Motor Sports Photography as a Job

Posted on 23 Jun, 2014 by Scott Jones
MotoGP photographers Mugello

I get emails from time to time asking questions about MotoGP photography or photography in general, and occasionally the answers I give might be interesting to others as well. Here’s one of the questions I get most often, in one form or another.

Q: I’d like to be a motor sports photographer and am wondering about the business side. Does doing it as a job take the fun out of it?

I don’t know that it takes the fun out of it, because successfully selling your images adds a new element of satisfaction. But compared to shooting motor sports for pleasure, doing so as a way to pay your bills and earn a profit is a much different experience. And there is a big difference between doing a creative thing like photography as a job and doing a creative thing as a business.

Not everyone is interested and/or suited to running a business. When it’s your job, you don’t have to worry about the business concerns, which are the boss’ problems. But you also probably end up being directed by the boss about what to shoot and how to do it. You give up some creative freedom in exchange for freedom from the business concerns.

When you are running a photography business in which you are also the photographer, the amount of photography you do drops dramatically because you’re also doing lots of other jobs a business requires to run successfully. You are also the marketing person, the accountant and bookkeeper, the inventory manager, the shipping department, the bill collector, the social media expert, and the sales department. None of these roles requires picking up a camera, but there you are, processing invoices, creating marketing materials, pitching your products to interested buyers, trying to find more interested buyers, and on and on. Suddenly you’re not doing much photography!

My colleagues who have motor sports photography jobs generally work for agencies of some sort, either large ones like Getty or AP, or smaller shops that specialize in motor sports images. In general, these photographers have their expenses paid by the business they work for, receive assignments to shoot certain parts of the event over the course of the weekend, and turn over their images to that business. Some retain copyright to their work and others do not. These photographers share little or no responsibility for selling the photos they create. The business does that, collects fees so that it can pay its employees’ expenses and wages, and keep enough profit to pay its own overhead and profit to the owner.

My colleagues who have motor sports photography businesses, as I do, not only do the photography, but also are responsible for the marketing, administration, bookkeeping, and other tasks I mentioned above that are required for a business to succeed. It’s then a common goal to make the business successful enough that the photographer who started it can hire people to do the ‘business’ tasks so that the he or she can return to the photography itself. This process generally does not happen overnight.

So to return to the question, I don’t think doing it as a job takes much of the fun out of it. There’s a definite appeal to having expenses and a salary paid for photographing some sort of racing. But speaking frankly: Good luck getting a job photographing motor sports. These jobs are rare and getting rarer as budgets and customers decline. When an agency shooter retires from that role for some reason, that job is much more likely to go to an established freelancer with a strong body or work and reputation for reliability than a newcomer with neither.

Anyone, however, can start his or her own business of motor sports photography, and with each season those who give it a try come and go. There are times when I’m not sure which of those I am doing! I do know firsthand that running a small business based on a product of motor sports images is a considerable challenge.

I often think that someone with a talent for business first and no experience in photography could do what I do much more successfully. If you knew very well how to run a business, you’d only have the photography to learn, and as is easy to see if you take the time to look, mediocre pictures make up a large part of what is bought and sold. So you really don’t have to be all that good at the photography part to sell your work. Being a natural at business is, in my opinion, a greater natural gift than being a natural photographer, illustrator, painter, musician, designer, baker, tailer, barber, mechanic etc. etc.

To return to the question one final time, I’ll say to conclude this post that business acumen is what truly distinguishes the professional from the amateur, rather than the quality of the photography. So if you enjoy motor sports photography and want to pursue that pleasure for its own sake, save yourself the trials of the business side and just enjoy the photography. Even if you don’t have a photo pass, which many see as an automatic path to better, more satisfying images, get really good at shooting without a pass and amaze people with what you can do from the spectator side of the fence. (That’s how most pros started off, after all.)

I’m a firm believer in the Do What You Love principle. I love racing and I love photography so being able to combine both into a business is fantastic, and never something that I take for granted. I’m regularly amazed at my own success and often wonder how I got as far as I have. It wasn’t long ago that I had no expectation of ever selling a photo or having a credential for any event, let alone a season pass for MotoGP. So I fully understand why others desire to do the same thing I’m so lucky to be able to do. But if you want to be in business, and you also happen to like photography (it does’t matter what subject you prefer), then learn your business skills first. Consider aperture and shutter speed to be as important as your marketing skills. Actually, marketing skills are more important.
Have something to add?

I’d love to hear your experience related to photography as a business or a job. Please feel free to comment!

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