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

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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80 Comments

Wayne Denny's picture

I always hear about people complaining about others shooting for cheap or free, but I always think "Is that a gig you really wanted?" Right now, a woman in a local FB group is looking for photographers to shoot multiple weddings for the price of $150. The amount of people falling over themselves to do it made me laugh, but others got seriously upset about it. Why? Were you going to do it for that price? I've been shooting weddings for about 4-5 years now, and none of my former clients were looking for someone to do it for $150. Just find better clients.

michael buehrle's picture

she is actually offering $15 per hour to shoot, not 150. and you are right, it's crazy the amount of people trying to get onboard.

Wayne Denny's picture

Yeah, you're right! It was $15 an hour. A wedding I shot last weekend took me about 11 hours, but most are around 8. So most likely they're not even pulling in $150.

Felix Wu's picture

Amazing...but unfortunately for those who have no expectations or with little money it’s the way to go? They will end up some crappy images as their wedding day memory for sure.

If they don't pay 3000$ for a wedding I am not getting out of bed. they have to do a full package before, during, after wedding photographs. I don't take make stories.

Nomad Photographers's picture

Agreed and disagreed. It creates a precedent and you better wish your next clients do not hear of that $15/hour thing because that won't help you increase or keep your prices... I did some of what this article is about and changed. 90% of the weddings I did this year were cheaper weddings where I earned 1/4th or less than what I usually charge. But I also worked an awful lot less. And I was amazed to see clients rushing to me because I was the only one to offer a package under $1000 - I think most of them didn't even pay attention I was only covering the wedding for 4 hours. Many of them let me off the hook after 3 hours because they had poorly planned the whole thing and were starting dinner. I am talking about 90% of clients from UK and Ireland and I am based in Spain by the way... And I have seen a few pompous and expensive weddings covered with a cheap ass camera and a consumer zoom in the hands of a very unprofessional looking young man or woman with dirty trainers and a pair of jeans. Guess what... no one gave a damn. What people want are a few good looking classic wedding shots they have friends and iphones for the rest and selfies !!! They want immediate satisfaction and recognition. Perhaps the next thing will be to offer a service of feeding a facebook or an instagram feed for your bride and groom to let all the people they didn't invite how good looking they are and how nicer is their wedding on their respective social medias ! Oh wait some of them are already doing that themselves with their freaking phones while you try to get them nice natural shots... I'm out

Owain Shaw's picture

I've seen it done at a wedding I attended as a guest. The couple set up a hashtag for their wedding day and people instagram their phone photos with that hashtag - a short while later the photos appear on a projector screen on rotation.

P.S. Saludos desde Valencia.

Isaiah Maghanga's picture

Quite an informative dissection.

Felix Wu's picture

It’s different though because you need good eyes to make good photos..not only that..good social and business sense are prerequisites for wedding business.

Such a camera already exists. https://www.lytro.com/

Felix Wu's picture

Lytro has proven failure lol

oooohhh no ! Like Justin said, they just moved up their game, A LOT onto 3D cinema. Just watch some stuff about them & what they do. You will be amazed.

Justin Berrington's picture

They’re not even bothering with handheld cameras anymore. They’ve moved on to 3D cinema cameras.

Felix Wu's picture

We are definitely heading towards this direction. Everything will be digitalised and recorded but still you need someone to make a decision on which frame to extract not be mention the lighting and arrangement of the shot. That requires a lot of artistic decisions.

Felix Wu's picture

Sticking to the past? We need to imagine the future!

Bob is correct, AI will reduce the massive data down to a select few and people will simply select the content they like the most....my iPhone already does that, so does EyeEm, Instrgram and various others.
Yes it can produce duds, but its only going to get better..

Wasting Time's picture

That kind of makes me sad. So, essentially, technology/AI is removing the humanity from art.

Julien-Pier Belanger's picture

I have to disagree there. I did an awful lot of darkroom from when I was 17 until 23. Darkroom is easy peasy. I find it even easier than Lightroom. The only this that is harder is to source your chemicals. I stopped because it became a pain in the arse to find the ingredients and film became SOOOO expensive. But the limitation made it way easier to find the look you were after. You had to commit.
Now you have so many opportunity and variants that it is harder to produce the work you want.
I tend to become over-zealous with the size of the grain I want to use in a said shooting, do I want my colors to be pastel or saturated? Warmer or colder? Or maybe black and white? Do I want this BnW to look like my old Delta3200 or maybe like my PanF?
The only thing that happened is that it became more accessible. And that is a good thing.

For the majority, yes.

Art will continue and photography will have a small role in there somewhere but the original article is about the business of photography.

Felix Wu's picture

iPhone tech could be heading in a wrong direction though since Apple doesn’t invest in optics so they only care about how to make photos LOOK better on their phones. Look at their Studio mode. Yes they can get better but only in software realm.

You are missing the point - which is the role of the photographer for consumers is disappearing...(rolling eyes and clutching forehead)

Consumers don’t care about the difference between optics and software archiving a ‘look’ or style.

Felix Wu's picture

I find myself getting busier and busier which contradicts to what you are claiming? I was referring to he perceived “look” technical firms like apple are trying to market...when everyone’s “portrait” mode photos look the same this look will no longer be desired by customers. People only look for the new thing which only creatives can offer.

Why didn't you say just pulling frames for pictures of a high-speed camera at 120fps at wedding video session it easier now.

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 cgi...you 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.

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.

Felix Wu's picture

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

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.

Felix Wu's picture

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

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

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