Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Photography as a Profession: Its Future

...Or lack of one.

I don't envy young or new photographers starting out these days, leastwise, those with a mind towards making a career out of it. It's a tough business made tougher by the economy, technology, and more competition than ever.

It doesn't matter whether your hopes and dreams include being a photo-journalist or shooting editorial, fashion, glamour/tease, commercial, events, or most anything else. These days, the future for professional photographers looks like a bleak landscape, more so for those just starting out.

The economy sucks. No startling news there. Newspapers and magazines are shutting down in droves. Soccer Moms and Uncle Alberts are shooting weddings and events for near nothing. Everyone, it seems, is as good as the pros or think they are. What's happened to the career photographers who once owned these businesses and others? They're now competing with everyone else for whatever is left, photo-wise. It's like a pack of dogs fighting for scraps.

Photographic technologies have moved forward by leaps and bounds. Never has the technological state-of-the-art been so dynamic or seen such advances in such a short time! The results? Photography approaches no-brainer status, i.e., in terms of capturing images that are, or seem, competent in terms of their technical aspects.

Competition is overwhelming. Everyone, it seems, is a shooter. And many of them are shooting stock or posting pics on FlickR and elsewhere or giving images away for bragging rights, allowing the folks who once paid well for good images to pick and choose photos that are good-enough and pay little or nothing for them.

Of the many iconic photographers of yesteryear, how many of them would be able to make a dent in today's photo markets? Sure, talent is meaningful and the cream rises to the top. But when there's so little room for the cream to rise, and when so much cream (and other stuff masquerading as cream) is poured into the mix, the odds of standing out become longer.

From where I'm sitting, these trends will continue. For the career photographer, current or would-be, the future doesn't look so rosy. It looks more difficult than ever. Yes, some will always succeed. But the number of people who comprise those "some" are becoming fewer and fewer.

On the other hand, it's probably the greatest time ever to be a hobbyist!

The pretty girls at the top taking a bubble bath are dark-haired Sofia and blond Devin. Snapped that one in a house in Vegas in '07. The future didn't look so rosy then either, athough not as un-rosy-like as today. Image captured with a Canon 5D w/85mm prime. As I recall, I used a single light to illuminate them: A monolight with a Photoflex 5' Octodome to modify and, if I also remember right, a flex-fill reflector for some fill. (That bathroom wasn't very big.)

Note: This update is a cut-and-paste of a post I made on MM this morning. Since many of you aren't big fans of MM, I thought I'd re-post here. I was overdue for an update, after all.

The MM version of this update really blew up and it's still going strong. If any of you who read this blog are people who also participate on MM, and you responded thoughtfully to my MM OP, please feel free to follow my lead and cut-and-paste your MM response here, in the PGS comments. I'm sure there are some who visit here, and not MM, who would like to hear your thoughts on this.


RandJ-Photo said...

What really gets to me as I teach another class of people that will soon be giving their pictures away to some of my potential clients is the money they have to spend on gear.

The difference between a pro and an amateur is how much they can afford to spend on gear.

Alex said...

Jimmy, you know my feelings on this issue. It aggravates me right down to my toes. I'm on the verge of lowering my prices again, because I can't compete with the frauds.

The other day I daydreamed about whether or not I could sue one or more of the major camera companies for driving the photography industry into the ground just to line their pockets. Wouldn't work, of course, but it's nice to dream.

I guess the only thing I can do is out shoot the amateurs, bitch about them in any public forum I can, and keep my chin up.

Anonymous said...

Interesting timing, as I had a conversation with an "up and comer" today that had justified out assisting and renting his gear to "new" photographers at a cut rate "just to get the experience".

It's not necessarily the willingness of the client to pay, or the flood of new high powered gear that will do the damage. It's those who claim to want to succeed, but do so at the cost of the marketplace.

I wonder if the retirement plan at Walmart is a decent one? Then again, by the time I get there, I likely wouldn't do anything but cuss at the customers...

Anonymous said...

I feel really connected to this point the crisis in sunny latin america has only worsened the condition of the market and the number of people reaching to those who give away photos for nothing...

And it is truly disheartening because you come to realize that a lot of people don´t care if our photos are better than the one the dude with the "yesterday bought" rebel the clients want cheap or free photos...

This is a small market and a society that has set aside any form of culture (written, visual you name it)... so the odds are worse here! heck I´m planning on moving to Europe!!!

Today I was talking with an AD and she was showing me the photos an agency send them for a casting they needed for a tv spot the photos didn´t showed anything good on the model and the client when they showed to them said they looked like "whores" (and to tell you the truth for a commercial model portfolio the photos were not the right kind of photos) and didn´t wanted to use a model with such a look for their brand, but hey that´s what the model agency gets from allowing anyone that gives them free photos to shoot their models.

It reminds me of a previous post you did talking on how the adult business in the USA is taking a big blow from the "I have a thong you have a camera let´s be adult film makers!".

Hopefully at the end of the crisis clients will revert this kind of behavior, hopefully.

My best wishes.


Killjoy said...

When my wife and I went looking for a wedding photographer (albeit that was quite a few years ago) we didn't look at the prices.
We looked at the quality of work from the photographers. We looked at the past work they did.
We looked at referrals from previous clients.
Once we found a photographer we liked, then we looked at what packages he offered.
It's too bad today's economy makes people try to skimp on things.
They just don't realize that most of the time, you get what you pay for.

RHW said...

Anon (another Anon) brought up Walmart. Do you know why Walmart does so well? Pricing and undercutting. Do you know why they can do that? The goods and manufacturing being done in China, India, Indonesia, etc. Do you know why the manufacturers are using Off Shore? Wages, costs, and other such matters that cut into profit. Do you know why Walmart does so well? All those workers here who are without jobs and can only afford the products and pricing that Walmart can do.

Sort of see where this is going?

Ashley Karyl said...

This is a very serious point you are making Jimmy, though you have to give up MM because it's not good for your health!

I think a big issue though which needs to be added here is the way that big business has ruthlessly exploited photographers in recent years. Stock agencies selling images for a dollar with amateurs lining up to part of a "community"; newspapers organising "competitions" where inexperienced photographers (who don't read the small print) end up losing all rights to their images.

The examples of these types of practices are endless and I am dumbstruck at the stupidity of many new photographers who think they know it all. It's just as if you or I suddenly decided we were dentists just because owned a drill.

Truthfully most clients still want top quality images and I don't believe that improvements in technology has changed that aspect. It's merely that many more individuals now feel a desire to produce images just because the "film & processing" is free and companies are leaving too many decisions to accountants who are very quick to make blanket cuts in expenses without considering the negative consequences.

I agree fully though that in the future there will be fewer photographers out there earning a full time income, though I also see from personal experience that there is much to be said for finding niche markets that many fail to notice.

Von R Buzard said...

I guess I'm more optimistic. There is a time coming, a new era of media. It won't be with newspapers or magazines as we now know it. Usage rights will have to be rewritten. In the long run there will be more images needed then ever before. And don't worry, the cream will always rise to the top. In the new media quaility will be KING

Ed Verosky said...

I guess someone needs to tell Terry Richardson and Todd Hido that their careers are over. I mean, if the public's access to good equipment is the culprit.

Photography does indeed derive its monetary value form scarcity. Generic stock photos are devalued because they're everywhere. Generic photography is the same.

There were lots of Yashica T4s out there, but there is only one Terry Richardson (and that encompasses more than his photography).

See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k8i3VETLflk

So, photographers, what makes YOU valuable? That's the key to the answer.

MarcWPhoto said...

First of all, re: all the people who say this is the same argument that has been made for every advance since the Brownie.

They're wrong. You're right.

Why? Because this time it really is different. Every "revolution" has radically increased the number of people who could produce good quality images with whatever the "revolutionary" tool was, but the digital revolution is a quantum leap.

Quite aside from the numbers - which are not comparable, 35mm auto-program wasn't a patch on what a $200 10MP digicam means to the number of shooters of "good enough" pics - there is the matter of reliability. Up until now, there was no "saving it in post" unless the need was either so dire, or the problem so small, that it was economically feasible to do it. If you needed the shots, first time, you got a pro. Because if you blew the highlights or clipped the shadows or otherwise pushed the film beyond its limits, or you just screwed up, that was that. Go take the picture again.

Now, with RAW image files and Photoshop, the limits just moved back a mile. The definition of "good enough" has fundamentally changed. Not because we couldn't retouch film, but because we couldn't do it fast or cheap enough. (How many film retouchers would have killed multiple puppies for an "undo" command? Or a layer palette? Or the ability to make unlimited copies WITH NO GENERATIONAL LOSS?) The difference between the ability, training and materials needed to process and retouch wet-collodion prints and the ability to process and retouch 35mm film ditto is as naught between what's needed to process and retouch ANY kind of film and what's needed to process and retouch digital imagery.

This also impacts what clients will pay for photography and what the expect to get for it in another way: historically high-quality processing and retouching was expensive and time-consuming. They either paid the photographer for it - and that was the exception and not the rule - or they paid for it after they got the negatives. In either case, there was MUCH more incentive to get it right in the camera to save the money and the time. Now, processing is nearly instantaneous and nearly free, and retouching is easier, faster, and has a much larger supply base. You don't have to get it perfect in the camera any more to save money and time: you just have to get it close enough to justify the vastly smaller post cost.

Furthermore, Polaroid backs notwithstanding, digital introduced another quantum change: the ability to SEE IT NOW. A pro of yesteryear didn't *know* he got the shot, and he might do some redundancy, but by and large he had *confidence* that he got the shot because he knew what he was doing. Now, even if the settings on the camera are an utter mystery to him, somebody can sit there, twist knobs, and blaze away and look at the review screen until he gets a hit. Granted, that's not efficient, but his cost per click is near zero and he's charging so little that the client doesn't care how long it took or how many frames he exposed to get the good-enough shot.

Secondly, as to what we can do about it?


The industry is bound and determined to reduce photographers' rights and now they have more leverage than ever to do it. There will always be some clients who demand quality images and reliable production, but they will become less and less common as the public becomes more and more used to good-enough and inflation continues to eat us all alive. People like quality but few of them will pay for it, and even fewer will have the money to do so as time goes on.


Anonymous said...

I make most of my living from retouching and I hear the stories from photographers all the time. It seems every week the clients are asking them to drop their fees yet again. Some clients seem surprised when they discover that they actually have to pay for the photography they've just commissioned.

I know a number of people who have a regular "day job" but who refer to themselves as "photographers". They post images on Flickr and they drop words like "shoot" and "assistant" in conversation but essentially they're play-acting at being "photographers" in the same way that kids play at being a secret agent or fire fighter. Try confronting them about it and you get the "That's the way it is now - deal with it!" response.

Doing "shoots" for free is a great ego trip if you've already got a day job that pays your mortgage and puts the kids through school. If you make your bread and butter from photography then it's not an option because, realistically, how do you compete with "free"?

I have a saw, a hammer, and a couple of chisels in my garage and I can put a shelf up but don't by any stretch of imagination think of myself as a carpenter but it seems that all you have to do is own a camera and you can call yourself a "photographer".

Technology is redefining the industry and will continue to do so - maybe we need to redefine "photographer" too.

Ed Verosky said...

I think some pro photographers need to redefine who they want to compete with, and who their clients will be.

If you compete on price, or sell to those where price is priority over the quality of the photography, you're in a constant race toward $0.00.

Why would you do that?

PNW Jim said...

I might be something of the exception but from my long term perspective there have always been cheapskates and there have been the career clients. FedEx meant next day, Fax meant pretty darn quick so it hurt the couriers and FTP is almost instant. So what. We've all adapted. I don't have to waste my time in a boring lab printing, or waiting the hour and a half for E-6 and I certainly don't worry about traffic for a delivery deadline.
Heck many of our clients are literally virtual and yet nearly instantaneous in image A/D-ing.
My iPhone creates images and so does my dentist's Nikon D3x. So what? We aren't and never were Merlin and we're certainly not curing cancer.
The question is always "what images"? As long as you can define that clearly and market accordingly you can and will remain a "real" photographer.
Sorry, Dude, for the rant but geez. This isn't the end of the world. It's just another crisis. Nothing more.

jimmyd said...

@PNW Jim,

I agree this crisis isn't the end of the world. But I also agree with MarcW that the digital revolution isn't simply change, it's a quantum leap of change.

There will be photographers who will thrive, finding opportunities in this monumental change. There will be photographers who will suffer and fail as a result of it.

My personal prediction? I'll apply the 80/20 rule: 80% will either fail or suffer. 20% will succeed to various degrees. Of those 20% who have measure of success, I'll again apply the 80/20 rule with 80% just doing okay and the lesser percentage succeeding in big ways.

The biggest reason I believe such a small percentage will succeed in big ways is a continuing decline in available work that offers opportunities for BIG success.

I could be wrong. In fact, I'd love to be wrong.

jorvik said...

Well Jimmy, you certainlt stirred up a deluge of comments with this one around the globe, even on a forun here in Perth,Western Australia. It is a flickr group called Photoraphers in Perth, and one of the members posted a link to your post on MM, and the comments and debate has been raging ever since!

jimmyd said...


LOL! I guess I'm a shit-stirrer of international renown! A virtual international can opener... cans of worms, that is. Still LOLing! Thanks for heads-up