The Business of Photography - The Root Of The Problem

The Business of Photography - The Root of the Problem 

written by Barry for Exel Photography

 There are few people who will dispute the fact that the world of photography is changing. In fact it's changing so fast that it can be challenging to keep up. Most of these changes are for the better but because of advancing technology some of these changes are having a negative impact on professional photographers and how we conduct business. This includes both seasoned photographers and those just starting out. With that said, from my point of view, the single biggest problem that our industry is facing is our societies changing view or rather it’s perception of what we as photographers and the photographs that we create are worth. In the end anyone’s value is what it’s perceived as by others. It's most certainly not what we would choose to value it at ourselves. Because of this our value, overall, has dropped dramatically.

When I Grow Up

So many people see photography as a potential source of income that we are inundated by people trying to earn extra income from their photos. This is happening because it’s now so easy to create decent photographs and not only get reasonably acceptable results but those results are instantaneous. It’s important to point out that growth of an industry isn’t a bad thing. In fact it’s a good thing. There are always people and business that will want and need photographs. This simple fact alone allowed me of all people to join the ranks of working photographers. Trust me when I say that’s an astonishing feat all by its self. Though I have always loved making pictures it never once occurred to me that there were actually people out there that might be interested in licensing even one my photos. This statement alone brings us back to perception and how perception adversely affects our industry. With that in mind I am going to bore you with a prime example of how that perception has changed. I’m going to tell you a little story about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Believe it or not this short story is an excellent example of how perception about photographers has changed. When I was a young and in high school like so many others I was confused about “What I wanted I to be when I grew up.” In my case there were two things. I either wanted to be a naval architect and design boats and ships or I wanted to be a photographer. Oh yeah, those two choices were certainly alike! Hey, I was young and confused so give me a break! Anyway, on one hand I wanted to go to the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD. On the other I wanted to take pictures of stuff. As many of you know there are only 4 appointments to the Naval Academy from each state each year. Even if I were to receive an appointment to the academy I’d need to qualify for the School of Naval Architecture. This was quite a lofty goal for any young man/boy and though it would be a challenge I saw it as reasonably attainable. After all, someone would be chosen. Why not me? Next, I wanted to be a photographer. In my mind this was just a pipe dream. It was a grand notation but it was not a realistic or attainable goal. Photographers were creative people who had natural talent that I simply didn’t possess. As a serious hobbyist and having a decent eye for the craft did not qualify me to join the ranks of working photographers. Can anyone tell me why I felt this way? Well, the answer was really quite simple. It’s because photographers were gods and who dares ask to join the ranks of the gods! Looking back over the last 30 plus years I now see many flaws in my own twisted perception of the facts. Most of all, I can also assure you that there is nothing even remotely god like about me. This does however show how our perception has changed. Although my own notion about working photographers was slightly exaggerated it wasn’t so far off the mark from the perception of the general population of my day. Oh my, has that perception changed. And that change is the root of the problem facing our industry today.

Who Is To Blame

In the most basic terms there are two factors that have changed the way that our society as a whole views photographers and our photographs that has caused the decline in our value. One is the ease with which anyone can now create a photo. New technology and good quality glass is readily available to anyone willing to invest a few bucks. Editing software like Adobe Photoshop is also there for the taking. Anyone who chooses can simply download it without the need of investing in a license. Photoshop is and has been one of the most pirated software titles out there. That however is a whole new can of worms that we shall not explore here today. Anyway, because of the ease in which the average user can now create a reasonably acceptable photograph it's often assumed that there is little or no difference between armatures and professionals. In fact there often isn’t. Many amateurs are amazingly skilled individuals and I only wish I had half their talent. Even so that doesn’t mean that every hobbyist out there can consistently produce acceptable photographs. This leads us to the second and most pressing reason that we as photographers have lost value. In short we, as a group, have done it to ourselves and despite all the crying and complaining we have no one to blame but ourselves. In this digital world so much has changed and there are many who think that they have what it takes but to get their name out there they will give away their photos for practically nothing or in the case of publication often license their photos for free. This has always been a problem but these days it's done more so than ever before. Vanity publishing is run amuck. The fact that Newspapers and TV Stations no longer have to employ a large staff of photographers because people will simply shoot and upload photos with their iPhones is a great example. Why on earth pay for a service that you are getting for free? Most photographers will say. “But the quality isn't the same.” True enough but if the papers and TV stations cared about quality over price they would be hiring photographers rather than letting them go. Their readers don't care about quality. They want to read the story and want to see the shot. It’s as simple as that. If I am on location of a grand disaster it’s almost certain that I will not license a photo of that disaster to any local paper. No matter how compelling the photo or how well composed, No matter how close and how much detail. Before I can get any well-chosen photograph to the paper they have already chosen an iPhone shot for free of charge that is ready to run. It may be from a quarter mile back and show little if any of the real story but they have it and it didn't cost them a dime. In turn this is changing the perception that our society has on photographers and the value of what we create. Potential photographers think "if" I do it it's just me. It's not going to harm the industry. But it does and it has. Or, more often than not they could care less as such a thing as damaging the industry they want to be part of never even enters their mind. They are only concerned with here and now. Tomorrow and how it affects all of is isn’t even a consideration. It has become so common place for photographers to give their work away that our much or our society has come to expect it from us. In the case of publication many will photographers will jump at the chance to see “their name in lights.” As it’s more important for them to get “exposure” than compensation that it’s now accepted by many potential or would be clients that we as photographers must somehow do what we do only for love and passion. We obviously have no need to feed our families or keep a roof over our head. I can only assume that some potential clients think that these things magically appear! If for example, every burger place I walked into just handed over a paper sack stuffed with Whoppers and McNasty burgers I’d come to expect it as well. When the day came that I was asked to compensate a burger joint for my usual sack of burgers I’d also be surprised that they didn’t just hand it over like always. I'd decline their generous offer to sale me a burger and go back to the place that just handed it over for free.

Real World Examples

I have two clear-cut examples of this problem. One happened to me. Well, I’ve been asked to work for cheap or free so often that I’ve lost track of who and when but one case really stands out in my mind. Anyway, In August of 2009 I was asked to shoot a project that a local bike shop wanted to submit to Easy Rider Magazine. We set down and talked about what we needed to do. It was decided that I would cast for models and have a small selection of them come in for a go see, or casting call. The owner of the shop and I would choose the most likely candidate from the casting call and then schedule the date for the shoot. After the shoot I would select and edit the best images and provide them to the client. From there they would submit the photos and story to Easy Ryder for consideration. Since the client had been published in the magazine before they were well aware that it would benefit them and get them a great deal of exposure. They were willing to pay the model reasonably well for her services. This was whether their submission was accepted or not. Me? They had no idea in hell that for the casting, the photography or the post work that I would require any kind of compensation at all. I mean, it never crossed their mind that I wouldn’t just do it for exposure or for all I knew just for fun! I can only guess that it completely slipped their mind that I fed my family with photographs and the same way they feed their family by customizing bikes and selling black t-shirts with eagles on them! It should be pointed out that these people were not monsters. They were not swindlers or bad people in anyway. They had however always had “photographers” do this for them for nothing just to see their name in lights. It was assumed that everyone worked that way and paying a photographer a handsome fee for all that was involved was simply not in their budget. It wasn’t even something they have considered! The bottom line is they had always gotten their sack of burgers for free and there was no reason for them to expect otherwise! Needless to say I didn’t accept the assignment but who is to blame for the clients notion that I’d work for free? Was it the potential client or the previous photographers that had set this precedent? I say it’s the photographers. It is us as a group who have allowed this sort of thing to happen and be accepted as the norm. Regardless of how and why this has happened there is, even as I type this story, a grand billboard that sets on the interstate just north of where I live. On this billboard is a beautifully done photo of a girl on a bike advertising that bike shop. I can’t help but wonder if the photographer that snapped that photo worked for free just to see his photo on that billboard. Perhaps, perhaps not who is to say. The only thing I know for a sure is that I wasn’t one of the photographers called to quote on the job. There is another case involving another of our local photographers that was so ridicules that it just has to be shared with everyone here. Though it’s rather involved I’ll not get into it more than to say that a photographer was asked by a multimillion dolor business that literally spends millions of dollars in advertising a year to license his photo for one of their ad campaigns. When examining the usage, print run and potential of this campaign a fair market licensing fee for the photo would have easily been in the thousands of dollars and could have come to as much as $45,000+ in a media buyout. In the end the client, if you can call them that, said “We don’t pay for photos.” Why is it that a large corporation that can afford millions of dollars to get their name out there can’t afford fair market value to license the intellectual property that they want to use for their ads? Why weren’t they even willing to negotiate a reduced rate? The answer is simple. They don’t have to. They know very well that there will be another photographer just around the corner that will be more than willing to license their photograph for nothing just to say “look at me.” “Look what I did!” when in fact they should be saying “Look at me. I’m a sucker and not only did I take food off of your table I have screwed every photographer and future photographer out by happily contributing to a rapidly deteriorating situation.

There Is Still Hope

It is important to point out that there are good clients out there. There are still good contracts to be won. But make no mistake things are changing and since we as photographers have created this problem for ourselves it is unlikely that we will be able to take back what we have already given away. Last but not least there are many photographers out there that say things like “the cream rises to the top” or “Those with real talent will succeed and need not worry about such things.” In some ways this is true. At the same time no matter who you are in the world of photography, what you do or who you do it for if you think for one min that you will not be affected by this new turn of events you have a big ass surprise headed your way. Sooner or later it's going catch up to all of us.

  Barry Kidd Photography


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