February 2011

Art with an Invisible Hand

“If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
– The Dark Knight, 2009
Jamie Melendez and Swan Vacula
I think I just lost a potential client because I charged for my services.  It doesn’t bother me that much, but it does highlight a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time, and it seemed to be a good first blog post.  
A bit of background: while I’m mostly a filmmaker, I do some photography work on the side.  I prefer to do model work rather than “documentary” style (weddings, events etc).  This is probably because model photography is as close to filmmaking as I can get.  Most of the work I’ve done has been free, but I have done some commissioned work too.  Recently, I put my portfolio up on modelmayhem.com and offered to work with interested models and photographers.  
I was contacted by a young actor to shoot some headshots.  She seemed nice and was very excited to work with me.  We emailed back and forth, determining what she wanted and how quickly she need the shots.  
In the last piece of correspondence she sent, she asked how much I’d charge.  Now, I know a few photographers who do this kind of thing, and I have a a pretty good idea of what the going rates are.  I named a price that was reasonable and in keeping with the industry.  I never heard from her again.  
At the heart of this conundrum is the debate of professional vs amateur work, something that I’ll get into in a future post.  But, in a nutshell, it’s the obligation of the amateur to assess the market’s climate and charge accordingly.  It’s unfair for someone with less experience to make significantly less while still delivering a similar product.  This seems like a dilemma that is confined to our industry.  Well, that and performing arts. 
This harkens me back to another pricing debate I had.  About ten years ago, when I was just starting out, I was hired to make a series of instructional videos for a local karate studio.  The videos, totaling twenty – four in all, were shot, cut and burned to dvd for duplication and distribution.  I even went so far as to create interactive dvd menus and a special effects laden intro.  
I learned a lot throughout the process, particularly what the work was worth.  I undercharged for my services, over – delivered the final product, and left the project with something of a bad taste in my mouth.  
Two years later, the client came to me again and asked me to make another series.  I had gained some experience and suggested a price more in keeping with what the work was worth.  The client balked, but acquiesced and I got my fee.  And he never hired me again.  I found out that he now works with a shooter/editor who does the work “as a hobby”.  
The worst part of this whole situation is that I’ve soured that client on professionals.  I delivered professional grade work for an amateur price and now he’ll expect the same no matter who he hires.  And he’ll always be able to say, “Well, the last guy did it for half of what you’re charging.”  

photo credit: Swan Vacula
The ultimate question here is; what is our work worth?  It’s not an easy one to answer.  In these days of budget cuts and inflated unemployment, it can be difficult to outline a project and demand a hefty price tag from a client with plenty of other options.
I work in a retail store, and it’s easy for us to determine what we charge for our products.  We simply look at what we paid for the item, what the going rate is, and charge so we make a little money and don’t exceed the market value of the product.  But it’s much harder with art because there is no standard “market value”.   Every product is different and requires different things from the artist.  
The truth is, our work’s price is determined by the industry, and we’re obligated to maintain that price.  If the filmmaker across the street charges half of what I’m charging, I’ll have to lower my prices to maintain my clients.  If he then chooses to lower his, we end up in a Adam Smith nightmare, where the client wins but the businesses go bankrupt in a matter of months.
There’s nothing wrong with charging fair prices or making exceptions for clients on a case by case basis; that’s what economics is all about.  But it’s our responsibility to familiarize ourselves with industry rates and make fair and honest quotes about the worth of our work.  If we do this as a community, we make the invisible hand work for us, instead of getting pushed around by it.  

Or, as my good friend Sam Hall puts it:

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/11958878 w=400&h=225]


I’m finishing up something.  I’ll post soon.

Until then, here are some pretty flares:

This is with my new Canon 28mm f/1.8.  People give this lens bad reviews because of its excessive flaring.  Me?  That’s one of the reasons I bought it.