Learn to say “YES”

This is Mark Johnson’s Advanced Photojournalism Class at UGA’s Grady School of Journalism. [Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/3.2, 1/80]
For the past ten years or so Mark Johnson has invited me to speak to his advanced Photojournalism Class at UGA on business practices.

One of the tips I always share with the class is Learn To Say YES.

I learned about how to say yes from my friend Tony Messano who is a creative director as well as voice over talent. This one tip had a major impact on my life in so many ways.

Tony was not advocating becoming a “Yes Man” where you are agreeing to “anything” regardless of how crazy or stupid – and sometimes illegal – it is. You still will say no to things that ethically you disagree with doing.

Patrick Murphy-Racey keeps things positive for his clients by solving their problems rather than becoming a problem. [Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm ƒ/4, ISO 100, ƒ/4, 1/160]
Tony was advocating that we turn ourselves into problem solvers for our clients and bosses, rather than becoming a problem.

The way this whole topic came up in the first place with Tony was over me trying to deal with clients that kept on saying since you are here can you do _______. Tony helped me to see how to take this request and not only meet the request but make more money.

I learned how to price for the project and then when this type of request came up I could say “Yes”. Yes I can make that happen, however since this wasn’t part of the proposal and is outside the scope of it I just need to charge XYZ for the additional work.

The way I had been handling these requests or similar variations for my whole life up to then was responding with a “NO”.

What Tony helped me to understand was that when I was saying no I wasn’t really helping the client at all. If they still needed it done then they would find someone who could make it happen and often then I would no longer be used for future projects.

Why do I want to say no?

Before I could say yes I learned I needed to know why I wanted to say no.

When I was in a staff job I often said no because I didn’t have time with all the other things on my plate. As a freelancer I was saying no because they were asking for more without offering more pay.

Had I learned this tip earlier in my career I would have become a more valuable team member. When someone would ask me to do something I would now be saying how I really want to help them. I would be saying YES–IF.

Yes I can make that happen for you if you can tell me which of these other projects I can delay or not do to be able to take on this extra work.

As a freelancer I am saying YES–IF you decide what on the list we were shooting comes off because I don’t have time to do all you have or I might be saying yes if you agree to the extra XYZ cost.

On the far right at the computer is Akili Ramsess, executive director for NPPA, who is reviewing the work on a student at the Southwestern Photojournalism Student Workshop. What I like here is not just that Akili is helping and the student is engaged, but it reminds me that others are watching us help.

Let the client say NO

Tony said my goal is to say yes as much as I can and to be sure the client is the one saying no and not me.

As the freelancer the client asks me to do something and my response is I would love to help you. The additional cost to make this happen is XYZ. Just sign right here to the changes on the contract and I will make it happen.

The client will then respond by great or no we cannot afford to do that. If they really have to have this done then you are not the reason it gets done, they don’t have the resources to make it happen or maybe the request then no longer important.

As a staff person I am not asking for more money. I am basically taking the burden of what is on my plate and the difficulties to make it happen back onto their plate.

My boss asks me to take photos of their event and in the past I would have said no I am already booked. I now say I am already covering another event at the same time. I am more than willing to cover this event if you need me to. Which event do you want me to cover and would you like me to get another photographer to cover the event I cannot cover?

Seeing this photo of my daughter with Bell from Beauty and the Beast reminds me of how the Beast had to change and learn to love. The latest movie really gives us the back story of how self centered the man was and why he was turned into a Beast. He said no to the old lady rather than helping her.

Saying No makes you a problem–Saying Yes Makes you a problem solver.

Every time you say no the person requesting your help will now have to find someone else. Had you said yes their problem is solved.

Today when I get a request for something and I am already booked, I always offer to find someone for them. One of the best ways to keep those clients coming back is to handle the booking of the photographer and have the photographer work as a subcontractor for you. This way they show up shoot the project and you handle the billing. This way they continue to come back to you.

Another tip I share with the students is about how to network. I tell them to act like a freshman and not a senior. Here is a previous blog post that I did explaining this tip for you.


A side note about speaking to the class is I get to spend time with Mark Johnson. Every time I go I have lunch with Mark and each time I learn so much.

This time I listened and watched how Mark works really hard to present content to the students in a positive manner. He doesn’t speak down to the students. He challenges them in a way that he is also communicating that he know they are able to do whatever he is asking of them.

It is a joy to visit UGA and spend time with the students and Mark.

Biggest mistake made by photographers

The hardest assignments for me are the most personal ones to cover for our family. While I want to just sit back and enjoy, I also want to be sure these milestones in our family life has been documented.

When I arrive to cover an event I am often setting up strobes to be sure I get good light on the people’s faces. For this event I setup two strobes off to the sides to be sure the speakers had good light on them.

This photo was taken without the flashes going off, so I have circled where they are in the room. The flash on the left is the Nikon SB-800 and the one on the right is my Nikon SB-900.

They are both on the Pocketwizard TT5. I am using Manfrotto 5001B Nano Black Light Stand – 6.2′ (1.9m) I chose this light stand because of how small it folds up [19.3″ (49cm)] for easy travel through airports. To connect the Pocketwizard TT5 to the lightstand I am using Interfit Metal Umbrella Bracket with Adjustable Flash Shoe.

To trigger the flashes I am using the Pocketwizard TT1 with the AC3 to control the flash output on the TTL setting. This way the camera sensor is helping determine the flash output of the flashes.

I guess you can see this is a little involved over just pulling out the camera and shooting some available light photos or even using an on-camera flash. I want the photos to look great, not just usable. I am documenting the most important events in our family history. My family will cherish these photos much more than if I had great photos of the President of the United States.

Here are some of the photos from our event celebrating my wife getting the 2014 Pioneering Ministry Award from Columbia Theological Seminary for her work doing chaplaincy work with journalists, Citadel parents and now military families.


What is the biggest mistake made by photographers? Photographers often put more effort into covering events for clients and not enough into their own families. What is the most important?

While your clients will pay the bills, the photos you do of your friends and family events are the ones you will be most remembered for doing.

You know what happens when you do this consistently? Your clients start getting your best coverage as well—they are now treated as family. Every business should be doing the very same thing for their families, treating them with your best efforts.

Learning Curves and Personal Projects

Click on the chart to see it bigger

Learning Curves

There are a few things that impact our success as photographers and creatives in general. No matter the subject there are two things that impact our understanding of that subject. First is our book knowledge of the subject and the second is our experience with the subject matter.

There is one thing to understand the inverse square law and quite another to put it into practice. Even seeing a picture of the Inverse Square Law will not make it usable knowledge without some practice.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he addresses this concept of experience. He talks about how the Beatles were playing in night clubs twice as long of sets as most in the industry. He then points out this is how they were able to crunch there 10,000 hours of experience which normally takes about 10 years to accomplish playing 3 hours a day for normal work week and cut that time in half by playing 6 hours a night at clubs.

There are a few places in my career where I was able to crunch some knowledge. For example when I ran one hour labs for a few years each day I was processing and printing around 40 to 80 rolls of film. I became pretty good at looking at a negative and knowing when something looked magenta it would print green and when something looked cyan it would turn out red.  This helped me understand my colors really well.

Now if I had stayed in my first job at a newspaper where I shot 8 to 10 rolls of film a day it would have taken me 5 to 10 times longer to learn what I did while processing film at a one hour lab.

If you look at that top chart you will see that in my first year I knew almost nothing about photography. While I started to grow it wasn’t even in all areas of the business.  Each area had it’s own learning curve.

As assignments and responsibilities came my way those learning curves were growing in new areas. Working at a newspaper, photo studio, photo lab, magazine, college public relations department and now as an independent photographer all were very different from each other and had their own learning curves.

I believe the more learning curves you have in your life the more success you will have. When you stop learning you stop growing. This is when you start to die.

Personal Projects

While you learn because you get new responsibilities, you don’t really get these responsibilities given to you without a good reason. People hire you to do what they know you can do, not because of what they don’t know you can do.  Best way to get a job shooting jobs overseas is to shoot one to show them.

People hire me to shoot projects that are dear to their hearts or at least dear to their paycheck. They need someone to help them be successful and do their job better.

There are basically two reasons people hire me. First of all is they know what they need and I fit the bill. They need a head shot and they see I can do what they need and hire me. The second reason I get hire is people see what I am doing and want it.

Needs vs Wants

I believe needs based hires are based on what they have seen work for themselves or others and know that this will give them a desired result. Steve Jobs is one of the best to come along in years and create a want for many people. The iPhone when it was introduced was a smartphone that made it cool to do certain functions we do everyday. Later when he introduced the iPad it was introduced to solve problems that I didn’t even know I had, until I saw how it worked.

For the most part most of the Apple products are much more expensive than there competition. How can they do this? They continue to deliver. Many of the competition with lower prices don’t deliver the quality experience that the Apple has done consistently. This is why now when Apple introduces a new product there is a line at their stores to buy what no one has used before. They know based on past experience this is worth the risk and the rewards are surely to come.

The best way for creatives to duplicate what Steve Jobs did with Apple products is to create something where you are speaking as passionately about it as Steve did when he introduced a new product. Just listen to his presentation on the iPad launch here on YouTube.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ndnmtz8-S5I]
The key is to find your passion. What gives you the most joy and happiness? What disturbs you the most and make you so mad you want to do something about it? You see whatever you pick it must be emotionally important or you will not be able to stay on that subject long enough to capture another person’s interest.

Social Justice is a topic that motivates my heart more than just about anything. I don’t like it when people are mistreated and treated unjustly. I want to tell their story. My packages help to communicate total despair or a victory.

There are many nonprofits that are trying to help people just like me. They see my passion for a topic and now want me to help them tell their story and hopefully move their audience as much as I moved them.

One of my passions is around immigration. Migrants for the most part just follow where the work is and having work available where they live was my concern. Providing multimedia and still photography coverage for the Just Coffee group based in Agua Prieta, Mexico was a good fit for my passion.

As corporations and nonprofits saw my coverage more and more of them wanted similar coverage for them. I created a want.  They were not seeing this type of coverage of storytelling to help brand a company.

What I was using is emotion packed photos and emotion in the voices of the videos to help communicate despair and triumph.

I think my personal projects graph would look like the above. While I am doing more personal projects than before, I am now seeing a direct correlation between showing what I am passionate about and job growth in the number of clients and/or projects I am doing today.

When your personal projects are a way of you giving back to your community as mine have been, you also benefit. The movie Pay It Forward help to start a movement. At first many thought it was just a fad. Now years later we are seeing people pay it forward in drive thru lines and often this string of gestures goes all day long sometimes.

We see TV ads today that show that paying it forward and it being contagious.

Why not do a personal project that has the potential to pay it forward in many ways. If you do then others will want to work with you. They want what you got, which is a heart for others.

Summary: Find your passion and create a package that shows what you can do when you do something to your best ability. Share this with everyone you can. There maybe significant learning curves associated with your project as you discover to do what you need to do to show your passion in the best possible way may require some new skills. The good thing is because you are so passionate about the topic your ability to learn these new skills increases, because your desire is much higher than when it is just a job. If your personal project in some way pays it forward then you may even start something that goes viral.

Lessons learned from the NPPA Business Blitz

The nuts and bolts of running a business is he most important thing you need to be a successful independent photographer. When you first start your business more than 95% of your time will be doing things like marketing, estimates and negotiating with clients.

National Press Photographers Association has been putting on business seminars not just for their members, but for anyone who is interested.

The entire event was giving photographers information to help empower them in business practices. At no point did any of the speakers show their award winning photographs and talk about how they made their pictures.

Greg Smith, independent photographer, NPPA board member and chairman of the business practices committee.

A few years ago under Alicia Calzada’s time as the NPPA president, she along with Greg Smith worked on business practices for the membership. Greg is the one who created the NPPA Business Calculator, which is referenced by everyone teaching today photographers how to run their business.

Greg walked everyone through the different fields of the calculator helping to explain why each of these fields needs to be considered to come up with a working budget for the “Cost of doing business.”

Beer Money or Rent Money

One of the problems many staff photographers continue to have is that they are often thinking of doing side jobs for “beer money.” The problem is the following week many of these staff photographers are being laid off and their business model of working for “beer money” and using company gear will not work when they have to buy their own gear, pay for all the costs of running a business and then have enough money left for now their basic needs like “rent.”

Mickey Osterreicher, NPPA Attorney

Mickey Osterreicher told us over and over “its complicated.” He helped to give us a better understanding of copyright, contracts and how to negotiate with clients. He helped to clear up that we need to register our images every three months and not every ninety days. Come February when you have less than ninety days you can get caught where some of your images are not protected.

We learned that their are four issues that need to be addressed for a photograph to meet the “Fair Use” requirements.

  1. Purpose
  2. Nature
  3. Amount and Substantiality
  4. Effect of the use
We learned that the caps of per image violation was $150,000 which will be divided by the parties that misused on image, if they are all related.
We learned the differences between copyright and license. Understanding this was how we were able to negotiate more effectively with clients.
We learned what must exist for a contract.
Offer + Consideration + Acceptance = Contract
He even helped us to understand that you can have an oral contract, but this depends on where you live.
Deb Pang Davis, Assistant Professor, Syracuse University
Deb Pang Davis explained that for our business to be successful we had to understand our brand and know how to build it in the community. “You are already a brand,” she said. “Do you know what it is?”
She encouraged everyone and especially the students to think really LONG term. This was ten years into the future.  Then you need to present the work to the audience that you want to do.
One of the greatest pitfalls of most business people is getting stuck on a “roller coaster.” This is where you do “911 marketing.” You have rent due and then you work really hard to market and then get some work. The next time you market is when the work starts to drop off.
Deb went on to give us many different ways you can market and build your brand so that you can avoid those roller coaster rides of the past.
Stanley Leary & Akili Ramsess [photo by Mark E. Johnson]
During a panel discussion on “Finding & Funding a Future for Photojournalism and Documentary Photography” I was able to give my spin on what I recommended. 
I believe we are at an all time high for opportunities for storytellers. However most of those who are working storytellers with the titles of Journalist or Photojournalist will most likely need to pursue other places than the news media outlets to use their skills. The number of those jobs has greatly diminished.
I encourage storytellers to discover their communities. Find where they congregate and then find those who want and need to communicate to those groups. Then become an expert on the subjects that they cover for those audiences.
Where are those communities? I gave them some examples of working for a corporation where they need storytellers to help with the communication in their community. Nonprofit organizations are also communities that need those same storytellers to create community newspapers within their sphere.
[photo by Mark E. Johnson]
While I came to speak, I also came to learn. I took a lot of notes. while most everything presented I had heard before, I did hear new ways of presenting the material. I am always looking for a better way to tell the story and I learned a few new ways to do just that.
I cannot encourage you enough to spend the time to get to know this material so that you too can be a successful independent photographer.