Is the age of "professional photographer" over? A popular re-run from earlier this year.


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 Rabbitreference).  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.  


Claire said...

It probably won't help much. But if it came to that I WOULD buy a VSL T-shirt ;-)

Michael Matthews said...

As to the photo -- is that where the Professional Photographer lives? I concede one more measure of flexibility can be found in mobility. But isn't the lack of available natural light depressing? Thank God for daylight balanced LED panels. The dude adapts, and does thus abide.

kirk tuck said...

Michael, the image is of Flip Happy Crepes Food Trailer. Pretty much the first one in Austin. Years and years ago. I still live in a house.

Martha Benedict said...

I did typesetting before desktop publishing, so I recognize the parallel. However, we couldn't wait to get out of setting type. We were delighted to sell output to the designers who did their own type on their new Macs. Where they used to complain and nit pick about our work, we got to see them do terrible type for themselves--and pay US for it. Sweet. The comparison is interesting but not completely analogous. People settled for mediocrity in type, but the same is not true for photography. The world still needs good pictures, whereas perfectly kerned type is optional.

Jim said...

I see more and more "professional photographers" making a substantial chunk of their living by writing books and conducting workshops, teaching the wannabes how to do it so they don't have to hire a pro. RE: Martha's take I see a lot of fascination with mediocre photos made "good" through some computer effect. Hell, I even do it myself. I don't pretend to know where photography is going from here. If I did and depended on it for income I'd be taking that road but I just do it for the love of it so I'll keep on keeping on.

jrapdx said...

Sad to see Kodak at risk of going under, but as much as photography has changed, other visual arts are affected even more. Art galleries seem to be failing at an ever increasing rate, artwork isn't selling except at the lowest price-points. Yet selling art supplies has become a huge business, and art schools wildly proliferate. When half the population call themselves "artists", their heaps of endless crap drown out all too easily the tiny fraction of decent art being made.

The irony is that Kodak, inventor of snapshot imaging, was the root source of the Industrialization of Art. Once the average human could record an image with almost no effort, inevitably it leads to Everyone is an Artist. Who needs talent? It hardly matters. Only interested in our own stuff, and if I like it, then it must be great. Kodak created the monster that now bites them.

And it bites us too. Interesting how technologies across the board seem to transmute necessities into mere entertainment. Raises a question: when do we reach the vanishing point, where even new technology is no longer necessary? There's the trend to watch, technology consuming itself right out of business.


DPOAB said...

While I see the validity of your argument, I am hoping for a different outcome. While the "traditional" Professional Photographer might have gone the way of the typesetter they can still exist if they learn to adapt and expand into areas not served byt the "traditional."

First, I think the trend of every mom and dad having a DSLR and shooting their own is already moving into the fad stage. The reality is that only those dedicated enough to learn photography skills got images that were significantly better than the parent next to them with an iPhone or a super zoom. The price of lugging gear and processing pics was too much compared to point, snap, twitter. Conversely and sorta perversely, those former DLSR moms are great customers. They know better is available. They dont look at an iPhone pic as good or even good enough if it is something important. When graduation pics roll around, they want the good stuff and will pay.

Which brings me to one of the biggest expansion areas - children's pictures. Its not just Senior Pictures anymore. More and more year books are allowing custom pictures for all 4 years of high school. Middle School and grade school "seniors" are getting their own pages too. At my daughters high school the senior class was 1200. Average senior photo shoot was about $300. Thats $360K in potential clients at one school every year - just for the seniors. Sure, not every kid gets individual pictures but for every one that doesn't, another get a $600+ spread. Partner with a graphic designer (in my case my wife) and you can make additional money selling custom graduation announcements. Try this - sell parents on $1200 for all 4 years plus announcements and let them pay $100 a month. You get clash flow, they get a discount.

This is one area, there are tons more. Sweet 16 parties are huge in some communities. Same with Quincea├▒eras. Personally I would rather do war photography than weddings but any wedding photographer who is not following up for baby pics, family pics and then Senior Photos is insane.


Claire said...

"I'd rather do war photography than weddings".
OMG, I want that as my signature ! Hilarious.

kirk tuck said...

I guess I should be more specific. I've worked as a commercial (no retail, no contact with the public) photographer for most of my working life. That's the market I'm mostly talking about. But I do think that the technology forward markets in most major cities (where the real money is) where consumers are concerned are no longer interested in any imaging on paper. I've talked to the two major labs in the city here and both point to a steep and continuing decline in print sales. To me that means traditional avenues of profit for photographers are vanishing. People keep talking about new niches but I don't see any besides dumb stuff like doing more shots for people's Facebook avatars.

There may be money to be made in weddings, senior photos and quincean├▒eras but I'd rather do the kinds of ad images I really like.

Added to all this is the very real fact that we're still in the middle of the biggest recession the country and world has seen since the great Depression. How much of the high end market tank can be laid at the feet of the economy and how much of it is organic? Said another way, will the good stuff come back when the money comes back or has everything really changed. Labs lose to iPads. Printers lose to HD TVs and Retina screens. We lose not because we're not good enough but because what people want has changed and what they want is easier to make than most of us will admit.

I feel pretty confident that a shot which requires tilts and swings, multiple planes of highly controlled lighting and crazy high productions standards is something I can deliver that few other can. Especially moms and dads and IT people with cameras. But I feel equally confident that most dads with D700's or D800's and fast zooms know how and can take a nice portrait of their son or daughter in open shade and get the color just right in Aperture/Lightroom/PhotoShop or even Picassa. It's no longer Rocket Surgery or Brain Science. And we kind ourselves to think otherwise.

If you are in a market where good production value is out of the reach of the consumer it may be that you are in a market where high price tag work is also out of reach of the consumer. And I don't relish ratcheting down.

I'd rather shoot what I like, hunt for clients who still have inclination and money, and spend the rest of my time writing.

On the other hand, I love the process of making images so don't laugh if you see me out in the open shade at the botanical gardens, a senior in tow and me saying, "Pout for me baby, I'll make you a star."

DPOAB said...

I think you may be right when it comes to commercial photography. By my estimation commercial print hit its peak in the late 80's/early 90's when the cost of color printing hit lows before digital imaging took hold. I know my personal consumption of magazines has gone from over 20 a month to none - replaced entirely by the web.

On the other hand, I hope for an outcome closer to what happened with web page building. Web page building passed thru a number of stages but has now settled at dedicated webmasters. Webmasters are generally well paid and it is a viable career - despite barriers to entry lower than even photography.

Good look.

Mark Davidson said...

You have a T-shirt?

Unknown said...

In the underwater photography world, it is even more difficult for the professional photographers. There is stock of course, but with the advent of inexpensive digital systems, you now see amateurs giving away shots for the glory of the name in a magazine that 10 years ago professionals would have gotten paid for. There is a continual debate in the underwater community about the role of amateurs who shoot for fun vs. the professionals that need to sell photos to make a living.

kirk tuck said...

People settle all the time for mediocre photography. It's also called stock. I know lots and lots of art directors who'd rather use a not quite exactly what I want cheap stock photograph in order to save money for their clients even when the client isn't pushing to save money. They've gotten into the "I do my own typesetting" habit.

Vladimir said...

Very interesting article. You really nailed it with the "content providers", in my opinion, which actually might be not that bad of an outcome.