Last week in a post on Black Star Rising, Paul Melcher asked, “Are You Carving a Photography Niche – or Digging Your Career in a Hole?” He argued that instead of trying to find an undiscovered niche, photographers should “shoot what they love” and make their niche “talent” — something “no one can copy.”
I agree with Paul that finding an undiscovered niche is not the answer, but I’m afraid shooting what you love — with or without talent — is not the answer, either.
An Oversupply Issue
There is a huge oversupply of high-quality stock imagery on every conceivable subject that photographers “love to shoot.” Even if a photographer were to manage to produce something that is great and somewhat unique (within a high-demand category), that image likely would be buried among hundreds of other similar images.
The problems are twofold. First, customers will never agree that a particular image is the best of its genre. There will be differences of opinion, with different customers spending their money on different images. Second, oversupply is already great, and there is no way to limit additional images entering the market.
When I raised these issues in a comment on Paul’s post, his response was as follows:
If shooting what you love with talent is not the answer, then I wonder what is. Your analysis of the stock photo market presupposes that it is similar to making widgets. In other words, that photography fills an existing demand. If that was true, you would be 100% correct. However, photographs can create their own demand. That is what I am writing about here.
Paying Customers Create Demand
Can photographs really create their own demand?
Possibly. But I would argue that it is very rare for an image to create its own demand — for someone to say, “I have to find a way to use that photograph simply because it exists.”
Photographers may not like to think of making images as similar to “making widgets,” as Paul puts it, but there are similarities.
To make money today, the photographer must first find a paying customer who has a need, and then find a way to fulfill that need. You can’t just shoot pictures and hope someone will buy them.
Photographers could make good money shooting stock on speculation in the 1990s, when there was more demand than supply. Now, supply far exceeds demand, and shooting on speculation no longer works anywhere near as well as it once did.
To provide some perspective on what photographers are up against, consider that PhotoShelter hosts the archives of more than 65,000 contributors, totaling over 50 million images — and this number is growing by more than 100,000 images per month.
When Shooting What You Love Pays Off
Last month, I attended an interesting seminar by Paula Lerner at PhotoPlus Expo. Lerner earned an Emmy for her six-part multimedia series “Behind The Veil” about women in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The work is excellent — and a labor of love.
But she was paid almost nothing for its use.
However, the project did help Lerner earn a series of well-paying multimedia production shoots for Boston University, as well as a number of other projects.
Sometimes, photographers can shoot what they love with an eye to earning future work. In such cases, what is invested in time, energy and money is, in essence, part of their promotional budget. Generally, though, it is unrealistic to expect to sell such work for enough to realize a profit.
You can’t expect your work — however good it is — to create its own demand. You’ve got to find customers, learn what they need, and then deliver it.