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.