nyc photographer taking a photo

Making a living as a professional photographer in 2016

Ian Spanier is a professional photographer in LA – from NY. He travels anywhere to photograph portraits of celebrities, athletes, real-people, and travel stories. This is his story.

My story and the ‘content vs. quality’ debate: Does it have to be one or the other?

More and more these days, content is king. It makes sense. No longer are advertisements or even magazines assignments only shown in the usual print forms. Aside from online use, TV and social media as we all know has taken over (believe it or not there was a time when the internet did not flood you with the same content you saw in the magazines!). Most of us are getting the majority of this content on our phones and tablets, and the balance is filled out in print form: magazines, billboards and posters, etc.

The big question though, is that in a world where my clients more and more need to fulfill an incredible amount of content needs, does quality have to suffer?

Hardly any pro photographer who existed before iPhones hasn’t at some point complained about the fact that nearly everyone is a photographer now.

The rise of the “influencers” has only exacerbated that situation. Personally, I don’t really care that there are more photographers- but what I do care about is one major by-product, namely that there is now an incredible number of creators available to provide content, and that content is not always good.

In fact, an immense amount of that content is sh*t. Stories of “photographers” delivering poorly lit, out of focus, crap composition and files that are too small for the intended use are merely a few of the complaints I hear from photo editors, creative directors, and art buyers far too often. In some ways, the age-old saying, “you get what you pay for” sits on the tip of my tightly bit tongue. The temptation is of course to say drop my favorite line, which admittedly I have posted on my own (occasional) social media rants, “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, try not hiring one.

websitecollageFor clients like Danskin, a great variety of images are needed to cover the different products they offer. These shoots often include upwards of twelve to eighteen different “looks.” With each shoot, efficiency is key, as is planning out the shot list to only give my clients the best. © Ian Spanier Photography 2016 

First, a story.

Bottom line is, it doesn’t need to be like this.

I was a photo editor for thirteen years. In 2003 I took a position as the Staff Photographer for a media company, that published two- then very soon after – five different magazines. Initially they wanted me as a Photo Director, but I was shooting more and more, and pitched the idea of a staff photographer.

As a start-up company, they had tiny budgets. When I was a photo editor, I was accustomed to managing a budget up to and occasionally beyond $70,000/issue for an entire monthly magazine. I was now managing a budget of $4,000-$14,000/issue depending on the title.

This seemed impossible –  but I had a plan. Initially alone – then as we grew, adding two more staff photographers, we would shoot nearly all the assignments- only assigning the jobs we couldn’t either travel to for under $500 or those we couldn’t combine with another assignment to offset/split cost. All the images that would usually be purchased through Stock Photo Agencies we would shoot ourselves.

magazinecollageDifferent covers from two of the five magazines where I was the Staff Photgrapher. Despite miniscule budgets, quality was always number one. © Ian Spanier Photography 2016 

The theory I presented was built from the idea of LIFE Magazine – where there was a group of staff photographers taking on the bulk of the assignments. The result was some of the best photography produced – especially to date, and much of which to this day stands the test of time. The theory stood on my belief that because we were on staff, we had a better chance of delivering a good shoot. Now the better (assigned) photographers could likely do the same- but with such low rates available to us, finding the better photographers to work for low pay was not likely.

Having to hire the lesser experienced photographers would mean the percentage for success would decrease. I had the idea that a regular assignment to a non-battle-tested average photographer would have a 50-50 chance of success, maybe 60-40. With a staff photographer, however, the odds were more like 90-10, or at worst 80-20. We had to deliver, and we understood the product better than an outsider.

guysinsuitsA typical scenario for the media company would be portraits of eight to ten subjects as a group then  individually. To up the value of the portraits, we chose to photograph each individual as single portraits alongside the group shot. The result gave much more weight to each portrait- more of a challenge for sure- but the positive response justified the effort. © Ian Spanier Photography 2016

My claims paid off, and despite the photo department regularly being under budget, the recession of 2008 was too hard on the company and it went Chapter 7.

What does it all mean?

The point of sharing this experience is that there was a fantastic gained experience from my time there. In essence, we faced the same kind of content needs that most companies face today. We were literally producing five different magazines back-to-back-to-back. Regardless of the sheer amount of imagery, rule number one was quality. We needed to deliver images that not only stood on their own as strong photography, but the images had to also give the impression of budgets our much, much bigger competition held. Never was there a thought that we would go light on quality just to deliver content. How that’s OK today, I just don’t get.

Well, I take that back- I do get it. With such an intense amount of areas that clients need to fill, and add to that the often smaller budgets being a factor, simply getting copious amounts of content is required. Shot lists are huge comparatively, and more of the content is needed throughout the course of a year- often which is accomplished with only one shoot.

Once that media company bit the dust, I decided to shoot full time.

I was practically doing as much towards the end anyway, and the gamble, although not desired at the time with the economy as it was, was slightly less risky.

Since that point, I have been a part of the increased need for content, content, content. I haven’t had much of an issue with this as, in a way, I spent nearly three years training for as much. Sure it’s fair to be compensated fairly for the effort, but the reality of this need by clients is what it is. Therefore, regardless of the needs, I do my best to get clients to be fair about my time, and what is involved with the job. Above all else, I refuse to skip on quality.

I take pride in my work, my name is on it, or I am tagged, or want to share it to promote myself, so why would I produce sh*t?

This is the part I take more issue with. Who are these “artists” churning out a ton of content just to churn it out? Of course the obvious screams out- they are not artists, and they don’t know how to produce quality because they are not trained to do so. I’m the first to argue that having a good eye is ingrained. It can be learned, but in my experience, it’s in the DNA of the individual. That said, whether we are talking about a mobile phone or a Leica, it’s the Indian- not the arrow.

That doesn’t equate to everything however, just making a good picture is not enough when it comes to the variables on a photo shoot, nor support the weight of the need to succeed on a magazine assignment or advertising job.

A huge part of the job as a photographer is to be a problem solver.

There’s so much more to completing a job well than just having a good eye. Perhaps 50 years ago it was OK to be just good at making pictures as a means of making a living as a photographer- but I personally know that the photographers from 50 years ago that still shoot, still sell their images and have success. Why? Because they are capable of running a business and all that comes with that as well as make great images. Those that have the complete package ultimately give you a better end product, and that transcends time.

Clients are part to blame as well- jumping on the bandwagon of the desire to work with “influencers” or hire their friend who just picked up a great DSLR or mirrorless camera and POOF they are now a photographer! All for the sake of checking off the content box.

As much as it can be painful to be put in the more difficult position of not being given all the right tools to get the job done, I try to educate my clients that when budgets shrink and shot lists increase something generally has to give- but I will not sacrifice on quality. This is my job. How can I claim to be a professional at something and not deliver on the very definition of what a professional is?

manworkingoutMany of my shoots for fitness magazines, like this one for Muscle & Fitness involve large shot lists. Working fast but never skimping on quality is crucial for return clients. © Ian Spanier Photography 2016

So where do we go from here?

I wish it is was an easy answer. It seems to me that the need for content has superseded the quality- despite the fact that the tools to create fantastic quality are more easily obtained by all. Personally I am going to stick with creating quality- big or small budget. It’s got to be about the quality. I often tell others that the business is ever changing, adapt or die. As a photo editor, I loved working with young/new talent alongside the seasoned pros. My fellow staff photographers were my assistants that I simply directed when they needed guidance, and eventually both moved on to great careers as full time photographers.

Today, I have no issue with “influencers, nor the hiring of young talent. I’ve always supported that, but there does need to be a revolution back to quality. My two assistant staff photographers had skills, and those they did not have, they learned. We all make mistakes as photographers- that’s a part of the learning process, but there does have to be a desire to learn – not just move on to the next mess up.

I’d implore today’s young talent to be open to learning.

For the clients, all I can do is ask you to think about the difference of what you get when you combine content and quality…far better, and worth much more mileage in my opinion than simply content alone. There’s so many talented artists out there, but please don’t be fooled by a great Instagram page, it often does not always tell the whole story.

For clients like The UFC, content is a necessity. For a shoot for their reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, each contestant on the show is photographed in twenty different positions on a seamless backdrop along with two group shots as well. Just because of the massive amount of shots, I have always made a conscious effort to ensure that quality does not suffer as a result of the very busy shoot days. © Ian Spanier Photography 2016 for The UFC. 

When it comes to content, I cringe when my clients say things like, “…oh don’t worry about lighting this one, it’s just going to be used small.” Really? You don’t ask your starting pitcher to just get one over the plate. I’d much rather give you that two-seam fastball that hugs the inside corner. This I do hope will change.