Everyone who is a photographer is watching their friends and excellent photographers who are very talented go out of business. Many of us wonder if we will be next and what is left for those of us who are in the market. I will try to address some of the things going on in our market in this post. The motivation for this post was talking with a “real” pro about the market.
First and foremost, you will always hear that there is too much competition with other people. Last I checked, there were over 725 photographers listed in the Indianapolis area. This is for only those people who are physically located within the city limits and doesn’t include the neighboring areas like Fishers, Pendleton, Plainfield, or similar areas outside the city. If you spend any time on forums or groups for photographers, you will hear that it is like this everywhere and not just Indianapolis. We all face an increase in competition. What is going on?
The biggest factor here is that there are many people who believe they are photographers. In the past with film, there was a cost and restriction in knowledge to being a photographer. It took time to hone your skills and be a great photographer. The majority of photographers developed at least a third of the images that they shot. Every image cost something. For example, a low cost and inexpensive wedding would have around 80 images shot in medium format and if you were lucky, up to 72 more candid images on 35mm film. Almost every shot was agreed upon prior to the wedding with a list and was included as part of the contract. Everyone had almost the same images in their albums. Now, people shoot away and there are thousands of images captured and then sorted by the photographer limited only by their memory card’s capacity. There is still a list, but they are usually a very small number of images in the whole wedding. This is attributed to the change from film to digital image technology – the only additional cost is sorting and editing an additional image. You don’t even have to do this yourself as a photographer. Two of the barriers in the past, cost and knowledge, are no longer there. After walking through a local fair and seeing several photographers, it is very apparent that four out of five marketing don’t have a technical clue about the work they produce. This leads to the next factor, a large increase in amateur work as professional work.
Amateurs who are in the market are the next biggest factor facing the full-time professional. These are often people who go out and buy a digital camera and have no clue about what they are doing. They may or may not have an eye for the work they create. Often, people get a fairly sophisticated DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, and think the camera is what makes them a pro. Automation on digital cameras creates the opinion that they are a real “pro”. Many of the old film pros often will refer to the “P” and creative mode settings on most cameras as the “Professional mode” because it does a decent job with the little bit of programming within the camera. This doesn’t make you a “pro” but many people who shoot for pay think it does.
There are a few other things that this impacts: what people are paid for their work, the availability of low cost or free work to consumers, and a lack of understanding about the business of photography in general. Many times, these are people who have a primary job and only shoot over the weekend or at night to make a few extra bucks to make ends meet. Because the work isn’t their sole source of income and they know they aren’t that experienced, they will do their work at a lower rate than what a full-time pro needs to do. In addition, they rarely pay taxes on the money they make “under the table” and the business is profitable to them for the work they do. The exception are the individuals who are pursuing their vision of art and pay with their primary job for their ability to create what they believe is art. This creates a high number of low cost options for consumers who want to pay as little as possible for their photographic work. A consumer will look at images on the web in very low resolution images and think the images are great, but in real life when enlarged to a big print or canvas, those images fail to make the grade. Consumers can’t tell by just looking at them on the Internet, but often, that is how consumers make their choices. This also means that the number of free or low cost work out there is very high — fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable to believe the number of free images that are available in the market right now. There is also a lack of understanding about costs to produce images, and with this lack of understanding, taxes aren’t being paid to the government, customers frequently receive digital negatives, and there has been a rise in “shoot and burn” photographers. With many of these newer pro photographers, if you look at their costs, they are losing money and often fold when they realize their equipment wear and tear costs them too much to replace it, they rarely earn more for their work, and eventually just leave the market in frustration and unable to pay their photography bills. One such company was the parent company of Olan Mills – you would often see them at the front of grocery stores selling a huge package of images for $10.00. Eventually, they realized too late that they couldn’t make money under the model they used and the company closed its doors. In a small number of cases, either the government catches up and demands their money or an accident occurs where the amateur doesn’t have insurance where the costs are too high for them to pay. While amateurs devastate the market, professionals with real talent are folding because consumers don’t understand why one is so much cheaper. This causes people who are pros to cut their prices and be as competitive as they can with the amateur market, and a downward spiral occurs for those who make a living. Worse are the web sites that profess to sell pro photographers leads for photographic work that market services strictly as a commodity – some are name your price you want to pay, and someone will do the work. Often these websites charge a monthly fee plus a cost per “qualified” lead. I won’t see that these leads are qualified in any possible way when the leads indicate they want 3-4 hours of photographer time, a printed album of the work, and the digital negatives with a budget of $200. The scary part about this is that people actually take them up on this ‘offer’ (with that lead costing them $15). How do professionals compete against this eroded market?
I don’t have a magic answer for “pros” and am in the same boat. The best I can do is educate consumers who look for my services and attempt to show them the difference. There are things that I see as a professionally trained photographer that most consumers miss or don’t see. You must differentiate yourself from that commodity market place. In my case, I emphasize my work is art – and just saying that your work is art isn’t enough. You have to show your client and demonstrate why it is. Second, I provide a significantly higher service level and help the consumers with their projects – from simple hand holding to doing the project for them. This means calling them back or having someone answer your phones for you. It also means having products for them to look at and feel to make their purchase decisions. With this additional education and improved service, you must emphasize that you offer the best value that benefits your clients. This is different than cutting prices and lowering your prices.