About My Job: The Photographer

by Conor Friedersdorf

A reader writes:

I don't really have a job, per se, I have a career, as a freelance photographer. Everybody in commercial photography is going backwards, even Annie Liebovitz, who was formerly in the category of a wealthy photographer but isn't so much anymore.

The main thing my clients don't understand is the overhead of running photography business. Digital has replaced film in the commercial photography world, but professional digital cameras and lenses are very expensive. It's hard to explain why I need to charge so much for a day's work when $400 pocket camera's are up to 12 Megapixels and I have a 10 figure investment in big, professional cameras with similar "resolution" cameras, and a collection of expensive lenses that cost $1500 plus. I also have to continually re-invest in faster computers, new displays, new software, data storage, etc. It's a deluge of expenses that just never stops.

But their personal "digital" experience informs them that shooting digitally is essentially free because there isn't any film or processing costs from their perspective, so it usually goes right over their heads. No, I can't produce a print-quality catalog with a digicam with a built in flash, I'm sorry, but give it a try yourself and let me know how it goes.

I am also continually investing money into buying and maintaining very expensive lighting and grip equipment, marketing, and continually spending my non-shooting days preparing detailed, legally binding bids that almost always get rejected for being too high, not matter how much I keep chipping away at my profit margin to get the job.

Basically, trying to explain to potential clients why I need $1500 plus expenses to shoot for a day is falling on increasingly deaf ears. They simply don't realize the overhead behind what they perceive as an exorbitant rate for what they see as one day's work. Especially when young, inexperienced photographers, with equipment bought by daddy's money, are eager to shoot the same job for half that, or less.

There are also usage fees to consider - fewer and fewer people don't realize that they do not own the images, which used to be a significant income source to offset all the other expenses. Now they just want a "buyout" license to use them however they see fit. Which makes it even more difficult to keep shoot fees low, because as a proprietor, I have to make a profit to feed my family. But they just don't know any better.

At this point we're battling 2 generations of people who think that anything that can be downloaded should be free...

The hardest hit are photojournalists, in my opinion. The last time I checked, most newspapers and news magazines have slashed their salaried people, who weren't exactly getting rich anyway, and hiring "stringers" for a couple of hundred dollars per day, including expenses. Which is a crime since PJ's do the most relevant work, and often produce the most beautiful work, but get almost nothing for their efforts. As a writer yourself, I'm sure you can appreciate that.

Essentially, it's yet another race to the bottom. Do more, charge less, and still produce fabulous work. We try, but with few exceptions, the bottom has already been hit. A lot of great photographers are leaving the business to pursue new careers in other fields. And you can see that any time by just picking up an increasingly thin magazine, or look at low rez images on web sites produced by healthy companies. Our skills, investments, and vision are simply less valuable to them now, and it