Working for Free?

It isn’t easy to make a living as a photographer, and certainly I don’t think it is getting easier. As the basics of photography get every more simple there are more and more people who can and are doing it.

Not in the main doing it very well, though some of the worst photographers I know are probably among those who make the most money. And some of the work given away for free by ‘amateurs’ is often visually and technically of a very high standard, while the media is full of routine clichés by professionals – who produce these because the media demands them.

I’ve seldom if ever “worked for free” for commercial media. A few features about myself and my work where I’ve thought the publicity was worthwhile, but otherwise I’ve always asked for normal rates or let agencies do so on my behalf.  There are a wide range of borderline publications which I know are run on shoe-string budgets, some with those publishing them dipping into their own pockets to do so where I’ve accepted reduced fees and even – for causes I support – worked as a donation to the cause.  But I regularly get requests to use me or my work for nothing – and equally regularly either simply ignore them or turn them down.

This blog – and my own web site, My London Diary, is largely a labour of love. There is no direct financial return as I decided to keep both free of adverts (I think there is one – or perhaps 2  – sponsored links somewhere on the thousands of pages where I succumbed to a little easy money which seemed to come totally without strings.) When I started both of them I was writing for a commercial site where intrusive advertising annoyed many of my readers – or at least those without the nous to install pop-up blockers and the like and it was something I wanted to avoid.

Of course you will notice on both sites there are links through which anyone can buy prints, books and licences to publish images, but these result in relatively few sales, though there certainly have been other benefits from my work on the web. But essentially it is a way to reach an audience – the last time I checked the statistics around 10,000 viewers a day across all of my web sites – rather than to make money.

I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a post about the economic realities for photographers, and have just come across an article Surviving in the New Economy by Joey Terrill on PetaPixel (originally published in Terrill’s The Penumbra Project) which says many of the things I’ve been thinking  (and more) and puts them rather better.

It’s unfair to summarise a long, well-crafted and thoughtful post in a few words – better you go and read it.  But central to it is the truth that photographers are not going to change the media business by moaning.  If you are standing shoulder to shoulder with 19 other photographers all making basically the same picture photography becomes a commodity that sells largely on price, but if you produce unique images that people want you will be able to command sensible rates for them.

Many of the best photographers in the past failed to make a living from photography, and others didn’t really try.  Some taught, others relied on family or friends to keep going, or took part-time jobs. Some made money from weddings and social photography (or fashion) to be able to continue to photograph the things that really interested them.

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