Resumption of service

By , July 28, 2010 11:37 am

I apologise, dear readers. It has been far too long since I wrote anything.  My last post came just days before the birth of my third child – you will be hearing more about him – and so much has happened since then. So much to extole and praise. But I need to get on my soapbox first.

A recent post on Black Star Rising has attracted a lot of attention, and I find myself fuming because of the illogical responses of so many commentators. I feel like screaming out “get over yourselves!” For some reason photography attracts a type of person who feels they have a God given right to be a professional photographer, and they regard the fact that they don’t earn a living as everyone’s fault except theirs. The reality is that not everyone who wants to be a photographer can be one. That might seem harsh, but it is no different to saying that not everyone can be a Premiership footballer or Oscar winning actor. The problem is that it is almost impossible to “pose” as the footballer or actor, but so easy to pick up a camera and say “I am a photographer”. All you need to do is show evidence of your work and you’re all set, right? Well it might be, if you charged. And there is nothing worse than hearing “photographers” complaining that there is no money to be made – there is, you just have to ask for it, like any other business.

The last exchange of comments between “Jonathan” and me, were, I thought, worthy of publishing on Blue Filter. Interesting to see what others make of it all:

Jonathan said:
July 26th, 2010 at 5:23 pm

This sounds like someone who is quite bitter. It’s not the 80’s anymore folks! Budgets are smaller! It’s sad – but right now, NOBODY knows what the photo budgets of the future will look like. Who knows if they will exist at all… All the bitching in the world is not going to stop the YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0. In terms of gear/money, all you need is a consumer level camera and cheap computer…

Michael said:
July 27th, 2010 at 9:36 am

@ Jonathan. Your comment is astonishingly ill-conceived.

Yes budgets are smaller than they were. True, no one knows what the budgets of tomorrow will look like. BUT, there is always going to remain a demand for professional photography in whatever form that it exists. As long as there is media of any type, there will be a demand for professionally crafted images. The key word in that statement is “professionally”. If a person or organisation approaches a photographer to ask them to produce images (be they social, editorial or commercial in nature), then they exhibit a demand. It is, always has been, and always will be the case that anyone expressing a demand for a commercial transaction should be prepared to pay for the service. Absolutely every other person involved in the provision of a website, brochure, magazine, advert, TV programme, print etc will have been paid for their input. For some reason it is ONLY photographers that seem to labour under the misapprehension that it is OK to work for nothing. Why? Primarily because they go to college to be taught how to take pretty pictures of trees and leaves and rusting car wrecks, but no one thinks it is necessary to teach them anything about running a business. As a result, when they enter the big bad world of commerce they feel as though they shouldn’t really be there, and are embarrassed to talk about money.

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard “photographers” start a negotiation by saying “my rate is $xxx, but I am prepared to negotiate”. For goodness sake, don’t undermine yourself by offering to negotiate before the client has had a chance to respond to your “rate”.

Jonathan, you state: “All the bitching in the world is not going to stop the YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0.” My response to that is that if they are not being paid, they are not working. Remember, there is a qualitative difference between working for nothing and working for free. It is normal for photographers to approach others and offer to work for free for someone because it gives them access to something tangible and significant that helps their careers. But if someone approaches you there have to be very very compelling reasons for agreeing to work without pay.

It’s all very well saying that all you need is a consumer level camera and a cheap computer. I disagree with that statement, but even if I agree with it, these things still have to paid for. How exactly are the “YOUNG, TALENTED, and PASSIONATE photographers of tomorrow working for $0” going to pay for these things (and that is without mentioning PI, PL, EL, and equipment insurance, or all the other costs of business, and don’t even think about paying rent, feeding yourself, having a life etc etc.)

The real reason that this problem exists in the industry is there is a perception of glamour. There are so many people who want to call themselves “photographers” and they just can’t get a break by charging, so they prostitute themselves instead and do it for nothing. But that act undermines the industry they want to see themselves as a part of. It is more of an issue since the digital revolution because they can strafe the subject and hope they get a few acceptable hits. When I started out you actually had to understand exposure and composition and film characteristics because you could not afford to waste materials. I used to have an annual lab bill of $40,000. You can only afford that if you are charging to do the work. Just because there is no film cost does not mean that there are no costs. My pro spec cameras get worn out in about two years. In practice, every time I press the shutter release it costs about 3 cents. If you buy a consumer level camera it will actually cost more, not less. Then start looking at storage costs, backing up, software and computer upgrade costs. How are you going to pay for that if you work for nothing?

In the UK for the last few years there have been 10,000 people annually gaining some form of photographic qualification, chasing at best 500 jobs (and that is being generous). The competition is already really huge. Neither I, nor any other good photographer I know, has any problem with competition. But the reality is that whether you charge or not, if you are setting out, the likelihood is that you will NOT succeed. It is not enough to be a great photographer, you have to be a good business person too. In fact, the vast majority of successful professional photographers are not and never will be considered to be “great”, but they are good business people. That, whether you or anyone else reading this post likes it or not, is an absolute irrefutable fact. Where there are exceptions, those people employ agents or managers to look after their business affairs – and you show me an agent that sells their photographer to a client for free. In fact, it is well known that the reason for using an agent is that they will get a MUCH higher fee for their photographers than the photographers would get themselves. So much higher, that even with a 50% commission the photographer is usually better off.

So, where to do we stand with this whole working for free thing? I’ll tell you where I stand: a customer approaches me and asks what I charge. I tell them. If they say that they cannot stretch their budget that far, I will discuss with them what they can pay and what, realistically I can offer them. If we cannot reach a compromise, I walk away. I know that they will go to someone who works for less, and I have no problem with that. What I hope is that they do not go to someone who works for free, but if they do, in the long run it is ALL photographers that suffer.

There will be some people who read this that will disagree in a very visceral way. If you are one of those, ask yourself why you feel like that. Then ask yourself if you would do a different job for free. The fact that you like being a “photographer” is not a justification for doing it for nothing. The only justification for doing it for free is as a pastime, in which case the client is you, not some third party.

For myself I am busy and well paid, and I KNOW that that is because I conduct myself professionally and produce good work. I employ professional services to assist me (lawyers for contracts etc), and as a result clients know that I am serious and in business.

Yes I negotiate, but in a business like manner.

For example, I have just taken on a commercial job that the client thought was three days, I made the case strongly that it was simply not possible in so short a space of time, and told them it was at least six days, more likely eight days. After negotiation they agreed to eight days, and I made some concessions on the rate, but they are paying more than three times what they originally thought it was going to cost. Why, because they see that the value I can add to their project will pay them back at least a thousand fold what I am charging them (and trust me I am earning well from it) – in short it makes commercial sense.

And that, in a nutshell, is what every photographer should be asking themselves before they commit to a job: does what I am about to engage in make “commercial sense”? If the answer is always yes, then with luck you will still be a photographer 20 years from now. If not please post back in a few years time and tell us all what you are doing instead… and whether you do it for free.

Jonathan said:
July 27th, 2010 at 1:43 pm

If you don’t like the term “working” than consider the term “volunteering”. Whatever you wanna call it, I speak truthfully when I say that I know of many many cases where a photographer has produced images for a commercial body or magazine for nothing other than a photo credit and bragging rights.

Here’s a pink elephant, my vision of the future (I’m sure this will be very unpopular): Out of all of the folks who call themselves “professional photographers” about 0.1% will be actually paying for all of their costs of business, their mortgage, their assistants, (everything) and turning a profit to boot. They will be shooting for big business clients, ones who want the very “best of the best”. Then there will be about 5% of the “professional photographers” out there who work another job to make ends meet (such as IT) and shoot jobs about once a month. They will be paid, but poorly. Why? Their competition will be so fierce from about the other 94.9% of “professional photographers” who shoot for free or next to free. Oh wait, I’m not talking about the future anymore but rather the present… Hmm..

M, maybe we are coming from different worlds. I shoot fashion. I assisted some quite well known fashion photographers in the early 2000’s. After looking at your site, I see you shoot different things than I do. I like your pictures and I can see your talent would be an asset to a commercial client. However, the fashion budgets are horrific right now. I am assuming that the rest of the markets are not doing so well either, judging from the comments above.

All you really do need is a consumer level camera and a cheap computer. These kidos generally already have a computer. The camera can be gotten. The part time job maybe could finance it? Bank of mom and dad? Or Visa? What about the cost of doing business? Well, you said it yourself; these people are not actually working. So, they’re not actually doing business. Equipment insurance? Why insure a $1000 camera? Paying rent? Feeding yourself? Uh, thin is in… Bottom line is though, these kids are talented and produce images at no cost to clients. So yeah, “clients” are happy and (most importantly) not using the other “professional photographers” (who cost more).

Hey, it sucks. This is what’s going on in my world though and all the photographers out there who read this take warning, it’s coming your way. Try and be in that 0.1 percentile and you’ll be OK. OK?

“It is more of an issue since the digital revolution becasue they can strafe the subject and hope they get a few acceptable hits. When I started out you actually had to understand exposure and compostition and film characteristics because you could not afford to waste materials. I used to have an annual lab bill of $40,000. You can only afford that if you are charging to do the work. Just because there is no film cost does not mean that there are no costs.” You sound just like the guys I assisted and I totally agree with you. However, it also sounds like you’re upset. Again, I don’t blame you. But please, don’t contest what I’m saying. I’m living it. You don’t have to understand film exposure anymore and composition is subjective. Even though pixels do cost money, a lot of people don’t know they do (like a lot of clients) and let’s be honest – they are cheaper, less than a $40,000 lab bill. Storage costs? Computer upgrades? Uh, my MacBook Pro (the 2004/5 model) along with my pirated copy of Photoshop can handle a file from a P45 no problem let alone my digital Rebel. Yeah, it’s a little slower than your MacPro but who cares?! I can’t afford a new computer and it works fine!

“You show me an agent that sells their photographer to a client for free” – I could, but we’re in public. OK, I couldn’t tell you how much the client paid the agent, but I could tell you that the photographer shot the job for free/bragging rights.

“What I hope is that they do not go to someone who works for free, but if they do, in the long run it is ALL photographers that suffer.” Already happening, see pretty much all the comments above as proof.

“The only justification for doing it for free is as a passtime, in which case the client is you, not some third party.” True. We’re going in circles. The clients, in the end, gets nice HighRes photos for free. Neat.

I think you have a good business sense (probably better than mine!) but you are a little in denial about what is happening and where we are going. I know I sound very defeatist. I just hate surprises. I mean, there’s a reason this blog post got written in the first place.

Michael said:
July 27th, 2010 at 6:37 pm
Jonathan, you suggest that I may be upset and in denial. I am far from upset, my business is lean and efficient and turns a decent profit. I own my own house and have a wife and three children, all paid for by photography. My business is growing, and every year I improve my margins by finding more efficient methods of practice. My software is legit, my equipment is top end. In the next three months I expect to upgrade my studio lights, my computer system, my data archives, and my cameras and some lenses. All of this is paid for through a profitable and reasonably well run business. There are still things I could do more efficiently and I address each issue that bothers me in turn. In short, I am far from upset. The digital revolution has been difficult, but I have come through it well placed. Next up is the stills/HD video revolution. Where will that take us I wonder?
As for denial, I have no illusions about what is going on in the industry, and like I said, there are occasions when shooting for free (not for nothing) can make commercial sense. For example, you say you are in the fashion world. Well, I know a photographer (very well known in the fashion world) who shot an entire campaign for a top drawer designer for free. Actually, the shoot cost him about $20,000. It involved A list models, sets, makeup artists, retouchers etc. Why did he do it? Because the designer was so high profile that he was GUARANTEED a ten page spread in every edition of Vogue in the world. It was a loss leader that generated an enormous amount of business for him. Naturally it was a contractual obligation that the designer did NOT tell anyone that he had shot for free. The thing is, he was already shooting for some of the biggest names in entertainment and fashion anyway, and that is how he got the chance to pitch for such a big account.
So what then is my problem? What is it that is making people write blogs like this one? It is the simple fact that I feel like I have come across a group of people who are complaining that their house is burning down, and yet their solution is to pour gasoline (petrol) on the flames!
I am fed up with hearing people moan that there is no money in photography anymore, and then blaming the market, the editors, the art buyers, the PR people… everyone they can think of except themselves. The simple fact is that the people who are screwing the photography industry and making it impossible to earn a living are the photographers, not the buyers. The buyers are responding rationally to a situation created by the glut of people who want to call themselves photographers so much that they will pay for the privilege. Every time a photographer agrees to work for free, or starts a negotiation by saying that they can negotiate on price before the client has responded to the quoted rate, they hammer the nails into the industry’s coffin a little further. It is that that pisses me off.
It is time for photographers around the world to wake up and smell the coffee. It is not that the business has gone sour, it is that they are not treating it as a business. Instead of going to another free Photoshop seminar they should be paying to go to a negotiations workshop. I know of one company that was approached by one of the biggest companies in the world to do some work for them. The company’s response? “You can’t afford us!” Red rag to a bull. It made the approaching party more convinced than ever that they could NOT afford NOT to use them.
Stand outside the world of photography for a moment and look at it dispassionately: none of the arguments make any sense. Yes budgets are getting tighter, that is the reality of the world we are living in at the moment. But in every other industry it mean restructuring to meet the changing climate. Some companies will fail, and others will actually grow through recession. But in no other industry will you see companies working for free – it is a luxury that they cannot afford. As a result, although most sectors have seen falling demand, the industries themselves remain properly balanced. Now consider photography, lets consider fashion specifically, since that is the area you mention. Budgets are constrained, but they still exist. Designers are still trying to run a business, the fashion magazines are still selling and drawing advertising from design houses and companies with lifestyle products and services. Fashion shows are happening, models are being paid, as are set builders, chandlers, make up artists, lighting companies, events coordinators, caterers, security companies, PR agencies… I could go on. All of these people are being paid. So how come when it comes to the photographs – the very things which the fashion industry absolutely needs in order to maintain consumer interest and as a result cash flow – there is suddenly “no budget”. Of course there is budget. But if you were in their position and you KNEW that “young talented and passionate photographers” would work for nothing, what would you do? You would say you have no budget, book someone, and then laugh about their gullibility with your colleagues over a bottle of Bollinger paid for out of the money you saved by not having to pay the photographer. I repeat: it is not THEIR fault, it is OURS.
The facts are these: not everyone that wants to be a photographer can be one. Just like not everyone can be a Hollywood A-lister or drive a Bentley. If ALL photographers stopped this working for nothing (not free) bullshit at once, and started to behave professionally, the future of the industry would start to look very different very quickly. Do you seriously think that if we all charged or refused to work that we’d just have no pictures anywhere anymore? Of course not. The budget would suddenly appear because it was always there, lining the pockets of the clients that should be giving it to you.
You gave me a vision of the future. I’ll give you mine. The number of “professional photographers” will shrink, but there will be plenty of paying work for all of us that treat it as a business, not just as an art. Even the art photographers I know that are successful treat marketing and business very seriously, that is why they are publishing books every year and getting funding. That is why I have signed a commercial contract in the last three months that is worth a quarter of a million dollars over the next three years. What will it take to make my vision come true? It will take everyone that is a photographer, or wants to be a photographer, starting from the basis of believing in themselves and believing that what they do is important and adds value. Know your worth and stick to it. If you think the state of the industry sucks, then do something about it, because our future really is in our hands.

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