photography and the economy, part 2: the profession

Let’s kick this one off with an email from my friend Paul D’Andrea. Paul is an accomplished photographer who still works his day job while earning freelance photo income. I think he shares a perspective with many readers and it’s one I try to keep in mind when talking about the business of photography:

I certainly toy with the idea of pushing till I can go pro, but I’m making a little money now and still have plenty of time for my own work. I hesitate even more with the economy being what it is and thoughts about the other pros that I may be displacing. My day job can be a bit frustrating at times, that certainly gets me dreaming, but I’m not in that much of a rush.

So in this, my second and final post on the present economy, I’d like to share my current outlook on the profession of commercial photography. There are a number of trends our studio has seen that you may or may not be aware of. Businesses now, more than ever, are fighting to maximize advertising and marketing budgets and that most certainly affects photographers.

My primary interest is commercial photography but I also try to keep an eye on the business of wedding and portrait photography. My friend and colleague David Ziser at Digital Protalk knows that industry inside and out, both as a master photographer and well respected educator. In a recent series of posts he relays reports from well established photographers who have recently seen sudden and precipitous drops in their bookings and income. Is it caused by the economy? Or by large numbers of part-time photographers diluting the income pie? A little of both, perhaps? I’m sure your perspective would be appreciated if you have anything to add to the ongoing conversation.

I feel safe in saying that commercial photography budgets have been tightening over the last few years and that they will continue on that course, at least while we see our way through this financial forest. It’s been well documented that American workers have increased productivity without a commensurate increase in wages. That means people are working harder for the same amount of money, largely. It only makes sense that this rule seems to apply directly to many photographers I know.

There appear to be identifiable forces pushing on commercial photography from two different ends. At one end is the influx of new photographers aided by quickly evolving digital technologies. Truthfully speaking, many technical aspects of photography that once took years to learn can now be mastered in months using newly developed tools. View camera perspective controls, cc correction gels, color meters, film testing and complex chemical processes have been replaced by simpler software solutions. As a result, the barriers to entry have been lowered.

Another force affecting photography is tightening budgets, a product of the economy. Companies are seeking less expensive ways to pull off advertising and it affects the industry in numerous ways. We no longer build room sets for photography, instead we shoot in homes and on location. The use of professional models / talent has also greatly decreased. Instead, clients seek to use “real people” more and are shooting clothing off-figure to avoid talent fees.

And, because the internet is now an important marketing vehicle, advertising photos have gotten much simpler so they will read well when small. Twenty years ago when I was a catalog photographer we shot many photographs in room settings or on interesting, decorative backgrounds. Now a look at the Sunday advertising inserts reveal that most everything is shot on a simple white sweep, providing considerable savings and facilitating ease of production.

The confluence of these trends, I think, will create entry level opportunities for young photographers. Even with limited skills a budding professional should be able to shoot the current staple of advertising: product shots done on a white background. I don’t know that this type of job will necessarily provide a decent living, more than likely the main appeal will be the promise of experience.

That would be the upside of current trends, I believe. The downside is that, because advertising is tending toward simplification and budget cutting, there will likely be fierce competition when trying to graduate beyond these entry level jobs.

People always tell me that “the world will always be in need of great photographers”. I agree with that statement. But to guarantee survival in the business of photography I think the our emphasis should be on the word “business” first and “photography” second. During trying times I believe a great business person in photography will be more likely to survive and thrive than a great photographer in business.