Common Cents
The "Cheap" Trick
July 2009

by Mark Loundy

"What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value."
— Thomas Paine, 1776

In a down market, one of the toughest things to do is resist the pressure to lower your prices. In fact, it makes sense that if your potential clients are hurting, you'll gain their favor by dropping your rates.

Except it isn't true.

Customers value the things they buy largely based on how much they pay for them. Once you start pandering to the "price first" clients, you'll be buying into the perception that one freelancer is as good as another.

Mark Shead recently drew an analogy in his Freelance Switch blog between price-first freelancers and coffee. "Let's say you see two unfamiliar types of coffee beans for sale," writes Shead. "One type sells for $10 per packet and the other $5 per packet. If you have minimal coffee experience, you will probably conclude that the more expensive coffee is more valuable and tastes better."

The same is true for your clients. Rather than play the price game, it's critical to keep them aware of your value, not only as a skilled photographer, but also as a responsive vendor and knowledgeable fellow businessperson.

Dropping your prices only sends the signal that your services are not very valuable. It commoditizes your work, which means that you can be easily replaced. It also reduces your chances of stepping up to the next level in the business.

If you cave-in to price pressure, you don't know beans about business.


• Sadly, no Good this month.


• ABC's "Extreme Home Makeover" provides deserving families with needed home remodeling. They do some great work, but the show is a commercial moneymaker for the Disney-owned network. There is no justification for the show to seek "volunteer photographers."

• Major trade mag publisher BNP for their Work For Hire contract.


• The AP's latest wrinkle in the way they pay contest money to member contributors is direct deposit. The insidious thing about it is that it allows them to debit your account should there be an "error" on their part.

Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.


• The American Red Cross has an annual budget in the neighborhood of $4 billion. So a a recent ad looking for a photographer/videographer is either a candidate for The Ugly or a great opportunity for some feel-good volunteer work. You need to supply your own gear; the group doesn't pay you and they get the copyright to your images. I can go either way on this one.

• "In a moment, a photo can help tell our story; it can communicate the beauty of nature, the essential services nature provides and the tragedy of loss." If photography is so critical to the mission of Conservation International then why is their full-time photography internship unpaid?

• With huge corporations going belly-up, at least one ad agency has taken steps to shift some of the financial risk to their clients. If you do any advertising agency business, make sure that they don't make paying you contingent upon their client paying them. Any contract that you sign with any client should make it clear that the rights license is valid only upon full payment to you.

• There's a new blog in town. Check out the ASMP's "Strictly Business."


Are You a Commodity?

Shoot For the Red Cross For Free

"Strictly Business"

NPPA Independent Photographers Toolkit

Advertising Photographers of America Business Manual

Common Cents Column On The Cost of Doing Business

Editorial Photographers

Editorial Photographers Yahoo! Group (Message Archives)

Small Business Administration

NPPA Online Discussion Group Instructions

© Mark Loundy

Mark Loundy is a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose, California.

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