Are You Busy?

I get that a lot. My wife will call and say “Hey, are you busy?” If she’s in the push-your-husband’s-button mood, she’ll follow up with something like “because if you’re just sitting around….” Truth be told, after nearly 25 yrs together, I don’t rise to the bait anymore because she knows the truth about freelancing better than anyone else I know.

What’s the truth?

The truth is that being a freelancer DOES provide for a lot of free time. That free time is absolutely great…………..that is, if you like the idea of being unemployed.

If you want to be a working freelancer, someone who actually works on assignment and earns a living from photography, then you better get used to the idea that being a working freelancer provides for less free time, in my opinion, than most  “regular” 40-hour-a-week jobs. Consider that most working freelancers, even those with agencies representing them, do 99.9% of the work themselves. And I’m not talking about shooting. I’m talking about everything else. A very average non-shooting day has me wearing many hats. Take today as an example, I am a:

  1. Picture Editor (selecting images from a recent shoot to upload to my archive and to my agency)
  2. Imaging Tech (post production work Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop)
  3. Marketing Director (emailing, tweeting and blogging)
  4. Licensing Director (negotiating with a non-profit over use of an image)
  5. Technical Support (updating and installing new software on MacBook and Mac desktop)

That’s just to name a few. No complaints, that’s just the way it is if you want to be a working freelancer. No laying around on the job.

Which really leads me to the catalyst for this post. In order to accomplish these daily tasks, you must have a office, right? Not a closet with a space big enough for a 10″ netbook balancing precariously on a box of old slides, but a legitimate office. In other words, use the same approach to work as you would if you had to clock in at the 40-hr-a-week job. If you do so, you’ll find your productivity and, by default, your business, doing much better. Set a time to be at the office and have the necessary equipment and space needed to do your job well every day. Make your office a great place to be. Since I’m the boss (despite what my wife says), I decide how to set-up my office. That’s important, more so than most realize, because I need to enjoy being in my office so that I can get my work done each and every day. It’s what helps me maintain the discipline to grind through the less glamorous part of being a working freelancer. Years ago I purchased a nice, large desk with ample desktop space and filing cabinets and the most comfortable chair I could afford. I keep the space as clutter free as possible and have arranged for a couple of work spaces revolving around the desktop computer and the laptop. The walls are painted warm earth tones (courtesy of my wife!) that make the room feel inviting. I keep pages for Facebook and other social sites that can eat up my time closed during the day. If I need to post something on FB that is business related, then I post it and log off. Few will argue how much “work” time can be wasted if you’re constantly updating, replying, posting, tagging, farming etc…..Invoices, expenses and business contracts are filed at arms length so that I can grab them without much searching if need be. Hard drives are easily accessible and labeled in the event I need to quickly find images for clients. Music streams from the internet over nice speakers and a window provides for fresh air and sunlight. In other words, it’s a “normal” office despite being in my home.

Along with having a nice office, try sticking to a disciplined work schedule. It’s so easy as a freelancer to find “free” time, but being a working freelancer requires due diligence that far exceeds just the shooting time. However, I try to take a literal lunch break. During that time, I take a half hour or more to grab a bite to eat, sit outside in the sun with a book or go for a run. It’s important to break away from the office. I have a favorite spot where I can listen to some water flowing and enjoy being outside for a few minutes. I typically come back feeling ready to get back to work for a few more hours.

All of this is meant to make the necessary and often tedious work beyond shooting a bit more enjoyable. It’s worked for me……………

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Assisting Yourself as a Photo Assistant!

A man I respect and admire like few on earth who has taught the arts for fifty years has said many times that the highest form of learning is teaching. With that in mind, I’m here to jot down a few things I’ve learned over my many years as a photographer (and as an assistant in my early days) in an effort to teach assistants some basics to propel them forward.

Let me first start by saying that assistants and aspiring photographers need to look beyond the immediate job and consider the long term implications of their work. In other words, how will the job you’re assisting on NOW help you in the future? Too often, in my opinion, assistants look at their jobs as menial work, something that they’re doing “just to get by” for now while they await their next job as a photographer. That’s the wrong mental approach and, believe me, the mental approach is as important, if not more, as any physical work you do. I know many, many working photographers who entered the business as an assistant. Assistants should approach any job as the single, most important job in the world and act as if it might be the last job they’re hired to do. That’s how I approach every shoot and it’s worked well for me. There are no “small jobs” for me. Each is approached with the same level of preparation and execution, from the multiple page layouts for international publications to the single portrait for a small non profit. A good assistant will have the same approach, beginning with preparation.

Assistant extraordinaire Casey Pinckard on the job

  1. Before ever showing up on the job, begin your preparation. Do you have a cell phone? Is the greeting professional or something typically heard on a frat house answering machine? How quickly do you return calls? This is all part of the preparation since you won’t stay busy if you’re not reachable. Prep work runs the gamut from answering calls promptly to understanding what the job will entail to ensuring that you have all of the necessary equipment to do the job well. A few things a good assistant will have on them: Pen, pencil, gaffer tape, multipurpose tool (such as a Leatherman), credit card and a pack to carry items. These are the most basic items that every shoot will likely require. Credit cards are necessary in the event you are asked to reserve/rent gear for the job, need to book travel arrangements and to cover your expenses on a job (it will also help you come tax season).
  2. Arrive a few minutes early to the job. You can always sit and drink coffee, listen to the radio or further prepare. NEVER be late. Account for traffic. Know where you are going. With GPS and live traffic feeds on the web, you have all the info at hand to avoid or minimize traffic delays. I can assure you that the last thing a photographer wants is to wait for their late assistant. The second-to-last thing a photographer wants is a phone call that you are going to be late.
  3. Dress appropriately. I can’t emphasize the importance of such a simple thing. Understand where the shoot will take place so that you can wear clothes that are appropriate for the venue. Dressing appropriately sends a clear message to the subject that we are professionals. This will lead to a better rapport with the subject (rapport can and often does lead to additional time for the shoot).
  4. Act appropriately. There is a difference between assisting on a portrait of surfers in Malibu and assisting on a portrait of the CEO for Bank of America. Act appropriately considering the venue and subjects.
  5. Turn off your phone. Let me repeat that: Turn OFF your phone. Unless we are in different locations during the shoot (which is rare), your phone should remain off. If it has to be on, then wait only until we are completely done with the shoot to check messages. It is beyond my realm of understanding when assistants routinely check messages, reply, tweet, post on Facebook etc.
  6. Anticipate what’s needed. Being proactive instead of reactive is something that sets apart great assistants from the mediocre ones. I recently had one assistant put a specialty lens on hold at a rental house in anticipation of my need. He figured that if I didn’t need it, then a quick phone call to release the reservation was easier than trying to get a lens at the last minute. That’s proactive. Having driving directions or an address to punch into the GPS is another example of being proactive.
  7. Know the equipment. If you’re booked to assist on a lighting assignment, don’t hesitate to ask what type of equipment will be used. If you’re not familiar with the gear, then either take the time to quickly learn the basics or tell the photographer in advance. Whatever you do, DON’T show up on the shoot with no idea how to operate the equipment. Same can be said about the cameras. Know how to load the cards and understand your role in downloading or organizing the take. Basic understanding of commonly used software such as Photo Mechanic, Lightroom, Aperture, Photoshop and especially FTP programs like Transmit are necessary. You might not always need to perform such tasks, but you should know how. It’s a huge bonus as well to know about various audio and video gear since many photographers are now doing multimedia work.
  8. Take care in packing gear. When you’re done with the shoot, make sure to treat the breakdown and clean up of the shoot as importantly as the shoot itself. That means taking care when packing the equipment and assuring nothing is left behind. That’s the assistant’s responsibility. I know I like to take the time after a shoot to thank the subject and those who helped coordinate the shoot. I need my assistant to simultaneously break down the shoot.
  9. Paperwork. If you were responsible in obtaining rental gear then you are responsible for obtaining the necessary receipts for the photographer to submit for reimbursement. If you are asked to handle photo release forms, take the time to properly organize (by date, for example) and, if possible, make copies in case they are misplaced. Keep and provide all receipts for travel including rental cars, hotels, airfare and meals.
  10. Invoice in a professional manner. This goes back to preparation. If you want to be perceived as a top notch, professional in the photo industry, then take the time to create a professional invoice template. The invoice should include your name, business name, social security or taxpayer ID number and contact information. The form should have an area for Fees and an area for Expenses. Itemize your expenses and provide the necessary documentation. Do NOT send an invoice that just lists a total for expenses and no explanation. If the job covered several days, then break your fees down by days as well. By all means, submit your invoice in a timely manner.

There are many other ways to set yourself apart as an assistant. Perhaps some of my colleagues and visitors can suggest some here. Suffice it to say that if you at least follow the basic ten above, you’ll be on your way.

Bits and Bytes Bouncing in My Head

Some days, my mind seems hyperactive, bouncing from one thought to another. Is it a mood? A result of caffeine (I haven’t ventured off my norm)? The weather? I don’t know, but I do want to jot down some thoughts careening throughout my cranium today:

  1. Been reading some comments about photo editors and art buyers being tired of viewing portfolios on the iPad. The way I see it is if an editor is hung up on the how I show my portfolio instead of the work itself, then my images aren’t getting it done.
  2. Do blogs and websites routinely post copyrighted written material (say, from a substantiated author), or do they know that’s illegal? If so, why do most claim they didn’t know a photo was similarly protected by copyright? Because they do know, they just mostly try to get away with it.
  3. Five months to receive payment for work done for a large, respected law firm, yet my smaller, relatively unknown clients pay extraordinarily fast. Hmmmmm……
  4. How’s the iPad working out for magazines?
  5. Seems a few years ago the saving grace for photographers hoping to gain assignment work was a quick transition into video. Now everyone seems to be a multimedia specialist and I’m not so sure the quantity of assignment work is measurable for the vast majority.
  6. I enjoy the mix of work I get from non profits, magazines and teaching.
  7. Rights Managed images appear to be licensed for a mere fraction of what they were just a decade ago.
  8. You may not see their work as much in mainstream media these days, but many of my friends and colleagues continue to make meaningful, beautiful and important images.
  9. Met and photographed a well known, award winning author recently. We traded emails and he’s going to read a book I suggested. How awesome is that? Not the typical behavior of the rich and famous.
  10. The Social Media experiment: I’ve been using Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook for a year now (LinkedIn longer) and as the fine folks a Photoshelter assured in the guide they produced, it works to raise awareness of your work. Like anything, use it responsibly!

Reaching Out to the Next Generation of Photojournalists

I spoke the other day to a group of students at the Greater Los Angeles Press Photographer’s Association about their career expectations. Had a great time, saw a number of my former colleagues, all of whom I respect and admire greatly.

It was a short presentation. I tend to shy away from the quintessential “let me show you my work” approach usually found at these seminars. I remember vividly being in their shoes years ago and having so many questions yet not really knowing what to ask. Speakers at various workshops like the San Jose Mercury News Graphics Conference or the NPPA’s Flying Short courses, to say nothing of the Eddie Adams Workshop that I attended in 1989, would show their award winning work and I would sit and wonder how the hell do I put together a portfolio? In an effort to make things practical, whatever image I projected I talked about the expectations from the assigning publication, the result of the shoot and a few interesting stories associated with the image.

Forty five minutes is a quick presentation and I really wanted to go more deeply into the business aspects of freelancing. I told them that the likelihood of them freelancing straight out of college these days compared to a decade or two ago is quite high. With fewer publications and fewer staff positions, it’s important that the emerging photojournalists not only have multimedia story telling skills, which most universities now offer instruction in, but that they understand how to present a portfolio, how to make appointments and what to expect from the publication. No one knew what a Work for Hire agreement was, though the vast majority of them will be presented one when they seek freelance work from major publications. That’s just a fact of doing business, I told them, and they need to understand what arrangements they are agreeing to. I made a point of not “telling” the students what to do, but instead guided them to seek an understanding of contracts, licensing and income avenues that’s necessary to stay relevant in the freelance market.

I like the chance to give back a bit especially when it involves helping younger photographers find their way. I was there once and had wonderful mentors and friends guide me into the freelancing world. It’s only right I do the same for others when given the opportunity.

Are Rewards Programs Screwing Photographers?

Let’s take a look for a moment at industry wide pricing for stock photographs, shall we? For simplification reasons, let’s agree on the process by which photographs are fed into the giant labyrinth of photo agencies and archives. Essentially, the photographer creates the images, processes them digitally, applies the metadata and uploads them to an agency. The agency (take your pick) has in place a network of buyers and other agencies and provide the platform for distribution and payment for the photographer for a percentage of the sale. In other words, the agencies simply function as brokers between photographers and buyers.

Let’s also agree for the sake of space (you’re already probably bored, so let’s speed things up here) that the photographer and the agency incur significant expenses while fulfilling their end of the arrangement. Photographers are encumbered by rapidly changing technology and have to keep pace to remain relevant and the agencies must maintain a stable, smooth and easily accessible archive of images to appease their clients. All that takes money. Lots of money, most will agree.

Like in most commodities markets, prices rise and fall. With respect to photographs specifically, prices have been in a general free fall for years and there’s no signs of it letting up. In fact, there is pressure on the agencies to maintain nearly unsustainable prices in the form of Preferred Vendor agreements. These agreements are in place to provide volume discounting and encourage buyers loyalty to a particular agency. In other words, once a buyer asks for and receives Preferred Vendor status, they will pay less per image so long as they regularly purchase images. Of the three parties involved in the agreement, who benefits the most and who suffers?

  1. The Buyer: The buyer, typically a large publishing company with needs for many images each month, benefits from a type of rewards program and receives discounted pricing on images in return for their loyalty.
  2. The Agency: The agency benefits from enticing repeat, volume based buyers with discounted pricing on images. The agencies receive less per image but attempt to make up for that with increased volume. (the Getty model)
  3. The Photographer: Not much benefit here at all for the person actually creating the content. The photographer’s image sells for far less than normal but the photographer does not participate in the agency’s volume based revenue that is designed to make up for the discounted pricing. In other words, XYZ buyer comes to BCD agency and purchases my image at a discounted price, then goes on to purchase a 10 more from 10 other photographers. The agency benefits from the volume of all ten sales, the buyer benefits from the volume based discount, but each photographer receives no portion of the other sales, hence the photographer’s revenue decreases.

Another factor that used to drive pricing but has been rendered less significant when Vendor Preferred is applied is the uniqueness of the image. I photographed a Nobel Prize scientist years ago who has not been photographed many times and is hard to contact. His image is in fair demand and has sold many times over. However, last month I had his images licensed four times to magazines in France and the Netherlands. One sale was for $25.60, another for $57.09 and the last two for $92.15 and $102.39. I receive, as is standard with agencies, 40% of those sales. Grand total for licensing the four images was about $137.Yikes…….

Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Some will argue that without Vendor Preferred the photographer would receive 40% of nothing. Some, like myself, would prefer to find a model that rewards the photographer, not just the buyer and agency, for engaging in volume discounting. Perhaps a yearly dividend sent to each photographer so that all the photographers benefit in a small way from the discounting.

When too much power is wielded by one side in a business deal, someone gets the short end. It’s been a buyer’s market for years and it’s not going to change. The buyer’s wield the power, the agencies are adapting to survive and the photographers are watching their royalties continually decline. We just have to figure out how to fix things before the prices get so low that we hit 40% of nothing anyways.

“You’ve Received a Request………”

Is it the economy, or are they opportunists taking advantage of the economy?

Is it the result of Royalty Free or is it the result of low pricing models?

Whatever the case, it’s increasingly common to receive licensing inquiries only to discover that the request involves a very low price for a very high usage. A couple examples from the past two weeks:

  1. A division of a major publishing company, contacted me regarding using an image for the audio book. I had previously licensed an image for use in the printed book only. (This alone is a lesson why to write detailed licenses. Had I not, the division might have used the image for the audio book without contacting me). After the standard back-and-forth whereby I asked how the image was to be used, it became clear immediately that the owner of production company wished to have unrestricted use of the image for advertising, marketing, package printing, etc. Once he made that clear via email, I wrote the license for such, warning in advance that unrestricted, perpetual use of an image in any known or unknown formats would

    Book Cover License

    significantly increase the price. The reply to the quote was that the company could offer a very low fee (by industry standards) but had to have the unrestricted rights. In fairness, the person I dealt with was very kind and respectful, yet asked for a license that was worth way more than they were offering. This is increasingly the case these days.

  2. A health care company contacted me regarding images of crowded emergency rooms. The caller identified himself as working for a “start up” company. Now, I can’t say for sure, but a company that went into business in 2006 likely no longer qualifies as a “start up,” but it’s increasingly common to have that slipped into the conversation these days. Obviously, the implication is that they have no real budget to work with. The company was interested in using an image as a trade show panel to help sell their appointment management services and software presumably to ER’s, doctor’s offices and health care clinics. The owner also mentioned that he’s previously dealt with Corbis and is used to paying “a couple hundred dollars” to use the image as much as he wants. That led to a amiable discussion and time spent preparing a fair market quote.

    The crowded waiting room at the South Central Family Health Center in Los Angeles, CA as patients wait for medical care.

Both scenarios resulted in no license. That’s part of the business, but I’ve seen a continual rise over the past year or two of requests for unrestricted or multiple use licenses for fees more in line with small, restricted single use. I’m sure there are a myriad of factors at play driving such requests, but among them are surely the rock bottom pricing driven by the large stock houses like Getty and Corbis as well as the proliferation of photographer’s who regularly sign away their copyright and licensing options.

One other factor that has reared it’s ugly head is the demands by publishers to receive “preferred vendor” status and, thus, receive steeply discounted licenses in exchange for volume purchases over prescribed periods of time. This seems to be a standard agreement between stock agencies and publishers these days. The result, however,  is trickling down to us little guys who don’t license hundreds of images per month but are still expected to deeply discount the licenses.

Keeping in mind that not every customer who walks into the proverbial “store” will walk out having bought something, it’s worth noting that market trends don’t typically shift overnight and the continual drive downward in pricing is alarming.

Reflecting on Katrina Five Years Later

A mans body floats on Airline Way in New Orleans following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

It was the morning of my son’s 9th birthday and the phone rang before I had even finished my coffee. Before I picked up the receiver I knew the celebratory trip to San Diego was not going to happen for me. After watching Hurricane Katrina destroy everything in it’s path from the safety of my home nearly two thousand miles away, I knew the phone call was likely to result in me heading to the devastated region. Looking at the Caller ID confirmed it was a call coming from within the Time Inc building and less than three hours later I kissed my son and wife goodbye at the airport and headed to Louisiana for People Magazine.

Anyone who has covered disasters knows that you just have to roll with whatever is thrown at you. Major catastrophes make planning for things almost a useless task. People magazine had assigned a number of writer/photographer teams to create their coverage. The writer and I were first told to find some incredible tales of survival amid the masses of refugees in Shreveport, Louisiana. With thousands of people taking shelter in hotels and arenas, it wasn’t hard to find those who had escaped death in the streets of New Orleans. As is often the case, our directions from New York took a turn the following day when we were told to find Doctor Ronald Myers in Greenville, Mississippi, a small town not far from hard-hit Jackson, Ms. Doctor Myers had had his own home heavily damaged but was taking care of others in a Ramada Inn as well as a nearby Red Cross shelter. Known for his dedication to aiding the poorest of the poor from the Mississippi Delta region, Dr. Myers was a classic tale of country doctor coming to the rescue despite his own misfortune at the hands of the Category 5 hurricane. We spent most of a day with Dr. Meyers before receiving new directions as People altered it’s coverage:

Head to flooded New Orleans and document the plight of a refugee family being evacuated from the city. See, the city of New Orleans was ordered to be completely emptied of residents. Everyone had to go with no exceptions.

Talking our way through police checkpoints with nothing more than my PGA Tour press card from Sports Illustrated, the writer and I found our way to a staging area for fireman doing house-to-house searches by boat. The vast majority of residents who had stayed behind to ride out the storm had already been rescued, but no one could be sure if others remained. Once on a rescue boat and navigating down Airport Road, we soon encountered the bloated body of a man tangled in some flooded bushes. Pushing past, the firemen hollered into homes and searched open areas for any sign of life. Parking the boats near armed guards, we got in our SUV and made out for Louis Armstrong airport, the epicenter for the city’s evacuation.

Helicopters swooped in, rotors turning violently, and emptied their bellies of newly rescued residents, all clutching the few belongings they could carry on their backs. Men, women and children were rushed to a carts linked together that are typically used for luggage transportation. Whisked to the terminal, the evacuees filed through a row of volunteers who pushed basic amenities such as soap and toothpaste into their outstretched hands. Once inside the chaotic airport, registration and a basic medical check up were provided before each evacuee was told to wait for their flight at a particular gate.  They had no idea where they were going, nor did they have any say in the matter. Grab whatever you have and wait with others at the assigned gate, they were told. Once a flight was filled and the doors to the aircraft closed, the evacuees were told where they would be going. Together with the Chaney family, who the writer and I had chosen simply based on my observation of a serene looking older woman fanning herself with a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr fan as she was whisked to the terminal, we pushed off for Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

Kenneth Chaney evacuates New Orleans.

Arriving in the rain with only my camera bag, computer and clothes on my back (everything else was left in the rental car at the airport), I was immediately struck by the contrast in environments. We left a destroyed city in chaos and were soon eating a hot meal at a shelter at a renowned thoroughbred training facility in upscale West Palm Beach.

Having documented the plight of the Chaney family the next day at the shelter, we received notice that the magazine was doing a piece on Katrina’s Kids. I had seen many children traumatized by the deadly hurricane at the shelter, so I went back the next morning and spent with several families with children. It never amazes me how people can endure such trauma. Many were upbeat and philosophical about their future, whatever that might hold.

I returned to LA the following day and spent a day at The Dream Center, another Katrina shelter, photographing for TIME magazine. The Caesh family, who the magazine had asked me to document, was gracious and steadfast in their determination to find work and go forward with their lives despite the hard working, proud family having to rely on borrowed clothes and handouts from strangers..

It’s my hope that all those I met and photographed have found peace and a degree of normalcy in their lives five years after Katrina.