So you wanna be a pro?

by steve jacob
above photo © steve jacob

Over the last few years I’ve had the chance to meet and chat with many professional photographers about the state of their businesses. Some were philosophical, some grumpy, some gloomy and some were searching the small ads, but the prevailing message was, “photography is a harder way to pay the bills than it was ten years ago”.

Individual concerns were wide ranging: Contract rates and agency fees were being renegotiated downwards; micro-stock was killing stock; wannabes with websites were charging silly prices for portraits and weddings; publishers were no longer interested in photography books; galleries only wanted Magnum shots of old film stars; so called “art buyers” were not after new artworks, just personal shopping for bonus laden bankers; local newspapers were sending the office junior out with a point and shoot to cover an event; and so on and so forth.

So what’s going on? Photography like any business is subject to the laws of supply and demand. If things are getting harder, is it because of oversupply or reduced demand? More to the point, what can anyone do about it?

In a recent article in Professional Photographer Magazine (Dec 2009 issue) top fashion and “A” list celebrity photographer Andrew Macpherson makes two provocative claims: Firstly, that provided you have a good eye, photography is now “easy”; and secondly that any photographer who is ignoring video is a fool.

On the first point, the “craft” of photography is certainly not as forbidding as it once was. The basics of exposure are fairly simple in theory, but with digital capture the ability to review each shot instantly makes the practice easier as well. However, the mark of a “real” film photographer was mastery of the darkroom, though in truth the skill was more often hired than acquired. Time constraints and risk considerations meant that most studio and landscape photographers found a specialist lab that would hand process and print 120 or sheet film and paid them handsomely for the privilege.

Either way, these skills took many years to perfect and made professional prints stand out a mile from the work of all but the most serious amateurs. This simple fact, plus the use of expensive larger format cameras, contributed in no small part to the mystique of the professional at a time when most hobbyists were content with slides or 6X4s from the local store.

These days, though far from being a geek and without using anything with a professional price tag, I can transfer a RAW image from a middling digital SLR to a standard PC, manipulate it as creatively as I like using a £50 photo editor without any risk of destroying the original, then print a very pleasing and sharp 19X13 poster using archival pigment ink on photo-rag art paper, or post to an on line gallery with a shopping cart built in and (potentially) thousands of viewers a day. At no point did I have to leave the comfort of my study or get my hands wet.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that if I can do this thing, then so can (almost) anyone (with a modicum of common sense and a few good books). Arcane and hard won skills, high costs and specialist equipment no longer limit entry to the profession, even if they still fight a rearguard action at the top levels. You still need a good eye, but out of millions of photographers even a small percentage will produce a lot of “good” images. Many are not in it for the money and are happy to make cover their gear costs. They will cover friends’ weddings, the neighbours kids’ graduations and sign up to micro stock sites for pin money. For clients on a budget, “good” is good enough, especially since the price is dandy. (Arguably you get what you pay for and we are drifting towards mediocrity, but that’s another discussion for another day).

So there is an argument that at some areas of the photography market are now dominated by semi-professionals and amateurs who are happy to provide decent images at knock down prices. There is certainly an oversupply problem, but what about demand?

On Andrew’s second point, the glib reason why photographers need to embrace video is that clients want it (or if they don’t now they will sooner or later): News agencies are demanding video coverage with sound for online news feeds; happy couples want to relive the big moment on TV and share it on Facebook; and CEO’s want a DVD of their headline speech to the shareholders included in the annual report or posted on the company intranet. This trend has been growing for some time.

At the same time, a major market for high end stills photography is shrinking. The rise of internet magazines and online news feeds are driving a decline in magazine and newspaper sales and associated advertising. As ubiquitous access to the internet becomes ever more realistic and convenient, so it will become the dominant media delivery mechanism for all types of content until even the glorious glossies that grace the world’s coffee tables (and dentists’ waiting rooms) will be beaming themselves down to our handheld readers while we finish a novel, catch the latest news flash or watch the end of Ocean’s 22.

Where the content goes, the ad-men and women are sure to follow. The biggest budgets will be assigned to web campaigns using mixed, interactive content, and searching for high-traffic sites to place them on. Fairly soon, owners of popular sites will find themselves in a sellers market where ad-space is concerned.

So it’s not so much that demand for content is shrinking overall, it’s more that still photographs are just one medium in an increasingly multimedia world. You may not be interested in video, but even if you are a competent writer, or web designer, or sound engineer, you (or your team) will have greater currency in the brave new world if you can produce multimedia content. One-trick ponies will probably have to work that trick a little harder to stay ahead, or supplement their income in other ways.

So is there a silver lining?

If you’ve spent years honing your photographic skills, built up a great reputation, an excellent portfolio and a client list as long as a bus, you are probably a little scathing of this assessment. It’s a fair cop. I am skimming the surface of a complex issue and picking and choosing my examples. The dice are still rolling.

If you are at the top of your profession and have all the right contacts, you already have your finger on the pulse and know how to adapt and survive. Moreover, if you work in fashion or advertising you already work with teams of creative directors, stylists and production assistants, so adding a videographer or script writer to the team and integrating video and stills footage is not out of the question if the client requests it. You know all the right people, right?

Moreover, the current generation of hand held readers and 3G phones are not likely to persuade us to cancel our National Geographic subscriptions just yet; copies of Vogue are still gracing elegant coffee tables in Monaco and Rio (and my dentist’s waiting room); people are still getting married the old fashioned way; and the Queen, Carla Bruni and the Obamas still seem to need the odd portrait. There is still a market for real quality on the printed page, in frames and on walls. There always will be. It’s just that the market is shrinking in value terms.

The main casualties as always will be newcomers trying to get a foothold on the market. It’s a cruel irony that more undergraduates than ever in the UK are starting photography courses. Guys and girls who would have learned the ropes as staffers on the local daily or as studio assistants are struggling to find anyone to take them on or pay them a living wage. People are placing ads offering to work for free just to gain experience and studios are hiring space by the hour.

But take heart! There is more than one way to scare a crow and as one door slams shut another springs open. If you are starting out, or even trying to choose the right college course, you may want to consider your options carefully.

You see, nowadays, publishing your message is completely democratic: There is a potential audience of millions just a few clicks away. Corporations no longer control the message or who sees it; you don’t have to go cap in hand to an agent, editor, producer or recording company, just post it on MySpace, or YouTube, or Flickr, or start blogging; if you are good (or at least  interesting) viral marketing can make you famous overnight; if you are a bit shy just promote your website on Google without ever banging on doors or cold-call anyone; if you don’t like multi-tasking, think “indie band” and build a team; attract enough hits and you can sell advertising space, charge subscriptions or attract sponsors; and its only a matter of time before talent scouts and buyers are surfing the web looking for the next Hitchcock or Cartier-Bresson. There are not many viral millionaires yet (except people who write books on how to become one) but it’s just a matter of time.

But if you have just bought a Canon 5Dmk2 and are sitting in your office cubicle dreaming about being a pro photographer, think twice before quitting the day job. Photography is a great hobby and it’s easier than ever to make fabulous images, but as a profession it’s getting harder by the day. On the other hand make a documentary, or tutorial, or guidebook and publish it online. You never know, you may just be discovered….

The Critical I