12.16.2012

Another interesting wrinkle in making a living as a photographer.

I kind of thought of myself as the "safety net" in a big experiment, this week. I was booked to shoot a conference but then so were about 100 other people. One of those people was my second shooter. We got paid. Another two photographers on site, who were tasked with specific assignments, were also paid professionals but the other 97 photographers were volunteer photographers who usually worked in some other capacity for that company. I know why each of the four of us got paid. We each brought something different to the table. I'd done lots of event work for the company before and in the scope of that work I'd photographed former presidents on two different occasions, as well as a number of other celebrities and political stars. Since I haven't screwed up yet the company wanted me to do that kind of photography for them again this year.  I had a list of people and events to photograph. My second photographer was there to cover the stuff I would normally cover, stuff that was tagged "public relations mission critical" but which I might not get to cover if my schedule got changed by a glitch in a celebrity or VIP's conjoined schedule.

One of the other two photographers was a former staffer for the company and he was tasked to go into the executive level meetings and document those. He has a day to day working relationship with many of the top people and there's no sense in taking a risk with a volunteer.

So, that left the other 97 photographers and videographers who were in attendance and shooting away. I'm sure some of them did very good work and, freed from the constraints of "having to deliver no matter what" I am sure they could stretch a bit and add more creative work to the overall mix. Their work got tweeted throughout the conference and they followed a series of guidelines that ensured no one stepped out of bounds. In a way it was pure crowd sourcing. But a crowd sourcing in which the corporation had nearly complete control.

In another sense it is perhaps an audition for future events. After all, a company that already has a legion of volunteer photographers on the roster and ready to shoot for free is a company that can afford to saturate social media and which has the luxury of picking and choosing from a large circle of styles and points of view. And, if they are doing the work on company time it's not hard to understand that the company would presume, legally, have the ultimate ownership of the images. It's a win/win/win for the company.


So what do the volunteer photographers get out of the experience? To start with many or most of them would not have been able to attend the show unless they had volunteered, and it was a really good show with lots of great keynote speeches and special events. Not the least of which was the draw of seeing former president Clinton speak on stage.  Secondly, they were able to show off another layer of their talents in front of people who mediate their existing careers as well as some people who will now come to see them as having real value in another part of the business. And to some extent the volunteers got an affirmation about the value of their hobbies.

What does this mean for the future of corporate event photography and documentation from the point of view of the paid professional? I think it's easy enough to speculate. For a while companies will still hire a seasoned professional for mission critical imaging but the foundational work that is part of the income pie will be eroded by another few slices. And, as the auditions continue, the companies will be able to comfortably source more and more in house volunteers for more and more work.

Tough times in which to provide photographs for money. The whole fabric of the business is changing. The tools are no longer a relevant measure of professional service. All that remains is the added value that comes from your brains, your social network and your resourcefulness.

Argue any point you'd like. I just saw the whole paradigm in radical shift and to me it's no longer anecdotal.  Yes, I was still working, as were four other suppliers, but there will come a time when only two are needed. And then only one. And finally another segment of the market will have disappeared. C'est la vie.








33 comments:

Glenn Harris said...

I'm glad you shared this perspective Kirk. There are a lot of very capable "hobbyists" and perhaps corporations are hoping that if there are enough then they will get the images they need, whatever that need is. There is obviously a place for this crowd-sourced approach and it can be a real morale booster for employees to see their work on the corporate intranet, or perhaps even the main corporate website. I would hope corporations are not using this to force pro rates down or dangle as a carrot for employees to contribute more for less. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Kirk Tuck said...

Glenn, I think, over time, it will just lead to dispensing with professional services entirely for events such as this. As more and more (free) employees are auditioned and vetted (for skills, etc) the utility of the professional will become redundant. It's not a field in which "raising the bar" is the issue. The skill levels are rising. The technical constraints seem like a constant target. It's a situation in which in-house crowd sourcing seems ready made. We'll see how it all plays out. I expect that, in the future, they'll bring in a specialist for one or two segments of a show (VIP portraits with the main celebrity?) but for the most part they are looking for good, overall documentation of the event. Rather than "force rates down" the effect will be more binary. On or off.

Anonymous said...

I got the chance to shoot mr Al Gore on friday. I don' think Ive ever had a more experienced subject in front of my lens so far. All I can say is that the the scenario scared the living hell out of me, 30 min to set up, shoot and pack up mu gear. I'm just happy that the four shots that I got were all good.

I can't say that I envy people that do event photography for a living, its a really ungrateful enterprise.

Murray Lord said...

As for what the 97 got out of it, if US tax law is like Australian, they might have got the right to claim some of the cost of their camera gear as a work expense...

Anonymous said...

Just wondering Kirk, was there food at this conference? If so, was the food provided by a catering staff or were company employees happy to bring their favorite home made cookies and snacks? Did office workers volunteer to provide and serve beverages? Were other services (setup, cleanup, security, etc.) also contracted largely on a volunteer basis? Or was it just photography?

Michael Matthews said...

You're getting depressed again. Buy the Sony VG 900 before it all collapses.

javaristas said...

"I would hope corporations are not using this to force pro rates down or dangle as a carrot for employees to contribute more for less."
Nooooo, neeeever!

Kirk Tuck said...

Not depressed at all. Just passing along the information. What you guys do with it is up to you. But to put one's head in the sand and deny that this is a trend is just silly.

Kirk Tuck said...

I'm sure if those things were appealing to hobbyists and there was some sort of emotional reward and there was fun catering gear to buy that there would be scores of volunteers. I did mention that the professional photographers in attendance were (well) paid, didn't I? Some stuff is going away. Some stuff will be crowdsourced. It's just a fact of life. When was the last time someone commissioned a stateside photographer to fly to Aruba because they needed a beach shot for an ad? I'd guess it was right before stock photography became easy, popular and cheap. Right?

Anonymous said...

The more things change, the more they stay the same. There have always been stars and also-rans, nothing has changed. I'm sure that this conversation was had during the switch from wet-plate to film. The switch to film made the also-rans better then, just a digital is doing now ... BFD.

The only thing anyone has to sell is personality, vision and their ability to think on their feet. Give clients something that they can't get anywhere else.

c.d.embrey

Ron Nabity said...

I agree with your assessment and predictions, especially for event photography. I still get paid to shoot events, but more and more there are throngs of employees using gear that will do much of the technical work for them. And with a ratio of 25:1 of volunteers to paid photographers, the sheer quantity of images (and multiple angles) will help clients hedge their bets in favor of Someone getting Something good.

The paid photographer may still get the remaining part of the job you described, the no-way-can-we-trust-this-to-Chris-from-the-mailroom shots, at least until "Chris" proves him/her self as capable of handling it.

It is a different time and a different way.

One of the posts above does make a good point - there is still room for differentiation by being the person who stays calm, is pleasant and knows how work with subjects. No camera can do that for anyone.

Ron Nabity said...

One other point - not only do the volunteers get to attend these functions, they get extra-good access, both the get the photos and to be around people otherwise out of reach in a corporate structure.

Kirk Tuck said...

Sorry, I don't buy that it's always been this way or that we need to "up some game." In the days of film there was always financial skin in the game. Far fewer people lugged their cameras around 24/7. And you forget, I"ve been in this business for over a quarter of a century and watched carefully. The basics are changing. It's not the same by any measure.

Clients don't want something they can't get anywhere else, they want good, straightforward images they can use to show what their events looked like.

If you were talking about advertising or editorial photography or even fine arts I would agree. In this instance, no. We are not designing the stage and stage lighting = that's a half million dollar undertaking by an entire company and something in which we have no say and no control. We're not posing keynote speakers and celebrities, we are documenting them. The playing field is as level as it gets. Yes, we have (sometimes better) reflexes and compositional skills but the gear no longer matters and all the other things that would be called creative are more or less preordained.

It's interesting because it's a sea change. That's all. I'm not trying to figure out how to change it any more than I am trying to figure out how to change the tides.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks for chiming in Ron. I must have written this whole thing wrong because somehow readers have construed that I am upset or wrong about what I saw and what was explained to me, in person. I love to shoot events and I had a blast photographing a former president in one on one portraits in the green room but unemotionally understand that everything is changing and we won't be able to count on some parts of photography generating income. In fact, a lot of profitable photography has gone away and will never come back. No one needs to "up the game" rather they need to find out how the game changed, see what new profitable niches have opened up and go for those.

OmarF said...

I'll speak from the point of view of an employee who sometimes lugs his camera to our events. If we are looking for reliable video or photography, we hire. Guys like me can't afford the time to make the photography number one on the agenda. As for what's in it for me, yes, I get to events I might not go to, and I've been taken up in the air a couple times by one of our owners. I also got one of my photos in a small newspaper as the first time I was ever published.

However, when I'm six projects behind and have staff needing direction, I can't put solid effort into indulging in a hobby during work hours. Then you add the stress of actually having to come up with something. I don't envy the pros out there at all. Let me develop a spreadsheet any day. I know how to iterate spreadsheet design far easier than being ready for that fleeting moment that everyone wants a photo of.

Besides time, if the employees need to be transported and housed the cost keeps going up. In reality, sometimes it's cheaper and better to use specialists rather than distracting good employees by drawing on their hobbies. Someone did mention the flipside. It may well have been intentional to use the chance to photograph as a perk.

It sounds like your company got the balance right. Get the pros to take the money shots, and use the crowds where they are good. A company that starts misunderstanding the strengths of each type of photographer will have some failures to deal with.

Anonymous said...

My point is that event photography is becoming a commodity. Commodity markets may be good for amateurs, but not a good place for a pro to make good money. You may have been paid well this year, but what about five years from now?

BTW I never said anything about "up some game." What I said was "The only thing anyone has to sell is personality, vision and their ability to think on their feet." That's what separates a pro from a craigslist photographer -- nothing more or less.

Enjoy whats left of the weekend 8-)

c.d.embrey

Anonymous said...

In my world finding new niches and markets is part of upping the game 8-) Personality, vision and the ability to think on your feet, helps you get there.

I have friends (hard to believe, but true) who have lost their major clients to bankruptcies and bounced back by finding new markets. I have another friend who has fired most of his clients and moved on up the ladder to better paying companies. Photography is a business ...

c.d.embrey

Kirk Tuck said...

Omar, I think you're pretty much right on the money. But in this case the company planned for this, recruited employees, made assignments and engaged the process. As one of the world's largest IT companies, holding the show on their own home turf (city-wise) there were no additional costs for lodging or transport. Many of them are quite good photographers. I am happy that they continue to hire me to shoot parts of the show. They've been a good client for 22 years now. I'd like to keep them but I understand that because of changing realities what I do for them will be......fluid. I will be flexible and continue to leverage what I consider most important: My personal relationships and my track record. Thanks for chiming in. Much appreciated.

Kirk Tuck said...

Sorry C.D. I guess I was mixing up several comments in one response. You didn't mention upping the game. But what you wrote was pretty much exactly what they ended up strategizing. A pro "safety net" coupled with a lot of lots of other "options."

Five years from now I expect to be doing nothing but portraits in my little studio and writing brilliant novels, and the occasional book on photography. Once I get the kid through college my days of humping a camera bag to get anything basic are behind me. Thanks for the "weekend well wish" I really am having a wonderful weekend and I'm taking off from the "working photographer" role until the beginning of the year. Or never if we are to believe the Mayan calendar....

Thanks for keeping me on track. I always appreciate your point of view.

Richard Alan Fox said...

Thank you for this discussion Kirk, as an amateur photographer for over fifty years I have personally almost perfectly resisted getting paid for photography.
You are a good writer (and photographer) and I enjoy following your adventures with camera romances and portrait sessions and the complicated days long corporate events.
I enjoy doing portraits of friends and giving prints as gifts, but I always turn down requests for paid work of events because I do not feel comfortable taking work from those that earn their living in the business.
Recently though after purchasing your book on LED lighting, and a couple of lights, and viewing your work done in a medical setting, I said yes to a friend, who happens to be a doctor and needed photos for his website of equipment and personnel and procedures and so forth.
I completed the assignment satisfactorily to all agreement, the site went live and my images will hopefully increase my friends business, my fee covered the cost of my lights and that was enough for me.
Kirk with this post I want to pledge to a non compete clause with you and your business in the entire state of Texas, I will not work for pay or free in your part of the country until the Mayan calendar starts the long count again.

Kirk Tuck said...

RIchard, you are a gentleman and a scholar. Long may your prosper. And, by the way, how did you like working with the LEDs? Pretty cool, huh?

Allan said...

I wonder how the percentage of capable amateur photographers in this IT giant would compare with what might be found in a financial giant or a healthcare giant. I worked for a number of years for a large tech company, and we had people with serious hobby interests in just about anything technical one could imagine. And, not to diminish their interests or skills in any way, I wonder how many are "into" photography as art, compared to loving photography as a technical exercise. Sometimes one's interest includes both sides, but it seems to me that people tend to line up on one side or the other, all the while using the common term "photography."

Kirk Tuck said...

That's something I totally agree with.

Anonymous said...

I was at a large national conference a couple of weeks ago. There were at least four paid photographers along with a collection of press photographers and news crews. I found it fascinating to watch the professionals. It was interesting to compare the cameras they used, lenses, side of the room they shot from (there was a large window along one side), whether they used flash, whether they were taking photos from ground level, eye level, or up high. What really impressed me is that they didn't muck around - They purposely and quickly worked the room to get the angles and photos they wanted. It was all instinctive. It was a pleasure to watch people who are on top of their game.
...But, all along I kept wondering if I'd do almost as good a job. Unlike weddings where you must capture particular moments with no second chances, this conference ran for a few days. Surely I'd be able to come up with something to be proud of? And if I'm thinking that, I'm sure the organisers are too. There has been a significant democratisation of photography and the gap between good amateurs and professionals is shrinking.
Oh, and the other thing I found interesting...in prior years we had to turn mobile phones off (hey, that's good manors). But this year, everyone was actively encouraged to tweet, blog, update facebook etc during the actual presentations. Next year, throw photograpy into the mix and where does that leave the professionals?

Anonymous said...

Greetings Again Kirk

You seemed a little surprised by this turn in events?

Allow me to share a experience that I had. About two years ago I was hired for an event and was the only staff photography hired by the company that staged the event with the promise to shoot the winter version as well. I went through the usual channels, the interview showing of my work and landed the job. All is well right? Wrong, on the days ( 5 days total 16 hours days) of the event to my surprise some company showed up with about 50 volunteers to shoot this event as well. ( WOW, did these guys have some expensive gear.) Not to mention they got in my way a lot. To make a long story short I turned in my work got paid the client loved the work used the images for ads ect. which I got paid for and received photo credit. All is well right? Wrong, for the winter event the volunteers got to do the job with the promise of press passes and a payment of 10 cents a shot for every shot that was used. As for me I declined and worked the event for the Skiers. I heard that one volunteer made 90 cents, but he got to go to the event for free.

I saw the writing on the wall at that time. Sad but true.

Regards
Roger







Claire said...

The "skills are rising". That's the whole point. I still believe digital has made a whole generation of capable hobbyists who would have been put off by film altogether, but gently learned their way thru the craft with digital's easyness, and now all they need is the guts to go against the pros. This type of event is, as you stated, the perfect way to audition which ones will be good enough, and get secure enough, to provide free photo services more regularly in the future. Sad, but not avoidable, I'm afraid.

Claire said...

Your last sentence hints at a desire to keep a certain quality and professionalism level, and got me thinking. I work (soon to be terminated) for a company that's being doing ground handling for Air France short haul flights for over 10 years. Last June the whole activity got sold to a bigger corproration who offered a dirt cheap contract. You'd think Air France still wants and except security, safety and quality of service for their customers and aircrafts, right ? WRONG. In 6 months of working with the new guys we've realized (with a panic) that NOTHING matters aside from the low cost. Get them planes taking off, even with lousy service, and overlooking some vital aspects of safety and security. In today's world, at the corporate level NOTHING matters except profit.

Alex said...

On the subject of the Mayan calendar, which photo gear do you need to document the end of the world?:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=X0UeRmIwLvA#!

On the subject of this blog. i am so happy that the two main passions in my life, bicycling and photography, never turned into a profession. Taking the camera for a stroll is all I desire. Hats off to everxone trxing to make a living with it

Richard Alan Fox said...

Thank you Kirk for your public recognition of my finest personal qualities.
I purchased a pair of the Fotodiox 312AS LEDs and mounted them on Impact umbrella brackets, as I found the included hardware to be insufficient for my use.
I like the lack of heat and power cord which allows great flexibility in placement, but these units cannot hold a candle(power) to my Tota-Lite kit.
You said it in your book, these lights are great for supplement, and so they perform as advertised. They work for me in intimate settings, where I can place the light close to the subject or object and vary the color temperature to match or contrast with the ambient glow.

Frank Grygier said...

I would think any politician would be easy to photograph.They have worked the pose in the mirror a million times.

dd-b said...

Reading your and other working pro's blogs (and having some contact with people who used to be working pros but chose to get out) makes me very glad I chose, after college, to stay in computers and not try to do photography professionally.

But I like shooting events unofficially (I've done half a dozen weddings and events as the official shooter during my semi-pro periods). People like me are in fact helping take the bread out of the mouths of some of your children. I'd say sorry, but it's mostly the change in tech that's making it common enough to matter.

It remains fascinating, as always, to hear about the real world THIS month, as opposed to those articles based on 5 years ago or whatever.

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks dd-b. The world changes. We diversified into producing books, doing video and film, investing, etc. If I weren't able to make a living at it I wouldn't keep after it. Parts of the industry go and new parts arrive. You have to learn to see ahead. Three or four years ahead. Maybe that's why I'm buying cameras with EVFs now....

Ron Nabity said...

Being able to take the one-on-one portraits of former President Clinton would have been an amazing opportunity. He was speaking at a Sacramento event last week and no media was allowed inside. Bummer.

BTW, did you secretly get the urge to say, "Mr President, will you show me the love?"

:-D