5.27.2013

Has the tide of "I'll do it free for my portfolio" photographers broken?


I think it's interesting to look at the numbers for the camera industry. Camera sales by unit peaked in 2010. They were 18% below the 2010 level by the end of 2012. Who won? Sony, Canon and Nikon. Who lost? Everyone else. I think what we saw in 2010 was the trailing end of a lot of people in I.T. and other tech fields being laid off and thinking that, maybe, photography would be a good, easy and carefree gig. What 2012 numbers tell us is that a large number of the temporarily unemployed finally got jobs and breathed a massive sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to depend on freelancing in the imaging industry to make a living. It's a tough slog to make it as a freelance image maker. It takes time and persistence to build a clientele, and even more time and persistence to craft a discernible style.

The recession and the total transition to digital have decisively decimated all of what used to be entry level jobs. That actually makes it much tougher on the newcomers, kind of a new barrier to entry, based on experience this time instead of gear. Without a broad based pyramid of entry level work it's harder and harder to gain critical steps of experience both in defining a vision and in dealing with the art of the business deal, imaging-wise. The only work left for the inexperienced is as event shooters and kid sports contractors and that pays about as well as working at a coffee shop....but with none of the fringe benefits.

When clients have the budget to do something that transcends cellphone documentation they are loath to risk their budgets on the untested. The remaining, weathered and experienced pros get the nod because the clients know that their money won't be wasted or squandered. Yippee! Hurray for those of us that made it over the hump.

So, what makes us different? Well, we learned the craft step-by-step and we've got years of trial and error under our belts. We know how to use lights that don't come permanently attached to our cameras (exception: Terry Richardson). We understand not only what we're doing but why we're doing it. We have the right gear and we understand the legal liability (and reputation liability) of not having redundant back-up gear for jobs that can only be done once. (I read some idiot arguing that back-up gear was B.S. because new entries into the market couldn't afford it and because cameras never break....yeah, and hard drives never crash.)

And how about this? We actually have liability insurance. Real insurance that we buy in case we accidentally destroy someone's property or injure someone. Just like real, live business in other fields. And we don't get bored, sidetracked or otherwise distracted from delivering just what our clients need within the deadline they've specified.

Sigh of relief, enough of the business remains to ensure that it still is a business.

The image above? Another one of super muse, Lou. An example of the idea that real professionals are constantly testing, shooting on their own dimes and creating work to show clients where they might like to go next. What a great concept.

A bit of bad news for Olympus shooters. WallStreet24/7 was predicting companies that will probably exit the U.S.A. market by 2014. Along with J.C. Penney's and Volvo sat Olympus. They've just announced that they are jettisoning all of their cheap, point and shoot cameras and that they are losing significant market share elsewhere. While the OMD EM5 was a smash hit one hit in a product line isn't necessarily enough to float the whole boat. I hope they are dead wrong.

Finally, a few websites have been (for years now) floating the thought balloon that real pros shoot with medium format digital cameras. And I'm sure that some do but it's wishful thinking on someone's part when you realize that in total, combining all the MF camera makers, last years sales of large sensor, medium format cameras were barely 6,000 pieces. About a week's worth of production for the typical Canon Rebel.

We're coming back from the holidays and getting ready for Summer. Sandals ready. Tech shirts ready. Heat resistance training has already commenced. Welcome to Summer 2013.




















23 comments:

theaterculture said...

Great perspective, and well reasoned, although I'd query the idea that numbers in the camera sales game are driven particularly hard by professional shooters or people with the intention of shooting for a living. I have no data to back me up on this, but intuitively I've just got to believe that folks who are strictly amateur just swamp the pros in terms of units moved for all but a few very specialized cameras.

I'd suggest that it's just as likely that 2010 was the peak year for camera sales because 2008-9 were the years when all the manufacturers got it right. Looking at cameras form 2002-2009ish, the growth in genuine meaningful iq metrics was often great enough from model to model that a lot of us, both pro- and am-, probably got into routine upgrades if they could afford them. On the other hand, I've heard an awful lot of chatter from folks who just didn't see the need to go from the D700 to the D800, or from the 5DII to the 5DIII.

Perhaps the sales plateau is tracking the plateau we seem to have hit with the technology? Not that things aren't improving, just that the leaps and bounds of a few years back have become "one extra stop of dynamic range" or "slightly better high iso performance."

Ti@go said...

Im an amateur, so I wont say I know how the paying world of photography is, but Im in IT. Im not from the US but worked for US companies, and travelled a lot there. I really really doubt that IT people loosing their jobs would think in mass that photography is the solution, ad after been laid out, with no job, went out to buy a very expensive (for an amateur, not for a pro) photographic equipment.

I was going to put a nice photo of southpark with the now famous "They took our jobs", but I'm too lazy to do it.

All professions have got tougher, but probably photography had a very hard hit, cause much of it is considered luxury. Of course not company jobs, that you so right say they still are there, but the family portrait / pet portrait /weddings / spcial ocation jobs, they are luxuries for most common people. This is something that mostly happens in the US (maybe canada too? I dont know) but in most of the world no one gets a family portrait. There is no market for that, or young adults prom portraits, etc. And it seems that the crisis made that market small. Tough luck. As you have rightly stated many times, and I agree so much with you in a general way, companies, people, need to constantly adapt cause now a days works, professions, change so fast, that people that dont adapt loose.

The rest of the post, I agree so much with you, and your constant posts showing how one needs to change and accept the changes of our work instead of fighting it.

André Balsa said...

What a beauty! If you begin your post with such a beautiful portrait, how not to agree with everything you write afterward?

Anton Wilhelm Stolzing said...

Medium format cameras are too expensive. Silly arguments that cheap medium format cameras are only a few thousand bucks more expensive than the highest priced FF cameras from Nikon and Canon do not change anything about this.

There is the law of enough is enough. Platinum of Palladium prints are really breathtakingly beautiful, but silver prints are good enough. If Platinum or Palladium were easily available and only a bit more expensive they would be used to a much greater extend. And the same with medium format cameras or backs. Certainly they are attractive, but smaller formats are enough and much more affordable.

Dave said...

I believe you may be onto an great insight. When I began my wannabe journey around 10 years ago we all flocked to paradigm changing cameras like the D70 and Canon Digital Rebel. They were like the Volkswagen Beatle of our photographic generation. Cheap, reliable and got us where we needed to go.

These days young people are driven by their phone, instagram and portable cool factor. We can see the phones getting better with camera technology such as the Lumia 928, which is hip enough for the casual needs of many.

10 years ago your phone camera wasn't an option. If you wanted anything resembling a passable photo it had to be a prosumer digicam or better yet an entry level DSLR. Even then we were left wanting and urged to buy lens and sensor upgrades.

The need for that is probably past many now. The wannabe shooter journey will probably change and may stay with the phone/instagram world. A lot of us will buy logical upgrades to mirrorless and the more rugged, determined salmon will eventually swim upstream to a full camera investment. But I think less will undergo that expensive, difficult migration.

Before they rejoice however the professionals should probably ponder this a bit. How will the camera market change now that it is used to the sugar rush of consumerism? How will client expectations change with the next generation of social media, multimedia, attention deficit expectations? The market for wall art will always be there but many clients will expect digital products the through into their profile bilge wash.

The next 3 years will be fascinating to watch, and yes I do think Olympus may be in some long term trouble. Others such as Samsung have other fish to fry and will eventually just move on to other markets.

As the old song goes "clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right, here I am... stuck in the middle with you." :)

Frank Grygier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Grygier said...

I predict that in 2014 I will be using the Olympus gear I currently have or stuff I can squeeze in before the Olympocalypse. Shades of 2012.

John Krumm said...

That was one of those "let's make waves and get attention" type articles. Olympus might stop camera production, might not, but I doubt if those reporters know. And Sony? The articles this week are saying they could split up and focus on their biggest profit makers, like insurance. Here's what the NYT is saying...

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/28/business/global/sonys-bread-and-butter-its-not-electronics.html?ref=technology&_r=0

I suspect both companies will keep making money losing gadgets in 2014, to our benefit.

Claire said...

Sheeeesh. We're having the wettest and coldest year since 1987. Sandals are nowhere in sight, and my kid still wears a down jacket to school in the morning. Cross my heart it's true.

Brad Calkins said...

It seems like you are reading a lot into those sales figures... My guess, is that consumers bought dSLR once, and aren't upgrading them. Almost all of my friends and family that aren't that serious about photography have dSLRs, and I can't imagine what would entice them to upgrade. They simply aren't at the limits of the equipment... And we are talking about cameras like digital rebels, pentax k10d's, nikon d90, etc.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think that logical argument could be made as well.

Kirk Tuck said...

It may just be regionally anecdotal since I live in Austin and nearly every "new" photographer I've met since 2008 is someone who was laid off from one of our many, many local high tech firms. As they transition they are also pushing a change in their ranks. I think all PC design (stand alone consumer units) that used to be done by one big company here is long gone and the skill sets for the next venture didn't match....

Kirk Tuck said...

Having shot with four different MF digital cameras I can honestly say that I'd love to be shooting with a larger sensor for the way the lenses look but none of my prospective clients want to pay for it. They'd like it if I had it but not at the expense of more budget dollars.

Kirk Tuck said...

I think the whole idea of photography as a traditional business will go away and be replaced with some other construct.

Kirk Tuck said...

And according to a NYT article Sony's most profitable business is insurance, followed by content. The big losers for Sony? Consumer electronics. I mean, cameras.

Kirk Tuck said...

One can only hope!

Frank Grygier said...

An interesting take by Mr.Thom Hogan: http://www.sansmirror.com/newsviews/dont-be-a-yahoo-olympus.html

Ti@go said...

Well, what is true is that a lot of people in IT has photography as a Hobby (My case actually) cause we love gadgets, and things like photography that takes a certain technical skill. And the artistic part, is the part we lack, and try to get. I wouldn't say that IT guys laid off went to buy cameras, but it is very probable that IT guys that already had photography as a hobby (and there are many) that already had a camera, and were laid off, tried to get some money with photography. And probably many did make some money.

Paul Glover said...

It does seem that in general there's a wide overlap between "IT/techie" people and people who claim photography as a hobby. I know several (myself included) who fit into that pigeon-hole. I expect that overlap has grown much larger since digital imaging started to pick up momentum. Most of us are electronic gadget fanatics, and what is a modern day digital camera? A computer with a lens mount. Another fancy toy to play with.

I would also risk a guess that many such "photographers" are really just people who like cameras and that photography is a side effect of that gadget-lust. That's more or less how I got into digital photography in the first place; I had a passing interest in photography and a serious interest in cool new toys.

I can certainly see how a freshly laid-off IT worker might look at the camera they already own and contemplate a career switch. I wasn't far off doing that when I was facing job loss in 2010. The job loss ultimately became a job change, sparing me the danger of ruining a perfectly good hobby by trying to make a living from it!

Tom Shay said...

On the Wall Street Journal's comments about Olympus. They said the same thing about Ford... that the company would most likely fail. They not only did not take any handout but they are now on top of their game. I also home WSJ is wrong

ReneTheberge said...

Kirk,

As Mark Twain said, "The reports of my Death are premature." So too with Olympus. See the following:

http://www.43rumors.com/olympus-desaster-forecast-dont-worry-there-is-more-chance-the-analysts-will-fail/

http://www.43rumors.com/olympus-manager-says-more-dslr-to-come-more-sony-sensors-to-be-used-in-future/

Raianerastha said...

Wall Street 24/7 predictions have always been suspect: such as not even mentioning the impending-but obvious-bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak, but telling us Nokia was doomed? A careful read of said article indicates the writer doesn't seem to know the difference between MILC and DSLR, or that EVERYBODY is taking a hit on cheaper compact cameras because of cell phones, and smart phones especially (I use my Samsung Galaxy S3 as my "carry round" camera because 1, it gets the job done and 2, I can do PP with a variety of apps, including Snapseed, then email or upload the results).

Karlen Mkrtchyan said...

I really like this portrait.