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Free Milk

Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images 

If you offered your car, say a 1998 Ford Taurus, to 100 people for free, chances are you'd get 100 takers.

If you offered the vehicle to the same group for $1000, you'd probably get fifteen or so buyers. Raise the price to $1500 (about $200 under what the free-market has settled on), and you'd probably have to approach more than 100 people to find a buyer.

Not everyone can afford $1700 for a car, and those that can afford more will probably opt for a nicer vehicle. When willing buyers and sellers interact with each other in a free market place, the price of the vehicle (or for any goods or services) is determined.

That, in a very small nutshell, is how the law of supply and demand works.

The careful reader of the words above will have noticed that everyone, whether they even want the product, is happy with free.

So where's that leave the editorial photographer?

If you're working for a national newspaper or wire service at $200/day, once you've run the numbers you're getting pretty close to free, close enough to spit at anyway. Throw in the work-for-hire agreement, and you're paying them.

Assuming the your photograph (or the Ford Taurus) actually runs, free equals a happy customer.

But it takes both a happy buyer and a happy seller to establish a true value by using the law of supply and demand, and we don't have that in the world of editorial photography today.

We do have companies with deep pockets, trying to corner the market by undercutting their competition. I suppose they hope to put everyone else out of business so that they can then name their own price.

We do have publications that have made an editorial decision that people reading their publication can't tell the difference between great content and usable content. I suppose they hope their advertisers won't notice that people have stopped reading their magazines.

We do have photographers who are giving away their work and throwing their future livelihood away, in the hope that... well, I can't imagine what good they can possible hope will come of this practice.

What we don't have is a healthy respect for the law of supply and demand.

Once again,

Great photography is a luxury.

It has nothing to do with the technical quality, or how easy it is to use today's modern cameras. It doesn't matter how fast or how cheaply you can deliver it. There are really only two things that matter. How well the photographer sees (and manages to capture), and/or the uniqueness of the subject matter.

A simply recipe with an infinite number of paths to creating great works, kind of like the blues.

The luxury of great photography was once paid for through an intricate dance between publishers, advertisers, and readers which was chaperoned by the law of supply and demand. Everyone was happy, Everyone got what they wanted out of the deal.

Google crashed the party, spiked the punch, and lit the gym on fire.

Advertisers - not reaching their potential customers.

Publishers - not attracting the readers they need to sell to advertisers.

Readers - not buying any of it.

In the midst of all of this, photographers have made the collective decision, I suppose following the lead set by publishers, to try and keep their customers happy by working for free.

There are millions of examples and most of us are guilty to some degree. 

The problem is, without the exchange of even a little bit of money, there's nothing to separate the good from the bad work, or to filter out the serious viewer, the person who actually wants to look at your work, from the person that just wants a free Taurus, even if its going to just rot away in their front lawn.

Lots of noise, no clear signal.

As a photographer, your work should be your work. Magazines, newspapers, publishers... all are just a means to pay for it.

If you can get a decent fee, and keep your copyright. Then do it.

If you can't get a decent fee, but can get some other type of compensation (and of course retain your copyright) then you should try that too.

Either way, you have to become the enduser of your own work. You have to somehow benefit from what you create in order to keep on doing it.

One example would be to take the Tonight Show route. If you don't have an upcoming gig to promote, say at the Toledo Chuckle's this Saturday night, or you don't have a film opening this weekend, then don't show up. There's value in what you do, whether you're a photographer, a celebrity, or both. Don't give it away.

If you're going to license images for online use, negotiate a link to one of your sites also. You must get more value out of your work, and that could be one way to do so.

If you're going to license something to one of the photoblogs out there, make sure you're doing a book excerpt, or maybe a special print offer, anything. Just make sure you have a product to sell when those hits start coming in.

Ultimately, if they want to attract customers, I think magazines (and advertisers) will be forced to pay well for great work. Still, the same avenues that magazines will use, are now available to us all. These avenues need to be pursued.

The law of supply and demand is alive and well regardless of what photographers, the photo industry, publishers, or advertisers would like you to believe. You just need to find a way to make both yourself and your customers happy, and free isn't doing the trick.

First, Get a Million Dollars...

Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

If you were a high school basketball player, the absolute star of the team, and told your guidance counselor that your recipe for future success included playing in the NBA, that counselor would probably chuckle, pat you on the head, ask you to reconsider, and mentally calculate how soon they could make it to the loading dock to catch a smoke.

Now, if you happened to be the chief yearbook photographer, with your own website and everything, and told that same counselor you wanted to be a professional photographer, they would readily hand you a stack of pamphlets from various two year programs, maybe suggests a university or two, pat you on the head, push you out the door, and head to the loading dock.

That's how it was when I graduated from high school in 1981, and that's pretty much how it was for all of you who were born about that same time.

I guess everyone knows a photographer, but not too many people know an NBA player. I suppose that's why the photography idea doesn't seem so far fetched. That, or they just haven't run the numbers.

There are at least 360 players in the NBA. Their average salary is over $5 million. You play as little as three years, and you're eligible for a pension.

So, your counselor has a point, probably not the safest or most sound plan, but still, if you have the skill, work hard, avoid injury... it can sure payoff.

Now, what about the freelance photographer path that the counselor didn't seem to mind?

The number of players, what constitutes success, the difference between working for yourself, or a newspaper... none of these things directly translate, so I'll go anecdotal.

I'm from Nebraska. When I graduated from high school, there were about twenty well paying jobs as a newspaper photographer in the entire state. There were probably about another twenty newspaper jobs that paid poverty level wages.

There were no jobs as a full-time wire photographer, though there were about ten people "stringing" on a regular basis for AP and UPI.

The state had one true commercial photographer (with national clients).

There was one photographer who worked with a major magazine.

There were maybe three or four photographers making a living producing work for the art market.

In addition, we had a couple of good teachers at the various universities.

Today, those numbers are roughly the same, if not less.

I started this post in an attempt to answer a question, which is:

Can you work as a photojournalist (or a documentary photographer) today, and retain your copyright?

The short answer is, yes. The long answer is a little more complicated.

Because of the copyright issue, if you eliminate the newspaper jobs listed above, the numbers are even worse.

That's why, whenever (and this happens two or three times a year), a parent of a would-be photography student comes to me asking for advice, I always use the NBA analogy. It kind of puts the whole thing in perspective.

If we use a barebones definition of success (for a freelance photographer), say after paying your bills you normally make $50,000 a year...

The number of successful people working as freelance photographers in America today, is less than the number of guys playing in the NBA.

... and there isn't any pension.

This is an incredibly tough business. As you look through the various award winners, people who's work is selected for the American Photography annual or whatever contest PDN is currently pitching, I guarantee you there's a good percentage that are nowhere near earning a living with a camera, and more than a few are working at Starbucks to make ends meet.

That's where we're at.

We've only got ourselves to blame. We have a product that everyone, everywhere, evidently needs, wants and consumes. Yet we're constantly in the wading pool when it comes to both compensation and respect.

I heard a story just yesterday, and I apologize to the guy for using this real-world example, but to me it sums up the whole problem.

A real estate photographer in California offers forty images, and a customized website, for $225, and the photos are perfectly usable.

You're kidding me right?

How do you make a living doing that?

Right now, the baristas are thinking it doesn't sound bad, so let's run the numbers...

Let's say 10 jobs a week, three hours shooting and driving per shoot, an hour for post production, and uploading to the customized template you've created. There's your forty hour week. You've made $2,250. Sweet.

Fifty weeks a year...$112,500... cha-ching!

Now the other side.

Camera gear... $10,000 sound fair?

Health insurance (your single) $6000 about right?

Laptop, drives, software, at least $4000.

You're going to need some business insurance, with going into all those multimillion dollar homes and whatnot, $3000.

Car, I don't see how you do it for under $8000 (we'll include the insurance with that too).

Fuel, parking, tolls... $100 a week? $5000.

Work space, part of your home, but still, your going to deduct it, what $12,000 for your office?

Your website, internet, electricity, $5000.

Hosting all of those relators' websites... I have no idea, let's say $3000, just to be nice.

Retirement fund, skip it for now.

All said and done, half of what you billed is now gone, but you're still alright. You've made close to $60,000, err, minus 38%, sorry, you're self-employed, closer to 50% for taxes.

Congratulations, you've made $30,000, roughly $15 an hour for your effort. 

Along with that, you've got all the headaches that come with running your own business.

You've got no retirement fund.

Once the real estate has sold, the pictures you've made have no resale or historical value whatsoever.

All of your time is spent churning out more of the same. Any hopes you've had of making images that you love... I'm just not sure that's possible anymore.

You've created a donut factory for yourself and the minute you stop cranking them out, you're out of business.

What fun is there in that? Is that what you really wanted? Isn't there an easier way to make $15 an hour (and I was trying to be really generous with the numbers btw).

In essence, you've destroyed the market for yourself, and everyone else.

I don't think anyone hopes to be the donut king of real estate photography when they grow up. There are of course plenty of photographers out there (me included), that would love to do two or three architecture photography type of jobs a month, for say $2000 a piece. That would be interesting, fun, offer the chance to make some good pictures, and allow us to pursue the type of photography that we're really interested in doing.

Ironically, both the relators and there customers would also be better served with photographs that captured the personality of the property. I mean, let's face it, there's no way you can do that with the volume and the price point of $225 you've established.

So there you have it. That's what has happened not only with real estate photography, but with most of the editorial market today.

We've all worked together to paint ourselves into a corner.

Still, there's hope.

I don't have any idea how Josef Koudelka has managed to make a living over the past forty years. Has he averaged the $15 an hour our real estate photographer has? Probably not, at least not for the first twenty years or so. Now of course, (probably) none of us reading this can afford his prints. 

Koudelka has managed to retain his copyright, he's survived, and he's produced work that will outlive the whole lot of us. I doubt the current economic situation has effected him in the least.

What about Elliott Erwitt? He's made some pretty good wedding photographs in his day. Sure, he was going there as a guest or whatnot, but there's no shame in shooting a wedding for money, and you can still make a frame that has some lasting, universal appeal.

Your work is where you find it. It doesn't have much to do with how you make money, even when you use a camera to earn a living.

The market is set to explode. There's plenty of work to be done, and plenty of people that are willing to pay for it, but we can't make the same mistakes.

We all must be careful to not devalue or underprice our work again. Whether you're marketing your own projects directly to the consumer, or working with a publication. Do not cheapen yourself. It starts with me. It starts with you. If someone is paying you to make pictures for them, double your prices today.

It's also important to remember that anyone can produce useful images. Don't get trapped or conned into being that person. There's nothing useful about Koudelka or Erwitt. Great photography is a luxury. It always has been, it always will be, and it's what you should strive for.

Leave useful and the half-price coupons to the donut makers.

What Color is Your Toolbox?

Kenneth Jarecke / Contact Press Images

Lens, bodies, laptops, err I suppose Photoshop actions, make up the majority of physical tools we photographers carry around these days. Hardly worth talking about. In fact, once you've figured out how you see and what gear best supports that vision, the conversation is over.

Note, if the conversation isn't over, if you insist on debating the various merits of each and every tool that one can use to capture images, it just means you haven't yet figured out how you see.

However, there is one tool that isn't talked about nearly enough. Oddly enough, its the tool that you always have with you, regardless of what kind of gear you use to produce your work.

No, not your "eye" silly, that's hardly worth talking about. I already mentioned Photoshop actions didn't I?

The tool I'm talking about is your copyright. Do you know, the moment you release the shutter, the image you've just made is real property that belongs to you? It's true, and copyright is the legal tool that makes it so.

Yep, your claim to ownership is there the moment you make the image. Now, if you really want to have the power to enforce that claim, you need to register that image, but that's a different post. The only point I'm making is this, you own that image.

If a person were to buy you a camera, give you an office, a car to drive, told you where to stand and when to push the button, you still would own that image. Heck, even if you picked up one of my cameras in the middle of a shoot and snapped an image, you'd own that image. You might catch a beating, but once again, a different post.

The only way you can not own that image is if you sell (or heaven forbid, GIVE) away the ownership of that image to someone else. Which is pretty much what most of you, who are trying to use a camera to make a living these days, are doing.

Sometimes there are virtual work for hire agreements weaved into the contracts doled out by your clients. Sometimes they come right out and use that dreaded term. Still, they can't just steal your property, you have to agree to it at some point.

Except for the people who you've never worked for, like Google. In that case, they'll just try to use legislation to steal your work... different post.

So here's an idea, don't sign their contracts. Don't work for a wire service, or a photo agency, or any publication or client that insists you sign one of these abusive contracts.

There'll be threats, there'll be promises, a little carrot, but mostly stick. In the end, they'll probably move along and find the next sucker. You? You'll need to find another way to keep working.

Nobody said this was going to be easy.

The bottom line is this, you can sign their contract, work for awhile, and eventually be replaced by another sucker who is either cheaper or dumber than you, and end up on your own. Or you can skip the middle part and start working for yourself from the very start.

If you try the second path, you'll at least retain ownership of your work. Is that not important? If not, why do all of your clients demand that you give it to them?

Listen, there's been a dramatic shift in the economics of the business over the last few years. That's no secret. So I'll tell you this with all honesty and humility, I'm not sure where I'd be today financially if I didn't own my work and have the ability to profit from it.

Print sales have been crucial in keeping this ship afloat. You think the New York Times, Conde Nast, or all of your local newspapers offer print sales because their losing money on it? That money, or at least fifty percent of it, should be coming to you.

The editorial business is changing, like right now, and like real quick. They need content and they can't all pull it from the same two or three sources. Your work, talent and skill will soon be more valuable than you can imagine. Don't let the past few lean years dictate your worth.

If you want to prosper and survive in the future, start protecting your copyright today.