Editor's note: the following is a tongue-in-cheek, often irreverent, question and answer column published in the ASMP News solely for the entertainment of our readers. It does not necessarily reflect the views of ASMP, the local chapter or other ASMP members. All opinions and answers are solely those of the author, and he is welcome to them.

Readers' questions about any aspect of photography, or life in general, are welcome and Dr. Photography will answer them in future columns, if he happens to feel like it. Send mail to:
Dear Dr. Photography

Dear Dr. Photography,

I can't believe what I've heard recently. After years of trying to figure out how to charge for various different day rates, I read the news that "The day rate is dead" and I'm now supposed to base my prices on usage. I've had enough trouble trying to educate my clients about why my various day rates differed. Now I have to start all over again and try to figure out how to charge for usage? Why the change and who the heck is responsible?

Fuming in Fremont


DP: Ha ha ha! The jig is up and you are the last person in the industry to figure it out. Basically, all the other photographers in the country got together and changed the way they charge for photography simply to confuse you so much that you would throw your hands in the air and quit the business entirely, thus reducing their competition. It is their hope that you take up something like banana slug husbandry and never touch a camera again.

In all seriousness though, banana slug husbandry is a noble profession and lots of former photographers are practicing it in places like your home town of Fremont, where small banana slug ranchettes are all the rage. But I digress...

The most recent change in the way photographers price their services is simply part of the continuing evolution that every profession endures as its practitioners discover new ways to drain cash from their victims... or rather, clients.

In the early days of commercial photography, photographers worked mainly as traveling salesmen, wandering from town to town with their dark tents, strange boxes, glass plates and noxious chemicals. They were treated with the same disdain as snake oil vendors, since they asked their clients to sit in uncomfortable positions for long periods and then exploded gunpowder in their faces, claiming that it provided for a better light. This was a widespread practical joke that early photographers used on their clients, who generally came to a photo session dressed in their Sunday best and left with faces and clothing burned beyond repair. What these clients got for their unnecessary suffering, was a single small photograph of themselves looking like they were in the process of passing a kidney stone.

There really wasn't much one could do with a photograph in those days, other than to look at it and put it away on a shelf in hopes that no one else would ever see it again. Magazines couldn't reproduce photos, advertisers never even considered using them to show a product and boring vacation slide shows hadn't yet become vogue. Consequently, the value of a photograph was rather limited and photographers generally earned about five cents for a day's work (mind you, five cents went a lot further then because you couldn't buy things like cellular phones or Nike shoes).

Eventually, the time came when people found new ways to use photography to promote their businesses. This created a demand for skilled artisans who could create the magical, realistic looking images known as photographs. Consequently, photographers discovered that their skills and equipment had tangible value.

Just as this transformation occurred, however, a young wisecrack named George Eastman patented a small box known as the "Brownie" and coined the phrase "You push the button, we do the rest." Suddenly, photography was readily available to the masses, and all the mystique of creating boring images of loved ones disappeared, along with the ability for professional photographers to charge exorbitant rates for their services.

Since that time, the business of photography has expanded into previously unimagined areas -- fine art, corporate communications, photojournalism, advertising, motion pictures, television and the new electronic media. While all of these fields are branches of photography as a whole, they are actually completely separate types of businesses.

Dr. Photography knew one misguided former photographer, who wanted to start a construction business, after a salt evaporation plant opened nearby and threatened to dehydrate his thriving banana slug herd. Having learned much during his tenure as a photographer, he planned to structure his fees as a building contractor in a similar manner.

When he built a new home for a client, he planned to charge them more for his services if they really needed the house than he would if they were just wanting it for fun. He planned to charge subsequent usage fees every time his clients entered their houses, invited guests to visit or used the home he constructed for them as collateral for financial transactions. Additionally, although his clients would have paid him for all his expenses, overhead, labor, profit, creativity and usage fees, he expected to retain ownership of the original home and be free to sell it to as many other clients for their simultaneous, non-exclusive use as he could. These were all practices he knew successful photographers used. Fortunately, no bank would finance his business and he is still riding herd on 37 banana slugs in what is now a salt marsh at the southern tip of San Francisco Bay.

Other photographers who blindly follow the crowd and price their services according to standards from another branch of the industry, are destined for the same failure. The inevitable comparison of day rates among the different fields of photography, ultimately has led to the demise of the day rate entirely. The latest trend, is for photographers to charge a creative fee based on the value and the amount of work required for a job, plus expenses and usage fees that reflect the value of the photos' future use to the client.

Sure it may seem a little confusing at first, but your option is to deal with amortization and depreciation of banana slug futures as your 10,000 head herd slowly dehydrates into fertilizer and contaminates your neighbor's salt pile. (Dr. Photography would appreciate hearing from any experts out there who can explain the market for these animals. Are banana slug shoes going to be the next fashion trend? Banana slug steaks in the supermarket? And just how do they actually get banana slug milk from those things?)

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©1992 Scott Highton
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