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Ok I'll shoot...Working freelance VS. staff?

Discussion in 'Studio Equipment and Lighting' started by Jonathan F/2, Mar 15, 2005.

  1. I brought up this topic of opening a business forum, and since no one is posting, I guess I'll start!

    I'm currently under the dilemma of either choosing a staff position or going freelance.

    The benefits for me going staff are: Monthly salary, 25% commission on everything I shoot (on top of my salary), company SUV, health and dental insurance and company gear. Sounds great, but you get abused like hell and sometimes do not even get time off for several weeks straight from talking to staffers.

    My other option is sticking to freelance. I can distribute my photos anywhere, pick and choose when and what I want to shoot. The way I work now is that I distribute my photos through an agency and get a 60% cut while the agency gets 40%. I actually don't mind it since the company already has the distribution infrastructure and they sell the photos over and over again without me doing anything but taking pictures. Only problem is that sales usually lag behind 3-4 months depending on when the client pays. So everything you get paid for is from 3-4 months back.

    Anyways, I'm trying to figure which direction to take. Part of me feels that I can reach my true potential as a shooter working as a staffer, but the other part of me feels I'll sell myself short in the long run. And I always thought the point of being a photographer is to strive to be independent. Another thing is, I stumbled upon this study from the Department of Labor that looks down on freelancing. Financially it looks pretty dismal.

    From the Department of Labor (USA):

    "Earnings Median annual earnings of salaried photographers were $24,040 in 2002. The middle 50 percent earned between $17,740 and $34,910. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,640, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $49,920. Median annual earnings in the industries employing the largest numbers of salaried photographers were $31,460 for newspapers and periodicals and $21,860 for other professional or scientific services. Salaried photographers—more of whom work full time—tend to earn more than those who are self-employed. Because most freelance and portrait photographers purchase their own equipment, they incur considerable expense acquiring and maintaining cameras and accessories. Unlike news and commercial photographers, few fine arts photographers are successful enough to support themselves solely through their art."

    Another scary quote:

    "Job growth, however, will be constrained somewhat by the widespread use of digital photography and the falling price of digital equipment. Besides increasing photographers’ productivity, improvements in digital technology reduce barriers of entry into this profession and allow more individual consumers and businesses to produce, store, and access photographic images on their own. Declines in the newspaper industry also will reduce demand for photographers to provide still images for print."

    Maybe if some of the other working shooters can give input on how they approached things it would help me out! I'm in no rush to make a decision by the way! :)  :wink: :p 
  2. Dont worry, I'm not quitting my day job, so competition wont be that bad. :wink:

    Interesting questions you pose.
  3. I would say a staff position is definitely more stable, BUT it sure would be nice if you could arrange it to where you could do both. The downside of a staff position is they kinda own you and all your pictures. :? :? :? :? :?
  4. Flew


    Jan 25, 2005
    Hey Jonathan,

    Every time I start dreaming about retiring from my day job and working as a freelance wildlife photog, someone comes along with a post like this one.

    All I can say is, shucks.... :cry: 

    As a noob in this hobby, it is hard for me to give you advice, but as Dawg said, the staff position sure has some concrete benefits, especially in light of your accident, and the paid insurance that you would get, eh?

    Good luck in whichever path you take. :wink:

  5. Honestly that would be ideal. I would rather have a part-time staff job shooting whatevers and still have the option to distribute my photos as a freelancer. Now if I can only find someone looking to hire in LA part -time? :) 
  6. NeilCam


    Feb 21, 2005
    Ottawa, Ontario
    Frank as far as being a freelance nature photographer goes, I can't remember who it was, but someone once said, "Show me a professional nature photographer and I'll show you someone with a day job." They exist, but there's not many revenue streams to my mind. It's pretty much either sell to magazines, an ad agency or prints to unsuspecting punters. :) 

    Jonathan, I think you need to figure out two things:

    1) Which pays more. In other words, has your freelancing been paying well to date and can you continue to grow that business?

    After figuring out all this and doing up a spreadsheet with lots of lovely numbers and dollar signs on it, print the spreadsheet, crush it up, chuck it in the trash and move onto number 2.

    2) Which would you be happier doing?

  7. MontyDog


    Jan 30, 2005
    #1064 - You have an error in your SQL syntax;
  8. F15Todd


    Feb 1, 2005
    It would be great if you could do what you loved, when you wanted to do it. If I lived by that I would be a pro golfer, but I would never get paid since I play bogey golf I would never be around for the weekend paycheck.

    You pointed out some +/- to both jobs. Health and dental insurance are the ones that stand out most to me. Make sure you really compute these when you look at the difference in pay. 30 is right around the corner for you and it all goes down hill after that. :shock:

    My tip, marry a rich lady and live as a househusband and shoot what you want.
  9. Jonathan, that's a heavy topic you chose for starter...

    Well, I have been both (staff & freelance) in a totally different business environment that of e-Marketing.

    My experience says that "We're all future freelancers" either because with the current global economic crisis we really don't know how long we're going to be in our "Day-Job" or because one of these days we're all going to make our assessment and value out life and time in a different way and kiss-goodbye our daily routines called Day-Jobs.

    We all know people take decisions 20% logically and 80% emotionally but the “New Order of Things” tends to eliminate any emotionality by the rational argument of survival.

    Safety, stability, health coverage and psychological balance are the main benefits of a Day-Job yet not enough for some kind of people who sometimes feel suffocating or imprisoned by it. Is that logical? NO!

    My dream-life would be in a farm in Kenya (near Tanzania) where I could have the time and space doing things for myself, like taking photos of wildlife in their natural inhabitant/environment (maybe accompanied by Flew!). Is that logical? Hell NO!

    So we all end up doing the things we are supposed to do (by others?) and provide us with the means (money) to pursue the lifestyle we would wish we had… (Logical?...)

    I think you should find yourself somewhere in the middle for starters, keep your dreams alive, organize and prepare for the transition.

    I wish you achieve that and become our point of reference!
  10. SteveK


    Mar 16, 2005
    Jonathon, I've been a full-time nature photographer since 1983. I worked for a few years as a freelance contract photographer for a large publisher, and since then have only worked on my own, shooting things that interest me, and selling them to whoever I can afterwords. The market has changed remarkably in the past few years. Use fees have dropped, small stock agencies have been taken over by the mega-agencies, and competition for the ever shrinking magazine market is fierce. I still make a comfortable living, but not as well as I did 10 years ago. I also have a huge library of images with lots of diversity, so I do well in stock photo sales.

    Why not take the staff position for awhile, and get some more exposure and experience and save money for a future freelance life? As you mentioned, it can sometimes be a long time between stock photo payments, and you need to be able to weather over those lean times. You should also have a contract that will allow you to shoot images outside your normal work environment so that you can continue to build your own stock photo library. Good Luck!
  11. Jonathan,

    Above replies covered most of the ins and outs.

    I will make it simple for you.

    Please tell me who wouldn't take this job ?. I know I would. I work for one of the biggest pharmaceutical company and I have yet to hear anyone not being "abused". This goes with territory in todays corporate world.

    Freelance will always be there for you. On the other hand that full-time job may not wait for you for too long.

    Give it a try and see what happens. You could always fall back on Freelance.

    Good luck !
  13. PJohnP


    Feb 5, 2005
    As a troubleshooter, I'll shoot back...

    Jonathan :

    It seems that most of the issues have been discussed for this thread in my absence. However, I may have a few ideas from a different sphere.

    Firstly, if you take the staff position, it's not forever. If I recall correctly, you're in your twenties now, so this isn't exactly the end of the line for you. While it's hard to determine just the right job to take at any given point in time, it's also important to pick your battles and look long term.

    That said, weigh out the benefits other than the obvious ones with pay, insurance, and the car. Do they have a "non-compete" agreement that could limit your freelance work if you left the company ? Would the work allow you to make more productive contacts around the photo world, or would it just be a grind ?

    Is there opportunity for advancement and/or bonuses related to your work ? Or are you looking at being "stuck" at the same level you go in at for years ?

    Depending on the answers to these questions, the staff job may look more or less attractive.

    On the other side of the fence, can you derive enough of a revenue stream to allow you to "coast" through the bad times ? Most freelance folks I know (again, in a different area than photography) don't allocate their money looking at least through one quarter (3 months) ahead, and more appropriately for two quarters from the current time. That's a tall order to make that commitment.

    Do you have a business plan for being freelance ? Seems silly, but the success rates of the freelance consultant/contractor/photographer are improved by a sizable amount when they develop a professional business plan and stick to it. There's another set of issues about periodically reviewing the business plan and updating it appropriately.

    A professional business plan includes issues of financing, marketing, sales, cashflow considerations, profit/loss (which is very different than cashflow, problems with which sink small businesses like paper boats in a raging river), and a host of other issues.

    I've worked with two start-up companies as a manager, managed a large division for a Fortune 500 company, and I have a (reasonably) successful consultancy now. In those positions, I've made a few of the mistakes (or more importantly, witnessed most) classified as the "critical failure" decisions than sink companies. All of those same issues apply to the small business or freelancer.


    There's no simple answer to your questions. There are a lot more questions to ask in order to answer the putatively "simple" question. If you want to throw some questions towards me about the freelance/consultant life, I can almost guarantee that I've seen some of the same things you're thinking about. Drop me a note as you see fit...

    John P.
  14. Wow, thanks for all the great responses! I've listen to what everyone has said and it's all great advice. I forgot to mention one of the perks of going staff is a possible relocation to HAWAII! They even suggested a grace period where they would set me up with a place and car. At first I didn't accept, because of certain responsibilities, but now I'm thinking I just might bite.

    The thing is, I work in a really bizarre area of photography where one photo can sell for the thousands. While my checks have been small to start, my sales statements are starting to look good considering how little I've worked. That's why I'm so much on the fence in regards to this topic. Also the freelancers I've met in my area of photography are making ridiculously stupid (lots of) money right now. Though, right now the staff job just might be the one I get....maybe! :)  :wink: :p 
  15. Jonathan,
    I know this may sound personal but I think we are all dying to get more details. Do you care to elaborate more what is "lots of" ?.
  16. I'm talking about 6 figure salaries. These guys work their butts off, but also take months off after big jobs. Of course these freelancers are also the biggest jerks in the business of photography...:( 
  17. bpetterson

    bpetterson Guest

    Your work looks pretty good.
    Since you ask, let me put it this way.
    You will never get rich working for somebody else.
    You do not know if you can get rich as a freelancer.
    But there is that possibility.
    So if you like what you are doing and have the guts
    continue on.
    Build up a clientele, experiment etc.
    Later when you are 40 you may find a top job, not a staff job.

  18. JAM


    Apr 30, 2005
    Albuquerque, NM

    You didn't say what genre of photography you'd be doing, but there is another thing, called access, that was always important, but is becoming more so as individuals, government entities, and businesses strive to control the public perception of themselves.

    As a staffer, you'll automatically have credentials and access to whatever it is you photograph. For a freelancer, that is becoming more and more difficult.

    Think about it - unless you are talking about becoming a paparazzi :evil:
  19. Cautionary Tale

    I've become friends with a woman in New Jersey who's a multiple-prize winning photographer - she's won 'best picture of the year' in at least two categories every year in ASMP since she graduated from college seven years ago, has won 'picture of the year' a couple times, has been published in Time, Newsweek, etc. Her journalism work is fantastic - she connects really well and quickly with total strangers, and it gets her access that other photographers struggle to get, and pictures that will just rip your heart out.

    She's working a cash register at Victoria's Secret. She had been a staff photog for a newspaper group in NJ, which is how she got many of the winning images she got, and decided to go freelance because her paper and many of the others in the area were buying more and more freelance work. Since then, the freelance market here has gone in the toilet. Most pictures now are from the press services, or Corbis, or Getty, etc. The only stuff that they're using freelancers for are the school board meeting kind of shots, at rates lower than they were paying three years ago, and not enough of those to make a living.

    The papers around here pay about $30,000 a year to photographers, but have not been replacing quits and retires, just letting it shrink the staff. It's sad, really. Killer local news photography used to be how you stirred up communities to take action. Now, you see few local news shots other than the three minute walk-in to a meeting.

    My friend is now working to build a commercial business. Her first two approaches to art directors got her assignments, so it looks like it may be headed for a happy ending. But boy, she was really good at photojournalism, and if someone like her can't make it... Well, that's why I decided to de-emphasize my "I wanna change the world" street shooting projects and start focusing on commercial work.

    I hope you get the gig you want, and get to do great work.
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