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|| News Item: Posted 2011-12-12

The Truth About Shooting on Spec: One Guy's Experience
By Luke Johnson

Photo by Luke Johnson

Photo by Luke Johnson

Countryside High School DB Mike Johnson intercepts a pass intended for Venice High School WR Terry Polk during the 7A-Region 3 quarterfinal at Countryside High School in Clearwater, FL (November 18, 2011)
Hey, I'll admit it. I was 17 years old, an intelligent guy and, like a lot of people on this site, I was hungry to get into the sports photography business. I wanted to be for real. I wanted to be one of the guys with the dangly credentials standing on the sidelines and while I had read every well-reasoned post in every heated thread bashing the practice of shooting on spec, I only allowed myself to believe that those shooting on spec made little money and had only a very slight negative impact on the industry as a whole. I was delusional, but I was, overall, against the practice of shooting on spec...that is, of course, until the email. Yes THE email.

The email came on a Saturday and it was from an actual editor from a *real* photo agency. Well, I say *real* because they had a cool logo and a website; I know, because the logo, in full color, was at the bottom of the email. Wow, these people, with a logo and everything, were contacting me and offering me a chance to do what I'd been sitting around dreaming about and polishing my cameras for: the chance to shoot professional sports. Hell, they even mentioned their clients by name, "Sports Illustrated, ESPN and the Sporting News", I had clearly made the big time as they were offering me the "opportunity" to be one of their "staff photographers"... who cares that they temporarily retain my copyright, they were getting me credentials! (Words in quotes all come from review of previous emails)

First order of business, sign their contract. I didn't want to waste any time out of fear that they might offer this fabulous opportunity to the next guy, so I signed it immediately and faxed it, then, the following day, decided to actually, well, you know, read it.

Second order of business: I had to buy the mandatory fancy polo shirt emblazoned with THEIR logo so that everyone would know that I was for real. Of course, I had to pay them somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 for said polo… luckily, I chose the one that was "on sale".

I was now the real deal. My first assignment shooting professional sports was a Tampa Bay Rays game - I had made it. I walked in toting my pro bodies, laptop and lenses, including a 400mm f/2.8 (all purchased by me), a fancy credential around my neck and an even fancier logo shirt upon my frame.

It was my first game and I was already thousands of dollars (plus the $20 shirt) in the hole. But, no sweat I was about to make a mint. Oh wait, I forgot, I needed to buy an $8 media meal and I'll just have to consider the $10 round trip in gas as an investment. After all, my "agency" works with "S.I., ESPN, and the Sporting News"... big money and fame here I come.

So, I became a regular at the Rays, shooting just about every home game along side the other guys who were there, actually getting paid a freelance day rate or as a salaried staffer. Like them, I also showed up about three hours before the game and stayed about an hour afterward to edit, caption, tone and transmit my photos to my "agency" so that I could sit back and wait for the money to roll in.

To their credit, the other shooters who I shared the photo wells with, and who all knew I was shooting on spec, never gave me a hard time or made things difficult for me and I have to send a special thank you to SS member Brian Blanco for telling me, in a friendly way, to "lose the damn logo shirt", which, I especially appreciated since the "damn logo shirt" was itchy as hell.

I should also thank Mike Carlson for trying to convince me to use the credential, which every shooter there informed me would make me ZERO money, as an opportunity to shoot differently and build a creative portfolio but to not delude myself into actually believing that I'd make any money.

About 30 games into the MLB season, having not seen a check hit my mailbox, I started to figure out that, perhaps, what they were telling me was the truth. I was making no money. The reason no checks had arrived: my "agency" apparently doesn't send out checks until a shooter's account balance reaches at least $70. Meaning that, after shooting 30 professional baseball games, I had made less than $70.

I wasn't yet dissuaded because I was having fun, I was learning and meeting good people but I was clearly losing money and the thrill of being on the sidelines was losing its appeal fast. It was around this time, that through friendly, but frank, conversations in the photo wells that I was coming to the realization that by shooting on spec, I was also part of a machine that was, even though my contribution was slight, hurting the good people I was shooting along side. Spec, I was learning, was not only bad for me, but also bad for the staffers and freelancers around me.

Photo by

Photojournalist Luke Johnson.
I was seeing the light but I wanted to honor my commitment to this spec agency and finish out the MLB season. It was around this time that I really gave up on the notion that shooing on spec was going to make me any money so I started taking the advice I was getting to heart and finding ways to shoot more creatively and build a portfolio. I shot this way for another 30 games, showing up early, staying late, listening to advice, honoring my commitment and planning for the future; a future that didn't involve being taken advantage of, a future where I respect the value of my work product, a future free of spec shooting.

The Tampa Bay Rays' last home game was the last game I ever shot on spec. At the end of the MLB season, I had shot a total of slightly over 60 MLB games. I'll round it down to 60 games and break it down:

7 hours a game x 60 games = 420 hours
$10 in gas x 60 games = $600
$8 media meals x 60 games = $480
$20 for a stupid shirt = $20 (Let's not even talk about the thousands of dollars in gear, insurance, repairs, etc.)

Grand total out-of-pocket expenses for the season = $1,100 out-of-pocket

Last month, after waiting for seven months to see my first check, I found a surprise in my mailbox. A check for the total amount of money I made for the entire MLB season + about 10 other misc. events I covered for them. Total $71.56

$-1,100.00 (out-of pocket) + 71.56 (total sales) -$1,028.44 loss

Even if I don't count the out-of-pocket expenses and divide the number of hours I spent covering just the MLB games by the amount of the only check I've ever received from this agency, it comes out to $0.17 per hour... yup, you read it correctly, I made 17 cents an hour to shoot on spec and give away (temporarily) my copyright and make someone else money.

Three weeks after getting my $71.56 check and leaving the "agency" Blanco hooked me up with a local newspaper editor who brought me in as freelancer. This newspaper never asked me to buy a logo polo shirt, they didn't ask me to forfeit my copyright; they covered my expenses, paid my mileage and paid me a very respectable day rate to cover a local high school football game. In one game that lasted a couple of hours, doing it the right way, I made over three times as much as I did shooting a winning MLB team for an entire season.

PS: Fun Fact - I learned that you probably shouldn't throw up a Hail Mary shot with your wide lens in front of Brian Blanco, Mike Carlson, and Scott Audette when the Yankees score the go ahead run against the Rays.

(Luke Johnson is a photojournalist based out of the Tampa Bay, Florida area. You can see his work at his Sports Shooter member page: and his personal website: .)

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