The most important thing I have learned as a photographer

I’m frequently asked what it the most important thing I have learned as a photographer. I never hesitate with the answer. It is how and when to say “No thanks.”

I still remember the early days when any appreciation or recognition for my work seemed so valuable that the temptation to throw away good business sense was strong. But most of these “opportunities” amounted to nothing other than exploitation, and to accept them would mean giving away the only thing I have that really matters: my integrity to myself and the value of my work.

A rather interesting such “opportunity” hit my email box yesterday from a large stock photo company wanting me to shoot a concert for their library and I thought I would share it with you.

Dear Photographer,

A ______ concert will take place at _____ in Denver, Colorado on _____ . Since you are in that area, we need your help as a skilled photographer to provide imagery related to this event.

We need about 3 different images.  The images might be featured on in our “In the News” section which will provide them good exposure and increase their sales potential. This section has become a common reference for major newspapers and magazines throughout the world. Your efforts will help them to cover this event in a more accurate way.

To an “emerging photographer” trying to “break in” this could seem like an opportunity to get photos of a big name performer in one of the largest venues in the city. But this is not what it seems. This is a microstock agency that contacted me wanting the images for their library where they will license for a dollar or two. After they take their cut off the top, and with the limited sales due to constrained subject matter (no matter how famous, a celebrity picture will not gain the stock sales that a generic one will), I might stand to make $20 off the images in a year.  How will that help my business?

Meanwhile, if I was to accept it, I would be doing considerable harm to many sectors of the industry and my fellow photographers. For example, the Chicago Sun Tribune could not have laid off its entire staff of photographers were it not for the exact type of action requested here. Why would they pay for a photographer to cover the show when they could license the image a day later for $2.00?

My response was:

This is a request I will need to pass up for many reasons.  As someone who has worked in music photography for years I understand well the issues this creates.  One, (venue name) will not allow photography at the venue UNLESS you have been issued credentials by both the band’s manager and the venue.   I’m not big on sneaking into venues.  Two, the pay that this will result in is not worth the time, effort and expense… yes expense, it DOES cost us money each time we do a shoot.  With prep time, shoot time, travel time and post production I would be spending an entire day of my time for three images that are not likely to earn much.  Three, having microstock move into this area of photography destroys yet another market and means the artists, venues and media no longer have to pay fair prices for the images AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHER.  This is taking jobs from media photographers, it denies the artist control over where and how his/her image appears, and destroys the earning power of all photographers in the entertainment industry.

No thanks.  I can’t take part in that.
Mark Stout

This, as in deciding whether or not to take all shoots that come my way is a judgment call. There are many factors to consider. And while profitability is a factor to consider, there is always a broader issue to be looked at. What will be the impact on the greater industry?

This doesn’t mean there is never a time you say yes to a shoot that doesn’t pay well. Just as photographers are at different levels of skill and ability, clients come from different walks. There may be a reason you want to help that client. Or you may see some value gained other than money (but be careful with this one, as usually the case is you should be getting both that value… such as the exposure the shoot will gain… and the pay for doing the work).

But when you see examples such as above where a multi-million dollar corporation is asking you to help them profit by cheating you and your fellow photographers out of your pay… or the case of an ad agency who asked me to do a two day shoot for a Fortune 500 company for less than I would make were I to shoot a high school student’s Senior Pictures, it’s time to say no and walk away.

So again, the most important thing I have learned? Separate my creative ambition from my businessman’s hat. If I don’t do the second part I will not long be able to do the first.

Please !

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