Jonathan a 3rd year photojournalism student at Ohio University’s School of Visual Communication has a Business Practices class taught by Professor, Marcy Nighswander (that’s what I’m told in an email anyways). For their first assignment she asked them to contact photo editors and ask them “to identify why they quit using a freelancer’s services or product.” Basically, Mrs. Nighswander, wants us to ask industry professionals if they stopped using a freelance photographer’s work for some reason such as, and not limited too, a poor professional relationship or lack of commitment.


I think the vast majority of photography that goes on in the world is simply a business transaction. You sell a product, your customers need it, and they will go elsewhere to get it if you don’t conduct yourself in a professional manner. Customer service, good communication skills, contract writing and all manner of business acumen is required in addition to the ability to take pictures.

Beyond that and I think the higher up you you go in the photography food chain the main reason to stop working with a photographer is if the shoot fails or if you or someone in the chain of command above you decides they don’t like that style of photography.

One of the important jobs photo editors and art buyers do besides finding photographers and working out the details of the shoot is determining beforehand if the photographer you want to work with can execute and deliver the shoot in a professional manner. You call them up on the phone, check out their portfolio and marketing material, look at the client list and generally try to get a feel for it beforehand.

Doug Menuez writes on his blog today (here) about the cold hard truth of shooting for the top news magazines in the 80’s:
At a conference in the 80’s I once heard a young photogapher ask Roxanne Edwards at Business Week what would happen if, you know, somehow the film just did not turn out? Response: “Then you would never work for us again.” Sharp, honest, true answer. But seriously, doh! The other editors on the panel from Time, Newsweek, US News all shook their heads solemnly in agreement. The pressure to get world-class images on deadline against tremendous competition was unrelenting, yet it was also what fueled us.

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  1. All correct reasons why freelancers are not working but additionally media is ‘demanding’ that photographers give up their copyright to the images made and that is the kiss of death for a lot of working freelance photographers.

    Another factor is that now everything is digital — so print media, in order to save money is now shooting ‘in house’ because, let’s face it, it’s easy to shoot digital and get a decent image eventually. We are all now on an even playing field so the world of freelance work, much less photography, has now been severely cheapened due to ease of us by all.

    • @Sharon P. Fibelkorn, While I agree that the transition to digital has cheapened the price of entry to being a photographer, I don’t think we’re all playing on a level playing field. There are certain things that make one a good shooter that have nothing to do with gear. You still have to have an eye, a sense of the moment, the ability to interact with or disappear from your surroundings, etc. Whether your camera is film or digital, once the moment is gone, it’s gone. There will always be some photographers who are better than others at any combination of these things. Not to mention being able to conduct yourself on the phone and meet(or surpass)the assignment requirements on budget and on time. The individuals who put all these pieces together will always have an advantage over the herd.

      • @Chris Lake, You’re right, I should have said that everyone feels they are playing on a level playing field. I find that good enough and free wins out over the well crafted image. Still, there’s a place for us pros and our skills … you’re totally right. I need to remind myself that we do get rewarded for the skill we put into what we produce and not just random clicks hoping for one good picture. :)

  2. I think the flip side of this article is that a lot of top photo editors are self-righteous douche bags.

      • @Sharon P. Fibelkorn, Exactly what part of that statement was true and well said? For the most part photo editors are overworked, underpaid and frequently take risks that could easily jeopardize their paychecks.

        True and well said? It was crass and uninformed.

        • @Debra Weiss, Actually, I’m directly informed but, yes, I do tend to be blunt (crass) on this subject. The photo editors that I work for no longer have jobs, because the editors have decided to shoot everything themselves with no additional pay because they loveee to take pictures as well as feel they can judge the editorial work honestly despite the fact that it’s becoming a one man show. This is the view from my seat. Of course, I sit in the middle of niche magazines — but still, there was a time when editors did their jobs and photographers got to do their jobs but I’m seeing that line go away and photo jobs with it. Yes, there are still good editors out there and good photogs but we all are allowed to fuss sometime about all the others aren’t we?

        • @Debra Weiss,

          My problem with the article was this quote: “Then you would never work for us again.”

          I mean COME ON. That’s such a patronizing thing to say. It makes it seem like photographers are disposable and that being an editor is some holy, untouchable position that photographers should bow down in front of.

          Well, screw that. If I know that an editor views me as disposable, I sure as hell won’t be working hard to please them.

          • @Michoale Nigrinziski, This is the honest truth, and if you don’t like it then please by all means don’t make any effort. I’d be more than happy to step in and deliver… We aren’t paid for excuses we are paid to make beautiful images

          • @Michoale Nigrinziski, So I guess it is this attitude that explains the lack of a URL and why a google search comes up totally empty. And if photographers are viewed as disposable, don’t blame the photo editors – it is because the photographers gave them permission.

            • It seems to me that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to never hire someone again who didn’t do the job, in any field.

    • @Michoale Nigrinziski,
      No, that’s not the flip side but you on the other hand sound real professional.

    • @Michoale Nigrinziski, Most photographers I know are nice people and very professional. Some photographers I know are not. The same goes for photo editors. Most are good people who are professional, love photography and photographers and try to do the right thing. A few of them-very few in my experience-could be called a little too full of themselves(or even full of crap sometimes). I find your characterization over the top and your choice of words puerile.

    • @Michoale Nigrinziski, With that attitude, I’m sure your phone wll be ringing non stop with editors who are eager to work with you.

    • My problem with the article was this quote: “Then you would never work for us again.”

      I mean COME ON. That’s such a patronizing thing to say. It makes it seem like photographers are disposable and that being an editor is some holy, untouchable position that photographers should bow down in front of.

      Well, screw that. If I know that an editor views me as disposable, I sure as hell won’t be working hard to please them.

      • @Michoale Nigrinziski,
        So, when you send your film out to a lab and comes back scratched you send it to them again on the next job?

      • @Michoale Nigrinziski, When a dentist and an auto mechanic screwed up important work they were doing for me I immediately found a new dentist and somebody else to tune up my car. To continue to patronize them would have been “patronizing” since I no longer had confidence in the ability of either one. Listening to their excuses just made me more determined not to use them again. A PROFESSIONAL photographer offers not only imagery, but also trust and confidence. A PROFESSIONAL photographer solves problems and doesn’t make or need excuses. No one owes you a job.

      • @Michoale Nigrinziski, P.S. Photographers ARE disposable. Just like ad agencies, art directors and picture editors. Sooner or later everyone loses a job, fairly or unfairly. Better to get over it and learn from the experience rather than whne about it.

    • @Michoale Nigrinziski, I worked for 14 years for dozens of mags in US, Europe, Canada, Latin Am., and while some of my editors were very tough, even neurotic, none were abusive or bad people. All of them had a ruthless, unforgiving goal: to fit a picture into the page on deadline. There are no second chances, no excuses, it’s journalism. Imagine having to rely on someone by phone 3000 miles away that you assign to a story. It’s a high wire act so trust is everything and the picture editor’s job was always on the line. Of course I understood exactly what Roxanne said to the person asking the innocent question and did not think it was condescending at all, just honest truth. It is a tough business. You better figure out how to have back ups for your back ups, cover your ass a million ways to sunday. But as I said, that was what made it incredibly stimulating, challenging and immensely satisfied when you saw your byline again, proving you had not in fact fucked up. Any industry is the same at the highest level.

    • @Michoale Nigrinziski,

      That is beyond silly….. you shoot to please yourself first… put your soul into your work because you love it ( or go get a real job ) .. not to please some editor that will be working at a different job in 6 months. Who cares if the person you’re shooting for is an idiot ( I’ve had my share ) the pride you put into your work is a reflection of you not the person you’re working for.

  3. Obviously if you screw up you probably won’t be hired again, and obviously if you act like an asshole you won’t be hired again.

    Unless you’re a fashion photographer, in which case you get to be some kind of diva, and it’s apparently considered part of the package… It’s just strange how un-professionalism is sometimes overlooked.

  4. A year ago I was freelancing for 5 local and regional newspapers here in the UK, had good relationships with all of them, they liked my work and my attitude and I was super busy.

    I haven’t heard from any of them since December.

    They’ve all been told not to hire freelancers and to use staffers for everything. Just lately the staffers have begun to be pushed out the door too, and it doesn’t look like there’s an end in sight.

    So I guess I’d be slightly surprised if Mrs. Nighswander’s replies even got as far as discussing “poor professional relationship or lack of commitment”.

  5. God I hate the word “freelance”. For one, there should be nothing in the world of commerce that has free in it.

    But, if you’re a “freelance” photographer and you’ve done this gig for more than 6 months, then you know is going to be hard. Anybody that thinks it’s easy either has a trust fund that is based on gold bars hidden in the basement, or has a boyfriend that owns Chanel.

    You know that you going to have to be artist, business person, ego negotiator, psychologist and own a set of knee pads, because for every great day you get in this business, there is always another one that can drop you to your knees and make you scream like a baby.

    That’s just life it’s ownself and it isn’t restricted to just photographers.

    Just make sure you scream where nobody can hear.

    You have to have two mindsets. On the day, when your commissioned your a fireman and you must put the fire out, regardless of circumstance or consequence to yourself. On the days your not shooting you plan long term, strategize, brand, negotiate and do everything you can to move your name and art forward. It’s very hard to be those two different people.

    Of course there are tough days, rights grabs, lowered costs and companies that will try to leverage all services when the market is weak. That’s just the way the world spins every 10 or so years so anyone that didn’t plan for it is going to be in trouble.

    Of course some mid manager is going to think that their staff can shoot a decent enough photograph with a 5d, or the starving local guy can get “close enough”.

    The upside to all of this is nothing in the world is sold without interesting photography. At least nothing in mass and photographs taken on the cheap, regardless of who shoots them don’t sell squat. They don’t sell in magazines, newspapers, web blogs or pdfs.

    Predictable photographs get passed by and like it or not the viewer/consumer is a hell of a lot more visually sophisticated than most advertisers give them credit for.

    Just watching 3 hours of prime time broadcast will display more than 4 million dollars of production, so people are a lot more visual savvy than you would think.

    These are interesting times because even in today’s economy there are more places to view and distribute photographs than in all of history combined. I have some web pages that get 667,000 hits in a month, so think about it, how many of our photographs in any magazine are seen by 667,000 viewers.

    Economy or not, we’re in the early shakeout days of the web and new media. Right now everyone is trying to figure out how to make this work and turn a profit . I’m sure Twitter has these “profit” meetings daily. Soon, like cable TV finally meant more shows and more production, the Web and whatever comes next will mean more original photography and more ways to profit from it, both in art and commerce.

    The other upside to this economy is these are the days you can and should invest in new and personal work. If your not booked 24/7 then you are booked 24/7 but by yourself, not some ad agency or company.

    I work brutal hours but I even work harder when I’m not booked because in this industry the days you are really paid for are the days you work for yourself.

    That investment is what moves you forward.

    If you do it right the actual commissioned shooting days really are the fun days or better put “free”.

    Maybe that’s where the word freelance comes from.


    • @James R Russell, Very sensible reasoning! Thanks!

  6. Props to Prof. Nighswander for encouraging her students to contemplate the end goal: living the dream by getting and keeping paying gigs.

    I’m sure there are lots of photo students out there who would love access to classes in their photo program that got in to some meaty business knowledge.

  7. Yes, right on Ms. Nighswander, and yes, the man is trying to make you “work for hire,” and newspapers here in the Midwest are handing out G9’s to the newsroom or “non-revenue generating personnel” (as a publisher has referred to them) and I hope Aric Meyer is right and thank you Mr. Russell.

  8. I would like to thank everyone, especially Rob Haggart, for posting their thoughts on this topic. I am thrilled that Rob took my email a step further and opened the question up to discussion on his blog. I’ll be sure to share all your comments and insight in our class on Monday.

    Thank you everyone
    -Jonathan Crosby

  9. Perhaps the question should be why did you quit working as a freelancer (at least for those working in the 1990s.) I was once a freelance writer and photographer, now I’m a staff photo editor.
    Most of my income then was the writing side, I also shot my own pictures.

    Back in the early 1980s Gay Talese wrote an article saying the money major and minor magazines and newspapers paid writers then had not kept pace with inflation since the 1960s. It was in the late 1980s that the bean counters started to squeeze writers on money and rights, so that even allowing for fluctuations in the economy, the money paid to freelance writers by the majority of magazines and newspapers has not kept up with inflation for 40 years! I made a good living as a freelancer in the 80s, by 1996, the squeeze was so bad, working just as hard but for rates that hadn’t changed in a decade, so I took a staff job. So did almost everyone I knew who was freelancing back then. (Of course the salaries and bonuses of senior executives outpaced inflation)

    Of course, these days, some of those same people are back to freelancing (with no choice).

    Unfortunately, these days because of digital, most executives value photographs even less than they do writing.

    Just one example, when I was on holiday on a Caribbean island a couple of years ago, I shot some pix of my landlady as she showed me around. A while later a UK magazine called my landlady and interviewed her for a regular feature on women who had “interesting jobs in exotic far away places.” Following UK practice, they paid her £150 for the interview and asked for pix. She had none, I offered my pix to the mag, they wouldn’t pay even a minimum (after all I was doing my landlady a favour so I wasn’t going to ask for much). With no money offered, I refused. The section editor told me they were told by management never to buy pix. So this magazine, which each week has a special feature on women working in exotic locations, depended on snapshots. I checked out the magazine’s website and downloaded their rate card. They charge £40,000 for a back cover ad every week. I am wondering if the advertisers are getting their money’s worth with that sort of thing.

  10. Rob is, as is often the case, spot on on this. The expectation is that our success rate must be greater than that of a surgeon in order to remain in business. There is no margin for error, even though a life is not on the line, just a blank space on a page.

    I strive to meet – and exceed – client expectations, whether it is an editorial client or a corporate client. Often the “one for thee, one for me” approach caused the “one for me” to be the better image that the client used, even though it was not the assignment. Note – the “one for thee” comes first, then you can experiment.

    Doug’s recounting of the Business Week panel comments also is spot on. A photo editor only gets so many “the shoot didn’t turn out” excuses before their judgement about what makes a good photographer gets called into question, and they are soon sidelined, or let go.

    What makes a good photographer, first, and foremost, from a clients’ perspective is one that can produce AN image, on time, and for the agreed upon budget. When that image meets basic quality standards, they might get a call again. When that image is better than average, they float to the top of the call sheet, and when that image is exceptional, they not only are the first to get calls all the time, they get flown around because there is significant value in a guarantee (or as close as you can get to one) of a great image regardless of the circumstances you throw at the photographer.

    Case in point – I have one editorial client who is always calling me to make images that are a huge challenge. Small cubicles, mini offices with no decor and white walls, people in basement office space, and so on – you get the idea. Often they are cover images, but sometimes, inside ones. Every so often, I kid her and say “geez, when am I going to get an easy assignment”, and her response is usually something akin to “I give you the hard ones because I know I will get good photos…”, and while I certainly appreciate the vote of confidence, sometimes I think I might just like to walk in and knock it out, but, in the end, pushing those limits, and creating a silk purse out of a sows’ ear is appreciated by this photo editor, and, in the end, keeps me working.

    One of the messages I try to convey to colleagues is the lost revenue stick (carrot?) regarding a lost assignment:

    1) You spend a great deal of effort making a prospective client aware of your work

    2) You convince a prospective client to hire you for an assignment

    3) You do a great job, and earn $2k for the shoot

    4) Client calls you next month. you earn $1,500k or $2,500k on that job.

    5) Over the life of this ONE client, you can earn tens of thousands of dollars, just from one consistently satisfied client.

    6) One consistently satisfied client will recommend you to several other people over the course of their career, thus, one client can be the root cause of upwards of $100k in revenue, over your photographic career.

    Now, if I told you that any given job that you would do for that client would cause that client to (at first) think twice about hiring you or (after a second screw up) not hire you, and thus, that single $2k assignment wasn’t actually a $2k assignment, but rather a $100k lifetime revenue stream, how seriously would you take the assignment? Would you take extra cameras and lighting equipment “just in case”? Would you have a backup laptop? How many safeguards would you put in place to ensure that each and EVERY assignment went off without a hitch?

  11. Speaking from outside the profession, I feel pretty lucky that I can enjoy photography without the pressure to be 110% on every shoot. From the side of a former business owner and user of illustrative photography, I do understand the business side.

    Photographers were at least two steps removed from my concerns, which was only illustration of our products, and I didn’t care if the photos came from a photographer or shot from the ass of a duck at high altitude – I wanted the material and I was purposefully oblivious to anything else in the process and the first time there was a failure to deliver was the last time I used that source.

  12. But, btw, great and illuminating discussion.

  13. […] Rob Haggert at A Photo Editor talked about why photo editors send work to some photographers and steer away from others. It’s not (just) about talent and technique, it comes down to professionalism and reliability. This was followed up by the folks at Photo Business News. […]

  14. Specifically, in photography, you can’t judge the quality of the photographs because these would be delivered after signing the deal.

    • @Adv. Pragmaticoutsourcing, Clearly, you must not be a professional photographer.

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