For a couple of years now, you’ve been sitting in that cubicle staring at your Detroit Red Wings poster, analyzing spreadsheets and charts until your head spins.
But…secretly, you dream of getting out, just diving headfirst into the action.
Lately, you’ve been practicing with that new digital SLR/kit lens combo and are ready to try your hand as a professional. No wimpy children’s photography for you, no way. No stodgy wedding photography, either. Ixnay on the corporate workay also. No, you dream of being a camera slinging, press-pass wearing, always on-the-run wire service photographer, travelling the globe on assignments ranging from entertainment to news to sports. So–march right in to your boss’s corner office and turn in your two weeks. You’re destined for the big time, just chomping at the bit to see your credit in magazines at newsstands around the world.
Well, go ahead, get out of your chair! What are you waiting for? Take a picture of your boss on the way out as a memento! You’ll show her!
Hold off on that memo, Sparky.
Being a full-time photographer is a dream of many. However, there are easier ways to make a living with a camera than by shooting for a wire service such as WireImage, Getty, Associated Press, or Retna. There are, however, few positions where you will find yourself working behind the scenes at a fashion show at 8am, doing a celebrity portrait session at 1pm, snapping Hillary Clinton at 5pm, covering a red carpet premiere at 8pm, then coaxing celebrities to pose for photos inside the hottest club at 1am. Then the next day, waking up and doing it all again.
The downsides to this fascinating job are many. The main one is that you will most often not be compensated for your time.
Yes, you heard that right. Most wire service positions are for “stringers,” or freelance shooters. They operate on a commission-based structure, usually 50/50. That is, IF you sell a picture, you get half. Sounds pretty fair right? Sure, why not. But, due to monthly magazine publishing schedules, the picture you took in December (which was purchased later that month) will not get published till February. The magazine pays your agency only upon publication, and they typically have at least 30 to 60 days to cut the check, which meaning you most likely won’t see anything until May or June. And, after all of that waiting, it might only be $100, which nets you $50. After the taxes you will owe as a freelancer, it ends up being even less. Still interested? It only gets better.
It typically takes at least 3-6 months after you start stringing to see any money at all from the agency. Being a newbie among veteran staffers and stringers means typically you will not be getting the A- list gigs. You might not even make the C-list, which means your pictures will not be in demand. That means even less money.
Let’s say, though, that you stick it out. You prove yourself early, are available at a moments notice, get some good gigs, and shoot every day as often as possible. As time passes, you build up your archive, contacts, and exclusive tips and requests from PR firms, editors, and the like. Then what? After about a year, you might see some decent money; and after two years, you may be able to survive on your monthly commission check. After five years, your archive should be generating some decent coin--if you last.
Most wire service photographers in NYC have been shooting for years. They know the rules, both the local laws and the self-imposed; and they follow them to the letter. It’s very hard to break into this tight-knit group. Most photographers do not even bother to learn the name of “the new guy” for at least several months. That’s because most newbies don’t last that long. When they have to get a certain shot every day just to be able to pay their rent, tensions can run high. For most newcomers, it’s just not worth the hassle, making their old comfy desk job look better than it really was. But for those who can get past the initial hump, the job is fascinating and offers a look into many intriguing and exciting areas of life that others can only imagine by looking at the pictures in a magazine.
The actual workings of a wire service are pretty standard. The wire service or agency has a roster of photographers. Typically, they have staff or salaried photographers and stringers. Staff photographers are generally shooters who have come up through the ranks and have proven themselves by successfully covering thousands of assignments over the years. They have connections with celebrities, PR firms, managers, sports venues, concert venues, and political figures, and, they have a reputation for excellence. They are provided cameras, lenses, a laptop, and other gear. However, in exchange for a salary and sometimes a small (10%) commission, they give up their copyright to the agency. Effectively, staffers do not own any of their work.
Stringers own the copyright when they shoot on assignment; the exception being a work-for-hire contract for a specific event, where the photos are owned by the agency. They are then paid a buyout fee for the event or a half-day or full-day rate. What’s the big deal about owning your copyright? If the you leave the agency to go somewhere else, you can take your valuable archive with you (after a certain period of time) or possibly even sell it to another agency. If you keep it put, you will receive a commission from sales over the life of the agency--in essence a pension of sorts. Your archive is your bread and butter and your retirement. Treat it carefully.
Often you will see “Exclusive” next to a photo in a magazine. Well, what does that really mean? Exclusive can have several different but similar meanings. If you are the only photographer at an event, you have an exclusive for the whole event. Some agencies actually pay promoters to have an exclusive for certain events. They then recover this fee through higher image sale prices. If a magazine wants the pictures, they’ll have to go through the agency and pay the premium to get them. Exclusive can also be applied to a single shot from an event. This can often happen because the photographer has a relationship with the actor, musician, publicist, or manager, and can pull them aside for a shot backstage which no other shooter out front can get. The photographer might also be able to arrange group shots which are exclusive, including interesting couplings (such as President Bill Clinton with Sheryl Crow) which are sure to sell. Getting shots like this is a way to stand out among many photographers, but it takes considerable time, effort, networking, and patience. Many shooters are satisfied with what is given to them. Exclusive shots, as a general rule, command about double that of a non-exclusive shot, but it really depends on the subject matter. In entertainment photography, some exclusives of celebrities can bring many times the going rate, such as the first public shot of a celebrity couple together, a celebrity baby, etc. There are entire agencies devoted to paparrazzi pictures, and they operate similar to the other wire services covered in this article.
Photographers at traditional agencies have to be able to cover almost anything at any time and have to be able to shoot each genre just as well as someone who specializes in it. Most shooters fall into one of three categories—Entertainment, News, or Sports. There is some crossover, but usually each subject is covered by a different department at the agency, with each having their own pool of shooters. This makes it easier to get everything covered on a daily basis.
I specialize as an entertainment shooter in NYC--quite a fascinating job. Through the course of a year I can expect to shoot concerts, fashion shows, awards shows, red carpets, film festivals, candids, portraits, corporate functions, and many other events. This requires a quick eye, fast mind, great technical understanding of photography, the right gear, and knowledge of what sells. “Artistic” photos are great for maintaining your creative soul, and you should always try to develop that side, but they don’t usually pay for your groceries. These are what I call “The Mechanics” of the job, the nitty-gritty, deep down and dirty knowledge that will help you get the access you need, the shot you want, and the paycheck you deserve. Now, we’ll go out and see what an actual day is like for a wire service photographer in New York City.
I am a top stringer at Wireimage’s NYC office. I work every day, usually shooting at least one to three gigs for Wireimage, which end up on their website, Wireimage.com. In addition, I often shoot something else for one of my personal clients. Here are some photographs I took and the circumstances behind them:
1. Senator Hillary Clinton, New Orleans, 2007. Addressing a large crowd at the Essence Festival in NOLA, the photographers were corralled in a group off to the side of the stage. (We were led up near the podium in groups of three for 10 seconds to get our shots, but the angle was mediocre.) I moved off to the side by the audience with a long lens while this was going on and managed this frame. Canon EOS 1D Mark II, 70-200 F2.8L IS, iso 800, 1/160 @ F2.8
2. Axl Rose, NYC, 2007. I got a tip that he was going to be at a club in Chelsea. He hadn’t been seen in public for quite a while, and his appearance had changed, to say the least. The rumored G’n’R record was generating a lot of attention, and I had to work for the pic. A bodyguard saw my camera and said informed me that they wanted no pictures. I said that was OK, and asked them if they needed anything at the table. He checked, and said yes to some Vodka. I delivered it, which got me invited to the table, where I spent the next two hours talking off and on with Axel and his crew (along with Miss USA Tara Conner). I finally told him, “This is lame, but can I get a shot?” He said, “Sure,” and I got one frame off before he said the flash was too bright. He was cool. The exclusive picture ended up as this full page in GQ magazine, leading off an article on his resurgence. Canon EOS 20D, 17-40 F4L with speedlite 550EX, 1/60 @F6.3
3. Senator Barack Obama, New Orleans, 2007. On stage addressing 45,000 at the Superdome. He had announced his campaign and was really ramping up for the race. Press could only shoot from the sides of the stage, and Mr. Obama tends to hold the mic right in front of his mouth, making a clean shot almost impossible. You have to be ready. Canon Eos 1d Mark II, 70-200 F2.8L IS, iso 800, 1/200 @ F2.8
4. Mary J. Blige, New Orleans, 2007. On stage at the Essence Festival in the Superdome. Photographers shooting a concert are generally allowed to shoot during first three songs only. I love shooting music, I find it challenging, and will usually jump at the chance to shoot a show. Canon EOS 1D Mark II, 70-200 F2.8L IS, iso 400, 1/200 @ F3.2
5. Michael J. Fox, NYC, 2006. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. I was shooting the official gift suite of the Rock and Roll HOF, and Michael came through. Ever gracious, he allowed me to photograph him (some celebs don’t want to be seen getting swag), and he had just tried on that ring. Knowing a good opportunity when presented, I asked him to show off the ring by putting his hand on his heart. He obliged. Canon EOS 1D Mark II, 24-105 F4 L IS with Speedlite 580EX, 1/60 @ F5.6
6. Beyonce, New Orleans, 2007. We were originally going to get three songs from the pit (right in front of the stage); then her people said two songs; then they said the first 20 seconds of ONE song, from the lightboard. The lightboard in the Superdome is halfway back in the stadium, you need a 400mm to get anything tight. We tried to sneak up front, but security was tight, as this was the first show of her tour. Hey, you do what you have to do. I slapped my 70-200 on my Canon 20D for that extra crop factor to get as close to the action as possible and hoped the stage would be bright when the curtain came up. I anticipated where she would come out because I had seen the setup earlier during load-in. I cranked the iso to 800 and shot it at 1/400 wide open and then cropped in for the shot. The moment lasted about 2 seconds, and the picture has sold multiple times.
“So, what’s in your bag?” This is a question I get asked a lot. We photographers talk about gear all the time while we wait around for a gig to start. So, in the interest of disclosure, here is what I have in my bag every day. A Canon 1D Mark III as my main camera,with either a Canon 5D or a Canon 1D Mark II as my second body, 24-105, 70-200, 580EX, Newton flash bracket, Quantum Turbo battery for flash, 3 sets of 2800mah AAs, about 16 gigs of CF cards, a firewire CF card reader, my press pass, and some gum. In addition, depending on the gig, I have a 28mm F1.8, a 50mm F1.4, a 17-40, a 16mm F2.8 Zenitar manual focus fisheye (great on the 5D), and a 550EX flash. A folding stool or ladder is also required for big premieres when you have to shoot over another photographer. I also have some MF cameras--my Yashicamat is my favorite. Sometimes I bring it out for some personal work during these gigs. You have to keep pushing it and learning and growing, and I find the Mat does just that.
Photographers also must have the processing power to push sometimes 2,000-5,000 shots a week through their computer. A laptop is not a must-have, but everyone I know who does this work has one. Between gigs you can edit and transmit your images from Starbucks—many times the first one with the pictures posted makes the sale. Processing on-site means you have less work to do at the end of the day. And isn’t that what we are all aiming for? I have a Macbook Pro with an additional 26” monitor I hook it up to in my office, and about a terabyte of firewire HD’s. Seeing images on the big screen makes editing faster when you are going through 300 shots of Brad and Angelina. At a typical big premiere, I will shoot 600-1,000 frames and edit them down to 60 for upload. And, I shoot lite compared to some.
Well. Ready to ditch the office key card? Tempting, isn’t it? I’ll just say this.
Being a wire service photographer saved my life. Who knows, it might save yours too.
I wasn’t always a photographer. My previous career goals were not being met and my confidence was at an all-time low. I had been doing photography as a serious hobby for about 4 years and I had done some celebrity photography work on my own. I cold emailed Wireimage, showed them my book, and they signed me on the spot. I slowly clawed my way up, worked every single gig they offered, with 18 hour days seven days a week as the norm. I endured the income drought by shooting headshots and everything else I could find. Now, I can occasionally take a day off. I’m DOING it though. And I dig it. It has brought me much joy, taken me to places I would have never gone, introduced me to people I would have never met, and also shown me things that I really don’t care to see again. But I saw all of it with my own eyes, which is important. And I saw them through my lens, which is even better, because I have the pictures to prove it!
Working for an agency is unbelievably difficult. The money is slow in coming; the hours are impossible at times, and you have to continually produce top-notch work while dealing with impossible circumstances and difficult people. Oh, and you have to carry that amazingly heavy bag. But the rewards are there.
So…how do you start? The MINIMUM equipment in my opinion that you own must include: a Digital SLR of at least six megapixels (pretty cheap these days) and an 18-55 lens (or something like that), a professional flash with Guide Number of at least 120, external battery pack and bracket for flash, two CF cards of at least 1gb each, and card reader. Buy your equipment used if you have to, but these items you have to have. Rent what you can’t afford from a local rental house or borrow from friends or family. Stores in NYC like Alkit and Adorama ship rental gear anywhere. I started with a Canon 10D, 28-105 lens and 420EX flash. You can, too. You’ll also need a computer with high-speed internet and Photoshop. Keep in mind this is the bare minimum you need. The key is not your equipment, but in how you master it. You need to know your camera and flash inside out. You should be shooting every day—on the way to work, on the way home, on the weekends, at parties, on the street, portraits, concerts, everything you can find. Try to get at least 1,000 frames a week. You should be able to change your settings without looking at the camera, and I am not talking about just the shutter and aperture. White balance, iso, focus points, AF tracking, and the rest must be embedded in your mind so you can shoot without thinking. Practice it in the dark. Then shoot, shoot, shoot. Use Craigslist to find gigs that pay a little bit and practice on them. Place a free ad for your services. Try not to work for free though, always get something out of it, even if it is just lunch. Always insist on being credited for your work if published, even if it is in the church bulletin.
After you know your camera backwards and forwards and you have at least 20 great (I mean GREAT, not “well it’s a little soft and the color is off, but otherwise it is a great shot of Obama”) shots, get some high-quality prints, put them in a complimentary order, get a personal website (also a must-have) and start shopping them around looking for work. Email the wire services and ask if they need someone where you live (it helps if you live in or near a large city). You can always shoot concerts or politicians when they come rolling through, and the agency can credential you. This is a good way to start.
So what are you waiting for? Fire up that Rebel and get shootin’!