Is the age of "professional photographer" over?

More people are taking more photos than ever before and it's a wonderful time to be a photographer.  It may even be a wonderful time to sell pictures occasionally and to make a little side money but I think we're seeing the passing of the "Professional Photographer" (in caps) as a profession in the same way typesetters vanished from the face of the earth within ten years of desktop publishing hitting the marketplace.  Same with traditional labs.  In the old days typesetting required skill and taste and equipment.  But it cost money to do it right.  We paid the money (in the ad agency days) because that was the way it was done and that was the cost of doing business.

But when Pagemaker and QuarkExpress hit the market it became possible (mandatory, from a cost point of view...) for art directors and graphic designers to do their own typesetting.  While early versions of the desktop graphic design programs lacked the ultra fine control, and the massive number of fonts traditional typesetters offered, the programs offered something that accountants couldn't resist:  The Idea of Free,  and they offered something a generation becoming fascinated with computers couldn't resist:  The Idea of Personal Control over the whole process.  While there are tiny exceptions the vast majority of professional typesetters and typesetting services are gone.  Not transformed, just gone.  We don't have a group who "upped their game" and made a viable argument for the value proposition of the very best typesetting in the world we just don't have any typesetters.

While more and more photos are being taken, as a percentage, far fewer are being taken by professional photographers than ever before.  And that includes images being used in ad campaigns and in  the general course of commerce.  Wedding photographers have seen a radical decline just in the last two years in total sales and revenue.  And it's not a question of not seeing the future.  Professional photographers don't know how to make money doing what they have done in the past in the future they do see.  Everyone who needs a photo for one use or another is stepping up with their own camera (or phone) and taking their best shot.  PhotoShop and it's lite cousins are the Pagemakers and Quarkexpresses that are driving the total market adaptation.  Time and budget are relentlessly driving the market for images.

Why did I start thinking about this?  It was the news that Kodak might be filing bankruptcy that started me down this tortured thought trail.  If the company that invented digital photography can't figure out how to survive in the age of digital photography what hope can there be for the professional photographers?  Yes, we're more agile and able to change quickly, but we're doing what all the devolving industries have done when confronted with their decline,  we move into other related fields, each of which is probably also in decline.  A great example is video production.  

When the 5D mk2 hit the market, and Vincent Laforet did his video Reverie, it struck a match of hope in the hearts of photographers looking for a secondary income stream.  How simple.  We would all become video artists.  But in the last two years so much programming has moved to YouTube and the numbers in the professional side of that industry are, if anything, worse than those confronting the majority of working photographers.  Some photographers have starting offering web design but that market is flooded as well.  

I've heard the chorus before.  It goes like this:  "Up your game and the world is your oyster."  But the reality is that, for most, even the perfect game isn't going to compete against free, or almost free. And it's not enough to compete against the concept of "good enough."  With tens of billions of images available at the fingertips of people who used to have to assign work, and pay real money for it, the odds are that perfect isn't going to be in the budget again for a long, long time.

Kodak was, for me, the symbol of photography as I knew it.  And the guys at Kodak weren't and aren't dumb.  They are/were some of the best and brightest.  They just didn't plan on the market shifting at the speed of light.  They didn't anticipate that disruption would occur faster than T-Max 3200.  And we, as professional photographers, are now standing where Kodak stood before the Toons dropped the safe or the grand piano on their heads  (Who Killed Rodger Rabbit reference).  Will we be able to do a better job of creating an alternative universe for ourselves?  It remains to be seen. 

I think the markets will continue as they progressively wind their way away from traditional assignment work.  Photographers will transition as designers have.  In order to stay in the middle class they'll need to diversify into video, digital presentation, writing, web publishing and more stuff that we haven't even invented yet. We'll likely become "content providers" working in concert with designers and agencies. Designers work with type, work with graphic elements, shoot their own source materials when necessary, design for the web and print and outdoor and for mobile apps.  Would they prefer to concentrate on pure design?  Sure.  But they also like to eat, pay the rent and buy stuff.  

Our industry will make a similar transition.  We just haven't figured out the whole roadmap yet.  And the people who don't want to learn to swim (all four strokes)  will be left behind, clinging to a fragment of the battered haul from a ship that's sinking quickly into the deep, cold waters of incessant progress.

Ian Summers summed it all up best with his motto:  "Grow or Die."

The only reality check I can offer is that Professional Photography is a much, much bigger and more diverse industry than Typesetting ever was.  And there are, of course, segments that will keep holding on even as most of the formerly profitable market is destroyed.  To make an analogy to video, while people are shooting their own webcasts with small digital cameras, or the cameras in their laptops, they don't want to give up the quality of professional camera and video work they see on broadcast NFL football games.  That level of work still takes a lot of skill and experience.  But a quick training video or "how to" video for in-house use?  Forget it.  Parts of the industry will go on.  But large swaths of what we always considered "the bread and butter" will not.  Not in the same way.  And without foundational work there's no real chance the majority will make it being photographers, exclusively.

Do I write this because I am angry or cranky?  No, I write this as an honest opinion.  It's as inevitable as the waves on the beach.  How can we battle  it?  We can't.  We can sort through our options and figure out our futures but we have to recognize that things changed quicker than anyone thought and, that old models are breaking down.  My business used to be completely devoted to assignment photography.  Last year a large percentage of our income was from publishing royalties.  Another segment came from several video projects.   Another part of the pie came from web marketing.  And some money even flew into the coffers as a result of teaching at workshops and seminars.  I may be a curmudgeon but I'm embracing change as quickly as I can.  Wanna buy a Visual Science Lab T-shirt?  

I hope Kodak makes it. Not because I believe they must for nostalgic reasons but because it would validate my thoughts that we can, as an industry,  retool and we can re-engage our markets (and new markets) in different ways.  

This essay is aimed solely at the people in the audience who make a living from taking photographs.  If you don't fall in this category you are either luckier or less lucky than we are.  If you get beyond the idea that the people at Kodak are not intelligent and you can understand that they were at the mercy of the data they had at hand you'll likely do a better job with your re-invention.  It starts now.  


Patrick Dodds said...

I'll buy a T-shirt.

Mark n Manna said...

Kirk....Put a Visual Science Lab T-shirt on a hot model, and make some photos.
Marketing,man. It's all in the presentation.
You're an educated man. A professional with years of experience. A published author.
You have lots of new markets open to you.
I'm sure you recognize them. Not everyone will.

John Krumm said...

I suspect there will always be room for professional photographers to some degree, but the market will keep shrinking painfully for a while. Skill is skill. The "craft" side of photography is valuable, and while amateurs can duplicate it given enough time, they often cannot do it on demand in demanding circumstances. There will always be beauticians and barbers too, and I say that as a person whose wife has cut his hair for the last 20 years.

Jan Klier said...

Well there you have it :-)

A few thoughts come to mind. On the Kodak front - I would say that their challenges are probably a good example of an established player who didn't manage transition well. From what I understand it wasn't a matter of speed/time, but simply not the right people at the helm in many ways. Which btw. is not atypical in this scenario and culture, and I suspect that is the same reason many long-time professional photographers will have a hard time adjusting as well.

There clearly was a path for Kodak to stay in the game. They didn't pick it. There clearly is a path for many professional photographers to stay in the game, but many will not choose wisely. Emotions and uneven skill will get in the way.

Speaking of which - there was a good CNN story today stating that most private practice doctors are on the verge of bankruptcy. In the new heath care economy it's no longer good enough to be a good doctor, you also have a good businessmen, and many never had to learn that. Another case of uneven skill getting in the way.

I do think that you're right on the spot when you predict that photographers staying in the game have to be come 'content providers' - though I prefer the term content creators. Instead of creating photographs as a specific form of content, we specialize in a broad range of visual product creation to meet the needs of the content distributors, who are undergoing their own set of changes.

And I'd rather be a content creator than a distributor. Because distribution can easily replaced and automated in this digital age. Creation is still a human process. Technology can enable many to become good enough at this human process, and lower the barrier to entry, but technology will not replace and automate creation as quickly (never say never though).

If there is a take away for me - it's actually not specific to photography, but more that the overall pace of progress and change has accelerated to a point where major shifts happen not in generations, or in careers, but in decades and even less time. Which means regardless of what you do for a living, you will have to adapt several times throughout your working life. It's that skill, and the ability to come out on top along the way, that is more important than ever, and one that I don't think enough people have or focus on in time.

Anonymous said...

Professional photography is not dead, the game is just changing.

Case in point. My local mall has 4 photography shops. They usually photography families and children. They have professional lighting setups and backgrounds. The photographs are taken mostly by people in their 20s who are trained by the management and have little or no photographic experience, working on commission. But they related very well with the clients.

They also have flashy computers which nicely display the pictures immediately after they are taken. A 15 minute photo shoot usually results in a $350 sale.

Last week when I visited the mall all 4 photography shops were jammed. People were taking numbers to be photographed.

Also in the center court, there was a professional photographer handing out flyers for his professional portraits at his studio. I talked with him and he didn't have many takers.

If you misread the market, it will pass you by.


Dean Silliman said...

I've always heard that buggy whip makers perished while transportation accessory makers survived. Kodak and the US Post Office are prime examples of buggy whip makers who would not yield. They now pay the price. There were so many missed opportunities for these companies to adapt that it's painful.

It's a shame for their employees and customers.

George said...

On the contrary. Everybody is taking mediocre pictures and that teases them into better pictures later. I went through 20 years without a single picture of me being taken so I did not think of photography at all.

Started with a little camera a cute 4 oz sony. Now I have 20 cameras and 50,000 pictures later hundreds of people have looked at their own pictures and that seeds the interest to look better, and so on. The age of photohtaphy and video is just beggining.

Mel said...

Movies continue to need directors, even the completely CGI ones. Why? Directors bring order out of the chaos of a story being turned into visual imagery. Directors rally specialists around a goal, melding each person's skills into a unified project and timeline.

Two points - directors need specialists to make movies just as various businesses need images as part of their business, images that must come from someone capable of turning the business needs into usable product; i.e., good, flexible photographers. Second, businesses need directors who can manage projects from start to finish; i.e., photographers who understand business.

Great thoughts, Kirk, and in keeping with your messages of the past year - adapt or move on.

Anonymous said...

Wanna buy a Visual Science Lab T-shirt?

You bet! I always have room for more T-shirts. If you're going to offer colors, I'd go for black ones (Maybe with your symbol on the sleeve?).

I have to ask: Why not sell your books direct? I know a few authors that sell their books directly even though they are available in stores & on the internet. They usually add an autograph & maybe a brief note - certainly not required by any means, but I appreciate the personal touch. I'd buy the books anyway and would rather see them make a little more on the sales to me than they would if I bought them for a small discount elsewhere.


John said...

Interesting as usual. And as a professional photographer at only 40, maybe a bit scarier than for some on the older end where you might be "saved by the buzzer!"

But I must say that at least for now, I don't see it this way. I'm not experiencing it this way. Business is growing for me over the last few years. I have continued to diversify the way I shoot and my delivery workflow and end-products but not really beyond that.

I am intrigued by the addition of moving images and have dabbled with it in slideshows, but the post-production side of video is a beast that I don't want to contend with. More importantly, they don't seem to make as much money on the video side.

I think the more amateurs flooding the market with sub-professional work has only made good photographers look better. But, there are areas where money is king and the photographer is being squeezed out. If you can't provide a level of service and end-product that justifies the money, you will be done.

To command money and survive, there must be a significant difference between what you provide vs. the in-house writer with a camera.

Important to recognize that there are so many different photography markets out there - all being impacted very differently. I'm glad I'm not a newspaper photographer. I'm very glad I am not a landscape photographer. Luckily, my niche seems to be sliding through quite well. (Knocking on the wood laminate on my desk!)

John said...

An interesting side bar that made me shake my head yesterday.

I was photographing a pharmaceutical exec yesterday and after the ten minute shoot she asked if I shoot families? I said, sure, I shoot families. (For the right price, I shoot almost anything!)

She said she called a photographer last week and the photographer was available but said the shoot HAD to be outdoors. Well, it's winter in Boston and this family really doesn't want to be photographed outdoors right now.

I just shake my head at these people who are trying to make it as photographers, usually struggling, and then put these type of limitations to their client! Then they wonder why business is tough. This family wants to pay you to photograph them. If they want to be photographed inside, then shoot inside. If you don't know how, then figure it out!

But for now, I'll be glad to take your money!:)

Clay said...

There are still people who paint for a living, in spite of the age of the technology and the plethora of "anybody can paint" instructional books and videos. Those few professional painters are very good, work very hard and create work that the average person knows that he can't do.

Even then, many (maybe most) professional artists have some other gig that brings in a steady income. For the lucky ones, the steady income source is art-related (graphic design, teaching art); the others split their attention between left- and right-brained efforts.

Similarly, there will always be a market for photographs that people know they can't make for themselves: they can't or won't travel to distant lands, go to dangerous places or get beautiful women to smile at them. So there will always be a market for a few photographers who produce the right look at the right time. That market will look more like the fine art market of today than the photography market of the last century.

John Krill said...

Yes typesetters are gone and almost everywhere forgotten. Except in one place here in L.A.


Anonymous said...

Sure, Kodak was smart when it came to period technology. But they also were incredibly tone-deaf when it came to adapting to new business models.

That, in a nutshell, is why the company who was the largest film manufacturer in the world -- AND invented the digital camera -- is prepping for bankruptcy.

Professional photography is not dead. But it is for professional photographers who are unwilling to adapt.

kirk tuck said...

To all the optimistic people who are trying, by dint of anecdotal evidence, to make the case that PROFESSIONAL photography (not the fun of....) is healthy and growing I have an honest question..

If your son or daughter came to you for some career counseling would you encourage them to become a professional photographer?

Not in addition to some other training or profession, but as their sole job?


Jan Klier said...

Good question Kirk!

First off, I would have to tell them if they really wanted to do it, that if that's where there heart is, then yes, they should go for it. I gave myself that advice not too long ago, so it would be dishonest to tell my kids advice I wouldn't listen to myself.

But I would also tell them, that they need to keep in mind that they're standing on a shifting tectonic plate, and that they should always be prepared to do something else.

I think there is no such thing as career advice in today's world. That's as outdated as professional photography. Career advice hinges on the idea that one has a career, which implies many years of progression in a particular field.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I don't do photography for a living. I've taken pictures all my life and love the hobby. Lot's of memories of the people in my life. That's what I take pictures of...people. I can get real nice pictures of the Grand Canyon, or Eiffel Tower, but they're almost meaningless to me if they don't also include a friend of family member in them, too.

My new V1 works perfectly for what I do.

John said...

Kirk, I'll take you up on that question! I am 40 and I have a sister who just turned 24. She majored in Spanish and Journalism in school. She did some work with me through college and the following year. She decided about a year ago that she wanted to do this full-time and has been doing quite well. I absolutely would not discourage her from becoming a photographer.

I think it all depends on you wants, needs and desires. If you really want to make a lot of money and don't care so much how you make money, you can get into finance or any number of things.

Most of us aren't "employee" type people. We are more entrepreneurial. When I had a marketing job in my mid 20's I spent three nights a week at Borders reading photography books. I love photography and have found a very successful niche that is satisfying at the same time. Discourage someone from that? No way!

But one also has to be realistic. My sister has a very good skill set for this work. She is VERY personable. She has a good eye and is getting by right now as she learns more technical stuff on the fly. And she also has a great catapult in me and my father for guidance, learning and side work.

I think this industry is changing quickly and will continue to change. But if you are passionate about photography and providing your clients with what they want and have some talent to go along with it, I think there will be a good market for your services for years to come. If you are only passionate about photography and your own vision, I think you are in trouble.


Dave Jenkins said...

This is an incredibly tough business. Photojournalist Kenneth Jarecke writes on his blog that there are currently 360 men playing basketball in the NBA. They make an average of five million dollars a year, and are eligible for a pension after three years. He writes: "If we use a barebones definition of success (for a freelance photographer), say after paying your bills you normally make $50,000 a year...

The number of successful people working as freelance photographers in America today, is less than the number of guys playing in the NBA.

... and there isn't any pension."

I don't know where he gets his information and can't vouch for it, but it's worth a read. http://kennethjarecke.typepad.com/mostly_true/2010/05/first-get-a-million-dollars.html

Jan Moren said...

Typesetters disappeared. Or — depending on your perspective — they did not, but became absorbed into the graphical design profession. The profession has largely disappeared, but the work has not.

Similarly, buggy whip makers largely disappeared, but horse-riding accessory makers have certainly not, and buggy whips seem to be a common item in their catalogues.

So, being solely a photographer may not be possible. Being something like a graphics artist (or journalist, or publication designer) with skills in still photography may well be.

Jack said...

Regarding your question of what would you advise a son or daughter to do...things change too fast to advise them one career or another.
I wanted to be a professional photographer. My dad advised me to make money another way and then enjoy photography as an avocation. Thankfully I initally took his advice, but subsequently am fortunate enough to make enough money in photography to live on and still enjoy it, thanks to digital vs analog. I sell huge prints to corporations that could not have been printed without huge digital printers. Without digital printing I would be just be selling beer, which did make me money for awhile.
Mick Jager probably advises his offspring to enjoy music rather than assume they can make money from music. He was quoted as saying he was lucky. He lived in a 25 year time frame window when you could make money as a musician, but for most of 6000 years that really was not possible.
Now musicians don't sell their music, they sell T shirts.

Lesson, sell the T shirt, or book, and both are digitally produced. I am serious, the name visual science lab is so cool.

stefano60 said...

as usual, great article and very thought provoking; i think we can all agree that the profession, AS WE KNEW IT, may be slowly disappearing, same as other professions virtually disappeared over the years as new technologies or techniques came about.

however, i would not be so quick at dismissing it; true, anyone today can get a phenomenal camera and start taking pictures, but still very few people can take GREAT PHOTOGRAPHS.
just having a top of the range camera does not instantly make one into a photographer.

what it does, is that it makes it more difficult and challenging to make one's voice heard among all the noise.
there is so much crap out there, millions and millions of images being posted non stop, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the true gems.

so, i think the real issue is to identify how the environment is changing and figure out how one can adapt himself to the new reality.
there will always be a place for great photographers.

back in the days when photography came about, i am sure a lot of painters had the same panic thoughts running through their minds: who the hell is going to hire a painter now that the infernal machine can create a picture so quickly and realistically?
i was in europe last week and while in amsterdam i visited a few museums to admire the art of incredibly talented painters (by the way, there is a lot that we, as photographers, can learn about the use of light by looking at the old master painters' work!); at the van gogh museum they had an exhibition called 'snapshot', which displayed work done during the turn of the 20th century by several painters using the newly developed portable camera (introduced in 1888 by kodak! ).
these painters embraced the new technology and made great use of it, alongside their own traditional skills.
that is today's challenge, identify how to combine one's skills with new technologies, and make sure great work is easy to find.

true art does not disappear, regardless of how much mediocrity surrounds it.

John Miller said...

I have to agree with you 100%. I feel like you do, our days of making a living as a professional are over.

I used to be able to make a good living on assignment photojournalism, that's mostly gone now except for some sports work. I'm trying to change and grow into new business but it's hard to do when you don't really know what to do to make a buck!

I remember when all you had to have was a couple of good film camera bodies, 4-5 lens or good fast glass, a small studio lighting set-up, some business cards plus either you processed your film or had a good lab. You had a very good chance of making some good money and if you were good a lot money! Things have sure changed since then, the great yellow father is in money trouble, the good labs are closed or in the process of closing, film sales have dropped into the basement...need I go on?

Yes, you need to change but change into what? It's very hard to beat the photographers who don't charge for their work! Free is hard to beat! Nobody cares that much if it's good anymore as long as it's free!

Hopefully you're figure it out! if you do let me know what you did.

Just my 2 cents worth!

dbledsoe said...

The answer to your question is... Yes.

Craig Yuill said...

I think there will always be professional photographers. Why? Because there will always be circumstances when only a professional photographer will be able to get the shots needed. And there will always be people who are willing to pay a professional photographer to get a job done right. I cannot see how publications like National Geographic or the New York Times could ever rely on average Joes on the street with iPhones to get the photos they need. Organizations like schools and companies will always need to hire photographers to come in and take formal photos of students, teams, employees, etc. There will always be families (like mine) who want photos taken from time to time by a professional photographer as parents and their offspring change. (Lord knows we have never been able to rely on family members and people we ask when out and about to take decent photos of us.)

And yes, I would buy a Visual Science Lab T-shirt. In fact I'll buy two, XL please.

Anonymous said...

I came from the small offset printing world. I've followed with great interest and empathy, the shift in photography because it so closely followed the path of my profession. I've been 37 years in my industry. Heard about the "paperless office" for years. Thought,"digital will never
replace offset, the quality just can't compare. It crept forward for years and then accelerated exponentially. The customer dumbed down, it was good enough, and, it was accessible and required no craftsmanship. Not to mention digital copier salesman are very good at what they do. Find your niche. Do your best. Make the most of it. Its all you can do.