Only a few decades ago, photography was dominated by film cameras, where each and every photograph you took cost money and time to develop. To accumulate 10,000 hours of shooting experience under one’s belt was prohibitively expensive, so only those truly dedicated to the craft were able to excel. The divide between the quality of amateur and professional was fairly distinct. Fast forward to today, and we now have a world where photographers can take thousands of pictures without ever incurring any additional cost, making quality photography more accessible than ever before. Also, with digital photography, feedback about a photo is instantaneous, which only serves to accelerate the learning curve. And with the proliferation of photo-sharing sites like Flickr, photographers can share, critique and comment on their photographs and technique, which makes everyone involved a better photographer.
These advances have greatly disrupted a previously solid industry. Last year, after producing it for 74 years, Kodak retired Kodachrome film. Likewise, microstock photography sites like iStockPhoto have undermined the stock photography business model so much so as to incur comparisons of its business to pollution and drug dealing. The microstock business has been buoyed by a the increase in supply of new photographers — and as with any market where the supply is increased, price is driven downwards. Stock photography that used to cost thousands of dollars a year for a single photo now can cost as little as $1 for a royalty-free license. Furthermore, with the decline of newspapers and magazines, fewer photographers are being sent out on assignment. As a result, professional photographers are starting to feel the squeeze on all sides, and many are now struggling to make a living. Some professional photographers criticize amateurs for agreeing to the low prices. Photographer Matt Eich claims:
“People that don’t have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don’t feel the need to charge a reasonable rate,”
Unfortunately, “making a living” is not a reason to charge a certain price for any good or service. The price is set at what the market will bear, so in this case, the flood of supply and shrinking demand exerts downward pressure on the market. Hobbyists have nothing to do with it.
Advances in technology create new opportunities. The printing press probably made many scribes unhappy with their job security, but it also made the printed word more accessible to everyone and also created a new class of craftsmen who were needed to operate the printing presses. Likewise, with billions of photographs uploaded to the internet each day, looking at and sharing photographs has now become a daily endeavor for many people, as compared to a once-in-awhile event when people dragged out their photo albums. Microstock has made stock photography accessible to many more people who were previously priced out of the market. According to Getty CEO Jonathan Klein:
In 2005, Getty Images licensed 1.4 million preshot commercial photos. Last year, it licensed 22 million — and “all of the growth was through our user-generated business”
As for the photographers, there’s still a viable business for those that can adapt their businesses to reflect the changing landscape. Sure, the magazine industry may be flagging, but magazine production costs are also falling with services like MagCloud, and enterprising photographers are taking matters into their own hands and producing their own. Furthermore, new publications like Burn and JPG have emerged to take advantage of this new crop of seasoned photographers. Some photographers have even embraced the entrepreneurial spirit with their own ventures. Photojournalist Lauren Victoria Burke started WDCPIX, a photographic wire service for sites that can’t afford a traditional wire service. For only $260 a month clients have access to a wide range of photojournalistic sources, much cheaper than AP or Getty. But, what’s interesting is that subscribers of WDCPIX are actually paying for Burke’s work that has not yet created, one of the “10 Good Reasons To Buy” that we’ve discussed here many times before. So, apparently, even for photographers, the mantra of CwF+RtB applies as well.