The 10 Things All Staff Photographers Must Do Right Now

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During the last few days of 2009, the Washington Times unexpectedly eliminated all nine of their staff photographer positions. The news spread fast and furious throughout the photo community. Photographers who were still fortunate enough to maintain a staff position somewhere got another wake-up call – they could be next.

With all the layoffs we’ve seen in the industry in the past few years, what surprises me most, however, is how common it is for a staff photographer to be “surprised” with the news of their own layoff. They are very often leaving themselves totally unprepared for life as a freelancer.

“The staff photographer who believes he will have a job in 10 years is kidding himself,” says John Harrington in his book “Best Business Practices for Photographers“.

The writing is very clearly on the wall, so I thought I’d ask Harrington, a freelance photographer, blogger and author, to help me come up with a list of things that photographers (both staff, and former staff) should be doing immediately.

The 10 Things a Not-Yet-Laid-Off Staffer Must Do

1. Know that it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when, you will lose your job. No one gets gold watches these days, and your company, no matter how much you think they care about you, only cares about the bottom line. Don’t take it personally, it’s not personal, it’s just business.

2. Save, save, save. You should have at least 6 months (if not a year or 18 months) worth of savings that will sustain you.

3. Establish your online presence, including a website with your URL, and a professional e-mail address (that means no @gmail or @hotmail accounts!)

4. Over time, build out your businesses infrastructure. Acquire a laptop, cameras/lenses, cell phone, and street legal software (stealing Photoshop is bad karma for people stealing your photos).

5. Determine your cost of doing business in the event that you are no longer subsidized by your full-time employer. The best tool to help you do this is the NPPA’s Cost of Doing Business Calculator.



6. Establish your policies and prepare your contracts. Knowing what you will not do (i.e. work-made-for-hire), and also the terms under which you will do it, will be important.  These policies should apply to all the freelance/side work you are doing.

7. Establish your rates for all your current freelance work so that it is not considered “gravy”, but rather revenue from a client at a rate that, if that was your only income, would sustain itself. Nothing is worse than having a dozen freelance clients at $200 an assignment when, if you were not a full-time employee, it would have cost you $500 to do the job, not to mention earn a profit. Not only are you using your employer as a subsidizer for that job, but you are setting the bar way too low for your freelance brethren and they won’t appreciate it.

8. Fight for your freelancers. If you can figure out that from your $45,000 a year job as a staffer, that your benefits/gear brings the companies’ total cost for you to $52,000, you cost them $1,000 a week, or $200 a day. When your paper can get a freelancer for $150 a day – and only when they need them, how long do you think it will be before the accounting department considers you replaceable? Make sure that freelancers are paid an assignment rate that is at least 20% higher than you, and that the publication/organization gets only the rights they need.

9. Grow a select clientele during your days off that appreciates the opportunity to work with you, and focus on who you would want your clients to be if you had more time to freelance, as well as knowing that segment of the industry. (i.e. weddings, unit photography, or annual report photography).

10. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Photographers who have been recently laid-off should not panic. It’s not the end of the world, and there is life after-staff.

The 10 Things a Recently Laid-off Photographer Must Do

1. Determine if the freelance life is for you, or if finding another staff position is what is best. Be honest.

2. Ascertain how much your personal “burn rate” is, and how long it will be before you are broke, without any assignment revenue.

3. Establish your online presence, including a website with your URL, and a professional e-mail address (that means no @gmail or @hotmail accounts!)

4. Build out your businesses infrastructure. Acquire a laptop, cameras/lenses, cell phone, and street legal software (stealing Photoshop is bad karma for people stealing your photos). If you can’t afford cameras/lenses, in many locales you can rent them per day. Further, some things can be bought from the company that laid you off, so ask.

5. Determine your cost of doing business. This is a variation on #1, however in this case, it’s not about how much cash you’re burning through, but about how much it costs to sustain you each day. The best tool to help you do this is the NPPA’s Cost of Doing Business Calculator.

6. Establish your policies and prepare your contracts. Knowing what you will not do (i.e. work-made-for-hire) and also the terms under which you will do it will be important.

7. Determine what you can live without. My priority list is: 1) Roof over my head, 2) power, 3) phone, 4) computer, 5) internet, 6) food. Really. Cut the cable out, and whatever non-critical-to-existence expenses you’re making.

8. Reach out to your network of colleagues about sub-contracting work from them they can’t do. Second-shoot a wedding, or take on an assignment that they’ve double-booked.

9. Focus on who your clients could be, and who your dream clients are, and then begin an outreach program to them that includes the best method to make that outreach. It could be emails/calls/go-sees/portfolio ship/etc.

10. Know that you won’t be getting much sleep as you ramp up from zero to 60 your business. It will take all of your effort (and then some) to succeed.

The second edition of Harrington’s book has a whole section geared toward this, titled “After Staff: Transitioning to Freelance.”

“The transition to freelance is one of the more difficult transitions to make, usually because it happens to you without notice and when you’ve not planned for this occurrence,” he says.

The great news is that today, the information you need to make good business and marketing decisions, and the tools you need to run professionally, are at your fingertips.

There will always be a need for good imagery and dependable photographers. More and more freelance photographers are entering the market, so the sooner you start preparing for it, the more of an advantage you’ll enjoy.

Be sure to take advantage of PhotoShelter’s free resources, including “Google Analyics for Photographers”, “2009 SEO Cookbook for Photographers” and “Photography Websites: What Buyers Want,” all available as a free download.

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There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Photography by Depuhl at 7:22 pm

    A timely post – this has been true for many years. I worked at a mail order catalog company as their in house photographer / studio manager for 7 years. Then one day there was a ‘For Rent’ sign in front of the building that housed out studio. My partner began working for a well known catalog and made a good living for years as a freelancer. Then one day they decided that they were not using freelancers any more. In that time I had build my portfolio, online presence, business infrastructure, worked on business contract, … so today he stands without a website, with out a client list, without … whereas I had the best year of my career as a commercial photographer. Especially in today’s business climate we need to stay on top of many technologies and utilize the sites and services like Photoshelter (read about my 5 essential sites for the photographer on a budget – http://blog.depuhl.com/2009/12/5-essential-sites-for-professional-photographers-on-a-budget/). Take this post to heart and prepare for your future – I can tell you from personal experience your freelance career may come sooner than you’ve planned! There are many benefits of being your own boss though 🙂

  2. David Griffin at 8:11 pm

    Very timely. I was laid off 6 days ago from my staff position at NASCAR Scene. Now its time to see if I can make a go of this,

  3. David at 10:26 am

    11. Do NOT call your freelance friends who you’ve known for years and worked next to on the job and ask for contacts at the papers and magazines they shoot for. You may still be friends, but you are officially competition.

  4. Alicia Calzada at 1:43 pm

    Great advice. Having been through it, I would add (for staffers who still have their job): Volunteer doing something that has nothing to do with photography. If you decide that being a business owner is not for you, you might end up looking for jobs in other industries. Most people don’t know how well this career prepares you for other things. Troubleshooting, deadlines, people skills are all great skills in the marketplace. But you have to get an interview to be able to explain that. You need to build skills and experience for your resume that demonstrate non-photo skills that will appeal to non-photo employers. You may have the best “photojournalism” resume on the planet. But most employers don’t know immediately what to do with this. Also, I would recommend building an equipment account, rather than building a supply of gear. You don’t want to spend $4000 on a camera, put it in the closet and then two years later, when you are jobless, be holding camera which is two years closer to being obsolete. Better to have the $4k. Lenses don’t change as much, so that would be a fine way to stock up.

  5. Chris Cummins at 3:32 pm

    Simply awesome guys. A few thoughts: Number 8 gets me. That would be incredibly enlightened if someone actually did that. That’s asking wwaaaay too much of hyper-political photography departments. It is a save your own neck mentality in photography departments that rules the day. Building on No. 8 though, you staffers need to stick your neck out to help other freelancers right now. Make sure they know it is you doing it too. That way when the blade falls on your position you have built a reservoir of goodwill. Steer them some work, even if it means you pass on some things. A few established photographer friends in your corner is a powerful thing. Too often I’ve seen it work the other way. As a wedding photojournalist I’ve watched staff photographers undercut the fulltime photographers on price, swipe away clients and shoot their weddings with company gear and no liability insurance. I like helping other photographers but us longtime full-time freelancers have a long memory for that kind of thing. If you’ve done that, find yourself without your position and you’re looking for work, don’t be surprised if the emails and phone calls go unanswered from those photographers you kneecapped.

  6. Photographer in need at 7:00 pm

    Is a web based portfolio really an acceptable way to promote your self possible clients? Does it really work sending a email out lining what you can offer and then linking to your web portfolio? Maybe I’m being archaic in the feeling that I need to be producing a high quality book based portfolio to send to clients to view and then arrange a meeting. I fall in to the first category how ever I want to get out before I am pushed, however I have never “work” out side of a newspaper. I have everything in place I just cannot comprehend how I need to go about approaching and securing clients. HELP! From A Photographer Treading water

  7. Crystal Street at 11:47 pm

    Excellent information for staffers and emerging photojournalists! I think we should also analyze some of the philosophical approaches to freelancing as well- beyond necessity. Granted, this is not as imperative as putting food on the table, but understanding why you want to pursue freelancing is almost as important as the how. Make a list of the more emotional and philosophical reasons (to spend more time with my family, to work as a location independent professional, etc.). Incorporate these beliefs in your self promotion efforts, your personal blog and your marketing; it may help potential clients understand you better as a person, not just a photographer. These reasons may also become your mantra in the sometimes dark days of freelancing (ie. waiting anxiously for paid invoices to arrive in the mail, waiting to hear back from a client after submitting your quote or while searching for a private health insurance plan). Paste your reasons on your desk or somewhere you can see them every day and hold on tight! You’re in for a ride! Good luck!

  8. Christopher Guess at 4:57 am

    Since when did fatalism become realism? “Know that it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when, you will lose your job.” Journalists have always been cynics but to assume that all photojournalists will be laid off is not only absurd but simply foolhardy (a glance at the cover of Haiti today will show the necessity). To prepare for the worst is practical (if not depressing), to assume that it will happen to everyone is ridiculous and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  9. Michael Blair at 10:30 am

    I agree with Mr. Guest! This type of fatalism is precisely why I haven’t got around to renewing my NPPA membership. Quite frankly, I am tired of being told the sky is falling. I happen to love the creative freedom provided by working as a staff photojournalist. Freelance photography is a totally different genre. If you think editors can be difficult, try working with an art director looking over your shoulder sometime. I think the message of having an online presence is a good one as well as building one’s own equipment pool, but please temper your enthusiasm for the death of staff photographers, it does come across as very self serving. It’s kind of like how all the TV news stations are so quick to report the demise of newspapers as they hold out their hands to gobble up the remaining advertising dollars. Consider the source! Cheers, glass half full

  10. Chris Cummins at 12:07 pm

    Photographer in need – The short answer is do all of it. Yes, yes, yes, you must have a very strong online presence. A professional, polished website with strong SEO is the closest thing to a silver bullet a photographer has to market themselves. Hell, it’s not a silver bullet, it’s the gun that fires the silver bullet. A book? I say do it too. But only after you have the website complete and you are marketing too. As important as online presence is for you and your buyers it is just as important to build person-to-person relationships. Call people. take them to lunch, follow up, send them Xmas cards, B-day cards. Bring along a book. But without a strong online presence you’ll be viewed as not ready for primetime.

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