The recurring themes of being a freelance photographer. "It's too busy." "It's not busy enough." "I have way too much in accounts receivables and way too little in cash." "I just bought a new camera bit I wish I'd waited for the one they just announced."

The market for commercial photography, at least as it relates to me, is crazy and constantly changing but on the other hand it feels constant and unchanging. Let me explain.

Austin is growing at the speed of light. People are moving here from all over the country and most of the people moving here have higher incomes than the people who were here to begin with. That means residential property in the prime neighborhoods has been appreciating like Apple stock. If you bought a good house in the Eanes School District (rated #1 in Texas) in 1995 for a little less than $200k you might just find that the land under your cute little house is now worth close to a million dollars; maybe more. Nobody wants your house, they want to buy your lot, knock the house down, scrape it off the lot and build their new dream home. But what this means in a bigger picture way is that the city is becoming prohibitively expensive to live in or invest in for normal, middle class people. Say, freelance photographers making less than $100,000 per year. 

If you are moving into the market you are either coming with money or you are doing the old fashion, California living accommodation by renting or buying something  miles and miles outside the magic ring of the actual city of Austin where all the value is and all the cool stuff happens. It would, I guess, be a workable strategy if not for Austin have the "honor" of currently having the 4th worst traffic congestion in the country. A drive in from Pflugerville or Cedar Park during any of the ample and assorted rush hours might have one driving for several hours in order to make it into the real city and back out again. Much worse if someone rolls a big truck on one of the major freeways.

But consider your plight even if you were lucky enough to buy at the right time (twenty years ago?) and you live within three miles of downtown. You might now have a property worth a cool million, which is also highly liquid right now,  but if you sold it where would you move? Everything else in the desirable zones is equally inflated and rising quickly. So maybe you just decide to keep sitting on all that equity and have fun in place. Good plan in most states but in Texas, where there is no personal income tax, the state fills the coffers mostly with property taxes. And ours in Austin are some of the highest in the country. That million dollar property looks good when you consider the "sell side" but the "stay put" side is scary because every year your property taxes are likely to go up by about 10%. We are just about to the point where our property taxes will "jump the shark" and cost more each year than our mortgage.

The popularity of the city and the increase in population don't necessarily translate into higher rates for freelancers; in fact the popularity of the city among the nation's educated young attracts lots and lots of newly minted photographers who shift the supply and demand curves in the wrong direction. Add to that the increased time cost of doing business in a crowded and thriving metropolis. What used to be a leisurely twenty minute drive up Mopac to a job site in the "tech central" part of town is now an hour or more in the rush hour parts of the day. The time of the day when businesses get started and expect photographers to start as well. Once you hit your destination you'll find that the ample, free parking we used to enjoy outside of the downtown area is shrinking faster that the water supply in Lake Travis. After your slow and plodding commute you'll be circling the periphery of most locales looking for that rare parking place. Wanna park in the shade? Good luck.

Of course, you have to do it all in reverse to get back home. One Summer in Austin the ambient temperatures were so high and the commutes so slow and plodding that a record number of car batteries just "gave up the ghost" that season and died off. Part of the cost of popularity and an excessively mobile culture.

You'd think with the sheer momentum of grooviness and hipster culture in town that photography rates are sky-rocketing but, perversely, we still see our city as a "second tier" creative city and rates have stagnated for years. Big clients still head out of town for "name" photographers for many of the big and juicy advertising projects. The local agencies are being beaten up by clients taking creative and marketing totally in-house and are passing the fear and budget cutting along to their freelance collaborators.

And then there are individual concerns. I've always thought it was smart to market to the tech companies and various start-ups. The problem with concentrating on one industry or niche is that everything happens for every client at the same time and in the same season. If you have five good clients and they are all attending the same trade shows and need video and still photography content for booths, collateral and website refreshes you'll be swamped to the breaking point but mostly in concentrated clumps of days and weeks. Once the wave subsides things can go unnaturally quiet for weeks or even months. You start to feel as though you'll never work again...

I can almost feel the pulse of industries by the way, and on the schedules, they devise for paying their bills. In times of rising industry fortunes there's no need for bids and the checks arrive sometimes before we can even get a bill out the door. Last year we had a couple of clients who wanted to "pre-pay" for a series of projects just to get the paperwork out of the way. This year you can tell that everyone is a bit nervous and hesitant. Checks seem to take more circuitous routes to the mail box and the stories are being reprised about accounting departments being sidetracked by: "the audit, the payables software change, and my new favorite: "We use an outside service to generate payments --- let me check on that and get back to you." My least favorite new response is: "We're splitting the cost of your invoice with two partners and one of them is part of holding company in the U.K. It always takes longer for us to get checks from them......" I didn't even know that secondary companies were part of our contract. Silly me.

So, taxes, expenses, time costs and competition are all up while rates are static; and so what's really new?

Well, even as recently as a couple of years ago there was at least the certainty that we knew how to make and deliver our core product. Even though we might love buying new cameras and stuff there was always the underlying and comforting reality that our clients didn't really drive equipment acquisition and we probably could get another season or two out of this or that camera system. If economic push came to shove.

Funny how it's changed.  To maintain income and keep traditional clients we've been doing more and more video projects. That necessitated buying new cameras that could crank out good video footage and were agile enough to use for multiple roles. It also required investments in microphones, faster computers, new software, and new ancillary gear. But it's changing quicker than is comfortable. A year or two ago we downplayed the idea of 4K in our video inventory but now clients want it for reasons other than showcasing their programming on 4K monitors.

They are now asking for things like "vertical edits" which are better handled with 4K. A recent client wanted video that would go 2560 pixels wide in a super narrow aspect ratio (that's a blow up from 1080p) which also is going to look a lot better from a 4K original. Clients are learning that by shooting wide in 4K we can do a lot of very smooth movements in post instead of riskier movements during shooting with sliders, dollies and hand held rigs. There's much more "after the shot" flexibllity in the final edit with a lot of extra space around the live areas. Heck you can zoom in by a factor of 4 and not run out of pixels if you are aiming at delivering a 2K final product.

I learned the interesting way just how nice it is to start with a widely composed 4K video file if you are planning to make extensive use of software stabilization in your editing. The programs analyze your clips and map the range of motion. They then crop to the maximum range of motion for the entire clip. You lose tons of top and bottom space when stabilizing a jumpy (handheld?) clip. If you start with 4K, then stabilize and then crop to your wacky aspect ratio, with good pre-planning, you may lose nothing you wanted included.

So during a time of escalating costs in nearly every part of the business we add on the ramp up of a video market that's also diffusing quickly into the general market.

I'm happy when I'm in the vacuum of working with my Nikon D750 and D810 and I'm not nosing into websites about new gear. But then I get distracted by something like the Sony A7R2. I don't particularly like that camera but I do like that it shoots really, really nice 4K video internally. Will my clients need this? Sure. Are there other options? Absolutely. But how do you make the right choices and how long do you wait to buy and start servicing the market with new technologies?

Wouldn't it be wonderful if you were privy to the plans of your camera maker? If I knew that Nikon was launching a new camera with 4K video at the Photo Expo in October then the whole issue could be sidelined (and the savings started) until I got my hands on the new product. All of which is predicated on getting checks from those folks who are "being audited, learning new software and waiting on slow boats from merry old England." 

The biggest issue facing me in the business right now is in marketing. Not just what to say but where to say it and to whom. The flux in the industries we work for has accelerated to a speed that's faster than I've ever seen it. People seem to be moving between companies on an almost monthly rotation.
No one has a real phone and very few people respond to e-mail. So how do you reach them now? Oh, yes, social media. I almost forgot. Right...

I think about all this today from my position of "man sitting in chair waiting to be paid" but by the middle of the coming week, and for the rest of the month, I'll be ruminating from the position of "man in transit from project to other relentless projects."

I have two weeks of broken and inefficient travel coming up and I'm as much of a curmudgeon about that these days than I am at dealing with sociological change.

To keep from going nuts I'm distilling it all down to this: Change is inevitable/stay flexible/play to your strengths but develop new strengths/everything you do is marketing/Nikon will come out with 4K just in time/all marketing works if it's targeted correctly/Don't sell a house if you don't want to move/pay your bills and your taxes and be grateful/keep swimming & keep shooting. = that's the good stuff.

And in the end we always looking for that evasive "extra". For me it's to have the time and energy left over from making a living to play with photography and video for fun. I think it's still working.



Max Rottersman said...

You can't handle the truth ;) You were lucky enough to have an A7RII set aside for you, the camera EVERY creative is talking about, but when you got there you bought a D750. As a fellow 50-something year-old, I understand the desire to simplify, to get back to fundamentals. Unfortunately, as you say in your article, clients now know the benefits of 4K. Is an inexperienced kid with an A7Rii better than you with your D750? No. But why put your client in the position of choosing? As you say yourself, your MFT cameras can take just as good photos as FFs. That's great news for amateurs. Now many are saying the Sony and Blackmagic cameras can do New York/LA Cinema quality stuff. That's great news for your clients. Give 'em what they want! Or you will have to move ;)

Kirk Tuck said...

Gee Max, I wish it was so simple. So yeah, the A7R2 is one whole point better than the D810 in image quality. 97 instead of 96. Visible difference? Naw. Is the A7R2 the "second coming" for videographers? Well, my friends who rushed out to buy them for video projects aren't sure yet. The overheating IS an issue. A big one if you are going to use the camera professionally. No CEO will stand still while you wait 20 or 30 minutes for the camera to cool down between takes. And the audio interface is very kludgy. I'd rather have an FS7. But I'm sure I mentioned that my sometimes video partner and good friend just ordered an (in stock) A7R2 from B&H so we'll do a real world test and see.

This happens a lot. There's always a new darling camera that can do no wrong....until we figure out what's wrong with it. There are plenty of other options out there beside an A7R2 and the $2,000 Shogun that's now seemingly required to go with it if you don't want your camera to overheat.

A much better short term solution might just be an RX10-2 for video. Same codecs, same color, same S-Log, better heat handling and a great lens to boot for a little less than half the price of the lens-less A7R2. I'm betting it too is right in line with the others mentioned. Might be a much better approach to having your Nikon and doing 4K video too.

I don't get too excited about being first on the waiting list. I think the waiting list if filled and the cameras are still there if I want one. If you are having trouble finding one call Ian at Precision Camera. I'm sure he can hook you up.

Kirk Tuck said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk Tuck said...

But Max. Forget the gear. When are you going to help me out with some good marketing advice?

Rene said...


Sounds like Austin is catching up with other big cities (i.e. San Francisco, New York) where middle class people are being priced out. I live in a relatively small college town in Western Massachusetts and we see the same thing happening here on a much smaller scale. In a town where over half the land is owned by non-profits and state institutions that pay no property tax and with very little business/industry, the burden falls on homeowners.

On a more positive note, I have great confidence in your ability to weather this latest storm. Thanks for a great blog.

Frank Langford said...


I enjoy reading your blogg. One of the nicer places on the Web !! I am from the UK, been a Photo Technician and a Photographer since I was 16. Now 76. Seen a few changes in my time. Started in Commercial Photography in London, then 12 years in the RAF in the Photography branch, then 29 years with the Police in charge of the Photo Dept.

Property prices have done much the same in most parts of the UK, just one of those things I guess.

neopavlik said...

I think you should deal with the Sony A7R2 overheating issue as you dealt with the Hasselblad jamming issue, keep pulling them out of your hat :), I love that story.

Always appreciate the insight into Austin as I keep that on my radar and its good to have a dose of reality (little to no plans to challenge the paid photography scene there so the slice of life stuff is enjoyable as well ).

For the marketing you may need to break out your monocle, top hat, tuxedo, gold spurs, and/or whatever items the upper echelon of Austin have so you can infiltrate them and get a wealthy patron to start commissioning your works.

Max Rottersman said...

After I posted my comment I said to myself, "Max, you're such a smart-ass!" Thankfully, I haven't been turned out yet! It was marketing advice I was giving. Actually, I was just articulating what I felt YOU were trying to tell yourself in you article, but couldn't get there, for whatever reason. You made a few points. One, Austin is becoming a big-market. That they often send stuff to LA or New York implies photographers in Austin aren't keeping up? You mention that clients now want some of the benefits of 4K. You don't own a 4K camera. You wrote on the wall. I'm just reading back what you wrote and you're killin' the messenger ;)

Anyway, B&W film isn't coming back. MFT will never be more than a travel camera. It's a brave new world. Twenty-year olds are going to eat your lunch. As a cohort of yours I'd rather you show 'em you ain't dead yet. As soon as someone says "Eh, that camera ain't that good" I don't look at the facts, I look at what that comment says about the person. Okay, the A7IIr is vastly over-rated. What is the D750 going to give your client that the D810 didn't?????

I hope you can answer that question. If the answer is "it makes my life easier", "I spend less money", etc. then well, I don't have to tell you what the client will think. Photography is smoke and mirrors.

My marketing advice, ya gotta have some smoke!

Kirk Tuck said...

Max, just to interject some serious marketing into the mix. The art directors don't source from NYC and LA because of anything having to do with gear. We can all buy, rent and borrow the same gear. They use local photographers for most work and then go out of town when a big project comes up because it's the only time in their careers that they can justify using the big name people they read about and hear about. I worked for years in the advertising business and we were quite familiar with this even as it applied to illustrators, ad agencies and consultants --- there's always something more magical about the expert from out of town. You might do good service for a client every week of the year and then they call in a NYC "portrait expert" to shoot the CEO. Half the time they find out the hard way that the talent they were using locally was......wait for it......BETTER, and they end up paying for the job twice.

It's almost like vacations. I'm sure Austin has parts I've never seen before that are interesting but if I'm going on vacation it's going to be Rome or Paris or Berlin or even NYC just because it's different and (hopefully) I have the budget to splurge.

Forget about the gear. It changes every six months. The rental places currently have acres of Red One cameras. Still better than 90% of the gear out there but it's "last season." No longer getting rented. Same with all the gear we talk about. All that really matter are the results.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this really clear description of life as a photographer, including how little time you get to spend behind the viewfinder. It's what my instructors in photo school warned us about every day but it's a hard lesson to accept until the reality you describe hits you in the face. Over time reading your stories I believe you're pretty good at juggling the craziness (and still find time to educate the rest of us!) so I applaud your resourcefulness. I feel lucky that pursuing outdoor and landscape images I'm not compelled to continually research and pursue new gear (I still think 4x5 film is pretty cool), which is like drinking from the proverbial fire hose. So, I doubly appreciate you sharing your experiences with gear and work. Especially the lighting pieces. I used some of your techniques just a couple of weeks ago for a corporate executive series.

Oh, that commuting thing? Never going to get better. It seems you just have to get up earlier....

Fred said...

This is a great post. That was an interesting explanation of why one might want 4K video. The post also confirms that the decision I made in the mid 70s too not become a freelance photographer was the right one for me.

Michael Matthews said...

All of what you describe as today's Austin is what I lived through 20 years ago in Northern California.
That's why I now live in Georgia. Not a creative or intellectual center of the universe. But -- affordable for a retired couple with limited cash flow.

Advice? You're still young. Surf that wave. Enjoy -- while you still have the knees and ankles for it.

Kirk Tuck said...

Fred, Thanks. When I dissect my career like this it seems a lot less sexy than I wish it was...

As to 4K, I watched the progress of image stabilization in Final Cut Pro X. A really bouncy frame loses a lot of real estate. It's one good reason right there.

I hear you are having a heat wave up there! Stay cool and hydrated. I'm sending a text to remind the boy of that...

Kirk Tuck said...

Thanks MM but we're already contemplating our escape. We plan too far in the future so we're probably looking at 2020 but I think by then we'll gladly give up the new hipster music and bad variations of tacos for a less frantic civic existence. Personally, I am waiting for Ben to finish school so he can move off somewhere else and I can move to Saratoga Springs, NY. Can't do it while he's still there (according to his mom). It's a beautiful place and then I'll be so close to where Michael Johnston's new place that I'll be able to visit at the drop of a hat. What a treat for him!! :-)

Patrick Dodds said...

I like the idea of you, Kirk, and Mike sitting on one or other of your porches, with Leicas* on your laps, Mike's dog at your feet, extolling the virtues of the Olde Days.

*Hey, it might happen!

Mike Rosiak said...

So, about the picture. Do I see some HDR work therein?

Michael Matthews said...

Upstate New York can be a delightful place. Requires a certain awareness of and tolerance for cold weather, plus attention to the source and cost of heating when looking for a house.

I think your familiarity with Saratoga Springs bodes well. Having a buddy to visit on Keuka Lake sounds like a major bonus. And it's only a hour further in the other direction to toast your toes on the beaches of Cape Cod.

Brian Keairns said...

You haven't mentioned going back to the GH4. It's got V-LOG coming soon.No rolling shutter or overheating. It's easy to rig. It has useful controls and auto modes for a one man crew. It seems like a practical tool for video and a nice compliment to your Olympus bodies.

tom rose said...

I don't understand why video capability figures at all in the decision to buy a stills camera. If you want to shoot professional quality video then buy a video camera and concentrate on making movies. Still photography and video obviously have some overlap, but they are mostly different skills.