Economic times change and business models come and go. When my sister was very young she repaired parts of Linotype machines. I remember shopping for the best price on a Selectric typewriter. Duesenberg was once the luxury car of choice. Kodak and Fuji once sold boatloads of film.
And as the 20th century began, Westfield MA had 40 companies that made buggy whips and carriage parts. Few adapted and changed. One was Studebaker, which transitioned into making cars. But now it’s gone, too. Along with Hudson and dozens of more defunct car manufacturers.
Technological evolution forces the major change in business. Look at what happened to music. The Internet and file-sharing almost destroyed the music business. Only innovations like iTunes saved it, but in a very different form. Nowadays, only a few sell large numbers of albums. But Spotify thrives. Groups record to recruit more fans for their tours. Ironically, electronic media has spawned a boom in attendance for live concerts.
So what about photography? Until digital came along, photography required a fairly high degree of technical skill. It took a lot of experience (and sometimes a lot of Polaroids) to get a picture right. Type of film emulsion, choices in processing (types of developer, pushing, pulling, cross processing, flashing), positive or negative film, BW or color, snip testing – and then you had to wait until you got the film back from the lab to see the results. Or processing it yourself and opening the developing can hoping the film actually contained images. Printing and watching an image appear on a piece of paper seemed like magic – with an excitement which never went away, no matter how often you went through this process.
Digital has changed all of this. The automatic digital camera can do a pretty good job with focus and exposure. Just push the button and it does the rest. It’s pretty easy to shoot acceptable photos in a wide range of circumstances. No need to decide on BW or color film, or what emulsion to use. RAW processing just records the pixels that fall on the recording chip. Decide all the rest of that later. And no waiting period. As soon as you click the shutter the image is visible on the back of the camera – or on a computer when you shoot tethered. Gone is the situation where only the photographer could really visualize what the results would be. Everybody, including the client, sees the images immediately. In the early days of the business, the photographer was seen almost as a magician. But no longer. The mystery has evaporated.
I think this partially explains the interest photographers have in medium format digital cameras. They do create better digital files – no need for anti-aliasing filters and you greater bit depth and, potentially, huge number of megapixels (Hasselblad has one that boasts of 200 megapixels). But they are so expensive that it’s hard to justify them in terms of practical improvement in the images you produce. So what good are they? Well, they do impress clients with how serious and professional you are. Like showing up at the country club in a Mercedes instead of a Chevy. You might have a top of the line Nikon or Canon DSLR (or the equivalent) but clients may use the same camera. So might their daughters.
Nowadays, thousands of more people can now produce acceptable images that once were, possibly, only when you had an experienced professional handling the photo assignment. Plus the process is now much more transparent, everybody gets to see the result immediately – which means everyone from clients, to art directors, to stylists to the models get to have an opinion on the result. The kitchen is suddenly jammed with cooks.
Innovation in photography has killed jobs before. In 1900 Kodak introduced the Brownie box camera, giving birth to the “snapshot” era. You no longer had to go to a professional photo studio to get family photographs or portraits done. Just “click” and wait for the film to come back from the processor. A lot of commercial studios went out of business. The but the high end of the business continued to exist.
It does now, too. But there has been a squeeze. Many of the mid-level jobs are gone. These photos are being shot by digital camera owners who do a “good enough” job. Because it’s a fact that a lot of photo jobs just don’t need or benefit from really expert photography. Many are being done by camera phones. But with the middle jobs no longer there, photographers are going in one of two directions – out of business or scrambling to compete for the high-level jobs which still exist and still pay pretty well. After all, digital or not, if you are a company that is investing in a multi-million dollar ad buy to sell products that you might have spent tens of millions developing, spending many tens of thousands on photography, retouching and post-processing is small potatoes – as long as the photographs are successful and effective in boosting your sales.
Of course, actual photographers create images with their eyes and their minds. The camera is just a tool. Photographers rely on teir talent and experience, whether shooting on film or digital. In the same way, a priceless Stradivarius doesn’t make great music without some talented musician to play it. However, it takes just as much talent and training to become a master of the guitar. But it takes much less effort to be able to play the guitar well enough to have some fun and entertain people. What has happened in photography is it has gone from being a violin to a guitar. Becoming a master is still just as difficult, but doing a “good enough” job is hugely easier than it used to be.
In some parts of the world, destruction of habitat has forced more and more animals in the area into smaller and smaller spaces. Competition has therefore increased. Nowadays, with no money at the bottom and fewer jobs in the middle, more and more photographers are competing for those relatively few jobs at the top. This plus the fact that the digital age has given us even more photographers than ever, has created something like a game of musical chairs – only instead of nine chairs and 10 people walking around waiting for the music to stop, you have the same chairs but 10,000 trying to find a place to sit down. So it frequently doesn’t matter how good you are, how talented, how big, strong or fast. If you don’t happen to be near a chair at the right moment you are out of luck.
Making this situation even more critical is the inherent (natural) caution of creatives who make decisions like which photographer to hire. If they use somebody they believe is dependable, with a known track record – even if that photographer is not that imaginative – if anything goes wrong they can’t be blamed. They won’t lose their job. “Hey, I hired so-and-so. He’s been fine in the past. How could I have known?” Take a chance on somebody new, even if he or she appears to be super talented and right for the job, and your own job might be in jeopardy. Take chances and you might be fired.
All of this is making it extremely difficult to survive as a professional photographer. There are certainly jobs that pay very little by past standards. Just check out Craigslist. Magazines still buy photos, but they are doing badly and generally don’t pay photographers very well. High end advertising and commercial clients still have substantial budgets for photography but this is an example where doing the job is much more difficult than getting the job.
Meanwhile, it’s a great time to be a photographer. As an amateur. You can shoot so many images so easily, with very little cost (I used to spend $1000 n film and processing just to cover a weekend sports event). It might be hard to get the photo exactly right, but it’s very difficult to screw it up entirely. But this is not a good time to be a professional photographer. There is just too much competition for too few jobs. The fact that we have the Internet seems to mean a lot more marketing is possible with a lot less effort and expense. We can make use of social networking. But that applies to everyone, so, according to Popular Photography, some 200,000 plus images are uploaded to the Internet – every minute! Given this deluge of photographs, it’s almost impossible to be heard above the noise.
Email allows you to contact potential clients, creatives and decision makers who were usually unavailable in the past. But talk to them and they will tell you their email boxes are overflowing with messages to the point where they rarely look at messages unless they recognize the same of the sender. Sending out5 print promos costs money. It’s increasingly difficult to make appointments with creatives by phone. There is a decrease interest in print portfolios. I know successful photographers who haven”t updated their books in years. They show their work on their iPads or Android tablets or just refer prospective clients to their websites.
So the times they are a changing. “May you live in interesting times,” is an ancient Chinese curse. How this will all shake out remains to be seen. But buggy whip manufacturers went out of business and so did Checker, DeSoto and Studebaker. Meanwhile, you just can’t find a good buggy whip when you need one. Just ask your local dominatrix.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: