Monday, June 18, 2007

John Harrington's inconvenient facts

John Harrington writes the excellent blog Photo Business News & Forum. He usually has simple and clear advice on how to ensure that you can earn a living as a freelance photographer. Much of his legal advice is US centric, but I think all other stuff applies across the board. Whether it is how to word contracts, deal with clients or protect your own photographic interests.

From his recent list of facts:
"Fact #1: If every time you produce images, the copyright to them is not yours, you will not earn money - any money - from them in the future. "
"Fact #6: Just because a client says they won't pay for something, doesn't mean you must accept, and work under, those terms. You have the power to say "no"."

There are some between and after these that are useful reading for those who wish to hit the next level. And as he points out, even if you don't want to go pro and want to continue doing photography on the side, to do it responsibly you should still follow these rules.

As a commenter points out:
"One could say, "In a free market, shouldn't I be free to undercut anyone and compete on price?" Certainly, but in a free market, enlightened self interest makes the whole concert play, and you are really undercutting yourself in doing so. Why is this reality so hard for some to understand?"


Rahul said...

I think photographers are discovering what portrait-painters discovered in the 19th century: in the wake of a disruptive technology, your job is not secure... Once everyone could get an image of themselves and their family for a fraction of a painter's fee, and (usually) better in quality, the market collapsed.

Portrait-painters are still around, of course, but much fewer in number: they work only for the very rich. (And they often work from photographs.)

I think one impetus to modern art was the camera. Suddenly painstaking realism became easy to do, so people went for impressionism, cubism, surrealism, or just meaningless abstract art.

Now professional photographers are in the same situation, as millions now own cameras capable of comparable quality to the best pro cameras a generation ago. Someone I know had his infant daughter pose as a model for a calendar; apparently the pro photographers were very painstaking about the room, lighting, and so on, but the kid is easily bored and would not smile at the end of it. On the other hand, to my eyes, casual "family photos" of that kid look equally good (technically) and much nicer (as a portrayal of the kid) than the "pro" efforts. If you want to crop the image, enhance it, etc, you can do it all on a computer for free.

So how do you compete? Perhaps the pro industry will shrink (though it probably won't die just yet). Is that a bad thing? Nobody is owed a living. Anyway, I don't think it will be saved by preaching about "responsible" freelancing.

In all creative fields -- writing, music, photography, and soon movies -- we're going to see amateur content swamp the professional stuff by sheer numbers; and while on average it will be quite poor, the very best will be as good as anything a pro can do. The record companies are worrying about the wrong problem ("piracy"), the real challenge will be from indie stuff.

Natasha said...

"the very best will be as good as anything a pro can do"

Maybe, I don't think so. I've seen the difference between pros and pros and then between amateurs and pros. If one is large the other is a yawning chasm.

You know there's a huge difference between a calendar photographer esp in India and what I'm thinking of when I say pro (diffuse as it is). I was cribbing just this afternoon abt what passes as pro work around here...its laughable. Anyone who looks at that and then looks at stuff on even flickr will think its just as easy.

But take a look at the bigger guys and the differences in engagement and ability and result become obvious. But off course you think these guys will survive anyway, right?

I do agree no one is owed a living. One does what one can to protect it. One even tells other people to protect their own (potential) living if one thinks they don't quite get it! Even preaching, useful or not.

I did see this comment coming by the way :)

Rahul said...

I knew you'd see it coming :)

Anyway, yes I think the very best will survive. But I also think art has to have some popular appeal, which it can without being dumbed-down. Now, if only a few dozen or a few hundred people in the world actually find artistic value in something, then it's in trouble. Such was the case with twelve-tone music for example. So if the pro's work is obviously better (to a significant fraction of those interested in photography), it will survive, but if most people don't care and only a tiny minority do, then there is a problem.

As a test: can you point me to examples of work by pros that you think are unrivalled on flickr? (Let's leave wildlife, warzones, etc, out of it for now -- stick to everyday, accessible scenes.)

Natasha said...

Off the top of my head, my top of the pops...

Look up Lauren Greenfields work, two spectacular projects Thin, Girl culture. There was one more based on hollywood kids, no longer there.

Look up Trent Parke's Minutes to midnight and Water.

Look up Salagado's Migrations and Workers series.

Rahul said...

Have you seen Imran Khan's photos? (At least, they claim to be his, and many sites faithfully reported the site as his hobby gallery.) Hit-and-miss, but some of them look pretty good to me.

I couldn't see much on Lauren Greenfield's page -- I didn't see any galleries there, only summary pages (I spent only a couple of minutes though). Trent Parke didn't really appeal to me. Brightly-coloured urban landscapes with contrasting figures, somewhat like Sharad Haksar's stuff but not quite so interesting to me. Again, I spent maybe 2 minutes on it, so it's not a careful opinion. I saw some Salgado on the Guardian -- good stuff, but I'd hesitate to say that there's nothing on flickr to compare with it.

Thing is, with musicians (for example) there are objective benchmarks for quality: for example, can you play Paganini's caprices? You may still argue about the merits of Heifetz vs Grumiaux vs whoever, but at least if they play them smoothly and confidently without flubs, they're good. With jazz musicians it's more "can they play with one another?" And I think the audience reaction to a virtuoso performance is different, too. I can hear a music performance, or see a painting, and think "I could do that, if I had studied for years full-time." With photos, my feeling is often "I could do that, if I had an expensive camera." There are exceptions of course.

With your photos a large part of the difficulty is "being there" -- I'm sure I couldn't do that. With Imran's photos above, it looks easy, but it's interesting anyway. But with Trent Parke, it looks easy and not terribly intriguing -- just showy. But no doubt that's just my philistinism peeking through.

Natasha said...

:| I wrote a LONG reply and google crashed. So I'll try and shorten it this time.

"I could do that, if I had an expensive camera"

Thats inexperience talking, its not true both ways, better cameras don't make better photographers, worse cameras dont make worse photographers. A Strad is not suddenly going to make a middling violinist brilliant, is it?

I'll make you a challenge then? Next time you're in B'lore you can have my gear..Can you make anything half-way good as even my work?

"But no doubt that's just my philistinism peeking through."

No it's your lack of engagement and dismissiveness.

"can you play Paganini's caprices? " Or maybe write them? There's a difference you know?

Imran's photos btw are sheer and utter uncensored crap. They are the run of the mill thoughtless point shoot grab shots. They are poorly composed, poorly exposed, and completely unthought-out.

To me good photography needs to be LOT more than that. It needs to be
all of the above and then some. These things one takes for granted....who eventually cares about technical difficulty except for the stupid pixel peeper?

Well exposed and composed is where most flickr non pro GOOD guys get. No deeper. Its like some random no account pictorialist in the art world. Draws n pretty sunsets, who cares?

Good photography is MUCH more than that, in nuance, in thought, in continuity with its history, in subject matter, in style, even in getting to places, knowing where to get to...and this requires that you engage with it full (or nearly full ) time.

As far as your looking up what I recommended, you seem not to have. I pointed you to specific projects which you seem not to have seen.

Here's Salagado for sheer beauty and engagement

Here's Parke for beauty:

Heres Greenfield for engagement

Heres Halsman for truly one of a kind portraiture

If you would get that metaphor, photography is my Jazz?

Rahul said...

Greenfield's site is a pain to navigate, but I finally got to the "Girl Culture Photographs" link. I was unmoved. I saw this gallery of Parke, which I found quite tiresome in its overblown-ness. The Parke wave picture you link to is interesting, but is it really better than this one? I know tastes differ and all (I used to find Paganini tiresome too... but much depends on how it's played).

I was going to say the same about Salgado, but I tried trolling flickr for pics of Mumbai locals and didn't find any equally good, so I guess you have a point. I know there are some extremely striking photos by Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson et al (I used to buy postcards of those). But one sees thousands of amateur photos a year, and at least some of those are equally striking.

I didn't make the point of my "if I had a good camera" clear. Part of photography is about being in the right place, which can be hard work (as it is in your case), but we're talking about the other part, composition etc. I'm sure it's extremely difficult with uncooperative wildlife, but if one takes some of your other photos -- such as this one -- well, I won't say I could do equally well, because I couldn't, but I think many non-pros could. Including my brother (who has no pro ambitions). But you couldn't have taken that IISc shot with most cheap point-and-shoots, nor he the Helsinki shot. A good camera surely helps...

As for Imran, I agree there isn't much framing/composition/contrast there, but it still seems appealing in its understated way. (Maybe because nothing else about Imran is understated, one doesn't expect it of him.) Parke on the other hand seems over-the-top to me (as, to a lesser degree, are the Greenfield pics). If the goal is to distort and exaggerate reality, I suppose it is achieved. But the surrealists did it better.

Maybe I liked the Salgado (and some of the older guys) because it's not so in-your-face.

And maybe I'll be more tolerant of those who listen to Mariah Carey etc now... you're probably thinking of me the way I think of them :)

Natasha said...

Hitting the high notes, yes that is great singing ;)

Here someone else who'd like to promote your point of view. It sells cameras! Just like American Idol improves TV ratings...You can be a star too!!!