No Safe Havens for the Photo Industry in 2009


The world economy, as we can all see, is not doing well. Between massive layoffs and the beginning of a deflationary trend in the United States, all signs point toward catastrophic changes ahead. What does it mean for the photo industry? Let’s take a look and make some predictions.

Non-Essential Costs

The first places that photo agencies and image buyers will cut are so-called non-essential costs. Trade shows, reunions, festivals, awards — all will see a dramatic drop in attendance. Already, National Geographic in the United States and PICTA in Germany have been canceled. Two reasons for this: they will not find sponsors and they will not be able to book enough presence.

More shows will follow. The ones probably hurt most will be photojournalism shows, as on both sides of the market, creators and users, there is no more money. Visa Pour L’image in Perpignan will certainly will see a huge decline in its attendance, especially from U.S. participants, as the cost of attending is rising every year, with no tangible return. Others, like PACA, or even CEPIC, will be greatly impacted for the same reasons.

The only shows that might survive are the ones that get image buyers and sellers together, like Picturehouse. But the attendance might be only local, as everyone else will continue to save on travel costs.

Bean Counters Rule

When times get tough, companies tend to rely on their finance departments for help. Thus, creative management is replaced by bean-counting management. For some unknown reason (also known as the turtle reaction), companies no longer look at what will make them more money, but rather what will save them money.

This will accelerate the adoption of subscription-based licensing, as it makes it easier for everyone to manage and budget. Agencies working only with freelance photographers on a commission basis will try to follow — until they realize it is cost-prohibitive. Which will be too late.

Smart businesses will see this as an opportunity, as failing agencies will hit the market for a bargain price. Some will be great opportunities; other will be rotten fruit. Either way, there will be more consolidation.

All image buyers will rush to budget photography. If you thought microstock did well in 2008, just wait until 2009. No one will care so much about great photography, or at least not enough to matter. Any image with a good price will do the job. Since more freelance photographers will hit the market after being laid off their staff jobs, the supply will not be lacking.

Even the Paparazzi Will Suffer

Even assignment and wedding photography will be hurt. First, because companies will reduce their marketing dollars and not spend them on a professional CEO headshot (especially since the husband of the marketing VP is unemployed and has this cool Canon 5D Mark II he bought before being laid off). Others will be happy to do assignment work for free if they can keep the licensing rights. Ex-newspaper staffers will join the growing ranks of wedding photographers and will depress prices.

There is also the looming SAG strike. The SAG is the Screen Actors Guild, and every single movie star is a member. About 75 percent of SAG’s membership is already out of work, so they couldn’t care less if they went on strike. That would create havoc on the editorial celebrity world, one of the last healthy places for photography.

No more premieres, no more red carpet, no more award shows. Some photo agencies only cover those. It would be a catastrophic blow to them. Others might push their photographers into the street to chase the celebrities, doubling the already overwhelming number of paparazzi in the streets. Besides the fights among them, accidents with celebrities will happen and laws will pass. It is already an oversaturated market, so prices there, as elsewhere, will plummet.

In other words, there are no safe havens. I’m afraid 2009 is not a pretty picture for the photo industry.


3 Responses to “No Safe Havens for the Photo Industry in 2009”

  1. Wow that makes scary reading!

    I have noticed booking for next year have been quiet for 2009 weddings but have had a few inquiries before Christmas.

    Wedding photographers at the top end of the market have not noticed any real changes in their market. So I think there will be winners and losers but those that get through will have a really strong business for the future.

  2. I can see your glass is half full.

    National Geographic Seminar is canceled due to contract negotiations more than economy http://nppa.org/news_and_events/news/2008/12/seminar.html

    While the economy is the worst in years, this is the time where so many are competing for so little. How do you pick which photographer when the line is deep for each job? Many will choose price as you have stated. This is the way US car manufacturers think. I believe this is why they are in such trouble. People have continued to spend more for foreign made vehicles because they are consistently better built.

    I believe many of those buying photography are still like me when I bought my two Toyota vehicles--they bought for quality so they didn't have problems.

    I think the key is to realize for the most part photography is a luxury for the buyer so often. People still will pay top dollar for a good diamond and are still buying luxury cars.

    I think the key is to do good quality work and promote your features which make you a better buy. If you have the same kind of work as the guy down the street--then your glass is not just half empty, but in this economy you are going to be changing careers.

  3. Sounds worse than it is. Talented photographers will always thrive, but that is rather the exception than the rule. A lot of the way we are used to do business will change very briskly forcing many of us to leave the industry. But I agree with Pat, those who will survive will grow stronger.
    Stanley: how can people perceive photography as a luxury item when prices have fallen so low ? There has to be more than just snapshots for it to be perceived as a high value item. Unbelievable Creativity, exquisite customer relationship, and so one. what would you add ?

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