10 years ago, with a passion for photography, a strong work ethic and just the right amount of naiveté, I struck out as a professional photographer with the support of my wife. I haven’t had a real job since. There have been some major highs and major lows during the past decade, but as my 11th year in business begins I feel as if I’m finally on solid ground.Read More
Sometimes, it's really hard to turn down work. Especially when the work sounds interesting. But, there comes a time in every photographer's career where you are faced with a choice.
"Do I go against everything I believe in and sign this shitty contract to make a few bucks or do I politely decline and stick to my guns?"
I recently had the opportunity to politely decline what sounded like an interesting project because the contract was simply bad. The contract was a "work for hire" agreement which requires that I sign over any and all rights, including copyright ownership to the client. Some people will say work for hire is evil and should never ever be considered. I take a more optimistic approach in that each project is different. If I were approached by a client who required a work for hire agreement and understood exactly what it meant and how much it should be worth then I might negotiate a rate that compensates me for handing over my intellectual property. That's the core problem right there though. If I sign a work for hire agreement then I have no opportunity to make money from those images in the future. Technically speaking, I can't even use them in my portfolio. Shitty. If a client is actually willing to pay a fair price for that, then hell yeah I'll sign it, but I don't know that any company exists that is willing to pay a true work for hire cost.
Here's the thing though. They don't need this kind of agreement. They really don't. It's a contract that was crafted by the company lawyers, who in all fairness are just trying to do their job. In their legal minds they only see one side. The client's side. I get it, I really do. However, it locks creative professionals like myself into a contract that doesn't have any flexibility. If I can't negotiate a fair wage based on the end use of the images I create then how do I survive as an image creator?
The client of the agency that contacted me made it clear to the agency that the contract crafted by the company lawyers could not be altered in any way. No changes, nada. It was a really bad contract and I had no options for negotiating changes.
Despite that, I aired my grievances to the Art Director, who quite frankly is put in a tough situation every time she needs to hire creative services. I suggested changes to the language in the contract that would essentially give the client what they need without asking me to give up everything. She was extremely understanding of my position, but despite her best intentions the contract could not be changed. She seemed really nice and I did want to work with her, but we had no way to change the terms of the agreement.
I really feel for agency creatives that are forced to ask other creative professionals to sign these kinds of contracts. It must suck knowing that you are asking photographers to hand over their rights for a nominal fee, without having any alternatives.
The worst part about this whole ordeal is the fact that the next photographer in line probably signed that terrible contract without a second thought. It's a reality of my profession though and I intend to continue to negotiate each and every contract that comes into my inbox. I know for a fact that all parties involved can reach an agreement that is mutually beneficial and respectful to the rights of one another if everyone involved is willing to communicate and be flexible. So that's what I'll do. I'll remain flexible.
I have had many, many times when jobs fall through for reasons that are outside of my control. There haven't been many times though when I've actively said no to a job and until last week, there had never been a time where I turned down a good paying job from a respectable agency because of ethical concerns.
That's right. I left money on the table because I didn't feel comfortable using my skill set to promote this particular client's product. It was an extremely difficult decision. August is traditionally a slow month for me so when work comes along, and it's paying reasonable rates, it's really hard to say no. In this case however, I just couldn't bring myself to work for this client. Without naming names (and please don't try to guess), I will say that this client promotes a particular product that I just don't fully support. I don't think it's good for people, the environment, our country or our future.
The reason I don't want to identify this client is because the people who work for their agency of record are good people whom I like and want to continue to work with. I don't want my ethical dilemma to reflect negatively on the agency's business. This is an important point because I greatly value relationships and as a freelancer and small business owner it's paramount that I maintain good working relationships.
The agency understood my position and even respected my decision. Which is pretty amazing when you think about it. There they were, offering me good money to shoot a job that countless other photographers would probably jump at. And here I am saying no to a job that didn't even require any negotiation. Here's the budget, here's the shot list, it's yours if you want it.
And, here's the kicker. The actual assignment sounded interesting to me. I think it would have been a lot of fun to shoot, but I just couldn't reconcile my feelings about how the images would be used. I thought long and hard about this assignment, but ultimately I had to turn it down. I like to think that I'm sticking to my ethical code and that I'm above selling out, but I wonder how the decision would have been different if the fee for the job could have been "life changing" for me and my family. Where do you draw the line and how do you balance supporting your family and maintaining a good conscience? There is a lot of gray area and only you can make the decision.
For now though, I feel good about not taking the job. Do I wish I was making money right now? Yes, but there are other jobs out there. Just to prove my point, literally within one hour of deciding to turn down this job I received an email from another agency asking me to bid on a much better job for a client that I can really pour all my energy into. Now just keep your fingers crossed that I win the bid.
I work in a fickle industry. There are times when it feels overwhelming as I’m sure it does for many other photographers, filmmakers, writers and anyone who pursues a freelance career. Even when you are doing everything you think you need to be doing, outside forces that are beyond your control can influence the outcome. As it is in every aspect of life. You work hard. You nurture your creative voice. You learn. You research. You hone your technical skills. You perfect your business skills. You think. And sometimes you find yourself writing blog posts in the middle of the night. To what end you say?
Well, this industry is fickle and it can be frustrating. But that fickleness is also what makes it exciting to get up every morning and get to work. A set back one day is just that. It’s one day. The next day offers a multitude of opportunities if you allow it to. If there is one thing I have learned as a freelancer the past 8 years is that you just have to take one day at a time. Jobs come and go. The shutter clicks. The hard drives hum. The world turns and the industry changes by the minute. Be willing to adapt. Be flexible and enjoy yourself . . . even when things seem hard. If it was easy everyone would do it.
I’m excited for tomorrow. I’m excited to wake up next to my wife, to see my son smile, to watch my dog run through the field and to make coffee. Mmm, coffee. And, I’m excited for the work I get to do. Fun, creative work. Tomorrow is a day to focus on creating and to take a break from the numbers associated with running a business.
That’s why I endure the setbacks. Even when things are bad, they’re actually pretty damn good. I hear a lot of complaining and a lot of excuses on the web. I've done my fair share, but sometimes you just have to shut up and do the work. Be a doer. Lead. Take a risk. Stop complaining. If we can remember that we are the only ones holding ourselves back then nothing is out of reach.
Good night. I’ll see you in the morning.
If there is only one piece of advice I can give to a communications professional regarding visual media it is this: Above all else, make it authentic. The days of marketing a vision of a utopian school are disappearing. And rightly so. It’s all about authenticity these days. Maybe your brand is based on rigorous academics. Maybe it’s based on global leadership or community action. Maybe it’s all of these, but if you are trying to communicate with images that don’t represent your institution’s core beliefs, you may not be reaching who you need to reach.
To read my entire article about creating authentic media in education marketing, check out this POST on EdSocialMedia.
The title of this post represents a conundrum that I have been grappling with. How do I as a professional photographer live out the low tech lifestyle I so desire while continuing to make a living doing what I love? As a professional who is required to stay up to date on the latest technology and become a master of them, is it even possible for me to live a low tech lifestyle? I don't really know, but I'm trying.
Do you ever get the feeling that you're spending way too much time online or plugged in to this device or that device? That your eyes are about ready to pop out of your head? That by constantly being connected to digital technology you are becoming depressed? You can't live without checking Facebook for more than a day can you? Go on, admit it. You are addicted to technology and the false sense of importance it brings to your life.
There, I said it. We are addicted to a false sense of importance. I know I may be pissing a lot of you off and I understand. I'm guilty of technology addiction and revel in the false sense of importance I get from it. Hell, even as I write this on my Macbook Pro I'm listening to Pandora on my Ipad while doing a hardware test and software reinstall on my Mac Pro Tower. The latter is making me increasingly unhappy and angry. Yet, I must do it right? I run all of my photo processing software off of my Mac Pro. It contains the archive hierarchy of the last 9 years of photographs and video. It contains my sales lists and contact database. It's the brain behind Ryan Smith Photography. Without it, I'm operating on less than 50%.
Wait. Less than 50%. I thought I was a photographer, not a computer tech. Well, as the industry would have it, we photographers must be masters of digital technology. Otherwise, the guy with the camera and infinite knowledge of algorithms and digital manipulation gets the job. I'm exaggerating a bit here, but not by much.
I should mention that I love technology. It fascinates me and excites me. Every day there are technological advances that make new things possible. I love discovering new uses for these technologies and learning the discoveries of others. There are exponentially increasing methods of capturing and sharing images. In fact, the ways seem limitless. There is no greater time in history to be an image maker. We have infinite options.
But . . .
What about the other aspects of life that make us happy? What about the relationships that enrich our lives? What about the real world experiences that contribute to our well being and understanding of the world around us? We can't live our lives in front of computer screens or attached to our cell phones and expect to truly live. What are you missing when your head is buried in your cell phone? What kinds of real interactions with friends are you missing when you're trolling through your Facebook news feed?
I say, let's wake the fuck up and live. Yeah, I might have to be plugged in throughout most of the week to do my job, but I don't have to be connected every minute of every day. I work efficiently. In fact, I pride myself on being efficient when I'm at my desk. I will get as much done and learn as much as possible about technology in the allotted time I have at my desk. The rest of the time is for me and my family.
I don't feel guilty for spending a few hours in my garden, experimenting with different growing techniques. I don't feel guilty for taking a 2 hour lunch break and going for a walk with my son and my dog. I don't feel guilty for leaving work early for happy hour with friends.
I do feel guilty when I spend too much time at my computer. I feel like I'm missing something important about life and that my time has not been well spent. Let's get back to actually living. I'll try if you try.
As many of you know I have been working with the talented people at Wonderful Machine since last summer. In an effort to help them help me, I printed a duplicate version of my portfolio and sent off to them to keep on file. Recenlty, Jess, Craig and Kayleen hit the road with an arsenal of books, including mine. Tierney in Philadelphia is where they took my portfolio. You can read about it on their blog. They also put together the video below to show my portfolio. If you haven't seen my print portfolio, this is a good opportunity to check it out. Of course, nothing is a substitute for actually holding the prints yourself, but at least you can see how it's sequenced and what I have chosen to include in it. This portfolio changes regularly so I imagine within the next month or two there will be some new images included and some of these will be gone. That's what is great about portfolios . . . they're never finished.
"With some exceptions, photography is not a highly remunerative profession. We have chosen this path in large part due to the passion we have for visual communication, visual art, and the subject matters in which we specialize.
The substantial increase in photographs available via the internet in recent years, coupled with reduced budgets of many photo buyers, means that our already meager incomes have come under additional strain.
Moreover, being a professional photographer involves significant monetary investment . . . So the bottom line is that although we certainly understand and can sympathise with budget constraints, from a practical point of view, we simply cannot afford to subsidize everyone who asks."
Continue reading HERE.
The above quote is by Tony Wu and is from an article posted on Photo Professionals Blog. I have reposted it on Playing Work under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Read the entire article HERE. It's well written and I couldn't agree with it more.
I read this great interview with photographer Kurt Markus on A Photo Editor recently and wanted to repost this section on PlayingWork. You can read the full interview here. That’s the revolution, because I’ve always thought of photography as an object. It’s not electronic information, it’s an object. I don’t believe in a photograph until I make a print. It doesn’t exist for me. It’s just like thin air. So from that perspective it looks to me like people are afraid. They’re afraid to commit to putting their name on an object and claiming it. They’re dodging the biggest bullet of all which is standing up for your work.
It takes guts to make a print. You know you have to convince yourself that this is you, that you’ve made this and that you’re putting your name on it, and you also have to believe that maybe somebody else either can appreciate the work you’ve done or can appreciate the fact that this is you. There’s nothing else to hide behind.
When I was 20 years old I was a jerk. Not all the time, but in one particular instance I was the biggest jerk on campus. During my 20th year of life I attended Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, CO for one semester. I was in the professional photography program and it had a major impact on my development as a photographer. The coursework was great and the instructors were top notch, yet I only lasted one semester before transferring for the third time in my college career. There were a combination of things that led to my departure from CMC including the fact that the I-70 corridor through Colorado is rather expensive for someone trying to make it through school without incurring any debt. Another major reason was the fact that my new girlfriend (now my wife) was living in Boston while attending Berklee College of Music. Being 2,000 miles away from each other is a tough way to build a meaningful relationship.
The other factor that led to my departure was that I quickly burnt myself out on photography. The program was intensive and required me to throw everything else aside. I remember days of hitting the road before dawn to go on location to shoot. I'd come back before my first class in the morning, then process the film after lunch. I'd go to more classes and then print through the evening. It was great for fast paced learning, but my personality requires my life to be diverse. I needed variety in my life so I worked 30 hours a week at a local ski shop and spent the few spare moments I had climbing mountains and snowboarding. I loved Colorado!
But . . .
There was one particular instance during my time at CMC that I want to talk about. I can look back on it now and smile, but at the time I was convinced that what I was doing was the right thing. Being 11 years removed has given me a much clearer perspective of that "defining moment."
Simply put, I was an arrogant little asshole. I'm going to recount this experience now in the hopes that some of you younger readers won't be as much of jerk as I was at 20.
I was taking Black and White Photography 1. I should start by saying that this was an incredibly valuable class and I learned many of the fundamentals I now use as a professional photographer during this time. I went through the entire semester doing very well. I wasn't that crazy about many of the assignments the instructor assigned, but the material was relevant. I held an A the whole way through the semester until my final assignment for the semester when I really shined as a jerk.
BW Photo 1 - Make one picture that represents what America means to you. I remember getting the assignment and immediately being turned off. "How can one photograph represent America! This is a ridiculous assignment." At least this is how I felt at the time. Now I look at this assignment and realize how subjective it is. I literally could have shot anything. But, being the arrogant little jerk that I was I thought, "No way man, I'm not going to lower myself to these standards. I'm above this and won't do it." See what I mean - I was a dickhead.
So instead of just doing the assignment like the rest of my peers, I spent way too much time writing an essay about why I refused to do the assignment. I wish I could find a copy of that essay so I could have a really good laugh. I think I even turned in a black print. Yeah, like I said I was a jerk. I probably spent more time not doing the assignment than if I had actually just gone out and shot something new. It's hard to remember why I was so passionate about not doing it, but I remember being 100% sure of myself then. Where did I get that confidence?
Long story short, I got an F. And rightly so. I can't imagine what my professor thought when I turned that in. He was so furious that he didn't even talk to me the remainder of my time there. I don't blame him one bit. That act of defiance was something that isn't worthy of being addressed. If by some coincidence my former teacher happens to read this and remembers me, I would like to utter this apology:
"I'm sorry for being such a jerk. I had no basis for acting in that way and I hope you realize the lessons you taught me have been invaluable to my career. I regret not using the passion I had to actually create something meaningful. I regret acting the way I did and hope you'll except this belated apology. I was only 20, clearly immature and stupid. I'm sorry."
And with that I would like to turn in a revised assignment and say, "Hey Kid, don't be a jerk."
Holy bankruptcy repellent Batman! Has it really been 5 years? Well . . . as of this Thursday, September 1st, we have reached the 5 year anniversary of our official business start date. For one, it's hard to believe that we've been in business for 5 years and, two, that means Larissa and I have been married for over 5 years. Where does the time go? I could go on a long philosophical rant about about the seemingly swift passage of time, but I'll spare you my musings. Instead, I would like to recap what we've done in those 5 years.
The 6 months preceding official start date
Larissa and I worked our butts off to finish planning a DIY wedding, got married and wrote a pretty impressive business plan. After tying the knot and celebrating with our friends and family we hunkered down and finished the business plan and began to shop it around. After a great honeymoon in Maine and numerous meetings with bank officials we secured a loan (with the help of some amazing family members), and officially began to produce Royalty Free stock for the Somos Collection, now owned by Corbis.
Producing royalty free stock for Somos. "Okay, we don't know what the hell we're doing, but we've been given this opportunity to contribute to this new, all hispanic stock collection so let's give it hell." And we did. We produced a total of 31 shoots from September of 2006 through July of 2007 and contributed 1,220 images to Somos. Certainly not the production capacity of full time studio, but not bad for 2 newly weds.
Tired of producing stock with an ever dwindling profit margin, we decided to pack all of our belongings into a Uhaul and bid farewell to Austin, TX. In less than a month we made the decision and moved ourselves back to our roots in rural, Mercersburg, PA. Suddenly, we found ourselves needing to rework our entire business plan. "What the hell do we do now? I don't want to get a job. Do you want to get a job? NO! Okay, let's start marketing me as a commercial photographer." The first opportunity came by shooting institutional photography for Mercersburg Academy. We also ramped up our wedding and portrait brand with the goal of becoming the best in the area.
Continued shooting institutional work by picking up additional education clients. I had the realization of, "Hey, I'm pretty damn good at this! I should start marketing to more schools." And so it went. Year three also brought the addition of some resort clients and all the while I continued to shoot portraits and weddings.
"Wow, this recession really sucks. What happened to all our savings? I don't know. Let's hit the road for a month and live out of our car." Year Four brought us one of the greatest trips of our lives. We hit the road in search of Americana and drove 7,414 miles in 28 days. We revisited parts of the country we had lived in during our early 20's and explored some new areas too. We returned to Mercersburg with a renewed sense of spirit and motivation. I started shooting and experimenting with video.
"But . . . why isn't anyone hiring me right now? Oh yeah, we're still in a recession. Have faith, the next job is coming." And it did, always at just the right time.
Work suddenly picks up, big time. We have the busiest fall of our lives and do more business than I ever anticipated. We're feeling pretty damn good about ourselves and our ability to adapt to a changing economy. I have solidified myself as an institutional photographer and am beginning to extend myself toward other markets. I shoot work for education, hospitals and an assortment of resorts, along with continuously picking up new clients. I finally get the opportunity to work with some ad agencies and design firms and feel that my style of photography is coming into its own.
During this same time, we invest in and successfully help launch another company called GlowArtworks. This new company is another way to diversify by providing curated fine art prints to interior designers working in the healthcare design industry. I am psyched about what we are doing with this company!
Along with all of this, we also made the decision to halt our wedding and portrait brand of photography. We realized that this facet of our business was becoming a bit of a distraction to the direction we really wanted to be heading in. As hard as it was to put this brand to rest, it has been a good decision for us.
Year Six . . . ?
I am hoping for year six to bring continued prosperity and new, creative and interesting projects. I am starting this year with a trip to Boston for some portfolio showings in an attempt to break into yet another photography market. I have high hopes for GlowArtworks and am excited to continue working on this project to make it better and better.
Photography is an adventure and you better have a strong stomach. It's never easy, but always rewarding. Surround yourself with loving, talented and hard working people. Larissa and I work hard and we trust each other to take care of what needs to be done each day. I can't imagine doing anything else and hope that I will be writing another short history of our business when we reach the 10 year mark.
Here's to 5 Years!
The one thing that’s going to make me miss or succeed as a photographer is capturing “the” moment, because that involves anticipation and predicting the future. It involves a lot of skill, a lot of guess work, and experience. And I think ultimately knowing when to press that shutter is one of the greatest skills you can develop as a still photographer. -Vincent Laforet
It's been such a busy couple of months that I nearly forgot to mention that I was recently published in the March issue of Baltimore Magazine. It's a great magazine and one I hope to be doing more work for in the future. This shot was tougher than it looked because my assignment was to photograph this couple and make it look like spring. Doesn't sound that tough right? Well, in the middle of January with a foot of snow on the ground and a fast approaching deadline I had to come up with something.
Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best. We asked Lucy and Tadgh to stand on a picnic table so that we could isolate them against the dreary sky. They were great sports about standing on a picnic table in freezing temperatures while I clicked away. My assistant and I kept it simple by using battery powered strobes to light our setup. I had to do a separate exposure for the sky and then to add a little drama I tweaked the color. Ultimately, the shot turned out great and I learned a lot about Irish sports in the process.
Here's a link to the article online. Luck of the Game If you have never heard of hurling or Gaelic football, check out the videos below. Hurling is one crazy sport!
Here's my list: 1. Stepping out of your comfort zone is necessary to grow.
2. No matter how many times you tell a dog not to eat horse shit, it will continue to eat shit.
3. Smartphones are cool.
4. I am not invincible.
5. Talent is not enough.
6. A combination of talent, persistence, innovation and luck are necessary to survive as an entrepreneur.
7. Being diverse is good.
8. Pizza will never go out of style.
10. Question those in charge.
11. Share, collaborate, but stick to your guns.
12. Personal time will always be more important than work.
13. Life is short so enjoy every moment.
14. Being a photographer is terrifying, fun, exhilarating and the only thing I can imagine myself doing right now.
I shot a ton of photography and video this year and as I look back through the images of the past 12 months I can see ways that I have changed as a photographer. I have changed yet I feel that the creative thread that holds my photographs together is present throughout. I hope you can see it too.
This year was pretty tough for us, but we still managed to keep going and continued to find new business while serving current clients. We shot for educational institutions, healthcare organizations, resorts, magazines, design firms, architects, beer companies and bands. We shot weddings and portraits while simultaneously rebranding that side of our business (which is still in progress). We did all of this while shooting personal work and learning video production. We even started producing video for clients in the end of 2010 and I'm looking forward to many more video projects in 2011. It's been an interesting year full of ups and downs, but as we stand on the edge of 2011 I am excited and optimistic about the year ahead.
I hope all of you out there have a Happy and Healthy New Year!
What have you learned this year?
Favorite photos from 2010. Some of these are personal and some are for clients.
I saw this post over at A Photo Editor and checked out the link to the Denver Egotist. They asked respected creative people in Colorado to say, illustrate, list, film, etc. what they learned this year. The responses are a great read and very insightful. Here is one of my favorite snippets from this article. I suggest you check out the whole article when you have a chance. I've been thinking of what I have learned this year and am planning to write a post about it along with a 2010 retrospective of the photographs I have taken this year. Stay tuned.
What I Learned This Year #8: Sean Leman, founder/director at Rehab in Denver #1: I am a moron. Not all the time, but more often than I would like to admit.
This year I learned how little I know. It has been humbling to discover my ignorance, my uninformed choices, and the unconscious assumptions that drive much of my thinking.
It’s beyond cliché to say that this industry is changing at a breakneck pace, but there’s a truth buried in that. Change and progress and uncertainty are gifts. They remind us that no matter how fucking smart we think we are, we’re really not.
I’ve learned a lot seeing what happens when I start from that place. When I’m open to the fact that there’s much to be learned. That my first answer is not necessarily the right answer. Let alone the best one.
I was planning on and looking forward to being at this presentation 2 weeks ago, but was unable to make it. Fortunately for me and for all of you, Chase Jarvis and the CreativeLive team recorded and re-posted this presentation to his blog.
It's a little over an hour long and well worth the listen. I pumped this through my headphones while editing this morning and want to share it with all of you. Whether you're a photographer, designer, business person, etc, you can take inspiration from this discussion.
Some of the guests include:
If anyone is looking for an early Christmas present for me, I'd love one of these! Fortunately, The Impossible Project has brought instant film for Polaroid cameras back to life. The video below is a fun how to video produced by Polaroid when they first introduced their SX-70 camera back in 1972. They make it look so fun! Thanks to Chase Jarvis for pointing this one out.
I often talk about paths, directions and creativity here on Playing Work so when I read this post by Chase Jarvis I thought I would share it here. This wisdom holds true not just for photographers, but for any entrepreneur. Get in the game and stay in the game. Chase embodies this mantra by always being in the game. Thanks Chase! The Long-Ass Curvy Road.
This Wednesday, Larissa and Ryan traveled from the country to the city for some face time with ad agency creatives and DC Fotoweek exhibitions. We had traveled to Baltimore for similar purposes last week, so we made sure to grab our little sack of quarters for parking and made our way to our nation's capitol.