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Turning Film Into Freedom

What it takes to make a living taking photographs...

by Daniel D. Lamoreux This article was originally published in BackHome magazine. Visit their website at

There is little doubt that “punching a clock” is the single greatest hurdle on the road to a truly independent lifestyle. As much as we may desire the freedom to do as we wish, when we wish; the cold, hard truth of the matter is that we must earn a paycheck to satisfy our habitual need for regular meals. However, if you want to free yourself from the grueling rut of a “real” job, there are options available besides shoplifting, catastrophic weight loss, and selling the kids.

If you own a camera and can successfully take photographs that don’t include your thumb, you may have the opportunity to break those chains of bondage… or at least relax their grip.

Marketplace Demand

Photographs are everywhere. Tens of thousands of magazines, newspapers, and books are produced using huge quantities of photos for editorial content and advertising.

Mailers, flyers and catalogs stuff your mailbox; the walls of your home or office are decorated with prints; your child has several posters in her room; and every holiday you send greeting cards with photos to friends and relatives.

There are photos on the covers of your CD’s and video cassettes and on billboards along the roadside, and many of the products you use in the kitchen, the bathroom, and the garage are packaged using pictures on their exteriors.

Certainly don’t forget all the albums you own that contain the formal photographic memories of your life.

With all of these images constantly bombarding your senses… did it ever occur to you that somebody had to take them?

Frederick Barnard’s wisdom is universally recognized in the quote, “A picture is worth a thousand words”. What Mr. Barnard didn’t say was that a picture can also be worth a fair amount of money.

Each and every one of the images you see daily represents income for somebody. That somebody could be you. In fact, you may already own enough equipment to get started.

Although camera equipment can be very expensive, you don’ t have to own top-of-the-line tools to produce salable images. You can always buy additional or upgraded cameras and lenses as you progress. However, if your goal is simply to earn enough money to allow more freedom, then the secret will be in using less expensive equipment to its full potential. To be successful, know your equipment intimately, learn all you can about the photographic process, and take the extra time to thoroughly exploit your location, lighting, and composition with every frame.

Business Is Business

A pragmatic approach is necessary. Expectations of all-expenses-paid assignments to the bamboo forests of China are simply not realistic. In the real world you can expect most work to be approved on speculation. That means shoot it first; if they like it, they’ll buy it. This business has many benefits but very few of them include glamour…and none of them happen overnight.

You will not earn your money wandering the world and taking photos. Wandering the world is how you spend money. You will earn your money in the office as you sell the photos you produce.

Don’t misunderstand. Field time is part of your new freedom; however, expenses for travel, equipment, film, telephones, and all the bills you normally pay still have to be paid. Freedom is a benefit, but freedom isn’t free.

All those wonderful photos you take of the wildlife in your backyard may be pure artistic genius, but the electric company won’t take them in trade. The most difficult, time-consuming, and important of tasks for the freelance photographer is finding clients. For that reason I recommend that you remain a slave of the clock for a while. Make sure you have established yourself solidly before burning that bridge between yourself and the grocery store.

In the mean time, strengthen your photography skills, expand your stock of images, and develop the business relationships that will eventually lead to the freedom you truly crave.

First Jobs

There was a motocross track not far from my home. Over a few weekends, I shot a couple dozen rolls of film to get the “feel and flow” of the sport. Then I had an idea. I selected the best images, printed them in a variety of sizes, and set up a display at the track. It was a hit. Prints sold to the enthusiastic riders pictured, and those who didn’t see themselves on display wanted to. My first assignments were born.

I haven’t photographed motocross in years, but that first summer gave me the boost I needed to make photography a career. I was able to improve my technique, earn extra money, and establish a professional reputation.

Nobody appreciates good photography more than a parent. Football, soccer, the marching band, and dance recitals are all like motocross: children = opportunity.

Babies, pets, and special occasions offer similar opportunities for the photographer with imagination. Remember all the experiences in your life that you wish had been preserved on film, then sell those memories to your neighbors.

Not a “people person”? No worries, you have other possibilities. Newspapers need timely photographs to support the stories of the day. Local law firms and insurance companies may contract photographers to document the scenes of accidents, fires, and crimes. Establish yourself and approach your local police department.

Those with an artistic flair may consider selling photographic prints. Flea markets, crafts fairs, and consignment shops are a good start. Do your own matting and framing and double your profits. Expand further by producing postcards or calendars.

The bottom line? Marketing = money. Bashful = broke.

Stock Photography

Budgets and deadlines are why travel assignments rarely exist. Instead, stock photography is the foundation of affordable and timely visual communication in publishing today.

A stock photograph is one that already exists and wasn’t taken for the specific purpose for which it is used. For example, let’ s imagine that a magazine is planning a story about geothermal energy. The editor wants a photograph of a geyser to open the story. There are two options. A photographer can be sent on assignment to Yellowstone National Park, in which case it will cost airfare, a rental car, lodging, meals and the photographer’s fees, with the possibility that conditions may prevent a suitable image from being taken. On the other hand, the editor can pay a fee for an image that already exists.

Although disappointing to the aspiring travel photographer, the increasing use of stock is actually good for both client and photographer. It allows more photography to be used because it is less expensive. Hence, publications with limited funds can be more attractive and useful to consumers.

This practice also allows the photographer to resell the same high-quality image many times over many years. Repeat sales considerably increase the lifetime value of images.

Stock photography is not a panacea. It may be months, or years, from the time you expose an image until you sell its use. Stock photography is an investment. If you shoot well, and produce images that fill marketplace needs, your investment can pay off for a long time.

Another consideration when shooting stock is that you must produce a huge quantity of salable images to make a substantial income. Although hard to quantify, some professionals estimate you can earn a dollar of income per year for each image your agency markets.

Many established professionals market their own stock; however, doing so is a gargantuan task demanding considerable time and knowledge of the industry. I highly recommended that you seek an agency to market your images until you are completely familiar with the stock photography beast.

A stock agency will customarily keep 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of your images. In exchange they will present your images to a wide range of markets and will negotiate prices, handle collections, and administer to a host of other issues.

Because I am a writer and photographer, I use a combination of business practices. I have chosen to market my own work to specific types of magazines. However, a plethora of additional opportunities exists, and it is simply impossible to keep abreast of them all. For these others I use an agency. Because of its expertise I gain income from sources I never realized existed. The fee my agency keeps is well within reason.

An Honest Evaluation

There are many ways to chase the dream of freedom through freelance photography. Although I’ve touched on many, I’ve missed many more. But before you take the plunge, consider doing an honest self-evaluation.

You must first appraise your own dedication. Remember, freedom isn’t free. For every photo job that exists, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of photographers who can do it. To be successful in this business you must be proficient, confident, and aggressive. It’s about much more than exposing film. The rewards are grand, but they will not come easily.

The other consideration is one of perspective. Photography is a medium for expression. The measure of intensity and passion poured into making an image often determines its success. Those images that are bought first, most often, and at the highest price are also those that have captured the essence of life. Snapshots don’t sell.

Look at the work you produce and compare it to what you already see in the marketplace. You need to be that good; in many ways you need to be better. Although technical photography skills can be learned, the top professionals bring considerably more to the table than technical prowess. It shows.

Simply by desiring more from life than “nine to five” speaks well for your soul. Having the vision to recognize there is more presents a unique place from which artistic freedom, and physical freedom, is born. If you can look down this road and see the potential — beyond the cost — go get your camera.