Fan Photographer?

Note: This was 7+ years ago, some things have changed in my operation, I updated a few things in the article, but largely left it alone.

It was a late night, actually early morning of June 23rd, and I was charging batteries in preparation for a Fandemonium dance that I’d be shooting pix at after I’d hopefully slept, and I noticed that Phasodyne, a Red Zone member, had just asked me a question. Phasodyne is a lurker so a rare post bore investigating.  A simple question, in typical Phasodyne Style: “Dude, what is a Fan Photographer and does it pay?”

I’m now at liberty to share a little of the back story; first, to clarify, I don’t know Phasodyne’s gender so I’m going to avoid gender pronouns, but here’s a bit of back story. Phaso lives in Chicago and has experience in journalism from school, and also has a friend that is a former Red Zone member called Bobby Southside, also of Chicago fame and glories that he lives in “Capone Territory.” Digression, but interesting, anyway.

Phaso’s parents had offered to cash in some 401k to help set up enough of a photo kit for Phaso to try to make a living as a photographer, and the question came to see if there was a niche market that a photographer could make a living through specializing.

My answer was pretty simple:

A fan photographer is a fan and a photographer, that photographs fans at events to help publicize events so that people that go to these events can relive the fun, and to show people that didn’t go to the event what they missed.  Its also going to casual photo shoots and taking pictures of cosplayers to let them show off their skills and to let people know that things like cosplay exist and some really cool people have fun showing off their creativity.

Ok, definition accomplished, but bear in mind I’m far from the only fan photographer and they all have their own reasons for doing it.

Does it pay, you ask?

The simple answer is yes, no, and maybe, I’m sure professional photographers in major markets make some coin in this gig but I don’t charge to take pictures at events.

A smarty-pants answer would go something like this: “Well, they say crime doesn’t pay,” but that isn’t necessarily true.  Someone making license plates in prison makes more that your average fan photographer, who does it from enthusiasm and as part of a community. There are exceptions, and some are distasteful, but humans.

I take pictures at conventions because I enjoy it, a lot.  I also like things like science fiction and fantasy and anime and I like people that like all of these things and I like supporting, in my own limited way, the events and activities that let fans come together to share their enjoyment of these genres (and many more.)

Money isn’t something you make by being a fan, cosplayers and those that host conventions in areas like this are fandom on a shoestring budget, or as the great Borneo Armstrong said once, “We’ve already cut the budget to the bone, and now we’re cutting it to the marrow.” And that is the heart of fandom, using what you have and making the most of it.  Fans in these parts invest a lot more sweat and innovation into their fandom than they do cash, especially in this economy; and, its a lot of fun visually documenting the results.

When you’re trying to find enough room in your budget for cosplay materials, caffeine, DVDs, comic books, and video games on top of other mundane things like food, rent, gas, and in many cases, school, that doesn’t leave room for things like paying for photo sessions.  The people that I take pictures of do what they do for the same reason I do: its a hobby, a way of life, an expression of creativity.  The reasons are as varied as the number of people doing what they do.

I then went on to explain that although I work paid gigs, by the definitions of some I am not a professional photographer, and never would be because to be a professional photographer one must rely upon photography commissions to pay their bills, and I won’t be caught in that trap, to which Phasodyne replied:

Dude, you take some good fucking pics and that should be what decides pro vs. amateur. Money is used too much to decide whose better than who.  Its bullshit. I see what you mean about people not having the money to have pictures taken though, some of those photo types charge some evil fees.

Never at a loss for words, I replied:

I take some good shots and some bad, about the same as any other shutterbug.

I don’t know that I can categorize fees as evil, I do work commissions after all, if being a photog is your living then it would be silly not get every cent you can for shooting pix, but you do risk pricing yourself out of work.  There’s a lot of studios these days, but in this economy there is going to be some pretty stiff competition for every consumer dollar.  The supply of photographers is exploding with digital cameras, shooting even a hundred pictures on film was expensive you can now take a thousand pix and have lunch for less than the film and processing costs of the old days.

Stock photography used to be a lucrative trade and could net a prodigious photographer a hefty sum for a single pic, now its possible to get a license for a stock image for as low as a buck. I read a piece that said as little as 5-6 years ago Getty Images licensed roughly 1.5 million pics, and last year is was around 22 million, and they use a user-generated content model, which is the direction things are going these days, there are even user-generated wire services that are growing quickly these days for smaller outlets that can’t afford AP and UPI photo feeds anymore.

Those that can adapt, survive. Those that adopt sooner really survive.  The advantage for the photographer looking to cash on stock photos and feeds is that they don’t need the overhead of rent or buying brick and mortar, they just ramble and shoot everything they can, upload to their Getty or whatever account, and get really savvy on tagging pics.  Another way to make money as a photographer is give classes and seminars teaching photo and processing techniques. I’ve seen a lot of pros using this to help make ends meet, they never seem to lack students and this releases even more hopefuls on the market.

I’ve heard the complaints that amateur photogs turning pro are choking out the pros because they are willing to work for less; but, they forgot the law of supply and demand. When there a lot of people taking advantage of the less expensive digital format to jump into the pro arena, the supply is more than the demand and the value of the service decreases; and, the market is glutted.  Like I said, the internet is leaving journalists, photojournalists and photographers that don’t change with the times, struggling, or out of business. According to, 4.2% of “working” photographers are currently unemployed, of course that only counts the ones still able to draw benefits, the long-term unemployed may raise that rate higher, as it does with the rest of the job market. One of the funniest quotes I’ve seen about the current photography market is from “Photography is certainly growing, but not in demand.  It’s the supply of photographers that is growing.  Everyone with a camera (like you) thinks about making money with photography.”

LOL conversely, someone that takes free pictures for people that really can’t afford to pay, doesn’t see a change in their bottom line. They make the same nada than they would if the demand for professional photographers was greater than the supply.  If there were fewer paid photographers to meet the demand for their services, prices would raise and even more couldn’t afford a pro.

That still leaves a lot of people that don’t have the cash to document their hard work in cosplay. There’s not a lot of competition to work for free, if you give a cosplayer more money they are going to invest it back into their cosplays and have a friend take pictures of them, so there’s no back-end for a pro to provide pro bono services, especially in this economy.

Oh, I suppose I did overlook one market. Adult websites. Never going to do it so I guess its sort of natural that I didn’t think of it at the time.

Which drew the inevitable question:

So how bad is the market where you live? And if you decided to go to what those others call a professional, what would you do? So you think you could, or do you even want to?

To which I replied:

No desire to, I’m really only interested in one area of photography, that’s people. Fans and fan events (which is largely cosplay), weddings, portraits, head shots, senior pictures, and even glamour shots. I have no desire to shoot advertising, buildings, landscapes, nudes, or any of the other “lucrative” areas. I like people, fans and cons and cosplay, the rest bores me. My interests are very niche, very limited. I speak geek and I like to speak to geeks.

So, for the sake of argument, if I were to consider it, here’s what I’d be looking at:  I live near Boise, there’s 140 employed photographers there (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) This figure doesn’t include self-employed photographers (no idea why, too hard to get stats I guess) and that’s half of the photographers in the state in one concentrated area. There’s only so many gigs to go around to rely upon them for a living.

Again, my interest is the fans and fan events like cosplay shoots and cons. I don’t charge infividuals at conventions and offer 6 free shoots per year to the fan community. In doing this I don’t work with many people that have the cash to plonk down on a photographer’s hourly rates and then pick a few shots to get the prints on their various plans, or pay the cash for the CD of the whole shoot. I did a photoshoot at the state capitol with a group of cosplayers and put 1,200 shots in the gallery, that’s cropped as needed, resized, and even some color correction and processing if they needed it. I did this for my standard free shoot fee of Nada. Care to guess what that would have cost the group if it was a paid shoot? 8 hours of taking the shots, plus all of the processing time. Good luck finding out, cost is something you really don’t see on most photog’s business sites, most prefer to break news of that magnitude in person.

It was at this point that Bobby Southside joined the Red Zone to give me a little hell on behalf of professional (meaning, apparently, paid photographers.)  Apparently, he thinks that people who take pictures of people without charge is taking food out of the mouths of “working” photographers. To which I say bullshit.

  • If there was money in fan photography there wouldn’t be fan photographers, the pros would have it all locked up.
  • The overwhelming majority of cosplayers that I know don’t have the cash to cover the fees of a pro photographer. Can you imagine what it would cost to hire a pro for a 5-8 hour shoot at several locations would cost? We won’t even add the costs for them to buy the rights to show off the pix of themselves or buy prints.
  • I’m not interested in many markets that actually pay, I’m not interested in architectural photography, or landscapes. Nudes are fine for some, but I’ll pass. I take pictures of fans doing fan things.
  • Cosplayers pay in both time and money to build their cosplays, I pay in both time and money to take their pictures. There’s a good yin and yang vibe to that. Besides, I like fans and creativity, so if they can invest their time and money left after paying their bills and groceries and other necessities, into cosplay, I can work for the same pay scale they do to share their work with the world.
  • I see no reason to try and turn what I enjoy into a business, its the fastest way I can think of to kill the pleasure in what I do. Then, looking at it logically, photography has an horrendous failure rate as a business. 60% of startups fail in the first year and 25% more in the second. An 85% failure rate is not a smart business model to leap into, neither is a world where anyone can use a phone or buy a good camera for not much and not have to pay processing costs, as in the film days. Photography is open to everyone, and its hard to compete with everyone.
  • According to federal statistics there are 290 employed photographers in Idaho, this doesn’t count self-employed photographers for some odd reason (maybe they fold too fast to be counted) and 140 of them work in the Boise area.  Even more depressing, 50% of them make less than $13 an hour. The market is glutted, and I still get commissions charging $75 per hour.
  • I also don’t want the legal nonsense. that comes with replying upon photography to pay my bills. I shoot pix because I enjoy photography, not business and certainly not keeping track of a ton of paperwork. Building such a business means hustling for work, I don’t go out hustling for shoots; if an event looks interesting I’ll ask if I can come shoot; but, I’ve been invited to cover at least 80% of events I’ve covered, including 7 local cons rather than pester people for work.
  • What it boils down to is this: people and events will get the photographer that they like, that will cover their event properly, and that fits their budget, if they like their work.

So, you can safely bet that I drove poor Phaso nuts, I subscribe to the philosophy of the Elves. Hard to find a better source of wisdom than Tolkien. “Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.” Meaning in my case, that if you decide to do something, I’ll cheer you on, but before you get started I’ll point out everything that can go wrong. If it makes anyone feel better, I rarely say “I told you so.”

Anyway, I concluded that while I agree that everyone has a right to make a living and charge what the market will bear, and I still choose to work for free; because, not everybody can afford professional rates, and I take pictures for the people and events that can’t afford it. They deserve to be recognized for their hard work and dedication.

A few weeks later I saw that my friend and fellow fan photographer Jason had posted an internet meme about how tough it is for professional photographers, and made mention that it was things like that which made him personally have no interest in turning pro as a photographer.

 So, lets actually look at the meme for a moment, bearing in mind that I’m still irritated at Bobby Southside’s indignation that people like me are robbing professional photographers of a living.

  • First, 1-3 hours? Seriously? Most of my shoots have been 5-8 hours and have a dozen or so people. Cons being the exception, a convention can bump the hours and number of people up pretty drastically.
  • How long “editing” pictures? In (way) under 12 hours I can resize and upload around a thousand pictures, I spend around 5-30 seconds max per picture, mainly resizing and cropping. 10-30 minutes of editing per picture means that you’re “retouching” images, I don’t really believe in retouching. Light, shadows and color, if you do much more than that and your picture doesn’t capture what happened anymore. Photographers retouch to a ridiculous degree these days.
  • The rest about no holidays or bonuses and paying taxes and stuff. Welcome to the price of doing business, if you wanted those things and decided to work for yourself, you didn’t do your research. I pay to do what I do, financially and with my time and you don’t hear me bitching about it, I’d do it all again with no regrets.
  • As to respect your photographer, I certainly do, I just don’t limit my respect to those paid to do it.

© 2012 – 2020, Tim Boothby. All rights reserved.

24 thoughts on “Fan Photographer?

  1. Damn dude, you know how to stir a pot! Bobby is having a piss fit since you dropped the note on him that you took pictures at another freebie event! Hysterical!

  2. You just don’t get it, photography takes skill and working photographers are the best. Taking free pictures is robbing about 140 photographers in your area a chance to make a living.

  3. What’s not to get, you’re intentionally missing the point. If 12 people show up at a photo shoot and two people bring their cameras along and take pictures, is that robbing two photographers? Now imagine all 12 start snapping away with a mix of phones and cameras, is that 12 being robbed?

    Simple answer, no one is being robbed, but a lot of people aren’t keeping up with the times. You’re becoming as annoying as the RIAA and MPAA. Technology has changed the game, that’s why 85% of photography start-ups are gone by the third year.

    ANYBODY can take pictures these days, the internet has replaced scrapbooks, and people are less and less willing to pay to have pictures taken and more and more photographic hopefuls are jumping into a shrinking market and getting pissed off when they can’t find work.

    I’ll make it simpler, I’m not costing anyone a penny, because I’m one of the very few willing to work for free. Not too many are willing to put in the work for that rate.

    So, don’t take your struggles and failures out on me and people like me. If you can’t make it, I’m not costing you any business, snivel elsewhere.

  4. Think about it Bobby, he’s right. The things he takes pictures of arent a paying market, its hobby stuff. There’s no money in it or like he said pro shooters would be all over it. If he didn’t take the photos they’d take them without him. Difference is he takes better pictures than a point and shoot or iphone. Your screaming about nothing.

  5. You’re full of shit! Both of you!

    Let them use their frigging iphones, the shitty pictures will make them realize they need real photographers. There will always be photo pros, but sellouts make it harder for the rest of us to earn a living.

  6. I looked into some vids Tim suggested, if you think a guy taking pictures for free is selling out then what about Thomas Hawk, Catherine Hall, Rick Sammon, Stu Maschwitz, Chris Marquardt, Mikkel Aaland, Scott Kelby, Ed Kashi, Art Wolfe, Bruce Dale, Peter Eastway, Zack Arias, Chase Jarvis, Jasmine Star, Colby Brown, Tyler Stableford and all the other high profile large fee big dawgs of photography that give paid semenars for how to be a better photographer and they give away tips and tricks online for free too, full color videos on how to be a better photographer. You bitch because one guy is taking pictures for free but you ain’t got shit to say about people who will always have work helping feed the glut coming on the market? Remember when Tim said that the ones that see and adapt first would survive, they are the survivors. You ain’t.

  7. Yes they are sellouts. The market is lousy with assholes that listen to assholes like you listed and think they can be a real photographer. They run out and buy all the camera they can and leave the fucker and snap away and call themselves pros and try to fix their fuckups in Aperture. Half of them think there’s money and pussy just waiting to fall on them because they bought buisness cards that say they are photographers. They give us all a bad name, I told Tim about one asshole that shoots what he calls boudoir shots of chicks, softcore porn is all it is and he spends half his time trying to talk his way into the bed with the chicks. Its bullshit, halfassed shutterbugs with big fucking dreams that get in the way of the rest of us. Here’s a fucking tip, take your portfolio to a real photographer and if they hire you, you’re a photographer otherwise your a fucking poser sucking up space that the rest of us need to do real work. Freelance and “fan photographer” are just pretty fucking words for scab. Every real photographer has to get past 10 hard charging fucking scabs for the jobs, fuck all of them.

  8. Charging is good, but if they can’t take a picture they won’t get the job. If your pissed because your getting out charged maybe your work doesn’t stand out against what they do. Step up your game.

  9. How am I supposed to get anything done with you two sniping at each other?

    Let’s simplify things, I don’t hustle anything, I’m invited to come take pictures, that includes the three conventions I’m covering, asked and not hustled.

    Ok, what next. Oh yes, I’m an amateur photographer (despite the fact I’ve sold prints which could technically be construed the other way.)

    No photo studio would hire me for my portfolio for two reasons: First, because I post everything and that leaves my good and bad out there for the world to see. Secondly, I don’t take pictures that would interest them, especially in this small market area.

    There’s no money in what I do, and not much hope of monetizing it. People at conventions, for example, will pose for the dozens of people taking pictures but they aren’t going to squander con money that they need for fun and food to pay somebody to take their picture when their friends will be flooding FaceBook with shots they can pick and choose from for free. The second I lost my mind and decided to start charging, the invitations would stop.

    There lies the problem and the 85% fail rate, people are taking pictures more than they have in the past, and there are way too many things like FB to show them off to each other. The demand side of the market is drying up at the same time the supply side is over-filling.

    Anyway, no more tonight. I’m going to bed and not going to be here to approve comments anyway; so, knock it off, cool off and try again tomorrow, if you must.

  10. Theres not much a paid photographer can do in Tim’s “market” they don’t have enough to exploite as individualls and they won’t be able to pony up as a group either. Face it Bobby, you’re pissed off for no reason.

    1. It all goes back to the meme, yes professional photographers spend a lot of time doing their work, but that doesn’t mean that people are willing to pay them to do that work. Increasingly, the answer is no, they aren’t willing.

      Photography is moving toward a few niche markets and artists. Look at Colleen Duffley, pro photographer, makes money at it, she’s the founder of studio b, which hosts iPhone/iPad photography. According to her, iphone photography ““It’s a very pure art form—far more about the creativity than about expensive gear or intricate techniques.” While iPhone photography is still an emerging art form, she said some visitors to the “Light Impressions” show commented that they felt like they were seeing the future.”

      She sees the writing on the wall, there’s a lot that don’t, but it seems the ones that don’t are trying to make the climb into the pro ranks and those already up there can look down and see it pretty clearly. Digital has given photography to the world, not just a choice few.

  11. It is interesting to note that the first recorded attempt at building a digital was at Eastman Kodak, they saw the future but didn’t evolve with it, and were consumed by it. A telling lesson.

  12. I looked up the kodak digital thing, that’s wild! Cool example for the point your making all along, if people don’t change with the times they get left in the dust. I’m starting to look at photographers that don’t see this like I would rush limpbag, he’s scared shitless of anything that changes the status quo, Bobby I hate to say it but your a conservative dinosaur that pisses himself over change.

    1. Easy on the name calling, Bobby got boisterous so I’ll let your jab slide, but play nice.

      I can see the point you’re driving toward. SOME–not nearly all–established photographers do fear change. Kodak feared the threat of digital to their established film market and it destroyed them in the long run. They hesitated while others innovated, and hesitation will cost you, sometimes in the short run, sometimes it takes a while.

      Basically the point is: I enjoy what I do, I enjoy working with the people I work with, and if they didn’t find something redeeming in what I do then they wouldn’t be there for me to photograph, no matter what I charged (or didn’t.)

      Even more basically, how did a discussion of why it would be a bad idea to let family borrow against their eventual retirement to buy gear to do freelance work, turn into a discussion of the merits and downsides of an amateur photographer taking pictures for no more than the enjoyment of taking pictures? A very silly leap, and not nearly as interesting as the Ministry of Silly Walks.

  13. I talked to a photographer from the Trib that works with us a lot on the side down at Occupy Chicago, and he says a lot of the stuff you do. News, photography, the RIAA and MPAA are all operating in a 1940 headspace. Shits changing and newspapers and other things that the digital age is replacing is fighting to keep us in 1940. Change or die! Digital and internet are just 2 parts of the revolution! Nobody expects the spanish inquisition!

    1. Interesting, but I hardly feel revolutionary. I just like technology and make the most of it, if we were still in the film age I’d be doing something else entirely because I couldn’t afford to do this.

      I was pretty amused by the 1940s reference though, yes I can see that some are still stuck in the old paradigm, sadly though the fall of the newspapers to the digital age means they’ll find some other way to monetize our sources of knowledge for the world around us.

  14. Now, it’s possible that Bobby isn’t reading anymore, since the majority of this conversation took place a week ago, but here’s my two cents:

    Regarding free/amateur photographers “taking money from professionals,” no. Think of it like the music industry, and everyone going to digital instead of buying CD’s. Are digital copies of music inferior to CDs? Yes. Are torrented copies of CDs inferior to iTunes copies? In most cases, yes. Do most people care? Not a lick. In fact, most people can’t even tell the difference between the compression qualities. It’s just music to them. Those listening to crappy Pirate Bay music aren’t stricken with the sudden realization that they need to go out and buy a CD to get the full enjoyment because what they have it garbage. If they care enough to do anything, they’ll just find a better digital copy.

    It’s the same concept with photography. Most people don’t know, or care, about the quality difference between a Nikon Coolpix and a Samsung HolyBalls DSLR 5000xxxxxL5.3. If their friend takes a shitty picture of their costume, then they’ll just take another one, or they’ll find someone with a better camera/better skills and a Flickr account.

    As a cos-player and minor shutterbug myself, am I going to spend money on professional studio portraits? Hell no. I have better things to spend my money on, like eating something that isn’t ramen at a con or buying the latest release of something. Hell, one of my favorite pictures of a costume of mine is by a guy who asked to take my picture at con, and then a few days later I found it online.

    tl;dr: Stop it. You’re crying about fallacies.

    1. lol and once again Shae cuts to the heart of the issue. Between smart phones, point and shoots and DSLRs if people want pictures they have the means right there at hand.

      With everything automatic these days its getting easier by the minute to take good pictures, they focus, set apertures, select iso and set the shutter for the person holding it and they take good pictures.

      All that’s left after that, if you want to step up to the more artistic, they you play with composition and exposures and all of that. Yes, I really do shoot outside of auto mode. Hell, I shoot a bare bones DSLR and have gotten better shots than someone with their top of the line DSLR 5000xxxxxL5.3. Its not about competition though, its about people doing what they enjoy.

      Back to the why I do it. Two fold and I’ll say it again. 1: to take pictures for people that want to see their hard work recognized and can’t afford it. 2: I use photography to bring attention to events and activities I support. People won’t pay much attention to an article, but pictures catch the eye every time.

  15. Tim’s dead balls-on accurate. I got into digital shooting as a business when it first started heating up. Shot all over the world but I saw the handwriting on the wall and sold off and moved on to bigger and better things. The best way to make money in photography is to teach people how to use their cameras, because they don’t need you to take pictures, people want to do it themselves. There’s a few boutique markets left, but you’ll work your ass off if you’re established to keep your spot in the pecking order, if you’re new you will struggle for every penny, if you’re lucky.

  16. Nice try Bobby, the 1st Amendment only protects the rights of people to speak freely from the government. I am not the government, I am a private person. I can decide what will and won’t appear on my own websites, that includes spam and insulting/denigrating comments directed at people stating their opinions here.

    You will notice that the thousand or so spams a week that are posted to this board never make it up, that’s not censorship, that’s removing posts that violate the intent and spirit of the site. If I was out to censor for the sake of censorship alone, I wouldn’t have let anything you posted appear. I’m just enforcing standards.

    As to your love of the phrase “the Chicago way,” I remind you of what Louis L’Amour said: “The meek will inherit nothing west of Chicago.”

  17. Fine you censoring bastard, you just remember that the Southside is Capone country.

    There’s a difference between a photographer and a schmuck with a camera, and I’m saying schmucks are stealing the opportunities of real photographers, and apparently music too.

    1. Capone came to Chicago after he was chased out of New York, carrying the scars that reminded him to stay gone.

      And, of course, you’re missing the point. More than one actually; first, there is no market because nobody could afford to pay pro rates for cosplay shoots. Secondly, your approval isn’t required for me to do what I enjoy 😉

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