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.  

Could there be a better time to buy used digital cameras and lenses?

Martin Burke in "Fully Committed" at Zachary Scott Theatre.

I shot the image above with a Panasonic GH2 and an old Olympus Pen lens, the 60mm 1.5. Last year the GH2 was a stand out camera. It had arguably the best video/movie mode and video controls of any camera on the market and it's resolution is still top of the class for m4:3rd cameras but now prices of used ones are dropping like rocks.    Along with the recently obsoleted models from Canon, Olympus, Sony and Nikon. (That's because of the rapidly solidifying rumors of an imminent, new model, the GH3). It's part of the natural process of the market, there will always be people who want or need the very latest stuff and are willing to take a loss on recently purchased equipment in order to have what they would consider to be the best available in the moment.

I just came back from my favorite camera store, Precision Camera.  They take trade-ins on popular cameras and, for special customers, they will accept consignments. They are literally awash in recent model used cameras.  The very cameras we salivated over last year and a few years ago.  In some cases just a few months ago.

I found a shelf filled with Canon 5D mk2 cameras. They've been rendered useless by the Mark 3. ( sarcasm alert for the differently configured: Kirk is being facetious. The cameras are still very, very good performers ).  Likewise, the arrival of the Nikon D800 has led to a deluge of D300s, D700, D3 and even D3x cameras.  And if you are willing to go down market or down years the range of cameras on offer is incredible.  All at bargain prices.  Many used only by amateurs and sitting there in mint condition with fewer actuations on the shutters than you might believe.

The "on again/off again" rumors of the Olympus 4:3 E system's demise means that there are ample recent e cameras and lenses at fire sale prices as well.

Everywhere I look the Olympus OMD EM5 camera has radically displaced the EP2.  You can buy new EP2's for around $275 and only 18 months ago they were scratching $1,000.  Will it take long for the EP3's to follow?

What does this really mean to you? Say you are a young photographer who is just starting out in this business.  You have the opportunity, during this almost unprecedented surge cycle to put together a really decent system for less cash. If you can do without 36 megapixels and you want to shoot Nikon it's time to snap up something like a used D700 or a D7000 and some of the lenses that have been cast out by the newer G series versions.  The new lenses might have some small advantages over the previous models but remember that the old models were capable of making images for professionals that sold and sold well just a few months ago.  We may crave the new but  your clients won't see the difference.  And you probably won't either.

If you shoot Canon you can walk into bigger stores and look through a sea of bodies and lenses. The 1DX is pushing used prices of the 1Dmk4 down and the prices on 1DS2's has never been lower.

Can you imagine if the car market was like the camera market?  We'd be changing cars every eighteen months!  The average length of ownership, in the United States, of new cars is now 71 months.  Just a month shy of six years. Thing is that the cars last that long and deliver good service, for the most part, during that time frame.  But then so do cameras. 

I would venture to say that you could go out for most jobs equipped with the original Canon 5D or the Nikon D2X and a few older generation lenses and do most of the jobs that fall to photojournalists (are there any left?) and most local commercial photographers. Especially if the images are heading to the world wide web.

If you separate the business side of photography from the pleasure side of photography there's not a lot more we can do with the latest raft of cameras and lenses that we could not have done with the previous generation of same for most of our work.  Especially if the new stuff is seeing most of its action handheld and bumpy.

Just a suggestion, if there was a camera or lens that you really liked but which has been discontinued you might find that it's still a really good shooting camera and it's probably available on the used market at a great savings. Check out the good, local camera stores and see what you can find.  And if the price seems to be a bit high don't be afraid to offer less.  Most of the cameras that come in on trade have a pretty healthy margin and a shelf life like milk.  Shoot a little bolder and older and keep some money in your pockets for the adventure.

Silly me.  I'm still buying up $125 Nikon F2's and $500 Hasselblads.  Do you know what these cost new???

By way of review.

Why don't you try a MF digital camera?

A reader of the VSL blog recently wrote to suggest, after reading my post about photographing Lou with my film Hasselblad, that I try out a medium format digital camera before making the assessment about which path will ultimately yield better results. I thought I would remind my readers that I've been down that road before, for months at a time, and with three different systems. In 2009 and 2010 Studio Photographer Magazine commissioned me to test and write about three of the MF digital cameras that were just coming on to the market.  My two most memorable tests were of the Leaf AFi7 with a 39 megapixel back and the Phase One 45+ because, at the time, they were the state of the art.

I also reviewed the less expensive Mamiya entry camera.

Once you got over the fact that you'd just signed for a $45,000 system (when the two delivered lenses are factored in) the Leaf camera was nice.  It made beautiful files.  The 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens was superb.  It gave really nice out of focus performance and even better in focus performance.  But it's autofocus was slow like paint drying and the tandem batteries in the camera and grip did their best to die often, and always out of sync.  Would I still be shooting with the camera if someone bestowed it upon me for free?  Yes.  Was the calculus there for me to buy it and make more money with it? No.

The Phase One was as close to being the perfect medium format digital system I've shot with so far. The camera is much lighter and better set up than the Leaf and the lenses+body were small enough and light enough to be used handheld and to be carried around town.

The Mamiya was heading in the right direction price wise and I thought the files were just fine.

But with each of these cameras I kept coming back to the idea that I could dump the $25,000 or more into film and processing with cameras I already owned and get files that were just as good.  And I could side step the handling and battery problems. The bottom line is that my clients didn't need the bigger files and I didn't need the additional expense.  Not in the middle of the great recession...

If you want to read what I wrote about the cameras for the magazine (now discontinued) you can read them at these links.

So, how are those LED lights working out?

I read stuff on the web and die hard strobers are always telling people that LED's are too dim or that the color can't be used for professional jobs. Those people are limiting their own work by thinking in such a linear and bracketed way.  While LED's aren't the perfect solution for everything they are great to have in your tool kit. I did a job with Ben on Tues.  We shot video for a television commercial and stills for print.  We used four LED panels to light a greenscreen background and another three on work main subjects.  When we finished shooting video we clicked the camera over to the manual mode and banged off some raw files.  All of them were beautiful. You'll see the commercial as soon as it's edited and approved.  I don't use LEDs for everything but when I do I know it's a good choice. A recent job for a healthcare company was also done with all LED's.  The difference it that those LED panels were all battery powered.  We were able to move through location after locations almost as fast as if we had been shooting available light and the images were just right.  The check cleared the bank. 

This image has nothing to do with LEDs.  I just like the graphic and the message.

The best use for LED's is in product and food shooting.  I wrote about this in my book and I've blogged about shooting food this way here on the blog: http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2011/02/kirk-tuck-photographs-food-at-jeffreys.html

The set doesn't get hot, you can work closer in to your subject and the color is easy to white balance.  The use of continuous light gives you a level of control you'll never really have when using flash.

And when we rev up the cameras for a video shoot there's nothing I'd rather light with right now.

Photos of me by Amy Smith.

Finally.  Could there be a better time to buy used stuff?