Friday, February 2, 2007

How to Do It Without Ruining It For Others

So, the question came in "How do I work as a semi-professional photographer without ruining the livelihoods of those who do it full time?"

Boy, that's a responsible question. (seriously).

First, you must determine what your objective is. So, let's make a few assumptions.

1 - You really enjoy photography.
2 - You'd REALLY enjoy seeing your work published
3 - You might consider trading in your cube-job for a camera and satchel if you could afford it.

If you really enjoy photography, you'll first need to determine if you just love seeing the photos you took of the local landscape, or if you feel that you want to try to change the world with your revealing images from {insert location here.} Perhaps you enjoy revealing people's outward appearances in a way they've not seen themselves before, or maybe it's the solitude of the studio and still life that gives you peace.

Then, realize that, in order to be paid, you'll need to follow someone else's direction. This has the potential of diminishing your enjoyment just a little (but not always.) You may find that you have to follow directions you don't like, and, as noted in A Remarkable Photograph even the best of us are called upon to photograph things that are less than exciting. In the end, however, I would speculate that the person dabbling in photography would find that the worst day as a photographer is better than the best day riding the pine in a cube. (Don't get your hopes up though, it may well not be!)

Ok, so, here's where many folks run into trouble. They want to see their works published (hopefully with photo credit). This is really the impetus behind the problems with $1-stock photography, people who's enjoyment is derived from just seeing their work published. People with idle time and a digital camera are so eager for (supposedly) bragging rights and a split-second in any spotlight that they will sell their images for a true loss. They'd enjoy being able to walk into the shipping super's office while on break moving pallets in the warehouse to say to their boss "some day boss, I'm gonna be a photo-grapher. See here, I got one-a my there photographs in this magazine ad..says right here in the photo credit...oh, wait, the ad doesn't have a photo credit, well, boss, I tell ya, it's mine, and some day....". Fact is, that moment of excitement pretty much ensures a mindset that they're never going to be able to leave the warehouse and earn a living as a full time photographer.

The beauty of having a job that pays the bills is that you can choose clients that are paying you appropriately, and only when they are paying you appropriately. When I started out, everyone wanted everything for free (or cheap). I can tell you, as I noted earlier about eating top ramen (Starving Artist), it ain't easy starting out. But, consider this: If you have a job that is paying you $40k a year, that equates to about $150 a day ((40k/52)/5). Add in what you would have to charge to rent your digital camera, two lenses, and a flash (about $150), and you're near about $300 as a really really bottom end, which doesn't take anything else into consideration. Then, say to yourself that if you're really lucky, just starting out, you can do two assignments a month, or 24 a year. That then equates to about $1,650 a day, plus camera rental of $150, or about $1800, again, not considering much else expense wise. This means that when someone calls you and you have to take a day off from work (didn't you feel that sniffle coming on last night?) it's worth somewhere between $300-$1800, easy. And furthermore, since you don't have to take the job, you can afford to say no when they want to pay less, or want all rights. If you're not sure how to charge or what to charge, feel free to look at my pricing pages and charge as similarily as you'd like. You can use the language in the contracts, etc (just don't forget to change the name.)

As you grow your intermittent number of photo assignments, you'll have fewer and fewer vacation and sick days to call upon. Consider this, if you have two weeks of vacation, and 6 sick days a year, plus 3 personal days, that's 23 days you can take, without any problems, to do assignments. At some point, you are getting consistent calls from your newfound clients -- who respect you and your fees -- and as you grow this type of client, rather than the cheap ones who want everything for nothing, you can then consider trading your job for the freelancer's life, but not until then. Or, you can simply remain semi-pro, filling your evenings, weekends, and occasional vacation/sick day with work that pays properly, and respects you and your copyright. Furthermore, you can be at peace in the knowledge that you are not doing harm to your colleagues. And, moreover, when you are downsized out or laid off, you will have a backup base of clients to earn money from -- at a rate of income that will sustain you! And, this applies not just to staff photographers, but also to general employees in other non-photo-related fields.

In fact, you could actually do your local colleagues a favor -- whatever you can discern they would charge for an assignment, charge 20% more, since you don't HAVE to have the assignment, you can make your colleagues look good by comparison, and when you get that job you are being paid a premium for the work you'll do, and grow a list of intermittent clients who pay for you as a premium photographer.

If you'd like to see this topic expanded, send me an e-mail indicating in which direction, and I will try to expand it that direction on occasion.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Mike S. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike S. said...

[Sorry to delete then repost; could see no way to edit]
I like the approach you outline, because it respects free-market principles, while offering sound advice on how to build a durable photographic career, whether full- or part-time.

Especially for amateurs who've already paid for their equipment and who are not used to attaching a value to the time they spend, it's so easy and tempting to give one's work away. I'm one of those semi-pro's, and I struggle with pricing issues every day. (Mine is mostly fine-art work, so pricing is a bit more nebulous for me.)

One could say, "In a free market, shouldn't I be free to undercut anyone and compete on price?" Certainly, but in a free market, enlightened self interest makes the whole concert play, and you are really undercutting yourself in doing so. Why is this reality so hard for some to understand?

Well done John.

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