Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Apply the minimum fee

We talked about the minimum price for photojournalism. We determined $269.95 is the minimum fee we should charge for any shoot because this number actually translates to $0 income. Commercial photographers have understood this for years.

Judging from the lack of comments, some people must have done some math and realized some problems with their own price structures. Don't give up yet. Let's look at the whole game rather than one play.

Most freelance editorial and sports shooters don't make this minimum on most assignments. They work on a hybrid back-end billing schedule. Consequently, they must make up the difference elsewhere. If they own the images they make, it's not a problem to make up the difference. They can re-sell images to other publications, museum patrons, etc. or simply place the images with stock agencies.

If they are in a work-for-hire contract with an assigning organization and not making the minimum, they are simply losing money each time they shoot.

An exception would be editorial shooters who use the credit line as leverage to create additional, higher-paying gigs. A wedding PJ may do editorial assignments for a wire service or large publication to maintain name recognition. This translates to say $100 to cover some of the shooting cost and $169.95 per shoot as de facto advertising. It also fills out the week between weekend weddings.

If it works, stick with it. If the wedding PJ isn't getting enough bridal gigs by using this system, it might not be the best approach.

Art photographers also use editorial and commercial work for name recognition. This approach bolsters their biography and credits. Typically, they also shoot for a breadth of markets to maximize their credit list rather than to make a living from the editorial shoots.

In other words, if they shoot a mug shot for a specific magazine or corporation, that business' nameplate goes on the credit list. The art photographer doesn't necessarily need to shoot for the business again. Again, the income lost on the front end translates to de facto advertising for name recognition (via nameplate recognition). I wouldn't suggest this approach unless it's creating income elsewhere for the photographer.

Note: Some commercial agreements specifically exclude this arrangement. For example, many years ago, I shot for "a major car manufacturer." I can't say which one because the contract excludes my use of their name. They hired me with a good front-end payment, I produced and shipped the film. I was paid fairly, and they got their images. Our business was complete.

Invest in yourself
I'll admit the minimum fee is a steep slope for many editorial and sports shooters. The difference again goes back to our billing schedule. Freelance editorial shooters cut costs by incurring front-end equipment expenses and turn the difference into profit. Simply stated, they invest in themselves.

Although a rare assignment requires extremely specialized equipment such as a 600mm lens or a cherry picker, most assignments can be handled with a normal shooting rig.

Most PJs purchase the rig outright in the expectation of generating income from the equipment and rent specialty equipment as needed. We understand this costs about $20k. From the $0 example, we understand this investment would save about $59,200 annually ($79,200 - $20k). This is potential profit for PJs NOT a discount for clients.

A minor amount can additionally be turned into profit through the ownership or lease of a reliable, fuel-efficient vehicle. In both cases, maintenance will eat into profits, but it's part of the overall cost of doing business, which we'll discuss in more detail soon.

With good maintenance and a lot of luck, this savings can be stretched to about five years (saving PJs hundreds of thousands of dollars). However, expect to pay about $20k every five years to upgrade or replace the entire shooting rig.

Dealing with these facts
Most PJs hate the money side of this biz. We only want to shoot, be paid fairly and get a tasty treat when we have a good day (BTW, Krispy Kreme no longer makes key lime pie doughnuts – Grrrr!). To do this, we must understand how to accomplish this balancing act.

To be paid fairly, we must charge at least what the clients would pay to do it themselves. At this amount, it's fair to maintain rights to aftermarket sales. Below the minimum, it's obligatory we maintain all rights and negotiate use to make up the difference. These aftermarket sales and leases are how we cover the remainder of our business expenses and create a fair profit.

To get to a profitable position sooner, we invest in our own equipment to cut our overhead expenses. This is a front-end investment in our biz. It is not a way to make our services cheaper for the clients. That's a one-way road to disaster because we still have the $100k gorilla to feed.

Both publishing and photojournalism have suffered seismic changes in the last 10 years. I could list the problems, but the result is both staff and freelance PJs are now forced to fend for themselves and their future.

Now, staffers must work hard and loyally for readers and publishers and then work additional hours in the evenings or on days off to build a retirement archive. Freelancers must work to pay for the past and build for the future each day. If PJs understand this reality, they can adapt and survive.

Enough for now,

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