Are Photographers Aboard a Sinking Ship?

Are Photographers Aboard a Sinking Ship?

The photography industry suffered a seismic shift with the advent of digital cameras, yet it may be the ubiquitous camera phone that sounds the death knell of the industry as we know it. Everywhere in every hand is instant access to high-quality image-making technology that has forever altered the landscape of photography from what it means to be a photographer to how the viewing public perceives the value of images and image creation. Are professional photographers aboard a sinking ship, or is it simply time for us to learn to swim on our own?

The collective blood of photographers the world over begins to boil at the mere mention of exposure. Articles, tweets, blog posts, and Instagram stories about potential clients trying to exchange exposure for goods and services are released daily. We gather in Facebook groups to rail against the temerity of anyone entitled enough to ask us to trade our hard work for something as nebulous as “exposure.” The memes abound.

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while now, and I’ve come to suspect that we, as photographers, are missing the point entirely. While we are busy taking offense, we’re missing the flashing red sign that’s warning us of a curve in the road ahead. Rather than taking such requests, which are not only made by private clients but major news outlets and big-name brands as a personal offense, we might want to see these requests as a symptom of an alteration in the way society views and values photography.

An image that took months to plan, finance, and coordinate. What kind of compensation should I expect for a photo like this?
Author Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum at Great Sand Dunes National Park. MUA: Kim Clay | Assistant: Kevin Davis.

We are inundated with imagery. Once a high-quality camera reached the fingertips of everyone with a cell phone and social media allowed us to instantaneously share images of our everyday lives, the inherent value of photography was bound to change. Of course, the basic concept of supply and demand tells us that overabundance drives down price. Competition of this level also forces business to compete based on price, which leads to a downward spiral and desperation to get work in front of more eyes by any means necessary. Articles are being written and statuses shared about the value of photography, which are aimed at other photographers in an effort to convince them to stop devaluing the industry by working for free. To my mind, this is as futile as tilting at windmills. Even if such advice reached every photographer on the planet, there would still be hobbyists and non-photographers who have no compunctions sharing their photos with news outlets and brands on Instagram. In addition, the shift toward potential clients offering exposure as a form of payment has to be understood in context. 

Outside of the hyper-availability of quality (read: technically sound) imagery, I think it’s incumbent upon us to recognize that social capital has become a true currency. In an economy where people are freer than ever to curate their information intake, mass marketing is slowly losing ground to niche interests who can gain and keep that most valued commodity: attention. Attention is the reason companies pay millions of dollars to run ads during the Super Bowl. A captive audience is potential income waiting to be leveraged. Even huge corporations are diversifying their advertising to appeal to individual markets. This means that being able to speak to a network comprised of potential clients has actual value. The caveat to this is that not all exposure is created equal, and no one is ever compelled to accept exposure in exchange for work, but ignoring this shift in the economy of image-making and the changes making this shift possible is turning a blind eye to the warning signs.   

Since the change wasn’t in image production but the market itself, the effect has been much more insidious. Photographers are seeing the symptoms and missing the diagnosis. How many photographers will be left without an income because they tried to apply their tried and true approach to a market that changed under their feet?  No one wants to be the last holdout in a dying market, but what if the market isn’t dying? What if it’s only changing in ways for which we have not yet adapted?

The Nightwatcher

How do I adapt to make an image like this profitable?

Portrait photographers have been sounding the warning for years now as the bar to entry into the industry has become all but invisible, changing clients’ expectation of pricing. Now, we see rights grabs in the commercial realm by large corporations looking to populate their Instagram feeds, websites devoted entirely to free stock images, and well-respected news companies approaching photojournalists for free images usage. Platforms like Unsplash provide images free for even commercial use without requiring so much as attribution. The landscape is changing.

In a sea of technically sound images, amid a rising tide of exposure and reposts with credit, how do photographers stay afloat? Better yet, how do photographers learn to swim? It is becoming clear that the photographers who will not only survive but thrive in this shifting market are those who:

  • cultivated a unique and recognizable voice
  • are strong businesspeople
  • diversify their income with supplementary revenue streams such as teaching 
  • add additional specialties such as video and retouching
  • add value to their client's lives and businesses beyond simple imagery

Of course, these qualities would (hopefully) make someone successful in any market, but when supply grows to the highest it has ever been with no sign of slowing down and price drops all the way down to free, new paths have to be forged and new skills built, else professionals disappear entirely. In a recent Dedpxl interview with Mikael Cho, the founder of Unsplash, Zack Arias said something that is incredibly apropos to this situation. He asked the founder, "how do you monetize free?" The fact is that industries, entrepreneurs, and other business people have been monetizing free for a long time: free e-books or guides provided to clients for the exchange of their email address, free quotes, buy one get one free, a free download with signing up for a membership, free Kindle books to drive up visibility, a free trial period, and the list goes on. In every case, the point of offering something for free is to generate buzz and convince the client that the business is providing value. Free images are highly shareable; witness the success of the meme and every "see what Disney princesses would look like with___" series shared by Buzzfeed. So, what does that mean for photographers? Is there a way photographers can adapt to monetize free in a market so saturated with imagery that photographs are devalued before the shutter is pressed? 

Should this photograph be used for free? And, if so, how can I leverage that free useage to my advantage?
Model: Tia Alexandra | Smith MUA: Serena Cook | Hair: Jennifer Jensen

It's truly unfortunate, but industries never change based solely on the good of those who run it; otherwise, the Teamsters Union would still include teamsters driving wagons. Industries change on the back of what the market demands. Photographers must adapt to suit those demands or face going under. This situation is not without hope. More often than not, those who can adapt to seismic changes in the economy are those who profit and pioneer new ideas in their industries. The best thing to do now is not pine for the past where technical skill was all it took to survive, but to look at these changes as a challenge to our collective creativity that will bring about new avenues, build new skills, strengthen artistic voices, and reward those who ferociously apply themselves.

What changes have you seen in the market and how are you adapting to this shifting economy?

Lead image credits: 
Models: Tessa Hooper, Jennifer Wilde, and Karl Brevik | MUHA: Nina Marie Diaz | Designer: Allison Nicole Designs | Assistants: Nehemiah Urban and Kevin Davis

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Jared Wolfe's picture

Too many photographers think instagram is the photography market. Here is a clue. What is popular on IG, modelmayhem, pinterest and fstoppers is not necessarily what sells or gets you business. There is plenty of demand for boring old professional headshots, babies, kids photos, maternity photos etc. Most of the moms and professionals searching for these services are not searching instagram for the local photographer with the most followers, the DOPE'st photos with fairy lights and freshest hashtags.

Understand what customers are looking for. Understand how your customers are looking for it. Market to them. Make it easy for them to pick you with a clear product offering. X number of shots. X amount of time. X price. You will get plenty of business.

Or you know. Keep taking DOPE photos of trendy peeps with colorful smoke bombs for exposure.

Lee Morris's picture

This is a good point. Internet famous photographers may not necessarily be successful and successful photographers may not actually be very good. It's a strange paradox.

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

There is a lot of truth in what you say about Instagram, and I believe many of us miss the point there.

However I'm not sure if shooting babes, kids maternity photos etc. is a successful business in terms of artistic career. Well for sure it pays the bill, but If I would have to do that for a living, I think I'd rather do something else (unless that's the field I want to excel). No offence to whoever chose this path, but when I think about "want to make living out of creative fashion shooting for magazines and big brands" then things getting bit unclear to me. Still I believe Instagram is not the way to achieve that.

Jared Wolfe's picture

A business is always about other people. Not you. Not your creativity. Even shooting for big brands and fashion magazines its not like they just throw money at you and you go off and do whatever you want. There is a creative director calling the shots and requirements that need to be satisfied. There is a detailed style guide from the brand. You are limited by what the product it is you are shooting. You have some great ideas for a jungle waterfall shoot? Too bad, you are shooting Marmot winter outer wear. That means the Alps or Iceland. Maybe they need catalog shots of 1 jacket in 10 different colors on plain white background. Maybe the magazine just needs you to shoot a chef in their kitchen in downtown Kansas city. You gonna die on your hill of creative integrity? or are you gonna take the money and live another day for when the right shoot comes along?

Sometimes a job is just a paycheck. Sometimes the job is everything you dreamed it to be. 80% of a business is slogging through the jobs you didn't dream of to pay the bills so you can live and make it till your next dream client. Not every wedding couple looks like models. Not every brand or magazine shoot means babes in bikinis in the Caribbean.

While babies and professional head-shots are not my dream job, it pays for my private studio and keeps me in business. And guess what? occasionally I get my dream client. A model who wants creative portraits. A creative boudoir session. Or hell I I network with other creatives and do a TFP creative shoot in my fully paid for studio.

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

In fact longer I think about it I get to the point that there is no such "dream job" I could think of. It's more about an illusion of something I would like to believe in. As you've said, even in those "dream" job usually you're limited and forced to shoot things that you don't want.

Is this something wrong? From artistic point maybe, from Business point of view it's necessary and that's how things are. I do envy those successful people who says they do only what they love, and there are others who pays just for what they do. Yet for most of us there I guess live is not that simple huh.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I think if your idea of a "dream job" could be defined as making your customer happy, then any job could be a dream job. But, we're selfish. We want to make OURSELVES happy.

Pawel Paoro Witkowski's picture

Yea :) Maybe it's time to treat ourselves as a customer of our service called "being successful photographer" xD

Doc M's picture

I tend to mentor a lot of people young professions in a number business fields but mostly in my own and I always tell them the same thing and it equally applies to the field of photography as well. Don’t compete with others. Find a hole and fill it. Find something that is in demand that you like and no one is doing and fill that hole. Master that hole, own it and you will be successful. I too often see others trying to compete against others by doing the emulating what others are doing and all they end up doing is driving the price down. Own your segment, be the best at it and charge a fair and appropriate price and you will never be without work.

You can have ALL the technology that produces super crisp photos that give your eyeballs paper-cuts from here to kingdom come. But composition and lighting do not come in a nice little package like a camera phone. So long as there are clientele that need a creative vision, unless you know your exposure trinity and lighting schemes that you've spent hours playing around with just to perfect, you're dead in the water...and this means using an iPhone X as well, which I do own (just in case you thought my rant was Anti-tech) ;)

Unfortunately for photojournalists a lot of news publishers are just fine with amateurish photo compositions they can get for free from readers or viewers who submit their photos at no cost so they can see their photo in the news.

But yeah, where photography as an art is concerned then know how and an artistic eye is everything. Just having quality equipment isn't enough.

Michael Clark's picture

You can talk all day about composition and lighting and creative vision. But it seems that the only folks who still care about those things are other photographers. The general public appears to be perfectly fine with whatever they can get without paying for it.

A little tangential but a great story: I was shooting an architectural job, and when I showed some of the work the compliments flowed -- for my camera. My client said they were so much better than what they had, which were "just iPhone photos." I said it's not the camera, it's the photographer, and to make the point proceeded to take an iPhone shot then and there. (I "cheated" in that I used a Moment wide-angle lens and used the Fusion app to manually keep my highlights from blowing.) The clients were surprised, and I was happy that I made my point -- until they said, "Those iPhones really take good pictures these days." It's never us -- it's our cameras! SMH

So yes, smart phone photography is always going to put pressures on our business and we will have an endless challenge of trying to educate prospects and clients that the brainwork behind the shot is what makes the difference.

If that person ever cooks you a good meal you should complement them on how good their stove is at cooking food. "Wow, this is delicious! You must have a really good oven!"

Casey, thanks for raising that analogy, which I love. An expert chef could make something stunning over a hotplate, and I couldn't make toast with a $5,000 range. But no one ever says that to cooks -- just to photographers. Frankly I think the industry should do an awareness campaign on this, but I don't know where funding would come from -- the camera companies absolutely want people to think they'll get the same high quality photos simply by purchasing the equipment.

Oliver Saillard's picture

I guess we'll have to learn to deal with the "you've must have a nice camera" (which is often meant as a compliment), but to do the work to prove them your point just to hear the same answer, that must be hard.

Thanks, Oliver. Just one time I gave my camera to a client and had her take a photo. Hers came out terrible and she got the point. The reason: 1) I set my camera and flash manually for my shots but put both on Auto mode for her; and 2) I had a very wide angle lens which grossly exaggerated perspective distortion when the my client didn't know where to put and aim the camera. It was nice to make the point and have it acknowledged, but exhausting at the same time.

Studio 403's picture

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. The Market I think will soften, then come back. Like myself who got into the "game" late in life, soon learns with a lot of work, education, and persistence, will make a good photographer, but I will fade like a shooting star in the heavens if I don't understand business and marketing. I had to face the awful truth about myself and this lovely craft. Like the NBA and NFL, only a select few can make it despite all the hype, and "you can be great" worldview. I enjoy the craft I make a little money. I don't have the ambition as so many men and women in this field. But I can be a more mature skilled photographer and be very good at what I do. The satisfaction of a job well done, despite my huge ego of perfectionism. I have found out it is not about how cheap I can be on price, but what is my time worth and can I do the job with excellence. That is my day of thinking but could change my mind with a new camera....

John Skinner's picture

There is no doubt that making a living doing this is a lightning strike on your life. It's been a huge declince since the advent of digital and digital manipulation of images. I don't think people have their collective heads in the sand about it.. They're just dreamers and people with the idea that this sort of thing pays the actual bills... gives them retirement possibilities.. a health plan... All of which are for the 00.01% of 00.01% of people that have created some sort of niche for themselves.

But Instagram and the rest of it? I guess when 30'somethings start hiring other 30'somethings... there is a bit of stupid magic taking places there. It may happen, but you;re still part of that 00.01%.

If you want to know one easy way to stay ahead of the curve: MASTER LIGHTING TECHNIQUES. AI is beginning to touch on 'lighting', but there is no way to duplicate the results we can achieve with professional lighting with a cell phone, even with future 3D imaging capability, and there likely never will be, no matter how advanced the technology. Light is directional, light sources 'bounce' in unique ways, affecting tones, contrast, and shadows in ways no amount of AI and 3D rendering could accomplish.

Lighting is a component of almost every professional photoshoot, ever, and if it's not part of your game, you were never really in the game...

Michael Clark's picture

Unfortunately, for the most part the market seems totally unconcerned with how well a photo is lit and composed. It is perfectly happy with crappy but free. For the most part the only people who care about the creative quality of images are other photographers... not consumers.

At the high end, they are still concerned with lighting, at least in the commercial and architectural world. At the lower end, many small businesses are satisfied with 'something a little better than they could do with their own phones'...

Viral marketing allowed acceptance of low quality, phones continued to improve, but viral doesn't stand out anymore, and if you have a multimillion dollar property, product, or business with competition, there is value in higher end photos with professional lighting. It does depend on your market, though.

Graham Glover's picture

My life is a digital disaster. Maybe.

On one hand I'm a programmer/analyst in R&D. Understand that EVERYONE has access to free software that runs the world's computers. Want to run a Hadoop cluster? Piece of cake. Download, install, run. Hadoop is what runs in the background at Facebook, serving you ads that are relevant to your online behavior. Anyone can do it. Linux changed the playing field. There are dead companies on the computing side; Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems are two that come to mind, all thanks to the Digital New World. Regardless of all you hear of how bad the programming world is, some thrive.

On the other hand, I'm an aspiring fashion photographer located far distant from traditional fashion industry. Photography isn't the way it was with my Pentax K1000. In addition to the hardware, there's all of the photo processing software, some of which is in the cameras, playing BTS. I've shot sports for fun with my Canon 5DM3, using a specific autofocus "case" I adjusted to accommodate my environment and my style of shooting. It's not the same as shooting and pushing film, manually focussing with a split prism. Technology is bloody amazing. "I'm self-taught," is the mantra of top contemporary photographers. Even going "manual", it's easy to advance when you have access to instant feedback.

Where does it all go? How does one survive?

On the programming side, I play in a small market. I'm a mathematician, primarily developing algorithms in spherical and elliptical geometry. I'm also good with very large numbers of things, and making my work scale.

On the photography side, I see untapped and undiscovered markets. In fashion, there are three primary locations in the world: NY, Paris, and Milan. In five years, Oakton will be added to that list. Watch. Okay, that's silly, but consider fashion. If the aforementioned three cities are it and you're not there, you're rational option is to give up. If on the other hand you're driven and yet are unable to relocate, you have another option, which is to create your own market.

Good photography will survive. It will also change.

Nicole York's picture

You're right, which is why I'm encouraging us to think collectively about how it will change so that we can be prepared. We need minds sharper than mine for this task ;)

Christian Santiago's picture

I understand adapting to trends in the market, but this article is basically saying that if you're not willing to give your work for free, you're going to be left behind and fail. And that's absurd.

"Rather than taking such requests, which are not only made by private clients but major news outlets and big-name brands as a personal offense, we might want to see these requests as a symptom of an alteration in the way society views and values photography."

It should be taken as a personal offense. My lawyer would laugh in my face if I asked him to work for free. So would my plumber, or the contractor I hired to install windows in my house. Why should photographers be the ones with so little self-respect that they allow people to extract time and labor from them for no pay?

I think the premise of the article is confusing "popular " photography with the photography market in general. While there is certainly plenty of great work posted daily on Instagram and other social media channels, a lot of it outright sucks. Overcooked drone shots that have been processed to hell, bland natural light portraits that are bludgeoned with Lightroom presets, etc. etc. I know for a fact that the commercial clients I go after would never let such garbage near their brands.

I personally know quite a few "insta famous" photographers with tens of thousands of followers in my market who have never cashed a check for their services. They all live with their parents. And while I am far from wealthy, I've managed to make a living as a photographer despite having less than 1,000 followers. Social currency is no replacement for real dollars.

So yea, there's plenty of crappy photography out there for free that people are more than willing to use for "free" with nothing but exposure to show for it. But those aren't the types of photos I am looking to make, and hopefully, I am succeeding at that.

There are so many genres of photography, and some lend themselves better to profitability than others, so, those that do don't have to die on the hill of exposure. As someone else mentioned in these comments, there are still plenty of people out there who need headshots, baby photos, wedding photos, real estate photos, family portraits etc. And if someone is willing to shoot an 8 hours wedding for "exposure," then they're just a masochist.

Again it's absurd, that we should be encouraging photographers to let multi-million dollar companies and millionaire celebrities treat us like we should be honored to get taken advantage of.

Nicole York's picture

If you think this article is encouraging people to give away their work for free, you've actually missed the point. I'm not encouraging anyone to give away their work, I'm trying to encourage people to take a serious look at the market and think critically about the way it's changing, the way customers expectations are shifting, and consider how we can take advantage of the changes. I believe that we are seeing signposts signaling that things are changing, but our approach to the business remains largely the same. If we can't set back the clock, what CAN we do to ensure photographers thrive?

Michael Clark's picture

I had to read it twice to see that you weren't at least accepting it as a given in today's market, if not outright encouraging it.

Nicole York's picture

Well, with SO many people requesting and accepting the trade--as much as I wish it weren't the case--I think it's worthwhile to look at why people see this as acceptable, and what it means for our future.

al green - Light Through Glass's picture

I was employed as a photographer but now work in an allied industry where photography is just one of the communication tools - very profitable. Ironically my 'pure' photography is channeled into creating art exhibits which aren't financially viable but an 'indulgence' and very fulfilling. A good balance.

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