My look back at the photo biz, 2008


I don’t spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror but this time of year presents a good opportunity to reflect. Whether it’s the end of the calendar year or the free time created by the holidays, this is the time I sit and ponder what’s been learned this past year. I’d like to touch on some of the things witnessed and overhead in 2008, including our commercial photography business (Daylight Photo), photojournalism, video, camera gear and wedding / portrait photography.

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Commercial Photography

As you may know, commercial photography is what pays my way. The year started with promise: verbal agreements with a number of clients this past January had us very optimistic. In February we began receiving product for a large catalog photography job and our studio was converted into a forest floor…fun stuff. Well, the fun lasted about two weeks before our contact was let go from the company and the job was pulled due to budget cutbacks. After being paid for the sets and the work done to date, the company took the photography in-house. From the start of the year it seemed obvious that retail product companies looked set to have a tougher go of it in ‘08.

The best piece of advice I ever received was “expect the best but prepare for the worst”. I’ve seen many such occurrences over a long career and when tens of thousands of dollars slip through your fingers you just immediately focus on putting your fingers on a new job.

Overall, though, our regular clients really came through for us, across a wide range of industries. All except for the aforementioned consumer products category and, also, one of our most dependable categories: manufacturing. From 2004 to 2007 we were kept busy by companies that built components for manufacturing plants and facilities. 2008 turned eerily quiet, a sudden pullback in the manufacturing sector, it seemed. Now, looking back, some of those companies were closely connected to the auto industry. While headlines didn’t proclaim a problem for the automotive industry until fairly recently, it seems obvious now that cutbacks began a long time ago.

Our studio has managed to finish 2008 strong, though. Really strong. How is this possible in a tanking economy? Well, people seem much more deliberate with their purchases and this applies to photography, also. Where once we heard cries of “cheaper and faster”, now clients are focusing on quality service again, not just inexpensive prices. They recognize that our experience and professional practices are bringing them greater value than much of our competition and they’re thanking us for everything we do. Just when it seemed like the bottom could fall out of the value of photography, the economic downturn has restored a genuine appreciation for quality, at least for the time being. Go figure.

Video Services

After introducing video services to our clients in 2007, we’ve had the opportunity to expand our services in 2008. In the coming year I fully expect that our income will be a 50/50 split between still photography and video.

What prompted the addition of video services? A look at the visual direction of newspapers and online media. Still photographers at newspapers were being given video cameras and told to shoot streaming media. As we’ve watched media migrate from the printed page to the web, video has become more and more accessible to all. By shooting both stills and video our studio has solidified our position with our clients and created another income stream.

Photojournalism

Speaking of newspapers, we’ve seen over 15,000 jobs lost at newspapers in the past year and some of the biggest names in publishing may not make it through another year. So where does this leave photojournalism? Well, we’ve looked at some great photojournalism links here on prophotolife and there are photographers doing wonderful documentary work out there. At one time there were many newspaper internships available to students that could eventually lead to a staff position. Now, I honestly don’t know where graduating photo-j students go to fill out a job application.

Camera Gear

Wow, think about the photo equipment we’ve seen emerge in 2008. There are a handful of 20+ mega pixel DSLRs available now and the least expensive of them, the Canon 5D Mark II, also shoots hi-def 1080i video. All for around $2800.

In 2000 I was shooting with a Nikon D1 that probably sold for $5000 and was 2.7 mega pixels. How would I describe the D1? It was simultaneously amazing and crappy. If you had one you know what I mean. There were focus and color issues, the sensor was a dirt magnet and the batteries lasted about 100 shots. But, wow, it was a DSLR that took all of our Nikon lenses!

Just out of curiosity, I had to compare the professional Nikon D1 against the semi-professional Canon 5D Mark II in terms of cost per megapixel:

In 2000, approximately $1,852 per megapixel
In 2008, approximately $133 per mega pixel

Wedding Photography

My only real connection with wedding photography is as an observer. When friends ask me if I’ll shoot their wedding I always say, “I’ll do it if you ask me…but please don’t ask me”. Plus, I don’t want a qualified wedding shooter to lose a payday. I like to keep an eye on the business of wedding photography, though, because it’s been the fastest growing sector of professional photography for a couple of years now. There’s a new guard replacing the old guard, it seems, and from conversations with friends it seems to me that wedding photography is currently a Tale of Two Cities: it can either be the best of times or the worst of times.

Many of the more established professionals are seeing their businesses slow, either due to the economy or increased competition. And some of the up and comers, shooting at lower prices, are flourishing.

The market ultimately decides what it is willing to pay and if the established professionals are too high then the market will adjust. I do have some concerns with some of what I‘ve seen, though.

Unfortunately, some of the up and comers are highly talented photographers who think a logo and a website constitutes having a business. They may be skirting around income taxes (all such income is taxable, whether it‘s from a business or a hobby), sales taxes and business insurance. That’s not sustainable for the long haul and it artificially deflates the pricing of professional photography. By the time these issues eventually catch up with them there’s another hot new up and comer to take their place. As I always say, if you truly want to make it for the long haul, your best bet is to join a professional photo organization and learn from the shared wisdom of others. We’re all in this together.

In Conclusion

Photography seems to reflect the general trends we’re seeing in the overall economy and business environment. It’s competitive and money is tight so purchases are being made more deliberately. Yes, advertising is sometimes referred to as “selling the sizzle and not the steak”. At the moment our particular clients aren’t saying that, though, instead they’re asking: “where’s the beef?”.

Hey, that’s it for what I’ve seen in 2008. Are there any interesting personal experiences or obvious trends you’ve witnessed this year?

Next Monday I’d like to share what I expect and hope to see in the year ahead.