Photography: For Love of Money? Can’t I have both?

November 4th, 2010
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As challenging as the technical aspects of photography can be, the business side is the part I hear most people have the most difficulty with. I totally understand that. Putting a price tag on something you enjoy doing is hard enough, but how do you make a living when everyone wants you to do it for free?
Recently, I’ve been approached by no less than a half dozen people, friends, strangers, organizations asking for copies of my photos to use on websites, newspapers, and books with no offer of compensation other than being credited for the use of the photograph. Given that credit seems to be the legal minimum anyone can offer, I’ll stick with the analogy I’ve heard before of it being like offering an athlete the chance to play on a major league team strictly for the honor of getting a jersey with his name on it.
If you’ve spent any time contemplating the viability of life as a photographer, you have almost certainly heard the above lead into a diatribe about why amateurs are ruining the field, why photographers should always be paid for any work done and how working ‘for credit’ is a violent act against the entirety of the photographic community.
I’ve got nothing nearly so dramatic or black and white. In fact, more than using this post to state an opinion, I’d really like to hear from people in and around the field about how they feel.


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Insisting that no one should ever allow work to be used for just a credit misses both the professional and psychological impact of having published work. I know how exciting it is to see your photo in print, selected by an editor somewhere. It’s awesome, it’s gratifying and it’s always made me work harder and take my goals more seriously.
And yes, in this social media driven world, gripping your intellectual property like hawk doesn’t leave you with much of a future. Getting work out there spreads your name and creates a brand.
Yet, as I get better and continue to be approached to provide photos to people who don’t seem to grasp that these aren’t snapshots that anyone with a point and shoot could have taken and that equipment and classes don’t pay for themselves, I find myself having to think very carefully about who gets what and when I need to demand more.
I was talking to a DJ friend and made the analogy of being asked to provide a mix or playlist or to actually work a party for free. He knew exactly what I was talking about. There are things that people do on a basic level at home that they often considered negligible even when the skills are honed and someone chooses to pursue it professionally.
It’s a long discussion and one that has been going on in the music industry since I was in college. What i know is that it’s complicated and that I’d love to have more input on the subject from people who know what they are talking about. Please chime in – and not just photographers. I’d love to know what musicians, DJs, artists of all kinds feel about this. I’d also like to know how the ‘Information wants to be free’ set feels about the idea of compensation for skilled work and art. And yes, I’m talking to Ethan Hein in particular there.
Really hope to get a conversation from this as I’ve got plenty of my own internal conflicts about this myself.

One Comment:

  1. This is a tricky question, no doubt. Information does want to be free, but I don’t believe in giving away quality craftsmanship or individual attention.
    For photographers, it seems like the smart move is to give away lo-res jpegs watermarked with your web address. If someone wants to embed those in their blog or use them for school projects, great, free advertising for you. If someone wants to publish a high-res version with no watermark, then charge for that.
    For music, at this point people will only spend money on a digital recording as a kind of gift exchange or donation. I personally prefer to give away free mp3s that identify me in the metadata. If I were smarter, I’d include my name and web site in the song itself the way rappers do on mixtapes. This works fine for me since all of my creative work is full of illegal samples anyway. I make money from teaching, producing and live performance, stuff that can’t be bootlegged on the web.

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