Financial Advice for Photographers from Photographers
March 8, 2017
Justin Fantl rented time in a helicopter to make the aerial photographs he had aways wanted to try. The images led directly to assignments for Kinfolk and other clients.
A personal image by Meiko Tekechi Arquillos, which led to jobs for clients such as Target and Barbie. "People always seem to take notice when you are making interesting images," she says.
Inside Cole Barash's studio. Unlike other kinds of investments, with real estate, "you are able to use, enjoy and touch that investment,” says Barash.
Like most small-business owners, professional photographers face slow times and good times. Photographers who make smart investments during peak periods can set themselves up to get through the valleys, and can open up new opportunities. PDN reached out to photographers for advice on a number of topics, from what to do with a large commercial fee, to whether or not it’s worth it to buy equipment. Here’s what they told us about their experiences.
On Investing a Big Paycheck
“I’ve been at this a while and the fees used to be quite a bit larger then they are now. I think the biggest fee I’ve ever gotten [became] the down payment on my first house. I was in shock, and very excited. At the time, I was pregnant with my first kid and 25 and I didn’t want to blow it on anything stupid, so I bought a house.” —Christa Renee
“When I first moved to New York about six years ago, I was super poor and living in an apartment that had rats in the walls and I had $30,000 of credit card debt. I had to get a job at a restaurant just to pay the bills. About a year after I moved here, I got two ad jobs in one month. These weren’t the highest paying jobs I’ve ever had, but they enabled me to pay off a good chunk of credit card debt and move out of that horrible apartment. But most importantly they built up my confidence—it’s hard to believe in yourself when you aren’t getting much work and can’t support yourself, but when the world shows you a little bit of encouragement, it helps immensely.” —Meredith Jenks
“I immediately put about half aside for taxes, then split the remaining half between investments, a few months of living expenses and a bit to upgrade part of my camera system. When I first started out, I got some sage advice from photo editor and friend Tara Guertin. From her experience in the industry she said, “Keep your overhead low!” I have lived by this mantra ever since. I think it’s easy to get really excited by a big check and all the things you might be able to attain. When you step back, however, and look at the long game/big picture and the expenses of living and running your own business, that big dollar amount shrinks astoundingly quickly. Our industry is fickle and I think it is really important to have a buffer for those slow periods.” —Justin Fantl
Getting Smarter About Managing Money
“I own a home [and] I have built a studio attached to it. I live in the workspace in a loft and rent the house out during the summer months. This largely helps to contribute to my bottom line. I also did take a chance and buy quite a lot of stock when the market crashed in 2008—which luckily was a good call. Overall though, I feel real estate is a better bet as you are able to use, enjoy and touch that investment.” —Cole Barash
“One of the wisest things I have done is to get myself (and my family) a financial advisor. It changed my life. Now I can solely focus on creativity and not spend time worrying about everything else. She has her own business and family, and understands what it takes to run a business as a woman and mother. I also really appreciate her perspective in life. We pay her an annual fee and she is in charge of all of our investments, assets and finances. We meet about four times a year. Freelance business can be so lonely, but she helps me set goals in my business. Before I met her, I used to spend money mindlessly (especially after getting jobs with bigger fees). It is almost as if I have a financial mom on my side (in a good way) now.” —Meiko Takechi Arquillos
“The best decision I made is probably starting an IRA [Individual Retirement Account] before I got into any debt, or [had other] financial commitments (for example, purchasing a home or starting a family), because once you start down this road, you have much less to contribute. The absolute best advice I could give: Pay your estimated tax payments, no matter how painful this may be.” —Lisa Shin
On the Value of Personal Work and Promos
“I have spent money on expensive promos, but what has gotten me my dream jobs has always been my personal work (images created for myself). Because of social media, people always seem to take notice when you are making interesting images. I am always shocked to hear how people find me and tell me how they have been fans of my work for a long time.” —Meiko Takechi Arquillos
“I don’t really concentrate very often on promos or marketing as I don’t really believe in it. I believe it is about putting effort into making actual good work and if it’s good enough, the right people will notice. It is more important than ever to make real connections face to face as anyone can get hold of anyone now electronically. People are not stupid, and I think they appreciate a genuine approach rather than a broad one—more selective and thoughtful rather than massive and thin.” —Cole Barash
“In the last three years I have made one big promo piece that cost between $5,000-$10,000. I have been hired by a few dream clients solely because they received my promo piece. It is scary spending that much money and not really knowing if anyone is actually going to look at your work, but even if you get one ad job off of the pieces you send out, it makes it worthwhile. To help ensure this happens, it is important to send your promotion to a list of people that you have researched that you think will respond to your work.” —Meredith Jenks
“I have actually never directly won a campaign from a promo/marketing piece. At least, not that I know of! This can be frustrating especially with all the time, effort, energy and money it can take to put something impactful together. I think it’s the aggregate of the effort that will pay off. The promo piece has also become a way to render my work in a way that I want to see it. You have complete control over it. It is really fun to work with a designer (or yourself) and create something that you can make all the creative decisions on.” —Justin Fantl
“I still think printed pieces are important to do. It’s so nice to have something tangible to show people in this world of digital everything. It’s a big cost, but I think it shows that you care about your work…. I put a lot of money into personal work. I don’t know if that’s normal or not. Every time I do a personal project, it’s at least a few thousand dollars. If it’s a trip or something, then it’s even more. I have an ongoing personal project that I have been doing shooting families that I find on Instagram in their homes, and some of those images directly have gotten me jobs. I always see my Instagram stuff and personal stuff in the decks I’m getting now, so I think personal work is extremely important for creatives to see.” —Christa Renee
On Buying Your Gear vs. Renting Gear
“I own all my own gear. It pays for itself in a very short time and then you make that rental fee on every job. As soon as it is possible, every photographer should own their gear and lighting and grip, in my opinion.” —Christa Renee
“I used to purchase all of the equipment I used, but since digital needs continue to change [or] become obsolete, it seems less prudent to purchase. I rent way more now. If you have consistent work long term, and you are definitely making the money back on jobs, then it is worth the purchase.” —Lisa Shin
“When I lived in LA and was transitioning from film to digital I would always hire a digital tech. When I moved to New York and eventually got on my feet I bought my own digital equipment and it paid off incredibly fast. I don’t know why I hadn’t done that years before. Owning your own equipment doesn’t just save you money it makes you money.” —Meredith Jenks
On the Importance of Insurance
“There have been a couple jobs recently where I would not have even been able to do the job if I didn’t have insurance. Two different agencies needed to make sure I had insurance to cover the cost of the entire job if something [went wrong]. I have great insurance, as do my producers, but it was the first time I’ve had that come up as a hard line for the job. I had a horrible incident early on in my career where a shoot ended with a few of the talent in the hospital, just a total freak accident that was no one’s fault. I’m so happy I had good insurance, even though in the end it ended up being covered by the client’s insurance. But it was a big one: medical bills, plastic surgery. I was really scared. I had just had a baby. I remember calling Tom Pickard [insurance agency] in tears asking if I was going to be OK. All was fine in the end, but I will never not have insurance after that.” —Christa Renee
On Investing in Your Career
“Investing in anything for yourself is important, whether it is buying a simple product to experiment with in the studio or planning a big trip with the intent of working on a specific project. A specific example occurred the summer before last when I chartered a helicopter to fly over a few locations in Los Angeles. Aerial photography was something I had always wanted to do so I took part of my fee from a shoot and just went for it. I got a few friends on board to defray the cost and we went up for about 1.5 hrs. The edit from that day led directly to several other assignments and it was purely for myself. I do think that people recognize when something is authentic or genuine as opposed to whether you are just creating something for gain.” —Justin Fantl
“I went to film school in Sydney and it has paid off big time. I was shooting a beauty still shoot in Bangkok. It was back-to-back with the [TV] commercial, and the director and I got a chance to spend some time chatting. She was Australian. I knew her work and admired it, and asked her if she knew of any short film courses I should take, and she suggested Sydney School of Radio and Television. I am so busy that taking eight weeks or longer off was not possible for me, yet I found a weekend thing was too overwhelming with information and not hands-on enough to really sink your teeth into. So I decided to go to Australia for a week-long course. It was not that expensive, and within a month I got three videos for Target. The experience in Sydney gave me the confidence to tackle those projects, even though I was a new director. I earned [the cost of the schooling] back on those jobs.” —Thayer Allyson Gowdy