Early this year, I was let go from my job. I really wasn’t upset about it since it gave me the push I needed to start my videography/photography business, and so far, it’s been going better than I expected. If I hadn’t hesitated to pursue it, I probably wouldn’t be writing this right now. My original plan was to get a job at a local studio, gain some experience, get some ideas and tips on how they run their business, then take the plunge into my business at the beginning of the summer, which was typically a busy time for me. In December (a few weeks before I was let go), I contacted some studios that I’d found on LinkedIn, Facebook and Google hoping at the very least for an internship. In March, a local studio hired me. I had completely forgotten I had applied, but I was happy to have some real employment again. I met with their coordinator and he scheduled my first shoot (as a second shooter for one of their “more experienced” photographers) for an event the following weekend.
Fast forward to the day of the shoot and I get a call from the coordinator about an hour before the shoot saying they sent the primary photographer to another event and I’d be on my own. It wasn’t a big deal; I had shot events alone before, but this is an important detail. When we discussed payment, they told me 50% is split between the photographers at the event and 50% goes to the coordinators/the rest of the business. (Example: 2 photographers shoot a $500 event. $250 goes to the coordinators, $125 goes to each of the photographers.) Fair enough. I wasn’t expecting huge checks from an entry-level photography job. The upside (or so I thought) to the shooting the event alone would mean I got paid more for the same amount of work.
(This isn’t entirely relevant to the purpose of this article, but they also sent me their optional contract after the event, which required me to shut down my website, leave the other studio I was working for and turn over a list of my clients and their contact information. When I refused to sign this optional contract, they told me they wouldn’t continue to employ me.)
The event came and went, the client was happy with what they received from the studio and I was waiting to be paid. The first pay period came and went, nothing. They said they had issues with their direct deposit system and it would clear the following pay period. The next pay period came and went, again, nothing. This time they said they sent my payment to the wrong account number and it wouldn’t clear that pay period. “It’ll clear the next pay period.” The third pay period came and guess what happened…. I STILL didn’t get paid. I got in touch with the coordinator again and he said to meet him at the office to pickup my check in person. The office is about an hour away from my house. I get about 15 minutes from the office and the coordinator calls me saying he’s with a client (in neighboring Indiana) and won’t be able to meet me today. Instead he offers to mail the check to me. He “mails the check” and 15 days go by and I still haven’t received anything from the studio. Again I email them. They sent cash. Five days later, I get an email from them saying they never mailed it due to a communication error but that they are only going to pay me half because I was a solo photographer. I quoted their email showing what they told me about payment. According to them, “that’s a mistake.”
As of writing this it’s been over 100 days since I shot the event, they sold my images to their client weeks ago and are refusing to return my emails, phone calls and texts.
There was a bit more tomfoolery surrounding my experience with this particular studio, but you get the idea. With that said, hopefully my experience can help other photographers avoid a similar experience. Here are some tips to help you avoid getting ripped off as a new photographer:
1. LOOK For Reviews
This should be your first step before you accept a job with any studio, new or old. Their customer satisfaction will be a good indication of how they treat their employees. Google the studio. If Craigslist comes up first, it’s probably a good idea to pass (Craigslist isn’t always a bad sign, but if Craigslist is the ONLY site that comes up – BIG red flag). If nothing comes up, they may not be a legitimate studio- think about it, how can they afford to hire photographers if nobody knows they exist? When you find reviews, pay attention to the good to bad ratio. If they have a lot of negative reviews, their poor performance is likely a representation of how they’ll treat you as an employee. Also pay attention to WHO is reviewing them. I noticed after my incident that the majority of their reviews were from people that work for the studio.
2. READ Their Contract and Keep a Copy Of It
All studios should have a contract. Read it, have a friend read it and if possible, have a lawyer read it. Make sure you see the contract BEFORE you begin working for them. Also, be aware of the “do not compete” clause and “nondisclosure agreement.” Most studios understand that you will be doing work outside of the studio, but some will try to use this as a way to eliminate you as competition. Remember that the contract can say almost anything they want- if you sign it, you agree to it.
3. BE CLEAR On How They Are Paying You
Ambiguity is your enemy. This is a big one. You want to know that you will be paid and more importantly, you want to know HOW and WHEN. You may want to write your own terms for compensation (or better yet, have a lawyer write it) and have them sign it; this keeps both parties in agreement.
4. PREPARE Your Own Contract If You’re Not Full-Time/Hourly
(This goes hand in hand with Number 3, but this is for the studios that pay on a per gig basis.) Some studios will pay you hourly; some will pay you a flat rate; Make sure that these figures are fair and worth your time. Shooting a high end wedding can be great experience for you, but isn’t always worth it if the studio wants to pay you minimum wage for it- remember, you’re in the professional world now.
5. THEY NEED YOU More Than You Need Them
The photography (and videography) market is saturated. You have plenty of studios in your area to choose from, keep shopping. You don’t need to settle for the first studio to throw you a bone. Listen to your gut. If they seem sketchy when you meet them, DON’T WORK FOR THEM.
6. STAND UP For Yourself
Simply put, don’t be so desperate to work as a professional that you’re willing to lose your self-respect. If you’ve ignored Tip Number 1 through 5, and gotten yourself in a pickle, this is a helpful option. Stand up for yourself. Being unknown (for lack of a better word) doesn’t mean you’re at the will of the studio. Be bold and call them out on the issue. If they’ve already bent you over, what do you have to lose? Nothing. So show them you mean business! Don’t underestimate the power of social media. Most businesses in general will right their wrong once they see themselves being talked about negatively- just don’t be too harsh about it. There’s a fine line between being blunt and aggressive.
7. DON’T BE AFRAID to Walk Away
Sometimes continuing on the same path will have a diminishing return. Move on to your next endeavor. Don’t dwell on a single negative experience. That time could be spent finding a better studio to work for, or starting your own!
In most cases, common sense will keep your first experience positive. If you’re unsure, go with your gut; if you end up in an unfortunate situation with a studio, do what you can to resolve it, if you can’t, move on. Don’t waste your time constantly stressing about it. Chances are if they’re running their business in a sketchy fashion, they won’t last long anyway. Be diligent and believe in your goal.
About the Guest Contributor
Rhys Ladhani is a Chicago based freelance videographer with a focus on music videos, weddings and promotional media. You can find him dressed to impress and shooting a wedding or in Chicago working with local artists. He has a passion for fast cars, firearms and technology. Connect with him via Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.