The future of commercial photography and percieved value

A friend wrote to suggest I “talk about photography as a business and how it relates to our economic times.” I was hesitant at first, unsure what I could add to the discussion since my expertise is minimal when it comes to economics, business or marketing. I thought about it for a while and realized I did have something I could add to the discussion.

Let me first clarify the question.  I am only talking about the business of photography, as in commercial photography.  This includes publication work, stock photography, portrait photography, event photography, etc. I am not talking about the fine-art market, though, an economist would argue that the fine art realm is just as driven by market forces as the commercial realm, though fine-art people prefer not to think of it that way.

In my classes, I often pose something of a riddle to my students. I ask them:

“Besides professional photography, what other pursuit begins with the letter ‘p’ and is something that many people consider very personal, is done on command, done for money and done for strangers?

In my question, the answer is prostitution.  After all, commercial photography involves taking that precious thing that we all love and using it to make others happy.  We frequently do this for strangers, on command for money.

The point of the joke is that the commercial photography is a business and the way you succeed in any business is providing a product or service that the paying customer wants.  This is doubly true in our increasingly global economy, where most businesses are facing increasing competition from across the planet.

For example, the work of photographers from Europe is certainly equal to or better than the work made here.  The web has made that work exponentially easier for image users to access.  Photographers in the developing world are rapidly closing that gap in terms of quality and accessibility. (I happily admit to contributing to that process by teaching photography classes in places like Sri Lanka, Mexico, India and Bangladesh.)

Just as the Internet has expanded the geographic distribution of competitors, digital photography has expanded the quantity and quality of the competitors.  When I started doing commercial work, arguably, the real reason publications hired me was that I understood the complex interplay of light, lenses, silver and chemistry that was required to make a good photograph. I had mastered that weird box (the camera,) could focus that big piece of glass (the lens) and manage the required chemicals to produce an image they could use (developing the film and prints.)

The monopoly that a small group of us had on that particular expertise did not last, so I moved up the skills chain, first shooting with color negative film, then perfecting my skills in photographing with color slides.  As the technology improved all around me, more and more photographers could make images with high enough quality to satisfy the various markets they worked in. Digital photography is just the most recent stop in this ongoing history of photographic technology, which is best viewed as a series of steps moving the process from the grip of the experts into the open hands of the masses.  Today digital imaging technology has vaporized that skill issue.  In theory, everyone can take good pictures. The question then becomes what is the future for commercial photography?

Again, my expertise is minimal when it comes to talking in broad strokes about economics, business or marketing. What I can suggest is that every aspiring or accomplished photographer should ask themselves “what areas or specialties within commercial photography will continue to exist and which will disappear?”

An example of a market that is disappearing is the market for low-end assignment travel photography.  If an image user needs a simple, generic image of the Eiffel Tower, there are so many images of that place in so many different stock agencies that no publication (or web site) will assign a photographer to make that kind of image.  Enough people with sophisticated cameras travel to enough places these days that ordinary images of the most well known places are a dime a dozen. Unique images of less commonly visited places are still of value now, but that will decline as people increasingly travel to previously less accessible places.

Micro stock and royalty-free imagery have contributed to this downward spiral. Photographers mimicking once successful imagery feed into this decline as well. Search the web or a stock agency sites for close-ups of two people shaking hands and you will find hundreds of variations on a theme.  What was once an image of two white men’s hands locked in greeting has been expanded across gender and ethnic lines, which is good news. The bad news is that this image has become so common as to be almost worthless.

Certain aspects of the assignment market will continue, I believe.  People who are experts photographing food, fashion or sports, for example could continue to find work because there will always be new dishes, clothes or games to photograph.  Similarly, portrait and event work will continue in some form, because people continue getting married and wanting portraits. There are many other areas beyond these few that will still be viable. The trick is figuring out which those will be, from the client’s point of view, not from your own.

The trick to thriving in the markets that survive will be differentiating yourself as a photographer from your competition.  If anyone can (in theory) take a picture, the client will then want to know what you bring to the business that is different?

Do you have a passion for food, as well as the photographic skills to make dazzling food photos?  Are you a “people person?” Half the skill of doing event or portrait photography is working with the people you are photographing.   Do you have an encyclopedia’s knowledge of sports, both the players and where to position yourself for the best picture? That skill is valuable to the client, especially since again, in most clients’ eyes, anyone can make a photograph. What they are looking for is value.

All of this is doubly true in the current economy.  Clients are more value-sensitive than ever. Portrait and event photographs are discretionary expenditures, which are usually cut back during economic hard times.  Print publications are trying to reinvent themselves on the web while holding on for dear life to make it through the economic turbulence.

The high-end markets, in most specialty areas will continue in some form though with reduced volumes. Even travel photography, will survive, but the only way to get to the top of that pyramid is to differentiate yourself.  Half of that process is marketing/presentation and half of that is having quality work.

To appreciate this, think about the market for high-end watches.  The very expensive watches tell time and have various other functions that can be found in the mass-produced watches. On the other hand, the end user for the high-end watches places a premium on the perceived value of the watch, above and beyond what it simply does. So the question to ask yourself is, what the perceived value do you bring to your commercial photography, above and beyond making quality pictures?

Much of this material appears in another form in my podcast called: “Some thoughts on being a professional photographer.”

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