End of Photographers

Posted on November 20, 2012


Yes, you read that right. It is the end of photographers as we know them. This started with digital technology that makes it fairly easy on automatic to capture a good image. With more people being let go at their jobs because of the economy’s condition where people think photography is something they can make a living and have fun, too, means more photographers. Add to these that there is a perceived notion that there isn’t a cost to digital photography. This all means it is the end of the world for photographers as we know them. I am not going to hold any punches in this post. I am not going to sugar coat what I have to say in this post. This will also be a long post.

Let me start with something simple for an exercise. What is the value of that image (points to an image you took)? From a client’s perspective, it probably has no value to them – heck, it doesn’t even have one of their family members in the image. Oh, it does have one? Hmm… maybe you should give it to them for free. Even though I am being difficult on this, it is something you really need to ask yourself with every image you take if you are a photographer. Why? Because there are so many images that you sweat over, spilling your guts out, just so you can get that one image that you call art. To you, it is easily worth a lot of money. But, your client doesn’t think it is worth much of anything. If you are a photographer, how many people want you to shoot the images of them for free? How about those who say that their friend who “just bought an expensive camera will shoot me for $50 and give me the digital images”? Just ask the camera dealers about that one and how often they are answering questions from people just like them. Even better, why would they ask you to endorse their friend as a good photographer? Why is there such a variance in the value of these images to the different people – you and your client? It is fairly simple. You know what went into creating an image – they only think it was a simple click of the shutter.

Why does this happen? Photographic images are now a commodity. “What?”, you ask. Yes, you  read that right. It started back with digital technology being released into the market place. This is when everything started changing. This is when I started hearing the following quite regularly:

1) Pixels are free so it only costs you time. You don’t have the expense of a darkroom, chemicals, film, or anything else. The only cost is a click per image. I hear this mantra repetitively from everyone – clients, professionals, and amateurs.

2) You need to market yourself by giving away free images. Once you get established, then you can charge something. This started with neighbors and friends saying this to me and then expecting me to shoot events and even weddings for them free of charge.

3) I am a starving model and I can’t afford to pay for images. Besides, it is industry practice to shoot TFP or TFCD. You also get the satisfaction from helping me out. I hear this so often from many people trying to get started in modeling.

4) You need to do this for just the “word of mouth” and “exposure” we give you. Think of all the people who see your name on the credit line that we get your images out in front of them. We can give you LOTS of name making recognition. This is a common mantra from people who want free work – usually companies, but often from magazines, too.

5) I am a photographer who pays for his photography by working another job. If I get to pursue my passion and it takes me having another job, then I am getting experience and establishing myself as a professional photographer. Besides, I work under a different model than most other photographers.

Let’s start with the pixels being free. With a digital camera, doesn’t it just cost you a click on the camera? The answer is a definitive “no!” There are a lot more costs to you to snap that image. The perception is that anyone with expensive camera equipment can take a great image without any training or experience. In reality, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone who I know who is an excellent photographer worked at the craft and perfected their technique to be someone who can do what they do. I don’t know anyone who was every so gifted that they knew photography by osmosis. So, you have years of training and experience being a photographer. You also have your time actually being there to capture the image. Don’t forget the time to edit the image. Your equipment shows signs of wear and tear with each click of the shutter or flash of the bulb. This wear and tear is a cost to you – the equipment doesn’t stay in perfect shape. Eventually it needs to be replaced. There is also a cost for little mistakes like the guy next to you spilling his fountain drink on your camera equipment. Your equipment is a cost. How about storage, burning disks with images on it, and other maintenance of the digital images? That all is a cost – just ask someone in cloud storage what it will be to store that shoot for you. They will give you an answer what that amount is – and if you don’t pay it, they don’t store it. For those of us in business, we have business licenses, insurance, and other expenses we have to pay. They are all an expense that photographers pay. If you are a photographer who this is your only source of income, then you have bills to pay and mouths to feed. So, now, in that one click… all this cost you nothing? I don’t think so.  Pixels aren’t free.

Marketing yourself by giving away free images is a wonderful way to get known by others, but not in the way you want to be known. I hear this from people whose only method of marketing is “word of mouth” and frequently, this “word of mouth” is that there is this one photographer who always does their work for free. If you market your work for free, all you get are customers who will pay you nothing because you are someone who is free. If you give away your work, it has no value to the people who receive it other than they got you to do something for free. Yes, there are times you need to do photographic work for free, and giving your images and work time always away for free isn’t one of them. You will hear this from friends and neighbors who expect you to capture events in their life – from weddings, graduations, etc. They will give you nothing in return – not even a thank you. The expectation is that you will always do this for free for them. Again, this gives you the reputation of being the “free” photographer in town. One thing to note here is that they can also capture the images with their own camera but you take better pictures and are free, so this is the better deal for them.  As I said before, pixels aren’t free and a reputation of “free” only digs yourself in deeper.

In the fashion world and acting world, you frequently will do TFCD (time for CD) or TFP (Time for Print) in order to work with different people at different skill levels. This is marketed as a “trade” of work between you the photographer and the model who you are shooting. Do I do this? Yes, I have to admit that I do. But, I am also somewhat choosy who I work when I do, there are very strict guidelines on continuing this arrangement, and if the guidelines are broken, that is it – they pay for all future shoots. I also don’t just work with everyone – there has to be a longer term benefit to me as an artist or I won’t do this type of trade. It is also why I don’t go to “meet and greets” to meet new models to work. If you produce work and it is always free, you are losing money. The model usually only puts in the time of the actual photo shoot (if you are one of the models who I work, you often put in a LOT more than this and I do know it – it is one of the reasons why I work with you as a model). You put in a lot more (or you should be). But, you can feel good that you are spending a lot of time taking pretty images of pretty people that probably have very little marketability in earning you money. If that makes you feel good, then great. At least you are trying to be honest. Otherwise, you are just futzing around and giving people free images. If you spend any amount of money, there is a cost to you for makeup, outfits, connections, location, and a multitude of other things. You are just digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole. What about all the exposure you get from this? Sure, you get exposure and known as the person who does this type of work for free. And trust me, once someone knows you will have their hair and makeup done, you will get lots of people who want to work with you for TFP or TFCD. Is it really that much fun for you to pay money out of your pocket for someone else to play dress up so you can capture some pretty images? It isn’t. But I don’t have hair and makeup… and there in lies the rub without doing this type of shoot right: those images probably won’t be usable for anything other than portfolio images for both of you. And, by giving away your work for free to everyone, you are lowering yourself to their level and becoming a starving artist yourself. While that has its own appeal, it isn’t where any pro photographer should want to be.

Exposure is another of those things that people dangle in front of you. You get published in a magazine or flyer of unknown worth and get your name out in front of everyone that you took the images. Does this add to your credibility as a photographer? I don’t know. But, you will have many people wanting you to do work for just a credit line to have your name out there. You may even be asked to contribute money to the event or cause,  in addition to contributing your time. It will often get your name out there, but at the same time, does it really benefit you? I beg to say that it doesn’t. Sure, you can network, but beyond this, it is simply a lost donation to the cause and you will probably never see any paid work in return for your efforts. My response to most people who ask me is to respond on the flippant side – I ask when they will be here to mow my lawn or clean my house or what documentation it takes to put me on their car insurance.  While this isn’t the best way to respond, I suggest you go about it a lot more tactfully if you do this.

You probably already know what I am going to say about people who pay for their photography with another job. Nope, it isn’t that they aren’t “real” photographers. Instead, it is that if you are, I want you to honestly look at your work and see where it is going. If you think the work you are creating will pay off some day, then the odds are that you are fooling yourself. Sure, you can take a great image, but if it isn’t paying for itself, then you are just goofing off. I am told that as an “artist” that they have a different business model and that the other job pays for their being an artist. Well, I can’t say you are or aren’t, but I know the odds are against it.  If you are a photographer who is using their second job to finance getting started and all the work you do is for free, I have to ask you to take a very serious look at your work and business model and make sure this is really benefiting you. This is a true sign you aren’t ever going to make money.

I started this blog post that photographers as we know them are a dying breed and that the end is coming. Photographs are commodity items, and anyone can take a picture on automatic with most cameras (even the cheap digital point and shoots). Because of this, all your training and experience as a photographer comes to almost nothing in the minds of the general public. As a photographer friend whose daughter was finally a senior in high school said to me about asking her to mention to her friends that he shoots senior portraits, her response was something to the effect of “Dad, I can’t do that. My best friend, (some name), has been shooting senior portraits all summer and has earned $5,200 doing this already.” pretty much sums up the environment. Technology is taking away the barriers to people being called photographers – either in cameras that can be set to automatic and take great images or people who learn how to edit their images and make them better through the editing process (usually using flare, changing colors, or changing the images) in several ways to be something that it wasn’t when they captured it. While this is art, it doesn’t mean that the images are great works or they will ever be a great work. It is just an image that the person likes. The other trade off to this technology is that photography has become a numbers game – they more images you take, the more likely you will have a great image captured. Why do you think there are so many machine gun shooters and chimpers? Because they believe that this is the way to capture that one image.  Worse, with companies selling the cameras buying into this line of thinking, you have products like the new Nikon point and shoot that takes a half second of images and returns the one it thinks is the one you wanted taken. Or, if you want to choose the image, then there is the Red camera that shoots continuous video at the full resolution of the camera. You just have to go choose that one image in all those images.

Photography as an art will always be around. Photographers who make a living taking the image of others is a dying breed. Technology, economy, and the devaluation of the photographic craft has make this work almost worthless. If you are a photographer, you have to really start differentiating yourself from the images that others can capture with just an expensive camera, or you will be dying out sooner than later. You also need to stop giving away all your work for free. Don’t fall into that trap. Every click of your shutter has a cost.

Edit: Thought from a friend, James Prince, who said this today (21 Nov 2012): “To employ an old metaphor, those who are unwilling or unable to adapt will go the way of the dinosaurs. As with golf, everyone can buy a club and take a swing, but only the top pros make any serious money…”

Edit2: This was just posted from another photographer and mentor, Beate , in her part 1 post on the end of portrait photography (The End of Portrait Photography): “Some of the areas are food, architecture, studio photography, still life, and automotive just to name a few. If you don’t know your craft and have the skill you can and will burn and sink. Not so if you are a portrait photographer. Here your skill doesn’t matter.” Do you think this is true? I have to agree with her. Can’t wait to see her part 2.