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 Studentscholarships.org, 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 improvephotography.com: “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.