OT Sunday: Stepping Outside the Box of the Business of Photography

FAIR WARNING: It's one of those "lengthy manifesto" weekends...

A few months ago, I posted on the idea of collaborating with subjects -- and sharing the photos -- as a shortcut to reinvigorating your photography.

Granted, I could have worded the headline better -- a lot better. But since that post I have dived even further down that particular rabbit hole, and wanted to pass along some thoughts and experiences and alternate approaches to any of you who may be interested.

If you are a purist and just come here to read about light, bail now. But if you are interested in looking at the business of photography from a different direction, feel free to make the jump.

In the Driver's Seat

I am not a potted plant -- I know there is a recession going on and times are tough all over. But flipping that around, that means many photographers probably have the occasional free day and with it the ability to decide how to use it.

As for me, I'd rather be shooting. But my last six months have been so crammed with travel and teaching that I have been all but unassignable. I am working through the string of commitments, and hope to be much less scheduled going forward. I feel bad any time I have to have to turn down a job, especially one that is in my subject area. But prior commitments precluded my ability to do just about everything, pretty much since last fall.

I have kept my sanity by self-generating projects that can be shot during the days when I am in town. I have one more trip coming up next week, and then I will be free to take whatever comes my way, assuming anyone I shoot for still remembers my phone number. And because of the projects, I have new work to show from my otherwise "dead" period.

The first example was the night chopper shoot which was done with the Howard County Police Department. That was a collaboration with pilot Perry Thorsvik, and allowed me to push the limits of what I thought would be possible with remote flash. I approached it exactly as I would approach an assignment. Because that is exactly what it was -- albeit a self-assignment.

In addition to stretching my technical skills, the photos from this shoot have proven to be useful for the HCPD, of course. But what has pleasantly surprised me has been the number of inquiries that I have gotten on the photos. I tagged them pretty well in Flickr, which I suspect has been the main funnel for people finding the images.

I have had several inquiries for their use as an advertising image from helicopter equipment and accessory manufacturers, enough so that I realize the commercial value of the photos to the point where I am not going to let them go until the right situation comes along.

It is a unique set of images, in part because it would have been pretty expensive to make them absent the collaboration of the police and the pilot. It is more than just renting a chopper at sunset -- you have to have a pilot who is invested into the creative process sufficient to be willing to have a flash going off repeatedly in his cockpit. (Thanks again, Perry!)

I expect at some point that photo is going to marry up to the right creative budget, and when it happens it'll just be gravy. Even if it never sells, its primary value to me is in its uniqueness and demonstrated technical ability. It has also created value for the HCPD (never a bad thing to have some very happy local cops around) and it was a lot of fun to shoot.

The photos simply wold not have happened any other way.

Another self-gen project I am in the middle of is a series of portraits of "Rising Stars" for the Howard County Arts Council. They are young professionals and college students in the performing arts who will be competing this weekend for a big chunk of change in a local "American Idol" -type competition that showcases this area's vibrant arts community, while putting on a heckuva show as the very talented competitors go for the big bucks in front of a live audience.

For me, this was a no-brainer for a self-generated project. I didn't get a penny out of it. Didn't even bill expenses. But what I did get was the chance to photograph a series of talented young people (of my choosing) who would not otherwise have the budget to commission these types of shots. All we had for each session are two people, working together, to make the photos they wanted to make.

No editors, no art directors, no external budget constraints, no deadlines, no schedule. And, speaking of budget, there is a "stone soup" quality to these kinds of things that makes shooting locations (and helicopters) magically appear for free. And more important I am free to experiment with new lighting styles that I can revisit later with more confidence when the meter is running.

Case in point is Kassi, above. Rather than paying a model and renting a location, my goal in self-gen shoots is to try to be a catalyst to jumpstart the creation of interesting stuff, external of the normal commercial/editorial process. I have license to stretch, so I will be comfortable with the new techniques when it matters.

In addition to all of the selfish stuff above, Kassi's promotional materials get kicked up a notch or two, as does the visibility of the Howard County Arts Council -- the later being another part of the positive vicious cycle for raising the profile of the arts in Howard County. In a way, I am latching onto a machine which is already running well and adding a little more horsepower to the process.

The use of the word "selfish" is not coincidental -- there is a distinctly self-indulgent quality to these shoots that is just not present in the shoot-for-hire jobs. They are creatively luxurious. (Or luxuriously creative -- I dunno which.)

The icing on the cake -- significantly so, for me -- is that many of the shoots will have a second life at some point as a blog post, something which is always sitting in the back of my mind. But I do watch that compass point, too. I am making a point of generating available light shoots in this way, just to do it free of any external influences. The process is the best way to charge creative batteries that I have yet found.

And as for the blog, trust me when I say that the Kassi shot will make a more interesting lighting post that would the series of guys-in-ties I shot (just) for money recently. (Sorry, guys. This crowd is so past the softbox and grey backdrop thing...)

It paid well, but I can honestly say that the only thing interesting about it was the check. Which, comparatively speaking, is very hollow. And it speaks volumes about only pulling out your camera when there is money on the table.

The best part of collaborative shooting is how easily doors open when you take money out of the equation. After 30 seconds of trying to figure out what the catch is, the people involved become creative allies in a way that frequently eludes the people working in a purely transactional project.

But Does it Scale?

Yes, it can. A few months ago when Mohamed Somji over at GPP asked me to come up with a series of courses for the Dubai workshops, in addition to a couple of lighting courses I broached the idea of teaching this process to a group of students in the form of a hybrid lecture/shooting workshop.

Earlier this month we took a group of mixed amateurs and pros and spent half a day discussing the motivation and process behind a self-generated shoot. And then we went out and did one -- shoot, edit and all. Because of the number of shooters involved, we had to choose a subject that could soak up more than a dozen photographers. So rather than our first idea -- shooting at a school for children with special needs -- we went for a wonderful boutique hotel in Dubai that looks like it came right out of the South of France. (We thought the school, and especially the students, would have been a little overwhelmed with a herd of shooters.)

A slow, fat pitch across the visual plate, to be sure. It was more of a commercial target that I would have chosen individually. But let me tell you that, if you are going to have a group of people visually exploring something for a couple of days, you can do far worse than a hotel that comprises a series of french-style villas in residential Dubai. We had a blast.

Honestly, I didn't know what to expect in terms of working as a team, image quality, etc. But before it was over I was just sitting back watching the students stretch themselves creatively -- with no commercial pressure -- and gelling as a group. The people at the hotel, of course, will be thrilled with the DVD of photos that will be arriving soon. But the fact that they are getting something of significant value should not at all diminish what the photographers learned through the process of creating the photos.

Every one of them now clearly has the ability to gain access to subjects that simply would not happen without the photographer serving as a catalyst. Where they go with it is up to them, but I could already see the wheels turning. And from a portfolio perspective, it unlocks the Catch-22 of "you only get paid to shoot what you can already show in your portfolio".

Frame it From a Different Angle

As photographers, we tend to spend so much time navel-gazing that we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. If you are not careful it can get to be all about creative rates, editorial credits, ongoing promotion, keeping your portfolio current, etc. But focusing inward like that means that you almost certainly preclude out-of-the-box thinking.

I believe that it is very important to step back and look at your profession within the context of a rapidly changing industry of visual content and information flow. We are still in the beginning phases of the information age, in the process of transitioning from the industrial age. Whether you choose to admit it or not, WIRED editor Chris Anderson is absolutely right when he says that information now wants to be free.

This is a double-whammy for shooters: There is no marginal cost to reproducing information (visual or otherwise) and every Tom, Dick and Harry how as nice camera and considers himself a photographer.

Result: A gazillion iffy images online, for a buck a piece -- or less.

This is scary as hell for photographers who think only in terms of what they earn per hour shooting. Especially if you are locked into a single perspective when examining your career.

Lately, I have been trying to step outside of my box whenever possible to look back from a distance. Three years ago I considered myself a photojournalist. And my perspective was limited to that of a photojournalist -- which today, I am sure you'll agree, is pretty depressing. In the time since then I have changed my perspective from that to one of a photographer who blogs. And sometimes, a blogger who photographs. Which means I have two markets that can either be tapped separately, or (when things really work well) simultaneously.

In the past few months, I have tried not to think of myself as a photographer/blogger (or blogger/photographer) but rather as a node in a world-wide conversation that happens to be about a small niche area in photography. Granted, it probably sounds like I am turning the BS meter up to 11 in an effort to pad my resumé. And I would grant you that -- if I were looking for a job.

But I am not hunting. What I am doing is constantly looking for a way to re-examine my place in the business ecosphere to force the creative process for new ways of thinking. And it is the change in perspective that (for me, anyway) is the catalyst for new ideas. I keep a pad (or iPhone or cocktail napkin or whatever) and write them down whenever they hit me.

So rather than looking at other bloggers (or, even worse, other photographers) my idea-stealing hunting ground when I am aiming for the fences is more likely to be Silicon Valley, or some loft in SoHo, or an article in Fast Company or WIRED. Look outside your immediate (and/or secondary) sphere for the most creative and novel ideas that you can apply to your business model.

Different business models are there, if you are willing to look for them. For example, how about something in the area of photography just about as far from money as you can possibly get: Documentary photography.

Case in Point

I few months ago I had lunch with Jamie Rose, a fellow photog in the DC area. It is one of those round-table things (actually, long Vietnamese soup trough things) where ideas, jokes and general BS are thrown around in equal measure.

After lunch I spent 15 minutes talking to Jamie about a relatively new project called Momenta Workshops. At Momenta, they don't just go out into a field of lavender in the South of France to shoot pretty pictures. They marry students with experienced, documentary photographers and point them at real situations -- including NGOs around the world -- to both test their mettle and learn in a real environment.

I was listening to Jamie, with her infectious enthusiasm, but I still wasn't really getting it. I was only then coming to terms with the power of flipping a market on its head and looking at your industry from a different direction. I could see it from my perspective, but not yet from Momenta's.

But in talking more with Jamie and others at Momenta, the power of their mission began to come more into focus. Think about it from the perspective of a documentary workshop with a far-flung NGO for a moment. You have four groups at play: The teaching photojournalist, the students, Momenta and the NGO itself. And rather than thinking of it as a straight, commercial model, try to think of it in terms of a symbiotic ecosystem.

Yes, there is money changing hands. But it is changing hands in different directions -- and for different reasons -- than is normal for documentary photography.

The students are the engine which makes it all happen. They want to learn, first-hand, from top-notch documentary photographers. And that is the economic catalyst which makes everything possible. They are leaning from the likes of Ami Vitale, Chris Usher and David Alan Harvey and others -- amazing first-hand resources.

The photographers, in turn, are being funded by the process of teaching what they have hard learned over decades of work to the potential next generation of documentary photographers. And doing so in an economically efficient way. The teaching photographers, in turn, use the money to fund future documentary projects.

Momenta, of course, shares in the income. This also funds them as working photographers. (Jamie, for example, shoots documentary, too). And it completes the cycle and allows the process to self-replicate. If successful, the engine continues to turn over by itself.

While I would like to think that I am pretty quick on the uptake on these nodal kinds of business models, I was missing the more important part. What are the NGOs getting out of it?

Says Momenta's Chris Anderson (confusingly, a completely different Chris Anderson than the WIRED editor referenced above):

We are doing what I call "industry building" by both training providers, and training as many organizations as possible see the value in visual media and will ultimately come back for more material over time.

One of my favorite questions that surprisingly gets asked all the time is, by "assigning journalists to work for NGOs and non-profits for free, you are taking jobs from working photographers."

It never fails to give me a hearty belly laugh because our aim, from the get-go, is to help create a vibrant and thriving industry. The average professional has no idea how many non-profits and NGOs there are who have zero idea of the value of visual communications. Worse than that, they have no idea about use contracts, fee structures, etc. Hell, I'd say about half of them have websites that look like they were done off legal tablet in 1996.

This is doubly true for the developing world. There is simply no awareness of the value of what it is our creative professionals can bring to the table as far as value in fundraising, identity building, and outreach awareness. 

In short, Chris and the others at Momenta are training both the photographers and the NGOs at the same time, and creating a mutually beneficial relationship that is potentially self-sustaining. They teach the photographers how to be better documentarians, at the same time raising the visual literacy of the NGOs and letting them see the value of well-executed documentary work about their organization.

What is most interesting to me is the peer-to-peer aspect of the education process. There is no Time Magazine or NGS editor involved. This is right from the source: People who need to be documentary journalists marrying up directly with organizations who need documentary journalism. Even if the latter does not yet know it.

This post is already insanely long (sorry) but Chris wrote back such a lengthy and impassioned response to my request for information that I highly suggest that you read it in full if you are interested in learning more. Please bear in mind that it was written shooter to shooter, and is a little rough around the edges.

But it rang so true that I thought it should be out there in it's entirety for people who might be interested in pursuing this path. His full response is available as a download here. And you can learn more about Momenta here.

Sorry About Your Sunday

If you are still reading, God bless ya and sorry for the length. I knew it would be long when I started writing, but I had no idea. Just a lot of ideas all trying to get out.

Granted, there are a lot of things to be depressed about in the current photography environment, when it comes to the business side. But more and more, I am starting to believe that as each of the old business model seems to evaporate, a new one emerges to take its place. Even if it may seem like you have to stand out in left field to see it.


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Blogger losalamos666 said...

Will have to come back to this a time or two to soak it all up. But I agree with your sentiment whole heartedly. I am about to embark on a project at one of the retirement homes near me where the idea is to get to know and photograph the living treasures in the village. What I get out of it is a better understanding of how to make pictures using the techniques you have shared with us.
What the subjects get out of it (I trust at least) is a captured moment of their lives that shows who and what they are and why they were important in the world.
No doubt I have bitten off more than I can chew but I will just have to continue to eat slowly! Many thanks for this post.

April 19, 2009 2:18 AM  
Anonymous Jamie Maldonado said...

Thank you again for pointing out the value of "free" work. I am in a similar circumstance in many regards, except I am looking for work and more money to survive. (I, too, am an ex-newspaperman, though I was on the desk.)

I have been pecking around the walls of other industries, and I'm finding some success. Granted, I need a lot more, but I'm glad to know I'm onto something.

April 19, 2009 2:27 AM  
Anonymous Kelly Karnesky said...

David you are a very wise man I love all of your post! keep up the great work

April 19, 2009 4:07 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

This type of post could not have come at a better time (for me, at least), as I was just recently laid off from my company (which I thoroughly loved and championed for the last 2.5 years).

I am now, for the most part, thrown out on my butt in the rain, and wondering if I've got what it takes to pursue my dream and turn my passion of photography into profit via the presentation of myself, my talent, and my passion for the image.

I hope I can do past great photographers justice with my efforts, and find a peace in my passion, as well as pay the bills.

I'm glad you went ahead with 'throwing it all on table' like this - whether my comment is completely in-line with what you were expecting, or not, I hope you can take a few seconds to acknowledge to yourself that your words can mean much more to someone apart from helping people learn that 'aperture controls flash, shutter controls ambient and this does that but only during the golden hours'...

While the technical things are invaluable to thousands, if not millions, of photographers worldwide, you are now in a position where your intangible words of wisdom can produce the most awarding thoughts in another's mind.

Cheers, David Hobby.

Chris Pichado

April 19, 2009 4:11 AM  
Blogger Prayudi Utomo said...

we all together facing a global recession,thank for useful write up!

April 19, 2009 4:14 AM  
OpenID Markus Petersen said...

Wheew, got through it. ;)

No. Great post, I'd say. I like how you try to put money out of the equation. I, too, believe that this gives photographers a sense of freedom to play and other benefits, which are not easily converted into numbers.

I am no professional photographer, just another amature. But I get the occasional shoot of something (mainly actors or actresses at the local theatre) -- and I get theatre tickets out of it, and the fun of shooting (and photos for my website). Of course, I don't know what it's like to shoot for a big magazine or similar, but I think my approach to photography is rewarding.

April 19, 2009 5:01 AM  
Blogger Niall said...

Agreed 100%. As someone just getting into the "business", I'm seeing that if I look at and do things from a new way, with emphasis on the images and not on the money (because lately it isn't always there), my business is becoming more successful and more of a joy to myself and a benefit to those who keep getting free shots.

As always, thanks for the inspiration, not just about lighting techniques, but about the artistic medium as a whole.

April 19, 2009 5:09 AM  
Anonymous reg gordon said...

Dave, Ive ben thrashing out the same thoughts over the last few weeks.
I spoke to you at the london meetup about the same thing
Ive had way more time on my hands lately than Ive had for 6 years and have had to reassess a lot of what I do.
I have been shooting self assignments as much as possible, last night I spent an entire evening shooting nightscapes, something Ive never tried before. Loved it apart from all the drunks.
Next week I have a meeting with a dancer to do some scenes in the local woods
All this is actually costing me money but its given me the freedom to do what Ive wanted to do since I started the business.
I recently created some mail outs for Pr/ ad agencies and without consciously realising it 75% of the images came form self assigned shoots,
makes you think eh?

April 19, 2009 5:29 AM  
Blogger Big Al said...

I am wondering about the issue of getting Model Release Forms signed when you are doing your paid or unpaid work. Do they all sign?

April 19, 2009 5:47 AM  
Anonymous Harry Futch said...

David, don't apologize for the length of your post. Important topics usually take more than a Tweet. And this topic is more important than most I've read this month.

We recently started a blog for emerging writers and your ideas carry over perfectly to that creative field. I know that I've looked at far too many in-house software documents and have not stretched my creative "muscles" into other areas of keen interest.

You've been a cutting edge inspiration to me as a photographer. Now that inspiration has carried over to me as a writer.

I've gotten the kudos out of my system, so I'll get back to Blogdesk and start rattling some writerly cages.


April 19, 2009 7:57 AM  
Anonymous Jurgen said...

This was a long post. David, through your work as Strobist, you have proven manyfold (does this word exist?) how valuable your point is. Empowering others (including photographers) gains a momentum which has the potential of creating something totally new.

When I started up, I offered some friends of mine free photo sesisons to build my portfolio and to help them for various projects. I haven't been doing anything like that for a while and am hungry for a self assigned project, where I can use my skill to help that individual and apply my knowledge and experience I gained, since I started up.

Thanks for the blog and challenging the community to push ourselves in many ways, first to free our flashes from our camera hotshoes, then liberating ourselves from old business models and finally reading a blog entry of 3223! words with only a few pictures in between. :)

Thanks and keep it up.

April 19, 2009 8:02 AM  
Anonymous Grey Trilby said...

You shouldn't apologise for these posts David... what's the point of learning to light if you can't make the most of it.

I'm in the fortunate position of having a job, meaning I'm under no pressure to suddenly 'make it' as a photographer (and I'm able to make a few quid on the side!). I get all my business through networking and contacts through my current industry (publishing) and via the ol' 6 degrees of separation, I'm getting enquiries from friends of friends. These 'manifesti' (to latinise the plural 'cos it's more fun) provide me, and I suspect many like me, with great insight into the industry and help us expand our horizons beyond the 'I'm going to shoot portraits/events/stock'. Thinking outside the box is never a bad thing, especially with gents like you saying 'come on in, the water's fine'!

So thank you again - I've learnt so much the last few months reading the blog (and subscribing to your recommended feeds). All I need to do now is petition Canon to make flashes as good as the Nikons (I'm using a Sigma 530DG and a (ahem) Nissin Di622 'cos I'm a cheapskate!



April 19, 2009 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, first comment! Way cool.

I read this post with great interest, in large part for the creative professional perspective it comes from. I'm not a professional photographer, but one of those zillions of people out here with decent equipment and, thanks to Strobist, a bit more of a strategy when it comes to snapping photos.

Your comments reach farther than photography, though. What you're describing is reminiscent of an idea put forward by Clay Christiansen, the guy who came up with the term "disruptive innovation", when he talks about "competing against non-consumption". That is, it's way easier and more interesting to sell products and services if you can figure out a market where there is no competition. The big challenge is the figuring out part, and the reaching of a new market space.

It is far, far harder to compete effectively against established incumbents and processes. To some extent, that seems to be at play in the "conventional" photography business.

I see strobist.com as a particularly good case in point of a successful "new market innovatino". Who would have thought that there was a living to be made talking about the use of small flashes? Having watched from the sidelines for a while now, I'm intrigued that you've been able to create something quite new and different and have leveraged it into what seems to be an interesting career. And, coincendentally, it started out as a gratis service and still comes with free advice! Go figure.

Interesting thoughts for any profession, I think.

Best regards,

Matt H ("hutchworks" on flickr.com)

April 19, 2009 8:29 AM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

When you do shoots like the Howard County helicopter shoot, how much do you do for them? Prints? CDs? What about releases?

April 19, 2009 8:56 AM  
Blogger Radu said...

A thought-provoking post, David. That's not to say the others aren't ;)

I'm taking advantage of this post to thank you for the whole strobist "movement": it's not really about teaching a bunch of Toms, Dicks, and Harrys to make better photos, it's simply about showing there's still a few good people in this rather deranged world.

Plus you're generating revenues for a bunch of people, I'm pretty sure there's been a surge in PW and umbrella sales ... :)

Best of luck!

April 19, 2009 9:05 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Wow David, this is very inspiring. I first read your long post and was so intrigued by it that I clicked on the even longer letter of Chris.

Learning from strobist has changed my photography for the better. But now you give a higher direction and meaning to this hobby.

There is so much talent being wasted and there are so many people and organizations that need but cannot afford these talents. In the end, I believe the good we do to others will come back to us as well.

Eric Sulit

April 19, 2009 9:22 AM  
Blogger Wink of an eye Digital said...

Great words David

To invent ones self in photography market that is crowded is to learn not to have Marketing Myopia. If you see yourself as just a photographer...then that is all one will become.

Leveraging your skills on diffrent levels says a whole lot about "We are not just photographers with a niche expertise". You have to look at how all skills can be used to develop value added streams

I am far from over (way far)my journey as to learning photography... but that does not mean I cannot make a living as Wink of an Eye DIGITAL MEDIA. I now put together Websights for people using my photos and doing advertising using my skills from printing and other visual media.

I've said it before...Dave, you have quite the business acumen when I see your thoughts on paper...keep going!



April 19, 2009 9:59 AM  
Blogger Frank said...


the thing that has kept me enthusiastic, energized, and moved my creativity a number of notches up has been the sharing of ideas, techniques, and professional insight by you and others (Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally, Scott Kelby, and Zack Arias, to name but a few).

Your commitment to family and to your professional life are to be applauded as is your desire to balance those.

thanks for sharing - long posts such as this one are not to be apologized for, instead as others have said, they will probably generate a lot of people coming back over and over to re-read and find new info as support and inspiration for what they are doing.


Frank T


April 19, 2009 11:40 AM  
Blogger francesca said...

Dear David,

your post just made my Sunday better :-)

cheers from Venice(Italy) now


April 19, 2009 12:16 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

"gelling as a group" - - good one, David.

April 19, 2009 12:19 PM  
Blogger Mark Dunlap Photography said...

Good post, David. Sometimes information or an idea can be passed on in a few words, a sentence, or two. Other times it takes an essay. Thanks for spending the time to cover a subject so broadly.

April 19, 2009 1:13 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Definition of NGO abbreviation please.

April 19, 2009 1:33 PM  
Blogger Mark Davidson said...

Good post.

However, the bottom line is getting paid for your work.

I note the social taboo of expecting payback.
The fact is that most business people join or contribute to local service groups with the hope of payback.I'm sorry it is true to human nature.
Networking is THE tool for generating revenue for one's business.

Fulfillment does not pay bills. It is a luxury afforded by people who are not facing financial hardship.
When my friends in the field are hurting I find it hard to listen to self satisfied amateurs talk about Adam Smith's "invisible hand" washing away the weaker performers. Ironically, they are being washed away by free.

Non-profits are being trained to expect a "passionate" photographer to lovingly shoot their photographs and "give back" in exchange for a group hug.

The person who expects no payback financially will get none in spades. To counsel people that they will be rewarded by "fulfillment" is the snake oil of feel good selfishness.
Yes, I sound selfish. I and many of my colleagues find myself today with time on my hands and bills to pay and a family to support. Meanwhile I hear more cheerleading to work for nothing that is enthusiastically embraced by hobbyists who already make no money at photography.

April 19, 2009 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Eric Baines said...


NGO = Non-Governmental Organization


April 19, 2009 2:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

@ Mark Davidson-

Given your position, how do you plan to react to the changes sweeping through the industry?

Do you pretend they are not happening and simply wish for the old days of high barriers to entry WRT gear, film, knowledge, etc.?

That's what the newspapers did for 15 years, and the results have been scary.

Or do you acknowledge the changes and try to adapt your business model into a world where information is freely transportable and high-quality digital cameras (and the knowledge to use them well) are widely accessible?

And, if the latter, how?

How do you separate yourself from the 'cheerleading enthusiastic hobbyists' to the point where you can make an effective income as a full-time professional photographer?

It is hard to deny that the CEH's have raised the bar significantly in the past five years, and even now the gap is getting smaller, faster. If the dedicated pros cannot maintain a quality premium that merits their day rates, should Adam Smith continue to allow them to exist?

All of these questions are being asked sincerely, FWIW. That is the problem with stepping outside of our traditional roles to examine the surroundings -- the new questions come at you from all directions.


April 19, 2009 2:20 PM  
Blogger Terry Moore said...

"If you are still reading, God bless ya"--no, God Bless you for writing it.

I'm out of work; determined to make a mid-life career change while trying to figure out a way to pay my bills and have enough left over to fund some documentary projects I'd like to do. This post is inspiring and helpful.

Thank you,
Terry Moore

April 19, 2009 2:31 PM  
Blogger Mark Davidson said...

You ask an excellent question.

I am not ignoring the changes and have constantly been examining alternatives to traditional models.

I have yet to see the new model evolve that creates widespread sustainability of people practicing the taking of photographs.

The new model is not being a pro but that of selling shovels to gold miners. Seminars, workshops, Industry sponsors, Google Ads. This is the stuff of the future.

April 19, 2009 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Francesco said...

thank you so much for this beautiful post, in times like these I found it to be even more important and so ispirational. Funnily enough, I was talking about this kind of things last night with a friend of mine, though our conversation didn't really get anywhere :-)
Thank you


April 19, 2009 4:16 PM  
Anonymous Jamie Willmott said...

As much as I enjoy the technical aspects of photography I also like to read articles, such as this one, that expand on the business side of things. I would welcome more posts of this nature on your blog. I'm sure that many Strobist followers aspire to making some sort of living from their photography, but this is down to so much more than being able to take a good picture.

April 19, 2009 4:32 PM  
Blogger David said...


I suspect you are being cynical and simplistic for effect. But if you are not, I can tell you that I do not believe that model, as you describe it, is sustainable.

I think that model would run out of steam creatively first, then economically shortly thereafter.

For myself, I have made a conscious decision to dial the meter back more towards both assignment and self-gen shooting. I am still interested in shooting editorially, but I also have to be in control of what I am shooting to some degree, both to keep my photos going in the direction that I want and to keep my sanity.

*Just* shooting what others call and pay you to shoot is the fastest road to creative bankruptcy, IMO.

And *just* shooting whatever floats your boat will eventually bring economic problems. I think a balance is my best approach.

April 19, 2009 4:45 PM  
Blogger V---'-@ said...

As an artist looking to earn her income through her art, I got a lot out of this post. It gives the reader an encouraging perspective amidst all the negative everyone is spouting right now.

April 19, 2009 5:30 PM  
Anonymous Sunita said...

Great article, David. Very inspiring and gives me hope - I have been contemplating contacting NGOs and non-profits in the area (I live in Montgomery County) to lend a photographic hand (for free) for health, social science and journalism- related stories or projects. My career in science never really took off despite an advanced degree and hopefully this will enable me to do something I love and enjoy. Best, Sunita

April 19, 2009 6:21 PM  
Blogger Chuck said...

I'd like to hear more about your take, and those of the readers, in relation to the marketing and profiting after the fact (like your copter shots).

I shoot on trade a lot - athletes and musicians have practice so why shouldn't I spend the same effort improving my ability and trying new things.

That being said I have my stipulations (how does it benefit me?) and always get a signed model release in case the copter manufacturer calls.

Economy, schmonomy the slowdown in business has gotten me off my behind to expand my marketing to new markets and therefore attract new clients. Although it never materialized I contacted a clothing designer to use her clothes for a trade shoot. The model keeps the clothes, the designer gets great pics I get better talent and therefore better images - everyone gets something. Those discussions led to her asking me bid on her catalog shoot. You never know when working for "Free" will pay off or how it will pay off.

thanks again for the blog.


April 19, 2009 7:03 PM  
Anonymous Jay Rodriguez said...

Great post!
I truly think a post like this has been in the waiting for quite a while now.

April 19, 2009 8:17 PM  
Anonymous Ansel Olson said...

thank you thank you thank you for posts like this!

I'm a designer first, photographer second, and sometimes the work I do is neither of those things but some kind of mix of the two plus creative-brand-identity-multidisciplinary-art-direction-design-planning and consulting. Long story short, I love hearing about this kind of stuff. This is the way so many creative professions are going to evolve.

April 19, 2009 8:29 PM  
Anonymous martin kimeldorf said...

This much mental processing...whatever the topic...previews a change for you...one you are on the cusp of making consciously.

April 19, 2009 8:32 PM  
Blogger Patrick Smith said...

My dog pissed on the carpet, my gf is bitching she is hungry and I missed an assignment reading ALL of that, dude! But it was worth it. Good words.

April 19, 2009 9:17 PM  
Anonymous T. C. Knight said...


I have read it, then read it again. I don't know...I guess I just don't get it.

I regularly shoot for free if there is a cause I believe in. Yet, how can that be a "new business model"? How can helping NGO's through Momenta's project eventually put food on the table?

Are you predicting photography for pay has reached it's end? That everyone with an instamatic now works for free so we are no longer needed?

So what IS the new business model? Seems to me that when money does not change hands you have taken the business out of the "business model".

Maybe you guys have made enough money to retire. I don't know. I do know that I'm still having to dig. So I just can't see how this works for me unless I want to get a "real job" and take out the camera only when the family goes on holiday overseas to some NGO location.

Am I missing something here?


April 19, 2009 9:45 PM  
Blogger captaindash said...

You know what the best part of your site is, David? It's watching over time how even a seasoned pro is still learning and evolving. It's the long-term thought process that reassures me that nobody has it all figured out (the way you figure grown-ups know it all when you are 5). You are spot on with this latest one. The best way to get rich is to find a rich person and make yourself valuable to them. You make money, and learn the trade. The best way to make it as a photographer is to find someone who either has money, or is connected, and make your skills useful to them. It doesn't have to pad your wallet next week, but I bet next month it leads to something that will.

April 19, 2009 10:19 PM  
Anonymous strobed said...

for all who didn't bother, read the momenta letter. i was still a little unsure after i'd read the post, but after reading the letter i get it. it's very interesting, and even exciting!

April 19, 2009 10:34 PM  
Blogger David said...


Valid question. I do not have the time to get into a dozen one-on-one dialogs in the comments, but I will be happy to short-circuit some by addressing your thoughts.

For me, the business model is real, but indirect. As a photographer, if I wait to be assigned something for it to go into my portfolio, my book will always be far less than it could be. This is simply because people tend to hire below what they see in your book, as that difference gives them the confidence that you can complete the assignment.

Many enterprising photographers counteract this negative vicious cycle by shooting a healthy dose of personal work. For many, it is largely the personal work that sets the pace for the portfolio.

I see that as effective, but wasteful. My thinking is, why not approach "personal work" with a second (other than yourself) beneficiary involved?

The shoots are more specifically targeted to what I want to do. I am building outstanding relationships with key people in my community and I control the entire process.

It is important to note that I am not establishing myself as a "free" shooter. If someone approaches me later with another "great idea" I either decline or bid it as a normal job, depending on whether it is in my comfort zone.

That is a very important distinction.

As a result, I can very efficiently steer my portfolio in the direction that I want, and I am both making good contacts and doing good in my community at the same time.

There is a bigger picture involved, to be sure, but I honestly believe it is much more powerful than simply doing personal work. I wish I had been doing this selectively when I was 22. And by comparison, straight personal work now feels like moving a pile of rocks for no reason.

And only having assigned work in a portfolio is nuts, IMO.

For me, there is a multiplier attached, as I also can blog the process. But if I could be 22 again, I would absolutely be more proactive in taking control of what I was shooting. And this is the best way I have found yet.


April 19, 2009 10:40 PM  
Blogger Ryan said...

As a one of the CEH's who reads this blog I absolutely love this type of post. As for the people who don't I just don't think their passionate about making images any more. I'm not a pro, I have a full time job unrelated to photography and I shoot things that I'm interested in for strangers for free. It makes me better, It gets me paid gigs shooting things I enjoy. If your already a full time shooter that should not be threatening to you. If you don't get it maybe you should think about why you became a photographer in the first place. Thank you David for being passionate about what you do!

April 19, 2009 11:19 PM  
Blogger Wasabi Peas said...

David, another great post. I like learning about how to balance the business prospects against the drag on your creative potential.

In fact, when I graduated from high school, I decided to keep photography as my hobby and not my career BECAUSE of advice from pro photographers I worked with. At the time, I was a darkroom tech. They were spending their days shooting, but were completely burned out on photography.

The defensive attitude I occasionally note from practicing photographers against "cheerleading enthusiastic hobbyists" (CEHs) reminds me of the attitude I see from many of my fellow engineers as we face outsourcing to India, China, Malaysia, and other locations.

It's painful to admit that there are folks out there willing to do the same thing you are doing, but for less money. And it's a challenge in an increasingly global, networked, and cost-focused world. You not only have to do your job, but you have to justify why your employer should pay the increased cost. And that goes for pro photographers as well as engineers (and I'm sure, many other fields.)

April 20, 2009 1:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand where a lot of "pros" feel threatened by this. Frankly, as a working pro, I have had a hard time with the idea.

I work in many areas of marketing and media design. All are suffering. The funny thing about it is, photography is the one suffering the most.

The current business model is wrong. I remember writing and designing a brochure for a client the budget for photography was $100k, yes you read it right. I spent one hundred thousand dollar to purchase photography from another photographer. (When I'm the designer, I don't like the conflict of interest in hiring myself.)

I saw the images. They were artistic. They were what we wanted. Some were even art. But, we spent a fortune on photography that in the end was not all that important.

The problem is we see ourselves as craftsmen. Well, so did the original car manufactures. Once things become easy, the craftsman no longer becomes important. Its the product.

What David is saying is we need to create a product that is worthy of the craftsman pay. There are plenty of cars that are hand crafted and make companies lots of money, but, there are just as many civics on the road. The only way to learn and grow is to personal projects. Personal projects are traps in themselves. A personal project does not force you to learn something new. Yeah, for Chase Jarvis is was ninjas, but in the end it may or may not have taught him something new.

What this gives us is a reason to expand. If you are working with someone, especially someone who is not a photographer, you WILL come up with new and exiting work. You WILL extend yourself. Why is this different? Well, you have nothing to loose and everything to gain when working for someone or something. You have reason to stretch.

I shoot infants in the NICU at my local hospital. I've spent hours doing it. Probably more than I should. I do it because I too was a NICU parent. I don't have pictures of my child right when he was born, and for weeks afterward. I was too fragile to even thing about doing it. At the time I was more concerned with keeping my son alive and healthy. I would have loved someone to come in a volunteer their time to take some pictures. I wouldn't have cared if it was someone with a point and shoot. I feel that I can offer them high quality, artistic photographs. I expect nothing. They get a CD and a free 8x10 from me. It's my treat.

So far I have photographed more than 500 babies. Many of them have had other photographs taken by, for pay. The most joy I get though, and the most sadness, is when my phone rings at 1 in the morning to go in a do a post-mortem photograph. I get to find myself as a photographer. I position little hands and feet. I sculpt them with light. I create art, so that others might find joy.

That has made me a better photographer. I would never put a single one of those in a portfolio, but the stretching and learning it takes, and the opportunity to do new things, has been a priceless. Plus, I feel good, and I have done good.

So for all those photographers out their who claim that I am cheapening the business. I repeat the words of John Stewart. F*** YOU, stop being selfish pricks, and realize that sometimes, you need to do good for goods sake.

April 20, 2009 2:00 AM  
Blogger EricFerguson said...

You've definitely hit a lot of nails on every one of their respective heads with this post, and also really eloquently clarified an idea that started with the "Shoot For free" post earlier this month.

A few passing references to Microstock and the global recession make this post especially pertinent, but with an overall geneuinely positive message, which is such a relief among all the porrly informed doom and gloom that gets traded around elsewhere.

Looking forward to the post on the lighting in that teen model shot!

April 20, 2009 3:03 AM  
Blogger N. said...

Inspiring post, again. I'm so greatful for such thoughts shared so openly. Reading it, my thinking started to veer towards a comparison to karate and, perhaps paradoxically, music.

As to karate, technical skills with absolutely no deeper aspect are simply tools, weapons in this case used mostly in a violent manner. What you need to make the picture full is Zen. It gives the fighting skills a new dimension, meaning. It makes it worthwhile, good.

In the case of music, skill to master an instrument usually makes the music one plays very dry and technical. That may be enough in itself, but I, as a musician, would like to strive at something better, something more profound.

And here you come, David, offering that deeper aspect to our photography. It can acquire a totally different dimension. I experienced playing music with a meaning and I know how much satisfaction it brings. And exposure, experience, maybe popularity - and that causes an avalanche in your assignments.

Yes, it all leads towards assignments, work, yes - for money. But it is a great investment, worthwhile for each party involved.

Please, continue such posts. They really give another meaning to photography.

All the best,

April 20, 2009 3:35 AM  
Anonymous Dudster said...

To those who oppose giving away images for free:

I appreciate that if I shoot free images for a large company, I am confirming the idea that photography has become free: because now, everybody can do it digitally. Thus I am activly reducing my chances to get them to see the value of my digital images. At this juncture, I havent developed any principals yet, but that is something you are forcing me to do.
Ultimately, I believe that good shit always floats longer than standard crap. When this proverbial tidal wave of sewage that is our generation of digital photographers washes over the corporate beach, the tide of supply and demand will pull most of the shit back to the sea of unemployment. The turds that carried nutrients and added value to the beach will be left to bake in the sun. Those who wish to stay need to have a long-term plan and constantly strive for artistic growth. The only way to grow is to do and to be challenged, and if there are no jobs in reach, you have to create your own challenges. I find it uncomfortable asking for payment for a project that I have thought of for my own benefit. So, when is free work acceptable? It is a little dilema; I need the practice but the practice hurts me in terms of future income not just for me, but for the trade as a whole.
I dont believe that this tidal wave of sewage will somehow destroy the good shit, the noble and beautifull artform. That shit will stand, and if anything, will grow exponentially. Photography as a whole is being divided up into even more categories, and you see some shit that is technically awful but content wise insane, that wasnt available before. So as an artform, photography has just recieved a massive digital vitamin shot. But commercial photography has been blindfolded, lead out back and shot in the neck through a silencer. In the name of cost-effective marketing. This is a problem for me, because the guy who pulled that very trigger is exactly the kind of person I want in front of my camera. And I want him to pay me for it.
So yeah. Now I´ve managed to confuse myself.

April 20, 2009 5:38 AM  
Blogger Bill Giles said...

Might be better to borrow a term from the lawyers and call it "pro bono" work.

April 20, 2009 9:52 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


I read your blog every day and I have learned a great deal about lighting strictly from your posts and projects. I'm a teacher who just had my first child. My wife and I decided that it was best for her to stay at home. Therefore, I've been forced to (hopefully) double my income.......in this economy.

I double majored in photography and my teaching credentials and have always done it for my enjoyment. But, I figured that I'd give it a go professionally and do (like you recommended in this recent post) free/mutually beneficial shoots for people/friends/organizations, etc...

this has now proven to be a great move for me, because my little photo business that I now have is doing well enough that my wife and son are at home, and bills are paid. I'm sure many of the pros reading this comment will scoff at this, but I choose not to retain the rights to the photos that I take, or charge for prints. I don't have time, and am confident that today's photo consumer is fully capable of printing online through quality and affordable print services that I don't need to compete with.

The overwhelming response I get from my clients is that they prefer my method to other photogs because of the rights issue. I charge enough to make it worth my time and the client gets the photos they want.

I do not pretend to be some big fancy pro like you or some of your readers, but people don't want to pay for that when (as you said in your post) there are plenty of other people out there with digital cameras capable of taking a nice photos (thanks in large part to you) who are willing to "undercut" the pros.

Long story short, I think that most pro photogs business model is archaic, and if they want to survive, they need to adjust.....

April 20, 2009 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

I really liked this post too, but I think some of the caveats that David mentions in his latest comment are important. But I have an irresistible urge to play Devil's Advocate.

I completely agree with most of what is said in the original post about refreshing your creative mind and collaborating with people who simply wouldn't be paying for photography anyways (like students and volunteer non-profits).

I personally don't really believe that information wants to be free, although I really wish it could work out in reality (and I'm going to keep trying to figure out how it can). How is that information produced? With a few exceptions, quality content is produced by professionals who are able to spend their full-time jobs producing content and learning to produce it better. As of yet, with a lot of people thinking really hard about it (businesses like the NY Times) no one has yet figured out how to make money from content that, as David says, has zero marginal cost of production. Will it be paid for up front and distributed for free (so far not working great for newspapers) or will there be a small charge for each reproduction, on the idea that people are paying not for the reproduction but for the value it provides them? These questions are still wide open. But it does require some long-distance planning to realize that free shooting today could lead to paid shoots in two months.

I think the issue with competing against photographers who have a primary day job other than photography is the idea of sustainability. Shooting for free is not a sustainable business model - it will always run out, and if you are funded from your other day job, than you are undercutting professional (read, full time) photographers with your unsustainable business model. Dubious business ethics in any profession, albeit with the best of intentions. Obviously professional photographers have to offer something non-pros can't - whether it be scheduling flexibility, consistency, experience with difficult clients or situations, etc. Taking photos is only one part of a photo business.

I'm always skeptical when I hear that term "long tail". I have yet to see it actually work out in practice, and there is some evidence of a winner-take-all economic model prevailing over long-tail. It sounds great in theory - very democratic and all - but so far I'd say it's just a theory.

All of that said, I think the Momenta model sounds great, and I hope it works out, and I hope to be able to participate in some way. But I think that it is an extremely delicate balance to not be perpetually giving away photography for free, and also not just lock it up with corporations or (failing) media organizations. And I hope that Mr. Anderson's "hearty belly laugh" does not belie a disregard for how difficult keeping this balance probably will be.

April 20, 2009 10:20 AM  
Blogger David said...

David - Saw this today and thought of this morning's post - http://design4kids-santiago.blogspot.com/2009/01/save-date-next-workshop-june-21-27.html

Great opp for anyone to put your idea into practice.

April 20, 2009 11:20 AM  
Anonymous Tobers said...

An excellent post. I also expand my network of contacts in a similar way. For example, I have been providing free shots to a sports club for their PR in return for gaining access to their members who are themselves all rather prosperous and an excellent target market.

As a result, and inspired by your helicopter shoot, I did my own version for one of the members who runs a helicopter charter business. This in turn has led to more aerial photography work, and bizarrely into wedding photography as well.

It just shows that you need to market yourself in the most effective way, and ensure that your potential customers think of you first, and know the level of quality of your work.

April 20, 2009 11:26 AM  
Blogger David said...

Very interesting stream of comments developing on this post over the last day or so.


As for Long Tail, I have long considered this blog an example of that. It is definitely a niche (sub-niche?) product, for which their would have been no sustainable market in traditional publishing.

Interestingly, it is also an example of what can happen when you start to produce content for free. Producing the content (a) makes you better at doing more of the same and (b) benefits someone else.

I would not have imagined the eventual outcome of starting a small lighting blog. But my original goals were to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for young photogs, to help them improve but also to help myself improve as I analyzed my own thinking. (Nothing helps you to understand something better than trying to teach it.)

I think the experience of seeing this site bloom has definitely influenced the way I think about different possible business models for photography.

If content can diffuse for free, and I am a content producer, on some basic level it makes sense for me to spend my downtime creating the best content I can and turning it loose into the wild. The more people who know about me as a photog, and are familiar with my work, the more work will potentially find its way to me.

That is the theory, at least. Like everyone else in new media (a term that is already getting long in the tooth) I am to some extent feeling my way around in the dark. We really do not know how all of these changes in the industry are going to play out, but the fact that there is radical and disruptive change happening is undeniable.

In some ways it is like standing out on the sand bar in the ocean: You know there are large waves happening, and there is nothing you can do about it. So you have to figure out a way to ride it, or plan to get wiped out by it.

April 20, 2009 11:42 AM  
Blogger Brian C said...

Thanks a lot for the information. Lots to digest here will go over it again later!

Brian Carey

April 20, 2009 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am currently in talks about doing a few shoots, and I'm doing them for free. Why? Because they are not in my comfort zone. I would be short-changing the client by charging them for a job where I'm not sure if the outcome is going to be any good. So, this allows me to do something that will push me into areas where I really need to grow. The client hasn't paid for this service, so if it turns out to be crap, they did lose any of their hard-earned cash. If it turns out good, then I obviously learned something from the process, the client will be happy, and I might get more work out of it.

What do I have to lose?

April 20, 2009 12:25 PM  
Anonymous Chicago photographer said...

When not shooting for money, positive business model is what you make of the opportunity. Expanding the portfolio is only one potential from the work. Expanding and solidifying relationships can also come from this work. I just completed a weekend long spec project with several designers, creating a multimedia project to pitch an ad campaign to a client. We are all collaborating on our time, and the experience not only builds a potential great client for all of us, but reminds each of us what the group is capable of. That pays dividends down the road.

April 20, 2009 1:41 PM  
Blogger jphphotography said...

Thanks again for an inspired post. Its interesting to see how the economy drives everything and how big the paradigm shift will be as we move forward from this recession.

I just wanted to say that I find it funny when you speak about the "free shoots" and how its not really different from photographers who are just starting out and are not established yet. I've been pursuing this hobby for roughly 7 years now and I'm still doing tons of free shoots. They help you build your portfolio, they get your name out there, and best of all you have almost total creative license. I've just landed a gig to shoot 25 models in 3 days for a local hair salon, the results of a free shoot are most likely what got me the job. I'd also like to thank you for the wealth of information on lighting, its truly brought my photography to new levels and I wouldn't be attempting such a large job without the skills I've learned here.


April 20, 2009 7:16 PM  
Anonymous T. C. Knight said...


I GET it now.

Your follow-up is MUCH appreciated.

I'll shake your hand and buy you dinner if we should ever cross paths.

T. C. Knight

April 20, 2009 8:13 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

A lot of ideas, yes, but you got them out tremendously. Thank YOU for the time to put it all down, along with visuals.

April 20, 2009 8:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If it turns out good, then I obviously learned something from the process, the client will be happy, and I might get more work out of it.No you won't, because you're the guy who works for free. When they pay someone, it ain't going to be you.

April 20, 2009 8:28 PM  
Blogger David said...

@Anonymous @8:28-

Generally, I do not put very much stock in statements that are framed in such absolutes.

In fact, going by your logic, this blog would have never happened -- I give away information on it for free every day. Yes, I do also sell lighting DVDs, but well under one percent of the people who read the blog purchase them.

As it happens, that fraction of one percent is enough to make it work. There are several different business models that stem from free. That is one of several acknowledged free-based models, this one being known as "freemium."

I doubt very much that you clicked through to (the first) Chris Anderson's work. But you might want to look at it. And like this blog, Chris's blog is free. And his free blog is a portal that feeds sales for his (bestselling) books.

Google, arguably the most successful company to come along in the last ten years, makes obscene amounts of money. And it all flows from giving its main product(s) away for free.

Whether you acknowledge them or not, there are very robust business models that stem from providing something of value and not directly charging for it.

I have spelled out pretty clearly the benefits I am already seeing from approaching part of my shooting in this post. And (sorry to burst the "absolute" bubble, you are already wrong, as I have been hired by organizations for which I have done free work in the past.

I am not asking you to change your opinion, but rather to look around the business sphere in 2009 and consider the idea that you might not be *absolutely* right.

-David Hobby

April 20, 2009 8:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, have been watching your site from the side and learning from your expertise with lighting.
To now come across a blog, sharing business model ideas that are truly inspirational, is fantastic.
Your concept however is not new.
"You gotta give to get" is one mysterious universal truth, and another is "What goes around, comes around". We have applied these to our earlier business models and we are now applying same to our Photography business. I feel we can not fail to succeed. Many thanks for your website, your confirmation of our thoughts. But most of all, I wish you every chance of success. (with your success of course I continue to get the benefit of your wisdom).
Regards Tony Polglase, Photogenics New Zealand.

April 21, 2009 5:32 AM  
Anonymous Lidija said...

Let's face it: we're facing a new reality. To argue that this new reality isn't fair or just is a waste of time. Better to get on with figuring out the future, which is what David is suggesting. It's a good suggestion.

April 21, 2009 8:02 AM  
Blogger Bob K said...

Well allright! Thanks David for (once again) motivating my tired old(er) ass. The back of my mind has been boiling with self projects for years; but could never "justify" doing them in the light of the typical economic model ("I must get paid for effort.")

This post puts away all the voices saying "no".

Thanks again for sharing your personal journey with me/us- your unselfish nature and the passion you have for making yourself and others 'more' is an absolute gift!


Bob Keene/Keene Vision Photography

April 21, 2009 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

@ David,
Good reply, I think you are right about your free work leading to paying work. So probably there is a spectrum of "free" work - some people are truly doing it for free - they never expect to make money from it. Others (¿yourself, it sounds like?) do it almost as a marketing effort, or a loss leader kind of model.

And I suppose that's where the business savvy comes in. If someone can see the long term benefits, and work to realize them, then they will find success. I think a lot of professionals and aspiring professionals get frustrated with those who are really just doing it as a hobby in their free time. But hey, it's a competitive world, and it's tough to find a living doing something that is fun for most people (photographers, pro athletes, we're not so different after all).
Thanks for bringing up the topic again and letting us all sound it out a little bit further.

- Eric

April 21, 2009 10:06 AM  
Blogger Submit said...

Great insight. I was privileged to shoot in Biloxi, Mississippi during the clean up aftermath. In Romania we worked with orphans. In Guatemala we were shooting families that lived in the city dumps. All these developed my skills as a photographer, but more importantly gave me a more thankful heart and a better perspective of my life. Thanks for your article. Hopefully others will go outside their comfort zone to use their photographs to speak to the needs of others and make a practical, positive difference in the world.

Be blessed!

April 21, 2009 10:15 AM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Just saw where Ben & Jerry's is giving away free ice cream this afternoon. So...

April 21, 2009 10:23 AM  
Anonymous Scott said...

Great post.

How about another follow-up post about standard contracts, releases, and other forms that work in these situations?


April 21, 2009 11:52 AM  
Blogger Nick said...


Well, it’s been about 36 hours since I read this post and things are already on the move. I had passing idea about a week ago to set up a small outdoor portrait studio on my campus, shooting faces for $5. After a bit of thought…. doomed. In about a month is Youth Week. I’m involved here in Dunedin because I want to empower the youth of today to bring about positive change in the community, as I mentioned in my previous comment. Why not make this mosaic of youth faces during Youth Week, and use it for Youth Week branding? It’ll express the representation of youth in the community, build my skills and might even get my photography noticed.

I’m 22, and like you wished you had, I’m starting now. You’ve inspired me, this is very, very, powerful stuff…

Nick Holmes

April 21, 2009 5:49 PM  
Anonymous garyb50 said...

So... It's not really "for free" after all, you sly devil.

April 23, 2009 2:21 PM  
Blogger David said...

David, great post and comments. It has me thinking about how to better my own personal photography growth since I just shoot for myself right now. However, I do have a question about some of the abbreviations.
What is NGO?
What is WRT gear?
What is CEH?

Again, I appreciate all that you do for this great community of photogs, but some of us could use some explanation of abbreviations.



April 28, 2009 11:37 PM  
Blogger Radu said...


NGO - non-governmental organization
WRT - with respect to
CEH - cheerleading enthusiastic hobbyists (defined in this post's comments).

You might find that using google.com or even CTRL+F (or whatever other keyword combination your browser uses for "search in page") sometimes yeilds good results in resolving abbreviations :)

April 30, 2009 10:20 AM  
Blogger Charles said...

You're certainly on the money with the first part of this post. Using self-generated projects to fill empty time is an excellent idea.

As for the 2nd part, well pro photographers have been using workshops to draw in money from the amateur segment for decades, it doesn't look like anything new. Momenta's offering is certainly aimed at the higher end of this segment, though the $4-5k they charge actually looks pretty reasonable compared to some (antarctic trips at $13k a pop [cough]). In in this depression there are still enough well-healed amateurs out there with the money to sling at this sort of stuff, but I really don't think it's a growth industry in this climate.

As for 'working for free', well that's an issue that's been repeatedly thrashed out here and elsewhere, and we all know the pros and cons. I have to admit that getting the amateurs to fund their teachers' promotional efforts is an amusing gambit, though.

May 03, 2009 7:11 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

hey David,

I've fully embraced this philosophy recently in my photography and have seen great rewards. www.eyeswideopen.org.nz, a spontaneous climate action that gave me experience shooting backlit portraiture and boosted the publics voice on climate change issues. Your welcome to contact me to know more :)

Nick Holmes
New Zealand

August 07, 2009 6:57 PM  
Blogger adson stone said...

Thanks for share this post I also share with you something hope you like my post. love this question because I love working with photographers who have successful commercial practices. There are a number of reasons. One is happiness. Photographers who have a financially successful career are a pleasure to deal with. They eat lunch regularly. When money is not an issue, we can do the show and make stuff happen. It can be a problem when a photographer is very, very, busy – but there is more of a problem if the collaboration and the dialogue isn’t respected. If I say I don’t like something, I won’t say it lightly so we should listen to each other. Absolute single mindedness doesn’t help either the artist of the dealer. I can really finesse an artist’s situation. That has value. The fuller a photographer’s practice is, meaning commercial, editorial, exhibition, publication, etc. the better the work will be. This imagined separation of church and state is blind. Get the money. Don’t whore yourself out, but make stuff happen. Thanks
Corporate photographer London

August 21, 2013 7:03 AM  

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