Sorry, Photography Students, But It’s Time to Find Something Else to Do

[Jim Pickerell’s new e-book “Secrets To Building A Successful Photography Career” is available at a discount to Black Star Rising readers. Just enter the coupon code “BlackStarRising” to get $5 off.]

An open letter to photography student Emily Chow:

After reading your story, “To Succeed in Photography, Today’s Students Must Chart Their Own Course,” I have mixed emotions.

Determination in the face of overwhelming obstacles is admirable. But it saddens me that photo schools are preparing students for a hobby, not a career.

A Hobby, Not a Career

You say that photographers are advising you to “Stay out of the business,” but they are “still taking photos” and that gives you some comfort that you too can build a career in photography or photojournalism. Keep in mind that the reason many photographers are still taking photos and still hanging on is that they haven’t been able to identify any better options for making a living. They were trained to do one thing and aren’t prepared to do anything else.

This leaves them with two options. Get new training in a totally different field and then try to get a job in that new career, or try to hang on as long as possible at what they have been doing, hoping they’ll be able to earn enough to support their families before all the jobs disappear or they are ready to retire. Many are choosing to hang on because the other option isn’t easy or a sure thing either.

In the case of young people just starting out, “adapting to change” should mean recognizing that the demand for professionally produced still photos is declining, and then figuring out how you will earn a living doing something other than photography.

I’m assuming that earning a living is your goal, rather than just having a hobby that you enjoy. A lot of people get satisfaction from doing photography part-time and earning a living at some other full-time career. If that’s your aim, you probably should be focusing on plans for that full-time career.

Like It or Not, Things Change

Sure, you can invest time in your photography, too. You’ll be able to sell pictures occasionally and probably earn enough to cover your expenses; just don’t expect much more than that. There’s only a small chance you’ll be able to earn a living from still photography in the future.

There always will be exceptions, of course. There will be a few people who do well, but their numbers will be a lot less in five years than they are today, or than they were 10 or more years ago. As a career, photography is in serious decline.

If you think this can’t happen, think about aerospace engineering and what a big deal it was in the 1960s (I know that was before you were born), and how many of those who devoted their careers to it lost their jobs and wound up doing something else entirely.

Or think about all the photographers who used to make a good living just doing darkroom work. They were in the dark all day with their hands in developer and fixer. Dodging and burning were real skills. Where are they now?

Beyond Camera Work

If you are still determined to be a photographer, then look to video and storytelling more than stills. Develop all the necessary skills including writing, graphics, gathering appropriate sound, editing and story development. Don’t just focus on camera work.

Our society is moving rapidly from a period where the still image was king to a point where virtually all information and entertainment will be on video devices that need motion, sound, narration and a compelling story to communicate information.

The producers who can bring all these elements together and sell, or find funding for, such projects will be the future winners. Everyone else will be technicians — small cogs in the production machine — and earning technician wages.

Get educated on what is happening with iPads and other tablet devices and consider how they are going to impact the kind of visual information that will be needed. Photography is just one aspect of the communication business, and a declining one.

What skills will communicators need in the future? Look at the education business and the use of electronic whiteboards, for example. How will they change the demand for visual materials in education?

A Look at Your Career Options

If you can find one — and they are rare — look for a staff job with a guaranteed salary. Most photographers are self-employed, and that provides very little security.

If your goal is to somehow work with pictures, consider the support services rather than shooting. Be one of those who takes the raw material (photographs) and turns them into a marketable product. Many people supplying support services to photographers earn more than the photographers themselves.

If you are trying to make photography a career, then it is an absolute necessity that you study business and marketing. Most successful photographers spend 80 percent of their time in marketing, business development and operating their business. They are lucky if they spend more than 20 percent of their time behind the camera.

You say your friend is taking photographs for Shop Evanston. How much is he being paid for those pictures? What are his expenses? How many hours does he spend producing those images and what is he earning per hour of actual work? Assuming that Shop Evanston can’t afford to pay any photographer a full-time salary, how easy will it be for him to get other part-time work that enables him to earn enough to support himself?

You will find that even very experienced photographers who have one or two good part-time contracts find it very difficult to string a lot of small projects together so there is no down time between jobs. Down time is the killer. It is possible to make good money on certain jobs for a limited amount of effort. But the down time between jobs eats away all that extra profit.

It is relatively easy to find people who want to use your pictures, so I’m not surprised that some of your friends are shooting headshots for theater and film students, shooting for a student fashion magazine or covering fraternity and sorority events. The question is how much are they being paid for these services? My bet is not very much.

Yes, they are doing it to polish their skills and build a portfolio. But it is a huge leap to go from receiving little or no money for your work to getting paid a reasonable fee for what you do.

Timing Is Everything

The major problem still photographers face is that technology has advanced to the point where virtually everyone can produce acceptable pictures for their needs, without the aid of a professional photographer. That’s why people hire professionals less often and want to pay them less than they did in the past.

I was one of the lucky ones who entered the photography business when the demand for professionally produced still photography was on the rise.

My first major image sale was a Life Magazine cover on the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. Back in 1963, a Life cover was a big deal (Black Star, incidentally, negotiated that sale.) There is nothing like being fortunate enough to start at the top.

Looking back, I’ve had a successful career. But timing is everything, and this is not the time to launch a still photography career.

Study photography business trends. It’s not just about the technical skills, as important as they are. Check out my e-book “Secrets To Building A Successful Photography Career.” Analyze the statistics and you’ll understand what’s really happening in the photography industry.

One last thing. Don’t show this story to your mom or dad. They may wonder what they’ve been paying for.

73 Responses to “Sorry, Photography Students, But It’s Time to Find Something Else to Do”

  1. Very interesting - all of it.

    I'm not a pro photographer but a teacher and one thing I think is becoming endemic in the world today is this notion that 'youth' is best and 'Older' people don't get the modern world.

    There is the notion that young people are more innovative, creative, tech-savvy and energetic. It is bullshit. Just as there are 'old' "gramps" (cheeky b*****d) who are innovative, creative, tech-savvy and hard working, there are young people lazy, bland, clueless and talentless.

    LISTEN to Jim and Emily then do what is right for you.

    I do think JIm has a bit of a cheek advertising his book though.

  2. Still photography will always have a place and a market. There are messages and moments that video can never capture, the still photo is not dying. Just because video is trending we don't all have to run off and change our product. Photography is growing in my mind and there is always room for new talent. Maybe this dinosaur needs to stop taking photos and shoot some videos before he is extinct, but im sticking with stills.

  3. Unfortunately, I agree with Jim. BCvid is my video production business, and clients come to me thirsty for the rich media experience of video. It is, in my opinion, the new frontier.

    That said, I'm writing several scripts and producing short films regularly to develop myself as a writer/director and future proof myself against the over saturation of video production. Good storytelling will NEVER go out of style.

  4. This is very BAD and UNINFORMED advice! I really fear for anyone who has taken it! This is only the experience of someone who themselves have found that they are not able to keep up!

  5. Ben Cornelius says "video is, in my opinion, the new frontier".
    Actually Ben, that's what my old boss was saying in 1982, almost 30 years ago!!!

  6. OMG.. if he wrote his book like he wrote this article it must be very informative for who really want to be "successful photographer".... It is said.

    Personally, before to think about if he is right or wrong in the "idea" of what he wrote, the way he did it is so wrong in my opinion.
    You can not say it like this, it's like saying don't try to be a cook because now everyone eat Fast Food.. Or to writers don't write books anymore because everyone is on internet now, everyone can write a book with there computers... etc. anyway you get the point.

    Charles Darwin said : “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

    So, the world is changing all the time and will continu to change (even after we die yes yes !! It's true..), if you want to success adapt yourself to the world you're living. Giving up is frustrating. Failing is what everyone experienced is there life, it's normal, life is hard, work is hard etc.

    We wont create the Fire again, but that's not mean we have nothing interesting to do or create anymore...

    Damn i have no book or e-book to sell.. : ) Sorry

  7. Just about any player in college, pro and even many in high school can dunk a basketball now days.

    Let's raise the goal - so to speak - not lower it.

  8. There are 3 kinds of people in this world.

    1. Those who make things happen.
    2. Those who watch thing happen.
    3. Those who wonder what happened.

    It isn't hard to see what group this author belongs to. The internet is full of people who love to claim that the world is coming to an end. They preach, "Get out now, while the getting is good".

    The reason that they preach this is also easy to see. They either do not have the skills or the required drive to succeed.

    When they see someone succeed, they claim it is somehow magical. Oh they had money. They had a good family. They lived in a good area. They are just lucky. The excuses go on and on.

    Want to be successful? Get out there and do it.

  9. i'm only 30, been doing photography for 10 years.

    i have extreme natural ability, strong PS skills etc, have been published extensively, belong to a major agency etc. I am married, with a child. have friends who work for magnum etc - ya know, it want reality, go ask them how WELL Magnum is doing these days, i dare ya, GO ON, please.

    the TRUTH is, when not view through the fog of idealistic 18-22 year olds - the industry is contracting massively, to earn a FULL TIME living, a mortgage, support your wife and child is becoming damn near impossible today just from photography alone.

    the public, the editors, the ad agencies, just do not VALUE photography, it has become too easy, too simple, too IPHONISH. when something is perceived to be too easy, it is not valued, it is SUPERMARKET level.

    it is great for 19 year olds to say, move aside gramps etc. but you are blinded by your age, your passion - at your age you do not need much to survive, or be satisfied, you dont need to earn 50k a year to survive and live. photography, as a photographer only. is just in not the industry to achieve security in.

    go do communication design, be a designer, much more security and importantly, it is not devalued, as photography now is.

    there is being positive, then there is reality. positivity doesnt pay the bills though.

  10. here some proof, if proof is what you seek:-

  11. Professional photography

    "Professional photographers in Australia have weathered the twin storms of a declining industry and an economy-wide slowdown, and IBISWorld figures reveal 2011 will not be any better.
    “Nearly half of the industry’s revenue is derived from wedding photography and competition is intense with more than 9000 professionals competing for a share of the nuptial pie," Mr Bryant says.
    Lower costs have forced prices down and professional photographers are feeling the impact of the growing popularity of digital SLR cameras which make it easier for amateur enthusiasts to take professional quality pictures,” he says.
    IBISWorld estimates a decline of 1.2 per cent ($10.25 million) for this sector in 2011."

  12. Sad to say this, but I very much agree with you. Certainly in the editorial, PR and advertising markets, I suspect within the next 10 years we will see very few if any full time professionals. The numbers simply don't add up, and it is head in the sand, pie in the sky to think otherwise.

    Take the farming industry. In the 19th century, this was labour intensive and employed many. Now it doesn't owing to modern combine harvesters and modern technology.
    Similary, the job of picture researcher in stock libraries. 20 years ago, there was much work for such people as the client would specify the pictures they needed and the researcher would then go and search through transparencies. This job is now virtually unheard of owing to the advent of online searches via websites.
    Take ship building. Ships used to be constructed using plate and rivets by a large manual labour force. Not any longer owing to modern welding techniques.

    I could go on, but there would be little point. Many industries now are unrecogniseable owing to changes in technology, and photography is no different.

    The next 20 years? There will be a very limited number of high end photographers left who deal exclusively with the upper end of the market.

    Those that still work in editorial, will almost certainly be staff jobs and will probably have to combine the work with writing also, owing to the falling circulation of paper budgets. PR work will almost certainly be near to nil (not necessarily a good thing for quality I might add) as clients will be trying (badly) to do it for themselves. Similar for weddings and advertising. Only those who can command the highest fees will survive. Given the level of competition, there work will not have just to be excellent, it will have to be "exceptional" and that's with more than just their work, but their customer experience also. Portrait photographers will only be able to survive if 1, their work is excellent, and 2, if they have the budget to offer the "luxury studio experience" almost like a day out. The fad of home portrait photography recently will soon die off due to market saturation.

    Its sad, but if this isn't said, I'm afraid we are setting up alot of people to fail, based on the vague inaccuracies of the popular photographic press and colleges.

  13. So...
    Don't become a photographer?
    BUT buy my book on how to become a photographer?

    Why? So I can spend $20 to hear you tell me that you achieved your dreams but that's not possible for me to. You even mentioned yourself that you started out on top because of luck.

    So you lucky. AND humble. What a great combination. I don't need to wast my money buying your book.

    I'll buy a book from someone who's skilled (vs. lucky) and at least doesn't resent my existance as a photographer because I'm squeezing you out of your lucky wealth.

  14. Congratulations to those who are on the "bright-side" of the story. I totally agree. I photograph models from all over the world: from Russia to Brasil and I can tell you that not only I enjoy it, but photography is alive and well. The internet demand for still pictures is totally huge. Websites use more still imagery than any video or moving content. Photos are still the No. 1 sharing medium for "life's precious moments". Video is: difficult to edit, expensive to edit, time-consuming to show and plain difficult to share. Try sharing even one video with your family. In the time you even try you will have shown a few dozen still pictures. Technology has evolved, humans certainly have not.

  15. Interesting write-up. I can agree that the photography business is so saturated. People who are looking for a photographer for their special event are overwhelmed with choices and they usually end up going with the photographer their friends went with, which they liked the photos. I have friends who just started a wedding studio, and almost all their clients are from referrals. It's tough, but I don't believe it's impossible. I am a photographer too, for my website, but it's something I'm doing on the side because I love taking photos.

  16. I think Jim is beyond talking nonsense , he correctly predicted what was going to happen to the Stock Photography industry and how it has impacted photographers supplying this sector.
    Nobody wants to hear bad news about the career that you are working hard towards , so i can understand the anger from some.
    Yes there will still be work for many , but it is way less than it used to be and with tons of photographers joining the industry every year you are going to have to be great , and hopefully you can sustain the energy this requires.
    I sincerely wish all of you aspirant and established photographers all the best and hope you all can live your dreams but it is going to be tough going.

  17. "Yes there will still be work for many , but it is...less than it used to be"

    This is correct, IMO.
    I would guess conservatively, (500) full time stock shooters worldwide net $100K (US $$)commissions annually -- that is before they deduct their overhead.

  18. I don't live in a big market Chicago. I watched my business evaporate over the last 5 years. I tried shooting weddings just to keep going but even there the prices offered by weekend warriors has pretty much put me out of the price range.

    I am leaving the profession after almost 18 years. I am sad to say that there has not been many fond memories. The last few years have been very difficult on my family.

    I just finished an associated degree in Graphic Design , I am looking for a production designer job.....

    I think anyone attempting to go into this business today is certifiable.
    DO SOMETHING ELSE if you can.

  19. The cheap digital SLR has killed the business. Look on places like Craigslist for these "Photographers" advetising photo shoots for $50. You couldn't shoot enough of them in a week to live but they get to say they're a "Professional Photographer". You click on their websites and the work absolutely SUCKS!!! But, people don't care. They're only going to stick their photos up on Facebook anyway. A professional portrait photographer and wedding photographer used to make money off the prints. Nobody buys prints anymore. All they want to do is put them online. Sad but true.

  20. Pickerell- you are simply right on.
    Our local newspaper- the Picayune has spat out all the experienced staff photographers into a commercial market that virtually no longer exists. Most Weddings are shot by hacks that charge 800-$1000 dollars. A few photographers shoot the "boutique" weddings and charge
    4-8K- but boy do they have to work for that money- three days of events, processing over 2K images and of course they expect a second photographer at the reception- so you are training your competition, not an assistant. Sure there are a few markets that still exist- convention photography- but I am getting $75/hr which is what I charged 15 years ago.
    I gave up on the wedding business when it went digital, avoid video like the plague as now even pro videographers say their business has fallen off to nothing with the advent of iphone and ipad videographers. I do mac computer consulting and teach others how to edit their images. I also teach classes and help the MWACs learn how to take pictures on their own kids- further diluting the already declining Seniors and kiddie portrait business. I never did stock, always thought if someone needs an image pay me to take it...of course I knwo a lot of people who are better organized than me and have done well- in the past. This article is a few years old- as far as I know the stock image market has continued on a rapid decline. Perhaps the pendulum will spring back when it is realized there are few high quality images of people wearing the current fashions...

  21. We now live in a world where you no longer have to study for years to be a photographer. All you need to do is buy a DSLR and it will with a little practice do everything for you. Thats why all the images look the same these days.

    Because of this the market is over saturated with photographers and this drives prices down. How on earth can a pro compete when youngsters are offering to do the job for free. They say you need to adapt to survive and I agree, that means doing something other than photography. It's no longer a proper profession.

    Photography is now a job you do if you cant get anything else. For every client there are 60 photographers. It's over.

  22. Well I was just browsing the internet and stumbled upon this article. Just wanted to share s piece of my life in photography. The world of photography has surely changed over the years. I give props to those with photoshop skills but Im a young 21 year old who works unbelievable hard to just take good photos with little or no editing done. I do have a wonderful canon 5d mark ii that Im so blessed to have and is attached to me where ever I go. I have struggled though with other photographers both in my town and out. I didnt decide for sure until my senior year a week before applications for college were due what exactly I wanted to do with my life. I had always set up my own shoots, worked with my moms cameras and fiddled with old film ones but I felt like I had no other choice. I had never been good at math, science, english, etc. Arts were always my strength and where I spent a majority of my time during school hours. For my graduation I received my camera as I mentioned earlier and was in love as soon as it was placed in my hands. I had done some shoots in the past for seniors, couples and occasional children shoots but never was serious. I went to school in Milwaukee at Pecks School of Art for one year and my love for photography grew deeper. I KNEW it was my calling. The summer after school I decided to return home to living with my family since I could no longer afford the school that had taught me so much about myself and what I was meant to do. Since I no longer had the classes I created my own. Constantly reading about photography, amazing photographers in the past and present and broadening my scope on what photography was to me and different techniques as well as appearances of my photographs I was learning non stop. I am proud to say I have NEVER used anything but Manual on my camera and have taught myself a great deal through trail and error. I got an internship with a photographer in my hometown who taught me even more which I was so very grateful for. Getting to see the business side of it all. Yes, so very much work, but I was even more excited. We attended a conference on lighting one day just to get me a little more education. As we took our afternoon break and many headed to lunch, a group of us ended up eating together at the same place.Only knowing the lady I came with we went around telling stories of photography and everyone's business. Then a lady looked at me. Very puzzled she looked at me, "and...what are you doing here?" she asked. I explained to her my schooling, internship and dreams. She took one look at me and said, "Well I hate to break it to you but you're never going to make it." My heart instantly broke and I once again explained myself how hard I had been working and how driven I was. This was NOT just a hobby. It was my goal, my dream, my determination. What I had been pouring my heart and soul into. I had nothing else. She replied. "Like I said, its not going to happen." My eyes watered and I looked down to continue eating my food. Hiding the hurt this lady brought to me. She didnt even know my name. She had never seen any of my work. She didnt know anything about me besides the 2 minute overview I gave her of myself. When I got home I packed all my photography equipment and prints and stashed them away. I truly had nothing now. Nothing at all. A few weeks later I decided enough was enough. This woman, this stranger, she was my fire. I have worked so hard to build my dream to prove her wrong. I am still no where near my full dream, nor my full potential but I will accomplish everything I dream. On my photography alone I have paid for 3 years of schooling, housing, etc. I do not have a studio or use fancy lighting equipment. I shoot only outdoors and have built a wonderful business. I have clients coming back constantly and referring me. I have done weddings (which I have stepped down from since it is no longer where I feel my strengths), kids, seniors, families, couples, engagements, pets,as well as had my work on the cover of music albums. I have traveled the world with camera in hand and the images I bring home show the amazing things I saw and felt. I have captured photos of animals you only see in books, an ox secured by a rope with a small child's hand at the other end turning back to smile at me. Ive made time stand still as hawaiian dancers breathe fire, sea turtles come to shore for rest or zip lining hundreds of feet above a costa rican rain forest. Ive stopped monkeys gazes from up in trees and laughter of children playing soccer. Seen castles and rivers and buildings you learn of in High school history class. Latest, Ive stopped time as a young girl cradles her baby. Her baby who lives in a tunnel under a bridge in a city clueless to their existence, pain or struggles. I have accomplished amazing things with my photography and its only just begun. I am preparing for a relaunch of my business in coming weeks and my heart is filled with anticipation and excitement for where this next journey will lead. Nameless woman who told me I never would.....I am. I am accomplishing my photographic dreams. We are young but determined and strong hearted. Our love for our art is over flowing. You dont need a degree or loads of money or this or that. Its not a hobby. Its our life. Its what I do every day and it fills me with so much happiness. At my young age of 21 I never thought I could have or would have already done so much. Lived so many places or met so many amazing people. Dont dare to ever put us down ever again. We WILL overcome the obstacles you say are before us. Our dreams will be our realities.

  23. A very sensible article that speaks the truth. Pro photography is fine for those who use it as a hobby business but as a full time, viable business, those day's are over.

    Most studios are run as a hobby business these days by photographers who are not relying on the income that comes from it because they don't need to work anyway. If it wasn't for their studio they would be doing something else to occupy their time.

    College's still run courses in photography in the same way they run courses in needlework, it's for the purpose of a hobby, not a profession.

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