Photography's Vanishing Middle Class
As a staff shooter for a metro daily paper, I am lucky enough to make a comfortable, if not stellar, income doing what I love. But as I look around, I see that my ranks are thinning fast. And the long-term prospects for my profession do not look very promising for those who are entering it today.
About a month ago I got an e-mail from a local photographer who reads this site.
We had several e-mail exchanges and talked both on the phone and at various assignments since that time. The gist of these conversations were pretty much him noting that he liked the Strobist site, but didn't agree with the idea of my giving the information away for free.
I countered that the site does produce income (technically, a penny is income) via the various affiliate relationships and other sources. Granted, it wasn't a lot. But traffic was growing, and maybe it might some day be worth the time I was putting into it.
But I was still missing the photographer's point. He was concerned that I was giving away something of value. And by doing so, I was devaluing the photo profession.
Like many photographers, he sees new shooters moving into the field every day. They have their expensive new Nikons (or Canons) and are more than happy to blaze away with a piece of long glass on auto-everything and practically give the shots away for free.
Sometimes, not even "practically."
The proliferation of high-quality digital cameras is diluting the profession right into the ground. Everyone has always wanted to be a photographer, and now everyone can. Sort of.
And Strobist, the photographer added, is not helping things. Because I am putting out the knowledge gained from 20 years of my mistakes for free.
My first reaction (as is usually the case when confronted by someone with a differing opinion than my own) is to think how wrong they are. But the more I thought about it, the more concerned I got.
On the one hand, knowledge is able to diffuse more efficiently now than at any time in our history. Combined that with evolving technology and the easy transfer of digital photos, and you now have more and more people who are making money taking pictures.
Is this good?
Sure. On one level. The decentralization of knowledge is generally a good thing. But what is the end result of a trend that sees everyone who wants to be a photographer having the ability to be one?
When you are first starting out, the rush of actually being paid for your photos is a form of payment in itself. It's not that you made a paltry sum that matters. It's that you made something.
And that's fine, I guess. We have all paid our dues early in our careers. But just starting out in a world full of (semi)professional shooters, what are the odds that you will ever be able to support yourself -- much less your family -- as a professional photographer?
Who are the winners in this financial dumbing-down of the industry? The people who buy photography.
And the gasoline on the fire of this trend is internet-based "royalty-free photo agencies."
A representative from one of them called me the other day, wanting to know if I would be willing to do a seminar for a group of their shooters. I won't name names because they aren't the only company operating this way. And these guys are by no means the worst offenders.
I was on my way to an assignment and talked with the guy for awhile via cell phone. He wanted to know if I could come and do a lighting seminar for them.
We talked dates, logistics, a little subject matter, etc. Here's what did not come up: any mention of compensation whatsoever.
No "what would you charge," or "here's what we could pay," or anything like that. I purposefully left the subject alone and eventually asked him about the company he was representing. I gave him my e-mail and told him to send me some details so I could look into it when I got back home.
He never wrote me back. But I did look into the company. Here's what they do.
They sign up photographers over the internet to provide digital photos. The photos are screened and dropped into a searchable database. Buyers come to the website and can purchase the photos, royalty-free, for as little as a dollar a piece.
And cheaper in quantity.
Use them however you like. The only price differentiator is the size of the file.
Bigger file? More money. But we are still talking two-digit prices for royalty-free "full-page" photos for any publication you want.
You want a photo for that Citibank website? Sure. That'll be $1.00 for web resolution. Use it however you like. Come back soon!
And here's the kicker. You know how much of Citibank's hypothetical money the creator and copyright holder of that image would get?
The quality of the photo has nothing to do with the price. It's all about the DPI. Our work is literally reduced to a commodity of 1's and 0's.
Are shooters signing up?
Yes. In droves.
At first, it boggled my mind. But then I realized that many of these photographers were happy to just be selling the photos for something. They see the "most-purchased" list of photos (the site is big on featuring success stories) and do some quick mental math. (Hey, that could be me!)
Then they go to work shooting and uploading photos.
And the market for photos gets cheaper.
Operating on that mentality, I have to wonder what value -- if any -- they would put on my showing up to do a seminar.
Hopefully, it would have been more than twenty cents.
Don't get me wrong. There will always be "rock stars" in the photo world. It's the same as in any profession.
Case in point: If you can reliably hit the offerings of a Major League Baseball pitcher just three times out of every ten, you will make millions of dollars a year.
Are you that valuable to society?
Hardly. It's all about scarcity. Most people -- including, ironically, Michael Jordan, as it turns out -- simply can't hit a curve ball.
And scarcity is something that is becoming increasingly scarce in the professional photo world. Everyone is a photographer.
And thus, as professional photographers we are all relegated to the status of Ladies of the Evening, trying to ply our trade in a drunken beach town on perpetual spring break.
And even the "rock stars" are noticing the trends. One such photographer noted recently that they are seeing fewer and fewer day rates this year, increasingly lost to "flavor-of-the-day" shooters. And this particular person is very, very good.
This is not the behavior of a normal market. This is the behavior of an industry in total upheaval. Things are getting stranger and stranger.
I write this knowing full well that the readership of this site runs the gamut from eager non-pro hobbyists right through to some established, old guard types that are likely being hurt by the likes of the Strobist readers in the middle of the continuum.
So, how do I rationalize this with the fact that I am teaching you spring breakers the professional ladies' tricks of the trade? And for free, at that?
What is my responsibility in this cycle, anyway?
I think it is to ask you to evaluate who and where you are as a photographer. And to behave in a way that will tread lightly on the profession.
If you an amateur - learn all you can. Shoot for the love of shooting ("love" is the root of the word "amateur") and have a lifetime full of enjoyment and great photos.
If you are a semi-pro, decide what side of the fence you want to be on. If that side is "professional," then learn your craft. And charge a commensurate amount for your services. Otherwise, you are really kidding yourself about who you are and what you do.
Try to resist the cheap thrill of being paid (very little) for a photo. The true expense of that action is that you ultimately deprive someone who has devoted their life to shooting professionally much of a chance of financial survival. If you are good enough to work for pay, you are good enough to work harder and raise the standards of the profession, not devalue them.
And if you are a pro, realize that nothing I write here will make any difference. We are all going to have to work harder to differentiate ourselves from the guy that is willing to sell his photos for twenty cents and the thrill of publication. Every day.
In the end, I have to believe that spreading knowledge is a good thing.
But with the newfound knowledge comes the responsibility to use it in a way that allows sustainability for both the craft and the profession.
And the irony of the fact that I am doing to the education field exactly what the semi-pro's are doing to the photo field has not escaped me.
That's something I'll have to think about for a while.
I know that each of you approaches this issue from a different viewpoint. I will be traveling Sunday and Monday, but I'd love to know what you think, via the comments section.