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Open letter to client re: “Job Killer” quoted rate



Hello Potential Client,

Regarding your last email in which you said:

“… if they (your client) saw the $700/ $1400 a day fee for the photographer they would dismiss the project immediately …  (most of my client’s people make between $25 and $45 an hour)… Showing $100/hr was also a job-killer as you can imagine”.

Well sure thing. I see where you’re coming from…  Let’s rewrite the quote to show the actual number of  hours I will work on this job, instead of only those spent with my face in a camera. Maybe that will help.

It should show 10 hours in both locations (6 hours actually making images, 4 to setup and break down), plus 2 more hours packing and unpacking at my studio each day (I can’t leave $20,000 worth of equipment in the car every night)… that’s 12 hours.
Then there’s the drive time to both locations (1 hour, if traffic is good. Doubtful.). Now we’re up to 13 hours.
Add 3 hours of post-production for both of the three hour locations (downloading, image selection, tagging, applying tonal and color adjustments, archiving, uploading to web galleries, and pre-print production, plus the certain conversations and meetings that will be required, and the replacing of materials used…). That’s 6 more hours.

This brings the total to 19 hours of actual time dedicated exclusively to this 6 hours of actually making photographs on each day. And that doesn’t reflect most of the time and expenses required for me to stay in business just so I am available and able to be hired… so we’re still being conservative.

You said a $100 per hour fee was a “Job Killer”, because people in your client’s business can only make $45 per hour. But unlike those who have jobs working for corporations (such as your client), I must personally pay for everything I use in my job… everything in my office and studio, from the carpet (and floor) under my feet to the computer and printer on my desk to the ceiling fan (and ceiling) over my head. Most hourly employees have those things provided for them in their place of employment. Their employer pays for those assets by billing their clients in a realistic manner.

Quotes are not detailed to the extent that you requested because there are hundreds of “hidden” expenses, commonly known as the cost of doing business, that are just not appropriate to show in a quote. Can you imagine the response to a line item for groceries, electricity or an oil change? Yet these are necessary items that must be paid for if I am to remain in business.

My business also requires a great many hours performing tasks that are not directly billable to anyone; preparing quotes, upgrading and implementing new technology (by necessity, not to be au courant at cocktail parties), finding new clients, maintaining existing accounts, preparing and disseminating marketing materials. Those websites, blogs and social media posts do not write and build themselves.

Then there are repairs to equipment and vehicles, shopping and laundry, cleaning the studio… and the sidewalk to the studio. Resupplying materials like seamless paper, gaffer tape, staples, batteries, ink.

I am  my own IT department, my accounts payable and receiving, purchaser, sales staff and secretary. These are assets your client has available to them, that are not funded from their $45 per hour wages. What you call my “Job Killer” fee must pay for all those expenses and all those man hours.



Accounts Receivable and Payable, Purchasing, Marketing, Sales, R&D, Web Master, Maintenance and Creative staff at T.W. Meyer Photography,, Vp1618 LLC and Temp Wizard Enterprises

And there are not forty $100 hours in my work week. Ever.

The kind of 21st Century photography involved in this particular assignment isn’t cheap. It requires professional dSLR cameras and lenses, battery powered strobe lights with radio transmitters, wifi routers and networks, laptop computers, printers, servers, custom social media pages and web galleries and all the little but absolutely imperative, techno-invisible wonders of modern imaging. The failure of but one of these can melt the whole illusion into a grinding flop. So I have to have two. Of everything. And they must be insured.

These hours and dollars have to be invested. I can’t stay in business without them and I can’t do them for free, either. While sitting in my house office writing this letter, money drains from accounts and expenses incur.

That $100 per hour “Job Killer” fee is a rock bottom barrier beneath which I cannot even break even.  There is no retirement, 401k or IRA contribution down there. There is no car payment there. There is no health insurance payment there. No mortgage, no utilities, no night out on the town. Below those rates I’m not only losing any profit… I’m just going into debt a little slower than if I were not working at all.

I wish I could count on a consistent 40 hours per week at the wage your client makes ($45 per hour, you said?) and know that $93k was going to come in every year.
I wish I had two weeks of paid holiday, sick days and health insurance…

There are hundreds of students graduating every day as “photographers” who can under bid me for a year… maybe two. But eventually these realities also become unavoidable to them, at which time they become real estate agents or go back to being baristas… or they start billing at that “job killer” rate of $100 per hour.

It should really be $200.

In fact, I’ll be re-writing that quote now. Thanks for the inspiration.

Tom Meyer

42 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great blog post Tom! It’s good to educate clients, and remind photographers of the real cost of photography. It’s a must read for photography buyers, professional photographers, photo students, and anyone thinking about entering the photography business. Also, an awesome response to this photo buyer’s objection.

  2. Great post, Tom.

    According survey research conducted by the PPA, on average a photographer working from a home office nets 36% of what they take in. So that $100/hr comes down to $36 per hour you actually bill for. If you work twice as many hours as you bill for, that makes it $18 per hour, and if you work more than twice as many hours as you bill for, then you’re down close to minimum wage.

  3. I like a lot of this… but it is never a justification to charge more because you are in business. One time i got in a cab in romania…it was a private cab. It was ill kempt, shabby, and stunk of cigarettes. The driver on reaching my location tried to charge me double the fare because he was a private cab. He said he had to pay his own gas and repairs and and and… this does not impress a consumer. I gave him the going rate, half what he asked, and invited him to call the police while i waited on the curb.

    sell your skills and dont be making excuses for that. I have gotten fired from more than one job because i made more than others who would do it for less. I have to prove my value… and my results do that…not my costs.

    • forinfan #

      Using a Romanian cab driver as an example of anything reasonable in business is just a bad idea. For starters, if you didn’t know that was going to happen, you really didn’t do your homework. It’s a game and for every 9 that don’t pay, 1 does. Worth it for them. Yes, been there. Loved the country. People in business, such as this photographer, have the right to charge as much as the market will bear. If one client doesn’t want to pay it, then there are choices to be made: lower the price, increase services in some way, turn down the job. If the client wants this photographer and his skills, they will pay for it. If they just need a snapper and a sort of OK photoshop kid, then they’ll find one. The market is large enough for both, but only one keeps on going and getting better, remaining reliable and, yes, worth the money in the end.

    • Chuckl #

      Seriously? You compared a Romaniam cab to this story? You’re an idiot!

  4. I guess what i meant to say is it is not shame to have experience and skills…

  5. shame? Who has this shame? I have experience and skills, and they have value.

    Do you think I should charge less, do the work, *and* go out of business? That’s certainly an option, but I could more easily just go out of business and let some *other* guy do the work that will soon put *her* out of business, thereby saving myself the expense.

    Of the many odd comparisons you make in your initial post, I’d like to know what you think the difference is between the amount of money “made” and the amount of money charged? In my world “money made” is also called profit, it’s not just the bottom line of an invoice. If I don’t make money, I don’t have a business. What I have is an expensive hobby.

  6. I’ve been freelancing since my mom taught me that nobody knows it’s an 11-year-old doing the technical writing if the email looks professional. I learned this one lesson early (sorry if this sorta bursts your righteous indignation bubble, it’s just my own opinion/M.O.)

    If you experience a customer who shows tendencies where a letter like this is even necessary, then you simply walk away. You’re not going to convince them. Even if they seem to acquiesce to your terms, they’ll wait until the work’s done and nickel & dime the thing all to hell. You’ll end up spending exorbitant amounts of time trying to finish the contract and in the end you’ll be lucky to break even on expenses.

    My terms are clearly written, itemized and completely non-negotiable. If there was ever a concern that others might undercut me and take all the work that comes from this kind of a client, I’ve long since figured they’re just cleaning up the trash off of my playing field.

    Succinctly: I’ll turn down 10 out of 11 clients and make my money delivering a quality product to a happy client. Let the suckers on Craigslist service the penny-pinchers.

    • I concur.

      P.S. This letter is not (really) for the client.

  7. Great article on being in business for yourself 101. This goes for all those in my trade also
    (Barbering/haircutting). To bad all of our clients don’t see this, it would help them understand our pricing structure.

  8. Great post! As a consultant myself I’ve often found myself in the place of feeling as if I had to justify my rates. There are so many hidden costs to being in business that those with ‘regular’ jobs don’t see or understand. Being that my clients are most often nonprofits adds an additional wrinkle. It gets really interesting when a (paid) employee of an organization says I should provide my services for free… Anyway, thanks for expressing something so many of us in business feel!

  9. Reblogged this on Listening to the Voices in My Head and commented:
    And people balk when I tell quote them mates rates for charity events and prints.

  10. While many have expressed appreciation for this posting, some have called it a “bitter rant” and labeled it ineffective and/or counter-productive. If it’s hard to get sympathy (much less appreciation) from many who have shared my position in this experience, it’s harder still to make this case to those who need most to understand it’s primary contention, i.e. those who hire a freelance, in any industry, and especially those who are new to that task. I’ll next be working on an “elevator”version… t

  11. andersonsmithphotography #

    Reblogged this on One Hour Photo Show and commented:
    Something every freelancer need to understand.

  12. Craig #

    whem doing business dases for large corporations the working assumption is that a $100K per annum employee costs about $250K per year. That is $125 per hour for those earning $50 per hour.

    $100 per hour for a professional is very competative

  13. There is a fundamental problem that isn’t addressed here – the value of photography has decreased significantly. While this is frequently blamed on MWACs or new market entrants, that hasn’t been a factor at all for me. Instead, it’s been the spread of broadband.

    Take my fight business. At first, I delivered prints to clients and printable files to magazines and newspapers. Then the prints to clients turned into web galleries and the magazines went out of business. The newspapers were doing lousy financially so they started giving cameras to reporters. Then the web gallery business dried up because there was enough bandwidth everywhere to use videos. Well a video of a fight is far more interesting to the fans who go to these sites than a web gallery of still photos. The only reason for a photo is a splash page. Nobody is going to pay me what they used to pay me for one fight photo. A vidcap will generally do.

    And that’s just one market, unfortunately one that paid me well for a number of years.

  14. And on a slightly different tangent, I am finding writing to be far better financially. I realize that a lot of photographers can’t make money writing, but if someone can write, it’s a very interesting alternative. The hourly rate is significantly lower, but a) there is almost zero equipment cost – a $150 Chromebook and a coffee shop connection are fine; b) there is zero set-up, tear-down and maintenance cost -no equipment to test, batteries to charge, lights to put up, etc.; c) there is no waiting time; and d) work time is very flexible, it’s easy to work on multiple jobs at the same time. Although I wouldn’t call writing “lucrative,” it does work out better on an hourly basis than photography. And there’s the fact that most people can’t write a good lede or string two sentences together in a way that makes sense.

    • I’ve been thinking along that same same tangent.

  15. Michael #

    I’m not sure of the value in trying to explain to people why something costs what it does. I doubt you will change any minds. Plus, there is an arbitrary side to the cost of a thing. I teach adult continuing ed classes for which I am paid very little. I also consult for corporations and teach almost the same workshops in a business setting where I get paid 10 times as much. Which is the “right” fee? Who knows? In some places in the world, the services I provide would have practically no value at all. I try to do my job as best I can and charge what I think the client can pay and I can stand.

  16. Wonder how much he billed the client for the time it took to think up and write this wonderful reply?

  17. Mark #

    In addition, the $45 is just tip of mountain. When health benefits, pensions, vacation days, matching their social security payments, that employee is actually being paid AT LEAST $75 an hour.

  18. Frank P #

    Hi Tom, I’m surprised you would bill by the hour at all, it allows for these kinds of casual apples-to-oranges comparison. Even though everything you say makes sense, if your clients are making less “per hour” than you are then some of the more spiteful ones may harbor some resentment. I’ve been using a creative fee plus expenses model with a clearly defined statement of work — it usually works better since most clients want to know a final number anyway. Good luck, Frank

    • The initial quote was given at cost per location. The client’s client wanted a line item breakdown, which is when the issue of hourly rates was imposed. Hence my refence to CODB items that influence but are not appropriate for line by line itemizing.
      When asked how long it took me to make a particular picture, I’ll often say something like “30 years and 1/250th of a second”. Those 30 years don’t belong on an invoice, but they certainly contribute value.

  19. I think the thing I’ve always struggled with as a photographer is the intangible stuff that I obviously need to pay for to live (food/mortgage/power etc). Clients do honestly sometimes only see the time that you spend behind the camera, some go a step further and appreciate all the other time spent on “their job” individually.

    However it’s all the other stuff you have listed that is almost impossible to get over to a client, the actual living stuff everybody needs to pay. But I can’t justify my cost that way, because then the client is paying for my lifestyle. What if I live in a mansion and pay £1000 a week in rent, I can’t justify that expense to a client (well I suppose I could say this allows to relax accordingly to be fully refreshed for their shoot or something?!). But at what lifestyle level is an acceptable billable amount to a client? Who knows?! 1 photographer has living expenses of £4000 a month, 1 has expenses of £2000. Both are of the same ability. The one with higher living expenses gets to charge more just because he has higher bills to pay? And the clients should be ok with that? Or there’s a guy with a job on the side, that is of the same ability but doesn’t need to fund his living expenses with photography so he can sweep in and undercut everyone and still deliver the same results. It’s a minefield!

    Do I have to be at the bare minimum of survival and that’s justifiable? Or living well above my means and that’s justifiable. I think like you’ve said above, there’s a minimum everyone can calculate as an “if I go below this” this job isn’t covering the basics. Then as your photography takes on a value you can raise your prices accordingly, I guess like in a normal “job” with promotions as you get better at what you do.

    But clients don’t care about that type of stuff if you have to explain it to them, if you did they’d pick it apart. “Oh so I’m buying your expensive coffee that you like am I?” like optional extras on an airline or something.

    I think Bob hit the nail on the head, if you ever have to get into a discussion with a client like above (I know it’s a rhetorical letter), then they clearly can’t appreciate the value you’re bringing to a job, and they’re not your client regardless of what you charge.

    Great post, it is often really eye opening when you step back and realise just how much goes into running any business freelance. That’s a hell of a lot of roles to fulfil!

  20. One additional thought to a great post. Your clients employees may earn $40 per hour, but they are generating income for their business that well exceeds that $40, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.

  21. If the value you bring to your client isn’t greater than the value they gain from your work, then they have a decision to make that really doesn’t involve you. If their needs can be met with a snap shot from an iPhone, that’s pretty much the deciding factor.
    Unfortunately, some people aren’t sophisticated enough to see beyond the dumbing down of photography that has been occurring at both the highest (billing) levels of our industry and, at the other end, the belief of consumers that their boring images are “art” because they’ve been routinely damaged by the latest Instagram filter (which is more interesting than the underlying image).
    We are getting trashed at both ends of the market…

  22. “If their needs can be met with a snap shot from an iPhone, that’s pretty much the deciding factor.”…

    unless you can prove to, or convince them that your work has value beyond what they believe it has. Educating clients has always been part of every creative person’s job.

  23. John #

    AH but you missed the “one Killer” phrase – just think of all the exposure you will get if you do this .. You are lucky I am not charging you ……

  24. Pateick nilssen schildt #

    U nailed it ! Not much to add or alter … I love my job and so do u… How wonderfull these days 🙂

    Can’t say who said it:
    That is the problem these days, every monkey with a dslr thinks he is a photographer..

    Dear client,
    You don’t hesitate buying your bmw or mercedes benz, cause you are convinced, you pay for quality and reliability,

    Same with me,
    45 is a dacia sandero
    You won’t get a porsche for that
    That’s 300 ….

    A car is a car
    Making pictures is making pictures

    But you won’t get quality for almost nothing
    Funny, that you know about this concerning the car you own.
    No doubt, that your expensive bmw is NOT a jobkiller…..

    There is students and professionals

    Just choose and you get what u pay for…

    I can do 3 things..
    Fast, good, cheap,

    Choose 2 !
    Patrick nilssen schildt
    Professional photographer !

  25. This is why I quote project fees and not day or hourly rates. They will treat you like a day laborer if you quote like a day labor.

    • I concur and do the same.
      See my post about 8 up from this…

      • I used to quote per job, and still get away with it (barely). I shot a cardiologist for a billboard. I charged a few hundred… and I get the stink-eye since I did it in 15 minutes… and hour if you count the studio I set up in the cardio’s office. They days of having a job described, and you ask about use are going away. The AD’s half my age want the hourly, half-day and day rates and that’s how they think. The “work for hire” contracts.. take it of leave it mentality is rooted too. Last time I declined it, they declined me… and well, they are using the guy that did sign it.

  26. Bryan Welles #

    Hahahaha. Oh, your clients employees “only” make 25-45 an hour. In my experience, an employee must be billed out at approximately 4x their hourly rate to be profitable for the company. MANY advertising agencies routinely bill out 105-185 an hour for employees in that price range. They were just grinding you for a deal using the best technique they know: baloney.

    But, I agree, what’s happened to professional photography rates due to supply / demand stinks.

    I am not a professional photographer, btw.

  27. +1 I am am member of the local Optimist Club, that I am, but when the business model is broken, you got to call it what it is. My largest client is trying to get me down to $75 per hour, I tell them I like my $175- $225 flat rate per assignment, they say sometime you get it done in 15 or 20 minutes. I say if you put me on $75 an hour do you want me to spend a whole hour with an employee that you pay $200,000 or $400,000k a year? It’s a win win… they sort of get it, but the offer is “unresolved” for now.
    I also wrote this response on another web site where I first saw this. Cheers. Problem is there are too many people 20 or 30 years my junior still living with roommates or parents that think cutting me off at the knees will get me to fall and they will take their place. Truth be told, when we visual types used “film” it separated the kids from the adults. You didn’t shoot $50 or $2000 worth of film and sleep at night waiting for the turn at the e-6 lab unless you knew what you were doing. I agree digital is liberating, but it also liberates the need to really know what you are doing. Pre-visualization is a thing of the past. Polaroids cost $3.00 each and took 90 seconds of small talk with the AD and the CEO. And even with a Polaroid you had to have your shit together, because waiting for a second or third Polaroid might have been “ok” with the AD, but the CEO or halting a machine in a factory COST even more than the $3.00 for the “roid” Equipment cost have come down, a Hasselblad system and some lights cost MORE than a basic Mazda 323. Now you can have still, HD video, unlimited film, “the lab”/computer (portable even), lights and you might not even max out your credit card. Mehh…. I love it so still, and my favorite call is…. Well we went with so and so, and they screwed it up, can you come right over (oh our budget is half now because so and so got paid anyway).

  28. vw #

    I think why this subject comes up so much in the past 7 years is the barrier to entry has been smashed by good low cost digital equipment, and that the film age and high priced digital equipment kept a lot of fish out of the market. I still get a lot of business when people “can’t f#art around”. Problem is we older pro’s were used to getting “all the (commercial) business” when film and $10,000+ MF digital backs separated the kids from the pack. Those barriers are gone… so give the guy a break, let him “whine” “moan” if that’s what you want to call it, he’s earned it!
    Cheers all.

  29. Great post. The economics are challenging, indeed. Not to mention establishing metrics for value and pricing that are transparent and easily understood by digital media buyers, in an environment where photos are so easy to copy.

  30. B #

    Correct me if I’m wrong but photography used to be an art.. You would take 1 photo that would be amazing and you were the only one who could get the shot.Capture the Moment. Now any idiot within iPhone can take 1000 shots and get the same shot (eventually) with their phone. I think digital killed the art. Just cause now someone buys a digital camera and takes 1000 pics and spends hours editing 1 perfect pic doesn’t make them a photographer. Unfortunately photographers should be looking for new jobs.

    • Pateick nilssen schildt #

      B, you are wrong, totally…
      Think about the following:

      Whether you make pictures
      Or you take pictures…..

      I consider myself as a photographer, because i make pictures !
      I draw with light
      That is my profession

      When i am done, every monkey can shoot my scenery and it will look good, even if u shoot it with your fridge, iphone or toilet…

      What does photography mean ?

      Photo is from greek word photos = light !
      Graph comes from line, a drawed line

      Put it together
      Draw with light.

      There is no camera mentionned
      Never was and never will.

      A camera is just a tool
      Art is in you
      Or not…

      Know your tools
      Have ideas and make them real
      That is photography

      The rest is
      Take pictures…..
      ( “take” is without effort, “make” is full of effort)

      That is the problem today
      Every monkey with a dslr
      Thinks he is a photographer……
      ( don’t know who said this first, but i like it very much)

      Patrick nilssen schildt

  31. Alexis Ward #

    Excellent letter, Tom ! All clients of freelance photogs/videographers need to learn the basics all over again, it seems…

  32. mahascout #

    maybe not directly meant for client but every art buyer from every business everywhere should read this, every home based photoblogger giving away photos should read this. Not dealing in hourly rated jobs is the theory that was easier to live by 10 years ago. I feel your pain mr meyer. paul moore


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