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|| News Item: Posted 2001-07-27

Let's Talk Business: Trying To Make A Living
By Rick Rickman

Photo by
I never cease to be amazed at the funny things that life hands us. A year ago or so (maybe 2 years ago? life gets confusing when you get over 50) Bert Hanashiro asked me to take part in this Sports Shooter project and write a column on business. I laughed then because I felt I really wasn't any expert at business. I'm certainly not anymore of an expert now. I'm just a guy out here trying to make a living in one of the most difficult professions on earth. Freelance Photography.

For whatever reason, I now get deluged with requests from photographers who want to know how to be successful in the freelance market. The first thing I always tell them is; "go back to school and take up medical studies and work towards medical school. It's easier!"

They always laugh thinking I'm kidding but I'm not.

My wife, who's been very supportive and understanding of my passion for photography tells me all the time that I have to stop working so hard or I'm gonna die in some muddy field somewhere due to a coronary episode. I always tell her that if that happens she's set forever because of the amount of insurance I carry. She never laughs. She just gets a far off look in her eye like she's thinking about Fiji or something.

Anyway, I received a letter this week that is very representative of all the questions that I often find myself fielding. I decided it would be a good idea to address these questions in an open forum so some of you who have the same questions could see some of my thoughts on these issues.

I want to preface my comments with a note to everyone that these are just my opinions and they come from my experiences. I believe that what I have experienced may help some people avoid the same mistakes that I have made in my early years of freelancing.

Here's the letter:

Dear Rick, I read Sports Shooter and hope you can help me out. For the last few months I have become increasingly disillusioned with my staff photographer's position at a metro newspaper which is owned by a large media corporation.

We were recently taken over by a company and the changes they have been making have been very unsettling. I'm sure I am secure in my job (though anyone near the magic age of 55 in our building are shaking in their tennis shoes!) but I am just not real happy with the assignments I shoot.

So I want to dive into freelance market full-time.

I've had many friends and colleagues say I'm nuts, but I am so unhappy with shooting 3 or 4 assignments a day (all of them the routine variety that I've been doing for the past several years), most of them just filler in between the stories on the news pages.

So before I tell my photo editor to shove this job, I have a few questions about freelancing I hope you can answer:

1) My company has been supplying my gear all of these years (as well as a company car). So I need to know what kind of equipment do I really need? A friend said that if I want to shoot for magazines I need lighting gear as well as maybe medium format equipment. I have some Nikon bodies (an F4 and an FM2) and a 24mm, 85mm and a 180mm. How much more should I think of buying? And what about insurance?

2) I've got a good rep around town, so I don't think it'll be hard to get work from some of the news mags and maybe SI and USA TODAY. But I keep hearing otherwise. Do I really have to go to New York and maybe Washington DC to visit these publications? I was hoping mailing out a couple of promo cards I whipped up on my Epson photo printer would be enough.

3) I keep hearing I should have enough money to live on for 12 months before I quit my job. I have a couple of grand in my savings and whatever I get on a buyout from my paper. Do I really need that much money socked away?

4) I've done some freelance work locally, so I think I'm dialed in on how this works. But I've been reading about "day rates" and wonder if I set my own or if SI and Time have their own rate they'll pay me? I make about $50,000 a year now, what can I expect to make when I go freelance?

5) How soon do you think I'll be able to snag jobs that will get me on the road so I can travel to other cities and (hopefully) other countries? That's what I really want to do...some very exciting assignments rather than the "dog-of-the-week".

6) Am I nuts?

Thanks. CMJ

Dear CMJ,

I feel compelled to answer your final question first. You asked me if you were nuts. The answer is a resounding YES!

My mother always says that it's important in life to get your point across so if you have to be forceful to do that it's ok. She says that sometimes we have to use a 2x4 to get peoples attention. Her big caution was always wrap the 2x4 in velvet before you use it. My mother's a very smart woman and I've always taken that bit of advice to heart. So MC, get ready cause here come a velvet covered wrecking ball.

Work dissatisfaction and frustration is a common problem in this industry. Photographers in general are whiners and grousers and you can't imagine how many times I've heard this exact scenario before.

I'm gonna tell you right up front, I Hate Whining! We all make our lives what they are through the choices we make. I applauded your decision to find a solution to your dissatisfaction but I honestly believe you're heading in a misguided direction.

You mentioned that you are really unhappy with the fact that you are doing 3-4 low interest assignments a day and have been for years. Whose fault is that? Many staff photographers come to the job believing that it's their employer's responsibility to generate interesting ideas that they can go out and shoot and turn into epic pieces of social commentary. From your comments in your letter I feel you may be in this category.

In the 10 years that I was working in the newspaper industry, I had fewer than 10 assignments that I can recall being handed to me that worked out to be exciting and eventful. Most everything else that I did of note was generated by me through some interest I had in an issue or topic.

If you're frustrated with the kind of work you are getting from the newspaper I'd suggest getting off your glutiuos maximus and find a few stories you'd like to pursue. Begin to photograph those ideas and prove to yourself you have the ability to be a journalist. You'll need that skill more than any other!

Freelancing is not a panacea. It's not a remedy for laziness and, it's certainly not an arena for the person who can't generate their own ideas and successfully get them into print. If you are having trouble generating ideas at your newspaper you are certainly going to have serious problems generating ideas for yourself as a freelancer and that could very well be your demise.

Much of my work centers on ideas I've generated and then suggested to various magazines. The ideas are solid enough that the magazines agree to work with me on the topic and pay me a fee to shoot it. In today's market this is becoming harder and harder to accomplish because there are fewer and fewer places that have the budget or the facility to publish stories.

A very dear and insightful friend and editor always used to say that you're only given one thing in life. An Opportunity! What you do with that opportunity is up to you. Leaving the newspaper because you're frustrated is bad motivation in my mind.

I would suggest that if you are to leave the paper at some point it's because you have done most of what that opportunity has to offer and you want to continue your growth with other challenges. When you can honestly say that you have learned most of what there is to accomplish there and have left the paper a better place than it was when you arrived, then it's time for you to go.

I always laugh when I get the questions about equipment because they always are couched in such timid ways. The one clear issue here CMJ is that you don't really seem to have a clear idea of what it is you want to do other than have magazines send you round the world.

It's a nice dream goal but you are faced with a certain reality here. You have to make it through the first two years of being on your own and making contacts before you even get to think about anything else. This all comes down to your cost of doing business.

You don't have a car. That's a huge issue! You will have to get one and that will cost you nearly $30,000. The payments on that will range from $300- $600 a month depending on your down payment.

Do you have a mortgage? If so, how much is it? Do you have up to date computer gear? If not, you will have to get some. That will cost you anywhere from $2,000- $5,000. You will have to spend anywhere from $10,000 - $20,000 on photo gear to get yourself ready for your new freelance endeavor.

You will need health insurance which breaks down to about $300.00 a month. You'll need life insurance which breaks down to another $350.00 a month and you will need disability insurance which breaks out at another $350.00 per month.

Basically, CMJ you will have to be able to make at least $2,700 a month for the first year just to stay afloat. That means that if you don't have at least $27,000 in savings your are doomed!

To make $2,700 a month you have to work 6 magazine jobs a month. That may not sound like much but some of the most successful guys I know in this freelance business can barely get 10 magazine jobs a month in this market.

You are in the very unenviable position of having no contacts and no track record. This immediately puts you behind the 8 Ball and makes you have to work twice as hard to get any work.

It will take you 5 months and several trips to New York to rectify that issue. It will also cost you $500.00 a month in promotional fees. (i.e. post cards, phone calls, trips, portfolio costs.) Now all of a sudden you're looking at $3500.00 a month just to break even and stay afloat.

(Staying afloat defined as; eating Pinto beans and rice 4 days a week, no vacations, one movie a month, no new clothes in a year, no money of any kind for anything other than buying film or equipment.)

You will be working harder than you've ever worked in your life and seeming to fall further and further behind.

You will find a day coming that will terrify you. You will have been working for 6 months or so and have at least $10,000 of accounts receivable on your books (if you're smart enough to have set up good bookkeeping initially) and all of your bills are due and you don't have a dime in the bank to pay them. You've run out of working capital. Now what do you do?

You frantically get on the phone to all your clients that owe you money and tell them they have to pay you because you have to pay your bills. They listen sympathetically and two weeks later you still have no money. Now you whip out the credit cards and get cash advances on your credit limit to the tune of 15-16% interest and you pay your bills.

Now you're in the death spiral! You've borrowed money you didn't have at 16% interest, which will have to be paid back, to pay debts that were due immediately. This is what many debt counselors refer to as circling the bowl. The end result is inevitable but just a matter of time. This all because you didn't have enough money in the bank to keep your working capital in good shape and your head above water.

No Virginia there is no Santa Claus and the tooth fairy can't help you now.

CMJ, you asked me what you could expect to make going freelance. In analyzing your current status described in your letter you can expect to go deeply in the red and loose money for the first several years. If you're very talented and lucky, you may manage to pull yourself out of the hole.

I'm not familiar with your work, but I'd say that if you go to school and learn some good business techniques, save every penny you make, and work your posterior off you can probably expect to make the kind of salary you would be giving up at the paper possibly by year 7. By that time you may have worked off some of your initial debt load.

If you are relying on a rep to get you work with the magazines you will have to work twice the number of jobs that I mentioned above to break even. Your rep will take a large percentage of your fees from every job and that will require you more days working to pay your bills. Also, if you intend to leave that work to your rep you will never make the kinds of contacts that will help your business grow. No one promotes "you" better than you. If you can't find the time or inclination to promote yourself you're in trouble.

If you think that because you get a couple local jobs now and again that you understand the needs of the freelance market I've got some interesting investment opportunities I'd like to discuss with you. Saying you understand the freelance market because a job or two falls in your lap is the equivalent of saying you understand nuclear physics because your son has a molecular mobile hanging in his room.

Excuse my candor but you don't understand squat!

Photographers have this romanticized vision of freelance photography and many like to place themselves in that vision in some sort of Camelot-like daydream. In that vision they see themselves running for cover behind a stucco wall as the bullets fly. They see themselves prowling the tenements with drug dealers photographing the squalor and human degradation. They see themselves shooting the high life with beautiful people all around. They see themselves at all the big events and behind the scenes shooting sports hero's getting to know them personally and all at the expense of some magazine somewhere.

Well, Rock On Garth!

If this is your vision of freelance photography then stay where you are and keep dreaming buck-o, cause that's as close to it as you'll ever get. You asked me when you could expect to have a job from a magazine come along to get you on the road. The reality in today's market is that most magazines are hiring freelancers who live in an area or close proximity to the subject. There are fewer and fewer jobs coming around that get you off to other places regularly.

This year it's been tough to get any magazine to send me out very often. That trend may be destined to continue. I'm not sure. I am sure that it will be some time before you probably will get that kind of work unless you come up with ideas yourself.

I apologize if I've been overly harsh or if the velvet came off the wrecking ball too often, but freelancing is a tough business and you need to be ready to face some seriously difficult situations when in this business.

I don't intend to discourage you but to prepare you for some of what you may face. If you are intent on pursuing this end, prepare yourself by delaying your plans, making solid contacts before you leave your present job, and figure out carefully a plan of attack.

Make sure you have that year's salary saved and know what it means to figure out your cost of doing business. All these things will help you survive the tough times of which there are many. The most important thing is not to ever forget that the real reason for doing photography is the passion of the work. When you're ready, dive off and embrace that passion and then you'll succeed.

Good luck and get out there and make great pictures and some money. Most of all have some fun!


(Rick Rickman is a Southern California-based freelance photographer.)

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