It's Time to Define Your Photographic Identity

I recently wrote a blog on being paid what your worth and I got some interesting feedback from other photographers.  There was one comment I couldn’t get out of my mind. You shouldn’t spend your energy trying to prove your worth as a creative. You should show why you are different.

Initially, I struggled with this feedback. My inner ego shouted, “I bring value and should receive the pay I deserve.” But the idea continued to pester me. What is it what sets me apart? Do I even know? I came back to this question many times over the next few weeks. It was time for me to understand my identity as a photographer.


Cultural Awareness

I want to do more on a photo shoot than just show up with my camera. I want to try to understand my subject. I want to have a relationship with them. But I have limited time on most of my photo shoots, so the work on the relationship comes before I’ve ever met them.

I spent time in each country I live in learning the local language and reading about the history of the place that I will be working. I am always amazed that a simple greeting and introduction in Kinyarwanda opens doors for my work in Rwanda. This small effort on my part changes the dynamic of the photographs that I create.


Technical Understanding

I am a voracious learner. I came into the industry as a creative, not a technician. But I have spent the last thirteen years sucking up knowledge via degrees, books, workshops, and online classes. I. I do not limit myself to studying only photography but also business and innovation. I believe that my passion for learning has been the best asset in my pursuit of greatness in my craft. I find knowledge in both my successes and failures as both teach me to be a better photographer. This pursuit of technical understanding forces me always to strive to be better than I was yesterday.


Personal Passion

I began to dream of being a professional photographer in my early college days, and I haven’t been able to shake it. I cannot imagine a future without my camera. That is what gets me through the tough stuff. When I doubt myself,  I look back at my first portfolio of work and I see the journey. Progress is simply putting one foot in front of the other. I understand that I cannot do without photography. It is as much a part of my identity as breathing.

I Can't Work for $100 Per Day and You Shouldn't Either

I was just approached to do some photography consulting with an organization doing amazing things in Rwanda. I would’ve loved to work with them but they offered a day rate far below what any photographer should accept. This makes me wonder who is taking these gigs, thus perpetuating the myth the photographers can sustainably work for next to nothing? And do they know that they shouldn’t?

This organization offered to pay me $100 per day with the average day being 8-10 hours. Essentially they wanted me to work for about $10 dollars an hour.  I can’t do that. And neither should you. Here’s why:

Let’s just say hypothetically that I found an organization that would hire me for 300 days out the year for $100 per day. I’d make $30,000. Doesn’t sound too bad, right?



That is until you learn that I do a cost of doing business calculation every year. This year I projected that I will have at least $26,000 in expenses. In addition, I’d like to make a salary and save for retirement.  Refer to bullet one: the day rate of $100 leaves me with about $4,000 to live on for the year.

In addition, I own approximately $20,000 in gear and every piece of gear I own has a life expectancy. This means that as long as I am a photographer I will be purchasing or repairing gear.  This year I’ve spent about $5,500 in gear and repairs. One major unexpected expense was spending $4,000 on a new camera when both of my bodies went down at the same time. Guess where my $4,000 salary just went?

Besides my yearly expenses, I have to take into account that my bachelors and masters degree cost me approximately $85,000. I have spent years learning my craft and paid thousands of dollars in student loans.

Your organization is doing amazing things and I wish I could help. But I am running a business. I can’t work for $100 per day. If I accepted your rate then I wouldn’t make enough money to eat, pay rent, or save for retirement. No matter how great your organization is the answer is still no. 

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My Rules for Taking Pro Bono Photography Work

So you get the opportunity to work with a super stellar international nonprofit that is doing amazing things, but they don’t have a budget for photography. Should you do the work for free?

I know I am not the only person who has ever been tempted by this situation.  All you really need is a few guidelines in place to help you make the best decision for yourself and your business.

©2014 Crystaline Randazzo Photography, LLC. All rights reserved. The Nyamirambo Women's Center is a community organization in Kigali, Rwanda that provides computer courses, Kynarwanda literacy programs, and English classes to women in the community. NWC is a probono project for 2014.


Are You the Only Person Working for Free?

Only take pro-bono work when 95% percent of the organization’s staff is voluntary. If everyone else is being paid a salary for the value they add, then you should be too.


Limit the Number of Free Projects You Take

You aren’t making any money from this project. As a business professional you need to limit the amount of time that you spend working for free. I take two projects per year. This helps me to be choosy about the type of projects that I accept. I really need to love what the organization is doing in order to get involved.


What Does It Do for You?

I know this sounds selfish but you should only take pro-bono projects that do something for you. Build up a portfolio in an area where you’d like to work. Try out some video on a nonpaying client before you unleash your skills on the world. You need to be motivated to do the work beyond just charity or you might resent it later. Most important of all, you need to own the copyright for all the images or product. You won’t be paid for your services, so the images should be yours to do with what you will.


Be Clear About Your Time & Deliverables

If you’ve agreed to do a pro-bono project, I guarantee that scope creep will occur and a small project will balloon into a major time suck. You’ll agree to photograph an amazing project on clean water for children and on the way to the shoot you’ll be asked to do some portraits of the head of party or photograph their sister medical project.  You want to stop this before it occurs.

Treat your pro-bono clients just like your paying ones. Draw up a contract. Be specific about how much time you will spend shooting and editing, and what their deliverables will be.


Educate Your Client

On the day I deliver the final photos to my probono clients, I show them the photos and explain how I think the images can best be utilized on their website or annual reports. I also give them an invoice so they can understand the value of what I have just given them.  I want to show them how photography and visual story telling will benefit them in the long run.  I want them to see the value of what photographers can do for them.

I never do more than one pro-bono project per organization, as I don’t want to create a dependency of free photography. And I hope that by following my guidelines and educating my clients I’m laying the groundwork for the organization to hire photographers in the future. 


What are some of your rules when working for free??

The Bigger Picture: Photography as Entrepreneurship

Are you interested in becoming a photographer? Are you so interested that you’d invest $100,000 and four years of your life towards pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the field? But what would you do if I told you that at least eighty percent of what you are going to need to know as a photographer isn’t taught in the best photography programs in the United States?


I’m not really one to bash education as I have both an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in photography. But even after multiple degrees, I left school without taking a single course that addressed the business of photography.  As the graphs above indicate, a successful photography business is just that—a business.  I learned how to run my business through trial and error.

Curious to see if any photography programs have added courses on running a successful business in the seven years since I left Syracuse, I rolled up my sleeves and did some research.

UniversityDegreeCostTotal Required HoursTotal Required Business Hours
Brooks InstituteBachelor of Science in Visual Journalism$90,488 for program1206
University of MissouriBachelor of Arts in Photojournalism$36,180 per year (non resident)410
Rochester Institute of TechnologyBachelor of Arts in Photojournalism $47,336 per year1220
Syracuse UniversityPhotojournalism or Illustration Photography$59,320 for program383

I’ve invested a lot of time in the last five years into learning about business of photography. There are amazing photographers out there whose businesses are failing because they don’t understand how to run their businesses. And there are less skilled photographers that are making a good living because they do.  I am not saying that photography degrees aren’t teaching valuable skills, but I believe that we are missing the bigger picture of photography as entrepreneurship.

When you create a soapbox, you have no choice but to stand on it.  I recently partnered with my friend and collaborator Laura Elizabeth Pohl to teach a business practices workshop for photographers in Rwanda.. We both have advanced degrees that taught us to take great pictures, but we left university without knowing how to charge for our services, market our work to clients, or even do basic accounting.  We felt that teaching this course is one opportunity to pass on helpful information developed through experience and help Rwandan photographers to make a living wage.  

If the business of photography isn’t being taught to young photographers, how can they obtain the tools to become successful? What can the professional community do to help?  I’d love to know your thoughts and ideas on how we can promote entrepreneurship.

In order to do my part, I hope to continue sharing information and teaching in the communities that I live in. Keep your eyes open for the podcast from our workshop.