The death of the professional photographer.

We like to talk about trends here. And a trend I've heard a lot about is the death of the "professional" photographer. It's true and it's not true. The problem with the discussion is that lay people think of photography through the lenses of their experience. It's the "big, all encompassing tent" concept. To the typical family in America that is not directly involved in imaging or advertising fields, or publishing, the "idea" of a professional photographer is a cliché. It's a guy in a bad suit who photographs weddings and bar mitzvahs. It's a chubby woman in a black outfit who does "available light" weddings and it's a bunch of blue collar guys who swarm around children's soccer, baseball and Pop Warner football leagues snapping a zillion photographs of Johnny and Suzie kicking the goal or sliding into home plate and hoping to sell some prints to moms and dads who want something more, photo-wise, than can be snapped with an iPhone.

Depending on your generation your stereotype might include "Animal," the scruffy and unclean photojournalist on the TV show, Lou Grant; Ron Galella, the paparazzi photographer who stalked Jackie Kennedy Onassis, or some chubby girl in bad boots giving an online class on "Boudoir Photography" on Creative Live. The pervasive idea conglomeration is that all photographers work for retail customers or for newspapers. The generic American knows that newspapers are a dying medium for the very reason that they no longer subscribe and neither do any of their friends....

Most Americans either can't afford the luxury of a classic portrait session or they don't see the point. They've been able to embrace immediate gratification results with their iPhones or a cool, new Canon Rebel. And in many instances and in many locales the "professional" who handles baby photos, senior photos and other portraits is so far behind the cultural cool curve that the products offered are aimed at markets that stopped existing in the mid-1990's. Along with cassette tape players. And answering machines.

Is it any wonder that a whole generation has come to think of photographers in the broadest sense as no longer relevant? And when I look at the work of most generic "shooters" I am reminded of the Kodak books on portraiture I used to buy in the 1980's. Some of the styles were wonderful in the moment but the rest of the world seems to have moved on.

So the person whose pressing need is an image for Facebook will turn to their network of friends and invest in a bit of quid pro quo rather than looking in the Yellow Pages (do they still exist?) to find someone who they can go to and pay to get something that doesn't look as cool, in the moment. All the simple imaging stuff has migrated to the handheld devices of friends and family.

But there is a different reality that most people don't see. It's the reality of professional photographers who are lighting architecture and shooting it with tilt/shift lenses (and good taste). It's the reality of bright young (and older) advertising photographers who still routinely command low to mid six figure incomes per year co-creating a new visual language for national and international clients. And it's teams of image makers who are delivering hybrid collections of still images and wonderful motion for more and more companies and agencies. The people who can light impeccably and topically. The people with a good radar for style and trends. The people who can see (or help make) a visual future. What's the next chapter? Instead of "let's re-read the classics."

I'll conjecture that between advertising, catalogs (OMG, have you seen the massive, new Restoration Hardware catalogs???? Shot in the USA and absolutely amazing!!!!) corporations, retailers, healthcare and travel and leisure clients those photographers (not wedding/baby/senior = retail) who serve those markets are thriving just as in the "golden years."  When you add in the massive increase in video and even short motion pictures the profitable market is probably far larger than it was in the go-go 1990's. It's just spread out a bit more.

Most of us (photographers) took a giant hit in the last recession because most of the country (USA) snapped their wallets shut and wouldn't answer the doorbell, much less the telephone.  And there were two trajectories that photographers seemed to take: One group tried doing what they had been doing for the last twenty or thirty years and they saw their markets shrivel and die. The other group changed direction and served up a whole new recipe for servicing clients. They zigged with the clients and then zagged with the clients and now they are busy and business is growing.

We didn't have to dumb anything down because we're not working with the masses. We had to smarten things up because we're working with professionals who both see the value of our work and who also want much more. Give it to them and you win. Whine about the glorious past and you lose. Count on it.

The image above was taken many years ago in Paris. Back then a man with a plain camera and some boxes of film could make a living shooting couples on the Place de la Concorde with Kodacolor film and mailing them the prints. Cameras were hard to use back then. Most people didn't carry them about. But you can see that the street vendor/photographer in the photograph was hedging his bets even then. The box over his shoulder was filled with one use, disposable cameras for sale. And sell them he did. 

Photography is changing. You can jump into the river and swim with the current or you can cling to temporal rocks and hold on tight until you succumb and drown. The choice is yours but the market for interesting, new and exciting imaging with always exists. And people with checkbooks will want it because it says something interesting about them or their businesses. 

We're all visual creatures. The power lies with those who keep reinventing the visual language. Professional photographers are not dead, they're just not as visible to the masses as they used to be...the ones that remain or have recently arrived just found better clients.


  1. Today you have a segment who are trying to monetize their cameras. They purchase Photoshop actions and scroll-y Victorian website templates. They steal my words and use them verbatim or re purposed for their web sites, making claims their photos can't defend.

    Then, there are those of us who continuously try to monetize what we can produce, solve and most importantly see.

    That second approach has helped me stay in business for 30+ years now.

  2. I read your comments about the business of photography and I insert my own profession in place of photography. Amazingly, your comments are still relevant. The entire world is changing and those who resist will be left behind financially and socially. I'm 60 years old and start each day looking around at what is new; that's a good thing.

    I thank you for your clarity. As interesting as your gear columns are, the philosophical columns clear my mind and inspire me.

  3. No, as I have mentioned here before, professional photography is not completely dead. And I do not think it ever will be. I have no doubt that you are right about many types of photography not being money makers anymore. But... The 2012-2013 yearbook produced by the school I work for will be filled with pictures of students and teachers and sports teams that were taken by professionals working for businesses that specialize in high-volume photography. A few weeks ago I witnessed two separate wedding parties being photographed by small teams of photographers, videographers, and assistants. There seemed to be a multitude of Disney photographers taking photos of "guests" when my family was at the Disney theme parks in Anaheim CA at the end of last year. There is still demand for certain types of photography, and someone out there is definitely meeting that demand and earning money from it. And given that no one my wife and I hand a camera to seems to be able to take a decent photo of our family, I can't help but wonder if portrait studios won't make some sort of a comeback at some point.

    1. Craig, I have no doubt that everything is cyclical but when those studios come back they'd better have really good and current products to sell and really good marketing to sell them.

      As for yearbook work I'm going guess that the owners of the big production companies are doing okay because of the sheer quantity of work and the number of people they have working for them turning stuff out. But I"m equally willing to guess that if we put the business model under a microscope the contractors or employees aren't making much for the hours they put in. Probably about the same as a Starbuck's barrista before tips.

  4. Kirk, you may be very right about the pay the photographers who work for the big production companies get. The pay rate for a Starbucks barista in my neck of the woods is minimum wage, or maybe a bit more. I don't know what the turn over is like, but I have seen one of these photographers, who specializes in sports teams, coming in for several years. Perhaps they supplement their income with other work.

    I think you are right about studios needing to produce amazing work in order to make a comeback - somewhat like a practice out of one ruburban house studio where a forested/lakefront area by the back yard made for outstanding backgrounds and lighting conditions.

    1. I worked for a major company in the hospital doing the newborn photography. It has become so much more then a picture of the new baby. You are correct that the photographer makes about the same as a Starbucks employee. Yes, even newborn photographers can get a tip from happy parents!

  5. There are many professions that have evolved in the same direction in the last three decades: more business sense is required, better knowledge of marketing techniques, a stronger drive to find new clients and keep existing ones, an ability to work in teams, delegate responsibilities, etc. And of course nowadays, the skills required to have a strong Internet presence.
    Some people may feel that these "business skills" have become more important than technical/artistic skills, and perhaps it's true that there is a slight shift in the mix of skills required to survive in the market nowadays.
    As usual: adapt or disappear.

  6. Very thought provoking report from the front lines. It seems to me that what you're suggesting is that the "pro photographer" is being replaced by the "imaging professional" in all the possible dimensions of that phrase.

    If, as Craig Yuill suggests, there's still work for people tripping shutters as part of an army of coverage providers for certain categories of events and attractions, those would seem to be wage-slave service jobs rather than the middle-class career that being an imaging professional can be if done right. Sadly it's always comparatively easy to find artists of genuine talent and training to do such low wage service jobs because the pay is even worse when they're pursuing their passions - I know some awfully good mid- and late-career actors who do gigs as mall Santas, theme-park characters, and children's drama camp counsellors in order to keep the wolf from the door.

  7. I had a random thought as I walked around New York photographing the iconic and not so iconic sites while everyone seemed to have camera or smartphone to capture images. Most of the smartphone set are young and while the images they are getting now are adequate for their purposes, I think the day will come when they realize the limitations of adequate and will aspire to something better. Rather than buy new gear and learn new methods I think they will look to a professional for better images. Their smartphone will still serve their general duty purposes but in the end they will want something more "professional" and seek out accomplished photographers for this purpose.

  8. Professional photography is not completely dead. But middle-of-the-road professional photography may be - the portrait studios, freelancing for specialist mags or smaller PR and marketing agencies.

    See, in the last few years it's hardly worth quoting a smaller business or agencies for work as everything's become so shoe-stringy. They never want to pay for quality work so anything you quote has sticker shock.

    Sometimes a potential client goes with someone cheaper and, due to social media, you see the results or know who they went with - often terrible amateur hour stuff that shouldn't be in the marketplace but is.

    Some photographers moan on and on about the decline in standards but none of us can do anything about it. I've added photographic training and workshops to my business to compensate, do a little graphic design, and also run a small online shop that generates a few hundred a month. Multiple revenue streams. I can no longer rely on just 'doing shoots.'


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