From Staff Photographer to Freelancer: Making the Transition

There’s no denying the newspaper industry is in trouble. More than 13,700 newsroom employees have already lost jobs during 2008.

Instead of opining about how miserable any photojournalist’s chances of survival are, let’s address some business fundamentals for the foolhardy. In all circumstances, it’s wise for staffers or college students to think ahead and have business basics under control prior to separation or graduation. Waiting for the inevitable only creates crisis.


Every photojournalist needs personal business cards and a Web site. It’s also wise to join organizations such as NPPA and ASMP.

Likewise, every photojournalist needs to have a handle on basic accounting, invoicing, pricing, insurance and various other business fundamental requirements such as the cost of doing business.

Professional organizations, the Internet, libraries and bookstores have plenty of information available on these topics.

Have Equipment

Most staff photojournalists have opposed purchasing personal equipment since the digital conversion. Equipment costs are high, and equipment is quickly outdated. However, downsized photojournalists must return company equipment before they walk out the door.

Currently employed staffers are strongly encouraged to purchase personal equipment while they still have a staff income. Start with lenses, supports and lighting equipment. Buy a dit body last to get the best price for the highest acceptable quality.

Equally important is a personal laptop computer with work-essential software. While the software is expensive, upgrades are reasonable. It’s best to only need an upgrade after a layoff, rather than an entire suite of programs.

Define Your Business Model

There are two general photojournalism businesses. The first only deals with businesses. The business-to-business (B2B) model is the most convenient because there’s no need to collect state sales taxes.

Photojournalists who use this model operate a lean, sole-proprietor business, find clients, negotiate assignments, invoice and find more clients. Because they function as image wholesalers and produce no tangible products, they’re only responsible for paying income taxes.

The second model includes consumer sales. Wedding photojournalists earn their primary income through consumers. The structure is more difficult because it involves registration with state comptrollers, sales tax collection, additional insurance and a host of other considerations.

While B2B is simplest, consumers can help keep photojournalists busy between gigs and provide secondary income from shoots (reprint sales). It can be worth the trouble to avoid major problems later — particularly in tight markets where the competition is tight and might play hardball.

In Texas, it’s illegal to sell more than three tangible items annually to consumers without a sales license (this includes online auctions). A print is tangible; a CD is tangible. Most states probably have similar requirements.

To get a sales license in Texas, businesses must register a DBA (doing business as) form with the county and apply for a sales license from the state comptroller. It takes a while to get the license, so plan ahead.

For minor print sales, taxes must be filed quarterly. Businesses conducted mostly with consumers may need to file sales taxes monthly.

Get to Work

Photojournalists want to make images. Professionals shifting from staff jobs to the freelance market must adapt quickly to survive. Cross training in skills such as writing, design, video and editing is strongly encouraged. The current market demands multi-skilled professionals.

While business isn’t our primary passion, the fundamentals must be addressed before we can work. It’s best to be completely prepared to work as an independent business. Only those who are prepared to function as a lone wolf will survive after the rest of the pack is gone.

3 Responses to “From Staff Photographer to Freelancer: Making the Transition”

  1. Hi Mark:

    Enjoyed your article. Good advice for any photojournalist with a staff job today. However, when it comes to sales tax, every state has different laws, and they should check with their state tax office about how to handle sales tax.

    For instance, in Virginia, regardless of whether you are delivering photographs to a business or a consumer, unless they have a tax exempt number or are out of state,if they receive anything tangible, such as a CD of images, sales tax must be charged on the entire job, including all fees and expenses. However, at the moment, if you deliver the images via the internet, by email or ftp, the entire job is tax exempt.

    There are many other variations, so it is imperative that they check with their state sales tax office. I have seen photographers go out of business because of an audit and the amount of sales tax they owe.

    Chip Mitchell

  2. Hi Chip,
    You're right. I specified Texas in the post because I knew other states have different rules. However, I didn't specifically say it. Thanks for the catch.

  3. I have a question. I want to respond to emergency calls and take photos of my local fire department in action, however i need a press card. do you know where I can get one.

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