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July 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Starving Underwater Photographers: Part II

how pros handle contracts and fees -- how you should, too

from the July, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Just like journalists and workers on the manufacturing line, professional underwater photographers are worried: Their careers are being turned upside down by the Internet and technology, and novice photographers are more than happy to take their place and work for little money or free. How will that affect the underwater photography you see in magazines? What's going to happen to top pros like David Doubilet, who worked for decades at National Geographic before losing his full-time spot there? The professional photographers we interviewed in last month's Part I article on this topic say their careers -- and their incomes -- have been hurt drastically. But when it comes to adapting to the changing times, pity the pro, or pat the amateur on the back?

The Publications' Point of View

Photographers often gripe that magazines pay little for their work, and now they're cutting rates even more, while turning to amateurs for photos. But, the publications say, have pity on us too. Because print media is in decline, they simply don't have the resources they once had, says Adam Hanlon, a U.K.-based professional photographer and editor of the photo blog Wetpixel ( www.wetpixel.com ). "And no one has really figured out how to monetize online magazines. Hence, some have turned to using people who will provide photos for free in return for a free trip, or in some cases, simply image credit."

You can tell if a general-circulation magazine is doing well if it's thick with pages and filled with ads. If so, they can afford to pay. "A dive magazine that can still attract a reasonable amount of advertising can afford to pay to get the images it wants," says Hanlon. "This means that the magazine looks better and will sell more copies, which ensures continued advertising revenue." If magazines need quality images, they'll still approach a "known" pro who knows how to follow the magazine's art director's instructions. That's where the pro still has some advantage.

Steve Weinman, editor of Diver in the U.K. ( www.divernet.com ), says his magazine is print-driven; photography is not its prime focus. "We want photos that illustrate our stories rather than copy to wrap around the photos." Most of his writers also take their own photos, so they submit both. "If we need to supplement those pictures or use a story not supplied with pictures, which is rare, we have an excellent contracted photographer whose extensive library we can use."

Diver's standard rate is approximately $75 per page for first rights (meaning they own it first for a certain timeframe, then you can shop it elsewhere) on text and pictures. For individual pictures, they pay per proportion of the page area, and more for cover photographs. "We do have some professional photographers among our contributors, and they work to our standard rates," says Weinman. "Those rates have been determined by what is realistic when working to a tight budget."

Weinman admits Diver uses more photo contest entries than in the past. "We give them more of a splash treatment, because they are good photos our readers will enjoy seeing, and they're free to reproduce. But we consider submissions from anyone and pay the going rate if we use the work."

On the other end of the spectrum is Underwater Photography, an online bi-monthly downloadable PDF magazine ( www.uwpmag.com ). Its founder, Peter Rowlands, is blunt about his shoestring budget and how that affects what he pays to contributors -- nothing. "I don't have staff, I don't sell advertising, and I don't commission articles. Contributors who contact me are told that, as a free magazine, there is no budget, but they can have some free advertising space. You could say Underwater Photography is a typical example of how the digital world has empowered the amateur (I, too, am an amateur publisher) at the expense of the professional, but I rarely deal with professionals because I have no money to offer. I do suspect, however, that a lot of them download the magazine!" Rowlands also is blunt that photo contests are a good source of free material. "And using their images shows readers the quality they need to aspire to if they are to win competitions."

We contacted top U.S. dive magazines like Scuba Diving and Alert Diving to ask what they pay and why, but they didn't respond. However, even these top U.S. dive magazines are skipping professional photographers more often for photos from amateurs, even searching the Web for images they want to print. Kaitlin Danca Galli, former photo editor of Scuba Diving, says she routinely used free websites to find high-quality images. "I would use Flickr, Facebook, PhotoShelter, Google image search, etc., to find photos. Sometimes that involved using professional work, sometimes amateur work. This was not always the best approach when it came to working with some of our contributors (i.e., it pissed off a lot of people), but it was fair game for whomever had the best material, which I think is a good way to keep [top photographers] on their toes."

"National Geographic now prefers to outsource. They can get a thousand sources for a pittance and just buy images as they need them."

Sure, professionals shouldn't slack on work standards and assume they'll get paid the same amount, but magazines lowering their rates and opting for amateurs' free photos are the reason why top photographers are seeing their careers tailspin, says Undercurrent contributor Bret Gilliam, a photographer and former publisher of dive magazines. "Guys like Ernie Brooks, who have photographed the seas for more than 40 years, are legendary and can still monetize their images as individual 'fine art' sales. Stephen Frink, publisher of Alert Diver, is compensated in that role, not really as a photographer. The days of being an in-house photo pro for the likes of National Geographic are long gone, and it has killed David Doubilet's. National Geographic now prefers to outsource and not have to cover costs for travel, hotels and salaries. They can get a thousand sources for a pittance and just buy images as they need them."

These days, a magazine photographer also needs to be a writer, Gilliam says. "There's more money if you're a professional writer and supply your own photos with your articles. As a publisher, I always preferred to assign articles to writers who were also photographers. It was 'one stop' shopping and better business."

Moving on to Other Things

To survive, professional underwater photographers are looking for new clients and new formats, because new opportunities mean a steadier source of income. Amos Nachoum is a good example of this. He saw the tide turning 25 years ago, so he developed Big Animals Expeditions ( http://biganimals.com ), a tour operator that has photographers and adventure guides taking small groups of high-paying customers to exotic locales to see big animals up close, from Arctic polar bears to blue whales in Sri Lanka. The goal: create a niche as a photographer focusing on the behavior of ocean giants. "No one would send me to those places, so I had to take myself. So now I shoot whatever I want, create a story, and there's always a buyer."

If you've taken an underwater photography course at a dive resort, or gone on a liveaboard trip specifically devoted to shooting underwater, then you're most likely helping a pro expand his or her horizons and keep the income flowing. Many photographers now run photo workshops both at home and on dive trips. Hanlon does this often, supplementing his job as editor of Wetpixel. "I shoot a lot, but I also write and research articles, lead trips and workshops, and attend imaging industry events and seminars." Don't be jealous, he says. "Although it is often seen as glamorous, it is by far the hardest part of the job. Very long days, minimal sleep, a lot of travel and typically a lot of diving means it can be physically and mentally tough."

Maurine Shimlock, who runs an underwater photography business with her husband, Burt Jones ( www.secretseavisions.com ), says commercial photography is a miniscule part of their income, but like Nachoum, they prepared for it a while back. "Our stock photography income has decreased from around 75 percent of our total income to less than 20 percent, but really, we used that as a vehicle to increase visibility for our other related profession -- leading dive groups and working with conservation organizations. When a photographer is just starting out, the most important thing to do is build a portfolio. That's not as important to us at this point in our careers. We don't take assignments that require us to go to six different locations in six days, pack and unpack, stuff like that."

Shimlock and Jones decided to pursue work where their photography could be combined with their other professional skills. "Our work with Conservation International in Raja Ampat and the Bird's Head Seascape came about in part because we could photograph and write, but also because we had explored and pioneered lots of dive destinations. We also knew our way around publishing and had the contacts to get two books published and distributed worldwide. It's not just about pushing the shutter. It's not just about knowing how to dive."

Worst Part of the Profession: Powerlessness

Underwater photography is esoteric -- it only appeals to a small market. Some top photographers get by in part because they're sponsored by scuba gear manufacturers that give them equipment, or by dive operators who take them on trips free of charge. The photographer pays them with high-quality photos that will be perfect for that dive resort or liveaboard's marketing. "I've found some manufacturers in the diving industry to be incredibly generous when it comes to donating gear and helping out in times of need, like special expeditions," says a top underwater photographer in the U.S. who wants to stay anonymous for fear of losing business from clients.

This photographer is also happy to contribute his work at no charge to some organizations and nonprofits, "where I know the folks are good folks. That being said, I would be far less willing to contribute my photos to some random place that contacts me out of the blue."

The publisher of a calendar to promote a shark-finning ban published names of some, but not all the pros who donated photos, and didn't even send copies of the calendar as a thank-you.

Organizations want good photos to use but too often ignore the photographers once they have the photos in hand and fail to thank them. The anonymous top photographer remembers when he gave photos to an acquaintance who published a calendar to promote a worldwide ban on shark finning. The do-gooder published names of some photographers, but not all who donated work, and he didn't even send out copies of the calendar as a thank-you. "That's probably the worst part of this profession: the powerlessness we have as creatives," says the top photographer. "Photographers are always the lowest man on the totem pole, the last people to get paid, the first folks to be asked to donate their services -- even nonprofits pay the postal service, the designer, printer, etc., before they pay photographers for a campaign." And, they too often get rudely ignored.

While he is fine with amateur photographers competing with him in photo submissions, he's not fine if they take away business opportunities just to see their photo on a website and their name in print. "Professionals have put time and money into learning the business of photography, as opposed to just the technical knowledge. If an amateur donates his image free for an ad campaign or a magazine, he or she has not learned the rules of the business, and ruins it for the professionals who rely on the market for a living."

"For instance, I once had an exhibit of my images scheduled to show at a hotel in Monterey, CA. A photo researcher I knew had arranged for the exhibit, and she charged the hotel a fee, so we were both going to make money. A few weeks after reaching a tentative agreement with the hotel, she called me, asking me why I had approached the hotel myself offering the exhibit at no charge. I had done no such thing, but an amateur photographer with a similar last name had done so. The hotel thought we were one and the same. So the amateur ended up sabotaging what could have been a venue that would pay for exhibits by underwater photographers for years to come -- all because he did not know the rules, and gave his images away for free."

Perhaps the more things change, the more they stay the same. A fantastic shot of a blue whale in the deep is still a fantastic shot, but today more people have the means to capture a good shot, even if they just learned the basics of underwater photography the day before.

"I don't want to sound dismissive, but much of what I see today on the internet is same old, same old," says David Haas, a photographer who has moved on to making money in other parts of the diving industry (he shot the cover photo of our book There's a Cockroach in My Regulator). "I can point you to magazines decades old with the same style of shots. A small amount of new ideas in photography are creeping in, but most are simply due to better tools. What has changed is the medium we view it on and that newer, younger divers are taking underwater photos. And because interested people keep diving, shooting and traveling, isn't that a good thing?"

- - Vanessa Richardson

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