One of the constant messages in photoblog circles is “Don’t work for free!” There are a bunch of arguments for this, from the formal to the informal, but they all pretty much boil down to the fear that if the market is served by others who undercut your prices, they’re reducing the amount of money you can make. As Chuq von Rospach said in a post about the Should I work for free? piece I linked to yesterday:
It’s interesting to see a bunch of people who are making a living selling photos tell other people who aren’t to please stop doing things that might help those people who aren’t making money on their images break into the business enough that they can start getting that income.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last ten years, it’s that the profession of photography is filled to the brim with people who love to tell other people what not to do ranging from Don’t ever go without a UV filter! to Don’t use my image! As a fledging professional getting started, I listened to a lot of this advice and incorporated a lot of it into my own practice, even that which went against some of the important lessons I learned from open source software development. As a result, I’ve certainly given my own share of bad Don’t do that! advice. Over the last couple of years, after figuring out how toxic some of that advice that I was trying to follow was, I’ve been actively purging it from my world view and working my way to a new one.
Look, the mid-to-late 20th century business model that photographers enjoyed is done with. Dead. The fact that it worked for several generation of photographers is a testament to the fact that the world needed gatekeepers to make mass media and that film was a relatively scarce resource. Even the slow feedback loop of making a photo and not seeing the result for a bit of time moderated the number of photographers that achieved enough proficiency at the art to craft reliably acceptable images for commercial purposes.
Digital changed all that. Bits aren’t scarce. The number of awesome photographers is going up exponentially, thanks in part to how fast the learning feedback loop is with digital cameras. And, the gatekeepers are no longer a barrier to image distribution. All of that means that the old business model is gone. Period. There’s no putting that genie back in the bottle. To try to do so is like the record companies trying to stop file sharing.
What’s the new business model? I don’t know and I don’t think there is any single answer, nor even a crystal clear set of possibilities that will work for every situation. You should be suspect of any advice you get, including mine. But here are a few things that I believe wholeheartedly and am using to find my own way:
The free market doesn’t entitle anybody to a business model, certainly not in a creative endeavor. Customers pay when they see value in what they are paying for. When they don’t see value, they don’t. Trying to project your own worldview of what’s right or wrong on this is futile.
If your business model requires anybody else to play by a certain set of rules, including a code of conduct or an agreement of what any particular action is worth, then you’re going to get bypassed by those that don’t play by the same rule book. You can believe that the ones passing you by are doing it wrong all you want, but it won’t stop them from doing it.
Copyright law gives some useful mechanisms for making money from your work and helping deal with those that would unfairly exploit your work and you should always retain your copyright in any arrangement, but it’s not a panacea and exercising some of the rights it gives you can very much be at odds with having happy customers willing to pay you for your work.
What you spend your time doing, and how much you want to make for that time, is up to you. If you want to get paid and a customer sees enough value in you to pay you, then you’re set. If you’re happy making photographs for the simple pleasure of it or to help somebody else out, then that’s OK too.
Customers—both commercial businesses and individuals—have a different relationship with photography than they ever had before. They chafe at the artificial restrictions of old. Brides and grooms want to share their photos on Facebook. Businesses want fewer restrictions on use. And all have access to more photographs than ever. That’s the reality of the situation. You can either try to find a way to make people happy enough to pay you, or you can work upstream by saying No! a lot. Your choice.
You’re not paid by other photographers if you’re a professional and you certainly don’t need their approval to make a buck or not. If you’re looking to make a living, then you need a customer who is willing to pay you. If you’re simply looking to make someone—or even yourself—happy with your photos and how they are used, you don’t need anybody’s permission to do so.
You don’t have any control over how other people choose to make a buck or not. You can whine or bitch about it, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. So why are you spending time worrying about it instead of getting on with your own photography?
As far as getting paid, there’s one thing I really believe above all else: There are many types of currency in the world, not all of them are denominated in terms of money. As long as you are getting value from your work and not being exploited, then I have no business in telling you what you should be doing or how you should do it.
Myself, I’ve sold images to soulless companies looking to use my work to promote their goods and I’ve made some decent money on some of those transactions. I’ve also let people I know and like use my work for nothing more than a huge thank you. I charge for-profit conferences full price, but I charge TED somewhat less because I believe in their mission and am happy to support it, in part, with my own sweat and tears. I’ve even spent a lot of my own money—partially reimbursed by the generosity of others, but only partially—to fly over an oil spill with some other awesome photographers and help tell a story I thought wasn’t getting told. My metric with every transaction is whether I’m getting value from it or not. Sometimes that value needs to be cash so that I can keep on doing what I love. Other times, it doesn’t.
There is no photo guild. You don’t have to listen to those who want to believe there is one or who want to set one up. Go make photos. If you want to make money doing so, then there are lots of ways to do so that have nothing to do with the way it used to be done—you just have to figure it out, like the rest of us.
Notes and Comments:
- Hashim Warren has a blog post about the three questions to ask before working for free. The quick summary: Don’t do it for the exposure. But do it if you can do it your way, get better at your skill, and/or contribute to something big, then maybe you should consider doing it.