Surviving in the New Economy

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It’s true. Both Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss worked for free.

In the book series Masters of Photography, Photographing Sports, Walter Iooss is quoted as saying, “Those were rough years. We’d be shooting (referring to himself and Neil Leifer) through the screen behind home plate and the press photographers up in the gallery with those Big Berthas would spot us. They kept screaming for us to get our asses out of there with those little cameras. They would send the ushers down to chase us out.” In the same book, Leifer talks about buying a ticket behind the great John Zimmerman to observe how he worked and to learn from a master photographer. He also talks about how he convinced someone to give him a credential to shoot the 1960 World Series—for free. While there, he made a picture that no one else had, and then sold it to Sports Illustrated—his first sale to the magazine and the start of a brilliant career.

What both Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss did not do is continue to work for free or for less than they were worth. Most importantly, they both produced work that no one else was producing. They outworked the competition and they each diversified themselves. Leifer later became a contract photographer for the newsweekly Time Magazine and shot everything from celebrity portraits to the first space shuttle launch to production stills of movies like The Hunt for Red October. Iooss went on to photograph advertising campaigns, innovative portraits, and several years of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Neither was ever a commodity photographer and they both knew their worth to the people who used their pictures.

Do you know your worth?

Today, there is no denying that earning a sustainable living as a photographer has never been more challenging for people just entering the field. I’ve been following with great interest the multiple message board threads on the Sportsshooter.com website and the analysis of the US Presswire contract by John Harrington, and the discussion raises a number of critical issues for those photographers who would like to have a career in photography that will last—last in the way both Neil Leifer’s and Walter Iooss’s have. Camera_01 Each of them has enjoyed a photography career that has spanned more than fifty years and they each continue to enjoy royalties from the pictures they made long ago.

What follows are some opinions and observations that I’ve written with the hope that maybe just one photographer benefits from them somehow. If you read them and disagree with any, or all of the observations, that’s absolutely fine. If something I’ve written makes you rethink your career strategy going forward, then I’ve succeeded. I have no agenda beyond that. I’ve learned a number of lessons from people I greatly admire as well as some tough lessons from my own mistakes. What follows is what I’ve discovered from a career in photography. The opinions are mine alone.

History and Perspective

In the mid 1980′s, two phrases entered the photography lexicon: Royalty-free and work-for-hire contracts.

Royalty-free was the practice of being able to use imagery without having to pay a royalty on the usage. Seemingly overnight there was a proliferation of CD’s that could be purchased for a one-time fee and the images contained on them could be used in any way without further compensation to the photographer. The photographers supplied the images for inclusion on the disks and received payments based on the number of disks sold. In the end, most would only receive pennies for each of the images they had supplied to the royalty-free companies.

Work-for-hire contracts essentially were employment agreements without any of the benefits of being an employee. Simply stated, the company that hired you became the “author of the work,” and the copyright and all of the other rights to the images belonged to the company, not the photographer.

Almost immediately, the ASMP began a campaign against royalty-free stock and work-for-hire contracts, but their efforts ultimately did very little to stem the tide of photographers signing those contracts. The royalty-free distribution of images ultimately decimated what once was a thriving stock industry. Camera_02 Back then, agencies like Comstock, WestLight, Tony Stone and The Image Bank were all huge distributors of stock images of sports, sunsets, animals, iconic places, flowers, lifestyle imagery and thousands of other subjects. Many photographers were making an excellent living from those royalty checks. But, as photography became more mainstream and less technical—through autofocus, autoexposure and TTL—more and more photographers were making pictures of these common subjects. As the supply went up, the price went down. Economics 101. And now you regularly see ads on the web like this: “16 Million Royalty Free Photos. Download Any Photo, Use Forever. www.Shutterstock.com.”

On the other hand, specialty stock agencies began to see this trend, they adapted, and some have remained viable in a market that they essentially have all to themselves. A great example of this is Check 6, an agency that was founded by the late George Hall. Check 6 specializes in images of military and civilian aircraft from the air and they are one of the only suppliers in the world of the kinds of pictures in their archives. Have a look at the gallery of images on their site and see if you have any pictures as unique and hard to come by as theirs. It’s likely that you won’t—which is why they can command premium fees for the images. Their pictures are the antithesis of a commodity. They are supremely rare.

In the mid 80′s, the going rate for freelance newspaper photography was in the range of $100. Today, adjusted for inflation, that would be $216—very near or below the rate that several top-tier newspapers and wire services pay today for freelance work. But what has driven the value of photography down is not the ignorance of the people coming in, it’s the sheer number of them. There is almost no barrier to entry anymore. I’ve read countless opinions from people I deeply respect furious with those who choose to sign work-for-hire agreements, spec contracts and a willingness to trade access for pictures. This is absolutely not new. What is new is the sheer number of new photographers willing to do it and the editors willing to accept work from someone with little or no experience.

This devaluing of photography existed long before US Presswire came along.

To me, the survival strategy is not to look outward and try to convince every last emerging photographer how to run their business (if you can call working for free a business), but instead to look inward to figure out how to let those photographers have the $100 assignment while finding the $500-$5,000 assignments for yourself.

My contention is that it’s become a race to the bottom in certain specialties and there is absolutely nothing that anyone can do to stop it. It’s very much like bemoaning the demise of the printed book as the eBook gains more and more traction every day. The market will decide what it wants, and right now, the market wants eBooks. Telling all the people buying the e-readers that they’re ruining the book business won’t change the momentum and growth of electronic books any more than telling photographers not to accept $100 per assignment will stop the momentum of agencies like US Presswire.

I believe the more powerful solution is to focus on how not to be a commodity. If you can differentiate yourself from everyone else, people will pay for that. On the other hand, if what you have to offer is what everyone else has to offer, you will join them in the race to the bottom.

Economics

In my opinion, we are all in the content business.

If the content you’re supplying becomes a commodity, it will ultimately turn into a competition solely on the basis of price. That’s just basic economics. While it’s true that you can attempt to hold prices at a certain level, ultimately if what you’re supplying is a commodity, price is all you have to compete on.

Consider the battle between Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Borders over books—a commodity. Borders is now gone because they couldn’t compete on price. Now, Barnes and Noble is in the same battle and they will likely succumb too in the years ahead. Just as digital music swallowed up nearly every music store on the planet, digital books will probably follow the same path.

How does that relate to photographs? The frictionless nature of digital image distribution has made it incredibly easy to find practically any image an editor might want. For example, if you’re shooting the 100 meter dash at the Olympics, you will be shoulder to shoulder with more than fifty other photographers trying to get essentially the same shots. Everyone will have high-frame motors and super-telephoto lenses and top-quality DSLR cameras. Within minutes of the end of the race, each photographer will have the ability to get their images into the hands of potential users around the world. At that point, it’s up to the buyer to decide what they will use in their publication and every photographer will be subject to the same market conditions. In all likelihood, an image a buyer uses will be chosen on content, then exclusivity, then price.

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Content is the criteria that most picture users consider first. But, if the images from several competing photographers or agencies look similar, the buyer will probably then say, “They’re all the same, so which one is cheapest?” The buyer will likely feel there is no reason to pay a premium for a picture when every one of his competitors also has access to something similar.

But, if the picture is unique, or the if the photographer was the only one who got the game-winning play—or the only one who had access to something or someone that no other photographer had access to—then the buyer will likely say, “Wow! This is different than all the others.” That then leads to, “I’ll pay more to put this in my publication,” or, “I’ll pay more to hire that photographer next time.” This all assumes that there is a budget to do so. But, it’s amazing how often there is suddenly a budget when a picture is unique and exclusive.

It’s a stinging reality, but if you’re shooting what everyone else is shooting, you’re producing a commodity that will be purchased the same way that gasoline, or silver, or a Nikon camera is purchased—primarily based on price. On the other hand, if you’re producing images that no one else has—and they are pictures that people want—you can create you’re own market and use that leverage to command a nice fee. Celebrity photographers do this all the time and command thousands and thousands of dollars for pictures that only they possess.

There is a strong parallel between how US Presswire has changed the sports coverage business model and how sites like Napster and LimeWire changed the music distribution model a decade ago. During Napster’s heyday, people tried to blame the record companies for unfair pricing of CD’s as the justification for downloading music that they absolutely knew should be licensed for a fair fee. It wasn’t until the government shut down LimeWire, and Napster was forced to go legit, that artists again began to receive the royalties that they deserved. Still, the CD market is now nearly extinct and music buyers on iTunes now pay half of what a CD was selling for just a few years back. The music business had to adapt or die.

The New Reality

What’s happened to the photography industry in recent years isn’t limited to photographers who make their living capturing peak sports action. Nearly every corner of the industry has been changed forever by the advances in technology. The advent of digital cameras and the frictionless distribution network of the internet has turned everyone into a photographer or videographer.

As an example, CNN, one of the largest news-gathering organizations in the world heavily promotes the iReport section of it’s website and encourages television viewers to submit material—for free. Further, from an ethical perspective, there seems to be a very fuzzy line between CNN as a news organization, and iReport. On their website it says:

“Welcome to iReport, where people take part in the news with CNN. Your voice, together with other iReporters, helps shape how and what CNN covers every day. So you know: iReport is the way people like you report the news. The stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post. Only ones marked ‘CNN iReport’ have been vetted by CNN.”

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In other words, some stories may be properly sourced and confirmed, others might not be. Either way, they’ll still publish them. And, they will do so without any compensation whatsoever. Again, from the website:

“By submitting your material, for good and valuable consideration, the sufficiency and receipt of which you hereby acknowledge, you hereby grant to CNN and its affiliates a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, create derivative works from, syndicate, license, print, sublicense, distribute and otherwise exhibit the materials you submit, or any portion thereof in any manner and in any medium or forum, whether now known or hereafter devised, without payment to you or any third party.”

This is the reality of what the world of image usage actually is. It’s not what it should be, or could be, or once was. It’s the way it is now. And I really doubt that the new reality is going to change. This is the new normal, like it or not.

What’s happened is that the barrier to entry into photography is now non-existent and the distribution network necessary to reach users of photography and video is open to everyone. Digital photography and hi-def video have made professional quality available to the masses and the internet has made getting those pictures and videos in the hands of people who want them almost frictionless.

So, in my opinion, if the kind of photography you do is a commodity, you’re an endangered species. I truly doubt that all the editors and picture buyers out there will see the light and stop paying a few dollars per image, or that new photographers will stop accepting such a low fee for what they do. There will always be someone willing to shoot for free. And as someone I really respect says, “You can’t compete with free.”

So, what do you do?

Survive—and Thrive

I think the answer to survival is rather simple—but with a long-term strategy.

Photography has never been private or exclusive like a country club. It’s always been open to everyone. But to read what some people say, you’d think that you have to get approval to become a member. You don’t. And you never have. The solution isn’t to try to make it exclusive. The solution is to recognize that everyone is now a member of a very large club and it’s up to you to figure out how to be club champion and leave all the amateurs behind.

For every hundred photographers clicking away, there are three or four who are willing to do what it takes to be in demand for assignments and picture sales. I contend that you’ll get further worrying less about what other people are doing and focus more on making yourself absolutely indispensable. Make it difficult for an editor to ever call someone else in your area. Make it a challenge for an art buyer to ever think about working with someone else because working with you is such a joy. Make it your mission to always deliver much more than anyone ever expected out of the project. The other 95% of the photographers won’t be doing those things, so all you’ll have to worry about are the very few who might be as focused on being great as you are.

“If the deal is a bad one, I say no. If it’s a good one, I say yes”

Can you do that? Do you want to do that? Or is it easier to worry about all the “photographers who are ruining our industry.” For me, I can’t control what people are willing to do and how little they’re willing to do it for. What I can control is how much I’m willing to work for, what rights I’m willing to relinquish, and what kind of living I expect to make from photography. If the deal is a bad one, I say no. If it’s a good one, I say yes.

The key to all of this is leverage and the easiest way to get it is to produce unique and sought after work and to be the kind of person that people want to work with.

Today, it’s almost impossible to thrive by producing the kinds of images that buyers can acquire from multiple sources. All other things being equal, if what you have in your stock library, or what you can produce on an assignment is unique and uncommon, people will pay you for it. If it’s a commodity, your competition will create a race to the bottom and it will be nearly impossible to ever make a living.

This business is also one of relationships—both with the buyers of your pictures as well as other photographers. An editor or an art director puts herself on the line every time she hires you for a project and each time you’re successful, you make her look good—and the relationship gets stronger. Pretty soon, she doesn’t call anyone else but you. Or, at some event you’re covering, a photographer makes space for you to shoot, and maybe next time you have the opportunity to return the favor. Those kinds of relationships become the foundation for a strong career. That’s why writing harshly-worded posts that editors, influencers, and industry veterans are likely to read is a very unwise choice. People in photography rarely forget. They tend to remember the favors you do for them, the courtesies you show and the laughter you share. They also remember the times you selfishly blocked them at an event, the times you embarrassed the profession, and the times your journalistic ethics were nowhere to be found.

The second survival strategy is diversity in what you shoot. I have endured several recessions over the years and one in particular nearly put me out of business. Back then, I made the very foolish choice to count on one client to supply almost all of my business. While it lasted, it was terrific. I had a very steady stream of work and I became like an employee of the company. But, once a recession came along, someone in management decided that there was a cheaper way—one that didn’t include me—and almost overnight I went from an average of twenty shooting days per month to an average of one.

From that experience I learned to diversify and not to let any one segment of my business become more than 20% of my income. When the economy slows, every photographer slows—but at different rates. For example, if you’re an architectural photographer you will be hit very hard because one of the first things to go in a weak economy is construction. If nothing is being designed and built, nothing needs to be photographed. Even if something really does need to be photographed, clients will generally wait until they feel more secure about their own prospects and financial condition. If instead you shoot cars, you’ll still be shooting, but the jobs will be fewer and the budgets will be smaller on the projects that you actually land. As an example, a friend of mine is a very successful producer of still shoots and commercials of automobiles. He’s currently in Madrid on a two-week shoot, but it’s his first project in four months.

On the other hand, certain specialties will survive in almost any economic climate. Weddings and celebrity work are two that immediately come to mind. If you’re a great wedding photographer (not a commodity wedding photographer), the work should remain steady because people will continue to get married and you will be sought out. You may get squeezed a little on the budget, but you’ll still be working more than your competitors because you’re work isn’t a commodity like theirs.

Third, focus on your career and let the other photographers choose the road to ruin. If you’ve read this far, you know that it’s impossible to make a decent living shooting for $100 per day. Even if you shot five days a week, 52 weeks per year (a near impossibility), your annual income would be $26,000. In comparison, if you work at Starbucks for $13 per hour, 40 hours per week, you will make a slightly higher wage of $27,040 and you’ll receive health insurance benefits, profit sharing and you won’t have the expense of investing in photo equipment, liability or medical insurance, or computer hardware and software. From a financial perspective, being a Starbucks shift supervisor is a far better career choice than being a $100 per assignment photographer.

Unfortunately for some emerging shooters, that’s some reality that might take a double espresso to really accept.

Finally, one of the finest photographers working today, and one of the true gentlemen of photography, Brad Mangin, wrote a stunning tribute to the great John Zimmerman upon his death almost ten years ago. In my opinion, the kind words and admiration spoken about Zimmerman in Brad’s tribute stands as a model of how a photographer should aspire to be regarded in this wonderful profession—both as a person, and as a photographer.

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Background

I'm an advertising and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. Photography is a career perfectly suited to my personality and it's all I've wanted to do since I was on the yearbook staff in 8th grade. Every project I work on gives me the opportunity to meet amazing people, learn something new and create a souvenir of the experience in the process.

Workshops

I teach week-long workshops in editorial portraiture and lighting each year at the Sports Photography Workshop held at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado. I've also been a guest presenter at the Brooks Institute of Photography, the Atlanta Photojournalism Conference, and the SportsShooter Workshop.

Clients