There have been so many changes in professional photography in the last decade, it’s no wonder photographers have been confused about their future. We all know the reasons. I myself have questioned the future and been both the victim and the benefactor of these changes.
I’ve been a photographer most of my life starting at age 14. In 2005 I had my best year ever in photography. Then, the lights started to dim. 2006, was worse, as was 2007, then the great recession of 2008 and 2009. My business survived through all that as well as through Sept. 11, 2001 when we all wondered if the world was coming to an end. But really in retrospect, the real problem happened June 29, 2007.
That was the beginning of the end of pro photography as we knew it. It’ wasn’t the change to digital from film, or the changing buying patterns of Generation Y. It was the release of a device that would re-define photography forever. The iPhone.
By now most of you are laughing at me. Ya, we all know about camera phones. We own them ourselves. The problem is they're good – and getting better. But the truth is, this is the best thing to happen to pros in decades. It just takes a bit to see it, and to understand how to use it.
First let me say, if you’re under the age of 50, you wouldn’t have seen this. It’s just that I’ve been around for a while and able to see the end result of a paradigm shift that looked like it was going to wipe us out but was really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
To explain, let’s go back to 1983. A young Kerry Allan, just married and anxious to start a new career attends his first wedding photography 3 day seminar. The presenter, would become my mentor and guide for the next 10 years. As he started his presentation, he was bemoaning the end of the great days of photography. New technology was changing the landscape and pros had to get much much better at their profession or be wiped out by the new killer device – the “Point and Shoot” camera. It was now in the hands of every guest at the wedding and taking much better pictures than most of the pros. It was disaster right around the corner.
For a few hundred dollars, everybody had a small, easy to carry device that did outstanding work. I rushed out and bought one myself only to discover it was true. My wife took pictures at a company BBQ, and I was blown away by the results. I’d have to work my ass off with my new medium format equipment to do as well. I’d need auxiliary lighting, reflectors, assistants and the works just to compete.
Business was down. The seminar instructor’s studio had down sized considerably in the last couple of years as they saw business fade away. I was convinced that I’d just bought into a dying industry. But something odd happened.
Over the next three days as we went to numerous locations to shoot wedding models under different lighting conditions, I saw some of the most drop dead gorgeous photography I had ever seen. My world was shaken. I thought I was hot stuff when I booked myself into the seminar, and was not prepared for the knockout blow I’d get when I saw how real pros worked. I had no idea of how things worked. I was so blind, I didn’t even understand how to ask the questions.
At the end of the three days, I was drop dead exhausted. My mind was spinning. I had feverously taken extensive notes on lighting posing, styling, exposure and so on. I needed time to digest the experience that I'd just gone through. But one thing was clear as a bell. Pro photographers had a weapon against the new threat of point and shoot cameras. Talent, knowledge, skill, and gear were the answer. And it worked.
For the next three decades, I and thousands of other photographers made awesome incomes in the very profession others of the day were proclaiming dead. What were the dynamics of this change?
My instructor was right. We had to get better. Better art, better technology, better results. We had to beat the pants off the “point and shoots” and make our paying customers glad they paid for a “pro” to be at their wedding. And he had just taught us how. The pictures I took at his seminar were the best of my life. I had to learn how to perfect that.
Equipment played two roles as well. You needed the right tools for the job. That’s as true today as back then. But there was something else. It’s always seemed shallow to me, but none-the-less it was true. When somebody was paying significant money for a professional photographer, they didn’t expect them to show up with a camera that fit in their pocket. The pro had an image to keep up. And that’s true today in every profession not just photography. What if your company just hired a million dollar consultant who drove up in a rusted out old Chevy. Loss of respect and comfort level. So shallow yes, but image is important. Always has been.
But there was a third factor at play. Professional equipment was expensive and hard to use. Not the luxury of the models we have today, you actually had to know photography to use them, and frankly, most people didn’t care that much. They were already busy learning their own professions. So a “Barrier to Entry” was formed. To get in at that level took considerable investment and skill.
In the last decade, new digital camera models eroded that barrier to entry. Unskilled photographers were now able to take really nice shots with a camera that sold under $1000. With higher ISO ranges you didn’t need to buy flash or lights. Available light photojournalism became the thing of the day. And again Pros watched as revenue fell against an invading army of newcomers with cheap gear and little skill.
The news just seemed to get worse and worse with the release of each new camera model. Photographers were also fighting to learn new methods of marketing in a digital era. Promotions that used to work, just didn’t any more. It seemed the end was near. Every effort to increase business met with failure. A few bright spots in the field, but not many. They were the exceptions not the rule.
But ding! Something is happening to turn the business around again. Just like it did back in the 80’s. Here’s the deal.
A short time ago Apple released their latest version of the iPhone. The model 6 and 6 Plus, and with it major new camera features. Samsung and their competition also have great built in cameras. Today these cell phone cameras take awesome pictures and everybody easily sees how the old point and shoot cameras are doomed. As are low end DSLRs. Why buy a digital Rebel when you already have an awesome camera in your hand all day long.
Now the stage is set. It’s 1983 all over again. Everybody has an awesome device in their hand. Existing pros have to up their game to produce remarkably better work. The market is polarizing to smart phone cameras and pro level cameras with the low end of the camera market wiped out. Today’s high end pro DSLR’s are not simple any more. It can take forever to know and use each and every feature these photographic computers have. And, their prices are going up. The Canon 5D mkIII is considerably more expensive than the mk II and so on.
Customers will not pay anybody to show up at their wedding with a smart phone. They expect a real photographer. So show will count for everything at the pro level.
And last but not least, with significant skill required to operate and significant investment to buy the equipment the “Barrier to Entry" is back.
Professionals can and must take better pictures. In fact that’s always been the case. You can’t turn out work like Walmart and charge boutique prices. You’re either good or gone. The “also rans” won't even bother to make the effort to get in the market.
Resistance to change is a fundamental flaw of human nature. In the 80’s my mentor pointed out how the biggest studios of the 50’s and 60’s failed to adapt and one by one they all disappeared. The same is happening today. Photographers still trying to do what was working over the last ten years will all disappear unless they adapt. New technology, new customer buying habits, pricing trends and so on all have to be fluid and change with the times.
I think the market has hit a new turning point back in favor of the professional photographer. I’ll bet the next three decades are as good as or better than the last for the group of pros that “figure it out”.
If I was starting over today, my strategy would be:
- High end modern gear
- Lots of lighting equipment (good lighting is what smart phones don’t have)
- Dedicated to learning current styles
- Marketing that reaches Gen Y and Gen Z
We're poised for a come back baby 🙂
So get off your butt and start kicking some.