hi there! i'm michelle, southern california based photographer and curator of the coco gallery.

welcome to my blog where i share my life, my latest adventures, photo projects, random nuggets and the occasional stray thoughts.

for clients: to view my portfolio just click on this link - theCOCOgallery.com. to book sessions please send me a message through theCOCOgallery.com or contact me via michelle@thecocogallery.com | 949.734.0604

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

mila | drawing the line on free

once upon a time when i started on this path i needed to build my portfolio.  i called on all my friends, my family and strangers on model mayhem.  i offered photos in exchange for their time.  i wasn't good but i got better and like many artists, i didn't think my work was worth paying for.  it took some self analysis to realize that my time was worth paying for even if my work was mediocre.  and it took a lot of curtis nagging me to realize that my work wasn't mediocre.  i've come a long way from free but the thing i struggle with still is convincing myself that the price i've set for my clients has to be maintained for friends and family.

oh this is SUCH a toughy for me.  value and price and all that crap (and it's only crap coz i hate having to think about this) is so subjective.  i'm excessively logical in a black and white and numbers kinda way.  and to be quite honest, setting a price on my work requires a certain amount of arrogance and self confidence that i'm extremely short on (i'll have to share my logical path to determining pricing on another blog entry coz that was definitely a struggle all it's own).  once i determined my pricing i jotted down some thoughts on why i had to do this and how i could accomplish this objectively.  it made it easier to stick to.

on the subject of discounts:
when i worked in corporate retail they established a discount for their employees which could be extended to immediate family.  it was 30% and we all agreed that it was fairly generous.  a couple of times a year the discount would increase to 40% or 50% and the shopping would ensue.  seeing how well this worked for a large company of thousands of employees i figure it should work for my biz as well but what about friends and extended family?

in my culture, my elders are referred to as tito or tita (uncle or aunty) or lolo and lola (grandfather & grandmother).  it's a sign of respect and deference.  but that really blurs the line on friendship and family.  in the US we refer to acquaintances as friends and then facebook extends our friend circle even more.  but the reality is that there are only a handful of people i would consider calling in the middle of the night in a time of need and the number of people that would respond is even smaller.  and so this is how i've chosen to designate my discount levels.
  • group A - we're really tight.  i would call you in the middle of the night in time of need and you would actually be there for me.  for these people (and i owe my life to them) i only charge cost of goods.  should there be any product involved then i simply ask that they pay for the cost.  if they opt to buy me something in exchange i graciously accept and we're both happy.
  • group B - we're friends or family but you aren't part of group A.  i give a 30% discount on the original price of the selected package.  btw... if you don't know my daughter's name (or that i even have a daughter), you don't fall into this category either... no discount for you!

on the subject of gifts:
when i didn't think my work was valuable i didn't offer the service as a possible gift to any of my friends coz i thought... well that it wasn't valuable enough to offer.  then i found out they wanted it so i gave it.  then came a time when i put a value on my work and all of a sudden i was faced with just how much i was giving away.  my "gifts" were becoming a lot of work and they were taking time  away from other jobs (and the income from those projects were getting affected).

i finally stopped giving my work as gifts (to people outside of group A) when the last most startling thought occurred to me.  unless someone was fairly close to me i rarely ever spent more than $50 on a gift for someone and this includes weddings.  my work is valued at much more than that so to give it as a gift is ridiculously excessive and should not be expected.

on the subject of projects:
there's a few projects that i get drawn into...

  1. i'm a softy for a worthy cause 
  2. i enjoy vendor collaborations
  3. i'm a sucker for people that need help
  4. my own wackadilly artsy projects that are bigger than me.
but my time is limited.  with kaya in the picture i really can't afford to stretch myself too thin.  so here's a couple of filters to help me out

  • will it generate biz in my selected market?
  • do i need it for my portfolio?
  • do i need it for experience?
  • will it further establish me as a photographer?
  • is publication a possibility?
  • is it a really good cause?  (thanks kerry for pointing out that i didn't add this in clearly)
  • will curtis frown on the idea?  he's my ultimate idea editor.

if i can say yes to any one or more of those questions then i'm willing to do the shoot for free.  and there you have it.

here's some photos from our recent bali trip 


  1. While I mostly agree with your filters I will still do work for causes when I feel I am truly giving for the sake of giving. I have recently done portrait shoots for a veterans benefit, health and human services benefit, and other similar causes. No work comes from it, nor do I expect it, but sometimes just giving to people who need is the reward unto itself.

  2. This is a great post. I too have struggled with the friends and family dilemma. For weddings I charge family 1/2 off of whatever package they want. I have a (group B) friend that just asked for portraits and I was having trouble with what to charge her. Now thanks to this post I know what to charge. I'll give her 30% off. Thank you! Your daughter is adorable by the way. I think all mixed babies are the cutest.

  3. Hey Michelle! I found you when I was looking for "second shooting etiquette" and I just wanted to say that I love your work, your honesty, and ethics! :) And that is one cute set of furrowed brows on bean!