Photography business tips from ASMP’s executive director Eugene Mopsik.
I’m 11 years old, standing with my family at the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset. I can’t take my eyes off the landscape, and I marvel at the beauty of the light. What’s my father doing? He’s furiously operating a Super-8 movie camera and an Argus 35mm still camera, racing against the clock.
Fast-forward several years. Inspired by my father’s hobby, I graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1970 and declare myself a photographer, albeit with no formal photography education and not a clue about how to run a small business.
Over the next three decades as a corporate and industrial professional photographer, 25 of those as an ASMP member, the fabric of my life became permanently altered.
I look at street scenes and envision them as locations for my shoots: Is the light right? Do I need permits, models, police or certificates of insurance? What’s the location fee? How many assistants will I need? I can’t help myself.
After many years of self-employment, I have developed the skills of an amateur electrician, plumber, carpenter, part-time accountant, estimator, logistics consultant, forklift operator, truck driver, art director, writer, public relations manager and marketing manager. I am skilled at the cold call and armed with the ability to talk to anyone and ask for anything.
I also have become adept at risk assessment and management. Photographers, in general, try to test their limits with each new assignment. We are eager to take a chance, knowing that it might make for a better image, although we face financial risk every day. After 32 years, I’ve learned how to ride out the storm, understanding that life as a photographer is built on a foundation that requires frequent attention.
The word photographer does nothing to define the extraordinarily varied skills we all acquire with years of work experience.
Making the right choices
As ASMP’s executive director, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the problems of studio (and all) photographers and what can be done to improve working conditions. Consolidations in the stock photography market, the proliferation of royalty-free stock and its impact on assignment work, The New York Times and Knight Ridder/Tribune freelance contracts and new business models, such as custom stock, are all having a substantial negative effect on a working publication photographer’s ability to earn a sustainable level of income.
Further compounding these market forces is what I have identified as the phenomenon of the "30-day horizon." This refers to the inability of photographers to look beyond the next billing cycle and to make decisions that not only are in their own long-term best interests, but in the best interests of the trade.
While entities such as The New York Times, which clearly understand the value of images, can afford to take the long view in their licensing policies and activities, independent publication photographers frequently do not have that luxury. Their policies and activities more often are governed by economic necessity. Faced with shrinking markets for assignment work, rising expenses, diminished returns on stock files and the need to invest in a substantial digital infrastructure, photographers find no relief from an increasing basic monthly overhead.
Knowing what the right choices are and being able to make them are two different things. How many photographers have six-month to one-year financial reserves? How many photographers are actively planning for their retirements, long-term health care and old age? How many photographers are living job to job without really knowing whether they are making money?
Often we hear the call to “just say no” to bad deals. When studio photographers are faced with meeting monthly obligations, while at the same time trying to do what is best for the long term and best for the trade, frequently, it is the monthly obligations that become the highest priority. Individuals must make decisions governed by the real world and, more often than not, they do so in light of short-term economic necessity. The long view is a luxury that many photographers cannot afford.
I have come to understand that there is more than one path to success. What is right for one photographer may not be right for another. However, some principles apply across the board:
You will never be hurt by being a good businessperson. Knowing and understanding the value of your work is a key component to success and is as important as knowing your cost of doing business. Photographers frequently undervalue jobs for fear of losing assignments. As a strategy, I always wanted to start high with my estimates and then be seen as accommodating when I was willing to negotiate. Whenever I submitted an estimate and it was accepted without comment, I knew that I had left money on the table. It is important to know what your monthly overhead really is (remembering to factor in all expenses) to determine whether you are making money.
Never stop marketing and seeking out new clients. The tendency is to slack off on promotion when you are busy; then, when you are slow, it takes that much longer to get moving again. New client development must be part of your routine. Today, with the Internet, your access to potential national and international markets has never been better. Stay fresh in your approach to your subjects. A career in photography is an ongoing process of reinvention, involving moves to better clients as your career lengthens. In order to raise your rates, it often is necessary to move on.
Embrace technology. At a minimum, you should be digitally conversant, if not proficient. The potential is enormous. You can now sculpt images with the advantage of instant feedback to be certain that the images fulfill the clients’ needs. With digital technology, you can see your range of focus and image content far better than you ever could with a loupe and a Polaroid. Your ability to white-balance and change color profiles is extraordinary. While increasing control and productivity, digital photography has created a substantial back-end workload. The tasks of editing, profiling, retouching, creating output files, archiving and so on are time-based skills to factor into your assignments. These tasks should become a profit center, not an annoyance.
Stay connected. Professional associations such as ASMP have much to offer: information in the form of business and legal resources to help you succeed; education in the form of traveling “It’s Your Business” seminars, specialty-group and member-only listservs, and regular chapter meetings; and advocacy in the form of contract analysis and support. General members are listed in the widely used and searchable FindaPhotographer.org client database. Finally, along with discounts on services and offers on commercial and health insurance, associations offer the opportunity for photographers to exchange information with peers on local issues of interest.
Continue to take joy in your work and the images that you create. It is your professional vision, sensitivity, experience and understanding that both record and change our world.