After my guest post on general photo assisting tips, my inbox was flooded with suggestions and questions on different aspects of the industry. One of the themes that came up consistently in emails and comment threads was money: how photo assistants can ensure fair rates and timely payments, how to keep track of invoicing and billing, etc. While I don’t have all the answers, I’ve learned a thing or two about handling the money side of photo assisting, and have developed some guidelines and processes that have worked for me. Obviously, everybody goes about their business differently, so feel free to use this info as a jump-off point for further dialogue.
One: Ask the money questions up front
One of the most important things I’ve learned is to cut the bullshit and just ask the money questions right off the bat. You’re doing business, after all. Before you even accept the job, ask: What’s the day rate? Is there OT (overtime after ten hours)? Is the job advertising or commercial? (If money is being generated through the pictures that are being taken you should be compensated accordingly). Are the travel days paid? Also, get the billing details (are you invoicing the photographer, the photo agency or the production company?) up front, or at least before the job begins. That way, you can just seamlessly shoot off the invoice right after the shoot (I’ll talk more about this later). It sucks, but handling your business, literally, at the very beginning ensures that you’re not wasting brain space thinking about money on the day of, and that everyone’s on the same page. Payment-wise, anyway.
Two: Know your rates
In my experience, no matter how much money a company or publication has, many will still try to cut corners. You’ll also deal with photographers who’ll try to squeeze on rates. But if you know your rates, you’re less likely to get taken advantage of. For U.S. photo assistants, editorial (magazine) rates should be around $250 for a ten-hour day. It’s common to hear $200 or even $150 from some publications, and though this might have been fine in the 80s, there’s that pesky little thing called inflation. If you think your time and services are valuable, fight for that $250.
For advertising gigs, $350 for a ten-hour day is acceptable, but first assistants that work regularly for the same photographer can command day rates of $400 and upwards. Digital tech rates start at around $500 for a ten-hour day. While this might seem like a lot in comparison to the aforementioned assistant rates, the responsibility of organizing workflow and archiving and processing the entire shoot is worth that money. Also, after ten hours, time-and-a-half is the norm. Make sure you keep track of how many OT hours you’ve done so you can bill accurately and ensure you don’t get short-changed.
Three: Bill accurately, and ASAP
Bill directly after the job if possible, or within one day after. It goes without saying, but the sooner you bill, the sooner you get paid. (Also, this way the job is still fresh in everyone’s mind). Like I said earlier, it helps if you get all the billing details upfront.
A note on billing: the photo industry is not standardized and you can be confronted with a different system of billing and invoicing with each job. It’s important to find out whether you’re being treated as an independent contractor or an employee. If you’re an independent contractor, you’re treated as your own business and will be asked to provide a W9 form at the end of a job (I keep one scanned on my desktop, signed and ready to go, so it’s easy to attach to an email). You’ll later receive a 1099 form from your client, so you’ll be able to reconcile your taxes. Alternatively, you could be treated as a temporary employee: this comes with the added benefit of having your taxes already deducted from your “paycheck,” and instead of a 1099, you’ll get a W2. Just some things to note, which leads me to my next point.
Four: Get organized. OCD-like organized
Unless you’re one of the rare salaried assistants out there, then, like me, you’ve got to make this freelancing thing work for you. This means keeping your shop in order: scrupulously tracking all your outgoing invoices, monitoring what money you’ve received and what payments are still outstanding, etc. I use Blinkbid which I think is a pretty sweet billing program for photo assistants and photographers. It keeps track of all of the above and allows you to send email reminders when payments are due. Keeping everything organized will also allow you to keep an eye on your steady revenue stream (or lack thereof), which is crucial for freelancers like us.
Five: Chase that paper
Even if you’ve followed all the steps up until this point, the sad truth is that there’s no guarantee you’ll get paid when you want, even if you’re getting the rate you want. Often studios, locations and equipment rentals all get paid up front, so it boggles me why photographers and their assistants should wait – but that’s the reality. That said, don’t wait more than 30 days to get paid. If you’ve hit the three-week mark and still haven’t gotten your check, follow up with a quick email.
Realistically though, payment can sometimes take over 30 days. I’m not going to lie: that’s annoying as hell. In these cases, if it’s a client I’ve worked with before and I know are truly trying to get me paid, I’ll let it slide with weekly friendly reminders until I get my money. This typically works, and I’ll usually get paid a couple of weeks outside the initial 30-day mark. Should it take any longer than that, I strongly suggest you sign up for Square. It’s a smartphone app/device that allows you to accept credit card payments, which will give the photographer, production company or agency the ability to pay you while buying them time (ideally with the money they receive from their client, by the time their bill is due. But that’s not really your problem). Any longer than 60 days and I’ve known assistants take the matter to small claims court – also the route I would take, but thankfully, I haven’t been in that situation.
If you have any more tips or questions on how to handle money, invoicing and billing, or finances in general as a photo assistant, feel free to comment below or get discussion flowing on the Photo Assistants’ Association Facebook page.