The Five Truisms of the
Photography Business

by Dan Heller

Some working photographers are dogmatic about certain rules in business: "never work for free," "never give up rights," and the all-encompassing "just say no" [to bad contracts]. While these are usually good, sound bits of advice, there are exceptions to the rule. While no one disputes "exceptions," the more critical issue at hand is the "attitude" that accompanies these mantras. And it is this attitude that can often cloud one's judgement about making good career business decisions.

This attitude can be summarily described as a "unionist" approach to doing business. The notion that the success of all photographers depends on the "all for one, and one for all" paradigm, where the chain is only as strong as its weakest link: you hurt yourself and everyone else with you if you break any of these mantras.

The explanation for this is simple: Photographers are on the defensive because of the ever-growing difficulties in making a successful career in photography. It's a classic stance any organized group of workers takes when old business models fail to keep up with changing times, both technologically and culturally. Assignment day-rates are going down, it's harder to negotiate longer-term contracts, fewer expenses are being reimbursed, copyrights are being negotiated away, and frankly, there's just too much competition.

But, rather than taking the defensive, photographers can use the changing times to their advantage simply by adopting different attitudes and approaches to their business. Technology has made higher-quality products more accessible to the consumer, digital photography has made more photos available on the market, photo distribution is easier and more efficient, buyers are going to multiple sources, and more people are out there taking pictures, whether for their own personal enjoyment or for work (often, as part-time freelancing). So, while these can make life difficult for the old-school photographer because of increased competition, you can use each of these to your advantage if you think smart.

Alfred Stieglitz once said about photography, "If there is light, there is a picture." His point was that no matter what you are given to shoot, a good photographer will find a good picture in it. You may have to look really hard and get creative, but a picture is there, and your job is to find it.

I have a similar approach to the business of photography: If there is an opportunity to take a picture, there is a business to be made from it. You may have to look really hard and get creative, but one is there, and it's your job to find it.

The counterpoint is that Stieglitz attempted to prove his theory by leaving his camera shutter open in his basement overnight, and what he got the next day was a tiny streak when a mouse happened to run across the floor. Not much of a picture, illustrating that perhaps there may be an exception to his rule. Similarly, not every photo assignment may be a good opportunity.

The point is, however, that there is a paradigm here. And this new way of looking at business opportunities in photography may be new to some. Thinking in terms of "finding opportunity", you must look at situations that come your way in those terms, and check them against these new, unalterable facts about the photography business in today's new market.

The Five Truisms of the Photography Business:

1.) There will always be someone willing to work under less-favorable terms than you, whether it's out of ignorance, or because it is a good deal for them. You cannot change this–it will always be true– and you cannot expect clients or anyone else to look out for your business because of this truism #1. There are two categories of people who fall into this truism, which further explains why there is nothing you can do about it:

a.) More people have photography as a "hobby" than those who have it as a "profession." There are many people who happen to be excellent photographers, but have no intent, desire, or motivation to make a career out of it. These people are tickled pink when someone wants to publish one of their pictures, and I place no fault on publishers for seeking them out. The nature of a free economy is that everyone seeks the best financial opportunity they can for the product or service they want. If both sides are happy, business is done.

b.) Other working photographers have different business goals than you do, and thus, may implement different methods than you in accomplishing them. If a photographer is willing to work for less (or even for FREE) because it gives him access to photos, experience, or some other benefit that makes the assignment worthwhile to him, then that will happen. It's not his responsibility to look out for your interests.

2.) Don't make assumptions about your clients' business, and don't set expectations of your business terms based on those assumptions. The predominant assumption is that a publisher is a mega-corporation with deep pockets that "can" pay photographers a living wage as a day-rate, but they don't because they're out to screw the photographer. This is counterproductive, even in the cases where it's true (but especially in the cases where it isn't), because you assume the worst first, which puts you in a bad negotiating position. This is about negotiation, not ethics. Recognition of this reality will help optimize your contractual relationship. You may be able to use facts to your advantage in negotiation, but you cannot expect better terms from your client simply because you know they can afford to pay you more. You need to focus on compelling business reasons to support your negotiating position.

3.) Don't get emotional. And if you do, don't show it, as it will only compromise your negotiating position. It is NOT the responsibility of the client to do right by you, and you can't get "upset" when they don't offer you favorable terms. If a client presents you with a contract that's in his favor, you're supposed to reply with a counterproposal in your favor. Eventually, as the game goes, you compromise and meet in the middle. Don't be insulted because a contract may appear blatantly unfair -- just make the appropriate changes and send it back. If business is going to happen, then you'll both work it out. And don't expect business to always happen.

4.) Diversify your business. Consider an assignment because of its long-term opportunities, not just the short-term pay (if any). One cannot earn a living from a single client, on single assignments, or on day-rates. It is your responsibility to evolve, to broaden your business model to go where the money is, to do things in ways you wouldn't or couldn't before. The old days of livable day-rates are gone, and complaining about it is like the old horse-carriage drivers complaining that the new automobiles with engines are taking their jobs away.

5.) Not all photographers are equal. This is not an assembly line consisting of an unskilled labor force, where you can join a union, get a standard rate of pay out of the gate, and be given guarantees about how "the man" treats you. (In other words, stop thinking like a unionist.) If someone offers you a job to shoot something that you feel isn't worth it to you, you aren't going to change his mind by adopting the mantra: "Just say no," and expecting people to fall in line behind you. The client is just going to find someone else, as per truism #1. (There may be exceptions, of course, but these are exceptions to the rule.)

When you see other, more experienced photographers doing better than you, it's because of WHO they are, not because it's fair or reasonable. If two photographers are equal in talent, experience, and all other things related to the job, and they are paid differently, it's the PHOTOGRAPHER's fault, not the business's!

Lastly, you are NOT screwing other photographers, and they are not screwing you if someone accepts terms that you consider to be "bad for the industry." Photographers cannot and should not necessarily look out for each other and/or expect others to do the same. Sure, it's nice when we can all do something that helps the "collective," but this is rare, and expecting it to continue (or even happen) is naive. This is not about solidarity. The reality is that photographers compete with each other, either on the same terms, or simply due to the fact that objectives may differ. I had one woman yell at me, saying, "you are preventing someone from feedng his family", because she heard that I shot an event pro bono for a nonprofit company. It's not my responsibility to make sure someone else can make a success out of his business.

The business world is harsh, and it's part of the package when you choose to become an independent, working photographer. Recognition of these realities will not only help you consider your business objectives more realistically, but should help you think about how you should react to any given situation. Application of these truisms should help you think more carefully about an assignment that comes your way. Before "just saying no", I advise you to ask these questions:

1.) Are there "resale" opportunities?
2.) Is there sellable "art"?
3.) Is there great credibility or other marketing aspects I can exploit because of the nature of the customer?
4.) Is there experience I can gain that I don't yet have?

I consider ALL possible ways I can make an assignment favorable to me before I let it go. If I can't make a good business opportunity out of it in some direct or indirect way, I turn it down. In short, "I just say no."

If you're a good photographer, you can get higher rates because you've established a working relationship with people. You have convinced them through your working relationship that they know they're going to get good results, and the risk factor is low. That's worth something. People who pay for cheaper photographers are taking a risk -- let them do that and possibly fail. Or, let them win, and find out they can get good work for less money. That's how a free market works.

If you are being asked to take a worse contract, lower rates, or give up rights, this is a very clear sign that you should have moved up and out long ago. You are overqualified for your job if you aren't getting paid adequately for your services. It may be that you can convince someone of your worth -- perhaps by adding new ideas to how they can benefit from your services, or by reinforcing the lower-risk they have by working with you -- but the writing is on the wall, and regardless of the outcome, it does show that it's time to move on.

Lastly, I don't want to conclude without acknowledgement to people like Seth Resnick, who works exhaustively negotiating sweeping deals with big companies regarding day-rates that trickle down to everyone else. This is great work, and it does help. But, it is a "negotiating" situation, not a career-planning approach, and it's important to differentiate between them. Once you've determined that an assignment is worthwhile, it's certainly wise to do whatever you can to optimize your terms. That's where an aggressive approach is worthwhile; it's not worthwhile when you're simply trying to make a point.

Dan Heller