This might be appalling to some or realistic to others, but I think if we don’t talk about the state of the photography profession, we’ll eventually regret it. If it’s more than a hobby, how has the industry changed? Is it a good change? Has technology helped or hurt the professional?
As with everything in life, the only constant is change. We would be stupid to accept that photography as a profession is actually changing. It is subjective whether the development of the industry is good or bad for the professional.
In the past I have met several professional portrait photographers who have easily made a living photographing families, seniors and children. Two studios in my hometown have both been in existence for over 30 years and made a living by selling quality work at industry leading prices. Today both studios are out of business, I suspect for slightly different reasons. Trying to investigate the reason for the failure would be a bit challenging as I don’t think just one thing is to blame.
Going back to the way the industry has changed, I know that one of the studios has continued to do things exactly the way they’ve always done it, and that’s almost never a recipe for success unless you stick to them adapting to changing technologies and times, it is likely you will fall behind and eventually become irrelevant. But that alone didn’t do it. Combine poor customer service, aggressive sales tactics, and a lack of marketing, while all of this is coupled with a huge increase in the number of competitors, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to see why the company would start having some problems.
Blame the WACs
Everyone wants to be quick to blame the WACs (With A Camera, referred to as MWAC, GWAC, etc.) for flooding all local markets with subpar work and cheap or free prices.
This was a big hot seat issue in my area as there are well over 600 photographers in a town about a 10 mile radius. It’s seen by some as a double edged sword as many of us like minded people want to help and let’s face it, photography is a fun and rewarding thing to do. Teaching someone and watching them grow is also fun and rewarding. But I think we’d also be foolish to think that the newcomers don’t affect at least some of the pros’ customer base. Many professionals (including one of the long-term studios mentioned earlier) took the attitude “our work is better, and our clients will see that”. That’s been true for a while, and you can’t always blame someone else when your business is struggling.
But have the newcomers hurt the industry? Some will argue that they have, citing the deluge of social media work and word of mouth that overwhelmingly overwhelms every other marketing source.
Technological advances have made it attractive for many new photographers to enter the industry, and after a while many newcomers start charging (often too little) for the work, which in turn reduces many clients’ expectations to those of in recent years has $50 worth of sessions with all the images on one disc. Whether you agree or disagree with this practice, I think we can all agree that in some ways it has implications for the industry as a whole.
Help the newbies?
This has been an interesting chapter in my career from the beginning to where I am now. Full Disclosure: I used to work as a retoucher for one of these long established studios. Spending 50+ hours a week with an older, established photographer has made me have the same views on newbies, amateurs and the like. It wasn’t a positive experience. For years I had the same attitude as her. I hated the newbies and I really wanted to make sure people saw the quality of my work and I thought I would be good on that path. I was quite confused looking back on the situation and if I had continued down this path and behaved the same way, I would have failed just as much. It was obvious that a change was needed, so I did a kind of reboot and looked at everything with new eyes.
I have a different perspective on the industry now and it has helped tremendously in changing the things that are in my power (basically me). Being negative hadn’t grown anything. I am currently teaching and it has not impacted my business in any way.
Established versus new beginnings
Many of the successful studios have been established and firmly anchored in the community for years. Some will say that in today’s market, it’s a lot harder to establish or take off than it used to be. Not necessarily impossible as there are new success stories, but I think we can all agree that the difficulty has certainly increased. I know a lot of very talented photographers who are often more skilled than these established ones and they just can’t seem to gain traction.
A good reputation and an established customer base can definitely help keep a business going. Returning customers and referrals are often the lifeblood of a studio. But where is the new generation of talented professionals? Can you still establish yourself as a new studio or has the industry crossed a threshold of no return?
It’s not just photography. I spoke to an established taxidermist who said that if he started his business now with his same skills, the amount of new taxidermists flooding the market would make it impossible for him to get started. He is very busy and successful, riding on his business of over 20 years. He cited another local taxidermist with excellent skills who couldn’t make it due to competition and is now doing a regular job. Sound familiar? It’s not just about photography, but I think we have two choices: we can do what we’ve been doing, or we can adapt and do what’s necessary to keep the industry going. But my research has shown that the photography industry is growing faster than almost any other industry. So that just prolongs the same situation.
I have observed and learned that many of the professionals in the industry that I have always looked up to now have a full-time job or a part-time source. In an industry that was once booming with full-time professionals, I find it an interesting change to see highly talented people doing regular jobs and shooting “on the side”. Did that in itself violate the perceived legitimacy of the professional?
Technology has certainly given us some fantastic new tools to work with: cameras that have incredibly low noise, low-light capabilities, lights that pretty much cancel sync speed with flash, lenses that are razor-sharp, wide-open Lenses are, nice touchscreen LCDs to zoom and check on photos just taken. All of these things are wonderful tools, but they also make it a lot easier for more and more people to get into the industry. Again just an observation. I’m not suggesting that this is necessarily a bad thing, just evaluating how this could impact us all and our bottom line.
Is there a future for full-time workers?
So, in summary, is there a future for full-time professionals in the industry?
I personally think there is a future, but we have to adapt and change to survive. If you let things go the way they’ve always been, failure is almost guaranteed. This pill is difficult to swallow because most people like to keep things the way they are. We resist change, but learning to adapt is probably crucial to surviving in an increasingly saturated marketplace.
This is certainly not meant to sound like a negative article, but more of observing and learning and making sure we are aware of the changes around us. It’s often so easy to get lost when you’re too close to the forest to see the trees. It’s an elephant in the room that many photographers don’t want to talk about, but I think awareness is a critical element to continued success.
What do you think? Does a full-time professional have a future?
Image via Little Visuals.