The Digital Journalist
Common Cents:

by Mark Loundy

April 2006

"Creative work is play. It is free speculation using materials of one's chosen form."
-- Stephen Nachmanovitch (1950 - )

Most dictionary definitions of the word "speculation" include references to gambling. In gambling, the games favor the house. No businessperson should gamble with their livelihood unless they're using their own dice.

There are a few ways to shoot "on spec." One way is to develop and pursue an assignment with great potential for sales and then market it to clients. Well-thought-out and planned self-assignments can be both personally and economically rewarding. Your work is often at its best because you're pursuing your own vision. That's the good way.

Another way to work on spec is to respond to a request from a publication to shoot an assignment for which they will pay you if they accept it. Maybe. This is a bad way. This way you bear the expenses for somebody else's business with the possibility of a zero payday if the client decides they don't want your images.

The biggest gamble is to answer a call to shoot something along with a gang of other photographers when none of you is guaranteed any pay. This happens at major events when photographers who want to play in the Big Time will do anything for a credential.

Deliberately putting yourself among maximum competition is simply bad business. With publications settling for "good enough," the shooter who gets the money will be the one who settles for the lowest fee.

If you're going to shoot on spec, make sure that it's on your terms and fits into your business plan. Perhaps you can see where this is going: If "bad spec" becomes more common, eventually more and more photographers will be shooting for less and less until everybody is shooting for nothing.

The Good

* Alas, no Good.

The Bad

* The South Carolina division of The Associated Press, for eliminating cash payments for member-submitted images in favor of a monthly contest. Total monthly prize budget: $950.

* Columbia Fun Map Inc., a.k.a. Gay America Guide, for their copyright-grabbing contract that is disguised as a First-Use-only contract. Read it carefully.

The Ugly

* The United States Army for claiming that the hold-harmless agreements signed by embedded photographers give the military immunity against copyright infringement claims, and therefore the right to redistribute embedded journalists' work without liability.

* Pittsburgh-based Whirl Magazine for soliciting students to shoot for it for free.

Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.


* The folks at the OpenRAW Initiative are helping in the struggle to find more commonality within our profession. Please take 15 minutes to participate in their survey at The OpenRAW survey will be open until March 31, 2006.

* If you send physical portfolios out to potential clients, this is not a place to skimp. Even if an editor loves the images inside, a low-rent first impression may send the message that you'll work for low rates.

* Georgia attorney Carolyn Wright has written an excellent article explaining copyright law as it relates to photography. It can be a great resource for educating clients who might not understand the difference between "buying" and "licensing."

* A couple of columns ago I mentioned attorney Ed Greenberg's cautions against the term "collateral usage." The PLUS Coalition has created a glossary that will help you sort through "collateral" and other industry terminology.


Carolyn Wright's "Using Photos Legally..."

Open RAW Survey

PLUS Coalition glossary

NPPA Independent Photographers Toolkit

Advertising Photographers of America Resource page

Common Cents Column On The Cost of Doing Business

Editorial Photographers Cost of Doing Business Calculator

Editorial Photographers Yahoo! Group

Small Business Administration

NPPA Online Discussion Group Instructions

© Mark Loundy

Mark Loundy is a visual journalist, writer and media consultant based in San Jose, California.