI was unable to trace the correct edges perfectly, immature people who boasted about the phone app were simply making a fool out of themselves. It was tedious to make the photographs look professional and it required lots of patience.

Amount of time
I spent a week working on them to make sure every photograph was almost flawless and presentable even for large prints. I didn't do any skin retouching for the model though, otherwise, it could have cost me another two weeks.

The loss
To conclude this photoshoot, I was severely underpaid with a low hourly rate for the badly overrun three-hour shoot that landed me in a wrecked body for a few days, followed by another week of post-production work. I was being paid less than 15% of the actual fee that I deserved. I knew it was unsustainable to take up this kind of project, except in the name of charity once in a while.

#2 Modelling portfolio

The rate
The second shoot for my friend's company arrived weeks later. It was a modelling portfolio photoshoot. My friend was upfront and told me she would pay me at the same hourly rate for four hours of photoshoot job, which she didn't factor in the time and effort spent setting up and dismantling the equipment again.

Catalogue V.S modelling portfolio
The difference between the previous shoot and this shoot was that for a catalogue shoot, the focus was on the clothes while the modelling portfolio would focus on the models and thus their skin had to be treated. Advanced editing was charged in terms of the number of photographs on top of the fee for the actual photoshoot. However, I wasn't going to be paid for advanced editing.

Stated requirements
I was told that some of the models were kids and thus didn't require any skin touch up. There would be a huge number of models and each of them would require two sets of clothes with two good shots for each set of clothes. There would also be group photographs.

My goals
I went ahead with this second portrait shoot, knowing that I would be severely underpaid again. I treated the shoot as charity work and I also hoped that my friend would see and understand the time and effort required for a professional shoot and post-production job, which was part of my quest to educate more non-professional photographers.

Solving problems beforehand
I found out that the location had a nice brick wall and thus I advised my friend to use it instead of setting up a white backdrop again, to avoid the crease problem of using a cloth backdrop. I was initially told to bring the backdrop set along, but I managed to convince her to keep the shoot simple. Without the backdrop system, I was able to bring along better light modifiers but I still had to take a taxi over as well. Eventually, my friend loved the effect produced by the brick wall.

Intensive work
It was an intensive shoot with many subjects. I called it mass production, which, unlike my usual shoots, didn't have the luxury of time to try more shots for each subject. It was the first time the battery of my 600-watt strobe was drained off completely. From my arrival, till I was ready to leave, it was around six hours again.

Amount of post-production work
Out of the nearly 150 selected photographs, there were about 40 photographs that required advanced editing. They included photographs of some middle-aged ladies and youngsters with skin issues. A few of the kids had tiny scars too. I told my friend I would be doing a "sloppy" job. I tried my best to speed up the post-production process but no matter how I tried not to be too detailed in my work, I couldn't shorten the time and effort to be spent. It took me another week to finish the entire album.

The loss
The amount of money I was paid was around 20% of my usual rate.

#3 The self debate

Goal accomplished - results speak for themselves
When I met the team up to go through the photographs for the second shoot, they realised the reason why I had to spend so much time on post-production - the photographs were professionally edited. I supposed one of my goals in taking up the second shoot, to let them see professional work, was at least half met and would be fully accomplished if they could compare my work with their future photographers'. Of course, I wouldn't expect any non-photographer to fully tell the differences.

70% V.S 100% effort
They weren't expecting me to do proper editing work because they knew their budget was low. I was told that I needed not to be so detailed. One of them advised me, out of concern, to simply put in 70% effort in my work since most clients wouldn't be able to tell the difference and wouldn't appreciate it. He was upfront that the way I worked was unsustainable because most of the clients had a tight budget.

My honesty and consistency were reasons why some clients approached me. Although I agreed that most people in Singapore were more concerned about money than the quality of work, I didn't want to lose my potential clients who would appreciate great work. I couldn't produce work with less than 100% of my effort.

Better than nothing?
I wasn't able to continue taking up more portrait projects from the team because of the really low budget. To most people, including the team, it was good to have a constant source of income no matter how little it was; they thought it was better to earn a bit of income instead of zero.

However, they didn't realise that I had to give up a lot of work, including marketing tasks, while I had to slog at home to work on their photographs instead of idling around. It happened that I had to turn down another job (at my usual rate) due to one of the two projects. There would be more loss of opportunities shortly if I had to lock myself up for "charity work".

Poorer than cleaners
Based on the earnings from the two projects, I could only take up to four such projects every month. It also implied that I could only earn slightly more than cleaners (without factoring in CPF). At least cleaners didn't have to worry or pay for their equipment, unlike photographers who had to save for the replacement of equipment due to damages or wear and tear, and also the electricity fee. At the same time, I wouldn't have much extra time to do more marketing work to attract more potential clients.

The benefit
Of course, there are benefits to working with them, apart from earning a bit of income. Most importantly, they have popularity and may link me up with more potential clients. However, I believe if they truly appreciate my work and character, they would still give me the leads even if I'm unable to work with them on their projects.


First of all, no professional photographer will want to spoil the market by undercutting the market rates. A photographer who does that is considered unprofessional no matter how good he is at producing photographs because a professional photographer requires not only skill but also integrity and ethic.

Therefore, there's a risk if you choose to work with a photographer who's willing to reduce his rates a lot to get your business. What if he gets a better offer from another client on the same date, will he simply return the deposit and cancel the agreed shoot suddenly?

Of course, photographers who are doing a one-time promotion or working for charity organisations are a different story.

Photography is one of the trades that are difficult for "outsiders" to understand about the effort and time required. The ironic thing is that to get a 7/10 quality work, a photographer may simply need to put in 50% effort, while a 10/10 quality work may require 101% of his effort. Since most clients won't be able to tell the difference in quality, many photographers may choose to take the easy way out.

If a professional photographer were to take up a cheap photography job, he will likely have to reduce his effort and time spent. Another way is that he will outsource the entire or partial of the job to other photographers or retouchers. However, outsourcing means it's difficult to control the quality of work and keep them consistent.

There are two types of photographers - businessmen and artists. The businessman will do the above.

Imagine you're an artist, will you take up a super low-paying full-time job to the extent that you will be too busy to develop yourself and reach out to your potential fans and customers? If you are being badly underpaid, will you be putting in your full effort to do the jobs?

An artist will never want to risk having his reputation damaged. Taking up cheap jobs means he likely cannot put in his 100% effort, which will cause the quality of his work to drop. Eventually, there's a high chance that his fans and potential customers will feel his dying passion.

Let's be honest taking up cheap jobs is just unsustainable for an artist.

I hope everyone will allocate more budget to getting professional photography and not simply go for budget photographers. Eventually, you will get what you're paying for. If you have spent a huge sum for your wedding, event or business, why will you want to neglect the quality of the photographs, which will document everything and be showcased to many viewers?

You may be interested in:
- How to judge a photographer
- Quality and quantity of photographs - Contributing factors
- Reasons why you should hire a professional photographer
- Misconceptions and myths in professional photography
- Photography is a sunset industry
- Professional photographer in Singapore

If this page has helped you in any way,
please show some appreciation by following me in Facebook and Instagram.

Do check out my other useful photography tips!

Copyright © 2012-2024 Skai Chan. All rights reserved.
All articles and images remain the property of Skai Chan and should not be downloaded, reproduced, copied or used in any way without written consent.