My View of the Current State of the Industry

Recently a few things have come to my attention that I wanted to bring my view and opinion to.  One was the recent firing of the Chicago Sun-Times entire photography staff and the other is the increase in “pro” craigslist photographers and complaints from the people who hire them.

So, lets start with the Chicago Sun-Times issue.  I have shot for many different newspapers as a freelancer over the years.  I had a dream of becoming a newspaper photojournalist and even went to college for photojournalism.  After college while I was still living in the Seattle area, I wanted to shoot for the Seattle Times so bad.  I knew a few of their shooters, but unfortunately there was a full photo staff, no internships available for me, and the list of freelancers or stringers for them was long.  After I moved to Alaska I got my first freelance assignment from the Seattle Times.  The University of Washington’s men’s basketball team was playing in the Great Alaska Shootout preseason tournament.  On top of this, I was getting my feet wet freelancing for various small newspapers in Alaska.  But that is when I started to see the industry start to crumble. The sister paper to the Seattle Times, the Post-Intelegencer went from print to digital only and a lot off staff were let go, including photographers.  Many of the Seattle Times photographers were let go.  Very good photographers that would shine in any newsroom in the country.  In my opinion, it was a horrible thing to see happen.  Now, the latest casualty of this is the Chicago Sun-Times photo staff.  The entire, award winning photo staff, gone.  It is being replaced with two things.  More video (something that can not be put into print editions), and reporters now taking photos with iPhones of the stories they are reporting on.  Really?  I know the firing of the photo staff saved the paper quite a bit of money to make them more financially stable, but it is the wrong way to do it.

The saying is, “A Photo is worth 1000 words.”  When I was growing up, I remember reading newspapers and my eye was drawn first to the photos.  When I was taking journalism in high school and on my high school news staff, photos were so important to draw the reader in.  Snap shots were reserved for when there was no photographer available.  The basic rules of photography were important.  Exposure, subject, rule of thirds, captions.  You want to be able to present a photo that could tell the whole story, be visually impacting, and unique, something you would not see on the nightly news, or in the competitors paper.

I remember seeing a photo from close to 20 years ago.  I have searched Google and can not find a digital version of it, so I do not remember if it was in one of the Seattle papers, or if it was in the USA Today or another national publication.  It was of a little boy in the middle of the street crying with a house behind him in flames.  I also remember seeing other photos of this fire taken by other publications.  I think those photos had pictures of the firemen trying to put out the fire, a fire truck, and the burning house.  But one photographer broke away from everyone else and found a little boy in the street crying, positioned himself to get the fire in the background and shot away.  This photographer also got pictures of the family holding each other with the smoke from what was left of their home in the background.  My point is, I remember these photos.  If it was a reporter, trying to stay close to where the police/fire media relations person would be to give information to reporters, they would never have seen this little boy in the street or made a photo even close to this caliber.

Sometimes photographers bend the rules.  I will not say break, because a good photographer should not ever put themselves or others in harms way (war photographers are exempt), or get in the way of officials doing their job, but getting away from everyone else can give them a view through the camera that no one else would have seen.  Another photo I remember was of the Olympics when Muhammad Ali was a surprise final torch carrier.  There was a media area where all the photographers were supposed to shoot from, but this shooter wanted different photos than those around him.  He spotted a location, not accessible by the general public, and technically off limits to the media, but no one stopped him and he got a great isolation photo of Ali that no one else got, and no reporter would have even considered to go shoot from (not that they would have taken a photo even close to it with a iPhone or point and shoot.

Now the Sun-Times has made a point of saying that they are going to rely on freelancers, stringers, and wire services for some of their photo needs.  That is good and bad.  As a shooter for a wire service, that makes me happy, because it is a venue that my shots could go into with better odds.  Many times a wire shooter will have that killer shot, but local papers will not even look at the wires because they had a staffer there.  But now, they will be looking more towards the wires.  It can be bad too, because I am sure quite a few members of the photo staff will do some work for the paper on a freelance basis.  And it can be bad for the paper too, as I am sure they are being flooded with requests from everyone in the Chicago area with a camera wanting to shoot the Cubs or the BlackHawks right now.  And this can be worse than reporters taking photos.  Along the line, some Joe with a brand new DSLR will get that call to go cover a Cubs game, and produce horrible shots with his kit lens and entry level camera, and spend more time getting in the way of other photographers, spend more time talking than shooting, and worse yet, start cheering for his home team.  He or she will probably force the team to cut off freelance credentials or game to game credentials, or cut the Sun-Times out all together.  I have seen it happen.  In Denver, Getty, USA Today, and the Denver Post are the only photographers credentialed for the Rockies.  I know of a dozen photographers working for real wire services, Icon, Zuma, Corbis, EPA, and others that are cut out of the credential loop for the Rockies.  You go to the games, there is room for 5 or 6 photographers in each of the photo wells, and there might be one shooter in each one.  Waste of space, waste of talent, waste of coverage.

There are other ways newspapers can save money.  Change from a Daily to 5 times a week, or drop a section.  Do you need all the support staff? In the newsroom, the three groups who are the life blood of a newspaper are the editors, reporters and the photographers.  Anyone else is expendable.  Classifieds and ads use to finance papers, but with ebay, craigslist, and other online selling options that are free or cheaper, classified sales have shrunk greatly, and ads have changed quite a bit.  My suggestion to any paper that has not fired anyone yet is to rework their classified section and their pricing structure for advertisements.  Lower the cost of classified adds to keep them a reasonable option to craigslist and ebay, and if you lower the cost of ads, but increase the amount of ads, add sections, or start cutting unnecessary fill and replace with ads, you can sell more space.  And it should be known to the owners of the Sun-Times, if readership falls because of the lower quality of photos, then companies will start to shrink their ads or stop putting them in the paper all together.  Why spend money on newspaper ads if no one is reading?

I have a bad feeling that the Sun-Times will not last much longer and I feel bad for those photographers who have been let go.

Now, the second issue I wanted to talk about is the craigslist photographers.

The ads are all over craigslist.  Senior Photos, wedding, engagement, youth sports, all at a wonderfully cheap price, and sometimes, even free.  I have seen a lot of them.  I am just starting out.  I want to build my portfolio.  I have lots of experience.  Blah, blah, blah.  And, not a surprise to me, they typically do not have any examples of their work or links to their website.  The few that do have examples of their work may have a good eye for composition, but most do not pay attention to their surroundings.  I have seen tree branches growing out of people heads, parking lots full of cars in the background, even a port-a-potty in the background.  And they obviously have never taken a photography class and know nothing about lighting.  Many wanna be photographers do not realize that just because the sun is out and it is really bright, you still need fill light to take care of shadows, or how to correctly use the sun to light a photo with reflectors.  And the over use of Photoshop is awful.  Most of the time it looks like the photographer captured a photo with incorrect exposure, poorly lit, poorly composed, even out of focus, and attempted to fix the photo in Photoshop with creative filters, funny frames, and have done nothing but made a bad photo worse.  And for all this you will see prices go from around $50 down to “I just want the experience”.

A photographer hired from craigslist is a crap shoot.  In my opinion, for every 10 photographer ads on craigslist, one is actually a professional or at least knows what they are doing.  And to be honest, I do not personally know any pro photographer who has ever posted an ad on craigslist.  What the general public does not understand is that a professional photographer is just that, a professional.  They will have the correct professional gear and know how to use it because they have actually gone to school for photography.  They will have the correct business insurance, and no, they will not work for free.  And you should expect that you are going to have to pay for quality photographs.  A true professional photographer will not even consider a payment of $50 for a wedding.  Many have day rates, half day rates, hourly rates, wedding rates, session rates, and so on.  If you are getting married, then you need to consider all of the costs, and budget in the cost of a photographer, and know that a top wedding photographer can cost more than $10,000.  I am not a wedding photographer.  I do not especially like the stress of weddings, but I will do weddings if they fit my schedule, and my minimum package is $1000 for a wedding.  Why $1000 if you can hire a photographer off of craigslist for $50?  My cameras equipment is pro level and I have back up equipment.  I have both studio strobes and flashes to light multiple locations correctly.  I have the insurance to cover my equipment in all situations, and to cover any issues that may happen.  And I know what I am doing.  I have over 20 years of photography experience from portraits to photojournalism.  For an extra cost I can also provide a second shooter that will help ensure that everything is covered, from little things like photos of the rings, cake, little details, to ensuring that if my camera goes down or I need a quick change of lenses or batteries, they are right there so I do not miss a shot.

Lets look at a worse case scenario.  Let’s say on your wedding day, you plan on having the photos taken prior to the service, photos of the service, and photos at the reception.  A craigslist photographer may show up late and be unprepared.  They will probably not have a list of shots to get, and may miss a group and worse yet, stress you out because you may not be getting all of the photos you want.  A professional will not only show up on time, but he will have pre-scouted the location and know where to set up for the best looking photos when he walks in the door.  They will probably be there and set up before you are ready or before you even arrive at the location.  The pro will unpack, set up everything and be ready before you are, which means you will be on time.  A pro will have a checklist of shots that you want, grooms family, brides family, parents, wedding party, flower girl and ring bearer, etc.  A pro will also take multiple photos to ensure no one is blinking, everyone is looking at the camera and get you the perfect photos.  Now, lets say, the unthinkable happens.  Lets say, the power goes out.  If the craigslist photographer brought strobes, you might be out of luck for any photos.  Strobes need power, and if the power is out, then his strobes will not work.  And if he is using on camera flash, I will tell you right now, you will not be happy when his flash dies because it is trying to overpower the darkness.  A professional would most likely have a battery pack set up to power his strobes, or be able to mount multiple off camera flashes powered by battery to compensate for the loss of power and you would be able to keep shooting and not miss a shot.  But what happens if the power does not go out, but the strobes cause a fire and causes damage to the venue.  It is your wedding, you rented the facility.  You are at fault, and a craigslist photographer more than likely does not have insurance, and you would probably not see any compensation for their error, but you will still have to pay for the damages.  A pro would be insured and if you were held responsible, the photographer would and should be able to stand up and cover their side of the damages with no question.

Ok.  let’s say you get through the group shots and the service starts.  The correct thing for you to ask of your guests is to not take photos of the service.  Many churches do not want flash photos during a service, and a pro would have the lenses and cameras that can compensate for dark churches.  This is where a lot of complaints from with photos from a craigslist photographer.  The craigslist photographer may have some decent gear, but in lowlight conditions, gear that is way out of their budget may be needed or the photography knowledge learned in school is not there and they end up with blurry, underexposed images.  On top of this, guests can ruin the moment.  Plus, guests flashes could actually ruin the moment, and I have seen a guest stand up right in front of the hired pro and ruin the first kiss photo.  So, as a pro, I ask you, please ask your guest not to take photos during the service.  Speaking of missing the first kiss, this is where the pro really comes in.  Remote cameras set up to specifically catch the first kiss, and a second shooter helps to ensure the first kiss is caught.  With a pro, you know your memories are going to be captured, and with a craigslist photographer, you just do not know.

Then at the reception.  There are key things you want pictures of.  Cutting of the cake, first dance, bride and brides father dance, bouquet throw, garter throw, best man toast, etc.  I have seen many craigslist photographers list as reception food instead of charging for their services.  If you agree to this, do not expect to get any shots from the reception.  Your craigslist photographer will be too busy eating to get those important shots.  A professional will be sure to get those photos and more.

Then you are off on the honeymoon.  Your craigslist photographer hopefully will take the time to take missed photos out of your proofs, and do a basic edit on the proofs before showing them to you when you return.  How they present them to you is a different story, or if they do proofs at all.  You might actually think everything went smooth, they got all the group shots, you know they got all the shots you wanted, and then the reality of not spending the money to hire a professional hits.  I have seen photos returned to the bride and groom that I would not want anyone to see.  Under or over exposed, over Photoshopped, out of focus or blurry, group shots with half the people with their eyes closed or not looking at the camera, just awful.  I have seen a craigslist photographer deliver 15 shots from the wedding, out of focus, and missing the most important shots, the first kiss, bouquet toss, cake, and I have seen a photographer show the bride and groom thousands of photos from the wedding with over half the shots of one of the cute bridesmaids.  A pro photographer would work with you on how you view your proofs.  Some like to use the traditional printed proofs, sometimes in a nice album, or in nice photo boxes.  I have seen photographers present the proofs on iPads or tablets, or in a very nice web gallery, where not only can you select your photos, you can share the gallery with family and friends and they can order prints too.  A good professional will have your proofs ready for you to view when you get back from the wedding.  A craigslist photographer might have them ready then too, but most likely will not have them ready, and when they do have them, they will either be printed at Walmart or given to you on a CD or DVD and then you will never hear from them again.  A pro photographer wants to build a relationship with you.  Down the road when you have a child, they want to be the photographer you contact to take family photos, take pictures for your Christmas cards, and take senior photos for your children or family members down the road.

Let me give you a non wedding personal experience.  I was photographing kids in a youth sports league.  One girl playing basketball was really good.  In 6th grade.  Talent far better than anyone else int he game.  After the game, I mentioned how fun she was to shoot and I looked forward to photographing her again.  A couple years later I was shooting for a high school and I did not realize it, but she was going to the high school and playing basketball.  Her parents bought special posters from each of her sports each year from me, hired me to shoot her senior photos, family photos, the father had me do head shots for him and I did some corporate photos for the grandmother’s law firm.  I had a great relationship with the family, and any time they needed a photographer, they turned to me.  A professional wants to build a relationship with their clients to ensure work will continue to come and so they have great references down the road.  But if you hire a craigslist photographer who has no idea what they are doing, you are honestly going to regret it.  Now, do not get me wrong, I am sure there are some very good craigslist photographers, but honestly, they will suffer from all the bad ones that are out there.  And honestly, instead of using craigslist to sell themselves, they should really look at trying to find a professional photographer they can assist with, they should take the time to go to school to learn photography so they can sell the best possible photos.

But the craigslist photographers are not the only problem.  There are people who post on craigslist asking for someone with a decent camera to shoot their wedding, or take senior photos, or any number of other photos.  A lot of these are listed as time for prints, we give you credit, and if there is pay, it is not worth getting out of bed for.  A company recently posted a request for photographers for two shoots.  There was no pay, but they would pay $20 for gas and $20 for food for the day.  They listed that they were a national publication.  I am sorry.  Not good enough.  A national publication should expect to pay at least a half day rate plus expenses for something like this.  The people who run to sign up for this are excited about getting their name in print, but the people who do the work for a living would never touch something like this.  If people would stop bypassing the working pro and try to get stuff for free, the photo world would be a better place.  People would be getting better photos, and photographers would be getting the money they earn and deserve for the work they do.

 

 

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