The Survival of Photography as a Career Depends on Every Photographer

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A fairly old statistic offers that only 1 in 500 photographers looking for a full time career in photography will actually achieve it.*

The odds are probably much worse than that today. I begin this entry with that sobering statistic not to scare, but as a call to do something positive about the nature of the photography business as we know it today.

If you’re not smart about your business, the chances of success diminish dramatically.

There are simply more people making photographs this year than in any year since photography was invented. To an exponential degree. Digital photography has put the ability to make good photographs, even accidentally, into the hands of millions. With the advent of easy to create websites and photo sharing social networks like Flickr, there are millions of of new photographs out there every day.

Two years ago, Facebook announced they were storing 10 billion photos uploaded from their users. Flickr uploads top 2 million photographs a week.

In other words, the amount of easily accessible photography online is mind boggling.

Certainly only a small percentage of those photographs are uploaded by people who make their living as photographers, but we’re all swimming in the same overcrowded pool. Art buyers and ad agency art directors now routinely fish in that pool looking for new images. I’ve even sold a few off of my own Flickr account.

Here’s where the grim part comes in. I’m not so much for the philosophy of doing things in the way we’ve always done them, just because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Things change. Businesses evolve or die. But the internet has ushered in an everything-is-free-culture that is showing no signs of changing.

Anyone who creates anything has been forced to do it faster, for less in the last ten years, accelerating to unthinkable speeds more recently. But at some point it becomes career threatening, forget the fact that the work is just not as good in that environment. How much faster and how much cheaper can we create without losing the ability to put food on the table? It’s a serious question that I and my other artist colleagues are grappling with every day.

For professional photographers suddenly competing in a world with billions of additional images from new photographers out there, it becomes our responsibility to do what we can as individuals to conduct business in a way that does not exacerbate the challenge of how to survive as a profession.

As photographers who make a living from photography it is our critical responsibility to make sure the emerging photographers have the knowledge of the business of photography. In any creative profession there will always be someone starting out who will do what we do for next to nothing, with little understanding of the value of their own work. But that tiny paycheck in the short term undermines everyone’s ability (including the beginner) to make a living in the future. In a few months, he or she too will be undercut by someone who will do it for less. And the great snowball of faster, cheaper continues to hurtle down the mountain.

How many of the millions of photo uploaders know that the minute they make a photograph they own the copyright on that photograph? Not many. How many know that for someone to use that photograph in an advertisement or on a website or in a brochure they have the right to enter into a usage agreement? Probably fewer still.

For the casual amateur, it probably doesn’t matter. Most of those billions of uploaded photographs will have no life beyond getting viewed and tagged by their friends. Which is completely fine, although people should probably be aware of the Terms of Service (TOS) of the various sites they are uploading to, which in many cases claim various usage rights as soon as you upload your photographs, sometimes even after you cancel your account.

But for those lucky emerging photographers who are contacted by businesses to use those photographs in a commercial medium, knowing what your rights are and how to value your work is critical. Not only to those who plan to make a living in photography, but for those of us who already do.

Knowledge is power.

In general terms, usage is defined as an agreement between the photographer and the buyer as to where and for how long the buyer can use the photograph. Professional photographers create usage agreements so that there is a limit on how their work can be used. Photo buyers have been pushing back on usage fees recently, but just knowing what a usage fee is and how to negotiate puts the photographer in a much better place to get a fair price for their work.

Photographers depend on usage to keep their businesses financially stable in addition to creative fees charged at the time of the shoot. Much like an actor gets paid for their appearance in television commercials for a certain amount of time that the commercial runs, photographers charge varying usage fees depending on the scale of the use of the image. Is it for a company report or a national magazine? Will it run for a month? A year? Forever? Exclusively for that client and that client alone? This is usage.

With the arrival of new photographers who are unclear of copyright and usage, they are giving their work away without understanding the value of their work. The businesses that are buying photography are getting paid by their clients. Photographers need to be paid a fair amount as well in order to survive.

It becomes incumbent that all photographers, no matter their professional level, take responsibility to know their business. For established photographers, that means teaching the emerging shooters the basics of the photography business. For emerging photographers that means hitting the books, or joining a photography association or talking with the pros to get the knowledge they need to keep a career in photography a viable possibility.

Is it work? Yes. But as the old saying goes, if it wasn’t work, they’d call it something else.

If you’re a photographer just getting on your feet, soak up information on the business of photography like a sponge. It’s the responsibility of every photographer to learn and conduct good business practices. If we don’t, we’re dead as an industry.

Learn how to register your work with the US Copyright Office. You own the copyright on your photograph the moment you click the shutter, but if it’s not officially registered, you limit the effectiveness of your claim when someone uses your image without permission.

There is a glossary of usage terms at the Plus website, which can be used to generate usage agreements for photographers and other artists. if you can’t speak the language, it’s difficult to negotiate.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, joining the American Society of Media Photographers was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my business. It allowed me to learn about what I was doing wrong and right much faster than I could have any other way. American Photographic Artists is another good one. I attended lectures. I took notes. I changed how I ran my business. And I have become more successful as a photographer.

ASMP is running a 3 day seminar on the business of photography called Strictly Business 3, now through April in several cities. If you’re an emerging photographer, it will be the best money you’ll spend on your business this year.

If attending a seminar is out of your budget this year, then at the very least read ASMP’s Professional Business Practices in Photography, (which is free when you join ASMP). It should be in reach of your desk. Really. Plus ASMP and other photography organizations offer membership benefits such as discounts on a range of things from software, hardware, insurance and ย business services which can end up paying back the cost of your membership fee.

A blog entry I wrote last April called What to Charge When Pricing Photography Services is the most read blog I’ve ever written. It’s always at the top of my most viewed pages. That’s good. It means photographers are looking for information. We need to encourage that.

* And I would be remiss if I did not mention that my motivation for this blog entry came from my friend and brilliant photographer Doug Menuez and a blog he wrote this week, on his Go Fast, Don’t Crash blog explaining in very clear terms (much clearer than mine here) what is at stake for the photographers trying to make a living in this very challenging but wonderfully rewarding career choice of photography.

We all have work to do. If we are to survive, we are all responsible for the future of our photography businesses.

The photograph at the top of this blog is of a model called tinypixie from 2008. And it’s watermark embedded through digimarc, another good way to protect your work!