Holiday Bucks

Being broke sucks, especially during the holidays. It’s a time when every electronic device around you is encouraging you to buy stuff until your credit cards are worn through; a time when reminders of frugality and common sense are welcome. But, a recent post on the site Consumerist is more than a little troubling. A post entitled “Ideas On Scraping Up Extra Cash For The Holidays” has three bullet points, one of which is — get ready for it — “Become a photographer”. Here’s what follows:

“Most photographers will tell you that persistence is at least as important as skill in creating great work. If you know people who are looking to take portraits or holding a social function, offer to shoot it for free and sell them the pictures if they like them.”

It’s bad, I know. But, stay calm.

I sincerely hope all the author had in mind was some simple bartering. Maybe a friend throws you a couple bucks for missing out on the finger foods in the interest of getting a few pictures everyone can enjoy later. Not much harm in that. I’m the last person who would ever tell anyone not to take pictures. But, that first sentence is really troubling. The inclusion of the word “persistence” summons images of wannabe shooters badgering all of their friends — both the real life and the Facebook variety — to let them play pro photographer. That is problematic for a variety of reasons.

Rather than going off on a tirade — some of the commenters have taken care of that — I think it might be best to do put together a rational appeal to anyone who may be considering getting their photography hustle on in an attempt refuel the fruitcake fund.

First things first, Consumerist is a site that’s dedicated to protecting, well, consumers. Many of the posts go after businesses for providing faulty products and lackluster services. It sure doesn’t seem to be in the best interest of the consumer to trust their photographic needs to someone who may have little to no applicable camera craft. And even if you can take a great picture (which tons of amateurs can) there are intricacies to the business of photography that you can’t get from your camera’s manual.

The article suggests you can shoot portraits or even take photos at an event and then sell the photos later. The two scenarios are very different. If you shoot bad portraits, the subjects can likely get all dressed up again and find another shooter to create their holiday card. Heck, they might even give you another chance. It still looks very bad on you and puts everyone out.

But, if you’re taking on the responsibility of shooting an event, the consequences can be more serious. The event can’t be replicated, so if you forget that your camera was set to its smallest JPEG setting or your lens was mis-focusing, they’re going to be out of luck. And what happens if your main body and lens get bumped by someone who has had too much egg nog and takes a dip in the punch bowl? A prepared pro can pull out the backup camera and keep shooting. Can you?

While gear isn’t everything in photography, it’s certainly a concern. If a camera breaks or you’re presented with an ultra-challenging situation, you have to be ready with the skill and the hardware to handle it. They also have insurance and heaps of skill, which contrary to the article, is decidedly more important than “persistence.”

If you’re going to be selling those photos, you’re going to be paying taxes, right? You’re going to be providing comprehensive contracts that protect the interest of both you and the person paying you, correct? I hope so, because those are both parts of the gig. Then there’s the web hosting and the processing…it all adds up.

By offering to shoot things for free, you’re likely undercutting someone who does this for a living. Sure, if you aren’t charging sales tax and don’t feel the need to provide contracts or have the proper gear, your overhead is lower and shooting something for free isn’t a problem. But, trying to make extra money for the holidays is different than trying to make enough money to keep a business afloat.

The linked article the Consumerist post seems to be referencing takes a slightly more grounded stance, making an example of a person who makes decent money on the side as a “freelance designer and photographer.” But, they also call “restoring a photograph” to be a “wacky service” one can sell, so we’re still clearly in face-palm territory.

“But,” you say, “I’ve seen a lot of pros who can’t produce work as good as mine!” That may very well be true, but the business doesn’t stop or start when you trigger the shutter. Botched up jobs can cause a lot of trouble for everyone involved. The client doesn’t get the photos they wanted or needed. Your reputation as a photographer is shot before it even had a chance to live. And if you have friends relying on you, relationships could get hurt.

So, what do you do? Well, you could use your camera to create gifts you’d otherwise have to buy. Heck, if you want to take photos at a holiday party, go right ahead. I’d never tell you to do otherwise. Take pictures as a friend and share them. Just don’t expect to make money off the endeavor.

Or, you could of course become a blogger. That’s always good for some easy money.