Assignments The Press Photographer Yearly Planner

I’m a struggling freelance photographer just like many out there, I’m sure. I’m not widely known, nor have I been in the industry for decades with a client list that stretches for miles, but I know the sooner I learn to value my own work and the sooner I learn to value the industry in which I work, the better my business will be, and the sooner those big jobs will start rolling in.

NOTE: I pulled the names off this post because I feared that these up-and-coming photographers might get some backlash for openly discussing their struggle with $200 assignments. Most of the veteran photographers I’ve talked with had the same problems starting out, so I know it’s not anything new to the industry. The key seems to be getting over it as quickly as possible. In fact the 1st photographer wrote this several months ago and is already in a much better position, on his way to building a nice list of recurring higher paying clients and was relieved to know he would not be forever associated with his early struggles.

Consider this a snapshot into the minds of up-and-coming photographers in this industry and the kind of impact one influential person can have on their thinking.

Up-and-coming Photographer 1 (NY):
Those of us that attended the most recent Eddie Adams Workshop quickly came to see that it was a rare opportunity not only to show our work and meet the newest generation of image-makers, but to get advice from many of the best editors and photographers in the world.

The guest speakers were the highlight of the workshop. They gave us insight into recently completed projects, practical advice on how to handle story subjects, and how to begin and manage a career. This year we heard from people such as Nick Nichols, Platon, Jimmy Colton, John Moore, Bill Epperidge, and many others.

This year, of course, the workshop took place during a difficult time in our industry. There were just as many cautionary tales about earning a living as a photographer as the stories of adventure. Everyone of course was eager to do great work, but we all kept asking the same question: where are our fees going to come from, and will we be able to earn enough to make a career as an image maker?

On the second to last night, there was a panel that I had hoped would really address this issue. Moderated by MaryAnne Golon, it consisted of Santiago Lyon of the AP, Nat Geo photographer Gary Knight, James Wellford of Newsweek, and David Griffin of National Geographic. They covered a number of topics, but it wasn’t until a student stood up and asked a question about how we, as the next generation of photographers, were supposed to survive financially in this new photo world, that my interest became particularly peaked.

Each panel member had different bits of advice to give, some I had heard before, some not. Then Brian Storm, sitting near the panel, got up and turned to the students and said something that has stuck with me and many attendees that I’ve talked to since the workshop ended a few months ago.

Brian said that photographers should, “stop accepting the $200 gigs,” because those low-fee jobs, along with those who are working for free, are bringing down the collective value of our industry and are encouraging our clients to expect more for less. He also pointed out that MediaStorm turns away well over half of the jobs that come to them, so there’s obviously a demand for original, creative content, and we all needed to figure out how to tap into this new multimedia friendly market.

At first, I was surprised by Brian’s remarks. Like many of my colleagues I struggle to make ends meet as a photographer. Even with a prestigious internship to my credit, and with several clips from the biggest newspapers and magazines in the industry in my portfolio, I have to spend most of my days hustling and marketing myself to land assignments and clients. Since I’ve been working full-time as a photographer, I have turned down perhaps half a dozen assignments because the pay was so low it just wasn’t worth leaving the house.

But, if I hadn’t accepted other low-paying assignments, some of the kind Brian was talking about, I would be writing this story from the basement in my parents’ house in New Jersey, not from my East Harlem apartment.

I simply cannot afford to turn down the $200 gigs and continue to work as a professional. I’d have to leave New York, which as we all know, is the center of the photo world. I’ve invested a lot of time in the city as a subject. I’ve also invested a lot of time visiting various photo editors in NY, trying to establish a network of contacts. Finally, I stay in NY because, for me, it’s the best place for a shooter. Some of the low-paying gigs I accepted also led to other work and other contacts, and gave me great tearsheets.

The irony is, I agree with Brian’s comments. Nothing upsets my professional equilibrium more than when I think my services or my craft or my industry in general is being undervalued by a customer or client. I never accept a client’s first budget; I always—always—try to negotiate a higher fee. But if I had not accepted some of those low paying assignments, assignments for money that Brian says fall below current industry standard rates, my career would have been hamstrung. Those jobs have allowed me to build a portfolio, and those jobs have helped give me a small bit of revenue that has allowed me to keep my head above water.

Going into the workshop, I had one camera, one lens, one flash, and rent due. Since then I’ve gotten gigs that include advertising and corporate work (weddings too) and I can now be more discriminating when it comes to deciding what assignments to accept and what assignments simply aren’t worth it. I still wake up every day happy to be a photographer. It’s my career; it’s my life.

Now, I know that my experiences as an up-and-comer in NYC would be very different from those of my fellow workshoppers, so I asked a few of them to react to what Brian said, as well as give their two cents about accepting low paying gigs:

Up-and-coming Photographer 2 (CA):
I personally agree with Brian on the subject of turning down jobs of $200 work. I feel that as the saturation of photographers in the industry is increasing, everyone wants a bite and so photographers cut each other off to get a gig. I don’t think it’s fair for the work put in and for the industry itself. I believe it’s bad business management and it’s not the fault of the photographers. No one educates photographers on how much to charge and established photographers are reluctant to share their rate cards or share how much they charge for services. I believe that needs to change. I figure, photographers should be communicating with each other some more and keep the reputation of a high quality service. I compare this to gasoline, restaurants or other retail businesses, where a new business will open with very similar but competitive pricing to an established business. A hamburger at one restaurant will be $5.00 and at another place will be $4.75, and at another at $4.50, all with the same quality burger. It should be the same with photography.

I have turned down jobs that are $200 or less. I have been offered two hour shooting gigs for $100 and I have to turn them down. I don’t see a shoot every only taking two hours, because afterward I’m spending perhaps another hour on the computer editing and color-correcting images, and another 15-20 minutes burning a disc. So my time working has increased from two hours to maybe three or four. I feel worse when I have to turn down weddings or other long hour day shoots if they ask me to shoot it for $200, because it feels as if the client is devaluing the work. The worst part of all this, equipment prices get higher and higher every year, or new and better equipment comes out every other month now, and to stay on top of the game, you need state-of-the-art equipment so that it at least can push out two to three years of life from it. So I believe photographers need to agree more on charging and balancing costs and value, so that this industry can continue to strive and keep its prestige. In the end, it’s not just a hobby, it becomes a business, and it takes just as much vision in having a business as in having a vision for a photo project.

Up-and-coming Photographer 3 (NY):
I definitely agree with what Brian Storm had to say at Eddie Adams. I think its great to hear that there is such a demand for quality multimedia, but I think one of the major problems right now is that it’s hard for qualified multimedia journalists to find clients that understand the value in good multimedia journalism and are willing to give them the time and money for quality work. During a panel discussion at Eddie Adams this past year Brian Storm mentioned that Media Storm is turning away half the jobs that come to them, and many of us young journalists in the audience jokingly called out “can you pass them our way!” It’s a transitional time in our industry where less of us are working for traditional news organizations and only a few production houses such as Media Storm have been established, so until we find our niche in the world of journalism, we freelance. There are many advantages to working solo, but one of the biggest challenges is connecting with clients that are willing to pay more than $200 for a job. Many of us are trying to keep up with the bills and pay off student loans, so certain months it’s hard to turn down that $200 job. I think for young journalists to survive in this current climate we need to work together so we don’t feel pressured to compromise our integrity. I don’t know what the future in digital reporting will be, but I feel like one thing we can plan for is to make ourselves visible and accessible to future clients. Production houses like Media Storm, collectives like Luceo Images and photo agencies such as Redux Pictures all seem to be going strong. I think the next step might be to have more Multimedia agencies vs. still photo agencies, that feature qualified multimedia journalists and connect them with clients. At this period in my career, I could use the middle man.

Up-and-coming Photographer 4 (CA):
I feel like young professionals like myself are in this weird state of flux, like a catch-22. I’ve grown in my young career through the teachings some really talented, established photographers and have tried to maintain the industry standards of charging appropriately for content. Yet I’ve quickly found that these “high morals” (which I agree with) have yet to be fruitful. We are all trying to start up a lucrative, sustaining business in photography when the industry as a whole, journalism especially, lies in this uncertain state of a new media Renaissance. I always thought I would be a newspaper photojournalist, now the game has changed. It isn’t anything new. The playing fields are getting smaller and have a lot more players eager to stand out. I don’t have the long standing portfolios of contributing to the New York Times. Those client decorations seem to help define you as a pro and justify to clients that you are worth paying pro fees to. For unestablished, young pro photographers, this seems like a huge hurdle to get over. When so much of this business is based on word of mouth, how are young photographers supposed to get their names out there when they are trying to charge the prices of established photographers? The same great mentors/photo editors that are telling us all to maintain good pricing standards are the same people we seek out for jobs and are low balling us because of the flailing market. At some point a young photographer needs to get his/her feet wet and make a sale. After all rent is due.

Up-and-coming Photographer 5 (CT):
Brian Storm made a very strong point when he spoke at the Eddie Adams Workshop this year but I would argue that the issue is a little more complex then was perhaps discussed. I strongly agree with his thoughts on maintaining a level of commitment to the value of what we produce as photographers. This will help to avoid driving the market value down and consequently out pricing one another to the point where it is simply not viable to make a living as a freelancer. When we have some level of control over the fee negotiations on a particular job, it becomes essential for us to charge the appropriate amount for the work. Doing work for free undermines the amount of time, effort, and creativity that others put in on similar jobs and cannot be an option when we, as a community, are trying to regain control over price point.

The challenge, however lies in the work we do for clients who are large enough and unfortunately prestigious enough that they can set their price point with the understanding that we need the exposure they offer to build a reputation. This is especially applicable for photojournalists in this current market where even the ‘top tier’ news clients sometimes only offer day rates that hover around the $200 mark. As we move forward in this time of transition, it will become even more important to strike a balance between excepting work we feel strongly about for slightly less than we would have hoped and also demanding we are paid fair value for work we are in control of.

Up-and-coming Photographer 6 (TX):
As far as I’m concerned, while I fully understand what Brian was saying, I don’t know if I agree 100%. I also don’t really think this is about $200, but more about taking the crappy pay so many clients think they can get away with, which perpetuates the trend of paying us very little for work that is worth substantially more.

As a full-time freelance photographer fairly early in my career, I take a lot of pride in pricing correctly and practicing proper business practices. I know way too many incredible photographers without any business sense and it kills me. Understanding your market and the proper way to run a business is paramount, especially for a freelancer and especially in the “$200” market Brian speaks of.

Since I don’t have a super niche market and do a lot of different kinds of work for a lot of different clients with a lot of different budgets, generalizing my “gigs” isn’t the best way to summarize my experience, but I quote, estimate, bid and price very similarly to other colleagues in my market (hopefully). As far as I know I’m the youngest active member of my ASMP chapter and take a lot of pride in the work that I do. In saying that, I also want to price it accordingly. When I have a pricing issue, a negotiation issue or a general business issue I have several colleagues, mentors and friends at the ready that will gladly steer me in the right direction. Sure they may be competitors in a sense, as well as friends, but none of us benefit from a photographer coming into our market and undercutting our business.

With that said, we can only do so much to educate ourselves and other working professionals in our market, but not only is it extremely difficult to regulate pricing as US anti-trust laws specifically prohibit it, but it is extremely difficult to eradicate the “$200” market when so many photographers, hobbyists and the like are willing to do it for free.

Sure, there are tons of jobs that a hobbyist wouldn’t be able to match, but for every client that respects the photographer and his art/craft, and is willing to pay for it, there’s a client with swindling budget calling you up, leaving you a voicemail asking if it’s ok to use some of your photos and telling you that they cannot pay for them, but offering “exposure” instead (trust me I’ve had 2 this week already).

Have I personally turned down $200 gigs before? Sure. Have I personally said, “no thanks,” to a client that doesn’t want to pay me close to what I should be getting paid? All the time. Do I regret it? No.

I’m a struggling freelance photographer just like many out there, I’m sure. I’m not widely known, nor have I been in the industry for decades with a client list that stretches for miles, but I know the sooner I learn to value my own work and the sooner I learn to value the industry in which I work, the better my business will be, and the sooner those big jobs will start rolling in.

Because journalism is a small industry where everyone knows everyone, even beginning interns must be on top of their game as best they can every day.

Simple honesty goes a long way, says von der Groeben. “Once you get the internship keep your commitment,” says. “ That means if you first get an internship at the Palo Alto Weekly and next day the Los Angeles Times offers you their internship, call the Palo Alto Weekly back and be honest.” When someone is straightforward about a great circumstance like this, von der Groeben says chances are he will get behind the student taking the larger opportunity.”

On the other hand when interns try to worm their way out of what they have promised, that is another matter. “If you say you want to work weekends, don’t change your mind once the internship gets going and ask for weekends off,” says von der Groeben. “That makes everyone from the photo editor to the newest person on staff unhappy with you,” he adds. “That can make for a very long summer.”

At the San Diego Union, Senior Editor for Visuals Robert York swears he has seen it all. He has several suggestions for candidates who land the internship.

“Never give anyone the finger in traffic while you’re in a company car,” says York. “Make double sure you don’t give a retired navy admiral the bird. He’s smart enough to figure out who you are and call your boss. It never ends well for you or your finger,” he concludes.

If as an intern the company gear suddenly goes missing, York counsels, “Never claim that the gear you lost was stolen by angry gypsy dwarves at the circus,” he says. “If you want, we can provide you with a list of acceptable, staff-tested, far-fetched excuses. Surprisingly, angry gypsy dwarves didn’t make the cut.”

And as a photo manager who has seen interns arrive late and leave early because the dog they brought on assignment with them needed special attention, York adds, “Never bring your dog to work.” He flat out says, “Don’t bring any pets to work. Don’t bring them on assignments with you. Don’t let them pee in the studio. It never ends well for you or the dog.”

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