I grow weary of reading about the current state of the photography industry from film photography “experts”. The doom and gloom peddlers out there have been saying that still imagery is dead for almost a decade now.
It’s rather discouraging for someone like myself who one day hopes to leave the 9 to 5 behind to earn a living doing this.
The good news is, they’re dead wrong.
The tanking economy
Let’s face it, everyone has had to tighten their belts. The U.S. economy has never really rebounded from 9/11, and it has only gotten worse during the last few years due to a government that spends like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Many indicators show that we still haven’t hit rock bottom…yet.
Photography is largely a service-based leisure industry, which is usually among the first budget that gets cut by both individuals and businesses alike. As such, both portrait and commercial photographers are effected by the slumping and struggling economy.
The dream job for many up and comers was once a staff position at a newspaper. These types of jobs are now few and far between, as print news is for all practical purposes, obsolete. Many local newspapers have shut down completely due to lack of advertising revenue, and those that remain are mere shadows of their former selves.
Even the national papers are feeling the financial pinch, such as the 100+ year old Christian Science Monitor, who closed its doors officially in 2009 and is now solely web-based. The NY Times and many others have been in trouble for years as readership continues to steadily decline. Print news is dead, but print as a whole continues to limp along.
Other printed media, magazines in particular, have not been hit as hard by the economy and advances in technology. Last year, Americans spent an estimated $50 billion on magazine subscriptions, so all hope is not yet lost for photography students seeking staff print jobs.
Amazon.com is a great example. They began as an online book retailer with an unsustainable business model. Instead of becoming another bursting dot com bubble, they reorganized and essentially created the market for e-books. Amazon reshaped itself again a few years ago and now sells just about everything under the sun. Meanwhile, Borders, one of the national book chains that was supposed to put Amazon in the red, has filed for bankruptcy.
The old business adage says that in order to survive, you need to adapt. Many industries have embraced changes in the way the world does business and have flourished. Others went along kicking and screaming, but still made it.
For whatever reason, the photography industry is clinging to practices that no longer work.
If you can no longer sustain business in your core market, there are two choices: close up shop or branch out into new areas. Photographers should offer other services: photo restoration, video production, web and graphic design are among the most viable.
One of the 50 most influential individuals in American photography, Paul Melcher, suggests subscription pricing as an alternative to traditional “hit-and-run” pricing methods:
To make this work, you would have to stop thinking in terms of jobs and start thinking in terms of annual revenue.
Melcher’s time sharing model certainly has merit, but on the surface, it seems as though it would work best for commercial photographers who deal with annual budgets and corporate business clients.
At the very least, Melcher is thinking outside the box, which is more than I can say for most.
The most vocal prophets of the photography apocalypse are grumpy old men like David Hockney.
…the celebrated pop artist who has worked extensively in photography, has fallen out of love with the medium because of its digital manipulation and now believes it is a dying art form.
That was seven years ago, in 2004. It’s not their fault, they simply grew up in a different era. The Greatest Generation hasn’t exactly embraced technology, so when it came time for aging photographers to go digital, most just quit as opposed to learning something new.
The truth is, many film photographers could not make the transition to digital.
In 2007, Peter Plagens wrote Is Photography Dead?, which reads like a snobby critique from an over-educated art critic who spends his time in lounges listening to Indie music, when he’s not out driving his Prius.
The next great photographers—if there are to be any—will have to find a way to reclaim photography’s special link to reality. And they’ll have to do it in a brand-new way.
Have look at Boogie, Mr. Plagens. That is, if you think you can actually handle reality.
Lack of mentors
Photography is one of the arts, and by nature, lends itself well to mentoring and apprenticeships. There are exceptions, but the general consensus among working professionals is: don’t bother, as evidenced in this ill-conceived article by longtime stock photographer, Jim Pickerell.
In the case of young people just starting out, “adapting to change” should mean recognizing that the demand for professionally produced still photos is declining, and then figuring out how you will earn a living doing something other than photography.
Pickerell further advises that photography is just a hobby and no longer a viable source of income, meanwhile linking to his e-book titled “Secrets of Building a Successful Photography Career”.
How ironic. Good luck with the book sales, Jim.
In many art-related fields, incoming talent is cultivated and groomed. In photography, this seems to happen only at the highest levels of the field from the likes of Joe McNally, David Hobby, Chase Jarvis, and Scott Kelby. All of whom give back to the photography community by openly sharing information and hosting seminars and workshops.
For the average “working pro”, the local photography studio owners, there is a universal standoffish attitude towards newcomers. They claim that low prices of DSLR cameras have opened the flood gates, putting good cameras in the hands of amateurs who are taking pro jobs and forcing them to lower their prices.
The local pro is trying to preserve his means of earning income. After all, the apprentice he takes on today could very well become his competition tomorrow. In my mind, these pros either have a lack of confidence in themselves as an artist or as a businessman. Probably both.
A misinformed public
Camera manufacturers have played the megapixel game for a long time, and for the most part, the average consumer is convinced that a higher MP count means a better camera. Every soccer mom not only has a cool minivan and Vera Bradley purse, she’s also toting a big ass camera, or she’s handing it off to dad who spends more time trying to figure out how it works than actually using it.
Professional photographers have done very little to convince the public that it’s not about the camera.
Most consumers who can afford a high end DSLR don’t know 1/10th of what it’s capable of, and still shoot in auto mode. That is not photography, it’s a means to an end.
The same can be said for one-stop-shops, like Wal Mart’s portrait studio. Why pay twice the fee of a professional photographer when you can just get some shots taken after an afternoon of shopping? Also, just about everyone knows someone with a “big camera”. Why should couples pay upwards of $2000 for a wedding photographer when Cousin Joe can do the same job for a case of beer?
The industry must evolve, and the change has to be led by those of us who have embraced technology. This undertaking isn’t without its own challenges, as photography and the internet haven’t had a very friendly relationship. How can the artist take advantage of social media to spread his work without the risk of it being stolen? This very topic was discussed today by an ASMP panel in New York City.
Sharing sites like Shutterstock and iStockPhoto have all but decimated the stock photography end of the business. No wonder Jim Pickerell is so salty. Throw in Google Images, Flickr, and the Creative Commons movement, and it’s getting a lot tougher for a pro to keep tabs on and receive credit for his work.
In the days of film, photography was viewed completely different that it is today. It was more of an art form, or at the very least, too technical for the average person to simply dabble in as a hobby. Digital changed all that, and there’s no going back. I also think photography has lost some of its romanticism due to technology and mainstream use.
The camera is no longer the tool of an artist, it’s just another techno-gadget.
There are a lot of forces at work against the photography industry. I argue that by and large, it is destroying itself from within. Technology is not the enemy here, and neither are amateurs or the economy.
More than anything else, professionals need to rethink their strategy and business practices.
It’s time for a complete overhaul of the system, beginning with a back to basics look at our roots as a service industry. In short, what can pros provide to the customer that they can’t get through other means? With big box retailers and the internet plowing under mom and pop stores across all business sectors, the key here is service and customization.
There has to be a concerted effort to educate the consumer that what pros offer is better than the El Cheapo solution provided elsewhere. Remember, pros are filling a need by providing a service. Make that service stand out from the competition, because you can’t compete on price against Cousin Joe.
Consumers want it faster, easier, and cheaper. With Google and social media at their fingertips, it’s very easy to find someone else to provide them with what they need. Photographers need to prove why they can do it better. Better holds more value to most people than faster, easier, and cheaper.
Photography is not dead, it has just evolved. The question is, will the industry evolve along with it?