Pros and Cons of Being a Staff Photographer

Pros and Cons of Being a Staff Photographer

If you are thinking of taking a full-time photography position, you should read this first. 

For many photographers, the dream is to take their passion and turn it into their full-time job. If this is your goal, you have two options: work for yourself, or work for someone else. Working for yourself can be risky. The fear of going without work is very much rooted in reality. Even the most experienced photographers have slow months, even years! So if freelancing is too risky for you, then maybe you look for a full-time position. Maybe it’s at a catalogue studio, maybe it’s a portrait studio. It sounds perfect! After all, you get to be a “professional photographer” right?  

The truth is, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are some real benefits to working as a staff photographer, but there are some very real drawbacks. Before I get too deep into the cons let's talk about the pros. 


1) Paid Practice

First on the list of pros is that you get to practice your craft almost every day. Now you might do this for yourself anyway, but the reality is most commercial shooters really don’t shoot that much. They are lucky if they get just a handful of shoots a month. The act of going into work, setting up your gear, and making images is just great practice (up to a point, but more on that later). My long-term freelance clients have all noticed that I’m just faster at everything. Everything is muscle memory now. 

2) Consistent Performance

Second, it teaches you to create quality work even when you are having a bad day. It’s something that not a lot of hobbyists think about. If you work in a fast paced commercial studio, there is no option to have an off day. The work needs to happen whether you show up mentally or not. After a while, the process falls to the back of your mind and you can hit the mark almost all the time. The trouble here is that the target you are hitting is the target set by the company you are working for. When you are freelancing, the target is moving all the time. 

3) A Thousand Ways to Skin a Cat 

Third, shooting every day can accelerate your learning. I was lucky enough to work in a studio where there was some measure of creative freedom and a wide variety of subject matter. No one cared how exactly I did what I did, as long as the images came out usable. Because of that, I got to learn a million ways to accomplish the same look/looks. This has really been the most invaluable lesson I’ve learned. Knowing how to get the job done regardless of your resources is really the true mark of a professional and attaining that knowledge had been vastly accelerated by working full time. 

4.) Employer-Based Healthcare

This is a really tough one because every employer is different. But if you are working full-time for a company, you likely have access to some form of healthcare coverage that won’t leave you completely destitute. There’s a huge gray area here, but I’m willing to bet that anyone who owns a small business will agree healthcare is one of the most fickle and stressful parts of their lifestyle. 


And now, for the cons…. Not all practice is good practice. One of the problems that have faced me over the years is how easily one builds bad habits. Keeping yourself sharp and versatile after years of working in the same place is a challenge for anyone, but for creatives, we are especially vulnerable to the harshness of working 9-5.

1) Good Enough

The mentality of “good enough” so easily seeps into your brain as you go through the drudgery of shooting day in and day out. You learn precisely what you can and cannot get away with. If you aren't careful and constantly pushing for self-improvement, you will find yourself carrying this trait out into the rest of your work. Additionally, if all you strive for is “good enough” you will likely find yourself being incredibly unfulfilled in your work and maybe even depressed. Pushing past that idea of good enough is a daily struggle I believe most people struggle with, but in my experience, “creatives” tend to suffer most from the crushing banality of working in the same place day in and day out.  

2) Networking

Most of my repeat clients have come from word of mouth recommendations. People I’ve worked with before casually mention my name to their colleagues and suddenly I have a new client who already trusts that I will deliver. When you are working in the same place for a length of time, you really have to go out of your way to network outside of your immediate peers. If you are freelancing full-time, your network is always expanding even if you aren’t marketing (which you should still be doing), just by virtue of working with more and more new clients and doing good work.  

3) Personal Vision

Lastly, you can lose yourself. In my mind this the single worst thing that has come out of working full time. As freelancers, we work with a variety of brands/people in a given year. You work hard to cultivate a sensibility that your clients hire you for. When you are a working under someone else's umbrella, there is very little room for personal vision. Working as a staffer, you have to succumb to the whims of the business regardless of whether it fits your taste level or not. Don’t get me wrong, you are always compromising to fit the wishes of your client. But more than likely, they hired you not just for your killer button pushing, but for your vision and experience. If you aren't continuing to cultivate that on your own when you finally go out into the world you’ll find you don’t know who you are as an artist and will have a difficult time differentiating yourself in the market. 

I’m certain that there are a million other pros and cons, and these may just be specific to my case. Really, all these can be associated with being a freelancer or a staffer and there is no right answer for all people. Hopefully, if you are considering turning your passion into your career, this gives a tiny bit of insight to help you make your next move. 

Carlton Canary's picture

Carlton Canary is commercial and editorial photographer based in Seattle.

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Locking your career in at a single company in an industry that's on the down swing.

I think there's a point there. There is something to riding out the storm while in a company. Though I have to say, I don't know that the industry is in a downswing. The fact of the matter is that content is more and more important every day. In my mind its less of a downswing and more of a shift. Painful though it may be.

To be honest, the downswing is mostly confined to the self-employed - those industries that need photographers will always need photographers. And skilled, educated ones at that. I would say that if you're looking to get a career in photography, skip the freelance thing and get a degree and find a institution that's hiring. Better than competing against the hordes of people with a camera and dealing with your own health insurance and retirement.

I've been both, and will never go back to the self-employed role. Never. I'll work for Burger King first. Luckily, the field I'm in is growing and stable.

I hope you mean, "get a [business] degree", because getting a degree in photography is almost useless compared to sheer on-the-job training. You can learn enough to score a position as a "staff" photographer in your local community college's photo program for a few dollars; spending $100-200K to learn /just/ photography is an absolutely terrible idea.

Get a degree in marketing, business management, sales, finance, ...anything /but/ photography. Then, just bust your ass to grow your talent and reputation, and the $$$ will much more steadily than any other method.

I have to admit, I do have a BFA in photography. No one has ever asked me if I have a degree, and I usually don't tell clients. Ultimately if your work is up to snuff, and you are a solid relationship builder, you'll likely be fine. The value of a degree (especially in the arts) is often very intangible. That said, I personally learned really well in that setting and was exposed to a lot of concepts that I think most people who study photography only as a commercial practice are really not exposed to. I'm not sure it has much value to my business, but It definitely informs my work.

If at some time you want to teach at a legit school or get a corporate or government job a degree is necessary. For the most part, no degree, no job unless you are a special case.

Often if you want to teach you also need an MFA. But Considering popular opinion regarding degrees in photography, those programs are starting to really suffer. Though I still maintain there is value in higher education. You are right, in those areas a degree is likely needed.

You must be talking about being self-employed, and I agree - if you want to be a self-employed/business owner/photographer/marketer/bookkeeper/janitor you should absolutely skip the photography degree.

If you want a job with an established institution with established photographer roles and established job descriptions, don't even bother handing in your resume without at least a BA in photo on it.

I am on the complete opposite end of your situation Laz. I worked for fours years as a senior photographer for a big retail company with all the benefits and perks. I had healthcare, a steady weekly paycheck, got to be part of big professionally produced shoots, shot with a amazing gear (which was not mine) and had a 40 hour work week, that means weekends I had free. Let me tell you, I HATED it and I would never ever return to being a staff photographer in a company.

At first it was great but then as time passed I found myself doing the same things over and over and not because I wanted to but because I had superiors over my shoulder telling me what and how things had to be done, my creative drive and impulse to create felt boxed in, it was the perfect example of "same shit different day" (pardon my french), I just couldn't deal with the monotony of it all, I needed freedom.

Now as a freelance photographer I feel much better, and sure its hard because I am not just a photographer, I'm a marketer, owner, salesman, bookkeeper, accountant, etc etc but I do get jobs because of my style, because of the photography I like to do. Of course there a slow months but then there are great ones. I guess in the end it depends on where your interests and priorities lie.

One thing's for sure, if you want to be a professional freelance photographer you have to get comfortable dealing with uncertainty, you have to be aware that that there will be hard months but that as long as you hustle and work through it there will always be great months.

I have had a retainer agreement with a company that I've worked with for several years, and it's kind of the best of both worlds. I get to work with the same primary clients (and that relationship is very good) and still do work for other companies outside of my client's category.

I get a guaranteed fee every month that has a modest premium vs. what I was getting doing a la carte work for them. In exchange, they get priority in both my shooting schedule and my editing time commitments. I can take other work but only if it doesn't interfere with any planned shoots or do anything to slow down editing turnaround times.

I feel you, I've been trying to do the same but most companies seem to be reluctant to do so. The problem for me is that where I live/work I have tons of "competitors" who cheap me out of the job, even when the quality of my work is far superior.

Pros: steady paycheck, relatively affordable healthcare.

Cons: overtime, working weekends when you'd rather be gone fishing...

Not always. I never do overtime or weekends. 40 hour work week. Better than the "So you want to own your own business? That's great that you get to choose which 80 hours a week you work!" Oh yes, there's the pain of a required lunch break, that sucks. I also totally miss the marketing all the time instead of actually, you know, shooting. Oh yes, evenings and weekends are personal project time - it's horrible that I can't do it from 8-5 weekdays.

My comment was a bit tongue-in-cheek. There's times when both sides are sharing the same things, other times not.

Really awesome article! As I am looking to go this route than branch into freelancing when I earn enough money from working for a company, I found this article really helpful! Thanks!

Pro: Get to use gear that you could not normally afford
Con: Get to use gear that you could not normally afford

When I do freelance work, I don't know how to function without my Broncolor and Profotos from the studio, and I have a strong urge to purchase Capture One for home use.

I worked as a staff photographer for a newspaper for 5 years.
It is possible to get lots of good/great experience, but it all depends on what comes in the door, what budgets allow for, and if you aren't stuck behind more senior staff who aren't going anywhere.
You will learn to work fast and good, there might be good equipment to use, then again, it could be all beaten up by the person you replaced. I had to put up with constant complaints from the bookkeeper about going over budget, yet never being told what the budget was. It turned out that the bookkeeper was skimming the books.
As a staff photographer you might get lots of work on the side, the stuff your employer doesn't want.
BUT, you will never learn self promotion or self marketing for that inevitable day when the gravy train ends.

I have freelanced in journalism for 10 years. One of the biggest perks is that I still own the rights to all my photos. The press passes got me through the door, the paper got it's shot(s), and I kept the rights. Health insurance would have been nice, but there's some consolation that I still have sellable images that over the course of time (reprints, etc.) continue to pay. If you are an employee (work for hire) in most situations, companies maintain the rights to the photos you take, many times without so much as a photo credit.