15 Freelancing Thoughts from a Former Staffer


rewarding assignment last fall that I neglected to post to this blog, in part to respect the terms of agreements that are a part of freelancing. (Now it just seems odd to post a series of dated photos). I followed Democratic candidate Charlie Hardy as he attempted to unseat the Republican incumbent in Wyoming in the U.S. Senate race. It was a quixotic attempt, but provided a level of access and intimacy on the very old bus while he campaigned around the state. 


Oh goodness, I’ve become a photographer stereotype. This daily news photographer jumped to become a freelancer then his blogging slowed down and became inconsistent, just like so many others. I’m thinking about my behavior after I saw Melissa Lyttle‘s post on 6 months as a freelancer. “Wait…”, I realized, I wrote a similarly-titled post after 6 months, but never posted it. I didn’t post it three months ago because I didn’t finish it. I didn’t finish it because I was becoming a stereotype of a photographer who got too busy.

Why does this happen often to photographers? Once you go freelance after being an employee, you realize just how much mind-numbing paperwork and details you have to manage. Then you’re shooting as much as you can and trying to over-deliver. More time. Post-production. Even more. Then you find yourself looking ahead to future assignments instead of looking back. You become your own assignment editor. Then your kids get home and you want to teach math to your daughter and baseball to your son.

In the end, you’ll come back to blogging but only if you enjoy writing. So below are my belated 15 observations on 6 9 months of freelancing, now improved by a few more months of experience. Hope they’re useful!

1. Say no to fear. 

After being told by countless people that I would be “crazy” to leave a staff job, I’m happy to say I’m enjoying this. I’ve written about how much I miss daily work.  But now, I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to accept creative opportunities and paid work. I’ve even traveled more now than when I was at the paper. I’m also enjoyed a more flexible schedule, face-time with kids, and more presence of mind when I am home. I also have the independence to speak up about issues of journalism where others might be silenced because of their employer. There’s uncertainty, to be sure, but it’s still all good.

2. “Until the check clears, it’s all blah, blah, blah”

A business consultant friend of mine offered that pearl of wisdom. Cash flow is extremely important and a hang-up can put you out of business, so don’t spend money unless the check has cleared. 30 days can stretch to 120 days, sometimes by innocent mistakes on the part of someone who has more business to offer you (so you can’t get too upset). For some businesses (albeit not many), waiting 120 days for a check is not abnormal if you’re a sub-contractor. Not sure what’s happening with your expenses and income? NPPA’s cost of doing business calculator is invaluable.

3. Photographers are, surprise, sources of paid work.

I love this truth. I have given jobs to photographers and received jobs from other photographers. If you believe the fear narrative, no one has enough work and it’s a dog-eat-dog world. Totally false. Competing schedules and jobs that require two photographers, etc.. all add to the need of having photographers at your ready who you can trust to help you out. Yes there is competition but that exits both inside and outside companies.

4. Refer back.

If you want to keep getting referrals from photographer friends, then refer their clients back to your colleague if their client ever follows-up with you or wants to change a date. Nothing burns a bridge with a photographer more than taking away their clients. That’s like the third rail of Chicago’s “L”. Secure that understanding with your colleague.

5. Settle on experienced and trusted crew members.

Make-up professionals, producers, location scouts and assistants are needed on different types of shoots, so interview and hire people who are dedicated to their specific craft. Don’t think you can just hire a friend photographer to help you out. A good photographer doesn’t necessarily make a valuable assistant. One photographer I worked with as an assistant couldn’t turn off his charm and ended up schmoozing my client while I was trying to get a word in edgewise. Another photojournalist I worked with wasn’t versed in lighting so I had to micromanage their placement of lighting when I wanted to focus on other issues. Assemble a team who know their roles, for assignments that might be bigger than what you can handle by your lonesome.

6. Don’t bank on promises of work.

Projects pop in and out of existence like stories on an editor’s budget. Creative decision-makers can change their minds, or are told to change their minds by clients. Appointments get delayed and held up. Budgets fluctuate, layoffs and mergers happen , etc.. etc.. There’s so much you don’t know and can’t predict. If you don’t hear anything back, don’t take it personally.

7. Rent gear after having the basics.

Buying more gear creates the false illusion of power. There’s something physiologically appealing about new equipment because it’s something tangible and physical. But the acquisition of property takes away from your marketing budget – which actually brings in more business. It can also push up your insurance bill. Yes, new equipment can help expand your creativity, (and sometimes it’s needed) but it shouldn’t come to the expense of the business that supports it – especially towards the beginning of a business. It’s never been easier to rent.

8. Make your website easy to navigate.

I have been very frustrated after having wanted to refer work to photographers only to find their sites impossible to navigate, or unreflective of the work for which I know them. I can’t point a client towards a site without it reflecting back on my judgment, so I have to think like my client. I can’t expect them to trust my opinion. Decisions can sway against you in 5 seconds or less, so make sure your site is easy to navigate, both on a desktop computer and on mobile, which is over 40% of internet traffic.

9. Learn the diplomatic art of negotiation.

Don’t be so eager to fight the cause of copyright with a client, especially upfront, such that the only thing you accomplish is to turn them off by making them believe you are a walking lawsuit. There are ways of standing firm without being obnoxious about it. ASMP has a list of great tips for negotiation. There are often understandable reasons why you will be asked to give up some rights, and the more you understand why through asking respectful questions, the more easily you can reach an agreement that satisfies everyone. Don’t be surprised, for example, if all of a sudden you’re put in the position of having to explain to a legal team the basics of copyright. Many people, especially legal teams, just don’t know better than to ask for everything.  But if you can’t negotiate diplomatically and be satisfied with the result, be willing to walk away.

10. Incorporate as an LLC but elect to be taxed as an S Corp.

Consider this option if and when you chose to incorporate. Many photographers don’t realize that you can combine the two, to get the best of both worlds (this needs to be done when you first create your LLC). Lawyers don’t know as much about this – but accountants do. Essentially, it’s a means by which to reap the ease of operation of an LLC and the tax benefits of an S corp, which can save you many thousands of dollars every year.

11. Embed photo licenses in the metadata of your images.

In addition to the normal delivery of documents, embedding your license agreement within the image makes tracking terms of an agreement a lot easier for some clients. It can help also help years later protect against misuse of images when your point of contact moves on and documents get misdirected. This happened to a photographer friend. After a set of his photos were used in violation of the license under new management, he was able to invoice for over $30K because the proof of the agreement was spelled out in the metadata.

12. Backup your backups.

It’s all on you as a freelancer. You can’t throw back any problems to the assignment desk, or the reporter, or anyone. I have to predict the worse case scenario in the same way I did as a photojournalist shooting big events, but now I have to deliver 100% of the time. What happens if an assistant you hired doesn’t show up? What happens if my gear gets stolen enroute or doesn’t get delivered? You need a backup for equipment, data, personnel, and yourself.

13. Get your cameras on the plane. 

I don’t care how you do it, just don’t let the airline check the bag with your cameras. Find out ahead of time what it will take to get your bag in an overhead bin. Pay if you have to. The bins fill up quickly and you don’t want to get stuck in one of the last groups of people to board. On a flight, I saw them forcing passengers to check bags even when I got aboard and saw there were many overhead bins that were empty. Just don’t let your bag get taken away from you. Have you seen the video making the rounds?  Yea, that.

14. Surround yourself with positivity.

As I said in #1, there’s too much crazy out there and the people who are not handling it well (for a variety of factors that might not apply to you) will make the most noise on social media, perhaps hoping someone will send them a life preserver. Complaining about your lack of business on social media will only contribute to the impression that there is something wrong with your business, the quality of the product you deliver, or even you. It can send your livelihood into a downward spiral of negativity.

15. It’s all about relationships. 

People work with who they trust and who they like to work with. Melissa’s post is a great example of that. It’s not about the brand you used to work for, it’s about the social network you have. Yes, there are a lot of photographers out there, but when a decision-maker has an assignment in hand, the pressure is on to deliver a high-quality product. In those moments, they can’t depend on the abstraction of many good photographers out there, or on the tired maxim “anyone can take a picture”. They have to depend on a person, a single person who you can trust to deliver. It pays to be known.



We’re All Media Companies Now

If you’re paying attention to the industry, you’ll notice something very interesting. Media companies are behaving a lot like photographers.

They’re expanding beyond their core business to leverage existing talents and skill-sets.

They’re giving workshops, entering the event industry and selling ebooks. They’re soliciting marketing clients with their finessed communication abilities.

They’re slashing overhead, aligning with existing video companies or expanding their own video production abilities.

They’re outsourcing production (in photographers’ cases, post-production) to other businesses in order to focus on their core business.

They’re aligning with competitors to reduce expenses of printing newspapers, in the same way that photojournalists are collectivizing to share overhead expenses.

What next, weddings?

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Buy This E-book So It’ll Get…Published?

photography tips ebook spreads

Photography-tips-ebook02 Photography-tips-ebook03 Photography-tips-ebook04 Photography-tips-ebook05 Photography-tips-ebook06 Photography-tips-ebook07

I’m including sample spreads from my 140 page e-book “Depth of Field:  Tips on Photojournalism and Creativity.” The e-book gathers together some of my favorite pictures and “Tuesday Tips” posts, edited and in some cases re-written for those looking for photography advice and a little inspiration.

If you buy this e-book, I’d be immensely grateful. Not because I would make any money from the sale, because I wouldn’t. All the content belongs to the Chicago Tribune in a trade-off that involved little things called salary and healthcare. It’s not about the money.

What you would be doing is ensuring it’s production as a hard copy book next year. From what I’ve been told, sales of e-book determines whether or not the e-book becomes a hard copy.

So yes, it’s technically been published. But not in print, the traditional way.

After four years of writing and blogging at the Chicago Tribune under the title of Assignment Chicago, a hard copy book would be an ideal way to codify a lot of time, sweat and hard work. After all that, wouldn’t you want to touch, carry and ultimately share a book in person?

With its publication as a hard copy on the line, you’d think I’d be promoting this e-book for the past two months like a desperate Kickstarter.

Well, there was this issue…. to my horror, somehow, a rough copy of the book was published on Amazon. So I was happily telling people all about the e-book, not knowing that it had a lot of errors, from pixelated and repeated images, to problems with formatting and editing. No one ever told me how these errors got in there. If you bought a copy during that period, I hope you saw my posts about returning it for an updated copy.

Then, the fixed format size of the ebook frustrated some phone and small tablet users. Then it completely crashed the Ebook member center at the Tribune. There was a plague, then locusts…

All is clear now.

Basically,  the Tribune had never published an e-book before with so many high-res images. It was the first graphic-heavy e-book they have published. So being first meant serving as a warning to others!

After the accumulated hundreds of hours of writing, editing, re-writing, updating, designing, picture editing, toning and re-editing, to this outcome, I went into a funk of frustration about the rollout. Then I left my job.

(Note: this is not how you sell an e-book.)

So I’m OK now, but I have a request…

If you ever gained from my tips columns over the years, or if you know anyone who could, would you buy this ebook at the Chicago Tribune, Agate Publishing, or Amazon?   If you’re a digital subscriber to the Chicago Tribune, you get it free. But it’s only $4.99.

It would mean a lot. Thank you for your support. I never thought when I first started writing Tuesday Tips at Assignment Chicago that it would become a weekly column that would get published in the Sunday paper and last four years.

It was an organic experience that became something meaningful for me and many others. I’ve been really touched, and to be honest humbly surprised, at how well received the blog was to students, other professionals, and the public.

Perhaps this book will be one of several more to come.

But, you know, I wouldn’t want to jinx it…



Dear Troll…

Dear Troll,

Yes, yes, you. No, I know. You don’t think you’re a troll. Trolls are other people.

But as a good friend once told a psychopath he met, “You know, I’ve never met a psychopath who realized that they’re a psychopath.”

Same as trolls. Well, actually, that’s not true. I have a cousin who trolls. He goes online onto sensitive stories and says outrageous things just to stir things up. Then he sits back, watches and laughs. And laughs. He plays the troll.

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Optimism and Innovation in Professional Photography

The power of story – it’s everywhere you look.


I’m optimistic about the future of professional photography. Call me a fool. In fact, I’ve been called an idiot for leaving my staff job at the Tribune. “How could you leave a staff gig like that?” and “Don’t you know how hard it is to make a living as a photographer?”


The irony is, as soon as I left, the first people to congratulate me were freelance photographers in Chicago who startled me with words like, “You’re going to love it!” and “It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll find your niche.”


But that’s not why I’m optimistic. Everyone has individual reasons to back-up their opinions and I’d be foolish to bank my family on someone else’s opinion. I’m no Pollyanna. I also certainly wouldn’t leave without clients lined up.


What makes me optimistic is how our current society consumes visuals.


In a word, it’s constant. We’re inundated with images. We take billions every year. Estimates are close to a trillion images in 2014.


What does this mean? It means disruption to the old way of doing business. Slowly receding are the days where a company is going to invest a ton of money for one or two images from a big shoot. I’m grateful for those I’ve had and believe me, I hope they’ll be around for awhile.


From a return on investment perspective, however, I know some companies are questioning it. If you’re the owner that just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, typically through an agency, your shoot will yield images that are going to be seen for a short while and then go…poof.


That image is going to be overrun by Instagram feeds, tweets, blogs and the capricious feeds of social media. Websites and micro sites run by companies also increasingly need fresh imagery.


As they say in the news business, what have you done for me lately?


Not all companies are large enough to afford those shoots anyway. As many companies and organizations are finding, having your own publishing platform can be a blessing and a curse. They can create their own content to have authority and loyalty in their space, but it comes at a price. They now have to “feed the beast”, that monster of appetite for visual content that lives at news organizations, where publishing never ceases. And the images have to be high-quality, not the stock type used to illustrate everything from vacations to Viagra.


If companies or organizations don’t update their visuals on a frequent basis, then their page, feed or stream looks vacant, lifeless and ultimately disengaging. There is nothing more sad (or alarming) than a website that hasn’t changed its visuals in a long while. It’s brand erosion.


It’s no wonder that there is a movement towards small production houses to create visuals that can quickly and more effectively churn out images for clients that are demanding more images and video for less.


Yes, the rates that photographers used to charge are getting squeezed because of it. But what you lose on the value of each shoot, you can make up with a longer-lasting and trustworthy client relationship.


Isn’t that a trade-off that photographers have historically made?


You can see the problem that companies and organizations face. They need more visuals, but they can’t afford the prices (or at least the limited return on the investment) to feed all their platforms and projects. So consequently they’ll pursue other methods for getting images on the cheap. They’ll promise free exposure, sponsor a rights-grabbing contest, crowdsource images or even steal them outright. Then they get busted and shamed by all the content creators on social media. It’s ugly. Again, brand erosion.


But what if photographers took the initiative and said “look, your name and brand is hurting and your visual content strategy is hurting. For XXX (or XXX,XXX) amount every six months or year, I can provide you with a regular stream of visuals that will keep your company not only front-of-mind with your customers, but will provide professionally-produced, high-quality, emotionally-engaging, inspiring visuals that will translate to more sales or donors to your business. I can even bring you a level of consultancy and brainstorming to the process, based on my experience, that will raise the level of your visual sophistication and move the dollar sign.”


Some photographers, you know the “fools”, are doing just that. They’re starting companies, changing their pricing strategies and making their pitches.


As an editorial photographer who has told real stories for a living, I’m even more excited because storytelling as a form of persuasion is a dominant paradigm in our culture, from testimonials to video docs. Reality, truth and authenticity matter to consumers but done in a way that emotionally engages an audience. As a photojournalist, it was all about finding the heart of a story, working effectively, and being creative to make the scene better than what was expected back in the office.


Where there is disruption, there is also innovation, problem-solving and opportunity.


All good reasons to be optimistic.


The Motivations of Journalists

Havana, Cuba

Patriotism and revolutionary enthusiasm in Cuba (©1995 Alex Garcia)

Last week, I was at Steppenwolf for Young Adults training session, talking in front of a group of teachers getting ready to spur discussions about their George Orwell’s Animal Farm play with high school students across Chicago.

The organizers felt that Orwell’s masterpiece of a book held up a mirror to the Russian Revolution, so they decided to bring in a photojournalist, whose role in society is often called a mirror. (I also had a lot of experience with Cuba, as Orwell had with Russia, so there were some interesting revolutionary parallels).

In preparing what I would say, they pointed me to an essay by Orwell called, “Why I Write”.

His words struck deep at the heart of motivation – a gut check if you need one.

He talked about the four motivating factors of writers, which I would argue sums up the motivations of photojournalists as well.

  1.  Sheer egoism
  2. Aesthetic enthusiasm
  3. Historical impulse
  4. Political purpose (advancing society)

I was asked in front of the class, of course, which one I felt most applied to my motivations as a photojournalist. I said, frankly, “All of them.”

In the same order, there is the:

  1. “Look at me!” quality of being able to secure unique and enviable access as a photojournalist.
  2. The joy of being able to create art called photographs that don’t always have to have strong news value.
  3. The privilege and responsibility of witnessing and recording history.
  4. The belief and hope that our pictures will help change society.

But to be honest, I’ve lately been in a state of mind where I look at “historical impulse” and all I can think about is the dedication of someone like journalist James Foley.

I taught photojournalism at the Medill graduate school, but he was before my time. I’m sure he would have been in the class and I wish I could have met him.

He had the kind of unyielding dedication to conflict journalism that I knew from the beginning of my career that I did not. He was truly in the middle of dangerous revolutions.

Over the years, I’ll sometimes meet photographers who want to work in conflict zones, and to be honest, I’ve sometimes wondered if their egoism was more a part of their desire to see action more than any historical impulse. Just last week, a photographer speculated on Twitter about whether he should go down to Ferguson in order to get something for his portfolio.

There is no such doubt with Foley. He seemed incredibly grounded in the historical impulse and a plain dedication to the truth.

But even that would be too limiting to describe his dedication, because the more I read about him, the more he appeared dedicated to something far more personal. He felt a deep calling to testify for people caught up in the ugliness of war.

About 70 journalists have been killed in Syria since 1992. So many have sacrificed not just for political ideals but also for very personal and human reasons.

Orwell overlooked a fifth ideal that motivates many writers and photographers:

  1. To help others.

For that, Foley and others are inspirations for journalists, writers and photographers everywhere in our roles as mirrors to power and revolutions.




Relaunching AssignmentChicago.com

Welcome back to AssignmentChicago.com. For those who followed my blog by this name at the Chicago Tribune, I left the paper a few weeks ago to pursue a freelance career based here in Chicago. It’s been on my heart for awhile to do so, as I saw more and more opportunities for visual storytelling to which I wanted to say “Yes!”  Yet before I left there were many posts that I still wanted to write, that I just didn’t have time to squeeze in before going. So I’m returning to this domain address, which I purchased years ago before my blog moved to the Tribune site. It’s where Assignment Chicago first got its start.

Now that this blog is independent, there will be things I can say without it being perceived as the opinions of my former employer. I look forward to writing more posts about photojournalism, visual storytelling and the editorial world with more candor but still the same politeness (unless your staff lets go of its photojournalists). As before, I’ll be posting pictures but with probably less frequency depending on the preferences of my clients. My longer posts will still aim to be educational, hopefully inspirational, and others well, thanks for the benefit of the doubt.

Stay tuned to this space…

Alex Garcia