Photography’s Old Boys Club Is Gone Forever — Now Success Is Up to You

Once upon a time, cameras, processing, access and distribution were the privilege of the few in photography. The business was an Old Boys Club with high barriers to entry. But now, anyone can join. And because the revenue pie seems to be limited, the photo industry is experiencing a Malthusian moment.

It is not clear yet if the photo licensing business is actually nearing its limit. Like the Universe, it could be expanding and we might not be aware of it.

We do know that microstock has either brought in or converted thousands upon thousands of new licensing customers. We also know that there are billions upon billions of images on the Internet, mostly unlicensed, either by the choice of their creators or simply stolen. And as millions of new Web pages are created every day worldwide, certainly all containing at least one photograph, we can safely assume that the photo market is expanding.

We just have not, like scientists in space, found our dark matter, or its equivalent. We haven’t figured out how to turn all these usages into paying customers.

No Salvation in Equipment

I don’t claim to have all the answers. But one way our industry will not succeed is to attempt to make photography a Boys Club again.

Frankly, photography used to be more about what you shot than how you shot it. A news photographer only needed to take pictures of an event to see them published. Since they were practically alone, or were the only ones with a distribution channel, the images were almost guaranteed to be published.

Today there are photographers everywhere, shooting everything, either with cellphones or high-end Leica M9s. As a consequence, there is photography everywhere, too. Millions if not billions of images on Photobucket, Flickr, Alamy, iStockphoto, Shutterstock and the rest. Of everything and nothing. Creating a pool of images probably 10 times bigger, and expanding 10 times faster, than the current pool of paying customers.

So instinctively, some in the industry are trying to recreate — or save what is left of — their Boys Club. These curiously unamusing professionals have taken to their soap boxes to rally behind HD video, time lapse, HDR and other technologies to try to erect new barriers to entry. Even less amusing is how the official photography press continues to embellish this myth with a monthly passion.

What they all fail to understand is that what is available to a pro is also available to any amateur. There is no salvation in equipment nor in fads — unless you’re the one selling them to desperate photographers.

From Boys Club to POV

So what is your salvation as a photographer? The tool that no one can take away from you — your point of view.

POV is what any photo editor worldwide looks for. Not what camera, lens, or technique you are using, but your point of view as a photographer.

POV even trumps access. Even with exceptional access, a photographer can still make bad images.

It is not Peter Souza’s access, as White House staff photographer, that makes his images brilliant. It is how he uses that access.

It is not Annie Liebovitz’s access to celebrities that makes her images incredible. It’s her point of view.

We could go on and on with examples of photographers with no privileged access who have done wonders. Think Steve McCurry, or Robert Doisneau, or Ernst Haas, or Willy Ronis, to name a few. Without fancy cameras either, or zoom lenses with built-in GPS.

So the next time you stand in line to listen to some successful photographer tell you that whatever he is holding in his hand is the key to the elusive Boys Club, you should turn around, go outside and take some pictures.

That, and only that, will give you access to the most exclusive club in the world — your own POV club.

11 Responses to “Photography’s Old Boys Club Is Gone Forever — Now Success Is Up to You”

  1. Great post, thanks.

  2. Amen, brother. Well said. Creativity and imagination are gifts that can be nurtured, but never purchased. This is not a problem in just the photographic community, but all over the world in many industries. It is the dark side of the internet age, as increased interconnectivity gives people the false impression that difficult things are easily accomplished.

  3. an great uncle of mine said photography is 90% knowing where to stand... our knowledge of light and the subject, our "eye" lets us know where to stand...

  4. I like the way Elliott Erwii said it. "If you've got no responsibility and don't have to generate a certain amount of cash each month, and can live on a shoestring, and are ambitious enough, then you might have a chance. You can be dedicated but that is no guarantee that you'll make it. I rely on a hunch, a little luck, and some cunning."

  5. As a female photographer I've seen that "old boys club" at events, concerts etc. Pushy guys with 2 bodies and 5 different lenses and me with my pithy pentax ZX7. Money doesn't buy p.o.v. and while great equipment helps its a pale substitute for perspective.

  6. Once, a shoe manufacturer sent a sales guy to a third world country. He asked him to check the market out for opportunities. The salesman returned with bad news.

    "Most people are barefoot," he said. "They just don't wear shoes. There's simply no market."

    Feeling a little unsure, the shoe manufacturer sent another guy. Upon the second sales guy's return, he said this.

    "Everyone is barefoot. There is a HUGE market to take."

  7. "zoom lenses with built-in GPS"
    Hmmm-where can I get one of these?
    I'm an old boy and I've never heard of a zoom lens with built in GPS, but if it gives me an edge over the competition 😉

  8. I was showing and selling my photography at a fair. A customer says to me, "These are terrific! You must have the best camera ever!" Yes, and I sent the camera on a bus trip around the country, and it came home with all these photographs for me! You're right, isn't technology amazing!?

  9. The old boys club never died. The new snap shot photographers with little talent of posing , lighting, color , & sales stoled the moment but will fade like snow on the deserts face. There is no polishing and learning. No education and understanding. Get out there do it fast and do it cheap. The craftsmen or old boys club as you call them ... where people learned from the masters and paid their dues is the true heros of studio wedding & portrait photograhy.

  10. When I first decided I wanted to become a pro, I went out and bought a Nikon F3 & MD-4, SB-16, and new Nikkor lenses. Soon after, a FE2 & MD-12 and another SB-16.

    I read everything under the sun to improve my photography. How to precess film, composition, moment, news value, etc.

    But the one thing no photographer, amateur or pro, can buy is passion, skill, or talent. That's what separates the pros from amateurs.

    When people ask me what camera I used to shoot a certain photo, I just smile and say "You tell me. It really doesn't matter."

    Pros use all their skills and talents to say something. The use the camera as their voice.

    And as Gary Miller says, this phase in photography's evolution will fade like snow in the desert.

  11. Just one more thought:

    Knowing what camera a photographer used is like knowing what spoons a great chef used. Knowing doesn't help in creating the final product.

    It's the dedication, passion, skill and talent.

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