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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.