Speaking of disruptive technologies and generational disconnections...

I just cringe when I read something from a photographer who's been working in a decent market for years and now they are reaching out, trying to understand why, when they are at the top of their game, surrounded with the best lights and camera equipment in the world, with a string of awards and successes, why are their billings and assignments consistently shrinking.  The rejoining comment, from many people who don't work in the field always seems to be:  "Stop whining and raise the level (meaning quality or creativity) of your photography!"  Oh, these "monday morning quarterbacks" have it all figured out.  If only we were shooting with $50,000 systems and doing everything just right we'd be able to rake in big dough.

And for about two minutes I bought into that sentiment.  But I'm rarely smart enough to take "crowd wisdom" at face value so I started going to our traditional sources of income (the ad and graphic design agencies and magazines) to do some real, shoe leather-telephone call-coffee meeting research.  And here's what I've found:

The newly ascendant art directors and designers, who are just hitting their stride in the field, were in their training periods or in school during the first collapse of the creative economy, in late 2001-2002.  The budgets evaporated just as they did again in 2007-2011.  Their bosses and their clients pushed them relentlessly to use much cheaper stock photography.  Which they did.  But what really started the ball rolling toward the gutter was when all the good schools began teaching all of these students to become highly proficient in PhotoShop.  The current "best/worst" practice in art direction, as it's practiced in nearly all but the most lofty agencies, is to have the staff search relentlessly through stock photography online to find "parts."  The parts are then assembled in layer after layer of Photoshop and then massaged and "post process designed"  to create a final image for whatever project is at hand.

Many shops have a Canon Rebel with the kit lens, or a point and shoot, or even a cellphone with a "nice" camera and they will pull in staff and friends to be "parts" for a big assemblage.  In my interviews I find that many shops think nothing of having their own people pose without paying model or talent fees.  The agencies also LIKE the idea that they can cobble together some internally generated shots and a handful of inexpensive stock shots and then have their in house PhotoShop savant put everything together because they can bill the time spent montaging and massaging, directly back to the client.  In some cases they are able to charge upwards of $150 an hour for eight or ten hours.  These are directly billable fees whereas external photography can only be marked up by a percentage.  The agency ends up owning the rights to the composited images which go into their internal library for possible recycling.  The  end cost to the final client is generally close to what the cost of custom created photography would have been but the agency wins because they are able to keep the entire revenue from the project (less the stock charges).

And make no mistake, given enough time and enough RAM and a fast enough processor, a gifted PhotoShopper can pull something really.....adequate... out of the mix most of the time.  Obviously, this doesn't work as well when the brief calls for a beautifully executed ad shot of a particular person, or an artistic shot of a unique new product but it's mainstream for ad images that are just looking to be symbolic archetypes.

The economy trained the art directors to create, essentially, a new creative product.  It's one based on nearly infinite stock photography choice and tons of post processing.  Both of which fall into the best interests of an agency since they accomplish three things:  1.  They keep the lion's share of revenue in-house.  2.  They keep an employee engaged in long periods of additional, billable work.  3.  They deliver generic concept ads under tight deadlines without taking any real risks.

It's interesting to see that a whole new style that doesn't depend on reality or believability is emerging.  And really, short of opening their own ad agencies, there's not a great deal photographers can do to combat the trend.  It's one of the reasons you see so many still shooters chasing after video projects (and conversely, the video market is so flooded with new, low cost recruits that many veteran video shooters are now starting to try their hands at still photography....).

The uninformed may exhort photographers to "raise their game!"  But it's utter nonsense.  What we're really seeing is the ongoing evolution of two giant industries, each following the same trajectory as most other businesses that have been touched by digital, the web and the relentless cost reductions implicit.

Services are delivered quicker, in higher quantity and for far less money that ever before.  And at the heart of the transition is the unabated, culture-wide acceptance of "good enough."  But that's not even fair considering that what's emerging is really not photography, per se, but a new commercial art form based on a different set of assumptions.  And that's where the schism is between generations....

I've written about these changes before and each time people outside my industry chip in that it could never happen in their industrial or service niche.  But in reality, for most businesses, it's just a matter of time.  The real secret is how well you deal with change.  And acceptance of new realities is always the first step in re-creation.

Does everything need to be shot at a zillion megapixels?  Does every delivered file have to be massaged longer than the Mona Lisa?  Are all clients worth keeping?  Has our generational idea of what constitutes a "deliverable" been passed by on the creative highway?  Are we even selling what clients want?  It's a fine beige puzzle of 10,000 squiggly pieces and we'll only know the real answers as we move forward.  If we even glean the answers at all.

I did "parts" last week.  110 clipped images that will be included in an illustrated design.  I added a CEO and a corporate President into backgrounds that I shot in another space and time.  I finished the final proofs for a book. I'm prepping for two speaking engagements and a workshop.  Nothing looks like the kind of stuff we made a living doing just ten years ago.  Or even five years ago.  But before you can change your business you have to know what is real and what is mythology.  And it's different in every section of the market.  Pick up the phone and call the next generation.  If you pay for the coffee they'll tell you what they think.

If you are a photographer all I can tell you is that everything you knew about the photography business (hyperbole caution...) is pretty much obsolete now.  Being a service provider is critical.  Finding the new markets is critical.  And, in keeping with my fascination about new technology, keeping up with new technical stuff is part of the whole equation.  Just don't use new stuff to shoot in the same old way.  To a certain extent you have to let the gear steer.

If you are shooting for your own pleasure you can ignore everything I've just written.  Until the wrecking ball comes to your house.


G3 said...

...unabated, culture-wide acceptance of "good enough."

I have been a software developer for... well, a Really long time.

If you look at the statistical distribution of quality, the pinnacle of mediocrity has been on a steady march to the left for some time now.

This shift has already occurred in the software industry. Maybe more than photography, software development is a tedious, minutiae driven exercise. Obtaining high quality is an effort, albeit a rewarding one. Development tools with "wizard" driven code generation and execution platforms with the raw horse power to mitigate the most inefficient designs and suddenly Uncle Bob is a software developer. The mobile app seems to be the epitome of this.

Dump enough of this product on people and they will eventually accept things that "almost work" "most of the time".

A friend of mine has a ginormous television with newest digital cable with the latest HDMI interface. Thirty percent of the time he only gets audio, thirty percent of the time he only gets video, and forty percent of the time he gets audio AND video and half that time they are out of sync. No one seems to be able to help. When I used a couple of RCA cables, it just worked. All the time, every time.

I would hate to think that digital, with all of its power, extrapolated to computing as a whole, will continue to drive us to the left.
I have hope, however, that as the pinnacle marches left, more and more examples of quality will appear in the tail to the right to serve as a reminder of what is possible, reinvigorating the demand for better than "good enough".

kirk tuck said...

I hope so too.

Ian said...

Thanls Kirk. That makes a lot of sense.

Key to your approach is to understand and adapt. For many people who have been able to work with one successful method for much of their career, this can be very difficult. Particularly so when, in the measure of years, it would seem that there are less days to come than there have been.

Often these people gather in coffee shops to reminisce and complain.

To me this is an improper use of coffee! When coffee houses abounded in London, they were known as the Penny University. Minds which were stimulated by the caffiene were eager to discover and share.

It seems that you too have discovered that coffee is a bridge for information, a social ritual and a photographic subject.

And it looks like their are some good coffee houses in Austin!

Clay said...

You make me glad to be doing this for love and few friends.

OmarF said...

I think the business I work for illustrates this. Most years in the past, we would order calendars that our main supplier developed for us. Most photos were professionally made. One year, we hired a photographer to set up scenes of customers in their work environment and homes. It was a hit, and looked good, but the cost was out of our normal reach.

This year, our in-house marketing people are putting the calendar together using employee submitted photos. I saw a proof. It's really good, although I would say that because they are using several of my photos as part of this. Instead of worrying that I didn't get paid for the photos, I feel like I'm giving back to my employer. There are a few of us who are enthusiasts doing this. Plus lots of others just plain got lucky with photos that work for this concept!

The calendar has a main photo along with a number of small photos on each page. The layout allows weak areas of the photos to be covered up.

In other words, our marketing team used a lot of bits to make this idea work. Our employees feel pride every time they hand a customer a calendar. Our customers who were featured will feel pride as well.

A budget to do all these photos would have been astronomical and wouldn't have had the same effect.

Paulo Rodrigues said...

Brilliant Kirk, that makes perfect sense.

Tofuphotography said...

Thanks for articulating this. With photoshopped images it now seems that we have entered a postmodern world where non-reality is accepted. At work we get emails all the time with photoshopped images. When I point out to colleagues these can't possibly be real, they are surprised. It simply never occurs to them. I guess we just have to live with this now. Makes me glad I am not a professional photographer becuase I can shoot what I like, and the things I like don't include photoshopped montages!

kirk tuck said...

OmarF, if you don't own stock in the company you work for and you "gave back" (handed over your image and your likeness and your intellectual property) to your company you have cheated yourself.

Dave Jenkins said...

Seven or eight years ago I called an art director friend at an agency that had given me work from time to time to ask why I hadn't heard from them lately. She told me they were assigning very little original photography because their clients were bringing in CDs of cheap stock images and demanding that they use them.

That led me to analysis that, while nowhere near as fully thought out as yours, caused me to think about the areas of photography I could develop which would be relatively safe from the depredations of amateurs and Photoshop artists. By 2007, I had decided to specialize in architecture and in executive and public relations portraits, and to a lesser extent, events. I thought these would be good choices because architecture and portraiture both take some lighting skills, and architecture also requires specialized equipment. As for events, if an occasion is important to a company or organization they probably aren't going to risk using Uncle Joe.

Unfortunately, I got into architectural photography just before the housing bubble burst. Still, it wasn't a bad decision based on the information available to me at the time. A lot of presumably smarter than me people didn't foresee the crash either! But I have to say that my business has been struggling since that time.

Anonymous said...

"Up your game" in this case does not necessarily mean "take better photographs".... it refers to all aspects of what makes it a business. Ian's "understand and adapt" applies to any business, and for photography, that may well apply to the people/marketing aspect more than the technical photography aspect. If a market is simply disappearing, then "understand and adapt" means to find a new market, or work to make the old market reappear.

Regarding your reply to OmarF about having cheated himself, it sounds as if you believe that doing anything more than the absolute bare minimum required by contract (for your employer, client, etc.) is "cheating yourself". Did you really mean that? There are certainly dumb ways to give extra, but there are many smart ways that benefit the giver much more than the cost of the "gift" (by, for example, fostering a better relationship for you among your friends and coworkers).

Bold Photography said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bold Photography said...

You can change the word "Photographer" for many different professions and you will still be right on...

This country used to be about greatness... where did that go?

mgblogger said...

Have you read Seth Godin's "Linchpin" Kirk? I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts on that alongside this post.

Gino Eelen said...

I don't mind going for 'good enough' in the software business, because I'm only in that for the money. But in photography? I guess I love the art too much to be involved in that professionally...

And to OmarF: I don't know the specifics of your situation, but I perform a job for someone, and they give me money in return - a fair and right exchange it seems to me. I don't see why afterwards I would 'give back' to them without them in return 'giving back' to me... I don't even understand the meaning of those words in that context, because it seems to me you can only give 'back' after you were 'given' something...

Jon said...

Your posting confirms for me what I discovered about photography (for me) a little while ago. I know that if I had to do this for a living, I would hate it. I don't envy professional photographers and all the crap they have to put up with and things they must go through to make ends meet...or to be very successful. I'm fortunate in that I have a different line of work that I really like and that it provides enough income that I can do photography as a hobby for my own enjoyment and creative outlet. Keep up the good work, Kirk.

Paul Bailey said...

Kirk I wonder if photographers of the 21st century are experiencing what illustrators of the 19th experienced some time ago, or printers who used hot type.

kirk tuck said...

I have read the works of Seth Godin and consider it provocative entertainment for people out of work who wish that the whole system was "fair." Whether or not he is espousing a smart business strategy for anyone other than Seth Godin is up for debate.

Giving stuff away and hoping people will like you is nothing new. But sometimes I think Seth is confusing the idea of "free samples" with sustainable practice.

He sells books. That's his product. The more "controversial" the better they sell. People love fiction as anthropology.

I was going to answer the reader who asked if I seriously believed what I wrote to Omar. But someone else answered for me and did a better job than I would.

I've worked for major corporations for decades and, as warm and cuddly as they might make you feel when you are irreplaceable to them I've watched the aftermath of thousands displaced to move something tiny on a spreadsheet. Corporations have no intrinsic morality and it's foolish to believe that they have anyone's best interests at heart than the executive leadership team.

If you are on the executive leadership team then, no doubt, you are paid partially in equity and by all means you should give back because you are working in your own self-interest.

Tom Shay said...

I heard this read by Charles Osgood many years ago.... A poem called "Pretty Good". He was seeing the problem over 15 years ago.


mikepeters said...

This has been an ongoing issue since the early 90's. Suddenly your portfolio was not nearly as important as what you charged. And, they would just want a number, not based on what they wanted or needed, or what the details of the job were all about, just a generic question: what are your rates? At that point, I knew, the game was over. Fortunately, I've been at a staff job for the past 11 years, where I get creative freedom. However, dealing with business has been replaced by dealing with politics. Nothing is really perfect or as simple as it seems.

studio said...

I run a small graphic agency and I agree with your observation. The future will be crowded with micro agencies or 3-5 man teams, working with reasonable equipment and minimal overheads, yet are able to deliver the quality levels of many major agencies today for most jobs except big campaigns.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the quality level would be indiscernible to many clients, as many of these micro agency founders would have come from traditional agencies themselves or had freelanced for them. These micro agencies are in a way killing off the traditional market because they can and often do charge very low to get an entry into the market. Unfortunately, what I have discovered is that this initial discounted rate almost never increases - our revenues increase by merely playing the volume game.

But the micro agencies are not solely to blame. Clients, too, have become savvy shoppers in recent years, and many of the smaller businesses have owners or managers who are also photography or video enthusiasts themselves. In short, they know how much it costs to complete a job, which is why these days we have to resort to stock images on inhouse shooting for most below the line (and even smaller print or web ad) jobs. These clients rarely have the budget to pay for boutique photo shoots. The same is true for video - fees for corporate videos have fallen by as much as 3/4 of what it used to be just 5 years ago.

In time I would say the micro agencies will constitute about 80% of the market, yet earn perhaps 20% per the 80-20 principle. Yet that 20% is often enough for us to survive and we are happy with the niche.

studio said...

May I just say that the tide had been moving in this direction for at least the past 10 years. Beginning with websites, the fees of which have fallen drastically compared to when Web 2.0 was still new to the extent that many corporate websites today simply use Wordpress templates. Photo and video are just the more recent victims - with the advent of new technology in the hands of reasonably competent up-and-comers, the events and wedding markets for example have been reduced to a fraction of what pros used to be able to charge.

Personally I think this is just going to be the way of the future, and things are hardly likely to return to the good old days in the foreseeable time frame.

kirk tuck said...

And yet, a small number of clients will pay for excellence. We need to keep it on someone's menu. All service providers can't be the McDonalds of their industries. We need the Mortons and the Tour d'Argents as well.

One day soon the sine wave will reverse and the differentiator in advertising will be cool creative and top flight production. It happens as regularly as the weather.

OmarF said...

My previous comment about "giving back" to my employer maybe was an aside to the main point, so I don't want to dwell on it too much. Employment in a any company involves some give and take. In a sense, I feel like I've hitched my wagon to their horse so want to make sure that horse is as healthy as possible.

Part of the give and take is being chosen for the soft stuff that happens. Recently, I was part of a small group of employees that were invited to a corporate booth for a football game. I've been taken to a PGA golf tournament no charge. More topical, one of the owners has taken me up on a plane three times specifically to photograph something. If I got hung up on maximizing income off my photos, I might be blocked out of quite a few of these opportunities.

But, in the end, I freely give topical photos for company use because I want to. I'm not trying to make any income, so my photographs have no monetary value.

That said, I still want control over who uses them. If someone were to grab my photos from an on-line album and use them for their profit generating purposes, that would bother me.

studio said...

"And yet, a small number of clients will pay for excellence."

I agree. But it is a small number - perhaps 1 out of 20 clients. What we have discovered is that very often it is a result of nurturing a good relationship and a client that can actually appreciate good design. You might be surprised: we come across more and more clients these days who don't value good design; for these clients we usually have to hide part of the design fee into the printing commissions.

"All service providers can't be the McDonalds of their industries. We need the Mortons and the Tour d'Argents as well. "

True. We have resolved to maintain just a handful of clients each year and keep the team and overheads low instead. In a way we are a boutique design agency, and we have good clients. It's just that they don't always have a budget or even time for photo shoots - most of the ads we do these days are below the line or web, anyway.

"One day soon the sine wave will reverse and the differentiator in advertising will be cool creative and top flight production."

Maybe so, but I am not holding my breath. I have been in advertising since the early 90's, and the trend has pretty much been moving one way in the creative industries. First with the web designers, then the graphic artists, and now moving to event & wedding photographers and videographers. It's a result of the democratisation of the creative industry, to me.

studio said...

One more comment, if I may:

"...the differentiator in advertising will be cool creative and top flight production."

While this is true, I question whether the cost of that cool creative and top flight production will return to the same levels of the yesteryears. I can do today what I could do 20 years ago when I first started out but with with a fraction of the cost. In those days the barrier to entry was technology: cameras and computers cost too much for people like me to consider setting up on our own, and much of the things you can today in software you had to do for real. These days that barrier has become almost non-existent (even Apple has abandoned the creatives who used to sustain them when they were floundering).

kirk tuck said...

I think it's important to first make a demarcation between process and intellectual property. If the image is wonderful it has its own value, separate from the cost of production. Secondly, lighting, rapport and creative vision are what those future clients will be buying and all of these rapport, taste and creative vision will always have tremendous barriers to entry.

By conventional logic no corporation should require a CEO. Trends can be data mined and direction done in committee. Yet CEO's are more highly paid than ever before.

Just because McDonalds can cook meat cheaper than anyone else doesn't mean we will all end up eating there if we can afford better.

There are plenty of $6 wines from Australia, California and Chile that compete with each other but on my birthday I want to drink a Pomerol or a St. Emilion Grand Cru. It's a different part of the market.

studio said...


KB said...

Celebrity portraiture ("celebrity" defined by the audience).

Specific architectural projects.

Everything else, not so much $

kirk tuck said...

I'm not quite so pessimistic. Partly because I think the market is responsible for a big share of pain but secondly because I think people will still look for and value a unique vision. I still buy novels but everyone in the universe owns a word processor. You still have to have and idea.

Or in photography, you still have to have a point of view.

But in my new job as the CEO of the Visual Science Lab private investment bank I don't really need to worry about the market. Just the fed....

Don said...

From web design to illustration to photography to music production... technology has removed the 'base' knowledge / experience that was once required.

My bud Dave Siegel and I were chatting today... and I noted that there are three books on my shelf next to the computer.

The Camera
The Negative
The Print

The knowledge in these books, whether gained from reading/practicing what was within them, or from other sources, was absolutely vital to become even a beginning photographer.

Take them all to the dustbin. Now NONE of that is needed. If being a photographer was based on a 100 point scale of learning to mastering, 80 points are now gone. The curve is small, the curve is quick, the curve is without much effort.

It seems that all that knowledge/experience/testing is now simply evaporated.

Light it shoot it shop it... done.

Not complaining, that won't do any good, but do wonder what value we will continue to put on something that a 15 year old kid with a Rebel and a Mac can do...

My feeling... not as much as we would wish for.

kirk tuck said...

It'll all settle down. Then we'll figure out the value proposition and regroup. Thank God I can still write books, do marketing, invest wisely and all those other things.

It may be anecdotal but our photography billings are already double what they were in 2009 so it gives some credence to my belief that the horrible world financial market and uncertainty has as much to do with all this as lowered barriers to entry......

Jan Klier said...

Just now coming across this post based on your tweet :-)

I do think you hit many nails on the head in this post.

My only counter argument would be that sometimes we distort / glamorize the past. Reading your post one could assume that in the past 'good enough' wasn't acceptable, and that a much higher percentage of work was 'excellent'. Is that a fact, or rosy view of the past? When I look at various images taken a while back, whether it's in photo books, archives, ads - I don't necessarily see the abundance of excellence. I see the same bell curve of crap to great stuff that we see today.

As time passes, the crap tends to expire in our medium and long-term memory faster than the excellent stuff, so our perception skews over time.
And in a similar wane I would say that styles have changed. Take a look at what used to be a great ad involving food photography 10 years back, and what we do today, and I would say what folks did 10 years ago looks really unappealing today.

All that is a long way to saying that while I totally agree that the game has changed, and you have to stay ahead of these changes or you will be left behind. I do not agree that there was a semi-conscious move towards mediocrity as a whole. That is not to discredit your (and my) sense that it would be nice that excellence and craft would be valued more. But I think the number of people that do value it hasn't really changed drastically.