If you are planning on being a real freelance photographer have you decided on which car you'll sleep in?

a shot at Esther's Follies from midway back in the audience.
Panasonic GH5 + Olympus 40-150mm Pro. ISO 1600.

There is a joke that's always going around Austin, Texas. It goes something like this:

What do you call a musician who has just broken up with his girlfriend?  

--- Homeless.

And there is a joke we photographers tell when we get together for (discounted) beer at the end of a long and impoverished week of working as freelancers. It goes like this:

How is photographer different than an extra large pizza with all the toppings?

--- You could actually feed a family of four with the Pizza....

As you may have noticed in a recent post I called the kind of business we do, "freelance photography." What I and my colleagues think this means is that we are not connected, in a business sense, to any company or association as employees and are not indentured servants. That we are non-exclusive. That we'll work for anyone who meets our criteria and who can write the right check. A regular commenter made the point that labels can have a certain amount of negative power, especially in the minds of the clients who hire us. He suggested that "freelancer" conjures up an image of the starving artist who lives in a crappy apartment and drives a 15 year old Corolla. He also suggest that a freelancer fears his clients and is willing to roll over and show his belly the minute a clients starts to negotiate.

I'm pretty sure his observation was meant as mostly a tongue-in-cheek response with a bit of truth larded into the meat of it.

But it got me thinking about the way photographers and most of the general public see people working in our gigantic "tent" profession. Perceptions run the gamut from the idea that every photograph is, at heart, a wedding photography who might also do some other, more specialized photo work when they are not grappling with and bowing down to bridezillas. Others imagine most photographers being creepy guys with dark glasses who have promoted themselves from driving ice cream trucks through neighborhoods to shooting "glamour" and other forms of hard and soft core porn.

Then there are "moms with cameras" and "soccer moms", all of whom shoot exclusively with Canon 5Dx cameras and the ever present 70-200mm zoom with the lens shade stuck on backwards. And we can't forget the pot bellied, blue collar male tech workers who shoot kids sports. And wears baggy, shiny athletic shorts.

But the common thread that unites the public imagination about each of these stereotypes is that they don't make real money,  are moonlighting from a "real" job, or spend their daytime hours making up loose ends with a shift or two at Starbucks. Or, if you are from the Boston area, as a "barista" at Dunkin Donuts.

I did not know that our industry was in such dire straits when I joined its ranks more than 30 years ago. And since I'm sure the economics of our industry have declined even more since the time I arrived I am predicting that the majority of freelancers will no longer be living in crappy apartments but have moved, by necessity, to their cars.

This tidbit allows me to take my focus off cameras for a while and concentrate on another part of the gear equation. To wit, if you are going to make the choice to live in your car in order to save on rent (and how else will any of us ever be able to afford a Leica SL and lenses?) then what car should we choose?

Most will probably have to stick with the car they are already making payments on but I believe in dreaming big so I'll pretend that I don't have a car payment or a car and I'd rather have both than to shell out the $4,000 per month that the average two bedroom, one bath apartment rents for in downtown Austin. And I can't imagine the cost to live in the pricey parts of Austin.

On first blush I'd probably want to go with something like a Chevrolet Suburban because of the interior space. But there's the issue of fuel economy to think about. Still, a white one (to reflect the Texas sun during the day) with blacked out windows (for privacy during the evening and overnight) certainly has its appeal. But a quick check at Car Max clearly puts even used ones far outside the budget constraints of most of our peers.

My next best choice would have to be a smaller SUV. Something like a Toyota Rav 4 or a Honda CRV but, again, a quick check shows that, dammit!, these models hold their value really well and probably the most $$$ most of us freelancers can scrape together would only cover a maroon Pontiac Aztec. That would work for older, more established photographers because you fold down the back seats and stretch out a bit to sleep after a day on your feet chasing brides and bagging donuts.

But our commenter is probably right in that most entry level shooters will have to make due with the 15 year old Toyota Corolla they got in school. Except for the ones who went to state schools ---- they'll probably have to settle for 15 year old Hyundais. But, in due time they'll be able to tell their kids about the golden age of sleeping in cars because, with the relentless downward spiral in the freelancing industry it's only a matter of time when the average photo industry worker will be sleeping in a DIY lean-to in the park and riding their Walmart bicycle to the next job...

At some point I was in the same economic boat as the rest of the freelancers. Sleeping in my AMC Gremlin and begging for film money on the main drag. But then, one day, after reading an inspirational business blog, I became a Photographer/Consultant/Studio Owner. It was as easy as reprinting my business cards (or writing in my new title with a Sharpie) and now I've got it made in the shade.

I've got two cars but I rarely have to sleep in them. I have a real office and it has air conditioning!!! We live in a house in the middle of the posh Westlake Hills area with indoor plumbing and a dog; one that we've never had to look at as livestock. Once I took the word "freelancer" off my card we were off and running. Ma and I haven't had to sell plasma in years! And we even got to send the boy off to a four year college in a nicer state.

But I feel like I have the moxie to start over again if I have to. But this time around I wouldn't settle for anything less than a Chevy Impala with bench seats. Comfortable enough to sleep two and a dog.
With enough room in the trunk for cameras.

Tip to the wise: You can always store unused cameras at the pawn shop. Just remember to get them back before the next wedding.

There's a big spectrum in our industry. Re-define yourself and enjoy unlimited success...

They laughed when I sat down to play the piano. Until I started to play.

grain of salt?


  1. I searched hard in Google but I couldn't find in what car Richard Avedon was sleeping

  2. Where are the Nash Ramblers when you need them?

  3. I understand your camera and photography speak because over here in the UK we use the same cameras and the photography economics are the same.

    When you started talking cars however you lost me..... The UK and USA are poles apart when it comes to motoring.

    I'm not sure if we are missing out on great American cars or if we should be breathing a sigh of relief....

  4. 1985-1998 Lincoln Town Car. Low mileage examples are still plentiful in Texas. If the exterior is clean keep it waxed, you can park in the far lots of good hotels or airports and not be disturbed when resting. Very larger trucks for gear, tough leather interiors, good (for the time) sound systems. When your clients see you arrive in one of these they will not think you impoverished but just slightly eccentric.

  5. Actually suburban's suck for interior space and are really expensive. I have a son with special needs whom requires a ton of gear, medically related. We compared lots of cars and found the cheapest with lots of space is the KIA Sedona. They are minivans that are good but don't hold value. So not hard to find an older model on carmax.
    We were lucky though and a local Honda delear had an excellent used Odessy for a great price. So we moved up to that model. Normally the Leica of minivans.

  6. Kirk wrote, "Then there are "moms with cameras" and "soccer moms", all of whom shoot exclusively with Canon 5Dx cameras and the ever present 70-200mm zoom with the lens shade stuck on backwards."

    I once went to an elementary school function put on by my son's class. Lots of parents were there including a woman taking pictures with a medium format SLR (pre-digital) of some sort. I thought, "That mother is a serious amateur photographer and she must have some bucks." Years later I learned that she was half of a husband-wife team that ran a successful local photography business --large studio and not a Corolla in sight. She wasn't just a mom -- she was a pro.

    The people you want to do business with have biases and first impressions are important.

  7. Funnily enough I did check the length of the luggage area in my last car to see if I would fit/sleeping in it.

  8. Thanks, Kirk. Now everyone will know why I drive a van. :-)

    For a live-in vehicle my first choice would be a Mercedes Sprinter, but I like being retired. I'd rather stick with my used Chevy than go back to work to pay for a car.

  9. I am a third generation vehicle sleeper-in-er. My two brothers and I grew up sleeping in the back of station wagons. As an adult (technically), I have slept in the back seat of a 1980 Subaru sedan and an '87 Camry. One of the reasons that I have an '05 Toyota Matrix is that the back seat folds down flat, something that many current vehicles don't do. Now that I don't have a 70 mile round trip to make every day I am thinking of getting a minivan or a small full size one (with tinted windows). It should be able to hold all the lighting equipment and the super-models that anyone would need.

  10. Hi Kirk,

    Little known fact, Irving Penn was said to enjoy for years the '51 Nash Statesman with the fold down front seats and excellent heater capabilities. Probably explains why he was always early to work!

    Doug O

  11. Funny piece. The original comment that sparked this struck me as odd. Back in the day, as they say, the people who worked in advertising and broadcasting as freelancers were envied. Their status meant they were good enough to be sought after by clients, no longer dependent on salaried employment for survival.

  12. Sometimes I think that people who read and write photography blogs would rather read and write about cars than cameras and lenses.

    My Honda Element (Kirk had one I think) was great for sleeping -- just slide the (driver's) seat back, recline it to horizontal and grab a pillow. Spent many a late night/early morning in a truck stop or rest area. Cheaper than the no-tell-motel. And I'm not even a free-lance photographer.

  13. In all honesty the Honda Element was the absolute best Photographer's/Freelancer's vehicle I have ever owned. I slept in the back when I was shooting out in the West Texas desert in 2010 and also up in the Davis Mountains when my cheap tent was no match for 24 degrees and 40 mph winds. I put that Element through every vehicle torture imaginable and would have bought two more but they stopped making them a year or two before I destroyed the one I bought in the early 2000's. Hope they make a new version in the near future. What with how precarious the business of photography is.....

  14. I'm a bit confused. I read your blog from time to time and I thought you were doing okay financially. You live near me in Westlake Hills and I know what houses cost there. I know you belong to a private club for swimming. I know your wife is a well regarded advertising person. I'm guessing this was all just an attempt at humor that I didn't get. I'll buy your coffee next time I see you.

  15. Wanna know how to make a small fortune in photography? Start with a large fortune!

    What does it say about me that, since becoming a full time photographer in 1983, I’ve only ever owned VW’s? (Currently driving my 3rd Golf which as it’s only flaw has a minor quibble with my C stand case. Well, that and more than 22 inches of snow). Maybe it was a subconscious way of encouraging me to make enough for rent because the option of sleeping in any VW other than a tricked out Westie was, well, not an option for someone 6’2”. These people would have better careers if they owned smaller cars.

  16. Ah, takes me back to 50 years ago when I had a VW type 3 station wagon. Room in the back for 2 to sleep full-length, and a boot (you call it a trunk?) in front for any gear. A go anywhere vehicle, and it did throughout Australia. Too cold in the morning? Just reach over and start the motor - the air cooling diverted through the interior. Too hot? Just open the back. Raining? Drape canvas over the open back, and had room to sit on camp chairs and cook on the gas stove that were stored in the trunk. Set out after work, and one had the full weekend away, the pick of parking spots at the snow or down the beach before the hordes arrived next morning. You could do that then. Those were the days.

    I maintained that vehicle way past it's use by date. Cried when it was sandwiched between a car and truck from behind.

  17. Best travel sleeper I owned was a Dodge van previously owned by a cleaning company. With a full set of windows, an orange racing stripe around it (painted it myself), and nothing but a mattress in back for the ultimate in comfort. It gave reasonable fuel economy with a straight 6 for long cross country drives, but it did tend to encourage time-consuming searches at US border crossings.


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