2010 - Industry Observations
2010 Notes on the Industry of Freelance Photography
The past decade has seen IMMENSE change in the business of freelance photography. "Digital revolution" etc. etc. I've only been paying attention for the past 5 years, but I also have a keen interest in the history of photography. (If you don't have any favorite photographers who are DEAD, you haven't studied photography enough...)
This article is just one person's observations on the past ~5 years, the status today, and what the future may hold...
(WARNING: I drone on and on. PLEASE, start by just reading the bullet points, and then go back and read the verbose mess if you really feel like it.)
* Digital is easier to learn than film; shaving years off the learning curve.
If you put your mind to it you can understand exposure and focus pretty quickly, thanks to the LCD on the back of your camera. Or a more advanced example: If you're a hobbyist outdoor photographer and you want to learn how to take pictures of "star trails" or nightscapes for example, you can grab your tripod, go out and start playing around. Take a shot, look at the back of the LCD, adjust your settings, and repeat. And learn. Instantly, so to speak. With film you had to write down each and every one of your exposure settings, wait days / weeks to get your photos back, and then wonder why the entire roll turned out black. And what the heck is reciprocity failure, anyways? You get the point. Digital photography is a great learning tool. The task of mastering a camera has been shortened by many years.
* Consequently, gifted artists can rise quickly.
This "easy entry" has allowed true artists with a gift to just pick up a camera and start creating. Without spending 20 years in a darkroom before you had a clue what you were doing!
People who are truly creative and visionary can now start creating amazing bodies of work while barely understanding their cameras. Love it or hate it, you have to agree- When someone's got an eye, they're just GOOD. I forget which "classical" photographer it was, maybe Gary Winogrand or one of those guys, but at least one of them was kinda like this- terrible exposures, required tons of darkroom salvaging, but MAN did they have an artistic vision. ...Of course, I don't mean to imply that a lack of camera mastery is acceptable. Keep reading!
Anyways, the bottom line is that with film, getting an in-focus image with a proper exposure was a big deal. You could survive as a professional photographer just by knowing exposure and focus, no artistic gift required. This is simply no longer the case.
* You now have millions of new photographers to compare yourself against.
So, the good news is that digital photography is quick to learn, and gifted artists now have a much better chance at achieving success in business. The side effect is, EVERYBODY, good and bad, is "giving it a shot". Simply owning an expensive camera seems to give people an inclination to shoot pictures for money.
Now, before we go any further, I need to caveat- Don't freak out and assume I'm talking about YOU. I don't know you and I don't know where you are in your photography career. All I want is for you to understand that yes, there are TONS of new photographers out there that each of us, myself included, will now be compared against.
As Zack Arias said in Transform "Some of you are the REAL top ten photographers in the world, and the rest of us don't even know you're alive... ...Every photographer in all of history was a horrible photographer for some period of time." ...I think this sums up my sentiments very well.
Okay. As I was saying- There's a LOT of people out there who just picked up a camera. Some are really gifted, some not so much. That's okay. Many are just hobbyists, many are shooting professionally part-time, and many are aspiring to make photography a full-time career. The bottom line is that participation in both photography and professional photography has increased exponentially in recent years, and as a result the sheer volume of competition is approaching, or has already reached, a saturation point.
* If you survived 10-20 years ago just by making perfect exposures, you're probably ALREADY out of business.
Because the bar of entry has been lowered, the bar for financial success and business survival has been raised. A quote by Galen Rowell rings very true today, even though Galen died in 2002:
"Cameras capable of making great photographs have become commonplace these days, but photographers have not. While technical innovations have made photography ever easier in recent decades, the art of producing images that other people will care about has become even more formidable."
This is so true: every day, millions of new digital cameras are going into the market each year. Digital camera sales haven't just replaced film camera sales, they've surpassed them by a long shot. So by default, it gets harder and harder to stand out...
* Everyone is trying their hand at "going pro".
I already talked about this a little. Just google "prosumer". Basically, there is a whole new industry in photography; the industry uncle bob / cousin sue, shooting weddings and other work in their spare time. They work part time and don't report to the IRS, so they have very little overhead. They have little or no formal business education, so they sell themselves very cheaply, dramatically under-cutting the industry. More on this later.
* Consumers are doing their own photography.
When mom or dad show up at their kid's sports game with a new 40D and 70-300 kit zoom, (which can probably be had for a total of less than $900 these days) ...it can be game over for the local youth sports freelancer. Dad spends 100% of his time pointing his camera at his own kid, while the pro has to try and get a clean shot of EVERY single kid. YES, the pro will come up with killer images with his 1-series and 300 2.8. But you see, dad *just* bought the camera and is really excited to use it... And before he burns out; he'll spend hundreds of dollars on software, a printer, ink and paper, (or a SmugMug account, etc) ...BEFORE he spends $35 on a print from the local pro. Or maybe he'll spend a little bit of money on the pro's images, but probably far less than half of what he might have paid 5 years ago, recession or no recession. The pro's profit margins get really slim, and it's probably time for a day job at the camera store at this point.
Plenty of other freelance industries are in this same boat- Baby / maternity portraits, senior portraits, family portraits, and even weddings are within reach of a prosumer, because the clients are all everyday consumers, not a National Geographic editor, nor celebrity etc... So when your sister is having a baby and you just bought a D3X with your corporate bonus, you do a portrait session. Your best friend is getting married and you just blew your financial aid money on a 5D mk2, so you shoot their wedding. Of course there's nothing wrong with that! If you enjoy shooting portraits and you've got money to spend, then by all means ENJOY! But if you drop the ball and ruin that friend's wedding photos, ...I hope you have nightmares about it for years to come.
* Professional photography is being de-valued.
Some couples do get lucky and their "friend-with-a-camera" is truly gifted, and delivers gorgeous images for dirt cheap. But this still harms the industry, because that bride then goes around telling all her friends how so-and-so shot their wedding for free or for just a few hundred bucks. Yes, eventually this photographer will either succeed (and raise their prices) or fail. But there will always be that new wave of "fresh meat", photographers willing to shoot for very little.
People in the higher end markets used to be completely un-afraid of this bottom-end market "damage". But especially with a recession it's starting to bleed upwards into the mid and high-end markets. A large chunk of the $5,000 market might now competing around $2,000 probably, for example. And the $2-3K market has been completely cannibalized by the massive number of free and sub-$1,000 "weekend warriors" and prosumers...
A lot of couples try and cram everything into their budget, so they find a photographer on Craigslist who delivers a kitchen sink package for $999. This usually ends in disaster for the bride and groom, when that photographer delivers horrible photos... You would think this would be GOOD for the higher-dollar industry, but again it still causes damage. The bad taste left with the client is going to incline them to trash-talk professional photography in general. They're probably not going to 'fess up and tell all their friends they should have spent 2-3x more on wedding photography... It's just human nature to try and off-load blame...
Ultimately this brings us to today, where so many photographic industries including wedding photography have seen intense changes recently. Honestly, that might just be the nature of the beast- A growth in one industry often triggers a decline in another. Remember the music industry? Welcome to capitalism! Should prosumers feel guilty about "taking" business away from veteran pros? Honestly it's not their problem, from a legal / economic standpoint. If your industry dries up, you find other work.
Of course from a moral standpoint, hobbyist photographers sometimes refuse to do things that could take away from a local pro. While that's a noble gesture, it's just a drop in the ocean. There is no stopping each new generation of *millions* of DSLR buyers from trying their hand at professional photography.
The bottom line is that over the past ~5 years we've welcomed newcomers to the industry with open arms. And now the industry is full. Overflowing, really... For the record, I hate to see someone go out of business. I wish everyone could succeed. I'm just calling it like I see it, and what I see is *thousands* of new professionals in my area. As someone who watches local communities very carefully, I see many VERY talented artists making quality images. Some of them will survive in business, some won't. Either way, I don't see how the industry can ever get any easier to compete in. It's going to be at least this difficult to succeed for at least the next ~5 years...
The Moral Of The Story:
This is where I start giving advice. Warning: I make no claim as to whether it's good advice or not. I'm just putting my thoughts down in writing. I'm going to ease up on the wordy explanations, and just give the bullet points all at once.
* You need to be "un-deniably good" if you want to be remembered for your ART.
* A business foundation is CRITICAL to it's survival.
* You need to stay on top of market trends.
* And unfortunately, you just might need to get LUCKY.
Wait what? I'm telling you to get lucky? Okay, let's be honest here. Who is "famous" to you? Consider how they got to where they are today. 90% of the time, if you dig through their history, you'll find that they got a little push from someone else. Someone who was either already "famous" in the industry, or well-connected, or with deep, deep pockets... You get the point.
YES, success requires HARD WORK. It always has, it always will. And you know what? Forget fame, let's just talk about putting food on your table and being able to retire at 65. My point is simply this: Even if we all worked equally hard, (or equally "smart", though I HATE that cliche) ...the bottom line is that some people would still succeed more than others, some businesses would survive while others fail.
That's all I'm saying, and you can't argue with it. It sounds offensive / misleading to say "oh, so-and-so just got lucky" ...But oppositely: I'd feel insulted if a famous photographer told me that the only difference between my success and theirs was that they worked harder than me. Circumstance / chance usually played a role.
I don't say this just to cut down those who do achieve great success, NOR to excuse my own career and off-load the blame for anybody's lack of success. I simply want to point out that there are TONS of photographers out there working REALLY hard, so job security in this industry is not going to come easy.
Of course you CAN take heart in the fact that you CAN succeed simply by working hard and not giving up.
* A few tactical options you might want to consider:
1.) Beat uncle Bob to Facebook, or blog consistently, etc.
2.) Get products into people's hands, not just an image disc.
2.) Be Memorable. If you take amazing photos but the bride(smaids) can't remember your name, GAME OVER. (Becker taught me this)
3.) From the very beginning, start off on the right foot. Educate yourself on pricing, business strategy, marketing, ...and TALK TO A CPA!!!
The Dark Secret:
* Yes, you can succeed on marketing alone even if your pictures stink.
Because of just how powerful social media and branding etc. have become, you CAN pay your bills with mediocre photography. The deep dark secret that many people don't want you to know is that you can achieve initial success with merely above-average images, if you pour your efforts into social media.
Personally I think this is ridiculous, and as much as I am willing to embrace social media in order to ensure the survival of my business, I'm never going to stop putting my images first. That, and the fact that if you just dive into professional photography and take in a whole ton of business right off the bat, you're going to be miserable if you don't build the proper infrastructure to support it. I already mentioned this.
There's definitely a lot of controversy surrounding this, and I'll write my thoughts on this in a minute. The bottom line is that it's a really good idea to embrace social media if you want your business to survive. That's all I'm saying.
The 2010 Batch Of Haters:
Recently it has become popular to hate in a very loud and vicious way. Especially with respect to the subject I just covered, "success built on marketing, not images"... And honestly, that IS a revolting concept, isn't it? The artist in me just barfed.
Still, the hating these days getting downright childish, and often crude and vulgar. However for the sake of the TRUTH let's have an honest discussion about the reasons behind the hating- First, the "your images don't matter, it's all about YOU" concept...
Understandably, that's a great reason for people to get pissed off. Make big bucks shooting mediocre images? Rest assured, there are plenty of un-successful yet TRULY TALENTED artists out there whose stomachs' twist into knots when they hear this. As Zack Arias put it in his video TRANSFORM, "Some of you are the REAL top ten photographers in the world, and the rest of us don't even know you're alive..."
So most haters are probably just jealous of other people's success, comparing it to their own lack of succes. OR, even if the haters have achieved success, it's still maddening to think that thousands of newbies are being instructed not to worry about the quality of their images, and to focus on branding / selling THEMSELVES instead.
Now hold on a minute... I HAVE read Fast Track Photographer, and I've followed Jessica, Jasmine, Becker, etc. long enough to know what they are all about.
...I simply CANNOT say that I've drawn the same "your images don't matter anymore" conclusion. Most ALL of the "famous" photographers out there DO have a quality body of work that I'm regularly inspired by. And what's more, they all freely admit that THEY are inspired by the REAL legends, like Jerry Ghionis and Joe Buissink. To me, that makes it clear as day- your images still matter!
* Nobody ever said branding was the ONLY thing you should work on. It's just NOT OPTIONAL anymore...
...At least, that's the conclusion I've drawn: If you wanna STAY IN BUSINESS, you can't just focus on the images. Why is that notion so offensive, why is it so hard to grasp? Our market has become saturated, like it or not, so you're going to have to step up your branding if you want to survive. It's really just CUSTOMER SERVICE. Good customer service, and an amiable personality in general, will certainly be a factor in whether or not you book weddings! You might be the most gifted artist of the decade, but if you have a sour disposition or you deliver an impersonal customer experience in general, your business will always struggle.
We could spend hours listing companies that have a great product but terrible customer service, and certainly companies that have a generic, mediocre product but stunning customer service. Then, on top, there's the companies with a flawless product AND amazing customer service. Why not aspire to that highest level? I don't know about you, but as much as I need to put food on my table and will do whatever that requires, I do NOT want to be remembered simply as someone who achieved great success via branding / marketing. I want to be remembered as an artist.
As Becker often describes the term "brand image" - Your brand includes EVERYTHING that comes to mind when a person thinks about your company. That brand can therefore INCLUDE amazing images, or good customer service.
...So, while I can see where the haters are coming from, I don't agree with those who say that "the industry needed this". The industry does NOT need hate and spite. It just needs a clearer understanding.
Haters have also recently attacked the workshop scene. You know the stereotype- People pick up a camera, shoot decent photos for 6 months and get lots of compliments and questions from their friends, ...and then before you know it, they're hosting a small workshop. A lot of the time, you might not learn anything if you're just 6-12 months behind the person teaching the workshop. And the haters are so upset because this often goes un-checked, people are too afraid to speak out because they're nameless in the industry, and their (former) idol is "bigtime"...
Thankfully I haven't had a bad workshop experience. I've paid for and attended high-end workshops with only ONE photographer, Scott Robert Lim, who is an AMAZING TEACHER. Other than that, I won't pass judgment on anybody else's workshops since I really don't know them personally. I will only say DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Get feedback from others before forking over your money. And NEVER pay money to meet an idol; their success techniques may not be able to help YOU personally.
However I definitely think there needs to be a better set of standards out there for workshop teaching. Workshop review websites are a VERY good thing and I envision them growing in popularity. (There's a business venture for you! Start a workshop review website!)
Back to the haters. Now you know why they hate. I just don't think that vicious hate is as necessary as the haters like to think it is. Yes, the 2010 batch of haters brought a few things to the industry's attention. But did it actually incite positive change in the industry? Not really, it just shamed a few people into hiding for a little while.
And yet it was so easy for me to explain that yes branding is important but that doesn't mean you shouldn't worry about your mediocre images. Or that you should do your homework before attending a workshop. My point is, if the hating doesn't eventually lead to a positive discussion about FIXING THE PROBLEM, ...then all the hating goes to waste.
If you want to facilitate change in the industry, yes you might need to shout at first. But be genuine, truthful and fair when it counts. Complaining, whining, and childish defamation does far more damage than it does good. If I were a shock-jock hater, I'd be deathly afraid of what would happen if my CLIENTS ever found my opinions on my fellow photographers. If you're this bitter about something, you've probably got serious issues...
So what does the future hold? In summary, here's what I think the next ~5 years may hold:
* It is going to get harder and harder to stand out as a truly unique, creative artist.
* Business success and survival will depend on near-perfection in every aspect, from images to biz to branding / social media.
* Staying in touch with your clientele and on top of new trends is essential.
* Video and "fusion" is going to play a role, somehow...
Please make no assumptions about where I consider myself to be ranked in all this. As I've said before, I've only been shooting full time for a few years. I'm certainly not making bank, and I hope I'm *never* considered famous. All I know is that I get paid to be creative. That alone is a dream career. (You're welcome to debate whether wedding photographers are just delivering a product, or truly creating art.)
I hate to make it sound like some people are cut out for this and some aren't. If anybody is NOT cut out for running a small business, it's me. It takes a LOT of behind the scenes "infrastructure" help to keep my business afloat. But anyways, the truth still remains: There is no free lunch, and if you're not willing to come up with a whole LOT of determination and hard work, well then I guess you are in fact NOT cut out for this... If success were easy, there wouldn't be so many poor people out there...
The only reason I wrote this article is because I love a good discussion. I try to keep an open mind, an inquisitive attitude, and logical / level-headed reasoning. I have no degree or formal training in business, management, market analysis, statistic, trends, etc. etc.
And for the record, I'm one of those people who beats down their pride / ego on a regular basis. At least once a year I go through that slump where I wonder if my images are good enough, if I really have what it takes, or if I should just get a job at the apple store... So rest assured, you don't need to send hate mail and rip apart my portfolio. I already do a much better job of that than you ever could...
Anyways, thanks for reading. I hope I didn't waste your time. This was very long-winded. My goal was mostly just to help my own self to clarify how things are, and what task may lay ahead.