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SportsShooter.com: Member Message Board

Great Article by John Harrington - Part Two
Frank Casimiro, Photographer
Houston/Sugar Land | TX | USA | Posted: 6:52 PM on 10.18.07
->> Did you really think this thread http://www.sportsshooter.com/message_display.html?tid=26835 would die after the limit of 50 post. Hey, someone had to start the new thread, why not me? Please continue people, it's been a very interesting read.
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Brian Tietz, Photographer
Fort Myers | FL | USA | Posted: 10:08 PM on 10.18.07
->> My name is Brian ... and I WAS a spec shooter.

I gave it a try with 2 big "wire" services and never made enough to cover expenses, much less the time I spent working. I was never lied to, but instead I lied to myself thinking it was the way to fame and fortune. No hard feelings, just lessons learned.

So with that said how many former T&I shooters out there have "made it" by shooting college / pro sports on spec?

How many spec shooters have been able to quit their "real" job and be the big time pro shooter they wannabe thanks to spec?

These questions are directed solely at sports spec shooters, I'm sure the paparazzi make plenty shooting on spec so don't get your panties in a twist if thats how you pay the rent.

Trust funds, spouse's six figure salary's, IRA's, and money stashed away while you were a dentist don't count.

-b
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David Ahntholz, Photographer, Photo Editor
Cleveland | OH | USA | Posted: 3:32 PM on 10.19.07
->> David:

I respect those who are advocates for the business of photojournalism, and I think you're missing the point by saying "Preaching the no-spec gospel is great if it helps you round out your sense of accomplishment."

Most in this thread, who you would refer to as "preaching the no-spec gospel" are speaking from personal experience — as I'm sure they have either worked on spec, or know someone who worked on spec. Most try it for a while before realizing they aren't pulling in enough (or any) money to make it worthwhile. I'm sure that will continue.

The business models for the spec agencies are based on paying almost nothing to get the photos. Added to that, the only requirements are that you be a decent photographer and have a high-end cameras, a 400/2.8, and the ability to transmit. For that, you are guaranteed no pay. What other business are based on paying nothing for equipment and labor to get their final sales product? Why is it, then, that photographers line up for the opportunity to give away their time, effort, money, and photos?

The agencies use the lure of a credential to shoot professional or major college sports to attract inexperienced, naive photographers.

I realize there are a few who do make enough money to make it worthwhile. I, too, have thought about shooting spec, because I know you need to shoot to make money, and even a little money here and there helps pay the bills. But, how many are using spec to try to justify the $20k in gear they've bought? Gear paid for by working another full-time job, while shooting for fun on the weekends and dreaming of the day they will be able to quit their real job and shoot full-time. Then, it will become a business and no longer a hobby. And when that day comes, and the photographer tries to make their living solely off their photography, I would bet their ideas change on whether or not spec hurts the industry.

I, too, am curious if anyone has used it as a stepping stone to the big time. Somehow, I know the responses will be limited, but I doubt that will change the opinions of those who know it will be their ticket to a high-paying, full-time job shooting the big events.

As my grandfather would say: "Can't listen, gotta learn."
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David Harpe, Photographer
Louisville | KY | USA | Posted: 1:07 AM on 10.20.07
->> What other business are based on paying nothing for equipment and labor to get their final sales product?

The publications involved are doing exactly what every successful business tries to do: minimize cost-of-goods and expenses, maximize profit. That's just good business sense.

> Why is it, then, that photographers line up for the opportunity to give away their time, effort, money, and photos?

Because photography is fun, being on the sidelines is fun, and most people have very boring day jobs.

There are numerous reasons things are getting tough for still shooters. The market has changed wildly in the past ten years. Equipment to produce technically excellent imagery is priced more competitively than ever before. Digital has reduced the amount of time it takes for someone to learn the skills needed to produce quality images. The Internet has provided an easy source for information, and an easy to use marketing and distribution medium. These factors and a few others - namely a young generation growing up that has been using digital technology since birth - means there are a LOT of not too bad, skilled shooters coming into the market. All of these things combined makes it very much a buyer's market.

If the truth were known, most of the people with red vests shooting on the sidelines would not be there if they religiously ran the cost-of-business calculator on their own numbers and stayed home if they didn't add up. Does that make them bad business people? Of course not.

There are very few businesses that are profitable on a cash-flow basis from day one. It is not unusual for a business to run two to five years in the red before turning profitable, and they accumulate debt all along the way. Once they turn the corner, the debt remains for many years - the "investment" in the business.

That is one reason why a shooter might work at a loss - to gain experience, build contacts, etc...in other words, "invest" in their career. Some would argue that this is incredibly foolish because they'll never be able to up their rate once they start working for peanuts. This may or may not be true - it is truly up to the individual and their level of skill. Blanket statements to the contrary are misguided. One thing IS certain: A shooter will never have the opportunity to build experience, a portfolio, or connections sitting at home watching games on television with thousands of dollars of gear sitting in the closet not earning a dime.

There is another business concept that applies here - the concept of a "loss leader". Groceries are the king of this one. They frequently sell commodities with low margins at a loss to get people to come into the store - hoping that the customers buy other products with ridiculously high margins. It's a net win for the grocery - and they make far more money than they would selling everything at the same level of profit.

I know tons of pro studio shooters that do this kind of thing on a regular basis - they do pro-bono work for charities at a rate-card loss so they can get a good print sample, win some contests, and have a good marketing sample to use to get higher paying jobs. It works very well if implemented correctly, and can kill you if not. But again, it's up to the individual photographer to make the most of the opportunities - nothing is a given.

My point is that on this board it seems like everyone takes extreme positions in these discussions; NEVER shoot spec, ALWAYS turn a profit on EVERY job, NEVER sell your copyright, NEVER do work for hire, etc. Extreme positions are not valid in the world of business. They are defensive in nature, which makes you vulnerable to someone willing to try something different.
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Michael Sackett, Photographer
Sterling Heights | MI | USA | Posted: 7:51 AM on 10.20.07
->> David -

Thank you for that post...rates number one in the thread in my book...and it clears up some of the issues.

Excellent essay
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Joe Cavaretta, Photographer
Ft Lauderdale | FL | USA | Posted: 9:04 AM on 10.20.07
->> Help me, I'm at a loss here. I recognized a few of these posters defending spec shooting as some of the same event fotogs who were up in arms earlier this year because newspapers were selling photos online from "thier" high school events, undercutting the business model.
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Ian L. Sitren, Photographer
Palm Springs | CA | USA | Posted: 11:51 AM on 10.20.07
->> Let me just share this as it appears to me about a lot of people...

You start shooting spec for the opportunity to shoot what you feel is your aspiration to shoot, be it football, soccer, high school etc. Yes you enjoy doing it, of course. Now you start realizing that you are woefully under geared. $25,000 later you are still shooting spec. But you have all those big lenses and you know if you just keep at it...

Then you sell a few! It's working! You are on track. Just keep doing more of it, buy that 400 now. Do more of what you are doing, it's gotta work, just do more. Maybe a few more sales. Suddenly however, three years have gone by. It's not working but you know it should, but it's not. Sports Illustrated isn't sending you urgent e-mails, you are still getting around wondering what's wrong with your portfolio despite all those great shots. Maybe your 400 got stolen and you have no insurance, couldn't afford it. Now you need to upgrade to the new bodies, another $10,000. What happened? What's going on?

If you are just doing it as a hobby, well I can't say much but have fun. But if you are trying to make this a career and a business, you made one of the most common mistakes. If it isn't working, compensate by doing the same thing but more of it. But what you should do is stop doing it and soon.

When you stay on the same track, it prevents you from looking around and finding a better way. No matter how badly you are doing, you stay there because it is what you know and it is comfortable.

So what I really urge a lot of people to do is quit. And then seriously find another way. Explore other photography. It doesn't have to be forever, you can come back to football or whatever with a new found sense of success. Or you might find something you like doing better.

People and business make this same mistake all the time. So don't wait too long. Or you are going to be running up and down those sidelines with the new crop of 20 year olds, they will have newer and better gear than you, and you will be wondering what could have been.
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Marie Hughes, Photographer
Fremont | CA | USA | Posted: 4:06 PM on 10.20.07
->> Great post, Ian.

David says:

"If the truth were known, most of the people with red vests shooting on the sidelines would not be there if they religiously ran the cost-of-business calculator on their own numbers and stayed home if they didn't add up. Does that make them bad business people? Of course not."

I strongly disagree with that. I would say of course it makes them bad business people! Now it doesn't make them bad people, but it makes them bad business people pretty much by definition.

But what about those grocery stores and their loss leaders? Even if the business model applied (which I don't think it does because images are not cereal), it's not like your local grocery store prices every single item at a loss for years in the hope that someday they'll have built up a clientele and then can start charging the real price. Loss leaders are carefully selected based on formulas and numerical analysis. Plus the worst that happens if the numbers are wrong is that profit is cut into.

What about those businesses that operate at a loss for 2-5 years? I worked for a business like that. In the 5th year, they finally made a product someone wanted to buy. Money started flowing in like crazy. And they went out of business anyway because their 5 years of accumulated debt had crippled them.

Your business plan can call for a year or two of operating at a loss but then it also has to have a plan for how you will pay off that debt when you finally start making money. Because you now have to make enough money to pay your bills going forward but to pay the interest on your loans and to pay the higher prices all your suppliers will demand because of your previously poor payment history.

I also worked for a startup that made it. Their #1 operating principle was "never spend money you don't have". There was one time they did borrow money to make payroll. But only one time and it was a short term loan with a clear plan as to how to pay it back. The rest of the time they were very conservative with their budgets and money and that is part of why they made it when so many small businesses fail.

David also says:

"My point is that on this board it seems like everyone takes extreme positions in these discussions; NEVER shoot spec, ALWAYS turn a profit on EVERY job, NEVER sell your copyright, NEVER do work for hire, etc. Extreme positions are not valid in the world of business. They are defensive in nature, which makes you vulnerable to someone willing to try something different."

I do agree with that to some extent. There can be times when shooting on spec, selling the copyright, etc. makes sense. The problem is that I don't see many photographers making informed choices about when to break the rules based on an analysis that shows how this strategy will actually make them money. I don't see many photographers who even have a business plan at all. They just work any job they can get no matter how unprofitable hoping that some day it will lead to something better.

So while rigidly following the rules might make you "vulnerable to someone willing to try something different," you are fooling yourself if you think that giving up your copyright, shooting on spec, underpricing your work and taking every job you are offered no matter how unprofitable is "something different."

These are the same old mistakes that everyone is making because they aren't running their business as a business.
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Eric Canha, Photographer
Brockton | MA | United States | Posted: 5:04 PM on 10.20.07
->> Spec is like a Twinkie. Desert. A guilty sinful pleasure. And sometimes after a week of being very good I WANT A TWINKIE.
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Jared Dort, Photographer
The Wu | AZ | usa | Posted: 7:29 PM on 10.20.07
->> ... as for using spec to build a portfolio

Following this tread I'd like to highlight two issues that pop out at me, in particular.

1. Having pro in a portfolio

So what. Anyone with an auto-focus camera and a big lens can shoot pro. Pro is easy. Things happen as expected and there's plenty of peak moments and great action and emotion.

Show me a great photo of a high school game and I'll know you're the real deal.

Show me something different.



2. Getting experience

Saying you were at an NFL game on a resume means very little. Saying you covered high school football isn't a bad thing. Having your images speak is really what matters - regardless of what venue.

If I had to choose between a photographer who shows me images of professional athletes and events or a photographer who took mundane assignments and horrible lighting and distracting backgrounds into gold, I'd take No. 2 any day.


I like Twinkies too, but they're just not good for you. And they sure as hell won't sustain you.
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Jared Dort, Photographer
The Wu | AZ | usa | Posted: 7:38 PM on 10.20.07
->> You are right, Eric. Spec is a "Desert" - a dying, dried-up wasteland with nothing to offer.
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Louis Lopez, Photographer
Fontana | CA | USA | Posted: 8:11 PM on 10.20.07
->> As a fulltime professional photographer who earns my entire living from photography, spec shooting is a large part of my income. I have a family, cars, house and I own all my own equipment etc..

It works for me, and yes not everyone earns enough from spec shooting to make a living, but I do, and I make a good living.

A lot of sports photographers on this site know me in Southern California, and they can confirm I am a fulltime professional photographer.( I only bring that up as some people think every spec shooter is a hobbyist and has a "Real" Job).

Do I have clients that pay me to cover events, yes of course almost all of them I got through shooting on spec originally and they book me to cover other events. I am not going to stop spec shooting because my images sell, and they sell very well and I get clients that like the images I shot on spec and then book me to cover other future events.

Spec shooting is part of my business, a large part, not my entire business. I have commercial and portrait clients and I also shoot on spec.

Some photographers find it works for them in their markets and for their reasons, others say it is bad business.
If it does not work for you stay away, not everyone can make it on their own.
Enough already.
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Eric Canha, Photographer
Brockton | MA | United States | Posted: 9:46 PM on 10.20.07
->> "And they sure as hell won't sustain you."

Jared very true. That's why I qualified my post by saying that they (it) should maybe be reserved as a treat.

Marie, that company with the 5 years of debt was also in all likelihood the recipient of some very bad advise, or no advice at all. If the money was coming in hand over fist, the correct thing to do in most cases, would be to file for protection and restructure the debt. Creditors will almost always work something out if a company can demonstrate that things are turning around.

Joe some of the posters against spec are the same posters that think nothing of harpooning an event shooters contract. When they muscle in on a contract it's a First Amendment thing, when they're the ones being undercut the industry is being ruined. Go figure.

Louis, Amen.
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Michael Fischer, Photographer
Spencer | Ia | USA | Posted: 12:01 AM on 10.21.07
->> Some interesting comments about shooting on spec.

What several of you are trying to explain is called merchandising in marketing and sales circles. The various products within a catagory that produce profits are part of the merchandising mix.
Is it like the grocery stores? Well sorta, but it's a little more exact. After a while, if you know what you're doing, you can pretty accurately predict how much of the loss leader you'll "sell" and how much of the various profitable products within the segment you'll sell as well - you can draw a pie chart and show what the sell price of the product, the percentage of the overall mix is, and the percentage of profit contribution each segment contributes.

Sounds hard? It actually isn't. It's easy if you actually sit down and develop a plan and then "do" then plan.

Eric's analogy of a twinkie isn't too far off - but here's THE KEY and here's why photographers shooting on spec doesn't work for so many shooters:

A "loss leader" (ie "spec") works only when you have other profitable products/goods/services to a) offset the financial loss and
b) produce increased sales in the more profitable catagories.

In the real world, the lowest priced item, with the lowest margin, should be the one with the lowest sales. The highest margin product (not necessarily the most expensive item, either) could be your biggest seller. Plan your work and then work your plan.

This explains why Louis says he uses loss leaders and has success. He has enough other catagories that produce high enough revenues that whatever loss he does incur is minimal to the OVERALL MIX of sales. IT'S ALL ABOUT MIX. Louis uses the loss leader to drive other catagories.


The key difference here is that the spec shooter has no, or limited options and none of them produce significant revenues or profits. Result? They pull the industry down and make no money.

Ian (who is a perfect example of establishing a niche that proves to be profitable- he is the only shooter I think of when I think about body building shooters) is exactly right - find other branches of photography and see if you can be profitable in them.

You could come back and shoot the no profit stuff, but I suspect the person who does find that profitable niche would no longer have the same interest in working for free.
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David Harpe, Photographer
Louisville | KY | USA | Posted: 12:23 AM on 10.21.07
->> I strongly disagree with that. I would say of course it makes them bad business people! Now it doesn't make them bad people, but it makes them bad business people pretty much by definition.

You are making my point exactly with your post. People here take these extreme "do it this way or fail" positions. That is not the way business works. Most successful business strategies are hybrids, tailored by the individual business owner for their particular market, skills and personal resources.

The no-debt-from-day-one strategy you describe is not common, but it can be successful. It can also fail because it severely restricts your capabilities when faced with a competitive environment. It is a false sense of security.

A far more commonly successful approach is an investment in your business, which involves debt or personal capital infusion. Either way, it is money that has come from a source other than revenue.

Any business owner has to be on top of the numbers and recognize both revenues and expenses honestly, along with opportunity cost, cost of goods and a host of other issues. This is true whether you're shooting spec or a $1,500 assignment rate. But to take a unidirectional "give me a big paycheck or I won't do it" approach is both unrealistic and limiting. There are other ways to make this equation work - and it's up to the individual to figure these things out.

After all, that's where the true challenge is in all of this: Figure out a way to feed yourself, make the correct connections, invest in your business all while learning to shoot really good stuff. There is no one right way to do it - and no hard fast rules for success, or failure. Otherwise everyone would be doing it and we'd all be millionaires.
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Jared Dort, Photographer
The Wu | AZ | usa | Posted: 6:54 PM on 10.21.07
->> .... still, you can survive in the Desert if you are prepared.

If you can make it work, good for you. Not everyone can.
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Eric Canha, Photographer
Brockton | MA | United States | Posted: 7:39 PM on 10.21.07
->> Yes Jared I made a typo, is should have read dessert.

"If you can make it work, good for you. Not everyone can." Jared you just plain couldn't be any more right.
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Kirk Mastin, Photographer
Coeur D'Alene | ID | USA | Posted: 9:43 PM on 10.21.07
->> Working on spec is disre-"spec"-ful to yourself.

In the end you won't make it anywhere. Does anyone here have a spec shooter as your role model?

Didn't think so.

My photography role models were respected and well paid (eventually.)

They are paid absurdly well compared to most. They sure as hell didn't get there shooting spec. Instead they did what they had to do to make some money and shoot what they loved on their own time using their own means. Liebowitz, Allard, Harvey, Nachtwey, Avedon, Alec Soth....you name it.

Their passion for their subject matter brought the money to them on their own terms. They were nobodies' fools and they owned most of their work throughout their career.

One thing I disagree with is that spec will ruin everything for other photographers. If you have great images they carry a premium no matter what. If you have great images and specialize and find your niche you will do well. Those that live off of spec will never be in business long enough to be good enough to actually compete with you.

With good business skills you can find more opportunity in this market than any market that has come before.

When I left the paper, I made more money, shot more of what I liked and became more in demand....

I don't shoot spec....want to know why?

I don't have time.

Too many clients, too many online opportunities to pursue.


Am I wrong?
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Kirk Mastin, Photographer
Coeur D'Alene | ID | USA | Posted: 9:46 PM on 10.21.07
->> Ps. I think that anyone who lives off spec may actually be an 'event' photographer. That is a whole different matter than wire service/commercial/whatever spec.

I apologize if I am wrong about that...but I can't see how someone can live off spec entirely.
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Mark Peters, Photographer
Highland | IL | USA | Posted: 12:43 PM on 10.22.07
->> "Instead they did what they had to do to make some money and shoot what they loved on their own time using their own means."

Isn't that pretty much the definition of shooting spec?..and what is being derided here..(including using other sources of income to pay the bills.)
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Eric Canha, Photographer
Brockton | MA | United States | Posted: 7:40 PM on 10.22.07
->> Kirk...
Event photographers..... at a sporting event? Somebody better put a stop to that crap and fast! Next thing you know they'll being trying to stop SI from selling images to Peyton's mom and banning Mr. Brady and his rebel from the sideline! You know those event guys (and gals) have no respect for the working class shooters.

I knew that it would come down to name calling at some point. First they were 'spec' shooters, now they might be 'event' photographers, in 6 or 7 posts they'll be little more than members of the paparazzi. Funny thing is that CNN just had 2 14 year old 'paps' one of them made $34,000 from a Britney shot. Fourteen and he's already made more than most first year pj's working full time at a paper. Oh yeah they're Nikon shooters too, will the evil never end?!?!
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Kirk Mastin, Photographer
Coeur D'Alene | ID | USA | Posted: 12:27 AM on 10.23.07
->> Whoa sorry dude, I didn't mean to offend.

I still stand by my words though that spec is not really the best long term plan for most shooters.

When I say 'Event' shooters I'm referring to those that shoot high school or motocross or what have you, and sell to the players, parents, fans etc. I think those people are actually very savvy, because they are running their own business. If they do it right they can make a good living, much like a wedding photographer, senior portrait photographer or family portrait photographer can.

People that spend their own money to shoot a game and then have only one person, the agency or spec company, as a client is in big trouble in the long run. It's just common sense. Making $200-$350, (IF they take your photo an dpay you) is just not enough to cover your cost of doing business. After gas, food, TAXES, wear and tear, you are making almost NIL.
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Thread Title: Great Article by John Harrington - Part Two
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