You hear that a lot lately, and without question this industry is not what it was 10 years ago. The thing is – 10 years ago everyone was saying the exact same thing and without question the industry 10 years ago was not what it was like 20 years ago. I’ve witnessed this scenario a few times now – in the early 90’s, when Photoshop was invented, the industry was screwed and we were all doomed. When stock photography became a viable commercial option, the industry was screwed and we were all doomed. When digital photography became viable the industry was seriously screwed and we were all totally doomed! If my memory is correct, I have witnessed the end of the world for photographers at least 4 times in the 30 year span of my career – if we were all doomed, you’d think we would have stopped bitching long ago.
So here’s my take – the industry isn’t screwed, it has just shifted. And it will shift again many more times in the future as technology, culture, economy and media venues change. Some areas of the industry that feel safe will no longer be so, some areas of photography that are considered a joke at this time will suddenly gain acceptance. Photographers and business people will continue to experiment, try new things and stumble upon new business models on an ongoing basis – some of those models will rise to astonishing heights then crumble in failure.
When I started my career as photographer, the pace of technological change was much slower and the photo industry seemed quite stable. But that came with a host of its own problems – photographic styles did not shift as quickly, which meant that most new photographers were showing portfolios of work very similar to the most established photographers.
This meant there was no incentive for a client to hire a new photographer (except that they were cheaper), so most new photographers had to wait for the veterans to die before they could move up a rung on the ladder. In today’s market, clients are far more open to viewing the work of new photographers because photographers experiment with style and execution much more than in previous years.
But I did see the industry shift a few times in some very interesting ways. Stock photography is a good example – when I was starting my career, stock photography was where utterly failed photographers tried to eke out an existence. The quality of the photography was generally awful, and no self-respecting client would use it.
Then suddenly stock photography didn’t just become viable and respected, it started attracting the best shooters in the world and every photographer was fighting to get in – many were getting rejected because the quality of their work was not on par with what stock photography had become. Now stock photography is struggling again because stock agencies started to merge into mega-agencies that could compete by lowing prices to ridiculous levels, but they could survive because of the sheer volume of sales – that was great for the stock agencies and not so great for the photographers.
Wedding photography was once in a similar scenario – when I was young, wedding photographers were certainly far better than what stock photography originally attracted, but many were simply not in the same league as commercial photographers. Part of the reason for that was that commercial photography offered more creative opportunities and the rates were way better than wedding rates – the best photographers followed the creative and the money. That’s simply no longer the case – on average, the quality of most wedding photography is absolutely exceptional and it is now full of photographers who are at the top of their game.
The commercial market however remains a tough one to crack for new photographers – a lot of the smaller bread and butter jobs are gone. Photography has now become so accessible, that it’s possible for many clients to either shoot small jobs themselves, or get them done for very cheap. This leaves many newer commercial photographers competing with more established shooters for the bigger jobs, which can be a real challenge – but it’s not impossible!
Really topnotch new photographers MUST realize that, while being new has its downsides, it also has advantages – the biggest one being, nobody has seen your work before, everything about you is new and topnotch clients love new creative options. Many established photographers sometimes struggle with entrenched perceptions of their work – not so with newer photographers.
But this also leads me to a painful observation, that may piss off some readers – and that is numerous times, when I have heard a photographer bitch about how crappy the industry is, I have taken a look at their website. More often than not, the photographer’s work is just not that good. Sometimes, it’s just flat out bad, other times it’s technically ok, but shows absolutely nothing new and gets swallowed up by the sea of similar images out there. Whenever any of us bitch about the state of the industry, everyone one of us (myself very much included) has to honestly ask the question – is it the industry or is it me?
So what’s the solution if the problem with the industry is in fact you or me? That would depend on your situation – if you’re an established photographer with a lot of experience and a strong skill set, I would recommend doing a Road Map. A Road Map is where you take a critical look at who you want to be working with, what their needs who, what photographers they are already suing, and how you can offer those clients something relevant to their needs, but unlike anything they have seen before.
If you are still a relatively new photographer with minimal experience, then I also highly recommend doing a Road Map, but you also need to look objectively at your skill set – did you go to an established school for photography or are you self-taught? Don’t get me wrong, I have seen some superbly capable photographers who are self-taught, but I have seen far more self-taught photographers that have enormous gaps in their knowledge.
Tutorial websites, such as this one right here, can easily create the illusion that this is all you need to teach yourself how to become a topnotch photographer. And this can be a very seductive thing, as most people want to find quick solutions to their goals. It takes an enormous amount of self-discipline to teach yourself to the level where you are commercially viable as a photographer.
I’ve said it before, and I will keep right on saying it – if you want to pursue commercial photography, feel free to use sites like this as a valuable supplement to your training, but you should seriously consider seeking out a topnotch school for photography.
Another very valuable thing to do is to seek out meaningful feedback on your work. There are many established photographers who are willing to spend some time looking at your work and giving feedback – but even more valuable is if you can make contact with potential clients and ask for feedback. But keep in mind, if the problem is your training is simply inadequate (meaning you have likely self-taught yourself), these professionals will get somewhat exasperated.
As a photographer and teacher, I have been approached more times than I can count by struggling new photographers asking for advice, when the clear problem is that they are simply not ready yet. When I ask where they trained, the answer is they trained themselves, and when I suggest finding a school, there is often resistance as it is not a quick-fix solution. Unfortunately, there is no simple formula I can give them and if there were, I would take it to my grave. A simple formula for photography would screw the photo industry and leave us all doomed.
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Bluesky is a photography tutorial website created by veteran commercial photographer and college instructor Greg Blue. This site advocates an approach to learning studio & location photography that focuses first on light theory (these are free tutorials). Lighting, camera and post-production techniques are equally important, but should follow the study of lighting theory (these tutorials are also free). The site also offers a host of specific image tutorials that take a mile deep look at theory and technique from the perspective of individual images (these tutorials are members only).