Two articles caught my eye this week, one in the Guardian, one at Digital Photography School, both of which I posted to the Clubs Facebook timeline, both on the same topic – photography as a business. Now, in particular, I don’t claim to know a huge amount about photography as a business, it seems a good way to turn a passion into a millstone very easily, but I do know a fair bit about business in general and have made a decent living out of that knowledge for more years than I really care to count.
Alfred P Sloan (an economist) possibly was the man who coined the phrase “The business of business is business” a fine example of the circular argument – one that supports itself by ignoring everything that isn’t itself therefore must be true on its own terms. It’s catchy because it’s hard to argue with. It does, however, contain an element of truth, as most circular arguments do. In this case you might be able to make a business out of a hobby but you can’t treat a business as a hobby (unless you have a lot of money to throw away, in which case it’s still a hobby not a business). As Mark S, Mark O, Dan T, Simon C and others have all made the fundamental point that it is the client whose taste, needs and wants prevail. Their cash pays your bills. You get their cash by giving them your interpretation of what they want. The point is, they still have to want it when the cheque clears in your bank. That is the point at which the job, the business of business, is complete. Never, ever, before (says the man who has rebuilt two credit control systems from heaps of paper, believe me only about 2.5% as interesting as it sounds).
That said there are probably more opportunities to monetarise your photography than ever before – and more people in on the game. The market is crowded. 150 photographers listed on Yell in Bristol (though some of those may be multiple entries). You need to know your market and you need to know how to keep motivated. One of the first things that people come to realise, especially in service industries like photography, is the amount of time that the business of business takes up. This is one of the big differences that mark out the amateur (and the semi-pro in a lot of instances) from the professional. The amateur can put a lot of planning into a shoot, the professional has to put a lot of planning into every shoot. Always, always do your own research. Post processing done to a deadline is very different from post processing done at leisure. As Benjamin Franklin put it in Advice to a Young Tradesman, Written by an Old One (July 1748) “Time is money”. If that image is taking you more than ten minutes to process isn’t it a lost shot? If every shot is taking you 10 minutes, and you have 400 of them, have you got 67 hours to spare and run the business? Sleep?
And what do you charge? There is as much to that as art as there is science. You have to be pretty well established to get away with fee £x00 (or £x000 even £x0000 depending on your reputation) + production costs and talking to a client with pretty deep pockets. You are probably not a wedding or baby portrait photographer either. The temptation is to get too close to cost just to get the gig. Bad choice, worse habit. And the tax returns and associated paperwork? Billing? Chasing? Sales and Purchase ledgers? Equipment? Is this what you became a photographer for? We haven’t even started on getting new business, the most difficult and most expensive type of business to get (you really want referrals and repeat business). Going into business for yourself is a lot of hard work.
But there is no doubt that it can be rewarding. You are your own boss. You get to do some of the things you want to do and if you are smart you use the challenges from the commissions you don’t feel inspired by (but need to take to pay the bills) to spark your creativity, to take new techniques and to work them into the shoot (when appropriate), but keep in sight the fact that the customer is always right. It is not their privilege to pay for you proving that you can’t operate out of your own or your gear’s limits.
Most of all you need drive, not just to get up and go on sunny days but on the rainy days too. But if you’ve got an idea then here’s a place to start.
Consider this. In the field of consumer magazines alone, there are around 3,500 titles in the UK market. If the average publication is monthly that means 42,000 issues a year. Take a nice round figure of 100 photo’s an issue – for no better reason than it makes the maths easy but a quick and dirty survey of Issue 5 of the free Photography News suggests not an unfeasible number – that makes 4.2 million photographs published a year. Add in other print media, that is anything that gets published for a general or specific readership on paper, then that figure shoots up enormously. Before we add in the World Wide Web. They have to come from somewhere. Now I am not suggesting that everyone can make a living out of photography – it is a crowded market and as much if not more, a lot more, time goes into getting and organising work as taking photographs. It is a BUSINESS and therefore both technical and competitive – but there are people, picture editors and alike, who spend their working days looking for suitable material. Not all of it is the result of a direct commissioning processes.
Four club members, Myk Garton, Mark Stone, Simon Caplan and Mark OGrady, who have had their work published, took us through some of the how’s and why’s, the cold approaches from picture editors and the direct commissions and showed us some of that work..
Myk was first up and he talked about being approached about work that he had on his Flickr account. The first and foremost point is that if no one can find your photographs then no one is in the position to approach you about using them, for love or money. The key is tagging. I don’t mean running around in a hoodie with a spray can of paint, though the effect is the same in announcing to the world that you were (are) here. Tags are labels giving directions as to content including an image, webpage, blog, file etc. Its technical name is metadata, in the sense we are using more accurately as descriptive metadata. We are going to stick with Flickr because that was the example that Myk, Mark S, Simon and Mark O all referred to but it applies to most sites that you can upload content to that are more serious about your content than simply-monetarising your content for their own purposes – Facebook being a big exception, and also one where you have to very careful because of the license you grant simply by uploading any image to it. Myk underlined the importance of accurate tagging. If Kate Middleton isn’t the subject of the image, then don’t use the tag. It might appear in a lot of searches but when it turns out to be your hamster in a tiara or a picture of your birthday cake it isn’t going to get taken seriously. Most probably. It won’t get a second glance from someone looking for images of HRH visiting locally.
What makes a good tag? If you want to know about a situation there are basically six things that you need to know about it. What, where, who, when, how and why? This is not a bad place to start. What do you see when you are looking at your image, basically what is it a photograph of? Where was it taken? (Myk’s picture in the Angling Times came from that piece of information. Your camera will provide some technical data as a matter of course but even if it is GPS connected a Blagdon Lake tag is more use than 51.337063, -2.703268) Who is in it (if you know, of course)? When can be a time of day, or is the location connected to a specific date or period (Battle of the Somme 1916 for example – as in the Musée de Somme 1916 in Albert, France)? How is usually provided by the camera (Exif data) but might be a description in itself such as bokeh, and the why can either be something like an anniversary, for example Golden Jubilee, or a formal occasion, investiture of the Bishop of Pie. Some or all may be relevant. They should be kept short and you should cover alternatives (World War 1, World War One, WW1, WWI all relate to the same event) . All this helps with the dark arts of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) about which I shall say no more.
Myk also pointed out the importance of joining and being active in Flickr groups, such as the Reflex Camera Club Group (a hint to those of you yet to join). There are thousands, no tens of thousands. A search on Bristol in groups brought up 4,455 references on Flickr – that is groups, not images. Flickr groups shouldn’t be confused with the sets and groups options where you can – wait for it – organise sets into themed groups – wow! – as they are groups of contributing individuals to themed photo streams. That doesn’t mean you cannot post one image to more than one photostream as each account is treated separately. This gets your work – with its tags, of course, to a wider audience and this more likely to get your images noticed.
Mark Stone was next up. Mark talked about the difficulties in protecting images from freeloaders, thieves, pirates, borrowers, elves, goblins and the ill-informed, especially good quality images on fora like Flickr. Mark related that watermarks can be removed in seconds and may not be worth the effort, at least though, you have shown the effort and intent to protect your intellectual property rights as the thieves signify their intent by removing it. He suggested using low resolution images that can still look good on the screen (as with the club competition 1400 x 1050 maxima for projected images) again not fool proof as interpolating software can be used to increase the resolution to a certain limit. Mark suggested around 50% of the original. This can easily be done in a lot of photo editing programmes and if you want a quick and easy online version you could do a lot worse than picresize – 54 million+ images resized (they say) and counting. That said a combination of the two at least makes more effort for the would-be looter. Also, you should make it clear that your images have all rights reserved unless you are giving them away and even then there is such a thing as a creative commons license. These are options on Flickr and can be varied from image to image, though All Rights Reserved is a good start.
Mark underlined Myk’s point about the importance of tagging your images – if they can’t be found then they can’t be used which is a good thing when you are talking about copyright, but a distinctly bad thing when you are talking about selling your images. The latter tends to outweigh the former and if you take reasonable steps then at least you have made the freeloaders, thieves, pirates, borrowers, elves, goblins, aliens, drug cartels, blaggers, the ill-informed, psychopaths, sociopaths and the generally ill disposed job slightly more difficult. Tags, watermarks, licensing, low res images, generally “A good thing”.
Simon took up the reins and talked about a commission that took him all over the country, but was more complicated than it need be because the client didn’t really have a definitive idea of what they wanted. Indeed they didn’t have much of an idea at all. He described the key thing in putting together a bid for a commission is tying the client down as far as is humanly possible. It is important that the photographer knows to what end and use the client is going to put the commissioned images, how many they expect and expect to use and what shape. These are all factors that have a physical impact on how the images can successfully be planned and then get every possible angle of the subject. Pricing is difficult in any trade. It is a Goldilocks problem. Too little and it will not pay the bills. Too much and it will not get the commission, but just right has to be at the highest point the client says yes but still remains competitive. There are hidden traps for the unwary. On a geographically dispersed commission like this one, which pretty much seems to have taken up all four corners of Great Britain, a lot of time is likely to be spent travelling. That time needs to be accounted for and charged at a reduced rate or the commission can become unprofitable. There may be production hidden costs so some agreement has to be made over those. Mileage, hotel bills, wear and tear, insurances, post production, food and other consumables, paperwork etc. are all part of the total cost.
Simon extended the discussion on copyright, which was also something that Mark O took up on. You must protect your copyright or your revenue stream will dry up and you can be out of pocket. Never sign away the copyright, make sure that the client is aware that you retain it and exactly what you are licensing them to use the copyright for. There are some common misconceptions surrounding copyright, especially around what constitutes fair use and what that applies to. Everyone who presented agreed that you need to be explicit on the terms of credit and the uses to which the images can be put. Simon recommended the Association of Professional Photographers book “Beyond the Lens” available here, at a hefty £30 + p&p. There are others you might look at/use at your own discretion, they generally cover three areas:
You must get these type forms, not necessarily the forms linked to, filled in as part of the process. Finally Simon pointed out that you are taking photographs for someone else and that they can butcher them in any way they please – they are paying for them after all and they are paying you for precisely that privilege.
Mark O finished the evening on getting known. As with everything else in this world what you know isn’t as tradable a commodity as who you know. Doing free work can lead to paid work later, networking is the important thing. His big break came via the company his girlfriend works for. The footwork is always necessary if you want to make a living and the world of image editors is fairly small, in any given area they are likely to know each other pretty well. This can work for you or against you, but however they treat your hard graft it is as well to remember the old maxim, “The customer is always right”. Repeat business is many times cheaper to get than new and the relationship and understanding that you build over time helps you interpret what it is they are looking for. That said you must make clear what the terms of the trade are, make sure release forms are in place and accessible, and get as much detail from the commissioning editor as possible.
All in all a very informative evening and thanks are given to all who made it possible, particularly to Myk Garton, Mark Stone, Simon Caplin and Mark OGrady for their time and materials.
Next meeting we have a visiting speaker, Ian Wade on Landscape Photography.