Editorial Photography: The cost of doing business

Maybe you’ve been slinging a camera for a few years now. Shot some local events. Had a few things published. Maybe even got paid for your photos a few times. You are not alone. The modern era of inexpensive digital SLRs has created opportunities for many amateur photographers to get published, and ponder the dream of becoming a full time professional. I am here to splash some cold water on your face. There are very few people who can make a reasonable living as a full time editorial photographer. Witness the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Cost of Doing Business Calculator. (Might be helpful to read the FAQ before proceeding).

The calculator adds up the major expenses you’ll have as an independent photojournalist, your desired income, and how many days of shooting you expect to bill in a year. The number you get is your cost of doing business. Let’s proceed to the calculator and enter some numbers, shall we?

We’ll use a broom closet as an office, a cheap cell phone plan, a spouse’s insurance, and go with the most shoestring budget on everything we can. Think Top Ramen. Now assuming you are young and have cheap rent, let’s enter $24K as your desired annual salary, and 100 days of shooting per year. That’s 2 grand per month salary, and an expected 2 days of shooting per week. I end up with about $800 per week on the calculator. So now I need to bill 2 days per week at $400 to get by. Or 4 assignments as a stringer for a paper at $200 each. Or bill three days at $800 this week, and nothing for the next two weeks. Try fiddling around with the number of shooting days per year in the calculator. Or put the salary of your current job into the calculator, and realize your day job isn’t so bad.

I did a week long workshop with lighting master Joe McNally back in 2004. Joe is one of the top editorial shooters in the country — he’s shot for Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and National Geographic. These big magazines pay about $500-600 per day. Unless you can get a month long assignment from Geographic, it’s going to be tough to make a decent living as an editorial photographer. Some of the best advice I got from Joe is that in the photography business you have to be an octopus. While one arm is doing editorial, you’ve got another arm that’s doing stock, one that’s teaching, and another doing portraits. How many arms do you have, and what are their photographic capabilities?

I don’t think the transition into a full time photography career is impossible. If you have the drive, a plan, and some business sense you can make it happen. In a future episode we’ll talk a little bit about some of the compromises that may be necessary to achieve your goals. In the mean time, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Toy Photographer: Brian McCarty

Brian McCarty is a toy photographer extraordinaire who has shot for the first three issues of Hi Fructose Magazine. He has a signature, conceptual style where a toy is shot on location. Many of the locations are truly fantastic, and must require a lot of planning.

Brian seems to do really well on the marketing end of photography. Talk about exposure…his photography was just featured on ABC News. Brian’s ePostcard list is definitely worth checking out. The emails are not too frequent, very cleanly designed, and feature his latest work. And issue #3 of Hi Fructose featured a custom view master reel of Brian’s photography – hands down the coolest self promotion piece I’ve ever seen.

Brian recently did a shoot for Scott Beale’s wonderful web hosting company Laughing Squid (pictured above).

JPG Magazine: Usage rights scenarios

JPG is a 2-year old magazine that relied on Flickr users for content, and used print-on-demand service Lulu for the first 6 issues, had no advertising, and cost $20/issue. Photographers were paid for their work with a free magazine subscription and a photo credit. This year JPG transitioned away from Flickr uploading to their own website, and made some other changes of interest to photographers.

Photographers are now paid $100 per image used, and given a 1-year subscription to the magazine. For most amateur photographers, the thrill of seeing one of your images and your name in print is enough, never mind the added bonus of some cash.

But before you submit images to JPG, I encourage you to read the fine print. Here’s why:

Submitting images to JPG does not just give them one-time editorial use — by submitting your images you are allowing JPG to use your images:

  • For advertising the magazine (commercial use)
  • In a gallery show (no details provided on artist involvement)
  • In a book (no details provided)
  • Web use

JPG is not going as far as some photo contests, that dangle the carrot of prizes for what amounts to a blatant rights grab. You do maintain your copyright. But I ask you to consider some hypothetical numbers before submitting images:

Scenario 1

I shoot a successful image of some sunflowers — it’s the best sunflower photo ever. JPG pays me $100 to use in their magazine, uses the image in various ads for their magazine, prints the image and sells it at a gallery show, and uses the image on the cover of a book which sells 10,000 copies. All of this usage is OK per their current terms, and all I have is $100.

Scenario 2

My sunflower image runs in a different magazine, with one-time non-exclusive usage paying me the same $100. A small business sees the image in the magazine and wants to use it in an advertisement – I negotiate for specific usage with the company and put another $1500 in my pocket. I make fine art prints of the image available on my website for $250 each, and sell four over the next year, earning another $1000. A publisher wants to use the image in a book, for which I pocket another $500. Eventually I join a stock agency and over the next few years make a few hundred more dollars from the image. Same image – but I am licensing for specific usage, protecting my image every step of the way, and generating a few thousand dollars instead of giving it away for 100 bucks.

Running the image in JPG does not give away the copyright, or prevent me from using the image for any of the above purposes. But it does dilute the value of my image in the marketplace, and precludes the possibility of being able to sell the image for any kind of exclusive use, because I’ve already agreed to allow JPG to use the image for ads, prints, and a book. For example, let’s say JPG sells prints at their gallery show for $50, but fine art prints on my website are $250. I’ve just undercut my own sales by giving the rights away to JPG.

The exact terms of usage in addition to editorial use are not spelled out on JPG’s website, and an email inquiry to them about these issues went unanswered. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether the exposure is worth what you’re giving up. For me it’s not a smart business decision. I would like to urge the JPG folks to consider defining the usage rights more clearly on their website, and limiting the rights granted to one-time editorial usage. Thanks for listening.

Studio Nocturne PR Roundup

Ghost cookies for Studio Nocturne -- by Joe Reifer

Ghost cookies for Studio Nocturne — by Joe Reifer

The big art show I’ve been preparing for is this weekend in San Francisco. If you want people to buy your art, you’ve got to get them in the door. Promoting an art show during Open Studios is a big effort, as there are shows every weekend in October. The group I’m exhibiting with, the Nocturnes, is wise to use Fort Mason — it’s a place where the public can see a wide variety of art all in one location.

Here’s a roundup of some of the online press surrounding the show:

Thanks to everyone for helping promote the show. Other promotion efforts include the Artspan open studios guide, an ad in Artweek, thousands of postcards, and the participating photographers’ websites and email lists. With all of this hard work, I’m sure it will be a good turnout. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay area stop by and say hello!