Ian Spanier Shares His Wisdom on the Business of Photography

April 4, 2013

By Ian Spanier

© Ian Spanier

<em><span style="font-size: 12px;">My first assignment with the UFC was to photograph their fighters wearing their catalog of clothes. This was part of a large-scale shoot with a producer and started a great relationship with the UFC. Working with a producer on this shoot was a necessity given the volume of shots and number of days, crew and details involve</span><span style="font-size: 12px; font-family: arial;">d.</span></em>

Talent will only take you so far

In my opinion, talent will only get you so far in this business, if you don’t know how to run your business, you will loose your business. 

I like to think of photography as a house, your foundation is comprised of your talent, and the various levels of the house are your business. You start in the basement, and getting to the next level has less to do with talent, and more to do with how you run your business.

These are some samples of my work, I am showing you these to give you a sense of the work I do, but of more relevance, some of these jobs are large budgets, some are miniscule, and each involve some decision that I made in order to get the job, keep the client, or take a step toward a bigger picture. Some of these decisions bit me in the ass, and some pushed me forward as a photographer. These are all a part of what we’re going to talk about today. Some of these choices will not be good for each of you, but my hope is through my story, you can walk away with even just one good thought about how you can apply what I experience toward your advantage.

 Portrait of professional showjumper Molly Ashe for Showjumper Magazine./© Ian Spanier


 This image was part of a very typical shoot for Danskin with a large shot list and many different looks. /© Ian Spanier

This portrait was made directly for Steven Tyler who was about to host Sturgis Bike Week. I had shot Tyler once before and we got on well at that shoot- so soon after when the request came in to shoot him I gladly complied. The shoot was very low budget, but very worthwhile for me. / © Ian Spanier

My path was a bit unconventional, I had a camera since I was 6, and always made pictures growing up, but during college I had an internship at GQ Magazine, and decided perhaps I would be a better editor than photographer. This was influenced in part by Bruce Davidson, the legendary Magnum Photographer. I had lunch with him during my junior year when he visited my college. I asked him if he was a 20 year-old photographer now just getting started would he choose to be a photographer still. He avoided an answer as if I had asked for his ATM pin. This scarred me, and the other part came when I was in that internship, and my boss told me he didn’t even know how to load film in a 35mm camera, that he freelanced at GQ while he was managing a band on the side, and eventually was offered the Associate Photo Editor job. I thought I would have an advantage over the other photo editors like him, as I knew how to load film in a camera! I was right, and I rose, to a degree too rapidly, becoming a Director of Photography by the time I was 26.  Eventually, my shooting took precedent, and I was spending my time 50-50 shooting and editing…something somewhat reminiscent of the Life Photographers from back in the day. I grew tired of hiring photographers who did not seem to understand the direction the magazines I was working for, despite my best efforts to get them on board, and I again saw the opening. I knew the market, had an ability to work for a men’s magazine, a women’s fashion magazine, a sport magazine or a music magazine, and if I shot too, I could get the pictures the editors wanted…because I was coming from their side.

This led to a move to LA to get New York-based magazines to forget about me as an editor and make me in their mind a photographer. I was barely gone two years, and it worked. Frankly, you leave New York for two weeks and everyone forgets about you. So I came back, still afraid to go full-time freelance, and took a position at a media company that published five magazines, acting as the chief photographer, and eventually managing two other photographers, the magazines budgets, and shooting a ton. Our department was solid, and we were regularly under budget, unfortunately, the rest of the company was grossly mismanaged, and the company went Chapter 7. All of a sudden, I was full-time freelance, with a family now, a mortgage, and a lot of fear. Decisions I made about my photography business, stemmed from my experiences as an editor. I was great at making small budget shoots looks like big budget shoots, and out of fear, and a desire to work I ended up taking nearly every job offered. I had three rules though: No weddings, no kids and no pets, as I knew they were my limitations. Outside of that, with an occasional breaking of those rules, (horses are pets for some people) it was pretty fair game. What worked and didn’t work was surprisingly toward the positive, but not perfection. I got burned like we all do, non-payments, poorly produced shoots with no direction, and clients that promised many jobs down the line for doing them the “favor” of shooting for peanuts that never called again, regardless of a good shoot.

What I also saw, what through the use of social media, I’ve created a somewhat truthful “façade” of always being busy. No one knew what I was getting paid on some of the stinkers, and if I could always post the good images, and blog about the cheap shoots that looked like huge production value shoots, my followers (many of whom are art buyers and editors) would gain a respect for my work, and I’d seem like a much more successful photographer.  The fantasy would soon become a reality, and within that first year, I was quickly becoming as busy as I initially seemed to be. Within year two of my freelance status I was doing what I hated most of all, forceably turning down work because my schedule was too packed!

I was reluctant to be on Facebook at first, but learned it’s usefulness, and barring an occasional cheer for the Yankees, or Bruce Springsteen, it’s all business. I don’t talk about eating the greatest turkey sandwich ever, or posting about how cute my kids are, or how much a paper cut hurts. Not to knock people who do that- but it’s got little to do with me as a photographer- which is what I am using the social media platform for. 

How I do this is a balance of shameless self-promotion, and sometimes as simple as just posting my flight path. Every so often I’ll post something that asks for feedback, and is fun, like the top ten things I find funny about flying, like the guy who farts all flight, and the person who can’t stand up without pulling the back of my seat as if it’s not annoying at all, or, true story, the time I witness a woman who actually did not know how to buckle the seatbelt. Outside of that, it’s about getting new images up, trying to drive traffic to my site, and gain a bigger following. 


There was a period in the early part of my time in the photography business where most photographers I knew were all be about low overhead and renting equipment. I distinctly recall one photographer boasting that he didn’t even own a camera, and the clients would pay for his rentals. Those days are long gone, and as expensive as photography equipment is,  owning your own equipment is a useful tool to make more money.

On most of my jobs, I try to charge for my equipment separately from my fee. The trend of “flat-rate” jobs has run rampant, so there are times where I cannot charge my normal fees, however, there again, the advantage goes to owning the equipment. If I had to rent most if not all the gear I need for a shoot, I would surely loose money in the case of the flat-rate shoots. 

Being an Artist and a Business Person

Many of us dream of being an artist, and the illusion to outsiders is that, but photography is a job, the average magazine shoot you get paid one day really equates to four or more days of actual work. Time spent shooting vs. running your business is no where near 50-50.

Budapest, personal work/ © Ian Spanier

Things You Need to Consider

Having a solid invoice system is an absolute requirement. Far too often photo assistants invoice me with a word doc. More than half the time, those word docs don’t even have the proper information attached. Problems I have seen include no social security number or tax ID, address but no phone number, etc. That aside, the word docs likely live on their desktop or a harddrive and have no backup, no method to track payment, and no clear way to show paid vs. unpaid invoices. Many people use online programs today, but are they really customized to your business? That’s a serious question to consider. Early in my career I came across FileMaker Pro, and I taught myself to program the databases. Over the years I continually improved and added elements to the layouts that would accommodate changes in my business, how I needed to invoice, keep track of crew that I paid and even have a way to bill for advances that are generated directly from my estimates. Now with the revolutions with iPhones and iPads, I can generate an invoice from anywhere, update estimates and send from my phone or iPad. This has come in handy on many occasions when I am out in the field and a request for an estimate or invoice comes in. I’m not saying FileMaker is the best method, only that it worked for me, and seeing the opposite from many aspiring photographers, stylists and assistants brings this issue to light. 

I am not a tax expert, I wish I was, but I do feel it’s important to bring up the point of becoming a LLC, or incorporating your business. Much information about this can be found here, and you should consult a tax professional.

Reading contracts is another area I think is neglected by far too many. When I was a photo editor, it was my job to get photographers to sign their rights away. I hated that part of my job, the contracts department at so many of the companies I worked at simply felt this was a photo editor’s job, even though we are not trained in the law. Many editors responded by having photographers cross out what they didn’t agree with, “so you can get paid.” I can only imagine this helped lead to where we are today where rights are given away for little to no compensation, and in more cases, every photo shoot is considered a buy-out regardless of pay. 

As I was doling out these contracts, I read them, and the subtle advantages taken away from the photographer became disgustingly evident. While I admit I have signed my share of bad deals, whenever I can fight a part of a contract that is not fair, I do fight it. Most photographers have been bullied so far past the point of having the right to do much about these contracts without being simply replaced by a photographer willing to sign anything, work for peanuts and willingly get completely taken advantage of by clients. Getting good at reading these contracts also put me in a better position to write my own. Although it’s not a great move, I rarely have contracts with my clients. Many are repeat clients with whom I am always working as a full buyout contractor and/or others, it just doesn’t seem worth the effort to request they sign. Personally, asking a photo editor who works for a magazine to be held responsible, when they are an “at-will” employee or worse, a freelancer, seems unfair, and similar to asking a knight to take responsibility for the kingdom. If it ever got to a court situation, I believe that would ultimately hurt any claim I had, right or wrong. I do however always list the terms of our agreement on my estimates and invoices, so that they are stated in black and white. When I do use a contract, it is generally with those companies that I believe could take advantage of my business and I stick to my guns when it comes to these situations. I will not move forward unless a legal council signs my contract.

Copyrighting is another area where not enough attention is paid by photographers today. When legal issues arise, having your work copyrighted with the US Copyright office,, is the only way to protect your work 100 percent Anything less falls in the “grey” area, simply adding a © to your images is not enough. Both of my published books are copyrighted with the US Copyright office and I will continue to do so with any work that I have that is not a buyout situation.

Initially when I started making real money as a photographer, a Schedule C Form would not suffice for the additional income I was bringing in. My accountant at the time, unfortunately was not good, and he advised me to operate as a C corp. This is generally reserved for large companies, my ignorance of this area bit me in the butt years later, particularly when I learned he had not filed federal taxes for me for three years. Once I got a proper CPA to handle my account, we were able to correct the mistakes, which cost me a great deal of time and money, and as well change me to an S-Corp, which suited my business better. I since added a bookkeeper to manage the monthly entering of my various bank and credit accounts, as well as balance my books. Knowing these are two areas I am not strong, and as well, find to be a huge distraction to my time, this freed up my time to deal with running the rest of my company. This change alerted to State to my status and next thing I know I was hit with a hefty bill for back payment due for Worker’s Comp. If you are not paying the state for this now, you should find out why you are not, and make sure that you get it straight. I now pay it regularly. 

One other area of protection that is severely neglected is contracting your crew. When to bring in help is a factor of your own business. Will it cost you more than you bring in? Will it allow you to bring in more business? These are things you need to consider not just with your finances, but all areas of your company. 

In my case, I have a regular first assistant, he knows my equipment, my workflow and how I like to do what I do. He is always my first call, and does his best to make himself avail to me. In return, I always get him the most money I can on gigs, and as much free advice as he will take. 

I have a few regular producers I can bring in when necessary, but if I can make more money on the job as the producer, I do it myself. Having the skills is a huge benefit, particularly when the shit hits the fan. One mistake I think many of us make early on is calling the photo editor from the job and presenting them with a problem. Many times, this happens when that person is so far away from set, that there’s little they can do. I don’t need to call the editor or art buyer for a solution when things like the rental car company is closed and I need to make my flight, or we need a way to get a flight from North Carolina to Ohio instead of are already booked flight to Tennessee. That also instills confidence in the people who hire me, as they know I got it covered. That makes their life easier. 

I hired a consultant last year, and still speak with her now. I reached a point where despite my ability to edit work, which we all struggle with, I more so got to a point where I just couldn’t look at the breath of my work and decipher the best line of attack. Business was good going into my fourth full year as a freelance photographer, but I knew it could be better. We changed my portfolios, my website and my mailers/leave behind cards. I am proud to say last year was my strongest year to date.

Where’s the Artist’s End?

Where’s the artist’s end? This is what we all do this for, to make beautiful images, right? This I think truly happens when the business side is well handled. It clears a path to be an artist on a shoot, particularly when it’s all on your shoulders, and there’s no buffer of an agent to manage the clients, billing, contracts, etc. The trick is to do the best you can to have the business aspects well taken care of to free your mind to open up that creative side. 

This image is a good example of one of the times when I was able to be an artist. It was part of a feature on paragliding made in the last few months at DoubleDown Media./ © Ian Spanier

The question we should all ask ourselves regularly is how can I keep growing as a photographer and a business person? I truly believe that if you choose to ignore one side of this journey, your business will fail. It’s a parallel track that you should travel. When the hurricane comes, and it will and does, the talent I say is the foundation of your house will survive, it’s born there- sure it needs to be nurtured, but it’s the levels of your house/business that need constant attention to maintain, reinforce, and build your photography house.