The End of “Professional” Photography
A lot of bandwidth has been burned up lately on the subject of how digital photography and video has destroyed professional still photography as a career and an industry. The thought goes something like this: digital photography has made imaging so easy and inexpensive that still photography as an occupation is no longer viable. People don’t need professional photographers anymore because anyone can make their own images that look pretty good using inexpensive and highly automated digital cameras and computers. Young people looking for a career with which they can earn a decent living should look elsewhere. Professional still photography is finished. Film photo labs are disappearing. The whole skill set of traditional photography is obsolete. Some have even suggested that the still photograph itself is on its way to obsolescence. Do I have you completely depressed yet?
There is some truth in this perception, but I think many of the conclusions miss the mark. What is undeniable is that the economics have turned negative for still photographers seeking to earn a living. With many millions of high quality digital cameras in circulation and broadband internet as a delivery system, it’s just too easy to get images quickly and at very low cost. Anyone with a computer, internet connection and a credit card, anywhere in the world, can quickly scan massive archives of “stock” images online, and purchase usage rights for ridiculously low amounts of money. So, yeah, to those who are planning to set up a photo studio on Main Street to shoot stock, portraits and weddings on an RB67, lovingly producing prints in a darkroom on a Bessler 67 enlarger, it is time to rethink the vocational choices.
Digital photography is a paper tiger. Digital photography in and of itself has little bearing on the cataclysmic change that has swept over professional photography. The “Information Age” and the Internet have changed the way we consume and disseminate media. If we were still shooting on film cameras, scanning our negatives and uploading them to the web, we would still have the same problem with supply and demand, perhaps only slightly reduced due to the expense and time of film development. With the web, we have developed a highly efficient delivery system for images and many more quality images are readily available, but at the same time, we consume far more images and much more information than we did in the old days of paper. Ultimately, I think the digital revolution is a wash on the supply and demand scale. Nevertheless, we do face increased pressure on earnings due to the ready availability of high quality images via the web.
There is a myth floating around that I would like to address. It is that video is going to make still photography obsolete. This is nonsense. I have a photo of my mother framed and sitting on a table in my study. I like the photo because it reminds me constantly of someone who loves me unconditionally and is always on my side. But, having a video of my mom running 24-7 in my study would be totally creepy. As long as there are walls, brochures, documents, signs, show booths, posters, packages, crime scenes, web sites, weddings and relatives, there will be a demand for still photography. Video requires the support of a highly complex, energy intensive and expensive infrastructure. Still photography does not. Once a photo is printed, it requires no machines or power to display. Still photographs operate on our perception differently. They invite, but do not demand our attention in the way a video with jarring audio will do. There will always be a need for still photography. It is wise for someone looking to make a living in photography to master video, but it is not because still photography is in imminent danger of obsolescence.
I want to take this discussion in a different direction. What if someone told you that you would never again make a single nickel from photography? Would you stop making photographs? I wouldn’t. Certainly, it would be upsetting to think that no one would care enough about my photography to pay for a picture, but I wouldn’t stop. I shot photographs long before I ever made any money from photography because I just love to make pictures. That’s the long and the short of it. I relate to the world visually. If my cameras all went away, I’d draw pictures. Birds fly; fish swim… etc. A long time ago, I read one of those “advice to young writers” things, and the grizzled veteran writing the piece suggested a simple test: “Ask yourself, ‘do I have to write?’ If the answer is ‘no,’ forget it. Find something else to do.” I would suggest that this same test works well in today’s photography environment. If one’s object is primarily to make a lot of money, photography is surely the wrong vehicle. It may also be that our traditional notion of the “professional photographer” no longer really works. Yet none of this means we will stop making photographs.
So, we have established that still photography isn’t going away; the economics of the still photography business are dreadful; and, our model for the “professional photographer” has changed forever. How do we respond? Assuming the decision is not to give up and find something else to do, here are some thoughts:
There will always be a market for talent.
If you are one of those rare individuals who can consistently create compelling images with a camera, there is a demand for your work that will pay you. You just have to find it. If you are not one of these rare birds, do yourself a favor and don’t kid yourself. The path of self deception is painful and expensive.
Owning a camera does not make you a photographer. It makes you a camera owner.
I own three lovely guitars, but I do not consider myself a “musician” in the professional sense. I play what I want to when I want to. I don’t play standards in the clubs at night, teach or compose music. The last time I was in a recording studio was to photograph people who are professional musicians. There’s nothing wrong with being an amateur or a collector of cameras. What’s important is to know the difference. Professionals learn their market and produce a quality product that people want and are willing to pay for. This implies proficiency, talent and consistency.
Professionals practice professionalism.
[Activating “Master of the Obvious” Subsystem] Professionals of any discipline have some common behaviors. They show up on time. They dress appropriately. They get the training they need as suggested by industry standards. They find employment in their chosen field. They procure professional grade equipment appropriate to the job. They deliver the goods promised on time. They don’t embarrass or disappoint their clients.
Network and communicate.
You can be a great talent, but if no one knows you’re there, you will starve and be terribly frustrated. Don’t argue about which mode works; use everything you can to make your market aware of you. Don’t ignore traditional forms of advertising. Participate in local organizations where you can make new contacts. Contribute some time to local charities. Even in this age of “social media,” I remain a huge fan of the personal contact. You aren’t likely to get a call from a Madison Avenue ad agency just because you have a cool website, but the guy to whom you gave a business card at the chamber of commerce meeting will remember you when he needs a brochure photo of his latest swimming pool installation.
Develop an eye for change.
This is another piece of obvious, but it is worth saying: develop an eye for change, newness and novelty. I don’t care how good you are, you will have a tough time selling a photo of El Capitan in Yosemite simply because so many great shots have already been done of it. However, if El Capitan collapses into the creek, and you’re the first one out there to get the shot, you have a marketable photo. No one will pay you for a photo of an iPhone 3, but if you happen to get a shot of an iPhone 6, that’s money in the bank. So, what changes? People, fashions, lifestyles, sports, technology, entertainment, wars, politics and the like are some areas which constantly change. If you can produce a photo of something that most people haven’t seen yet, odds are good you can make money on it. Chances are that it will not be that cool close-up of a dandelion you shot while walking your dog in the park.
Remember why we do this.
Being a photographer is like being a minister or a teacher in one way: if you’re only doing it for the money, you have a serious problem. Some wit on the web noted that, “The quickest way to make money in photography is to sell your camera.” That’s more truth than joke. If money is the primary objective, find another way to make it. If you pass the “Do I have to do this?” test, then set aside the artificial dichotomy of amateur/professional. Think of yourself simply as a photographer with no limiting adjectives. Let your craft and vision grow and take you where it will. The only viable reason to do photography is that you love it. Money alone will not carry you through, but passion for the art will. A bit of talent helps as well.
I don’t believe we’re facing the end of professional photography, not by a long shot. In many ways, this is the most exciting time to be a photographer since film was invented. We are witnessing a massive sea change in the way our world delivers and consumes media. The real key to survival in the digital age is to understand this change and let it work for us rather than against us.