Can Photographs Create Their Own Demand?

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.

10 Responses to “Can Photographs Create Their Own Demand?”

  1. One thing I've learned over time is that if you carefully choose your subject you can have images ready for pending demand. An example of this is Ken Light with his immigration work in his book "With These Hands". The book came out in 1986 and the political cycle of immigration debate always generates demand for his work. Subject selection is important when thinking about demand. I spoke with Ken about this in my podcast and recommend listening to it to hear is approach. Predicting demand can be done with greater frequency if thoughtfully done, but creating demand with work you love sounds rather pie in the sky.

  2. I think it is short-sighted to shoot only what you think will sell. First, because you don't know with any degree of certainty what sells and what doesn't. Second, and more important, because, as an artist, what you should be trying to create is a demand for yourself. Maybe photographs don't create demand, but photographers do. This is done by producing outstanding work, which is awfully difficult if you don't love what you are shooting. Of course, that approach may not work that well if you view yourself as a producing of widgets 🙂

  3. im, That is exactly what is killing photography today. People like you who think that they are selling cement : The belief that creative photography can be summed up into a perfect set of rules and regulations, numbers and equations. You think in terms of filling holes. What is wrong with your thinking is that you assume that buyers demand is unilateral. In other words, for two, or ten people needing a picture of a toothbrush, they will all go for the same image. However, it is not the case. Although they might have a need for an identical subject matter, they will fulfill it in a variation of ways. Your analysis also ignores the editorial market. Most publications will publish images without even knowing the day before they even existed, nor having requested them. Actually, maybe 90% of their content, including online , Ipad, etc is made of photographs that they couldn't have possibly asked for 24 hours before. Thus the images create the demand. "To make money they will first need to find a customer who has a need and then find a way to fulfill that need." you writes. And how, may I ask, do you achieve this? Finally, If you don't beleive you can create a demand with your photographs, then I wonder why you or anyone becomes a photographer.

    PS : Please stop posting this article everywhere you can. It is getting very disturbing.

    Paul Melcher

  4. Photography is largely fueled by the passion and creativity of a photographer. Large number of images being produced should not be seen as economically damaging to the profession but instead as a sign of untapped creative potential that people want to bring to life. Photography is a channel to bring out that creative potential.

    Though these are some of the most challenging economic times for a photographer, there is no reason to think it will continue like this or get worse. The sheer extent of participation in photography from image makers, platform builders, tool manufacturers and software developers is only an indication of enormous interest and support to the art of photography. As photographers we need to first support photography... the rest will follow.

  5. Recently I posted an image on my blog; A friend of mine tweeted me and asked to buy a print of it.

    I don't overtly sell my images on my website. I'm not really set up to process orders in large scale. So I'd have to say that yes, the image itself created its own demand, based on its own merits. That sparked the desire in my friend. She asked to buy a print.

    Considering objects don't have the capacity to demand, the demand came from my friend. But if the picture hadn't been taken, if it had stayed on my hard drive, if she didn't care for it, there would have been no demand.

    So yes, I'd say that photographs can create their own demand. Sometimes just by being seen and enjoyed by your friends.


  6. Your both right! It's time to move on and offer helpful suggestion for photographers to make their way in a crowded marketplace. Jim, it takes talent to be successful in this business. Paul, it takes a brain to position yourself and understand the marketplace. I use myself as an example. I was a photojournalist. The demand for my work was created by the newspapers I worked for and the "news" happening in the region. But there was no way I could freelance successfully for a large newspaper without the talent to photograph these events well and make beautiful photographs. My aspirations to be a successful photojournalist ended when the market imposed it's own demands (buyouts) that prohibited me from making additional income from the work in the stock photography market and when I decided I didn't want to lead a monastic lifestyle. To continue working I needed a brain to determine where my talent could be applied successfully, a photography niche which has turned into a 6 figure income. Bottom line, today's successful photographers must be both talented and smart. They must apply their talent to a niche and they CAN create a demand for their work. (It's not like there aren't a few hundred other photographers in my area willing to photograph weddings) Further, the freedom I enjoy now allows me to think about how my work is shaping itself and what direction I may want to go creatively in the years to come. Be nice to each other. Give each other a break for once. It's a difficult time for aspiring professionals and may of them look to you to show them the way.

  7. I believe every serious photographer already has its own niche, otherwise they won't exists as full time photographers anymore.

    I totally agree with QT!

  8. "To make money today, the photographer must first find a paying customer who has a need,"

    Maybe what you love to shoot with talent is a need they haven't recognized yet. It's your job to point it out...

    I actually feel that I'm in the middle of this on a couple of fronts right now.

  9. There are multiple business models in the world of photography and current economic conditions and technological developments effect each model differently.

    1. Fine Art photography seems the least changed, subject only to collector and gallery demand and the economic downturn. Fine art images are singularly expressions of an individual photographer vision and creativity.

    2. Commissioned photography is fundamentally a service profession providing technical expertise and creative vision to corporations and agencies (and also to consumers for weddings and portraits). These are people who cannot produce their own photographs and so rely on professional photographer. I'm not sure how broad a decline there is in commissioned work, aside from the obvious effects of the economic recession, although there is certainly encroachment from amateurs (art directors with cameras, soccer moms, friends and relatives.)

    3. Editorial and documentary photography can be seen as collaborative storytelling, with publishers writers and photographers cooperating to cover news and features. The downturn here seems to be severe, primarily due to the movement away from print to online and the subsequently economic stress on publishers.

    4. Speculative stock photography is far and away the model most dramatically effected both by economics and technology. By definition stock imagery is a commodity market where images are chosen one at a time, solely based on their visual content, to be incorporated into the photo buyers own message or product (perhaps you could call it a consumable market). I agree with Jim that the vast oversupply of images due to wide open distribution channels and the entry of amateurs and semipros into the market has hurt stock photography and it will only get worse. The same $1.5B spent worldwide on stock imagery is now being spread among vastly more images and photographers and prices have dropped precipitously. At the same time there still are many images being licensed, so for photographers wanting to make money in speculative stock both talent and a keen understanding of photo buyers needs and desires is key.

    Even more important, though, I suspect, is the ability for a photographer to get his/her stock imagery onto a photo buyer's desk. Often there are many images that might fit a need, but it is those most easily and immediately available that get licensed. Front page placement on Getty search results will thus be much more rewarding than cleverly targeted but hard-to-find niche imagery.

    Obscurity may be a greater threat than lack of talent.

  10. My opinion is that success as a photographer can now only come by fostering relationships. If people or businesses like and trust you they'll use you, regardless of whether you're a genius or just someone that can meet the brief. Oversupply of both images and photographers is definitely the problem. But there's a severe under-supply of great business relationships.

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