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
Ed Sanford's picture

Your points are well taken. However, in addition to reading Drucker, any business person should read “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton M. Christensen. In short, digital technology has disrupted traditional photography. Not only has it hurt photography as a business, it has also supplanted the great photo labs. The great wedding photographers had the unique skill to shoot film and use lights to create amazing photographs for weddings and model shoots. These negatives were sent to print labs with skill craftsmen processing prints. Digital cameras and Lightroom/photoshop has made it possible for those with less skills to produce decent work. The market is now flooded with photographers putting out acceptable work. Whenever there is increased competition, prices will drop thereby destroying margins. The true artist will always rise to the top. However the portion of the market willing to pay their prices is shrinking. More soccer moms are shooting snaps than pros shooting portraits. Even Canon, Nikon, Leica et. al. are losing market share to iPhone. The great pro nature and landscape photographers are making the bulk of their living doing workshops for amateurs. Message: never give up your dream, but understand your market.

Martin Moore's picture

If you establish a brand for yourself, you’ll be fine. If you think your work should speak for itself or your pricing will solely lead to your ongoing success; and in turn the future of your career, better get ready to go back to collage. You need to get people, companies and brands to hire you because you’re you. No price will be too high, your competitors will not even be considered as part of the conversation. Your portfolio isn’t enough. Your pricing isn’t enough. Build a brand and a name for yourself, if you don’t, be prepared to fail. I just quit my job of 20 years working on Honda’s in May and now I shoot all of the photography and make all of the commercials for a multimillion dollar world wide electronic company. The only reason I was able to fabricate what I consider a ‘dream come true’ career at 37 years old was because I branded myself and hustled that brand. Hate it, disagree with it, ignore it; this is the game of Professinal Photography in 2017.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

Outstanding. You are a perfect example of what I'm talking about, Martin. The whole "Is the photography business dead?" conversation that keeps coming up is absurd. People who understand business will always be able to make money.

My alma mater has a business school that people come from around the country to attend. I never understood how a general business degree could be useful or what it was good for since it wasn't specific to any particular kind of business. It wasn't until I started my own business and learned through trial and error what it takes to run a successful photography business that I realized that I could apply 100% of the business aspects of running a photography business to running any kind of business. The end product I deliver is a photo. Everything I have to do to position myself to get someone to pay me to deliver that photo is universally applicable. The end product could be shoes, life coaching, home improvement services...anything...and the business activities are identical.

Now, I get why an MBA is valuable. Running a business is running a business is running a business. Too many who want to run a photography business are interested only in photography and have no knowledge about business or interest in learning it or the motivation to do what it takes to run a business. 95% of my daily photography business activities are in no way specific to photography. It's a lot of not cool, not exciting business activities that don't involve me holding a camera. When you spend your days that way, you see unlimited revenue opportunities...polar opposite of the "Is the photography business dead?" mindset.

I'm in discussions with a rep for a major telecommunications carrier to be the house photographer for one of their conference/exhibit spaces. We're talking about me pricing event photography for them on a quarterly basis as opposed to one-off events. I created this opportunity for myself while wearing a business suit at a chamber of commerce event. What could be more boring? But that's what my days look like and I see plenty of money out here that WACs, cell phones, etc don't interfere with in any way. Photography is an unlimited revenue industry for those who focus on the business tasks.

Martin Moore's picture


But have the newbies hurt the industry?
Depends on what industry.

Wayne Gretzky famously said "I skate to where the puck will be, not where it has been."
The newbies, for the most part, are concentrated in the most obvious and popular markets namely weddings and portraits. Fashion and sports follow closely.

And yes, newbies have hurt that industry.

Commercial photography is a different fish.
While some commercial clients are low end many are willing to pay fairly for good work. It is also a field where a beginner can develop skills with less demanding and lower paying clients and grow a client base and make a transition to better clients.

It takes time and lots of work.
It also takes luck.

Luck is largely how I can say I have arrived at a very good paying level in photography.
Yes, I work hard but so do many. Luck favors the prepared but sometimes luck smiles on the unprepared.

Some people have shit luck.

It's incredibly refreshing to see someone admitting that luck plays a part in life. Most want to imply that they have just worked harder and smarter, and that's why they are successful where others have failed. I used to be an artist, and I was given an opportunity to apply, for lack of a better way to explain it, for a life-changing job with a multi-billion-dollar company. I was accepted, and it just became a matter of a lot of paper work. In the 2 weeks following, there was a sudden shake-up at the company, and my opportunity was swept away. It had nothing to do with me, but I was collateral damage. In another instance, I did a shoot for a rising star in the music world. He had already been the opening act for one of the biggest names in the industry. He was going to hire me as his personal photographer, and he wanted to introduce me to so many of the top people. He was in the final stages of signing a huge record and tour deal when something went south, and he walked away from it all.

I'm sorry for the long comment, but I could actually go on. I've worked 18 hour days. I've worked 3 jobs while going to school. Hard work often can't overcome terrible luck.

Now I'm at a crossroad, trying to decide which way to go. I spent 6 years taking care of my parents who got sick and died within 15 months of each other and then my sister, who had major complications from a car wreck, and I missed too many opportunities to do all that I had planned.

Hang in there Rick and always do the best you can; that is all you can do. As for destiny, what you are really addressing, I give you this:

Thanks, Bob. By my father's request, on his gravestone are the simple words, "I tried." He meant that he tried to beat cancer and that he always tried to be the best person that he could. It's time for me to move on, knowing that I tried, but life didn't work out. You always hear about people dreaming big, and that's great, but being pragmatic is often the best path. I live in a scientific, engineering town, and, in retrospect, that would have been the safe and much more logical career choice.

What exactly do you mean by 'time for me to move on"?

For the first time in 6 years, I'm in a position to try to take care of myself a little more and try to make up for a lot of lost time. I had thought that I would try to get back on track with all of the things that I had planned before I had to drop everything, but now I'm thinking that it's time to give up on all of that and just find a new way to make a living.

Or you can continue to do or try doing what you wanted to while having something to fall back on, in other words your everyday job that pays the bills.

Anyone that can endure taking care of two ill and dying parents for six years and then to do something similar for a sister can take on and endure pretty much anything. I know, because recently I lost my mother and I had to do it for only around six months.

I may try that. I'm just trying to come up with some answers.

I'm sorry to hear about your mother.

Sometimes you also have to ask yourself different questions.

Hang in there.

Martin Moore's picture

Winning the lottery is luck. Not getting hit by a drunk driver is luck. The type of ‘Luck’ you’re talking about is th biproduct Of opportunity, and opportunity is what you create for yourself when your hustle and grind. Don’t sell yourself short man, luck had nothing to do with your situation.

I absolutely love competition, I love art, and I love beautiful light. I could absolutely not care one hill of beans what someone else charges, doesn't charge or whatever. The only thing that matters is my work, and my clients appreciation of it. If you ever let yourself become part of the bottom feeders, than you'll always be the cruft. Be the artist you are, and only that, and if the market demands your work, the price is nothing. My best clients never ask what the cost is, they ask if I am open the day of their wedding. The market speaks. It speaks with it's wallet, its social media attention, and that is what you should listen to - if you can charge more for your work, you'll know, the clients will tell you. Not literally, but with clues - just be aware.

They sell millions of hammers all across the world, every single solitary day. Yet there are construction companies thriving.

Fritz John Asuro's picture

I think the "issue" is regional as well. It's not the same story where I currently live versus from where I was born. I'm in a place where media creatives are in demand while back home, mostly wedding photography gigs are the hype.

35 years ago I had a fulltime Creative Photography College Course. It was a co-op for which I chose Medical Photography out of two Hospitals that accepted me for my semester term. The other offered me an apprenticeship and a University Photography Masters.
I walked away from both. The reason the Manufactures were stalling on Digital Camera Production in favour of film. Also, knowing that technology could go digital at any time. It took 35 years to get to the good part 2001 finally moving forward.
I kept all my gear and sold it for a new D800 I was surprised it did everything. The Technology was right where it should be to equal and surpass film.
The flood of new Photographers was amazingly overwhelming! The talent, Cream rises to the top. However, now you're looking at creative images from all over the world, talent from all over the world.
I did a wedding for a friendly business it was at half the price all they wanted was the disk. I gave them the wedding album. It was something that didn't happen often in our area and culture people wanting photographing weddings.

I realized this photography was going to have to serve me as an Art outlet not for everyone so I chose a speciality and work in that genre.
The fight for dollars in a saturated worldwide market is going to get worse. In a world where people don't even document their children growing up. Photography is an afterthought. Thank Camera Companies you made it affordable and accessible and convenient. Mission accomplished welcome to the picture pulled off a video.
I wish I was born before digital photography way before.

Jeff Somers's picture

I did not see any real advice beyond "change your attitude" and "don't be negative". More importantly, I believe the author missed what may be the most significant opportunity to pontificate: Public perception. Thanks to the photo equipment manufacturers of the world, our customer base has been taught to believe that taking and viewing "pictures" on a cell phone or point and shoot is all one ever could want. Even Uncle Joe, with his low end DSLR shoots as good as any pro. Right? NFW!

Yes, we can thank Canon and Nikon for shifting the tide away from professionals.

Pile on with camera phones and the very brief attention span (appreciation time) of people today in general and you have the perfect storm for the evolution to mediocre photography we are experiencing.

So no, I don't believe people photography will ever be what it once was and it has a pretty dismal future, to be honest. How many 20x24 wedding portraits have you seen in dining rooms lately? As a veteran photographer, I cannot (will not) hand a client an album in the form of a Shutterfly photo book. Shees! Our cameras can produce better photos than ever, but they are mostly viewed on a high contrast phone or tablet. Sigh ...

Advertising and product photography will continue to thrive, for as long as the market continues to believe that superior imagery will sell their products and services. However, in time, the competition from dedicated and talented photographers will become intense and certainly bring revenue to all time lows.

In over 40 years of success as a commercial photographer, times are more tough than I could have imagined. Fortunately for me, it's now mostly a hobby. But I've changed my vocabulary, because I'm now embarrassed to claim the title "photographer". It's right up there with appliance salesman.

Nomad Photographers's picture

You have said it right, it is exactly what I think

This is an interesting article. But, weren't today's professional photographers once newbies when they started their career?

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.

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