A coupla old white guys, sitting around talking….


If you’ll excuse this post’s headline wordplay on the similar-sounding title of a well known play, I wanted to point you towards a post on the blog of editorial photographer David Wells. David is a consumate photo essayist, and although we’ve never met in person, I’ve been a longtime admirer of his work, and now of his really thoughtful, well-written blog and excellent podcasts as well.

Well, somehow we got talking via emails about the old days, and that’s a darn dangerous topic for guys of a certain age in our biz. Because it gets us thinking about the time when the print medium was not regarded as a geriatric basket case, clients had budgets, and photographs (not to mention photographers) couldn’t be crowd-sourced on Flickr and sold for pennies by the bushel on iStockPhoto.

But as David wisely points out, nostalgia is for creative sissies (and I’m paraphrasing here, because David is much more eloquent than yours truly!), and the Darwinian concept for survival as an editorial freelance photographer is the same in the 21st century as it was last century: adapt or die!

I think the problem many old timers and every newcomer is having at this time of flux is this: “adapt to what, exactly?”

Yes, there really is no clear-cut new model to replace the old paradigm. And that, dear reader, is the rub, if the dozens of emails I get from kids and late-career changers wanting to break into the business are any indication.  It becomes very difficult to advise anybody getting into this business who doesn’t already have the thirty year headstart that I and many of my fellow dinosaurs currently enjoy.

Hit the jump to continue reading one mastodon‘s musings on 21st-century photo careers.

Yes, there is a dearth of credible career advice for emerging freelance editorial photographers because the target is amorphous and keeps moving.  But, alas, there is no corresponding dearth of bullshit career guidance!

If I read one more piece of photo career advice full of buzzwords but nothing in the way of  concrete information from Search Engine Optimization snake oil salesmen, I’m gonna, like, you know, barf all over my Tweets and smear them on my Facebook wall.

If you’re marketing to the general public, like a portrait and wedding studio might, well then yes, go crazy with SEO. Likewise if you’re trying to fill seats in a workshop or seminar.

But editorial freelancers don’t, by and large, market to the public. And so far, the only concrete piece of income-earning advice for editorial shooters I can glean from these articles is that the new paradigm depends an awful lot on driving traffic to your site so readers will hit the hotlinks to stores with whom you have an associate program to earn an income. Huh?

That’s an income stream, maybe, but an income in and of itself? Possibly, if you’re one of a half dozen photo blogs that draws that kind of readership. But what about for the other 99.9% ? No real ideas there, so just pass the Kool Aid and, oh, be sure to get those keywords into your HTML header because it’s all about community….and you can take that to the bank.

Wait, um, no you can’t. Because the other day, I wanted to, you know, deposit some link exchanges in my checking account, and they laughed me out of the drive-up window. Those Luddites!

Okay, so everybody already knows the old paradigms don’t work, but short of coming to the profession from something a bit more lucrative, like being a retired investment banker, real estate magnate, hotshot surgeon, hedge fund manager, venture capitalist,  or scion of a royal family, nobody quite knows what the new paradigm is for actually making a decent living as a newly-emerging editorial freelance photographer.

Maybe, as the writer Ben Yagoda points out in his insightful essay about editorial freelancing on Slate (written in 2005 about freelance writing, but it could have been written by a  particularly articulate shooter just yesterday), the blind energy and boundless optimism needed for this work just makes it, de facto, a young person’s game.

And that might be the case, because the only time I’m glad I’m 58, and not 28 or 38, is when this question comes up.  Because for those of us who have reached a certain age and critical mass, net-worth wise, there’s always the third choice: adapt, die….or retire!

I’m going to keep researching it, though, because although the meteor’s hit and the sea change has started, this mastodon still gets hit up for survival advice all the time. And that’s okay. Besides, until they take my tusks and sink me in the tar pit, I’m gonna keep working because it’s just too much fun to stop!

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this old joke about editorial photography. As Chris on Family Guy might say, “It’s funny cuz it’s true…”

Question: “How do you make a million dollars as an editorial freelance photographer?”

Answer: “Start out with two million dollars.”

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Spot on Bob! My computer guru geek told me a few weeks ago I might very well be the “oldest working photographer in the city (Pittsburgh).” Whoa, and I don’t even get 10% off at iHOP yet! No wonder I’ve got newbies lining up at my door like grubs under a log looking for advice. Gotta remember that last piece of wisdom, it’s SO true! So here’s my motto (and goal): I’ll expire before I retire! Keep having fun, and let those young kids carry the heavy stuff!

    1. Hi Terry: Great-looking site you’ve got there.Super work. You do us guys of a certain vintage proud! I know, it’s the advice-giving thing that’s the hardest. Keep on truckin’ and have a great holiday. cheers, Bob

  2. Bob, when I approached you a few years back for advice, you gave me the most honest, thoughtful opinions based on real-world experience…you saw exactly where things were headed, and for that you deserve more credit than you ever give yourself…it should give your readers some relief that at least one up and coming youngster is taking his talents to a different profession (where image-making and marketing are still quite valuable), lessening the competition by about 1/1,000,000th of 1%….and if you know anyone that wants to buy a house, please give me a call!

    1. Thanks Jesse. And as long as you keep shooting what you like to shoot, it doesn’t matter how you put a roof above your head! Have a great holiday and hope to see you soon.cheers, Bob

  3. Great article, I’m neither an old timer or young kid. It amazes me how many people buy a digital camera, set it on auto, and think they are going to get rich. I own a hammer, just because I miss my thumb more often than I hit it doesn’t make me a carpenter.

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