Six Ways to Help a Laid-Off Photographer Get Started as a Freelancer


I was, at one time, a staff photographer for a magazine. So was this other guy. Rather than let one of us go, they offered us both half-time. I said yes, panicked that I was; he said no, and left. I thought this meant I could stay, but I was wrong. This began a rushed effort to become self-sufficient and my own boss. It didn’t come at an opportune time — but with Corporate America, it never does.

Today, the staff photographer is an endangered species, with layoffs a constant drumbeat in the industry — and new freelancers born every day. If you’re a freelance photographer as I am, your first inclination might be to worry about the increased competition. But I encourage you, instead, to embrace your new brethren — for their sake and yours.

Help Me Help You

Why help these laid-off staffers? Because they don’t know the ropes. And because, if you don’t help them, they might take assignments for less than they’re worth — which will create downward pressure on rates for all of us.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but you need to help these folks get work. Really. The question is — how?

If your normal rate for a wedding is $3,500, or covering a press conference is $750, or your family/pet/child portrait sitting rate is $350 and an enlargement is $950, then rather than trying to convince your newfound friend to charge those rates, just book the job on their behalf — at those rates. By doing so, you will show your friend what they’re worth, so they will apply that same rate structure to people calling them directly.

Everyone, from time to time, gets a call for job they can’t take. Don’t just forward the job on to your friend and hope they negotiate it wisely. Make sure it’s done at the right price by accepting the job, hiring your colleague to do the assignment, and then passing the payment on to them.

Six Ways to Help

Here are six other areas where you can help a newly minted freelance photographer:

1. Creating contracts. If a photographer has been a staffer for a while, it’s likely their last agreement to provide photography was done on a handshake. If a photographer has only been a staffer for a couple of years and started straight out of school, they, too, probably don’t understand the importance of a contract. Give them a copy of yours (preferably in a Word document so they can edit it) to get them started.

2. Buying equipment. They likely need help getting their equipment set up. They may have been given their old equipment from their place of work, but in most cases the gear is probably on its last legs. Redundant camera bodies, and lenses ranging from ultra-wide – 14-24mm Nikon, or 16-35mm Canon, all the way to 200mm lenses for each, plus two strobes, and a Jackrabbit/Quantum battery pack will be sufficient.

3. Buying software. Laid-off staffers may have laptops, but might not be clear about the importance of backing up images or buying legal copies of the software they’ll need. Don’t start them off on the wrong foot by giving them copies of your software. We recommend they get full versions, registered in their own name, of Photoshop, Photo Mechanic, FotoQuote, Microsoft Office 2008, and QuickBooks Pro.

4. Talking to clients. Share your war stories and how you learned to secure the rates you deserve. Be sure to tell them that when the client says, “Oh, you’re the first photographer I’ve talked with that has a problem with _____,” where the blank is “work-for-hire”, “wanting to be paid,” “charges for post production,” or “wanting a contract signed,” they’re probably lying.

5. Online marketing. This one’s tricky, because if you’re not careful, you’ll teach your new freelancer how to compete with you. But you can help them get a Web site up, and explain to them that online marketing is critical. The notion of having a printed portfolio these days applies to 10 percent or less of the assignment work out there (much of which is in the advertising field), so an online portfolio is the way to go.

6. Pricing and rates. The first thing you should do is send them to the NPPA’s pricing calculator. This calculator works for the vast majority of photographic fields, and gets your colleagues thinking about the true costs of doing business — which in turn, will assist them in calculating what they should charge. The biggest problem with photography rates today is not that they’re too high; it’s that photographers fail to contemplate the total costs of being in business, and thus price jobs too low.

I went to dinner recently with a colleague who thought he’d won his golden ticket; it was a staff job at a community newspaper. Less than three months later, he was laid off. Guess what? He wasn’t even eligible to collect unemployment. Everyone is replaceable. No one is safe. In this environment, learning to be self-sufficient — and helping others to do the same — is more important than ever.

[tags]freelance photography, photography advice[/tags]


One Response to “Six Ways to Help a Laid-Off Photographer Get Started as a Freelancer”

  1. John:

    As always great job. Most of all I think you have helped to underline why people need to join the photography community. Joining NPPA, ASMP or WPPA for example will help these new freelancers get plugged into a group of other photographers.

    The other thing you also highlight is how we are colleagues and not competition.

    Photojournalists need to learn that the Ethics for making photographs are not the only ethics they need to know. Business Ethics is also required to succeed. You again have highlighted this in your points.

    I would like to add a 7th way to help. Be a friend. This might be like a mentor at times, but some of these photographers are better photographers than us. We need to create a relationship with them that they will want to seek out our business advice. Sometimes we will just need to listen as they vent. Other times we may need to share our struggles as well--this way they understand we too are struggling and it isn't a cake walk.

    Thanks for your continued giving back to the profession. I can see by telling others your secrets of business hasn't hurt your business, but rather has helped you grow an even more successful brand.

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