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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.


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stephen crowley

You're right. The editorial business is changing. The media will need more and better photographers with the skills of a reporter and storyteller. The reign of the "gadgeteers" who did so much to harm photography are coming to a close.

Kenneth Dickerman

Great post Kenneth

People have been talking about this for years and years now. What Ive never heard, though, is how one might make a living as a photographer these days while retaining copyright. I mean, really, how?

Instead of giving my copyright away in order to pay the rent, Ive had to look for a desk job and then shoot whenever I have the free time. I thought all the internships, hard work, workshops and self funded projects would put me in a different place by now, but it doesnt seem that way....

Anyway, this is something that is on my mind pretty much constantly and would love to hear your take on it.



Michal Daniel

I'm with you on this! Without re-sales of my © protected work to book publishers, my income would be nearly 1/2 of what it is. I do occasionally make exceptions. This year, I made the exception once: a total buy-out. But of course the fee reflected this, by being multiples of what it would have been without the buy-out, and therefore covered my potential re-sales. As for how to make a living at this - speaking to the other Kenneth here - find a niche all your own. When you become the only one with images others wish to publish, you have them by their private parts, and therefore have a decent chance at getting decent prices for your work. Works for me, has for the last quarter century. Knocking on wood, fingers crossed!

Kenneth Dickerman

Okay, let me rephrase the question. Is it possible to be a photojournalist/documentary photographer these days and retain your copyright?

I understand the niche thing. Weddings, events, etc...But that is not what I meant. Thanks anyway.

Michal Daniel

I do not know, K.D. I was never a photojournalist, though always a documentarian. Perhaps someone else will tell you.

Kenneth Dickerman

no problem michal. didnt mean anything by it...

Nursing gowns

"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."

agree with that, isn't it? the editorial business is really changing. *sigh*

Andrew Sharpe

Actually, you give up many more rights that you think, simply submitting your work to contests and promotional venues:

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