A simple look back through the years shows the importance of photography and the influence it has had not only on culture but also history. Would we know and understand about different cultures or the fragility of our planet without photos? Or the atrocities of wars? But as we boldly head deeper into the technological world, a question that has been around for a few years needs to be examined again, is professional photography a dying art?
What Is Professional Photography?
I recently met a colleague of mine who is also a travel photographer. The conversation soon moved onto this topic. What is a professional photographer these days? In the traditional sense, a professional in any profession is someone who earns the majority of their income from their chosen field, in this case, photography. But is that still true today? Sure, the majority of people out there still earn their income from their sole profession but there is also an increasing number of photographers who are now venturing into other fields. So, does this mean that the whole notion of professional photography is changing?
Many professional photographers are now increasingly finding themselves in a situation where they have to venture into other areas of photography. For example, a travel photographer I know has started to venture more into short films and writing. Many have taken to teaching and are running workshops or even guiding photo tours as their primary income. So, the question remains, are these still professional photographers?
What’s the Issue?
The big issue for photographers started with the introduction of giant stock libraries like Getty and Alamy. These photography stock sites allowed clients to purchase photos at a cost that is far less than having to commission photographers. Suddenly an art director could purchase exactly the images that he or she needed quickly and efficiently.
But the game really changed when the microstock libraries such as Shutterstock were launched. These websites sold images for cents rather than dollars. At first, the quality of the images was not great and so good photographers still had that edge. But as the photographs that these sites sold became better, it eroded that edge that traditional stock photo sites had. Clients soon realised that they could get good photos for a lot less than on the likes of Getty and Alamy. Now, this issue of stock photography has moved to an even more extreme example. There are now sites that offer completely free stock shots.
The bigger picture
The bigger impact on the whole industry of the availability of cheaper stock photos (and free ones) meant falling of prices. This meant even traditional rights-managed stock sites began to have to compete with the microstock sites. Their only solution was to reduces their prices. This has got to an extent where most stock photographers could not now only rely on income from stock sales.
Add to this mix the fact that digital cameras became more affordable and also the rise in the quality of smartphones. All of which meant there was an oversaturated market (i.e. too many photos) and not enough demand. So, whereas a photographer might receive $400 twenty-five years ago for a prominent photo like a front cover, now they might receive $100.
But it isn’t just stock photography that has been affected. More affordable cameras have meant more people deciding to take up photography either as a hobby or as a profession. This has meant far more competition and also a rise in people agreeing to do “free work” for exposure which in the long term is bad news for the industry.
One genre of photography that has seen a big impact of this is wedding photography. A former wedding photographer recently told me “that it was no longer viable for him to shoot weddings because prices had fallen so much”. So he either has to reduce his prices so much that he can compete with other photographers, or change his area of work.
This doesn’t seem to have a happy ending for any photographer. Prices will continue to fall as more and more agencies are having to cut their prices to compete with each other (and the free sites). More people will offer to work for free, which in turn means clients expect it more often. Better and cheaper smartphones mean anyone can take photos and sell them or give them away for free.
So, is professional photography a dying art? At the moment all of the evidence points to a world where there will be no professional photographer in the traditional sense. Anyone who was classed as a professional photographer will now have to juggle that with other means of income. In other words, ultimately photographers will become content creators who have to also be able to write, make videos and movies and become marketing and social media experts. Whether this is where the industry ends up, only time will tell…
Photo credits: Kav Dadfar – All rights reserved. No usage without permission. Dreamstime.