The Best Things I’ve Learned in Business
In the spirit of sharing that makes EP what it is, here are some pearls of wisdom from some current and former EP Board members. Remember that pearls come from one ugly-looking creature that’s known as the garbage can of the ocean. Nevertheless, once you spend the time to dig them out, and suffer through a few gashes from the sharp knife along the way, pearls can be quite elegant little tidbits. As we say on the internet, “Your Mileage May Vary.”
Most of business is common sense. Having good paperwork, registering your copyrights, sending out invoices on time -- all of this is pretty straightforward, not hard to learn with a little practice, and is not rocket science. Learning how to negotiate a good deal is more of an art, and calls for good people skills and some creativity about how to do the give-and-take dance with a client. In the end the adage is true that you don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.
But the best and perhaps the most surprising thing I've learned after more than twenty years in the business is that you never know where your networking connections will lead. Some of the most lucrative jobs of my career have resulted from clients who happened to see my personal work that won a competition. Who knew that a personal project on a welfare mom would lead to an ad gig worth tens of thousands of dollars? Or that notices I send out about personal projects on women in Afghanistan would lead to commercial clients calling me with good corporate assignments? What I conclude from this is that it is important to do work that you care about and have a passion for, and then to get it out into the world in any venue possible. If the images are good and the work is meaningful to you, the high quality and passion will come through and clients will want to work with you. So doing work you're passionate about not only feeds your soul, it turns out that it’s also good for your business.
You can’t eat exposure.
As a working photographer, you’ll always be under pressure to provide your creative services for less. Every month or more, you’ll hear potential clients trying to haggle your fees downward with promises like, “think of all the exposure you’ll get,” or, “this will be seen by thousands of people. . . “ Especially early in your career, the trade-off of reduced or free photography services in return for exposure can seem promising, and may even seem like the ONLY way you’ll ever get published. But remember, while exposure, tearsheets, and name recognition do have value for helping you advance your career, you can’t eat them.
You are in this to make a living, that is the definition of "professional", so you need to make decisions based on staying in business for the long term. It might be exciting to be paid to do what you love to do, but don't let the elation of getting published cloud your responsibilities to yourself, to your business, and to your client. We should never be so vain or so desperate to simply get published that we forget that the goal of getting published is to make a living.
As valuable as exposure and name recognition may be, and there’s no doubt that getting your name and work out there is crucial, we can't eat exposure nor can we spend it on rent, or camera gear, or insurance. Exposure and name recognition are a means to the end of financial security, not the end themselves. Think carefully about whether or not the promised exposure will really help you, and learn to politely decline any opportunity to work for less than you’re worth.
- Reply promptly to all business inquiries.
- Never wear brown shoes with a black suit.
- Apple should have called the 'Newton' the 'P.T. Barnum'.
- Digital is the most amazing thing to happen to photography since the SLR
- I miss my film cameras.
- EBay rules.
- If you have a 'tiff' with a photo editor it's because you didn't send a jpg
- Photographers are still getting screwed.
- It's our fault.
- I could have been a lawyer.
The best thing I have learned in business is that photography is a business, and until it is treated it as such photographers will never get ahead.
[In early 2008, Pat also responded to a situation in a posting on the EP Forums that also bears repeating here. The original post had to do with a photographer who had discovered a magazine’s plans for their cover, created the image on spec., and then offered it to the magazine for free in order to get another photo credit under his belt. The situation came to light on EP because the EP member who started the thread was the photographer who had originally been ASSIGNED the cover shoot, and who was shocked at this blatantly unprofessional behavior by the “spec” photographer. This is excerpted with permission of both of the contributors.]
It's a sad truth that there are a bunch of photographers out there like the one that tried to undercut you. Believe it or not they are not the problem. The problem is the clients that accept their work for free and thereby create an environment that allows 'work for free' photographers to exist.
This happens often in entertainment, music, and fashion but rarely in the corporate world. I spent many years working in the music business and came up against freebie photographers frequently. They were a pain but they weren't competition. Happily, my clients chose to work with photographers because of their work and track record not because of an offer to shoot a job for free. You are not likely to see a photographer approach a corporate design client and say, “I would really like to go to the Beaufort Sea and shoot that oil derrick for free.” And even if someone was misguided enough to do so, a proper client would never accept the offer.
If the freebie photographers are ignored and left to their own devices they don't survive. There's no point competing with them or dealing with clients that will work with them.
I’ve been privileged to be in this profession for more than 20 years and I can honestly say I’m still learning. The following are a few things that I have gleaned:
Never burn bridges. Ours is really a pretty small world and you never know where someone will go next in their career. Today’s deputy assistant intern temporary photo researcher could be tomorrow’s top Photo Director at the pub you covet working for. And people tend to make lateral moves; so while you might get your hackles up about a publication’s policies-- don’t take it out on the photo editor or art director. Usually they’re just the messenger and might have a better message at the next place they end up.
Never ever give away rights. Even if they are a non-profit newsletter for homeless worms, make them pay something for usage rights if they are beyond the one-time use paid for by the assignment fee. That way even a token fee makes them realize that photography is licensed, not sold, so you’ll educate them for the future (and maybe help a worm). This of course unless you’ve decided that their cause is worth a donation. In that case don’t get your hopes up for a tax deduction (become a member http://www.editorialphoto.com/register and see the EP posts on this one).
Generate enthusiasm and interest in any assignment you have accepted. Even if it’s yet another businessman in a suit on a seamless, conjure up positive feelings for the work by thinking of doing it the very best way you can, tweaking some aspect of the craft or trying a slightly new way of doing it, or getting at least one frame out of it for yourself. The client doesn’t necessarily have to know this, it’s just inner psy-ops to keep you going, and besides they’ll probably get a better image.
When in doubt about who you’re dealing with when asked to price a job, ask them, “Did you have a budget in mind for this?” That way you’ll know whether you’d be wasting your time or if you have some room to negotiate. It also may (but rarely) prevent you from under-pricing a job.
- Get it in writing: Either yours or theirs (if it's acceptable).
- You don't need to sign a contract that you don't like. Changes can be made, despite what they may tell you.
- Make sure that you register everything from your shoot with the Copyright Office, ideally before anything is published.
- If you did do a shoot without some sort of agreement in advance, don't let some accountant tell you that they, "can't pay you unless you sign this contract as-is".
- Don't be afraid to ask for help/advice from colleagues/ professionals.
- Don't shoot for free.
- Always be really nice to the Assistant Photo Editor.
- Charge for use (rental) of your owned equipment.
- Keep your overhead low.
- Sorry, I've only got 9.
Probably the most important and valuable lesson that I’ve learned in business came very early on during my journey in this profession. The prospect of dealing with the monetary aspects, and asking for it, is perhaps the most frightening experience for many aspiring to this profession.
Fortunately for me, I was thrust into these waters by virtue of employment at a very early age when, at twenty-one, I was hired as a traveling family portrait photographer by a company called PCA (Photographers Corporation of America) based in Houston, Texas. It was my first job as an adult and involved a grueling travel schedule within the company’s regional territory spreading across Texas, parts of Louisiana, and even Mexico; driving, in some cases, up to eight-hours to reach my, often, three to four-day assignment destinations and setting up the portable studio which included a specially-designed camera, in the various department stores and banks among the many small towns and cities along the territory. The laws of Supply and Demand were a constant reality in this field of photography, thus becoming permanently etched in my new understanding of how business and photography interacted with consistent results. The responsibilities associated with managing thousands of dollars in cash and checks on a weekly basis and crunching the numbers to correspond with the element of time, daily receipts, lodging, and other travel expenses, quickly became a solid and important awakening in business education for me at a very young age.
I also came to the realization that well-honed social skills + an enormous amount of patience = dollars. This lesson of the relationship between business and photography translated well with my second job as a staff photographer at a high-end portrait studio were skills in sales became an essential component of the job. Confronting the issues of money and associating it with image value had become second nature by this point in my journey, which only broadened upon moving to New York City to start all over as an assistant working with photographers whose business acumen depended highly on their survival.
Learning to ask for fair compensation - commensurate to image value - without fear, is a vital lesson for all entering into this profession.
- While negotiating fees or terms and conditions, always start out by asking for what you think you deserve. The worst thing that can happen is for them to say "no," and frequently they will say "yes!"
- Whenever anyone negotiating with you tells you what other photographers have done, remember that you are not those photographers. Neither your client nor the other photographers are running your business, or your life. Don't let them tell you how to do so, especially if it is bad business for you in the long run.
- Treat each client like a precious relationship....because they are! It is MUCH harder to get a new client than to take good care of an old one.