Some thoughts about the future of photography as a business.


The above link is to an article that ran last week in the New York Times.  It paints a bleak picture for the future of commercial photography or indeed, the ability to make any money in photography other than by making equipment and peripherals.

The article's two pronged contention is that with "everyman" embracing stock photography and driving the cost down to zero, (or near zero) and with the rise of the amateur who is willing to work local markets at a loss, the previously lofty market for photography is heading for harder and harder times for those who've chosen to work in the industry as full time professionals.

I get it.  Moms who have the ability to stay home, out of the traditional 9 to 5 workforce are making a dramatic impact on traditional children's portrait and low end wedding markets.  Fields that once supported small studios across the country.  In many cases the amateur's work is as good as the professional work that had dominated the field.

And I get in on the commercial side as well.  Over the years commercial photographer's incomes came from a mix of tough, cerebral assignments interlaced with fairly straightforward documentation of products, properties and archetypes.  Now even my best friends who are art directors reach for stock and microstock for images that are generic.  Why wouldn't they?  It's a quick and efficient way to stock up their websites and brochures.  The price keeps clients from just saying, "Fuck it.  We'll save some money and do the whole project in-house."  The AD's fear that their turn is coming next as America (and perhaps the world) accepts that "good enough" is good enough for now.

But is it as bad as the article makes it out to be?  I would say, no.  Just because McDonald's has 60 or 80 franchises in our area and there are probably hundreds of other Taco Bells and Wendy's and Cheap Chicken places doesn't mean that stellar restaurants like Jeffreys or Treo at the Four Seasons or Sullivan's Steakhouse have been closed down and are relics of the past.  They thrive and they've thrived throughout the bust.  I was in Marathon, Texas recently and the Gage Hotel restaurant was doing great business, selling a $48 ribeye (a la carte).  Champagne seems to keep selling even though cheaper prosecos proliferate.

Millions of Honda Civics, Hyundai Rio's and Toyota Corollas get sold every year and yet they haven't been able to knock off the luxury brands like Mercedes and BMW or even make a dent in their own vertical offerings such as Camry's and Lexus or Crosstours and Accuras.

My experience tells me that all the stuff we used to do that was basic bread and butter is gone.  The cheese has been moved.  But top executives and their marketing staffs still call in the pros for high profile portraits.  My friend Paul got to shoot in Italy for a month in the midst of the worst year for the economy any of us has ever seen (2009)  and his business here, shooting high end commercial and residential architecture, has barely slowed down.

I still get calls to shoot higher end advertising where the products are unique or the ideas proprietary.  I also know that my friends at the high end of the wedding and portrait business are still booking the very top of the market.  Do we miss the bottom foundational layer? Yes, it was a nice source of income.  Do we miss the bread and butter?  Yes, because we could always try to up sell from there.

I'll be frank, 2009 was a financial disaster.  Not just for photographers but for just about anyone who was self employed at the time.  Or anyone who was trying to rent out commercial property.  My fee income from assignment photography dropped nearly 50%.  But we quickly moved to supplement the shortfall with more paid speaking and workshop engagements and more book assignments.  The royalty stream from earlier books kicked in.  I wrote stuff for advertising clients.  From time to time I leaned on the savings account.

But we can't judge our industry by 2009 and 2008.  That would be like judging all boat safety just from the example of the Titanic.  The whole economy got clobbered.  For the most part we are more of a discretionary market than a staple like diapers and milk.  But the flipside to that is that when time are good we are usually able to charge a premium.

If you were a professional who predicated you business success on the microstock industry you probably didn't do due diligence when you started out.  You would have seen the trajectory.  Everyone else did.  You can point to the handful of people who work 80 hours a week shooting thousands of photos they don't really care about who make a great living in the micro stock market but the reality for most people is that the only people getting rich from small sales of stock imagery are the owners of the stock agencies.

If you are competing with the moms with a camera who want the bottom end of the market you'll probably want to re-vamp that whole idea as well.

The trickier part of the market is the middle (yes, everyone will write that the middle sucks and you should only deal with the Buffetts and the Gates families but that's silly.  The middle is where all the volume is and a great chunk of the value).  This is where the people with full time jobs come poaching, looking to score ego points by getting published.  Think of the IT guy who offers to shoot corporate events or the electrical engineer who volunteers to do the company product shots with his new Nikon D3x.  The marketing team would be nuts to not take him up on the offer.  But he may not be a sustainable source.  The economy is recovering in many sectors and at some point the engineer will be too busy or his time will become to expensive.

We need to understand that our markets are changing.  I can't speak to your market but I know I've got to reposition myself to go after more and more high end portraiture.  So many of my competitors who did this kind of work in addition to weddings and babies have gone out of business and there is share there to be had.  I need to take the film making and video skills I learned years ago and repurpose the knowledge to corporate clients who want to move marketing into web based video.  And I need to better communicate my value proposition as a writer for the same industries.  I conjecture that the person who writes the script makes at least as much as the guy running the camera so why not have both fees?

Will we erode other people's market share?  It's inevitable.  They will erode ours as well.

But not to get lost in all this is the understanding that the big jobs will be back, in one guise of the other.  The budgets will come back because the upside for marketers is too big to not do great advertising.  The competition too fierce to stick with "good enough" as a long term strategy.  In the years going forward the rewards will go to two camps:  Those flexible enough to keep up with the fashion and the technical revolution our field enjoys and suffers from, and those whose vision has value and who have not devalued that vision by dropping their prices through the floor.

A final example that bears inspection is Apple.  They've not dropped the prices on their laptops or their high end computers like the rest of the industry which participated in a race to the bottom.  As a result their equity value increased by a factor of 400% in just the last year and a half.  By contrast the winner of the race to the bottom saw the value of their company drop precipitously.  Apple showed product and vision flexibility:  The supplemented the traditional business with other technologies like the iPods and the iPhones and now, the iPad.

We need to embrace this model.  Keep our value intact.  Keep our key product prices and fees high.  Find new ways to grow the business.  If you need to sell a cheaper product find a cheaper product to sell.  If your premium product is location lifestyle photography for ad agencies, don't erode your value/pricing model on that product.  Find a product like studio head shots that you can offer at a lower price point and maximize the potential of that market.  If you do head shots in the studio as your primary product then explore buying into the market for consumer experiences and create a product like location fashion shoots for everyday consumers that you can package as a step up or up sell.

Everyone always suggests that photographers write more or do video but I would also suggest that you understand leveraging content into visual metaphor and might want to explore ways to leverage those skills.

Bottom line:  The NYT article was a casual look at the most obvious trends.  Predicated to sell papers.  The reality is more complex.  After any cataclysmic event like the melt down of 2009 the ground is prepared for a new revolution and, even in existing businesses there is pent up demand for products and services.  Identify.  Price them.  Sell them.  Now is not the time to stay in the bunker.

It's funny to me.  I wrote a book about how to use battery powered flashes.  It's still a best seller in its category.  I wrote a book with lots of research about how to make photography profitable and that book languishes.  That's good for some of us because it shows me that people entering the field think technical knowledge is more important than marketing and business knowledge.  That's why I'm



Eduardo said...

Isn´t it amazing? with so many resources on marketing and pricing, people still continue to ask these questions in blogs and they get idiotic answers... I mean the books are 20-30 bucks and FotoQuote is 150 bucks.... that´s a grand total of 200 bucks (getting two books and fotoquote)... but people today can´t be bothered to think in investing in things that are actually useful :/

Geir said...

I guess the challenge isn't for guys like you, who've cut it, but for the young guys and girls who have to break into the market. I teach photography and see lots of talented kids. But their chances of becoming pro photographers are very limited because everyone wants to be a photographer and those who buy the photos want to take the pictures themselves.

Dennis Holbrook said...

You never cease to amaze me. Keep up the GREAT work.
Dennis Holbrook

kirk tuck said...

Geir, I respectfully disagree. At 54 years old I'm a dinosaur to most art directors and agency people. I have to prove that I'm not too expensive and that I'm still engaged enough to get popular culture. More or less a given for the younger photographers.

I sit on the advisory board of the second or third largest college photo program in the U.S. and I will tell you this: Every year I lecture to the business classes in the program. Generally, all the kids are convinced that they already know it all and they will be heading out to illustrious careers as fashion photographers after interning for Chase Jarvis.

Every once in a while someone will come up and ask to buy me lunch or a cup of coffee and let them pick my brain. We'll talk for hours and the questions will be things about the reality of the industry. Almost to a person these rare students come into the market, do the right stuff and are successful. Even in bad times. The rest end up as barristas. If they are lucky some spend their parent's money getting set up in business and then fail shortly thereafter. It's the ones with initiative and brains that move forward. It's the ones who ask questions that make money.

Sorry, there are no more limitations to being a photographer now than there have ever been. while there were more technical barriers in the past the sheer cost of gear and the difficulty of learning (pre-digital) made it just as hard. And believe it or not there are still lots of companies looking for great photographers to help them sell their stuff.

Shaq Melamed said...

Excellent post. I'm already incorporating many of the ideas you mentioned in my business and they've proved to work well. The main outcomes of this recession will include reduction of those high-end competitors who chose the wrong path (i.e. reduced prices and brand dilution), and mass of pre-owned professional equipment dumped by weekend shooters who thought that a successful career as a professional photographer is a walk in the park.

Anonymous said...

Hey Kirk,
As usual a great read. I didn't read the NYT article, only your post which i agree with.

There will always be those crying "the end is nigh" and yet somehow success stories keep appearing.

On another note, went into a bookstore to buy your minimalist lighting book, but they didn;t have it in stock, so i will be purchasing it online.

Thanks for the great read.


kirk tuck said...

Thanks, Ab. I just didn't want that article from the NYT hanging out there without taking a stab at it. Stuff changes, the opportunity is always there. Just have to recognize it.

Philip said...

I think that was a pretty good and practical response to the article and concern in general. You also seem to be saying that human creativity seems to bring forth something new just when you think there's nothing new under the sun. I certainly have felt that as a music listener - just as main stream music is getting boring something great percolates seemingly out of nowhere.

I don't think Vanity Fair will be calling the amateur photographer mentioned in the NYT article.

kirk tuck said...

Philip, Exactly! Thank you.

Kurt Shoens said...

To all of your excellent points, let me expand on two things. First is, corporate America reacted quickly and strongly to the troubles of late 2008. This hit everybody, but it must have hit advertising especially hard. Witness the trauma in magazines.

But I don't think the corporate types had some epiphany than cutting advertising and marketing costs was the new way forward. Therefore, I expect that whole market to rebound. It's probably already in progress based on this anecdote: a local company closed down a product effort and offered incentives for the workers to leave. Friends among them tell me that the job market was stone cold dead six months ago but now they are actively pursued by several employers.

The second thing is that the acronym MWAC reminds me that the NY Times ran this story in 2007. Newspapers are famous for fake trend-spotting and this might be an example. I don't know if this URL will survive the blog's spam trap, but here goes: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/27/your-money/27iht-mplay28.4.5478740.html.

Finally, my third (of two) points is that commercial photography looks suspiciously like work. For an amateur, photographing one part for your company could be fun. Photographing fifty parts, and doing the post-processing, and reshooting the goofs, and doing it all on schedule .... Well, maybe the IT gig looks pretty good after all.

kirk tuck said...

Kurt, Thanks. I do think we're starting to see some rebound. I've talked to some marketing people on the other side of the table who feel that the cuts were too deep, too Draconion. There's a move back to some balance. And you are right, commercial photograph can be hard work. In many ways the IT job seems more fun.

Robert said...

Buying stock is like watching high school High jump. It is entertaining and I know I couldn't do it. Hiring someone like Kirk is like watching Olympic high jump. Much more worth your time and money. But the bar is moving up and down. Just because some of the buyers of photography have lowered their bar, doesn't mean everyone is going to.
I recently wrote a short snippet or raising the bar if anyone is interested.

Wolfgang Lonien said...


IT jobs aren't more fun, believe me (I have one of those). In fact I did the same mistake twice: making a hobby your source of income. Too bad when it all becomes business only after a while.

But the reason I'm writing this is another one: look at http://fairtradephotographer.blogspot.com/2010/03/microstock-why-would-reputable-company.html and be optimistic. At least the companies should get it soon.

And keep up your good work, and the great thoughts here - thanks for them again.

John Ricard said...

Another great post. I love your honesty about how your own business has fared in 2009. You're coming off a bad year in 2009 but you are still very optimistic. I love it. Thanks.

Steven Alexander said...

What's old is new. In the 1960's when I started in this business, shooters were elated to get a day rate of $175.00 and never thought about the daily operating cost. In the 80's that $350.00-$500.00 day rate was so great and still no attention to the $$$ per day costs of running the business. And today, $10,000 for a digital body and 1 lens with micro stock sales at $35.00 for unlimited usage. No wonder the photo business is headed down the toilet, too many people look at the end but never looking at the what it takes to get there.

Matt Beaty said...

Well said Kirk!
I am currently one of those people willing to work for next to nothing. Because I'm a student and my overhead expenses are paid, I don't have to worry about paying the bills, I just have to worry about what it will cost me to upgrade my camera gear in a few years. As such, my cost of doing business is exceedingly low and I can charge much lower prices.
Eventually as I move up in the world of photography I expect to raise my rates significantly... but until then, I'm geared towards the markets that want nice photos but don't have a lot to shell out for them.

Great post - well said!

Nick said...

My uncle was an airline pilot, starting just post Vietnam, and he made extremely good money for years. My cousin, 25 years younger, is also an airline pilot, and he makes a solid living. Young pilots just starting out now at regional carriers make about what I made as a half-time teaching assistant in graduate school.

The per-word rate for publishing a short story in a science fiction magazine hasn't changed in decades.

If there is a large crop of people willing to do something for free, the bottom end of a people doing that thing as a profession will be getting paid only a bit above nothing.

kirk tuck said...

Will work for coffee?

kirk tuck said...

double cheese burger on special at McD's = $1.29

Single burger at Sullivan's = $10

Nice steak at the Four Seasons = $48

Nice steak at La Tour D'Argent = $145

There's room for everyone. Gonna bet Bill Gates didn't hit Craig's List when he went looking for a pilot........

kirk tuck said...

Matt, raise your rates as much as you can as soon as you can. If you are scaring off 25% of the people you're prices are too low.

Geir said...

Well, Kirk. I think you got me wrong, because your reply is excactly the same things I see. There is a very limited group of talents out there who will live from photography, but the rest will as you said end up as wannabees. Sad for them, good for photography as a vocation?

kirk tuck said...

I guess we're saying pretty much the same thing from two different directions. Incredibly, most businesses fail. The ones that make it are the exceptions in just about every niche.

That's why so many people have jobs working for someone else. Nothing wrong with that.

Martin Yeates said...

Kirk as I have said in previous posts to similar ?'s you hit the nail on the head, there are folk out there who will pay for quality, but it has to be just that quality, and that would relate to any aspect of photography that you care to mention. I like you believe that there is going to be an emerging market within the hd video that you can now shoot with the ep 2 et al.

The market has changed with the advent of the IT boom, as you mention regularly, I see the video enhancing still images for web based photography,it becomes real and oh so tangible. Just a thought Kirk but I could see potential in you delivering tutorials/ workshops on this and given your knowledge you could be very busy..last but certainly not least I would echo your comment regarding the book make photography profitable, I will certainly be looking to buy it.

Nick Gamma said...

Kirk very good article. I partially agree with you. I am that "IT" guy so to speak. I work in the entertaiment/music design field in NYC. I have been doing this for almost 20 years. As an AD I have worked some of the biggest names in photography including Mark Seliger. As I moved up in my career I started designing less and attending meetings more. I turned to photography two years ago as a creative outlet. I now shoot local bands on the side. Here's the rub. I can't seem to find anyone willing to pay. I've reached out to many bands, labels, mgmt etc... No one is interested in paying. I have been told flat out "we love your work but we know someone with a camera that will shoot for free." I've lost several gigs this way.
Now it gets tricky. Because I do this on the side and I'm trying to build my book and get more experience, this doesn't leave me with many choices. My time is limited. I need to shoot to stay sharp. It puts me in a tough position. I have met with several known entertainment photographers to get their feedback on my situation. They stated that I needed to shoot however I could. Whether a fee was involved or not. The belief is that I should try to charge a fee if I can but that every shoot is an experience, contact and practice. So am I killing the business? I don't know. Thoughts?

Side note:
I do know that ADs and designers are not scared of "good enough." If anyone hasn't noticed designers have been dealing with a flooded market for almost
decade now.

AroundOmaha Photography said...

Great thoughts Kirk. I ponder this all the time as I consider my own part time photography. There are both good and bad elements of the question. On the one hand we're seeing a market being redefined, causing many established folks to struggle and even go under. On the other hand there is an entirely new landscape just waiting for those with unobstructed curiosity and desire to master.

I think there will always be room for those with mastery over the new technology to stand out, and make a good living. But the bygone days are just that.

All industry is has a rank and file which makes up the average. You can decry that or be determined to stand out above the crowd. On certain Nikon forums I've read a LOT of downplay of combo cams for example. Yet I'd bet that within 2 years wedding shooters will have to master that medium (photo/video) to be competitive and viable.

stockshop said...

I read the article in the Times, and several people sent it to me (with friends like that...). We feel strongly that people get what they pay for - your restaurant analogy is very apt. Thanks for sharing.

Calking said...

I just ran across your blog this evening while researching the Leica M6 online (http://photo.net/equipment/leica/m6). I'm fascinated with the camera, just not the price tag but I LOVED the images you took with it!

I'm BLOWN AWAY by the relevance of this post,though, not just to the photography trade, but to business in general.

Photography for me has been a lifelong pursuit of a hobby that I enjoy immensely, but I have no illusions of grandeur about making a red cent selling prints of my best work, much less a living. I think it's fair to say that those that can REALLY sing will always have a paying audience, even though the makeup of that audience may change over time.

In my career as a mortgage professional I can relate to economic downturn issues. I can only say WOW -- (like that "AH HAH!" epiphany) to hear from someone like yourself in a completely unrelated field how you manage not only to identify, execute, and capitalize on a product-centric level, but enjoy the moment while figuring it out.

Your words have helped me identify a key problem with how I've approached the issue of market share in my own business and what I can do about it. This is empowering stuff you've written, and is clearly reflective of your emphasis on the business aspect of photography you teach.

There's something else hidden between the lines here that I hear -- we can over-complicate the most fundamental of things to the point we're overtaken by sheer "paralysis of indecisiveness". Harkens me back to the old saying "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it." -- Johann Wolfgang von Goeth.

I'm a fan. Keep up this excellent post.