📸 Skai Chan Photography

Why Can't Professional Photographers Take up Cheap Jobs

Good things likely don't come cheap, seriously.

In case you're wondering why some photographers are able to take up cheap jobs, the "photographers" are either (1) amateurs, (2) hobbyists, (3) using cheap equipment, (4) desperate for jobs or they 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 source of income and those who are doing 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 of businessmen who are utilizing 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, being fully utilized by that company, and thus, had much more experience than most photographers of the same length of experience. He shared an experience with me that one of his clients had 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 fullframe camera, but the main point was that he wasn't doing his best, on purpose, due to the low pay.

I personally 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 do my best; after all, I have to maintain my reputation.

To start off, 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. There are many more experienced and well-established photographers who 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 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 for 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, a 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 being 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 some strong backup through her previous jobs. I was totally lost when she asked me to give her my quotations; I didn't want to cause high damages 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 of her company and I.

1. Catalogue shoot

Discussion and anticipation of problems
From my past experience, I could foresee the upcoming problems for the first shoot. I tried as hard as possible to explain to my friend about the constraints. She understood and accepted the constraints, 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 on the fee. I went in mind that I might not even receive any cent in the name of charity, although I knew she would definitely 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 about how to manage the equipment and how I would store them inside the different bags - different photographers would have different equipment and storages anyway.

Planning the equipment was a headache because I could only bring extra items and not less 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 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 to 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 term of the effort and time, but I was worried about the quality, including the consistency.

Small items like tapes and tiny clips were small business cost although it would cause 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. In fact, 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 of 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 they would be damaged during shoots, especially for grand projects that I had to do 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 definitely acknowledge that it was the photographer's problem without knowing that it was simply due to the extreme low budget. My reputation was at stake.

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

Professional V.S casual editing
The quality of such 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 was unable to trace the correct edges perfectly, immature people who boasted about phone app were simply making a fool out of themselves. It was tedious to make the photographs look professional and required lots of patience.

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

The loss
To conclude about this shoot, 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.

2. Modelling portfolio

The rate
The second shoot for my friend's company arrived weeks later. It was a portrait shoot for models. My friend was upfront and told me she would pay me at the same hourly rate for four hours of shoot, which she didn't factor in the time and effort spent for setting up and dismantling of 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 modelling portfolio would focus on the models, and thus their skin had to be treated. Advanced editing was chargeable per photograph on top of the fee for the actual shoot. 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 shoot, knowing that I would be severely underpaid again. I treated the shoot as a 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.

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, in order to avoid the crease problem. 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 problems. A few of the kids had tiny scars too. I told my friend I would be doing "sloppy" job. I tried my best to speed up the editing 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.

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
In fact, they weren't expecting me to do proper editing work because they knew their budget was low. I was told that I actually needed not 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 they wouldn't appreciate it. He was upfront that the way I worked was unsustainable because most of the clients had tight budget.

My honesty and consistency were reasons why some client had 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 in near future if I had to lock myself up for the "charity work".

Poorer than cleaners
Based on the two projects, I could only take up to four such project every month. It also implied that I could only earn slightly more than cleaners (without factoring CPF). At least cleaners didn't have to worry or pay for their equipment, unlike photographers who had to save for 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 in working with them, apart from earning a bit of income. Most importantly, they have the 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 in 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 as unprofessional no matter how good he is in 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 suddenly gets a better offer from another client on the same date, will he simply return you the deposit and cancel the shoot with you?

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

Photography is one of the trades that's difficult for "outsiders" to understand about the effort and time required. The ironic thing is that in order to get a 7/10 quality work, a photographer may simply need to put in his 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 - businessman and artist. 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 being damaged. Taking up cheap jobs means he likely cannot put in his 100% effort, which will definitely 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 that taking up cheap jobs is just unsustainable for an artist.

I hope everyone will allocate more budget into 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 on the photography, which will document down everything and be showcased to many viewers?

You may be interested in:
- Photography post-production (editing)
- How to judge a photographer
- Quality and quantity of photographs - Contributing factors
- Reasons to engage a professional photographer
- Misconceptions and myths in professional photography
- How can photographers return photographs fast
- Ways to insult a professional photographer
- Photography is a sunset industry
- Crazy things that professional portrait photographers do
- Things to take note when hiring a professional photographer

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