Leapdragon 2016 - Aron Hsiao Was Here

Playing catch-up  §

I am a hard worker. I have been all my life. I have accomplished so much and yet I am still not financially successful. Why? Because I started farther back than many people. I know, I know, a lot of people say that only whiners complain about starting with no money, uncle Jeb pulled himself up by his bootstratps, started from nothing, built an empire, I must be lazy, lazy, lazy, and ungrateful that I live in a free market economy and too stupid to leverage it.

Wrong.

Take a look at three hypothetical photogrpahers and imagine that they all have equal talent and shoot identical scenes with identical technical skill. One starts wealthy and has an unlimited photography budget and can afford to work on photography full time because he doesn’t have to do any other work. One is upper-middle class and starts with a $2,000 budget and can only afford to work evenings and weekends. The third is lower-middle class and starts with only $200 and has to pay his rent by working most evenings and weekends, so he only has half of every Saturday and Sunday to shoot.

The wealthy photographer buys a $16,000 medium format digital camera that delivers 20+ megapixels. He buys Adobe CS2 for nearly $1,000 to “digitally develop” them. He begins shooting on day one working full time (8 hours per day). While shooting and not editing, he takes two good photos per hour. Every hundred photos, he submits a batch to the copyright office, where the registration fee is $30 per batch, plus the cost of a blank CD and shipping. At the end of every year, he submits that year’s take to agencies. Because he has 20+ megapixels and a top-grade editing system to work with, he can crop and resample problem images and still maintain enough technical quality to get 80% of his work accepted at top agencies with an average comission of $1000 per photo per year while only spending 20% of his time on editing. The remaining 20% of his work go to less picky agencies with an average commission of $100 per photo per year. Five years later, at two good photos per hour while shooting and working eight hours a day from the start, he has earned $2,712,080 gross or about $2,694,060 over five years net from photography.

The upper-middle class photographer can only afford a $1,000 digital 35mm SLR that delivers 8 megapixels. He, too, buys Adobe CS2 for nearly $1,000 to “digitally develop” them. He begins shooting on day one working only nights and weekends (3 hours per day). While shooting and not editing, he, too takes two good photos per hour when shooting and not editing. Every hundred photos, he also submits a batch to the copyright office at $30 per batch. He too submits the yearly take in photos at the end of the year. Because he only has 6 megapixels, though his $1,000 image editor helps to some extent, he has no crop or resample room and is often resolution limited. As a result he only gets 20% of his work accepted at top agencies, another 50% at less picky agencies, and fully 30% of his work goes nowhere because the technical quality isn’t good enough thanks to his lower-end gear. The lower quality “digital negative” means that he has to spend 40% of his time editing to get good results. Five years later, at two good photos per hour while shooting and working three hours a day from the start, he has earned $302,220 gross or about $298,240 over five years net from photography.

The lower-middle class photographer can’t afford a pro digital camera at all, nor can he afford Adobe CS2. Because agencies want digital but he can only afford to buy a film camera, he has to invest in a $50 scanner to go with his slow computer. The remaining $150 he spends on an Olympus OM camera and a 50mm lens. He begins shooting on week one but can only afford to shoot for five hours each on Saturday and Sunday. Because the MF camera and 50mm lens severely limit his subject matter, he only manages to take one sellable shot per hour, which is fine becuase he has to buy and pay for lab development of slide film at a total cost of $20 for the 36 exposures he takes every our. He can’t afford to submit photos on an ongoing basis to the copyright office at all. Becuase film scans are difficult to work with but he could afford no digital editing software to speak of, he gets 20% of his work accepted at more film-tolerant top agencies, but only 20% of his work accepted at lower-end agencies. The remaining 60% of his work is just burned film. On the upside, he only has to spend 20% of his time scanning. Five years later, at one sellable photo per hour and working weekends from the start, he has earned $26,288 gross or about $15,688 over five years net from photography. And because he hasn’t managed to afford always submitting his photos to the copyright agency (since sometimes he has to make ends meet), someone has stolen two of his photos and used them in a major ad campaign, earning $600,000 for themselves and nothing for him. He can’t afford a lawyer to pursue it, and might not win anyway since he didn’t register.

These calculations don’t even include the enhancements to earning that come from the prestige of shooting regularly for a top agency, or having time to network evenings instead of work, or being able to travel in order to do better shoots, or additional photographic equipment like lighting and lenses that can increase the shot-to-shot success rate, or eventual intangibles like fame and name recognition.

In short, even though the poor guy is working harder and shooting the same scenes with the same talent level, he is earning almost nothing and even after five years of hard work he doesn’t have the budget to buy in where the rich guy began.

It’s like this in every industry and discipline to one extent or another. The rich make money with (literally) exponential growth due to the free capital and time they can throw back into the process. The more capital and time they invest, the more capital and time they have to invest. Meanwhile, the poor person at the bottom works on a linear plot for years on end and doesn’t even get to where the rich guy started, nevermind the stress of middle class life and trying to make ends meet.