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.