Sunday, July 20, 2008

Surviving the Downsizing in Photography

With thanks to PDN (here) and MediaPost (here) for bringing this to my attention. I wrote about this in my book - essentially, if you're a staff photographer you must be prepared to become freelance unexpectedly. 3500 people (and counting) are being forced into the freelance world (from all areas of the media newsroom) without notice. Back in April, I wrote Staff Photographers - An Endangered Species, which is worth a re-read.

What does this mean, exactly? And more importantly, what should current members of the freelance community do as those that are the talented photographers that are a part of these layoffs enter the freelance world?

(Continued after the Jump)

For staffers, your first thing to do will be to have a website. I know of several current staffers who have their own websites. that means having your own business cards to hand out where appropriate. This means knowing how to send a contract and figure out rates and rights.

Oh, and if you're one of those staffers who used to look at a $200 freelance job as gravy to complement your meat-and-potatoes staff job revenue, and now you're out of a job - those clients you have expecting you at $200 you can no longer afford to work for. This alone should be an argument for why you - as a staffer - shouldn't be doing these jobs at side-job rates, not to mention how doing this affects your freelance brethren's ability to charge a living rate in your community.

What must be done by the freelance community these photographers are joining? I know it sounds counter-intuitive, but you need to get them work. Really. The question is - how?

If your normal rate for a wedding is $3,500, or a press conference coverage is $750, or your family/pet/child portrait sitting rate is $350 and an enlargement is $950, then rather than trying to convince your newfound friend to charge those rates - book the job on their behalf - at those rates. By doing so, your friend will soon realize that that is what they're worth, and will apply that same rate structure to people calling them directly. Everyone, from time to time, gets a call for a period that they are double-booked. Don't forward on the job, and hope your friend does things right - do it right for them by taking the job and then you hiring your colleague to do the assignment, and you passing through the assignment fee to them. What chance to do it right do they have if they've never negotiated an assignment rate, or a rights package, before?

By embracing, and helping these talented people out, not only are you doing a nice thing, but you're also ensuring that your community will remain robust and survivable amidst the constant downward pressure on rates.

Here's a partial list of where they might need some assistance:

Contracts - If a photographer has been a staffer for awhile, it's likely their last agreement to provide photography was done on a handshake. If a photographer has only been on staff for year or so and came straight from school, they too don't understand the importance of a contract - signed by them and the client. Offer to give them a copy (prefably in a Word document so they can edit it) of yours to get themselves started.

Equipment - They likely need help getting their equipment setup. They may have been given their old equipment from their place of work, but in most cases the gear is on it's last legs. Redundant camera bodies, and lenses ranging from ultra-wide - 14-24mm Nikon, or 16-35mm Canon, all the way to 200mm lenses for each, plus two strobes, and a Jackrabbit/Quantum battery pack will be sufficient. In the rare case that they are going to do sports, or major news events, a 300mm with a 1.4x or 2x teleconverter is useful, but freelancers headed that direction with a need to sustain themselves are not going to find a lot of success chasing sports.

Software - They may have their own laptop, but are unclear about the importance of backing up their images, and acquiring legal copies of the software they'll need. Don't start them off on the wrong foot by giving them copies of your software. We recommend they get full versions that are registered in their own name of Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, FotoQuote, Microsoft Office 2008, QuickBooks Pro. They should also read: © Infringements - Don't be a Hypocrite.

Dealing With Clients - Send them this link - Lies, Lies, and More Lies , Traitors Among Us?, and this link - Top Ten Lies Told to Naive Photographers, and encourage them to read the posts - the first two are mine. Then, be sure to tell them that when the client says "oh, you're the first photographer I've talked with that has a problem with __________....", where the blank is either "work-for-hire", "wanting to be paid", "charges for post production", or "wanting a contract signed"; they they're being dishonest at best, and more than likely, lying.

Marketing - This one's tricky, because if you're not careful, you'll teach your newfound freelancer to compete for your own work - and will be doing so without the understanding of the true costs of being in their new shoes as a self-employed person, and so may well undervalue themselves (they did just get laid off, remember? Their self-worth wounds likely need a bit of time to heal before they remember that they're worth a lot.) About two weeks ago, I wrote a piece titled Getting Clients - A Few Options, that could be helpful. Most important is to get a website that you can get online fast, and is easy for you to make changes to - Effective SEO - Please Welcome liveBooks, talks about the solution we recommend highly (and yes, they're an advertiser here too). Once they get a website, they can begin their marketing campaign. The notion of having a printed portfolio these days applies maybe to 10% or less of the assignment work out there (much of which is in the advertising field) so the online version of that is the best route to go.

Pricing and Rates - The FIRST thing you should do is send them to the NPPA's pricing calculator. This calculator works for the vast majority of photographic fields, and gets your colleagues thinking about the true costs of being in business - which in turn, will assist them in calculating what they should charge. Reading Good, Fast, and Cheap - Pick Two, that I wrote in May is probably a good place to send them, also Selling Something You Don't Own is a cautionary tale. Cautionary to the person doing the helping is that neither of you say "we'll agree to charge $X for this..." because that could get you in a bit of hot water with the anti-trust folks. Discussing what an assignment could cost is one thing, agreeing what you both would charge is another. The biggest problem with photographers rates is not that they've been artificially inflated to a price that's too high, it's that photographers fail to contemplate the total costs of being in business, and thus price jobs too low.

Longevity - I sat at dinner three nights ago with a colleague who had thought he'd gotten his golden ticket - a staff job at a community newspaper. Just under three months later, he was laid off. Guess what? He wasn't eligible under the rules that applied to him, to even collect unemployment. Everyone is replaceable. No one is safe.

Then there's Where Does All Your Time Go?, that's all about time management and why $100/hr does not multiply by 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, and 52 weeks in a year to become a photographer that's paid $208,000 a year, and how $100 an hour isn't enough.

Lastly, I'd suggest they read: The Conundrum of Doing Nothing, that I wrote about how to get things going, and getting a few of the books that are at the right of this page - they are the tools that I used as I was growing my business.

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.


Anonymous said...

Just what this business needs now.......hungry photojournalists with nothing to lose on the streets watering down prices even more. But now they'll be having to use their own stuff so maybe the pricing structure will change for the better.

Stupid Photographer said...

Let's see here. My freelance home has suddenly been invaded by a crap load of fat, spoiled "staffed," termites. Should I feed them or not? Such a tough call.

Anonymous said...

Creative websites inclusive of portfolios are a great way to showcase your work and get business.
It is also important that you have a page that outlines your policies such as (required deposits, contracts etc..). This can avoid many of those argumentative client conversations if you are forthright with your policy.

I like the idea of having a page you can send them to with links to blogs with posts revealing lies told by photographers masking themselves as professionals.

Anonymous said...

I have lost a major client, hospital group involving direct marketing kind of stuff, mini publications and web use, to 3 separate photographers. NONE of them have a website and one of them is a local staffer for the city's paper. Nice of you to make all of those solid principled suggestions John, but why bother when apparently a business card, a digital SLR and lowball prices do the trick. I know for a fact it was based on price because I checked in with my client to see why I wasn't being asked to contribute anymore, My client said it was strictly budget. I suggest that all the freelancers go shoot for their local papers one day a month for free. Keeps ya busy and sharp doesn't it? Isn't that what it's all about staying busy and being able to say so. Your new client doesn't care if photographers screw each other out of existence just for that break through job. All that matters is getting the job right? Gotta pay for that education some how right? Here is the dilemma, can't match the talent lower the price. Go back and work on your talent folks.

Anonymous said...

I'm not worried about this. Most staff photographers suck anyways. The industry is constantly changing like any other industry. We got to move with it or we're gonna be left behind freelance or not.

Anonymous said...


I've lost two jobs this year due to lowballers too. But the two jobs were simple camera and a heartbeat kinda clients and when we get those inquires its best to ask the hard questions such as what is the budget and what is most important to them quality or price.

You might not like what you hear but when budgets are tight quality often is second hat.

What has helped me is to specialize. If a prospect asks me to shoot something that is not my specialty I know they just need a camera and a heart beat.

Anonymous said...

giulio - you're talking out of your ass -- you're not all that dude and most staff shooters can run rings around your portrait work.

Anonymous said...

I think that many staff photographers at newspapers are some of the best shooters that I have seen - they're sent out every day to shoot boring mundane crap and they have to make it look interesting. These guys really have to think on their feet, every day. Many of them are clods, but just look at how bright David Hobby is, and he's not alone. It's a great training ground in creative thinking for those who are capable of it.

That being said, I'm not going to help them out either. Too many people trying to undercut me already and clients don't care about quality or professionalism, price is king.

They'll just have to survive like the rest of us who haven't had the luxury of a steady pay check.

Anonymous said...

Now let's see how these photoj folks can hang without the steady paycheck. I truly respect the profession but not the undercutting that has come from these kind folks that have lowballed me for years.

Doing work for .25 to .50 cents on the dollar I think will now come to a real halt in my area. The best part is that for all these years they've been getting by using "their" equipment and the company paycheck; now they will really be using their equipment, without the boost of the company paycheck. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that now these former staffers who would gobble up jobs that I needed for survival and do them for peanuts; are now going to be forced to charge much more.

With many of these having to invest in brand spanking new equipment I may actually be able to low ball them.


Enjoy the business model that you helped create friends.

John Harrington said...

Folks --

This post is supposed to encourage you to help because it's in your own best interests to do so - and it's the right thing to do karmicly speaking.

If you think that price is king, you need to graduate from that clientèle to those who actually value the work you do. Getty and iStockphoto and Jamd are perfect examples of how those that compete on price will eventually have to give it away to do so. What's next? Paying for the privilege of doing the work?

Let's not all get down on the newfound freelancer - this blog, the book, and the calls I take and give advice on, are all centered around helping people find their way in areas they might not be familiar with.

Whatever knowledge you've gotten from this blog, I ask that you pay it forward to those who don't know what you've learned here, and yes, that includes the newfound freelancer too.

-- John

Will Seberger said...

With so many 'new' freelancers, professional amateurs and true hobbyists invading, we'll undoubtedly see more market stratification.

There will always be the parasitic clients who want the world for nothing and will wind up buying garbage at low prices.

The high-end will probably continue to pay top dollar.

It's how we handle (and preserve/grow) the fat middle that will dictate all of our futures.

On the one hand, we need to adhere to our traditional principles, but on the other hand, we can't cling too tightly to old models.

I have yet to find a single industry, even one that has strong legislative power in its corner, who has been able to operate on an outdated model for very long.

See: record companies, auto manufacturers and software companies.

We need to not only encourage newcomers to operate according to best-practice for today, but to work towards the model of tomorrow (a day that has likely already arrived).

I think one area of opportunity is to find a way to operate profitably on more frequent, but lower dollar transactions.

We're also about to see a bunch of new agencies with "think different" approaches to the business.

Anonymous said...

Graduate? Don't you mean be a little bit more patient while the client realises the level of service that they are getting for that cheaper price might actually matter to them. For what they pay me for one shoot they can get someone to do 3-4. I've been told they love my work but they just can't afford me and if it was up to my contact she'd hire me all of the time but the budgets are poorly planned to say the least and don't happen again for another fiscal year. So it takes years to have that opportunity again. Meanwhile the people who do it for peanuts think that their pricing strategy is working.

Dennis Reggie starting shooting weddings for 20k each, which do you think was emulated more his price or his photo journalistic style? If it's all "apples to apples" may the best man win, but lowball pricing keeps one busy and we all know how that component carries way too much clout with photographers. Graduate from what, denial? You can't argue with an aspirational workaholic with sub-par pricing structures.

Erik Markov said...


I agree with the karma thing. You did it for me a couple years ago. I had shot an assignment on a major zoo as part of my staff position. They wanted me to do some freelance for them but had virtually no money. I hadn't done a lot of freelance and I emailed you. You told me to call you. You didn't know who I was but you were glad to help me out over the phone. I ended up turning them down. I was more than capable of doing what they wanted, but the amount they were willing to pay was a mere drop in the bucket compared to what it was worth.

Since then, I've turned down more jobs than I've accepted. Not thrilled about that but even I realize my ability and time is worth more than that being offered me. Maybe some freelancers look down on staff photographers, but they should watch out. There might be one or two former staffers who end up taking much of their work, not because they're cheaper, but because the freelancers have gotten complacent about their clients.

John thanks for the time you spent with me. It was a short time but I've managed to take that bit and apply it to protect myself on other work. I haven't gotten a chance to pay it forward yet to another photographer, but I will if I get the chance.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for trying to keep this about the "brotherhood" of the business; and being civil to another shooter who's a little down on their luck.

But I've been screwed so many time by the staffers that I'm not ready to be nice yet.

Taste some of our pain for a bit and see how it feels. Let's see how you're feeling at the end of the week or month when jobs that you were depending on and hoping to close disappear to someone qualified to shoot it but doing if for cheap because of the corporate check.

No sympathy from me got a long way to crawl before I feel for ya.

John Harrington said...

The problem with the "taste some of our pain" approach, is that while they are experiencing that pain, they're continuing to contribute to the demise of your local business climate, which will have an adverse impact.

The test of one's charity towards their fellow man that is down on their luck is not when it's easy to be charitable, but when it's hard.

-- John

Anonymous said...

I'm one of those staffers who is preparing for the inevitable. I haven't been laid off yet, but I'm afraid the end is near.

I've never taken freelance as a staffer because I've been too busy with a 40-hour a week job. Of course guys do take them on but knowing the way some of my brethren work, I would say most clients will avoid the headache and pay for the quality. I think the rest will eventually come around to those professionals who have shown they can be counted on.

If freelance is my only other option to continue pursuing my passion of photography then I want to do it right. I'm going to use all the tips that John wrote about and hope that others do the same. I'm already getting started with a Livebooks website, and a copy of his book.

Anonymous said...

John are you INSANE? You want me to book a contract ON MY BUSINESS and sub it out to a "new found friend"?

WTF DUDE? When my 'friend' blows the job who's going to look like the ass?

I don't get you on this one. You want an established shooter to write the gig and put his face and charge the going rate of a seasoned professional and then send in 'a new found friend'? John that isn't counter intuitive it's Russian roulette with ones career.

BTW From the posts here I'd say Karma is doing just fine. Although it's not do gooder's that are being rewarded it's payback to those that used the ink-by-the-barrel bullying to screw others over the years. Seems that they will get a chance to see what it's like for real.

As far as them contributing to OUR demise BS. They can only hang out here so long before they have to face the realities of the REAL business world. Most are falling out of the loop in 6-8 months. Once their savings are tapped out or the wives are tired of mac 'n cheese 3 nights a week, they're done. I like the idea of everyone doing one day at the paper gratis.

Karma works BOTH sides of the fence, just looks to me that she's focused on the evil doers instead of the nice people for a change.

I can live with that.

Rosh Sillars said...

Karma is important.

If you want to win in this game you must bring something new to the table.

I've considered the basic point and shot work mostly lost, but I have opened new markets by bring ideas to the table that point and shot will not solve.

The need for new images is actually growing and profitable. It's just not where it was ten years ago.

Yes, you do have to learn how to market the message and sell the value.


bushmasterhp said...

My first time to this site. I’ve read several of the postings and find them well done. I have especially enjoyed this post and the comments. I smell fear in the air and I love it.

I am a staff photographer of nearly two decades. I don’t know about all staff photographers but as for me and all but a few, we are too busy with our job’s and family to go out and steel your jobs.

As for those of you who think we have no talent, I wonder how you think we got hired to these jobs? As for me, I was an enthusiastic amateur for years. From my later years of high school threw my time in the Marine Corps I just did it for fun. Never even tried to sell anything. When I was discharged I needed a job but did not like what I was finding. I decided to start freelancing and after a two and a half years of that I got noticed. Ford Motor Co hired me and I worked for them for about five years. Then Chrysler offered considerably more to come and work for them. Ford could not or would not match the offer and I have been at Chrysler for a little over 12 years.

None of us that I know of were hired right out of school. Many like me never even went to school. Most of us have freelanced in the past and most landed jobs by demonstrating consistent talent and an ability to meet deadlines.

I can’t speak for those from the newspapers and such but if you think your going to out last guys like me based on talent, you are probably in for a rather rude surprise. Furthermore I don’t need help from those of you who are bitter about your own tough luck, and probably lack of talent. If I loose my job, I have figured out the freelance biz before and though I know things have changed over the years, I’ll do it again. You just better hope I’m not coming to your neighborhood.

As has been said about us Marines, You will find no better a friend nor no worse an enemy.

Good luck to the civil among us. Death to the rest.

bushmasterhp said...

By the way, the reason I am looking at sites like this is because I am preparing for what might come. If it does I will be ready. I have been updating my personal equipment and keeping it up to date so I can hit the ground running if I need too. I’m solid on marketing and I’m working on getting up to date with current tax laws and small biz requirements in my state. Pricing is a missing component for me so far. That is only because I haven’t researched it.....yet.

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