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
Dan Howell's picture

There is a difference between and expanding marketplace and a shrinking marketplace that is unrelated (and possibly unrelatable) to the newbie entering it.

I began my career near the ascendancy of catalog culture where glossy catalog filled mailboxes full of highly produced images. There were entire advertising agencies that specialized in creating these catalogs. My prospects, along with the industry were rising. Magazines were growing and the number of advertising pages was stable or increasing. There were quantifiable statistics that one could site describing an expanding marketplace. Agreed?

Those conditions do not exist currently. Catalogs are rarely mailed to homes anymore. Catalog advertising agencies virtually do not exist any longer. Highly produced catalog shoots have shrunk in favor of e-commerce style shoots, though they do still exist. The thing about that is, for every day you get on a high production shoot, someone else is getting 25-33% as much to shoot e-commerce and producing maybe 2x or 3x the number of shots. That pulls down the typical day rate for even a high production shoot. This has happened, it's not theoretical.

Magazine publishing is at about 25% of the number of titles and pages that it was 15-20 years ago. The number of advertising pages has shrunk at about the same rate. Editorial budgets had no choice but to follow suit. The day rates paid to editorial photographers might have stayed the same or slightly reduced, there are simply fewer paid assignments and more that is expected from each to correspond with the smaller budgets.

Many are quick to point out that there has been a huge rise in the electronic media space which is very true. However, many people (including several people commenting on this article) fail to realize that there is a different value placed on exposure in electronic media as there is on print media. To quantify that, advertisers pay per-impression for the amount of exposure their product gets in front of an audience. Media, both print and electronic, charge a rate per-impression to advertisers. Currently the cost per-impression of electronic is about 10% to that of print media. So even if an electronic media outlet has a great audience, they are only able to charge 1/10th for their advertising which in turn effects the editorial budgets which directly effects the rates and number of days they hire photographers for.

Additionally, there are fewer barriers to present video in electronic media. So while there are demonstrably more opportunities to hire professional photographers to create images across advertising, catalog and editorial there is a smaller pool of value to be divided for those images AND now still photographers are competing with video photographers for some of that same budget.

These are the kind of factors I look at in evaluating the industry, not how motivated a newbie is or someone with a year in the industry talking about branding themselves. Yes, a newbie entering the market will see many opportunities that they individually have not explored, but that doesn't mean the marketplace is thriving.

Does Sears still produce a Christmas catalog? Does Sears still exist?

Scott Stebner's picture

I’m a “part time” professional and love it, no desire to be “full time” for my lifestyle. I have an amazing job I love that provides benefits to my family and I look forward to Mondays.

I used to get discouraged when I wasn’t “full time” and felt I wasn’t a “good enough” photographer. But the older I get, The more I realize I love that I have the flexibility to make a great “side income” on my terms that helps pay off student loans and mortgage that much quicker. I work about 10 - 12 commercial gigs a year and just focus on enjoying photography. My 9-5 has zero basis on my ability as a photographer, it’s just how I choose to provide for my family.

To those that are full time photographers, I admire your grit and passion. Keep it up. It just wasn’t the lifestyle for me and my family. Good luck!

This story is basically replicated across most of the creative industries because of the effect of the internet. I witnessed it first in the music industry as the web slashed the value of music, but then as a hobby photographer enjoyed free access to learning and cheaper gear. I've written about my experience here

Matthew Saville's picture

Ironically, I think one your opening statements pretty much encapsulates the state of the industry at present: "When it is more than a hobby, how has the industry changed?"

That's exactly the problem. A massive chunk of the "professionals" today, are hobbyists who just decided to take a whack at making their hobby pay their bills. No formal training, no business sense either, just "hey, I could get paid to do this!" and that's it. In other words, the complete lack of business sense among photographers has done just as much damage to the industry as has the lowering of the bar by digital cameras themselves.

This article brings up a lot of great topics, but doesn't give enough closure on most of them. Here's my experience as someone who has been "getting paid to take pictures" for ~14 years:

A lot of existing studios had great business models, yes, but they went out of business because their work simply got stale. Most of the older photographers I know who have been shooting professionally for 30+ years, are either still in business because they keep their work fresh, or out of business because they were always just a "camera operator" to begin with.

Yup. See my first point above. A complete and total lack of business sense among WACs has caused much of the industry shrinkage. The "shoot and burn" business model that came to power ~10 years ago was utterly devastating. Even with what digital cameras can do today, if every single WAC who decided to charge money for pictures had first taken a business or any sort of finance / marketing course first, the industry would have been a lot healthier today.

The "workshop" craze did no favors for the industry, either. It painted many "famous" pros in a very bad light, and what information it did circulate, was often just plain bad information. (Again, the "shoot and burn" business model was and still is very popular.) There is indeed money to be made in helping newbies, but in my opinion the only honorable way to make money teaching photography is, helping average folks simply learn how to take better photos, with no illusions about getting rich, ...OR, teaching the business side of things while REMAINING a highly successful professional. (Instead of teaching because you can't actually pay your bills by shooting alone!)

This is the inevitable future for most of the industry. I don't care how good you are at photography itself, unless you have an amazing business mind, you'd better keep your day job. (And even then, I'd wager that if you're a brilliant businessperson, you'd make way better money doing something else; you only choose photography because you want to keep doing something you're passionate about, NOT for the money!)

Many industries have almost completely dried up, and only a few full-time pros will survive in a given area. Kids sports and most kids activity photography (theater, gymnastics, etc.) was utterly obliterated by WACs. Lots of commercial / editorial work are done by interns with iPhones. Portraiture and weddings are still a solid way to make great side money if you're talented, but full-time work is never going to be easy, and there will only be enough room for X number of full-time pros per area.

Keep your day job, or start taking business classes if you haven't already.

There are people that don’t want to pay for a session. Personally I don’t want those customers, I also avoid at all costs bargain shoppers. If someone asks “can we do something about the price” I almost never work with them I used to not any more. They will almost always want more than your contract says. They want to get their moneys worth and are basing that on quantity not quality and the 20$ sessions that the other “photographers” are charging. I would rather work as a part time photog then make 5$ an hour shooting full time.

Well written.

The article talks a lot about the past and seems to stop after identifying the problem we have gotten ourselves into. It never really talks about "The Future of Photography as a Business". If photography is nothing more than capturing a wedding or a headshot... a smart phone might just become (or already is) the best option and real photographers are doomed. Smart phones can even apply some cool Instagram filters to make it fun.

Perhaps offering something you can't do on a smart phone is the space where photographers need to be. There are really only two approaches to a photography business.

1. Finding a customer to pay you for services then take their pictures.
2. Taking pictures first then find customers to buy them.

Both are very valid approaches and can easily feed off each other. the 1st approach is a service, while the 2nd is more of an artist. Combining them is where a photographer (of the past and the future) can remain relevant. As a fine-art-photographer, you're free to create, shoot and work as you please (a very modern concept to work). Having a good portfolio can also lead to contracts where people hire you to apply your approach to "art" photography to a project they need. That could be a wedding, a head shot, a product... anything. There is also a growing number of avenues to market and sell fine art photography.

Maybe it depends on what field you're in, but I cannot fathom why you wouldn't be able to make a living as a full time professional, unless you're not very good at your job. Professional photography isn't about the equipment, but the ability to produce images that make the subject look compelling. Some people hire pros for simple, self-intertested, arguably vain reasons (high end portraits, weddings), while most others hire photographers to market something. Whether it's a product that people use (cars, appliances, etc), or a place (hotels, homes, etc), or a service, businesses are relying on our ability to help them command the attention and appeal to the viewer's aspirations.

rex singleton's picture

Good article. First of all if your not a full time photographer you should not be commenting on here, if you dont pay your mortgage or feed your family with your camera your perspective is totally different. It is a race to the bottom- period. Rates are being driven down by hobbyist and stay at home moms with cameras. Tech is making it possible to use your phone or cheap dslr instead of hiring a pro. These $50/hr photographers are becoming the norm around me and the thought "well its not great photograhpy but its good enough" seems to be where we are heading. Agency work will remain high paying but fewer commisions will be given out. I saw a wedding job $1500 on FB job page and at least 20 photograhers responded. Its a big race to the bottom and we all lose in that race.

Bill Larkin's picture

That seems to be the consensus among full time pro's - So I believe the thing that is necessary is to quit worrying about this new camera, that new lens etc, and focus all out energy on what will sustain our business and ultimately our future. And that, is a strong and different marketing campaign than ever before.

Joel Cleare's picture

Cameras keep getting better for consumers. Writing is on the wall.

Mick Ryan's picture

I do find this article and others like it on Fstoppers somewhat disappointing. It’s vague, and casual and not very informative. It basically says “things are changing in the industry and we should think about it.” But it’s supposed to be journalism isn’t it? (Or am I being unfair?) YOU’RE supposed to think of it and inform us not just raise a question or two for us to think about. I learned nothing from that I didn’t already know, and I’m definitley not the most plugged in photographer in the world.

I closed my studio three years ago, and now work as a "part time professional." It was a difficult decision, and I guess I'm now "part of the problem," but I stand by it. I'm better for it, and I think my clients get better work out of me.

Dave Coates's picture

We can sum up most of these comments as "WAC and "newbies" are ruining photography for us amazing Rembrandt-esque professionals". This is ridiculous. If you are as good as you say you are, beyond what you charge your client, then it wouldn't matter how the industry is changing.

News Flash - The Industry HASN"T CHANGED. Technology has. Being a photographer is the same as it was 20 years ago. The only difference is that technology has made it so it seems that there are hundreds of photographers in a certain area whereas before Facebook, Insta, Twitter, 500px, etc you had to use a Newspaper or Phone Book to advertise.

Yes, you have lots of bells and whistles and use a Computer instead of a Darkroom. BUT, You still have to have a basic understanding of optics, lights, colors, etc to produce quality photos.

Did you ever think that the GWAC charging $150 for a wedding shoot can charge that because they're more efficient with their time? Or perhaps can produce similar great quality images for less? That's not amateur, that's business savvy. Perhaps these people that some of you are so upset at could teach you a think or two about how to be successful in this new world.

Dan Howell's picture

News flash, there are a quarter of magazines and newspapers hiring photographers than there were 20 years ago. If you think the business is the same as it was, you are an ostrich searching for a unicorn. Electronic publishing has not been the savior of the industry that people thought it would be. More photographers do get published but the rates are lower, budgets are lower, usage demands are greater.

Microstock changed the industry a dozen years ago to the complaints of traditional stock photographers. Now microstock photographers are complaining about diminishing results.

How does that add up to business as usual? I'm not crying, but the suggestion that the business is the same is just flat out wrong.

Dave Coates's picture

It's business as usual in the sense that there are still magazines, stock, etc available. Yes, the market is seems saturated because the ability to deliver images is no longer determined by USPS and Prints, but by email, Dropbox, etc, but there is still a market.

The competition is now not between 3 photographers in NY fighting for a few mag slots, but between 5000 photographers vying for 100 mag slots. It's still the same industry, you just have to work harder to get noticed.

Dan Howell's picture

haha. ok, if you believe that. Good luck. Guess having worked for dozens of magazines, dozens of manufacturers, had images in dozens of books doesn't give me perspective to comment on the trend of the industry over the last 20 years compared to the last 18 months.

Scott Hays's picture

This has been the ongoing question/argument since digital came on the scene. I started off in film back in 77 and I still use film. I shoot with my DSLR, but prefer film. But here is what I saw happen when Digital did come around.

The studios that were in existence did a couple of things. They stayed strong and continued to produce the same great work they were doing using film, digital or a combination. Our customer base always appreciated the work and they could see the difference in quality that was being produced over Uncle Bob who just got a digital camera for his birthday (my apologies to anyone who has an Uncle Bob who got a DSLR.....) We didn't change our prices, etc... However, when Uncle Bob and mom, etc... started to come in and charge next to nothing; there were the studios that started to panic. They were still producing the same quality but they felt they needed to drop their prices to compete with the WAC folks. Well; they had overhead, and a lot of it. Just because they dropped their prices didn't mean they got more customers. It just meant they were going to go out of business sooner.

When I first started my studio full time, there were I believe about 75 studios listed in the yellow pages. About 4 years into Digital; there were easily over 150. That didn't mean they were quality, and most of the were working out of their homes. That was not a bad thing. That didn't even count the number of people who were out there not advertising just word of mouth. The thing to remember here is that with Digital; just because you had/have a camera didn't mean you knew anything about photography. It meant you could charge a battery, turn on a camera and take a picture.

We would charge upwards of $75-$150 for a sitting fee. That covered our time, film or even with digital; anything that was not associated with prints. If you were involved in a one hour or two hour session, there was your hourly rate. Your mark up on your prints covered the work you put into them. If a print at our cost was say $4.00, we didn't price it at $10.00. Which is exactly what started to happen with the WAC. They figured they could go to Walmart and get an 8x10 made for $1.50, so they would charge $5.00 for an 8x10. Doesn't matter that their image sucked to begin with, but now they were putting out a printed image that sucked as well.

Eventually, there were so many WAC's out there; no sitting fee, an 8x10 no longer cost the customer $75, it only cost them $5-$10... The general public decided that the guy/gal who had been shooting for 15-30 years and had quality in their images could be looked over because the WAC did an "ok" job and was much cheaper.

Now, there are still the hold outs. We still price our work accordingly. It was a tough situation to keep working through. But some of the best photographers I knew got so worried they kept dropping their prices in order to try to survive. It didn't help their business. It sunk them.

DSLR's maybe aren't that much of the problem. I do believe that the general public just doesn't have any expectation anymore. Have you seen the number of add-ons for Photoshop lately? Want to make something disappear from your image? Want to automatically correct your color? Anything you want to do to a photo you can pretty much do. From the beginning, the amount of crap going on in Photoshop was so ridiculous no one trusted what was happening in the photography world. Now it is just assumed that every photograph is touched up to the point is isn't what it originally was.

I talk to people all of the time who will say that if Digital wouldn't have come along and they would have to shoot film, they would have never gone into photography. That tells you how much Digital played a part in photography. There is nothing different between the two other than you really do need to understand photography and what it is about when you shoot film. If you can be a photographer with Digital, you can be a photographer with film.

So with that alone, Digital played a huge part in the "downfall" of the photography business. DSLR's are already getting shoved to the back of the closet just like film cameras did. People are shooting portraits with iPhones. It is becoming the new Digital age where film was supposed to die. We don't know what will come next, but 100 years ago, no one saw film ever being put on the back burner. Something else will come along, we just don't know what; and Digital photographers will see a new group of photographers doing the same thing, and this conversation will be going on, but with different words.

user-197098's picture

As professionals you are selling what you always sold -- your creative vision. It has nothing to do with your equipment. I remember spending 2/3rds of my time calling on art directors and creative directors doing the selling part. The photography part was the trailing third. There was a time when prominent photographers were represented by agents who did the selling part. I don't think that happens much any more. People will not beat a path to your door simply because you are good at your craft -- you have to sell and close the deal. If you can't do those two things stay an amateur and enjoy your art. At nearly 77 years old I am enjoying being an amateur much more than I ever did as a professional.