Important things to know about the business of photography

If it seems like I am obsessed with the business of photography, I am.  That is mostly because I make my living as a photographer so the general state of the photography market interests (and impacts) me directly.  However, I am also interested on a more philosophical level.

When I was in college, I studied the history of photography. Looking all the way back to its inception, I was regularly reminded that commercial photographers made the vast majority of what we think of as the “great photographs.”  Up until the last third of the twentieth century, the only people who took photography seriously were either professionals or serious (usually wealthy) amateurs.  The job “fine art photographer” simply did not exist.

Art photographers can now make a living because of the widespread acceptance of photography as a fine art accompanied by a growing gallery and print market. As many (or even more) fine art photographers support them selves by teaching at the ever-growing number of academic institutions with photography programs.

While I do a fair amount of teaching, I am still primarily a commercial photographer. I like it that way because, in my experience, nothing spurs my creativity like a little economic anxiety.  Still, not all photographers work this way, I know.

That tug-of-war, between those who do photography for love and those who do it for money has been an incredibly important spur to creativity throughout the entire history of the medium.  Today’s explosive growth in photography (primarily due to digital technology) has brought millions of new people to the field, which in theory is great.  On the other hand, most of those same newcomers know little or nothing about the business of photography.

My fear is that if they undervalue their work enough, it will certainly hurt me in the near term.  But in the long term and equally importantly, it will slowly devastate the overall business side of the medium that we collectively love.   The fine art photographers may or may not like to discuss it, but they need the commercial photographers. We spur them on creatively. If nothing else, we give them something to work against when they create their work. Also, the vast majority of technological breakthroughs in photography over the last 170-plus years, have largely been spurred by the needs of professional photographers.

All this should explain my obsession with the business of photography.  The business of photography (or most anything else) starts with contracts.  Contracts can be simple or complex. Mine are generally brief, outlining the understandings that exist between photographer (me) and the client (them.) I literally will not walk out the door on an assignment without something in writing. Having a clear, written outline of the assignment, the fees, the rights, etc. is key to preventing misunderstandings. Thus, it is also pivotal in making a living as a photographer.

Contracts tend to scare people so I try to keep mine simple. I often wanted a way to alert aspiring (and accomplished photographers) to some of the pitfalls with contracts.  I am thrilled to say that ASMP (the American Society of Media Photographers) now has a great web-site that gives the viewer some simple but important things to think about when it comes to contracts. It is by no means complete or exhaustive.  Still, it is so much better than nothing that the site is worth celebrating and sharing. 

Please go to: www.asmp.org/tutorials/business-forms-and-contracts.html and www.asmp.org/tutorials/bad-contract.html

Your future as a photographer may depend on it just like my future as a working photographer certainly depends on your reading it.  Most of all, the creative back and forth between art and commerce that nurtures the medium we all collectively love depends on it, so get to it.

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