Is the Career of a Professional Photographer Getting Harder? Complete this Research Survey and Help Shed Light on the Question

Is the Career of a Professional Photographer Getting Harder? Complete this Research Survey and Help Shed Light on the Question

Photography as a sector has been affected by shifting technology as much as – if not more than – any other industry. The biggest change is undoubtedly the availability of cameras compared to 50 years ago, with almost every human in the Western world having a camera within arm’s reach every waking second. This is met with nothing but doom and gloom by the commentators on the professional photography industry, but is all that negativity justified?

Year on year, more photographs are taken than the year before. Flickr’s top five most popular cameras as mined by EXIF data is a list populated entirely by phone cameras.  With everyone being a “photographer,” is the requirement for a professional photographer narrowing? It seems a popular opinion that it is narrowing and that a career as a professional photographer is getting more and more difficult as companies, publications and individuals opt to resolve their photographic needs themselves. Well, I don’t subscribe to that view.

Image by Flickr user messicanbeer, used under Creative Commons

The digital age heralded a society visually recorded more comprehensively than ever before. But with this rise in the digital format and the creation of the "selfie" along with its immediate installation as a staple of teenage life, came a rise in demand. A photographer’s stock in tabloid newspapers may have dropped with everyone and their Grandma being able to pap’ the sought after harlots and gigolos while they shuffle about daily life. However, the breadth of demand for imagery has expanded as fast as the accessibility to cameras has. Speaking of stock, stock photography has morphed in to a micro-transaction market worth billions and if anything, it is a flashing neon arrow pointing towards the very point I’m making: an increase in demand.

Long gone are the days where block colours and visit counters set the benchmark of a modern website; now everything is embellished with graphics, animations and most importantly, images. Brands who once required photography of their product once or twice a year for a look-book or a magazine advert suddenly need an image a day for Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, ad campaigns for sponsored posts, myriad images for their website, shop and blog and that’s without the tangible prints still required. Further still, we live in a time where both Annie Leibovitz and Big Dave from the local pub can get their photographs in front of millions of eyes, as well as the right eyes. Yes, as a result, the standard of photography has to rise to accommodate the padding of the middle, but I struggle to see that as a bad thing.

Regardless, I concede that I might just be very fortunate in my career so far and that my opinion is naive and misguided. In fact, I wasn’t going to write this article at all until an email from Rainer Usselmann dropped in to my inbox. Rainer is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Higher Education Academy and is firmly ingrained in the creative industry, specialising in photography in particular. His current research project is one I would be very keen to see the results of and I implore you to aid his study. The survey linked below is aiming to get a snapshot of the photography sector, its changes, challenges and the general state of its working occupants. If you can spare the time, please fill in the questions and truthfully and fully as you can and the outcome will be made public (although your answers will remain anonymous). Do you think it's harder to be a professional photographer now than in the past?

Survey: "Photograph: What's going on?"

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17 Comments

"Everyone" is not a photographer because they own photo-capturing-devices, the same way that "everyone" is not an F1 driver because they own a car.

Lauchlan Toal's picture

Yes and no. No, they aren't a professional photographer, but yes, if they're taking photos they are a photographer. Just as anyone who drives a car is a driver, albeit not a professional race car driver.

Is it perhaps disingenuous to call yourself a photographer if you aren't a professional and know that the term photographer can connote professionalism in some cases? Yes. At the same time, there are a lot of great photographers who aren't making their primary income from their images, and fully deserve the title of photographer.

I think the title of the article points to the answer, and the operative word is "professional" and that's the distinction. The same way that "professional" is added to plenty of other job titles where there is an amateur version of it. There are no professional surgeons, just surgeons.

I'm not saying I've never run into a situation where I say I'm a photographer, then they see my work and they say "Oh, like you're ACTUALLY a photographer." But I think the addition of professional stitches up the gap pretty nicely.

Bill Peppas's picture

Having smartphone "photographers" doesn't really hurt our business ( for us professional photographers ).
Why ?
Because anyone who's ok with smartphone photos, compact camera shots and snapshots would never meet our clientelle criteria anyway.
He won't appreciate our pricing nor our work because any simple snapshot of him, his products, his estate or events will do for him, he isn't looking for a professional photographer and pro work ( and prices above 10$ for a shooting :D )

Bader Alwazeer's picture

Don't forget that some professional photographers are families and babies photographers. So I think these type of photographers are really losing business.

Ill be honest here, I shoot my baby using my Samsung S7 or my wife Iphone 6s, I don't take photos of him using my Nikon D4 or Nikon D800.

I keep these cameras to my commercial work.

Mobile cameras are getting very very good for family, pets, birthdays..etc

and also who wants to wait until the photographer edit the photos and send them maybe after few days. They want to share it now in Instagram whats app, snap chat..etc.

In my country nobody cares about printing now also so there is no more key selling point unfortunately.

Bill Peppas's picture

There's a difference however between a professional baby & family photographer and anyone with a phone.
A real pro can setup a scene, use proper props, do some wonderful atmospheric editing, etc.

Christian Santiago's picture

It's really not a big deal. Cooking technology and accessories are more accessible than ever, with recipes and trade secrets available everywhere online and on food network. It's given me a bit of skill in my kitchen and I consider myself a solid cook. That doesn't mean however that I'd know how manage a restaurant, create a cost effective menus, feed a room full of people etc. people aren't going to run up to me and start paying me to cater their events.

It's no different with photography. Yes everyone has a decent camera, and yes entry level DSLRs offer pretty damn good performance at bargain prices. And yes the concepts and skills of photographers are available online for free. Everyone is selling affordable tutorials, and people who just take selfies all day can curate an Instagram page with 20,000 followers overnight. Doesn't mean any of them know how to actually conduct a professional photoshoot. Doesn't mean they'd even be willing to try. Doesn't mean I am going to trust them with my wedding day.

We're all as a society more comprehensibly skilled than ever. Diesnt mean we're all qualified to turn all these interests into professions.

Phil Newton's picture

Well said. If I could also add that consumers and customers these days are so much more educated about the topic before they've even contacted you or reached out they've already done their research. The consumer can likely spot a novice from website, initial contact, appointment, confirmatory contact, shoot, post-production and follow-up contact.

Kolade Agunbiade's picture

I don't see why this should bother anyone...

Dan Howell's picture

Looking at the words written in this post and not making any assumptions about your role in the professional spectrum, I think the facts presented are not addressing the demonstrably shrinking space that photographers can work professionally and the degree to which they can expect to profit. The availability of cameras has not had as great an effect on the bottom line for photographers as the shift from print to digital information space.

The shift in society from a print information culture to an electronic information culture over the last 15 years has had an adverse effect on the still photography profession both in opportunity and in profitability. There are fewer paid professional photographic assignments because there are drastically fewer newspapers and magazines currently publishing. This also has an impact on the number of advertising pages that are sold. And while there has be a corresponding increase in electronic or digital information publishing, that increase has both had downward pressure on fees as well as increased competition because it is virtually as easy to include video content as still photography content.

Websites and social media have never offered the same compensation for original content creation as print media did for either editorial or advertising. The difference in fees I would estimate as 10% as 'rich' as what print assignments and advertising rates could be billed at. While there are more publishing opportunities, there is both less margin for profit and a greater pool of competition. Added to that is abundance of images available from micro-stock and free content from amateurs across social media linking.

The space for revenue generation for still photography is simply shrinking. That, to me, has a far more demonstrable effect than the number of mobile phone photos on Flicker.

Robert K Baggs's picture

You make some great points but without citations or solid statistics, I can't really comment on the voracity of what you're saying. I did my best to 'couch' my opinion in the sentiment that I may well be wrong and I stand by that. However, one man's experiences being of limited value works both ways. You say that today, paid assignments are 10% as 'rich' as what print assignments used to be, but they aren't directly comparable. For example, if you had 100k followers on Instagram, you could command a much higher price as there's marketing with in marketing.

The shift in where money in photography can be made is no doubt drastic and I agree that some areas have suffered a lot more than others. Honestly, I wouldn't have liked to have been a professional photographer during this wholesale transition in to the digital age, but I fear that a lot of the negativity comes from photographers trying to flog a dead horse. If you (the general you) are still trying to earn the bulk of your income from print editorials I don't doubt that the photography industry feels as if it is in massive decline. Much in the same way that a web designer trying to sell a 1024x768 flash website template wouldn't have much success. I don't believe the industry as a whole is shrinking but rather shifting.

I may be wrong, although I couldn't find evidence to support that. Either way, thank you for carefully reading my article and then writing a thoughtful response. Even if we don't agree, I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to comment. I've reciprocated the gesture of not making any assumptions or researching your career so please don't think any of my statements were personal.

Dan Howell's picture

I'm not sure that you need to look any further than a newsstand to see that the print publishing industry has been effectively decimated. You can get statistics from magazine distributors but even in distribution there has been a collapse in North American magazine distribution companies to the point of a virtual monopoly. There are less than half the published magazine titles than there were 15 years ago. Within the still-existing titles there has been a reduction of issues per year. So for the numbers people--fewer magazines than 15 yrs ago and fewer issues per year of the ones that still exist. Within the fewer total issues, there are fewer pages per issue.

Trade publications virtually don't exist in print any longer. There are whole publishing companies that no longer exist because the transition to electronic publishing had nearly zero revenue AND a much tougher path to auditing circulation. What does that mean to the average photographer? Audited circulation is a way that a publisher can show how many readers or impressions an published issue has. They use that figure to establish and defend advertising rates.

The publishing industry has struggled to come up an apples to apples parallel for print vs. electronic auditing. Additionally a smaller percentage of online publications take the time and expense to get audited for advertising rates and in turn settle for lower rates. There is a direct correlation between advertising rates for publication and editorial budgets.

It is not my job to come up with citations and statistics. If truth be told, your original article is essentially devoid of them, so I don't know why you are pushing back against my reply. If you want to dig deeper, contact actual publications (the ones that are still around) and ask about rate differences between print and electronic editions. I'm not making this stuff up off the top of my head. These are well discussed topics. You might be limited by your length of time in observing or participating in the industry. I'm not pointing the finger, but you should have really considered the decline of print as a quite important factor in your article. You didn't.

Your inference that followers having a direct influence on rates is simply flawed. Fees for editorial work, catalog work and in many cases advertising work in fashion and lifestyle are independent of followers. Duration, media and profile of the client has a far greater impact on fees. Followers might gain you and advantage in securing the an assignment but fees are generally set by completely different factors. This inference tells me that you have a more academic and less of a practical view of the actual industry.

My information basis is 20+ years as a magazine photographer. This debate has been out there for discussion for virtually all of the past 15 years. I can point to several titles and more than a few publishing companies that are now defunct. I could (thought I'm not since it gets into proprietary information) speak about the reduction in fee that existing magazine pay for original content and the amount of recycled content many companies are now using.

This cycle of devaluation also spun thru the stock photography industry 10-15 years ago and there is no way that revenue model is coming back. This is also a widely discussed topic. You can dig into more at www.microstockgroup.com

user-88324's picture

n/t

It's very very hard now days. Next to impossible. Sense digital cameras and cell phone have gotten so much better most people think they're a photographer. You really don't have to know photography any longer just PP. If you have the money you can be a "Pro Photographer" just buy a really good digital camera use the "pray and spray" method and you'll get something. Then PP PP PP.
More later
Roger

Anonymous's picture

Why do people keep sharing these Flickr graphs? So the top cameras used to share free photos on a photography site that is full of mostly crap photos are phones. So what? How about a graph of the top cameras used for paid work? Maybe the cameras used for advertisements in SI, Vogue, Architectural Digest and the like. I don't think you'd find many iPhones there. I'm not debating whether or not phones can take professional photos, just the overuse of these Flickr charts.

Lenzy Ruffin's picture

I wish I could like this ten times. The number of consumer-grade ovens sold can in no way give any indication of the profitability of the restaurant industry. This is no different. These Flickr stats, etc keep getting used as the basis of an analysis when there's no real correlation between the data being cited and the point being made.

If there's like a PPA survey of the number of photogs making $50K per year or more since 2000, so we can see what's happened since 2007 (when the iPhone came out) and you overlay that on the Flickr chart, you have something useful to analyze and draw conclusions from. Something like that could potentially demonstrate that MORE people are making money now. Who knows? We definitely know that the Flickr charts aren't going to yield that kind of relevant info. And a chart of what camera those $50K and up people are using would also yield meaningful info. I'm sure there are some in that group using smartphones, but I doubt it's more than 2%, if that. I'd certainly like to know what percentage it is, though, even though that's beside the point (pro isn't defined by what gear you use). But just looking at these Flickr charts doesn't communicate anything meaningful about the state of the professional photography industry. A detailed analysis is required for this topic and this Flickr chart making the rounds ain't it. That's only a partial set of the data needed for a meaningful analysis.

Bader Alwazeer's picture

Flickr graph means nothing, This happened when flickr introduced the automatic upload/backup to flickr. Thats why the phones cameras are more popular.

However, I do agree that who ever is focusing on shooting families, kids, babies..etc is really facing a big problem competing with people taking photos by them self instead of hiring someone that in their opinion will waste their money and their time.

Yes the professional photographer will produce better photos, but people don't care anymore, at least in my country.

I think there is still hope in Wedding, food and commercial photography.

However, from a business point of view, photography is not a good investment to get into :)

I always advice people interested in photography to stay in their jobs and do photography just for fun, they'll be much happier that way hahaha