The Future of Photography as a Business

The Future of Photography as a Business

This may be appalling to some, or realistic to others, but I think if we don't discuss the state of the profession of photography we will eventually regret it. When it is more than a hobby, how has the industry changed? Is it a good change? Has technology helped or hurt the professional?

The Reality

As with everything in life, the only constant is change. We would be foolish to accept that photography as a profession is indeed changing. It's subjective as to if the evolution of the industry is good or bad for the professional.

The Industry

In the past I've known several professional portrait photographers that easily made a great living by photographing families, seniors, and children. Two studios in my hometown had both existed for over 30 years and made a living by selling good quality work at industry standard pricing. Today, both of those studios are out of business, I suspect for slightly different reasons. Trying to investigate the reason for the failure would be somewhat challenging because in my opinion, it's not just one thing to blame.

Back to the way the industry has changed, I know that one of the studios continued to do things exactly the same way they always had and that is almost never a recipe for success, if you don't adapt with changing technology and times, it's likely you will fall behind and eventually become irrelevant. But that alone didn't do it. Combine some bad customer service, aggressive sales tactics, and a lack of marketing, all the while with tremendous increases in number of competitors, and it shouldn't be too difficult to start to see why the business would begin having some problems.

Blame the WACs

Everyone wants to quickly blame the WACs (With A Camera, referred to as MWAC, GWAC, etc.) for flooding all the local markets with subpar work and cheap or free pricing.

This has been a huge hot-seat topic locally in my area as there are well over 600 photographers in a town with about a 10 mile radius. It's seen as a double-edge sword to some, since many of us want to help like-minded folks, and let's face it, photography is a fun and rewarding thing to do. Teaching and watching someone grow is also a fun and rewarding thing to do. But I think we'd also be foolish to think that the newbies aren't affecting at least some of the professionals' client base. Many professionals (including one of the long-term studios I mentioned earlier) took the stance of "our work is better, and our customers will see that." That held true for some time, and you can't just always blame someone else when your business begins to have issues. 

But have the newbies hurt the industry? Some will argue they have, citing the flood of work across social media and word of mouth tremendously overpowering any other source of marketing.

Technology advances have made it appealing for many new photographers to jump into the industry, and after awhile many newbies begin to charge (often too little) for the work, which in turn over the past few years has conditioned many customers' expectations to that of $50 sessions with all images provided on a disc. Whether you agree or disagree with this practice, I think we can all agree it does have some form of effect on the industry as a whole.

Help the Newbies?

This has been an interesting chapter in my career from when I started to where I am now. Full disclosure: I used to work as a retoucher for one of those long time established studios. Spending 50-plus hours a week with an older established photographer sort of molded me to have the same views on the newbies, amateurs, and the like. It wasn't a positive experience. For years I had the same attitude they did. I hated the newbies and I wanted to really make sure people saw my work quality and I thought I would be fine on that path. I was pretty dense looking back at the situation, and had I continued on that path acting the very same way I'd fail just the very same way.  It was obvious a change was needed so I sort of did a reboot and looked at everything with fresh eyes.

I now have a different view on the industry, and it has helped tremendously for the things that are in my power to change (me, basically). Being negative hadn't helped anything grow. I currently teach, and it has not affected my business in either way. 

Established Versus Starting Out

Many of the successful studios have been established and solid in the community they've been in for years. Some will say that in today's market, becoming established or getting off the ground is much more difficult than it once was. Not necessarily impossible as there are new success stories, but I think we can all agree that the level of difficulty has certainly increased. I know many very talented photographers who are often more skilled than these established ones and they just can't seem to gain any traction.

Having a reputation and established customer base can most definitely help keep a business going. Return customers and referrals are often the lifeblood of a studio. But where does that leave the new crop of talented professionals? Is it possible to still get established as a new studio, or has the industry crossed a threshold where there's no going back?

It's not just photography. I was speaking to an established taxidermist who said the crop of new taxidermists flooding the market would make it impossible for him to get going if he were only starting his business now even with his same skills. He is very busy and successful, riding on his business of over 20 years. He cited another local taxidermist with excellent skills who could not make it due to the sea of competition and now works a regular job. Sound familiar? It's not just photography, but the way I see it we have two choices: we can stay doing what we have been doing or we can adapt and do what we must to keep the industry going. But my research has indicated that the photography industry is growing faster than almost any other industry. So that only perpetuates that same situation.

Part-Time Professionals

I have observed and learned that a great many of the professionals in the industry that I have always looked up to now have a main job, or secondary source of income. In an industry that was once booming with full-time professionals, I think it's an interesting shift to see highly-talented folks working regular jobs and doing photography "on the side." Has that in itself hurt the perceived legitimacy of the professional?


Technology has certainly given us some awesome new tools to work with: cameras with incredible low noise, low-light capabilities, lights that pretty much remove the sync speed with flash, lenses that are razor sharp wide open, beautiful touchscreen LCDs for zoom and checking on photos that were just taken. All those things are wonderful tools but they also make it that much easier for more and more people to jump into the industry. Again, just an observation. I am not stating this is necessarily a bad thing, just assessing how it may be affecting us all and our business bottom line.

Is There a Future for Full-Time Professionals?

So in summary, is there a future for full-time professionals in the industry?

Personally, I think there is a future but we need to adapt and change to be able to sustain. Running things the way they always have been will almost certainly guarantee failure. This is a difficult pill to swallow because most humans like to keep things as they are. We are resistant to change, but learning to adapt is likely to be crucial to survival in an ever-increasingly saturated market.

This certainly isn't meant to sound like a negative article, but rather observing and learning and making sure we are aware of the changes around us. It's often so easy to get lost when you are too close to the forest to see the trees. It's an elephant in the room that many photographers don't wish to discuss, but I feel that being aware is a vital element to continued success.

What do you think? Is there a future for a full-time professional?

Image via Little Visuals.

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Previous comments

Why would I need to? I wasn't talking about video. What I said is valid and likely for the future of **photography.**

Felix Wu's picture

It’s exactly like pulling frames. But with current tech you still need to get it right in camera. Even with future tech allowing you to create any scene with any composition such as need to know what’s good and create attractive content. That’s certainly not from some artists brain from a hundred year ago. Mastering art and style is very different from mastering software and a “camera”.

I saw the future... those Hospital Medical Photography Jobs closed down in 5 years off 1982. Outsourced to external forces. Like Weddings it the Art just like commercial photography. The kind of tech you need to do that is all about the lighting equipment. If you can find people who need your talented Art type skills they may be high-end clients, the average middle-class cant and wont afford it.

I know what he's referring to, but taking video and capturing still images involves the video shooter being stuck behind a camera. Again, I was addressing still photography. Most people don't want to be stuck behind a camera shooting video, which is why I don't see photography giving way entirely to video.

From what I can see with current tech a captured frame from say a 4K video camera aslo doesn't look as good as an 8MP still image. The quality is going to have to drastically improve.

Video is the future of photography. Clients want more video for website and weddings if you could do both at the same time you win. I took a photograph of a group and for some reason, this lady would not keep her eyes open. when I took the picture. I tried 3 shot in a row. still, her eye were closed I used no flash. I ended up photoshopping other peoples eyeballs onto her. Creep I know a video grab would have been better.

For events like weddings and other situations where someone is willing to be behind a camera for extend periods of time I can see that.

I'm no video expert but from what I see with 1080 and 4K video today the quality is going to have to drastically improve. As it is you need to shoot 4K to be able to come close to maximizing the quality that can fit into 1080 dimensions. A frame from 4K video is certainly not the same quality as an 8MP still image. With film footage the quality was the same.

I think in most cases the future of photography will still be in capturing still images but having AI offering up the final composition and processing, as in the example I gave in my earlier post.

Felix Wu's picture

What ai? Siri can barely talk. Ai means programmed not creative. Not for another few more decades.

10 years ago there were no modern smartphones that could generate desktop level CPU benchmarks.

AI simply means artificial intelligence. Are you saying artists have no intelligence?

Felix Wu's picture

Yes because its a New market and its not saturated with similar ideas and technology.

I am saying AI does not have the capacity to be creative, not for the foreseeable decades.

You lost me in your first comment.

By definition of the word creative, computers, and more specifically AI software, of today are already capable of being creative.

Felix Wu's picture

Instead of playing the dictionary game, can you prove your ai can take better photos? How about showing us some?

Knowing and acknowledging the meaning of words is not a game.

Where have I suggested that I am in possession of AI tech to provide what you are asking?

Nomad Photographers's picture

I get your point but honestly think you're fooling yourself. At least where we are the fist professional wedding clients turn to is a wedding planner and that's purely because 90% of them are from the UK and we're in Spain and they don't speak the language. And they get fed what they're given and give very little though now to your artistic eye or none of that fancy stuff. What they look at in their photos is how good they look, not more...99% of the time

Another good article by Fstoppers however this is not the first article written about this very subject and like many it ends with the acknowledgment that evolution is required - which it is - however it appears the foreseeable answer is create YouTube content about photography, teach others to do the last point, Sell kit, promote kit, make kit, sell kit, repeat, repeat, repeat.

I think the hard reality is the answer to the question is define by the industry which makes the most out of photography and its nobody holding the camera.

Canon, Nikon, LeeFilters, Sigma and hundreds more do an excellent job at 'selling the dream'

Take fstoppers for example; producing engaging content and tutorials which are in service of 'selling the dream' and very little content on actually running a business. This is not a criticism but simply my personal opinion and acknowledgment that is the modern world of photography.

Excellent point indeed.

Felix Wu's picture

What dreams does fstoppers offer other than some articles? I don’t know many sites who writes photo related articles and that’s why I am here. Maybe I should read something else though lol

michael andrew's picture

Photographers suck at sales, they cant sell themselves, the ones who can thrive, the ones who cant complain about this and that. It is like this in all the arts, people want to pay for things, artists are just not very good at getting them to do this.

One thing is for sure, artists usually think their work is worth far more than it really is, especially when they are starting off.

michael andrew's picture

Value of artwork is esoteric, you cannot put a price on Art and say it is right or wrong as it is one of a kind. Something is "worth" what someone is willing to pay.

It's wrong if no one is buying your product.

Bill Larkin's picture

I agree, amateurs usually overcharge for subpar work.

Larry Clay's picture

You're right. If you have a good handle on marketing nothing else really matters. Not the equipment, not the technology and not all of those WAC's out there flooding the market with low quality work.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Maybe... But for wedding photography for instance, sell me why I should hire an expensive pro while at least 3 or 4 of my guests are some of these newbies who own a decent camera a couple of prime lenses and are so passionate about their hobby and not stressed about making a living of it that they actually get quite decent result...You know in many places in Asia you have foot massage for $3 half an hour and they're fool. Raise the price at $10 and people will start rubbing each others feet at home !

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I subscribe to the philosophy that now is a better time than ever in history to be a photographer. If you shoot like an artist, but think like a businessperson, what the WACs do is irrelevant. Marketing, marketing, marketing. I'm talking about shoe leather marketing, not wasting effort trying to hit the perpetually moving SEO / social media algorithm target. Meeting people in your target market and engaging them in person over time (the pre-Internet way of building a word-of-mouth network) works as well today as it ever has. It's the "slow and steady wins the race" method, but it works.

Buyers shopping for the lowest price will never be the premium shoppers you want as clients. Premium shoppers will never hire the $150/day photographer for the same reason they buy luxury cars, even though Toyota and Honda offer excellent vehicles at a third of the price.

Those traditional portrait studios need to adapt to the times. People are busy and don't have time to coordinate everyone's schedules and get matching outfits for everyone and haul them off to a studio for old school family portraits. But there is a market for Family Photojournalism IF the photographer educates the consumer (MARKETING). The luxury car buyer is intrigued by the notion of having a photographer come to their home to create family photos that capture what the family truly looks like, as opposed to what I call The Simpsons Photo where everyone sits on the couch perfectly behaved. And, by the way, Mr. or Mrs. Client, with today's technology, I can bring two light stands, an umbrella, and one or two speedlites and create a professional, studio headshot for you while I'm there.

Family photos, headshots, environmental portraits of them in their home hobby space making whatever it is they make...How much you sell that "personal photographer service" to a potential client for is entirely a matter of your business savvy. And how you get that product into the right circles (where WACs don't even get considered) is about marketing.

That's just one example. For photographers who focus on studying business and marketing, there couldn't be a better time to be a photographer. For people who focus on being an artist, yeah, it's way harder to make a living than before the smartphone/DSLR era.

Peter Drucker (anybody running a business should learn who he is) said that all successful businesses are built on two things: marketing and innovation. Those two departments pay the salary of everybody else in the company, regardless of how big the company is. If you have a great product (innovation), but you fail at marketing, you go out of business. If you're great at marketing, but you have a bad product, you go out of business. That's only partially true in photography, though. You can be a great marketer and a subpar shooter and make a fortune while a truly gifted photographer in your city has no clients. It happens all day, every day. Running a successful photography business is about running a successful business. It's not about photography.

Martin Moore's picture

Love your Hustle and Vision Lenzy.

Dan Howell's picture

While I agree that it is the best time in history to be a photographer, it is not the best time in history to be a professional photographer. Maybe that is what you were implying but past history, present conditions and most comprehensive forecasts do not point to expansion of the professional photographic industry.

Absolutely none of your information or proof amounts to anything tangible to on-the-ground working professional. It's great for cheerleading but it has no weight.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I'm actually referring to this being the best time in history to be a professional photographer and I'm speaking from the perspective of an on-the-ground, full-time working professional, not a cheerleader. What an unnecessarily nasty tone you've taken in your reply to comment. I'd much rather invest my efforts in being a cheerleader than in being a troll. I don't know what more tangible proof you're looking for than paying customers, which is the proof my statements are built on. I went full-time around this time last year and I now pay my mortgage with one client per month. My business is steadily growing and I don't see a shrinking market. Comprehensive forecasts are just that. Comprehensive. Individuals who get out and hustle can create a market for themselves and make money. People like me do it every day.

Bradford Rowley, who charges $10K per portrait, has said he doesn't participate in photography forums because there are too many negative people who insist on disputing others' success and the revenue potential of a well-run photography business. I totally see his perspective. I went from hobbyist to making a little money to making decent money and I'm on the way to making great money. And I see people in forums that just keep saying it's not possible to do. Nothing is possible if you decide that it isn't. I don't let forecasts and analyses determine what I'm able to accomplish. I decide what I want from life and I put the work in to make it happen. We can all do the same. Not sorry if it bothers you that I try to inspire others rather than discourage them.

Dan Howell's picture

I too am not sorry. Making inaccurate sweeping generalizations based on your individual view from being in the industry for one year is not inspiring, it's patently irresponsible.

You say, "My business is steadily growing and I don't see a shrinking market." It is astonishing to me that you would take the time to write this without realizing that you have an isolated experience and field of view. You don't know what you don't know. I would suggest that you read a comment I made lower down that points out a few of the several broader factors that indicate a shrinking industry. I won't take up the space to repeat it here.

To be brief, there is a downward pressure on rates (actually the opposite of inflation) and a vastly shrinking spectrum of professional assignment in advertising and publishing. Within traditional and electronic publishing there is a devaluation of still images and increased competition from both video and crowd-sourced imagery. This is a double-hit to an individual still photographer. There is also an increased pressure from advertisers and publications to secure a greater amount of rights and usage for the same or less fee than years in the past.

How does all of that (and many other factors) add up to tangible proof of a steadily growing market? The idea that you can make a judgement about an industry based on participating in it for one year is insulting to people who have quite diligently worked in it at a much higher level and apparently a broader view for decades.

Nomad Photographers's picture

That may apply to some areas in the world (US perhaps) but I can assure you that's getting really rare in Europe. People have good technology to document themselves their everyday life and feed their social medias. And in the unlikely event they want more, there always is one of the free "newbies" photographer with a decent enough camera and skills in their close circles. they don't even have to let a stranger in on their private life !

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