October 16, 2012
It strikes me that the phrase “work-life balance” was a lot more fashionable just a few years ago. Maybe it’s just my perception that it’s not used so much now, but I also wonder if it was more popular pre-recession, when it was thought the economic wonder would never end and people could carve themselves a bit more leisure time, be more flexible about the work hours they kept and spend more time with family, simultaneously expecting income to remain on an upward curve.
Then The Crash came and everything changed. You work longer to earn less. You work longer to keep your job and seem more indispensable than your colleagues and hope to avoid the chop when jobs are cut. Competition for jobs becomes fiercer and this is much the same for the self-employed.
Being a freelance photographer tends to mean my hours are set by my clients. Of course to a certain extent my hours are dictated by the effort I put into promoting myself which has an impact on how many clients I have. After that, it comes down to when my clients need me.
It’s sometimes quite difficult to explain to people, especially those in salaried positions, the reality of being a freelance, that although I’m self-employed I have very little direct control of my diary.
If I have no bookings I can do what I like; promote myself, go networking, meet new or existing contacts for coffee or go for a long bike ride. But this isn’t an ideal scenario. Networking and bike rides can be done flexibly, but aren’t paid activities. Naturally I hope having coffee with a contact will lead to paid activity, but networking is a long slog and not guaranteed to result in work. Cycling almost never ends in paid activity.
Anyone who works as a freelance, and I think especially photographers and writers, will understand that as far as work-life balance goes, you work when work is offered. And when work isn’t on offer, you work on finding it. Both involve work, neither activity involves the “life” part of work-life balance.
This is no sob-story though. I thoroughly enjoy my work, even if it can seem precarious at times. I chose early on in my career not to sell myself cheap, so my diary rarely bulges with commissions from clients wanting bargain prices over quality. I work with clients who appreciate what I do and are willing to pay fair rates for my work. This means I can earn a living without grinding myself into the dust. It may not give me a luxurious lifestyle, or money for many fripperies and “things” but it does give me occasional leisure time at times when in a salaried position I’d be stuck in an office.
I think I’d call that work-life balance. It has to be. It’s all I have.
April 20, 2011
First of all, let me apologise for the tardy arrival of this article. A busy week and writer’s block almost had me not writing anything at all, but I couldn’t let you get off that easily!
What finally shifted my block was a discussion on a Linked In photographers’ group forum about how professional photographers can work to reduce the negative effect of un-trained, low-skilled photographers on the industry, and the thread quickly moved onto whether or not photographers should be licensed to practice. It also descended into something of a flame-fest between some professionals and amateurs (neither side coming off looking pretty), but maybe that’s another blog article.
My personal feeling is that no, there shouldn’t be a licensing system and this article will set out why I believe that. However I do believe there should be minimum standards that clients should seek out before engaging the services of a photographer.
I probably don’t need to re-tread the well-trodden arguments about how the rise in standards of photography amongst amateurs has made the industry tougher than perhaps it ever has been in the last 40 years, though amateurs were being complained about in a book I have which dates from 1944 so it’s not a new argument.
Much of the anguish of professionals centres around what I call “epiphany” photographers. You know the ones who have quite decent jobs, but buy a digital camera at Jessops and decided what they’d really like to be is a photographer. So they either keep their day jobs and moonlight at rates to undercut professionals (and devalue their images in the process), or they leave their day jobs, commercial reality hits them hard and they undercut everyone else just to get work, with no eye on their long-term business prospects.
In these scenarios, some kind of licensing system might seem like a brilliant plan, but I just don’t see it working. What kind of regulator could tell the good photographer from the bad? When I started out I know I took some pretty bad photos, but I worked hard and trained and developed. Should a regulator have ended my career then? The picture editor I was working for at the time could have, but he obviously thought I was worth persevering with.
And at what point in the starting out process would a photographer apply for a licence? What would the conditions of a licence be? And how could a licensing system cover the diversity of disciplines from weddings to editorial through industrial, commercial, corporate…
Far simpler, I think, is if picture buyers, be they wedding couples, families, publishers or commercial businesses or agencies, make sure they check out who they are looking to book very thoroughly before they put down a deposit or commit to a shoot.
This is my list of essentials, though it can vary from sector to sector and may not be exhaustive:
- Check out the photographer’s website. Compare it with others at varying price points to get an idea of the level of quality you’re likely to get.
- Do some digging to make sure the website isn’t just work lifted from other photographers. Not always easy to spot, but one tell-tale sign is when the photographic style and quality varies wildly from one picture to the next.
Talk to the photographer and ask:
- How long have they been in full-time business?
- Do they have qualifications or training under another photographer? Either is valid in my book. Self-taught is generally not acceptable.
- Do they have public liability insurance?
- Do they have professional indemnity insurance?
- What are their terms and conditions?
- What is the licence agreement covering the use of the images?
There could be much to add to this, but perhaps the most important thing is to talk to photographers. See who you’re comfortable with and at the talking stage you should start to get an idea of the level of professional service to expect from any given supplier.
Licensing might sound like a good idea, but it can’t account for creativity, approach, style, or personality. I’m sure there are plenty of views from photographers and buyers of photography, and I’d love to hear what you think.
February 22, 2011
Here’s an interesting statistic (sorry, I meant to say “here’s a statistic” since statistics cannot, by definition, ever be interesting); while the Retail Price Index shows inflation to be up to 3.7 in December, on camera and video camera equipment it’s dropped by 17.8% (according to the BBC).
Interesting, in a cure for insomnia sort of way, but bear with me. This is going somewhere.
Prices did rise in 2009/2010 due to the strong Yen, or weak Pound, I’m not sure how these things work, but even if the currency markets reversed, that’s a heck of a difference. And while other luxury electricals also suffered deflation, none of them came close to this figure.
So what’s going on? Professionals hurting so bad they’re making their kit last longer? Amateurs getting fed up with shelling out for more pixels every 9 months? Micro-stockers finally realising they can never recoup the cost of their kit?
I doubt if any of these factors could have this kind of effect in isolation, but put the professionals, amateurs and wannabe micro-stock photographers together and they account for the entire market.
The figure reported by the BBC doesn’t separate video camera prices from SLR/compact camera prices, and I’ve no idea what’s happening in the video market so let’s pretend it doesn’t exist.
But if prices have tumbled, and may still be tumbling, what are camera manufacturers doing to fight back? Personally I think their tactic is to use advertising to mine peoples’ gullibility to new depths.
This example is a quote from a Samsung press release regarding some new lenses, “These are products that a professional photographer would be proud to use, but we make them so easy to use that a novice could get amazing results every time.” No matter what the lens is pointed at? Wow!
From various Olympus blurbs for the Pen series of cameras, I quote: “Loved by pros, Made for you” and “Itching to take professional photos but intimidated by SLRS?”
If you haven’t detected a trend yet, here’s the strap-line for the Sony NEX-5: “Performs like a pro, feels like a compact.”
What the manufacturers are trying to say is that with their latest piece of electronic wizardry you too can take photos like a pro. I can’t recall which manufacturer used the strap-line “Take pictures like a pro, but without the hassle” but it struck me that there was a new shift in emphasis here. Trying to convince people that it’s the camera, not the photographer, that takes the picture. If you just have the right tool. If I had the right piano, I’d be composing like Beethoven. Doesn’t matter that I don’t know one end of a keyboard from another.
But it isn’t just the public that are being wooed with ever more ludicrous promises. Note this nonsense from Zeiss’s press release for one of their lenses:
OBERKOCHEN/Germany, 01.09.2010. : A woman is sitting at the bar of a dimly-lit cafe. Lost in thoughts, she doesn’t notice the glass of wine the bartender places before her. From a distance, a photographer tries to capture her mood. He brings her face, which is leaning toward her phone, into focus. Everything around her becomes a blur, and the lights in the background coalesce into a wild “dance” of diffuse shapes.
This shot will only work with a fast lens with short focal length and harmonious bokeh. Carl Zeiss introduces a new lens for just such images: the Distagon T* 1,4/35.”
The press release should continue, “shortly after taking the shot, the photographer is wrestled to the ground and kicked senseless by undercover security officers mistaking him for a terrorist/pervert.”
Oberkochen? Overcooked more like. My tip, don’t believe the hype.
February 8, 2011
It sounds so simple. All you need is the right camera and pretty soon you’ll be rolling around in piles of cash. You won’t know where to put it all. Stuff it under the mattress, and you may find yourself sleeping with your nose to the ceiling.
That is if the BBC technology show Click is to be believed. $480* for a harshly-flashed shot of a boy with his fishing catch. $600 for a photo of a cat and a dog looking at each other. I know photographs can command such fees, even selling for many thousands of Dollars for top-end advertising uses, but I’m dubious as to whether the photos shown in the BBC piece genuinely achieved these figures, or whether they were just plucked from the internet for illustrative purposes. They all looked more like royalty free (RF) microstock pictures to me, whereas the figures quoted reflect rights-managed fees. Hopefully someone at Click can let me know because the stress of not knowing for sure is an anguish to me. No really it is.
The fact is, for the majority of people hoping to turn their hobby into some kind of cash cow, RF microstock is generally their entry into the market. And within this market it is fair to say that while you can be paid money for your pictures, it is but a rare (and fast-diminishing) number of photographers who ever make any kind of income this way. All but those at the very top of their game will receive anything more than a few dollars a year from microstock sales. And I mean literally, a few Dollars.
Seeing articles like Click’s, the temptation is to start taking pictures in order to build up a stock library. You might go out and buy a new camera on the basis of all the untold riches the programme suggests are there for the taking, but exactly as the show says it’s getting harder for professionals to make money from stock, so it’s getting harder for amateurs too as the market becomes flooded with ever more contributors generating hundreds of thousands of images the market simply doesn’t need.
My advice to those who are tempted to take stock images would be to take pictures first and foremost for pleasure. Don’t turn your hobby into a monster that requires constant feeding, constant monetary resources with only the promise of a bigger hole in your finances at the end of it because microstock agencies do not exist to make money for amateur photographers. They exist to make money for microstock agency owners. Contributors to iStockphoto can expect to get a 15% cut from each image they sell. With prices often as low as $1 per image, that’s a lot of sales required to even pay back the shoe leather used to get you to where you wanted to take pictures.
Forget about fuel, the camera, lenses, flash, memory cards, computers, software and snazzy photographer’s vest that makes you look like a professional (idiot). Or the time spent getting your pictures ready for stock, captioned, keyworded and uploaded. Whatever anyone says, when you see an article telling you it’s easy to “make money” from your camera or “get paid” for your pictures, treat it like snake oil. Take pictures for fun; don’t lose the fun of your hobby.
*I don’t know why a BBC show insists on showing the stock sales in USD, but for the purposes of this article I’ve stuck with that. Maybe it’s because the BBC prefers viewers to send in their photos for free, so GBPs aren’t relevant.
October 26, 2010
Perhaps the least well-understood area of corporate photography is the group shot. So often the result looks like the subjects have been forced against a wall and are about to be shot for desertion, or they’re lined up like in a wedding photo, minus the bride and groom and not even a slice of cake as an incentive to be there.
There is often no thought to style, composition, lighting or location, or real idea of why the photo is needed in the first place. Just a vague notion that a group shot would be a “good idea”.
Of course the alternative is to buy some random group pic off an internet photo library, but the saccharin smiles, the unrealistically beautiful people – your clients know it’s not you or your business, they’re no fools.
To be fair, the corporate group photo can be quite a challenge because there are lots of busy people to bring together at one time and on one day, and in all likelihood there will be little time to take the photos, added to which; who here likes having their photo taken? No, I didn’t think so.
Then there’s the lighting, location, wardrobe decisions. If not planned properly, it can all get a bit fraught.
So I was pleased to get a call from a long-standing contact, Corrina Cockayne at Target Chartered Accountants in Bath, who was organising a group photo for the corporate finance team. I say pleased, because I knew Corrina would be organised and efficient and would have thought about why this team shot would be useful. In this example, it had been a while since any PR had been done and the team had evolved quite a bit.
The plan was to use an outside location in Bath, and Corrina was already thinking along the right lines – considering what people would wear, what the background should be and getting in touch with the council to check for permissions etc.
My job was to liaise with Corrina, talk over the options for locations and lighting, scope out the location before the shoot and be there in plenty of time to set up and take the photos before the group arrived. I wanted to keep their waiting time to a minimum.
Because of the constraints of the location, I couldn’t spread people about too much or I’d risk all kinds of distractions in the background, but I knew the lighting was going to make this group shot stand out from the usual Crimewatch lineup.
In the event, even though it was “just” a group shot, everyone put in a good effort and wore their best smiles, and the end result reflects the approachable professionalism of the team. A good example of how a group shot can work and be a useful asset in the client’s photo library.
September 13, 2010
I was hoping to ignore the insane ramblings of the micro-payment stock photo community for a while, but then this happened:
It’s finally dawned on someone at iStockphoto that although it should be easy enough to make a profit from selling something you’re given for free, really it’s a lot harder than it looks (poor diddums). But for anyone who missed it, here is the signed confession from the boss of iStockphoto, Kelly Thompson:
“Since roughly 2005 we’ve been aware of a basic problem with how our business works. As the company grows, the overall percentage we pay out to contributing artists increases. In the most basic terms that means that iStock becomes less profitable with increased success. As a business model, it’s simply unsustainable: businesses should get more profitable as they grow. This is a long-term problem that needs to be addressed.”
The answer? To kick contributors in the teeth by lowering percentage payouts, which will work out as little as 11p per image sold, and to move the goal posts to make it harder for contributors to sell enough photos to graduate to the higher percentage payouts. Nice!
What Thompson is saying is that microstock simply isn’t viable as a model for selling photography. Ignore the reference he makes to percentages, they don’t change just because the business grows. It’s just that the costs of running such a scheme are too high – storage, admin, quality checking, maintenance. Rather as the model for supplying images to micro-payment stock sites isn’t viable – equipment, software, storage, maintenance…
I won’t go over the entire mess here, even though it would be exquisite fun. Instead I’ll point you to Jeremy Nicholl’s excellent post on the original announcement, and the iStockphoto contributor forum where you can indulge yourself in hundreds of pages of iHate from its own contributors here, here and here.
What I do wonder though, is now that the True Followers of the iStock dream are waking up from their torpor, what’s next? Many on the forum talk of leaving iStockphoto, and many may leave stock photography altogether as they realise the difficulty of making it pay and the costs involved in participating. Could a mass exodus to other sites or out of the industry affect prices for buyers? Could it cause problems with licensing across different agencies if contributors switch their collections? My feeling is most will sit tight and wait for the next round of abuse as the new model fails to raise enough profit for iStock’s owners.
And will the lower-end designers start to desert iStockphoto and other exploitative sites if they see fellow creatives being hurt? I suspect not, because if micro-stock sites get too expensive they’ll switch to other methods – a bit of Grand Theft Flickr, or Google Images larceny. The problem is, too many people have been told that photography is cheap, and despite all the evidence to the contrary they’ll continue to expect what they’ve grown accustomed to.
What might happen (and is already starting to happen in my professional experience) is that the better designers and their clients will eschew microstock, or at least treat it more as a last resort. After all, if its reputation as exploitative and unsustainable is really starting to gain traction, would you want your business to be associated with that?
July 22, 2010
Many businesses are understandably looking to cut costs in these tricky times. Since the start of the credit crikey* one area where businesses have sought to cut those costs is in the photography they commission. They have looked to achieve this either through using more stock imagery (though that often ends up costing more than commissioned work) or by shooting the photos in-house, using whichever member of staff might be available and have a suitably “professional”-looking camera.
Of course I’ve watched as some of my own clients have gone through these motions, though I’m glad to say that for the most part they come back to me once they realise it’s not so easy to get the photos that help their business do better.
For many marketing managers though, the quest continues. The camera manufacturers keep putting out the hype about how their camera will help you shoot like a pro (didn’t the last camera they made promise that? and the one before it, and the one before that, and the one…) and off they go to the camera shop, or Amazon, with the company credit card in hand ready to splurge on the latest piece of Japanese jewelry, to the tune of a sum not dissimilar to a day’s fee for a properly-equipped professional who will have some things the Nikanon Powercool 1,000Ti won’t have; training, experience, an eye for what works and what doesn’t and a view of the design brief for the brochure or website into which the pictures need to sit.
So when I saw this headline “The iPhone Fashion Shoot” I thought “here we go again.” Or something along those lines. Because many will see such titles and think, well if the iPhone is good enough to shoot fashion photos then it’s good enough for the company headhots! To those people, I suggest reading the article first. It’s certainly interesting to see what is possible with a humble iPhone, several thousand pounds’ worth of lighting in a studio, with hair and makeup artists primping models to perfection, and after the shoot having all the shortcomings of the original shots taken out by a lab of Photoshop professionals.
The point is, it wouldn’t matter if the iPhone had the most incredible built-in camera in the world. The camera doesn’t take the picture, the photographer does, and the camera can’t even conceive a photo before it’s taken – again, that’s what the photographer does.
To the credit of the author of the iPhone piece, they admit the phone itself is just a tiny part of the process. In effect, they were just looking to see what was possible, regardless of the other requirements of the shoot, and to that extent it was an interesting experiment.
But if you have a company and an iPhone, or even a camera bag full of all sorts of expensive toys, I would suggest you think about the one piece missing from your Billingham bag of shiny things. The professional.
*A phrase I first saw used by the World’s greatest living wedding photographer.
July 15, 2010
I should start by explaining that this article isn’t talking about family portraits or photos for the mantelpiece. What I’m talking about here is the business portrait. The corporate headshot for the profile page of a commercial website, newsletter or chairman’s statement in the annual report.
Why is this distinction important? Mainly for licensing reasons. If you go to a high street photographic studio and have photos taken you will probably pay about £30 for a sitting, and £100 for a print to hang on the wall. And personal use is all you’ll be allowed of that photo. Commercial use would require payment of an extra fee, and I suspect most studios wouldn’t be happy handing over an original digital file for that use as you could then get your own reprints done, which would of course breach the photographer’s copyright.
When you have a photographer visit your offices to take portraits for the company website/brochure etc, you’re not paying for prints for personal use (though you can probably buy those if you want), instead you’re paying a licence fee to use the images for corporate use. This is a different kind of agreement with the photographer and the pricing structure is different.
Of course if you book a photographer and then just have a single headhsot done, it can work out relatively expensive. Perhaps £250 to get a small selection of images for use across various media. But if you line up a few headshots to be taken at the same time, the cost will rise but the individual price for each headshot will drop quite dramatically.
It’s often quite difficult to explain this concept to clients who will say “well it’s only some portraits, they shouldn’t take long.” The thing is, in commercial and corporate photography, it isn’t just the time taken to get the shots that you’re being charged for, but also the commercial (as opposed to domestic) value of the photos. Remember, these photos are part of your marketing, and hopefully will help your business make more money. They may not be used as prominently as your product shots, or general photos of your business operation, but they’re all part of the mix and to have any value to your business, they have to be good. Which requires skill, time and equipment to achieve.
In short, you need to give the humble head and shoulders photo some respect and also understand that what you’re paying for is a combination of the photographer’s skill, experience and time on the commission, as well as a fee for the commercial exploitation of the results.
And what is that worth? As I said earlier, if you hire a photographer to take just one headshot you could easily pay £250 for that, maybe more. Get a batch of portraits done in half a day and the rate might rise to around £500, but if 10 portraits are done, that works out at £50 per head. That’s less than you’d pay for a 10-inch print to hang on your wall at home, and your clients can’t even see that photo. Unless they’ve broken into your house.