It’s with mixed emotions that I throw my laptop bag into the back seat, grab a coffee and head down the 405 to start each workshop. On the one hand, I’m always excited as hell that photographers are interested enough to learn about the business side of freelancing that they’ll give up an entire weekend to sit in a UCLA classroom. With me of all people. Let’s be real, there are a lot of things to do in LA, especially when the campus is mere miles to pristine, world renowned beaches like Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu. The fact that photographers picked this course to abuse their brains for 15 hours in LA energizes me with hope.
On the other hand, I battle a dreadful feeling that rises like magma from the pit of my stomach in anticipation of some of the experiences the photographers will undoubtably share throughout the weekend. After five years of teaching this course around the country, I know quite well that photographers share the same concerns and experiences while working as freelancers across the country. It’s this window into their world that enables me to see clearly why the US Bureau of Labor Statistics states “the decreasing cost of digital cameras and the increasing number of amateur photographers and hobbyists will reduce the need for professional photographers.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics has it 100% correct about amateur photographers. But that’s hardly where the problem for the freelance profession begins and ends.There are several key reasons why jobs are hard to come by, fees are low and terms are often troublesome. Let’s take a look at three categories of freelance photographers who are impacting the way full-time freelancers are doing business.
Second Career Professionals
I have had engineers, finance experts, nurses, business owners and more over the years take my workshop. In fact, every course has at least a couple and they mostly share similar backgrounds, interests and hopes for the future. But they aren’t really “amateurs” as much as they are second-career professionals. This is a key point. Although their skills might reflect the fact that they didn’t study photography and they don’t devote their full-time careers to it, it doesn’t really matter (and, quite frankly, some are a lot better than you might expect). Let me repeat that. It doesn’t matter to them, or to those they shoot for, if they’re earning a living as a photographer. That has a much larger impact on the freelance profession than some people care to accept. In fact, that’s exactly what the Bureau of Labor Statistics report was referencing above when they cite why amateur photographers will reduce demand for “professionals.” Consider the example below of a second-career professional who shared insight during and after attending my workshop.
An engineer for a large technology company, this Southern California gentleman took the workshop and was even on the board of a national media photographers organization. At the time he attended, he worked full time in the tech field but loved shooting music and portraits. He owned top of the line lighting equipment and camera gear. By his own admission, he was offering his services for free to gain practice and have fun. In exchange for being given the “jobs,” he provided the photos to whoever was “hiring” him (for free, that is). Because my workshop is designed to teach people how to make an actual living as a freelancer, I advocate strongly against working for free, but years later he was providing his services gratis to a large music festival. I only found that fact out after a colleague tried to land the music festival as a paying client but discovered this second career photographer was already providing services for free. The festival obviously declined my colleagues offer to provide professional services for a fee. Everyone can criticize this man for giving away his services but that ignores the reality of the situation: This second career photographer does not need to charge a fee because he already earns a healthy income from his job in the tech industry. His images are “good enough,” the client saves the real cost of paying a photographer, and the second career photographer has fun after work and on the weekends. That’s reality and I’ve seen it many times.
Professionals Looking To “Break In”
I often hear the same concerns and stories coming from these full-time freelancers as I do from second career professionals. The only real difference is the full-time freelancers are trying to earn a living from their photography. Trust me, that’s a big distinction between the two groups. These full time freelancers, unlike their second career colleagues, don’t have an outside source of income to pay their bills and purchase top of the line gear, so they struggle with valuing themselves in a manner that will produce a semblance of steady work. Yet far too many, in my opinion, engage in practices detrimental to their own business. Let’s look at two examples below:
A young woman who had primarily worked as a freelance photographer covering events in a large city attended a recent workshop. Her interest, she told the others, was in pushing her career into humanitarian work with NGOs. She was not trained as a photojournalist and therefore lacked some of the basic understanding of how freelance photojournalists do business. In an effort to gain experience and prove her worth, she accepted an offer from an NGO to travel overseas and provide them with the images for free. Now she was looking for information on how to go from free to paid specifically with the one NGO. That’s much more difficult than had she stuck to the principle of payment for services from the beginning. It’s a long, uphill battle if you value yourself at “0.”
Another young lady who recently took the course and was just a year into her freelance career was pretty quiet the first day but came packed with frustrated questions on the second day. She had relocated from the midwest to Los Angeles and was working as a freelance photographer shooting mostly fashion and portraits for a big name record label. She said she was on a “retainer” but also free to work with others. The record label never offered a contract or any defined terms for the images but left the impression all the images she shot of their musicians (of which there were well known names) would be primarily for social media use. Unsurprisingly, the images ended up in People magazine, on the bands’ websites and published in other commercial ways. So the young freelancer was upset by this and wondered what could be done. I asked her how much the retainer paid and she said around $450 per month. I asked how many shoots she did per month and she said between 6-10. She then mentioned casually that she also has to go back to the midwest each month for a shoot and pays out for her own flight and expenses. Yes, you read all that correctly. This freelancer who is doing 6-10 shoots for a record label and paying for her own monthly travel to the midwest is receiving $450.
The point here isn’t to belittle anyone. The purpose is to highlight real barriers to full-time freelancers earning fair fees and terms on commissioned shoots. Let’s put it this way; if I was to be contacted by this same record company and I submitted even an informal quote to do the work, the label would scoff at my figure even if it was in line with professional standards. After working with this young freelancer, the label is assured they can get 6-10 shoots with travel done for $450.
Photography School Graduates
A lot has been said about this group of photographers being responsible for undermining many of the norms that have propped-up the freelance world for decades. Some of the criticism is merited, but much of it is not. In fact, I’m on the record in many cases as defending these students while pointing the finger (you pick which one) at the universities graduating them without the required skills to create and grow a freelance photography career. Let’s be honest; is it fair to blame a twenty-one year old young man who graduated with all of the required courses from a prestigious photography/photojournalism program for not knowing what rate to charge, or should the discerning eye be cast toward the university? As I have above with the two other categories, let’s take a real example from a recent workshop.
Two students attended an annual gathering of media photographers on the East Coast last winter. They listened to a couple of my talks and decided they needed more information. As soon-to-be graduates from a respected and known university in the midwest, these two students realized they were not getting the education necessary to transition from college life to a freelance career so they took it upon themselves to get it. They traveled to LA for my recent workshop and sat through what is essentially a fifteen hour lecture on freelancing, then flew back the next day to not miss any classes. One hopes to be an international conflict photographer and the other aspires to a career photographing in the music industry. They were both very engaged in the class and asked intelligent questions. Neither had any real idea what fees are considered standard for certain work or how to consider the usage when quoting a shoot request, but they both left with armed with knowledge that was lacking when they arrived. My concern, of course, is that the students had to seek this information out on their own instead of having it presented during their four years as a photography student at a major university. The fact that universities are mostly dropping the ball not only does a massive disservice to the students, it certainly helps to erode the values that professional photographers rely by putting uneducated photographers into the profession. Unarguably, uneducated photographers are far more likely to be taken advantage of by any manner of client.
In summary, there is no one single factor for the financial challenges that freelance photographers face. The three noted above play significant roles but even those don’t account for all the mitigating factors (I could easily throw in the “Close To Retirement” category of freelancers who don’t care about undermining the next generation of photographers by accepting terrible contracts now. They reason they’ll be retired before the impact trickles down to destroy the livelihoods of future generations ). Generally speaking, the problem is that “professional standards” are now heavily diluted by second career professionals working for free or pennies on the dollar, pros devaluing their contributions in an effort to break in to the profession, and newly minted university graduates eager to pay down student loan debt but with no idea what to charge. Given those factors, there should be no surprise if you face significant pushback when requesting industry standard, fair fees and terms.