Nine Inconvenient Business Facts for Aspiring Photographers

(The following is excerpted from Best Business Practices for Photographers, Second Edition, by Black Star photographer John Harrington.)

Ignoring facts cannot change them. Far too many photographers and aspiring photographers simply ignore the facts before them, believing that the laws of physics and economics just don’t apply to them.

I see these photographers arrive on the scene and then depart in short order. Many not only leave my city, they leave the profession altogether. The sad fact, too, is they also leave the state of the profession they tried to succeed in just a little worse off as a result of poor business practices.

Here are a few facts for your consideration:

Fact #1. If every time you produce images, the copyright to them is not yours, you will not earn money—any money—from them in the future. You’re a day laborer with some creativity.

Fact #2. According to the IRS, if 1) you are required to comply with the employer’s instructions; 2) the services are to be performed in a particular method or manner; 3) the success or continuation of a business depends on the performance of certain services; 4) the worker personally performs the services; 5) the worker has a continuing relationship with the employer; 6) the worker has to follow a work sequence set by the employer; 7) the worker can’t work for more than one employer at a time, and if you’re a freelancer and these sound familiar to you, then perhaps you’re entitled to be an employee of the employer, including benefits and their payment of the standard part of your taxes that an employer pays.

Fact #3. Taking standard manufacturers’ statistics for the lifespan of equipment (camera and computer), coupled with the amortization tables for deductibility, will give you how much you can reasonably expect to pay over each year. Combine this with other expenses (data lines, software, rent, and so forth), and this is what it costs each year to make pictures. When divided by 52, if you don’t earn that much each week, you will most decidedly not be making pictures professionally very long unless your sustaining income comes from other sources.

Fact #4. If your time is not your own, and thus you are doing something at the behest of a client (travel, post-production, planning, and so on), and you are not charging your client for those efforts, you are short-changing yourself and taking a loss on that time.

Fact #5. If you charge for your time at an hourly rate, the better you get at completing an assignment, the less you are being paid for your talents. Although an hourly rate may work when you are covering a luncheon or an all-day conference, it doesn’t work on most other assignments. Banish “day rate” from your vocabulary before it costs you.

Fact #6. Just because a client says they won’t pay for something, that doesn’t mean you must accept and work under those terms. You have the power to say no.

Fact #7. When you are working for just one or two clients, the loss of their work would have catastrophic effects on your revenue stream. You are overly beholden to them and their whims. Diversify your client base for long-term stability.

Fact #8. If a client signs your contract and then demands after the fact that you sign theirs to be paid, you do not have to agree to sign or actually sign their contract. Simply point out that you already have a contractual relationship for the assignment. They must pay, pursuant to your contract, or be in breach of contract (or copyright, depending upon the language in your contract).

Fact #9. Operating your business without insurance is akin to gambling every day with the likelihood of being able to continue to do the job you love the most. A stolen camera bag or an accident on assignment could easily put you out of business.

These facts may be inconvenient, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

14 Responses to “Nine Inconvenient Business Facts for Aspiring Photographers”

  1. Great points about copyright and making sure you are paid for all aspects of a time consuming photography job. I do not offer a photo DVD to clients for free. It takes me time to burn the DVD and go to the post office and mail it. Therefore I charge them for that full hour of my time.

  2. I don't understand Fact #1. Why don't the photographers have copyright to their photos when created? Does this article assume they're working for another photographer? Or is it assuming work for hire with all rights signed away?

    I re-read your lede three times and this point does not make sense to me. The creator has copyright unless he signs it away.

  3. Great stuff.

    But the question remains: What and how does one charge for assignments?

    Number 8 is a great piece of advice. Don't fall for the "I know we agreed on $X, but we can only pay $Y." Make them follow the contract.

  4. Excellent post but like Maria, the point 1 make not sense. I keep my copyright for any shoot I do. It's written on my contract / invoice.

  5. Super points, very good... well... all except point number 1, which is so untrue it's unreal. Not sure where you've got t=your facts from John, and it might be a geographical thinkg, but in the UK - apart from a few anomolies - the moment you take a photo, copyright belongs to the photographer. Period. Any chance of explaining point 1 please as I am not the only one querying it.

  6. With reference to fact #1 I believe the author is warning against signing away your copyright or the result is as mentioned.

  7. Gene is correct.

  8. Ahhh, I mis-read the point. Thanks for the clarification. I see it now.

  9. Fact #1: Wrong use of the word "copyright." Better stated: if you *license* your work loosely (or provide full-resolution files to the general public, regardless of the written license), you should arrange your business model for up-front profit rather than residuals on reprints.

    Fact #2: If you are an employee, your work is likely covered by "Work Made for Hire" by default (here in the States), which means you don't own copyright to the photos produced as part of your job, unless you have a written contract giving you those rights. Something to consider before you demand employee benefits.

    Fact #3: You should divide by 49, not 52, unless you plan to never take holidays.

    Fact #4: This conflicts with fact #5. Either you charge by the job, or for your time.

    Fact #5: As you get better and more efficient, you simply raise your rates. There is something to be said for using day rates rather than hourly, and it should be noted that it is easier to move a mountain than to raise rates on an existing client, so start with high hourly rates and just choose to not bill some of the time judiciously as you climb the learning curve.

    Facts #6-9 I have no quibble with. Good advice.

  10. Maria- I think his point is if you are signing away your copyrights (or granting someone a full commercial license with unrestricted use of the images) you better be charging a heck of a lot, since you will never make another penny from those images (selling them as fine art, stock, etc.) He may also be referring to aspiring photographers who work underneath another photographer but don't have the rights to use their images after they leave the employ of that person. The latter is common practice, but you should know what you're getting into in that situation.

  11. I can see why there is confusion over point number 1. The clue is in the first word "if". In other words, IF you don't retain copyright in your work you will fail to make any money from your work.

    A friend of mine asked me once what income I made from copyright. My reply, everything I make is earned through my exercising copyright. Sometimes I have to sell it outright (Crown Copyright), but the rest of the time I'm licensing the work I produce.

    It wouldn't be a bad idea to re-write point #1 so it's clearer.

  12. I think the insurance one is the most valuble. If you can't afford to replace it at any day during the year, then you need to have insurance on it.

  13. Number 1 refers to the photogs who "offer" their services for free and never bother to register their images. they just give them out for "pride" purposes! and also because they know for a fact they can't charge as they are flat our amateurs with another day job! Read the 12 excuses thread and you will see hat I mean and how many practice this.

  14. One thing that is sad about the wedding market in my area is that it seems like everyone "gives away the copyright". So if I don't, it's a bad thing in the brides eyes. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?

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