Friday, December 5, 2008

Photography for Free

David Hobby posted Four Reasons to Consider Working for Free over at Strobist and things have really blown up around the photo-web-o-sphere (yes, I made that up) on free work. Here's a quick summary types of views I've been reading:

  • David Hobby: "I have personal projects I'm interested in, but can never bill for. I'm going to start doing some personal work and hope it evolves into something paid down the road."
  • Many pros in comments: "This is not a new idea. Photographers have been doing personal projects for years."
  • Many amateurs in the comments: "Hurray! Thanks for motivating me to get off my ass and find a personal project or two."
  • Chase Jarvis: "Sign me up!"
  • Sportshooter people: "It's easy to take on personal projects if you have a secure income of over $100K a year. The rest of us can't!" or "This is just a ploy for traffic!"
  • Matt Brown: "People willing to do my job for free are making it hard for me to make a living!"
  • John Harrington (author of Best Business Practices for Photographers) has always been sending the message: "Amateur photographers willing to undersell their work are hurting the rest of us!"
  • Economists: "If the opportunity cost of the time needed for the project is larger than the expected future income, don't do it!"
So, here's my take which is heavily based on simple economics.

FYI, my situation is that of a graduate student trying to write his dissertation who makes $20-$30 an hour from a research assistantship and private tutoring outside school.

I've actually thought about Hobby's message before this -- if I can't get paid for the photography I'm interested in, should I do it anyway for the enjoyment and possibly as a way to get more business like that in the future? Of course, for me, a lot of the trouble is really knowing what sort of photography I'm interested in. More appropriately, I know what I'm not interested in -- endless family portraits or wedding shoots -- but I haven't really found what I really like.

A book I borrowed from the library by John Hedgecoe (Photographing People) touched on this topic too; Hedgecoe mentions that he's done a lot of personal projects in long-term portraiture which he's derived a lot of enjoyment and learning from. After reading the book, I decided I'd refocus on certain aspects of photography once my time freed up, including approaching others for non-paying (but portfolio-building) jobs that'd I could never get commercially.

The key is having the time (and money) to do so.

* * * * *

The photography world is under quite a bit of strain right now. With digital camera technology dropping prices enough that almost anyone who is interested can go out and make decent pictures, photography enthusiasts are able to (almost) compete with the pros. Sure, there's some obvious equipment barriers to entry and definitely some differences in quality between the amateurs and pros, but those differences are shrinking to the point where a dedicated amateur who's willing to work for free can take jobs from a pro because the difference in price outweighs the difference in quality.

This just isn't happening in a lot of other occupations. In many occupations, people just aren't willing to do the work for free (jobs of sanitation workers will never be taken by amateurs, for example). In other occupations, the difference in skill is so great that only a select few are able to reach the pro level (like pro sports).

How ever much I want it and work on it, I'll never be a good enough hockey player to even manage the equipment of the San Jose Sharks. Even the lowliest person from the bench would be able to skate circles (literally) around me. But give me a credential, rent me some equipment, and give me a few games of practice and I should be able to get some shots of that same hockey game which are worth posting on the web. Sure, I won't be the next Mark Rebilas, but they'd probably be good enough to warrant the price difference for low-end outlets. If you want evidence, just look at the results of the top amateurs on Sportsshooter.

It is no wonder pro photographers are so threatened by the amateurs. And my prediction is that it is only going to get worse.

* * * * *

Which brings me back to my original point.

The main reason I'm not doing more shooting for free right now is the opportunity cost. If I spend four hours on a Saturday shooting I could be missing out on a few hours of billable tutoring time. I just need the money more than I need the photography experience. Even worse, I've been so busy lately (tonight is the first night all week I'll be home for dinner) that time with my family has pretty decent value to me, definitely more than any photography experience and enjoyment I could gain.

Given the time, yes, I will start more personal projects. I definitely see where Hobby is coming from and I don't think this was just a ploy to get Strobist a bagillion hits (although I'm sure he's not upset about more traffic). He has the time and is financially secure, so why not? When I have more time and financial security, I'm going to do the same and if I want to do a project but can't get paid for it, I'll just do it for free.

The more important issue (which Hobby has definitely rubbed some salt into wounds on) is the constant pressure of amateurs on pro photographers. That's only going to get worse and pros need to compensate by moving into areas that are more sheltered where their superior abilities and experience will give them a competitive advantage. Obviously, that is high end shoots where perfection is necessary, portrait photography where the professionalism and speed of a pro is paramount, and high-end sports where there's too much financial barrier to the amateur.

Frankly, a lot of pro photographers just aren't going to survive this recession (depression?). Heck, a lot of all small businesses won't survive. That's just the nature of a free economic system.

The only thing that could stop the price competition between amateurs and pros is a union, and the photography community is just to large and broad to apply a union.

From a purely economic standpoint, I'm not going to hold off on activities that benefit me even if they drive down the price of other photographers. If it benefits me more than the opportunity cost in time, I'm going to do it (even just the enjoyment of doing the project and boost to my portfolio). I feel a little bad about that, but it is silly to act in any other way.

The onus is on the professional photographers to figure out how to survive this influx of amateurs.

Don't just blame us, adapt! Use your experience to carve out a niche!

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