An Argument Against Freelancing as Your Business Model

When it comes to self-employment, the term "freelancer" is a bit of a dirty word in the creative industry. For many, the word is synonymous with low income, little appreciation, and, for some, a lack of creative freedom. It's no wonder that many creatives — especially photographers — are increasingly going down a different route.

Being a freelancer is not all bad, of course. It suits some people more than others. After all, the projects that you work on are managed by someone else, so you don't need to worry about the production side of things. For example, if you're shooting real-estate, you don't need to concern yourself about who to employ to clean and stage the "set," that's the job of the agency, and you're just the gun for hire — you turn up, shoot, and collect your paycheck. But oftentimes, especially in the early stages of self-employment, when you don't have much experience, you don't own the rights to the work that you're producing. You create the work, but then you have to wave goodbye to it because it's in the contract that you signed. Eventually this can become quite disheartening, with many freelancers experience high levels of stress and a proportionally large number suffering from depression.

So what's the alternative if you want to stay self-employed? You create your own product. 

In this video, Dave Morrow outlines the reasoning behind his entrepreneurial approach to his business. It's part of a pattern that can be all over the Internet these days. Many photographers now sell presets, tours, workshops, tutorials, etc. As Morrow says, "If you have a knowledge product, you can sell it to 10 people with the same amount of ease as you can sell it to a million people." His point being that it's very easily scalable. Fstoppers is a prime example of this approach. It goes without saying that this route isn't all candy flowers and puppy-dog money-trees, though. The initial investment of time and money will be significant, with little to no reward for a long time. But, if it's successful, then the effort will pay dividends — not just financially, but also mentally.

I'm currently in the process of setting up workshops, so this video really hit home to me and gave me some extra motivation. What about our readers? We'd love hear you thoughts on the Morrow's video. Are you tired of freelancing or do you enjoy it?

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Jason Bonello's picture

I'm not sure he understands usage. A freelancer doesn't necessarily give away their rights.

David Moore's picture

Yeah, not sure what he's really meaning.

Dave F's picture

I get what he's saying, although I'm not entirely sure his example really makes the difference he says it does.

Yes, if a hotel or restaurant or whoever hires you to take pictures for them, you likely still own the images if your model is to license those images. But I think according to his reasoning, it doesn't really matter if you own the images or not, because in the long run, how much money are you *really* going to make off of those images in the future? They're probably not relevant to another hotel or restaurant, because those places need pictures of their own things. At best, the images themselves don't make you any more money in and of themselves, though they may get you hired by another business to take pictures of things that are relevant to them. By his logic, the work you're creating isn't necessarily what you're interested in "creatively"; you're simply being asked to do for somebody else. Even if you still own the images on a technical level, practically speaking it may not mean much because the content of those images is somewhat proprietary. If it only means something to the business that hired you to create them, it basically translates into a "dead end" for what that content can continue to do for you other than get you referrals for creating similar content for somebody else.

In his mind, creating his own content and selling it to his own audience (tutorials, education, etc) is more future proof because the content itself is marketable to everyone who needs to learn; it's not just relevant to one particular customer. Theoretically once the content is out there, it continues to make money because it doesn't become irrelevant to everybody but one customer the moment it's created.

The potential problem with his reasoning, in my opinion, is towards the end where he talks about how everything he does is adding up into this collective nest egg of information. I don't think the education model works this way anymore (I'm not sure it ever did). Sure, he'll "own" everything, but it won't matter if it isn't marketable anymore. He'll still need to create content, and then create more content, and then create more content, in order to stay relevant. Even if he manages to create some type of educational content that is 100% future proof (meaning the information itself doesn't become outdated, like the exposure triangle vs. a Nikon D850 review), I'm not sure it'll be financially significant enough to justify the idea that "freelancing" is a waste of time. Is there a book that was written 50 years ago that has everything one needs to know about photography? Maybe, I don't know. But how many people are reading it when there's all this new content popping up everywhere? Either the book is still relevant and it doesn't matter because everybody will still say "read my content to learn everything!" instead of saying "hey there's this 50 year old book that already has all of the answers", or the book is irrelevant because information changes, in which case his content isn't future proof. Either way, it's not future proof. This idea that he's creating a nest egg of information as a business model doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense when you're simply talking about passing on information that's already known rather than actually inventing a new idea and getting a patent for it. In either case (freelancing vs. being an "entrepreneur"), continuing to do the work is what keeps you relevant, not coming up with a couple of ideas that will let you rest on your laurels for the rest of your life.

Now, all that being said, I don't know this guy and I've only seen a handful of his videos (basically when they pop up on FStoppers). Maybe he's super successful, maybe he isn't. If he gets to backpack for 9 months out of the year and make a living, I'm genuinely happy for him. But the way he talks about it here kind of smells like one of those pyramid schemes for "starting your own business". "Look, I'm doing this thing, and if you give me money, I'll show YOU how to do this thing for money". Except what they're selling is just how to convince the next poor sap to give you money so you can tell him to go tell somebody else. There's a difference between having a sustained business (independent of showing other people how to do something) and THEN selling your services to show them how to do it, vs. starting to do something and then immediately relying on selling that knowledge in order to be successful. One is legit, the other is a con. Most of the time, anyway.

John Dawson's picture

Agreed, dude needs to re-evaluate freelancing. I'd much rather do project-oriented paid work than shoot-and-hope-it-eventually-pays work.

Mike O'Leary's picture

I agree, Jason. One does, in certain circumstances, give up their rights, but it's certainly not across the board either way. There are pros and cons to this scenario, like with everything else. I would also agree with Dave F above, until he starts talking about pyramid schemes. Dave, what you are assuming is easily dismissed by just going to Morrow's website (the link is in the article). He's selling post-processing videos and workshops, not get rich quick schemes.

Dave F's picture

Yeah I wasn’t trying to imply that’s what he was *actually* saying (as prefaced by “I don’t know the guy”), and I didn’t say I assumed he was. Just that in this particular case, if you aren’t familiar with him or his website (I’m not), there’s no context for the video, and the video itself is presented in a way that’s similar (similar, not “is”) to how people sell pyramid business schemes.

1) I’m doing this cool thing
2) I want to help you do this cool thing
3) This is me talking about how I do this cool thing (i.e. running a business on landscape photography).
4) The way I make a living at doing this cool thing is by teaching other people how to make a living at doing this cool thing, without actually showing you how to do this cool thing (i.e. “i create my own content / all you need to do is create your own content”, not, “here’s how to take a picture and then market it”).

In other words, it’s vague, and while I understand that he’s talking about higher level concepts, and that this may just be one video in a series of videos that give greater clarity to his mission, it doesn’t change that the vagueness of this particular video sounds similar to how people sell pyramid schemes. That’s all. Pyramid schemes aren’t always necessarily about “getting rich quick”, they’re about how to make the maximum $$ off of minimal effort. i.e. it’s easier to talk about doing something and sell the “talking about doing something” than actually doing something and selling the results of actually doing something. I feel like a lot of photography workshops these days are going this route: minimal actual experience but selling the idea that you have experience in order to get customers in the door.

Again, not saying that’s what he’s doing, just that in this video, it comes across in a similar way.

Jason Bonello's picture

I see this so much on line and I get it. Let me show you how to do this cool thing with out actually showing you how to do but if you buy my blah blah blah right now I will discount it and you will get XYZ thats a $5000 dollar value for $1299. I'm exaggerating a bit. A lot of photographers are supplementing income by doing workshops, tutorials and other things. Nothing wrong with that. I think it's great if one can make a living selling their work as art on a non commissioned basis. None of it is easy freelance or any other way. I struggle every month to make my nut. I am currently trying to develop other passive forms of income on top of my commissioned work. It doesn't help me either that I live in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Though there are benefits of that as well.

Mike O'Leary's picture

That's fair enough, Dave. Thanks for clarifying.

AC KO's picture

All the power to Dave Morrow and other creatives who want to start a non-freelance photography business where they solely and exclusively retain their photographs, videos, and (e-)book (self-)publishing copy/rights.

However, I searched the US Copyright Office’s on-line database but didn’t see any photographs, videos, or e-books ("Photograph the Night Sky") registered under Dave Morrow’s name. Dave, if you’re reading this, please tell me if my copyright registration search is faulty.

Along with our creativity, our copyrights (and trademarks and other IP ownership rights) are our most valuable business assets--they need to be protected so they can be fully exploited via image licensing, reprint sales, videos, books, blogs, tutorials, workshops, etc.

I’m really bothered that there’s a disconnect when creative entrepreneurs talk about producing their own media but skip protecting their corresponding IP assets.

Creatives who choose not to register their copyrights with the US Copyright Office should, at the very least, affix their media with a cool-looking watermark business LOGO, metadata, and other “Copyright Management Information” for marketing & branding and to preserve some of their legal rights under CMI:

Mike O'Leary wrote, “I'm currently in the process of setting up workshops, so this video really hit home to me and gave me some extra motivation.”

Even if you’re based out of Ireland, you’re still encouraged to protect your workshop’s creative materials (hand-outs, PowerPoint slides, photographs, videos, etc.) by timely registering them with the US Copyright Office. Perhaps, and let’s hope(!), your workshop goes viral and/or a paid photography sponsor asks you to bring it to North American audiences.

Among other benefits of a timely registered US copyright, (1) You’ll have leverage (statutory damages, attorney fees) to pursue American-based presenters who are using your workshop materials without obtaining a paid license from you; and (2) Importantly, your registration proves to a US federal judge and others that you created/authored and own your creative materials (and since your US copyright Certificate of Registration is an official document issued by the United States via its Copyright Office, I bet it could be used as persuasive evidence of your Irish copyright authorship in an EU court if you ever have to pursue European infringers).

Joshua Kaufman is a Washington, DC copyright litigator; just listen to the first 20-seconds of his YouTube video:

I’ve timely registered virtually all my photographs and videos over the last 10+ years with the US Copyright Office. I hope my copyright advocacy motivates you to begin registering your copyrights, as well.

BTW, really sorry to read about your NY mugging!

Blake B's picture

Totally respect your decision to register each of your photos with the CO, but I have definitely take another approach. There are so so many images out there, and countless being produced each minute. From a commercial freelance perspective, I feel like pursuing more projects and bigger projects is more worth my time. I mean there are weeks where 5-10 different shoots/projects may occur, producing hundreds or thousands of images, and I can’t imagine that time would be used wisely refistering each submitted photo.

There is so much competition these days, undercutting, and iPhone portrait mode replacing clients’ project needs. Staying busy for me means focusing on making clients happy, getting work done quickly and producing good work. I couldn’t imagine making it with any other set of priorities.

AC KO's picture

In 2012, I settled confidentially with a billion dollar publisher media giant who re-used multiple images without a license. Without my timely registrations, I wouldn’t have received a very large financial settlement. Even my IP attorney was surprised how much settlement money I received.

My preference and workflow it to register all my assignment images as unpublished (before they are released to clients, licensed, sold, posted to web or social media sites and before distribution or offering for sale my images to others). By registering all my images, I don’t have to recall years later which images were registered and which were not if I encounter any unlicensed uses.

However, I’m very sympathetic to Blake B and others whose business paths may be too busy photographing and simply don’t have time to get their images registered! Make clients happy, keep photographing, and make strong imagery--that’s a good plan, and I get that!

If I was in that busy situation, I would attempt to register, say, ten or so top images from each assignment. And where you had time, combine multiple assignments together in one eCO $55 Standard Application to save money on registration fees and time. So, instead of submitting the 750 maximum number of images per one on-line application, you would only register a relative handful of 30 or so images. Keep in mind that you cannot register both published and UN-published photographs in the same eCO Standard Application; they have to be registered separately.

So, with some of your best + strongest assignment and stock images registered, you would have some legal options against clients who exceed their license or, more likely, third-party infringers who (commercially) exploit your creativity without your blessing. If that doesn't work, at least register your posted portfolio of images.

I see this as a good compromise, and I encourage you to attempt at least one eCO registration just to understand the process. Importantly, you’ll be ready to go when a five-figure image licensing deal unexpectedly knocks on your studio door and you want to have some copyright protection insurance.

And as I summarized previously: One of my favorite and the most over-looked benefits of timely registering copyrights (as unpublished or within five-years of first-publication) is that you’re granted “presumptive proof” that you have a valid copyright and the facts stated in your copyright registration application will be deemed valid. Having your copyright Certificate of Registration in-hand helps prove when you created the work (effective date of registration), your authorship, and its corresponding copyright to a US federal judge and others (see 17 USC § 410(c): Registration of claim and issuance of certificate). Having a RAW file (tangibility) doesn’t necessarily prove the photographer created the work, as owning a tangible/recorded creative item (like a book or downloadable movie) is distinct from owning its copyright.

Mike O'Leary's picture

Thanks for the advice, AC. It's something I hadn't considered until now. And thanks for your sympathy regarding my mugging. I wasn't hurt and I have an interesting story, so...every cloud, and all that. I'd go back to NYC in heartbeat. I might change my bio because I was nearly attacked by a leopard in Africa during my last trip. Fun times.

AC KO's picture

If your workshops come to fruition, you should consider incorporating those (traumatic) events in your presentation and how they relate back to your workshop’s topic: “A mugging, a leopard, and everything else photographic.” There’s gotta be a book & Hollywood movie deals somewhere in there! :) Best, AC.

Joe Healey's picture

I believe it was PPA who estimated as few as 15% of photographers register their works. I have tried various techniques to incorporate registration into my workflow, including doing it directly on the government's web site and also using a Lightroom plugin. Maybe it's me, but it is impossibly complex and time consuming. A good workshop along these lines would be a god send.

AC KO's picture

To me, 15% is way too high; perhaps that’s just the number of PPA members who register. I’ve always thought the number of all photographers who timely register their photographs was 2% or so. I just don’t know.

According to the US Copyright Office’s Fiscal 2017 Annual Report (page 18), a total of 451,699 works of authorship were registered (basic registrations), of which there were 86,466 published and unpublished works of the VA/Visual Arts (that comprises of photographs, two-dimensional works of fine and graphic art, sculptural works, technical drawings and models, cartographic works, commercial prints and labels, and works of applied arts).

Maybe you could extrapolate half or so of the 86,466 VA registrations to be photographic registered works (40,000). Of those, some include photographers who registered multiple works during 2017 (I registered three VA applications and a number of PA/videos). Maybe that would drop the total number of photographers who actually register to 20,000 to 30,000. But who knows. I may contact the Copyright Office and see if they can provide more accurate numbers.

If you think about it, if 50% of all photographers timely registered their photographs, that volume of submitted copyright registration applications could shut down the US Copyright Office, as it only has a limited number or Registration Specialist (copyright examiners).

Joe Healey wrote, “Maybe it's me, but it is impossibly complex and time consuming.”

After registering for so many years, I don’t necessarily find the copyright registration application process complicated, as so much as it can take lots of time to complete correctly with the additional inclusion of robust information (of content titles) to make each registration more bullet-proof.

However, I do understand how it can be challenging for first-timers to complete successfully their first copyright registration application.

The eCO (e-Filing/on-line) copyright registration procedure to register photographs changed on February 20, 2018. Now we’re limited to registering up to 750 photographs in one $55 Standard eCO Application. We also are required to upload either an Excel or PDF document that sequentially numbers each photograph that includes a (short) title of the image and its corresponding file number (both can be the same). I spend much more time now vs. in the past to triple-check my sequential number of images so that they match my deposited photographs along with the title and file number, along with other application details.

You have to be super accurate in completing the updated registrations, as you don’t want a US Copyright Office Registration Specialist to question your application or worse, a copyright infringer defendant who’s challenging the accuracy of your registration in federal court.

Here are some Copyright Office tutorials to help you register either published (per one-calendar year or photographs) or un-published photographs:

and Also see the following:

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Good for him figuring out how to work 3 months and travel 9 months - I'd like to do that :)

From what I see in my little corner of the industry except for the top and the bottom, the days of just being a self employed "freelance" photographer taking photos are waning.
The new entrepreneurial photographer is their own client. Creating content for their website, selling presets, doing workshops, gear reviews on youtube, monetizing likes has taken the place of shooting photos for clients.
The old adage of "those who can, do and those a who can't, teach" has been flipped. It seems that there are more teachers, youtubers, influencers, baseball cap and fedora wearing "Hey Guys! guys" than actual photographers these days...
During the 1849 gold rush there were thousands of miners working for a few nuggets hoping to make it big. The people who made real money were the ones selling the shovels, picks, and Levi's to the miners.