1.25.2018

Ming Thein and a few others are talking about the decline and retirement of photography as a profession. My information is entirely anecdotal but I'm just going to have to say they are wrong.

It is always someone's Golden Age of Photography. It's always someone else's Fall of Photography. Depends on context.

From time to time I get frustrated because the photography industry won't stand still and let me fully benefit from my past experience and time equity. There are moments when clients seem as though they will never call, text or e-mail the offer of even one more project. I, like many professionals who've been at this for a while, am not immune to the fear, ambiguity and uncertainty of the market place. But the idea that the markets for photography have vanished is, according to my anecdotal information, not true. And, in the last 50 years, with the exception of extreme or localized economic disasters, this pessimism has never been true.

It's 9:45 in the morning. I'm in my smallish studio/office space. It's got about 450 square feet of usable space. The center part of the large room has a ceiling that about 14 feet high and unobstructed by cross beams. The space is painted white and has concrete floors, covered with foam tiles from Costco.

I've been in the office now for a while, getting ready for a 10 am portrait shoot and also catching up on new e-mail from, mostly, clients. Ongoing, paying, relatively happy clients. I've cleaned up the clutter from my space. The bathroom is cleaned and polished. The batteries charged. I'm not jumping into any task that requires too much focus because clients sometimes come early and I don't want to waste their time.

It's January which is traditionally a slow period for our imaging industry. I'm 62 years old which pundits and photo bloggers will tell you is far too old to be relevant in the photo industry. I'm old school so social media tells me my skill sets are no longer relevant, in fact, have never been relevant to millenials or Get-X-ers. I'm choosing to work with micro four thirds cameras instead of "full frame" cameras; which camera reviewers suggest should be the kiss of death for my professional career. In fact, to judge by conventional wisdom I am doing (and have been doing for a while) everything exactly wrong. I should be destitute at this point. Ready to shuffle off to that island where there is no one besides other ancient photographers with ancient cameras clamped onto the rails of their walkers, carefully gliding around complaining about how digital ruined everything.

While it's true that few of my assignments have anything to do with the kinds of jobs we always see from "working" photographers who post every moment of their lives on YouTube. I'm not able to show you behind the scenes videos in which a horde of scruffy assistants mill around giant monitors tethered to tomorrow's cameras, watching various "fashion" models gyre and gambol on vast sheets of seamless paper, Profoto flashes blinking in time to retro-disco music. (Wait! Wasn't Donna Summers an artist from our generation?).  It's not that I wouldn't like to do stuff like that it's just that those shoots don't seem to actually exist as PAYING jobs but are fabricated in order to make content for websites that try to sell workshops and push affiliate links and other new age advertising.

You may suggest that I'm just out of the loop and that those warehouse shoots filled with C+ grade models and lighting from the 1990's really do exist but that I'm just not invited to know about them. Ah. I get it. Classic denial. But the flaw here is that most of us actual working photographers have long relationships with advertising agencies in many cities. Some of us even have family, spouses who work in the art departments at big ad agencies. They laugh when I show them some of what passes for a "shoot" on the web environment. Big laughs. Hysterical laughs.

That's not to say that there are not "premium" jobs being done every day in nearly every market place. It's just that they are being done by sober, experienced hands in the business who are not surrounded by endless entourages because.....it's not profitable. There's no financial benefit to having extra people in your studio, drinking your coffee, eating your craft service and chatting up your models and clients. That's why real photographers are only surrounded by clients, stylists, and one or two good, and hardworking, assistants. If at all. And while there is a bunch of great new talent coming into photography I've come to understand that most corporations, agencies and larger businesses value proven results over new potential bling for the kinds of jobs that have substantive budgets attached. There are lots of small, micro-web-Instagramic-mini-campaigns on which new teeth get cut. The big money doesn't usually get wasted on trial balloons.

So, why do I say that the sky is not falling? Well, when we advertise our services business increases. I've worked several big projects in January, mostly for clients represented by marcom staff half my age, who are returning clients. We're in the planning stages for a multi-day image catalog project for a large radiology practice, we're finishing up a portrait project for a large oral surgery practice, we've just finished a multi-day assignment for a national accounting company. We successfully navigated a three day shoot for a high tech medical device company and the folks at ZACH Theatre just reached out yesterday to see if we could do a stunning and thoroughly of the moment television commercial for a new production.

Seems like we continue to provide a value proposition (which includes: experience, proven results, nice work ethic, teamwork oriented, the right gear for the right stuff, nice-ness, etc.) that corporate clients, smaller businesses and ad agencies still value. I think the thing that makes our business profitable is that we continue to market, go to lunch with clients, volunteer for high profile charity projects and deliver finished photos people like --- on time and within the parameters requested. Is there any other way to do this?

Some conjecture that because everyone in the world has flooded the photo viewing universe with every conceivable image that civilization will ever require that people no longer care about looking at photographs. This may be true if we're discussing day-to-day "look at me" photographs but those quick snaps of coffee cups or duck-faced selfies with crooked monuments in the background aren't what clients (mostly) are looking for. They need good images of their products, their plants, their environments, their people and their processes. None of which (typically) can be sourced from stock sources on the web.

The one true thing is that video is now part of the mix. It's not a separate thing anymore. It's part of the commercial experience of photography for business. Photography is now a bigger tent. Just as we never did our own retouching in the film days  and we are now routinely called on to "fix" images, move heads around, add absent executives to group shots, and so much more, we never had the making of marketing movies on our radar back when video was tough to do, technically. Now it's growing to be just another facet of the big jewel of photography. It's another income source. It's something new to learn and offer to imaging clients. For others it's a continuation.

The bottom line is that this is the Golden Age of Photography for a whole new generation. They'll grow into it as they learn how to market and how to meet the expectations of the people with checkbooks and account balances. 

The web has made a sitcom of the photographic process but people with persistence will learn to see beyond the "90210" or "Beverly Hillbillies" or "The Big Bang Theory" popular culture fictions of the photo marketplace and see the truth on the other side. Then they will learn to make the market pay them what they are worth. It's not magic. It's just not the end of the world as we know it either.

I'm happy to have a roster of mid-tier projects from good, solid clients. There's less sparkle and fewer people are impressed by our day to day work but at the same time we've worked with many of our clients for longer than a decade and there is a comfort and profit in the stability of their patronage. The bigger jobs come with bigger drama. Bigger risks. Fun for game shows, less fun for sustainable business. Go figure.




17 comments:

  1. Before you bust my chops please know that I like to read Ming's blog. I love his equipment reviews. I just don't always agree about the business side. Maybe that's because my market is generous and somewhat stable while his seems newer and prone to budget issues. With his work ethic he would doubtless dominate a market like Austin. I would be totally lost in his market. But that doesn't make him completely right. All markets are local. All perceptions are contextual.

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  2. Kirk, why worry about what others say? Ming Thein is NOT a pro photographer, really. He was an exec in IT business and could/can afford most expensive gear and then write reviews about it. Good reviews, yes. Some of his work is nice but it was not done to earn his bread and butter. Or, do those people mean the "pro" photographers for masses, that I remember from my childhood? A studio with a view camera on a tripod with lights around, all probably bolted to the floor (guaranteed-to-work lighting scheme), who could mechanically produce family photos? Yes, for those people, market is dead long ago.

    What is really worrying me is:

    As masses get used to simple phone snapshots, good tastes are disappearing. You wrote something similar once (all get used to short lens perspectives).
    As people forget how did they have to go to a studio to make a portrait, their perception of the process is changing - they get impatient, they think it should be as simple as a snapshot. Last time I was photographing my mom with my sister, they were irritated that it took me few shots to adjust the exposure (I was using a manual flash).
    And finally, my worry as an amateur is that middle class gear, like entry level SLR or mirrorless, will slowly disappear. And cheap pocket cameras before them. But this is not a problem for you because you use gear to earn.

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  3. Illya, I don't "worry" about what others say but they do say it, and they say it all over the web and people believe them. I think people deserve to hear counter perspectives. There are always those predicting the end of whatever---based on their own experiences---I think they should also know that people continue to be success in the same field. Balance.

    As to Ming... Yes, I get that he professed to work in the Financial services sector and then moved to photography but by his own admission he has tried mightily to do it as a business and to make that business financial successful. Whether his pure photo business is the successful driver of his majority income or not is another topic but it doesn't disqualify his opinion nor reduce the need for mine as counterpoint.

    We've never considered the retail (direct to consumer) market as one that we were in or understood. All of our work is for commerce. All our commissions (with once or twice a year exceptions) is B2B or B2A (associations and non-profits.)

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  4. Having retired from professional photography I don't have that much relevant information to add. However, in my time in the business, from the early 70's to about 2005, I do have to say that one of the most important things I had to do, and enjoyed doing, was to constantly re-invent myself and my capabilities. If I had stood still, I would have gradually sunk into irrelevance and clients would have faded or at best offered my low paying assignments. By learning new things constantly and trying to find niches that others weren't in, I was able to enjoy a much better income as well as maintaining my excitement and interest over the years. I don't doubt that the same holds true today. Photography as a profession in 2030 might not look much like photography in 1990, but I believe a competent, inquisitive person who is not afraid of exploring new directions in artistic creativity will still be able to enjoy a viable career.

    My career was mostly as an architectural and commercial photographer (I'm also an architect) so this applies most directly to my experience.

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  5. There's always a market for skill, reliability and competence.

    There's more images of a higher quality than ever before. And a similar increase in dross.

    With a few exceptions it's never been easy to make money. It's work, which takes time, effort and flexibility.

    Mark

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  6. Hey Kirk,
    I read your article and was about to comment, then decided to go and read Ming's writing on the subject. It was interesting reading both thoughts, but, like you, as a long time business owner the hardest lesson to learn is to live with a level of uncertainty, and to work with it and against it.

    Many photographers join the profession, struggle to earn a living, complain about the nature of the industry and move on. Rinse and repeat. The same is true of Graphic Designers, many of whom try to run their own business for a few years and either then move into a related field, or look for full time employment and a steady paycheck.

    Ming is very cerebral, with his writing and his approach, he is also very condescending in his attitudes towards many subjects (or at least that is how he presents himself through his writing). The simple truth is, work is work. It will never feel like play, it can however be very fulfilling... and if fewer people are using their DSLR's then there will be fewer weekend warriors and business should get better.

    If he wants to produce art, and it seems a large part of him wants to work on commissioned shoots, I am sure he will find a career doing that as he is a focused individual. If I were to guess as to why he does so much hand-wringing... it is because he doesn't want to run a business in the traditional sense, but seems to want something eals..

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  7. Small businesses, especially one person small businesses, appear quite difficult to me (I bought a business license once and proceeded to do nothing with it. It looked pretty on my desk.)

    There's that "hamster wheel" problem you hear about. Jump off the wheel and the money stops, or it will soon enough. Someone referred to Mike Johnston's blog as that sort of business, and I imagine it's true for many.

    I like how Bill Atkinson put it when talking about managing his Post Card app. Every morning he gets up and "milks the cow." You appear to have been taking good care of a small herd for some time.

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  8. Hi John, the important thing for anyone in a small business is to start saving money from year one. In 32 years we've never gone a single month without making a contribution to the retirement accounts. Warren Buffett says about investing that patient beats smart every time. I get that now. The other thing that I think is important is to do projects that create ongoing income streams. I wrote my first book for Amherst Publishing over ten years ago and I still get a check twice a year for royalties. Same with the next four books.

    The Craftsy courses still pay royalties even though I taught my last course in 2013. Every quarter there's a direct deposit to my account.

    Invest on a schedule. Work on projects that generate royalties. Live below your means. Be happy with what you have. Starting to sound like a self-help channel here but it's all true. Even photographers can retire if they are disciplined...

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  9. I can only add a hearty amen to your post.


    Those who lament the "death of the industry" are wailing over a corpse that was never there for most of us. What the public "thinks" is pro photography is a tiny and distorted part of the total market.
    When I told my high school counselor that I wanted to be a photographer, he worked mightily to dissuade me as "the business is really hard and competitive"
    Of course it is. But if one is interested in photography and people more than just being a celebrity then they will have the focus and ambition to practice and learn the craft and business to a level that WILL make them competitive.
    Fortunately, I never had a desire to shoot fashion or bands or celebrities and thus had lots of opportunities to make a good living working for companies with checkbooks.

    Luck and location have a hand but perseverance is the actual key.

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  10. There was probably a photographer who lamented the move from glass plates to film, likewise holdouts of the migration from film to digital. Images to media may be the next wave, call it what you will but change happens. The same thing happens in my IT career, as witnessed by the move from local computer fiefdoms to cloud-based systems. The key? Always be aware you may be today's telegraph operator, so be open to the idea of the phone.

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  11. My wife works at Dell in an engineering group with a mixture of younger and older co-workers. Her comment after last week's beer bash, my term from silicone valley days at Apple, or after hours meet up, current millennium speak, was the language has changed the talk is still the same.

    So how to provide the appearance of modern? Understand the language and meaning of those you hang with. It's interesting that perception is what is at work here. This lesson applies far outside of photography.

    I believe being 62 and having the life experience to handle clients, issues, and offer creative ideas is largely a matter of perception on the clients part. Bloggers of any subject need to manufacture content to attract an audience and generate Ad revenue. Controversy - you need the hottest camera, clothing style, or whatever brings in Ad Dollars for the Blogger and isn't adding much to the creative endeavor at your client's site.

    Those who can't, Vlog!!!!

    This quote from noted choreographer Paul Taylor sums it up: Inspiration: I don’t believe in it. People think some muse comes down and strikes. Well, making a dance is just plain work like anything else. The inspiration is the deadline.

    Go Google Whats Hot on a weekly basis to keep up with the trends, file it away in your brain, and use your experience and ongoing knowledge to skewer those in your way.

    Use your expertise and work to the deadline...


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  12. I think you need to read this thought after reading his post about the struggling artist explained. Seems like a focus shift and general pull back from what he loved. This is also why I think he hired on Robin, to bring back some of the earlier fire.
    But to play devil advocate, how much of your business last year was video? Does that still qualify as photography or mixed videography. I see video as the future and really much harder to do. Framing is critical, telling a story is critical. This a camera can't just do for you.

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  13. I graduated with a degree in journalism in the late 70's hoping to land a job as a staff photographer on a newspaper but being a woman and poor, it did not happen. The few good jobs went to the kids from families who could pay for their gear and support them so they could take unpaid internships before they graduated. I had to support myself and ended on a different career path. It's never been easy.

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  14. I used to read Ming Thein's posts quite regularly, but have rather given up doing so - he seems rather disconnected from reality as I witness it, and his cerebral ruminations are a bit, well, over-long ... That's not to dismiss the quality of his photographic work, which is excellent. I do have quite a lot of experience of working with professional photographers, and I am not sure that his world bears much resemblance to mine.

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  15. Wait! Wasn't Donna Summers the artist who got stuck to a sheet of Plexiglas during a photo shoot when the honey they poured on her turned into an organic form of Superglue?

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