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|| News Item: Posted 2009-04-23

Ask Sports Shooter: Getting 'My Dream Job'
Darren Carroll says don't be on the sidelines at some big-time event making the same run-of-the-mill stock picture everybody else is making.

By Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

On the sidelines at the Westlake vs. Smithson Valley high school football game in Comal County, Texas.
(Editor's Note: "Ask Sports Shooter" is a regular feature where a question sent in or taken from the Message Board is addressed by someone I feel is best qualified to share their insight and knowledge.)

Mr. Hanashiro,

I am a sophomore at what I guess is referred to as a "mid-major" university on the east coast. I do some work for the Sports Information Office shooting home games and making an occasional quickie portrait for media releases. I really do not get paid a lot to do this but I felt that it was giving me experience (I do keep my copy right). I recently was contacted by an organization that had seen my work and they wanted to know if I would be interested in shooting games for them.

When I asked what the day rate would be I was told that I receive a split of any sales. I was also told I was getting a chance to shoot sports (my dream job!) and the exposure I receive by having my photos distributed by them was better than any day rate. I have read a lot about "working for a credential" on and else where. But being a young student is it so bad to use this as a way to eventually get my dream job?

You and I are similar in many ways, so it's only fitting--whether he knew it at the time or not--that Bert passed this question along to me to answer. I, too, went to a "mid major" university on the east coast (Georgetown). I, too, did some of the same work you're doing when I was there. PR stuff, the occasional sporting event, etc. I, too, gained invaluable experience (and made a little money) doing it. And I, too, considered being a sports photographer my "dream job"--and sought advice from those more experienced than I about how to get there.

So it may surprise you that the most important thing I learned, the truest thing I learned, was something that the university photographer that I worked for said as I sat in his office one day.

"If you want to make it as a photographer," he told me, "learn how to shoot a portrait."

I began to protest. Sports photography was what I wanted to do. I was good at it (I thought, wrongly). I could make a career out of it (I was convinced, somewhat correctly). But he wouldn't hear any of it. It wasn't that I wasn't marginally skilled at it, or that I couldn't get better with practice. He wanted to make that clear. But what he said next has been burned into my head for the past 18 years.

"Sports photographers," he said, "are a dime a dozen."

When he said that, it really hit me hard, and I felt insulted, because he was, after all, talking about my dream job! I realize now that he wasn't talking about the truly great sports photographers--as with any segment of this business there are the super-talented, people who exist in the rarified air of Sports Illustrated covers, contest victories, or--heaven help us--the workshop and lecture circuit. No, he was talking about the rest of us, those who are competent, sometimes showing flashes of brilliance but usually just slogging it out on the sidelines trying to be in position for the big play, or get just the right angle to craft a decent couple of frames from a game, aspiring to someday get to that high point of seeing our stuff in S.I., or on a poster somewhere, or whatever.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Lorena Ochoa hits an approach shot on the 9th hole at the 2007 Mastercard Championship in Mexico City.
At least, he was talking about those types over 15 years ago. Before digital. Before autofocus. When you had to expose slide film correctly and turn the lens ring yourself as the running back came at you. If they were a dime a dozen in the early 1990s, then in these days of raw files, of keeping your focusing hand on the monopod as you point the 400 downfield and mash the back button, that dime will now get you a gross.

But I digress for a moment, having hopefully disabused you, as he did me, of this notion of sports photography as a "dream job." There are too many mediocre photographers out there flooding the market with too many mediocre pictures to make a career as a strictly-sports photographer anything more than a dream nowadays. You need to broaden your horizons.

But to the question at hand: So you were contacted by someone from an "agency," or perhaps a "wire service"--all the better to make their organization sound official--who flattered you with praise for your work and asked you shoot for them. They were probably rather unforthcoming with details and particulars other than the fact that they would get you credentials to all sorts of cool stuff. And you asked the right question--namely, what they would be paying you for your efforts. And they gave you the answer that's become all too common these days: You'd get a split of sales, a credential, and most importantly, the exposure that will launch your career. And you're skeptical. Good. You should be.

Let's take their sales pitch/answer piece by piece:

"I was told that I receive a split of any sales..."

Provided they are reputable and honest with you, perhaps you will--if there are any sales to split. There are a few more things you need to ask.

First: do they offer a subscription-based service--i.e., do clients pay a flat fee for usage of as many pictures as they want? If so, how are you compensated for such use? I remember several years ago when one of these "wire services" first started, they were promising all of their photographers the same thing--credentials in return for a split of sales. What they weren't telling them was that they were offering potential clients unlimited free use of their pictures in an attempt to "get their name out there." Don't forget, your split of zero is, well, zero.

Next, ask how many pictures they sell per month, and to whom? And don't let them tell you, "Sports Illustrated and ESPN." I'm sure they've had a "Leading Off" or "Zoom" or three, but more than likely the majority of sales to those "big name" publications are thumbnail images that fetch a hundred bucks or so--before your split. What's their average sale, and thereby the average commission?

Ask them who their largest clients are, by sales volume. If they tell you they license 5,000 images a month, but they're all two-dollar sales to web sites, well, there's not much in there for you.

Ask how many photographers they have "working" for them, and if they routinely allow multiple photographers to cover a single event. If there are three of you at a football game, and you're all competing for the same sales, and none of your are getting paid to be there, that's a very good thing for the agency. It's not so good for you.

Finally, ask if they have a commercial license for the sports they want you to cover. Because that's the only way you have a prayer of making any real money in a situation like this.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Colt McCoy looks to pass against Texas A&M in last year's game in Austin.
"...I was also told I was getting a chance to shoot sports ..."

You have a chance to shoot sports every day. There are club sports and "minor" sports at your school  (did you know Georgetown had a football team? Neither did I when I first got there--but that's how I practiced shooting football). There must be a high school nearby. Is your school on a river? Chances are there's a rowing club. You probably have a newspaper at your school that you can join, and can get you credentials to many events. When you shoot them, you'll be welcomed, and most likely allowed to move around wherever you want. Anybody can shoot the picture of Colt McCoy to the right. No photo editor is going to be impressed by it. Anybody can shoot the picture of Tiger Woods below. Every photo editor has seen it a million times. Now, go to a place that gives you access and the ability to shoot from where you want to shoot, and you can come up with different things, like the images at the beginning of this article, from a high school football game in Texas, and from a golf tournament in Mexico. You don't need a credential, or a trip to the "big time," to make nice pictures.

"...and that the exposure I receive by having photos distributed by them was better than any day rate."

The first two things they've told you above are bad enough, but it's a statement like this last one that really cheeses me off. Who do these people think they are? (Actually, I know who they are. But for the sake of civility I'm going to leave their name out of it). Trying to sell a young, aspiring photographer on this line of bullshit in an attempt to get him or her to work for free is the lowest kind of fraud.

What they say might--might--be true if editors read the byline of every image that crossed their screen. And if they had the time to remember it. Have you ever seen magazine picture editors work? They fly through photos. They don't read names; unless the photos are from something they assigned, to a photographer they know, they don't know--or care--who took the pictures. For example, the agency that contacted you has had a few "Leading Off" pictures in Sports Illustrated. They probably made a huge deal about that. I will bet you the page rate of all of their spreads combined that, if you showed the picture editors at S.I. any of them, not a single one would be able to tell you the name of the agency that provided the picture, much less the name of the photographer who shot it.

The person who shoveled that "exposure" bit at you is either too out of touch with how things work at a magazine to know any better, or worse yet, knows it all too well but has to tell you that, because it's the only carrot he can offer you. And he needs you.

Photo by Darren Carroll

Photo by Darren Carroll

Tiger Woods follows through on a tee shot at the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston.
Why? I'm going to be honest with you here, and I apologize if it hurts. It's because sports photographers are a dime a dozen. And it's because you're the next guy on the list.

The person before you who was shooting for free, awaiting all those splits of sales and the remarkable exposure that was supposed to come rolling in finally figured it out--it doesn't happen that way. And he got sick of it. Realized the parking money and the meal money and the gas money could be better spent, that the credit card interest on the 400 2.8 and the new MacBook Pro wasn't being recouped by a bunch of $1.63 internet sales to, and that he couldn't pay his mortgage with "exposure you receive," and that the hours he spent editing and captioning after the "dream job" was over would be better spent with his kid, or working on personal projects, or marketing himself.

So he went out and started assisting. Or he took all the money he would have spent on gas, hot dogs, and parking and printed up some nice promo cards. Or he bought himself a Holga and some 120 Tri-X and decided he'd go for a walk and look at things differently. Either way, he learned his lesson.

And now the guy at the other end of the phone has to find some other rube to do the work he needs. To get him his content for free. He, and others like him, have so cheapened the product that we work so hard to produce that he could never afford to pay you what you're worth. And he's hoping you don't realize that. He'll find somebody eventually--he just needs to keep calling until he finds someone willing to "work" for him.

And as long as guys like you fall for the line about "exposure" and the promise of untold riches through sales of the second-string defensive end shot under the lights at 3200 ISO, these charlatans will be able to stay in business. They won't have to pay for your work, so they can charge less for it. And when the bean-counters at magazines (for whom pictures are pictures, regardless of quality) figure out that they can pay so little money for what was once so valuable that they had a team of staff photographers to do that exclusively for them, then your "dream job" will be just that--a dream.

Because that job will cease to exist. If it hasn't already.

So do me a favor: Don't be "the next guy." Recognize this for the scam that it is. Go assist, and learn that way. Find things to shoot on your own, and develop your own vision and style. Join the school newspaper and get yourself a credential to softball or water polo. Make some great images. Push yourself. Impress people with your pictures and your vision, not with the people who are in your pictures. When you do that, you'll find that people will happily pay you for your work and your effort.

But above all, don't think that you need to be on the sidelines at some big-time event making the same run-of-the-mill stock picture everybody else is making. Don't help further this spiral along.

Maybe if enough people started doing that, we'd all be much better off.

(Austin, Texas-based freelancer Darren Carroll, who regularly shoots for Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, Golf World, and a bunch of other magazines, isn't normally this grumpy. But Bert knew that this topic would really set him off. You can see more of his work at

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