Reality Check: Professional Photography Is Going Away


Okay, folks, it’s reality check time. Empty your minds of whatever you think photography has been in the past. It’s time to consider what the future will bring.

I have a friend, David, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday. David is, understandably, old school. He remembers the days when he would go into a closet to process his own film and prints. I asked him why on earth he went to all the trouble, to which he replied that there was some sort of magic seeing his images come to life. He had a certain amount of pride when he captured a moment in time, something no one else in his neighborhood knew how to do. David has vision issues at his advanced age, so he now uses a simple point-and-shoot digital camera. He and I have had many conversations about the future of photography.

My view? Professional photography is going away. That’s right, going away. I can’t say it is going to happen today, next week, next month, or even next year, but at some point in the future it will. Fact: The transition has begun. You cannot change it; you can only adapt. Before you wet your pants, please notice I did not say all photography is going away, only professional photography. Ignore or distort the facts at your own peril!

Technology is on the move at an ever-increasing pace. Values, tastes, perceptions, the way we communicate and the economy are all changing. Reality check: These are factors you cannot control, so get over it.

Technology Puts Better Photos in the Hands of Amateurs

In the old days, we loaded our cameras with film, took the shots, processed and printed the film. Suddenly, digital processors replaced film. Now we load our digital cameras with memory cards, take no heed of film expiration dates, forget the number of exposures on a roll, and have no need to worry about how many rolls we brought along with us on a certain day.

My little Panasonic point-and-shoot will take hundreds and hundreds of photos one after another on a single memory card, and it rivals the quality of my Nikon SLRs! That is an amateur photographer’s dream, but unfortunately it is not as beneficial for the pros. Suddenly, the playing field is level for everyone. Technology has not yet put pros out of business, but it is setting the stage — even our mobile phones have cameras!

Photography is a numbers game, in that only a certain number of your shots will be professional quality. The more shots you take, the more professional quality shots you will get. This means that any moron with a good camera can shoot and shoot and shoot, and eventually get a prizewinner. He may receive an honorable mention in a photo contest, or sell a photo for use in a brochure, then thinks he has the right to call himself a “professional photographer.”

With the advent of computer technology, the days of processing our film and prints are gone. Most photographers show their work online and rarely make prints. Any who still do so are a true exception. A multitude of websites and programs have been created that allow you to post and share photos with anyone. And anyone can edit (or over-edit) their work, online or offline, using software. Why bother with expensive prints?

Easier Photography Means Fewer Customers

Tastes, attitudes and values are changing as fast as technology. Photography has become a fun activity. Cheap digital cameras with good lenses and powerful zooms (and phones with high-powered cameras) take the worries out of casual photography. Unfortunately, such opportunities give many people the wrong perception of themselves and their abilities. Now they have the DIY attitude: “Why pay someone to do something that I can easily do myself and have fun doing at the same time?”

Right or wrong, the public perception of professional photography is that it’s unnecessary, a ripoff, or even fraud. To put it mildly, the average Joe thinks he can do as good a job as any professional, and that professional services are a waste of money. It’s an attitude that’s hard to change because you have no control over it. Then there is the economy, which has been taking a nosedive for the last few years. A lot of would-be photography customers simply cannot afford the services of a professional photographer. Now is not the time for professional photographers to take any financial gambles.

It’s Time to Take Action

In the face of this, I’m making a few changes. I’m cancelling SmugMug when my subscription expires, a quick savings right there. Also, I normally rebuild my website every two years with new templates and photos, but not anymore. Likewise I will not be upgrading my (expensive) computer programs like Photoshop, nor will I be upgrading my computer any time soon. I will not be investing in or updating any of my photo equipment. In short, I will be resourceful and work with what I already have.

Here’s my advice to you: Cut out all expenses that do not bring in money. Say you’re paying $150 a year for a special website to market your work, but it only brought in $100. It’s time to get out. Keep an open mind for changes in the world of photography. Don’t be a sucker for new technology — it will be obsolete before you know it.

Most importantly, ask yourself, “How can I differentiate myself in a crowded field? How easy would it be for another photographer to imitate me and cut into my profits? Is there a way to be unique and not be copied?” In answering these questions you must be realistic with yourself, and that’s not easy to do. Talk things over with a friend or spouse to get another point of view. You may not like the answer, but that input could save your goose.

Finally, take the money you save and stash it. Wait patiently until you are sure the time is right to gamble.

Don’t Wait to Be Left Behind

Are you starting to wonder, “What is the future of photography and the professional photographer?” The answer is unknown. There are so many possibilities. My 90-year-old friend David has seen photography’s past but does not pretend to know the future. All I know is the photography industry is changing quickly into something most of us do not understand. Some professionals will thrive, but the rest will be left behind. The number of successes will continue to shrink until the professional photographer becomes somewhat of an anomaly.

Right now, for me, I teach photography classes to individuals and groups who wish to learn the basics of old-school techniques and apply them to new technology. I will continue to shoot my digitals, my old Nikon SLRs, and my 4×5 with the realization that very little of my work will be sold. But that’s okay.

Photography is my passion and will always be.


129 Responses to “Reality Check: Professional Photography Is Going Away”

  1. Its not about the equipment, Pfft, Have'nt seen any box brownies around for a while. Of course its about the equipment, go and have a look at any discipline that requires a camera. Have a look at the lenses manufacturers put their elite coloured rings around.

  2. FOR NOW, the pro-studio is all but dead, due to the new national motto, "it'll do".. America is all about CHEAP, equalling mediocrity. The number of studios that have closed in the last 5 years is unbelieveable. I have been a pro since 1966,(weddings, schools, cruise liners, etc.) and have had a studio since 1981. It was ALWAYS changing, and always will. The term photograph means "a picture created with/by light". He who controls the way light affects a subject BEFORE pushing a button, and the interaction or lack-of, IS the photographer, and amateurs armed with the best camera gear will be photographers,,, but NEVER will they , or their pictures , be of Professional standards. As the pros disappear,and the void filled by Best Buy amateurs that charge money, a sad reality will come upon the world in 50 years when there is no real record of families, babies, graduates, weddings, and LARGE family groups that NO amateur can capture adequately to create family heirlooms that hang above the fireplaces.
    May Kodak and the rest RIP........

  3. "FOR NOW, the pro-studio is all but dead, due to the new national motto, "it'll do".. America is all about CHEAP, equalling mediocrity."

    Interesting comment Tom at just the right time. Tuesday night, my wife and I went to the church to have our photos taken for the church directory. The lady who was doing the photography was holding in her hands the very latest Nikon DSLR. I asked her how long she had been a professional photographer.

    "EIGHT MONTHS!", SHE SAID.

    Wow! Eight months. I asked her if she had ever shot 4x5.

    "WHAT'S 4X5?", she asked.

  4. Photography's closing in on two centuries. If there's any one thing I've witnessed in my few decades of work, it's technology constantly reducing barriers to entry. Any commercial artist with a vision that can be fulfilled by anyone operating a late model tool is a commercial artist not long for a livelihood.

  5. Years ago, a close friend said,"If I had a pro-camera like yours, I could take pictures just as good as you". So, I had him stop by my studio, put him behind a film-loaded Mamiya RZ67, sat my son down on a posing stool, and told him to shoot away,,,AFTER I shut all the studio lights off.THAT'S when he learned that LIGHTS, and the knowledgeable use of them, makes the picture.PHOTO, in Greek/Latin, means LIGHT, not camera....PS:I still do some Seniors and kids, but for the fun of doing it on Green Screen. Yes, I still get paid.

  6. What a bunch of negative wingers - "the worlds changing and I dont like it, and everybody who doesnt travel the same road as me is an imposter".

    The world has changed and we now have more choice than ever as photographers and clients, adapt or move on.

    Exclusive access to equipment (by entry cost) doesnt guarantee the best operator. Give everybody a go and lets see who floats to the top. In the 21st century the people that recognise your product as being quality will pay for it and the people that couldnt care less or dont understand, well they will shop for price.

    And its this group of people that you are all winging about, because in the past they had limited price choice - to a certain extent photographers had a trapped market - well now this group can aquire the service that they require based on price, its the way it is and its not going to change.

    And from what I have seen locally coming from older pros, the line em up and shoot em down style photography, well times have changed, it time for you to learn some new tricks or move on. Because the new kids coming in have been exposed to a lot of imagery, and they are coming up with some fantastic stuff, maybe a little technically off at first, but by means of blogs and their sites you can see them growing as photographers.

  7. Professionals are still necessary for events like weddings and corporate functions, as well as portraits. I also know some professionals who have begun doing specialty work like panoramas and photo printing on special surfaces such as fabric and plexiglas.

  8. It's been said many times above but the quality of Point and Shoots reaching that of Pro cameras is a fallacy. They might be higher resolution but they use smaller sensors have much worse low light capability, etc, etc, etc.

    More importantly - it isn't the camera that makes a photographer a pro - it's the photographer!

    The concern I have - as a pro photographer - is the fact that a large proportion of the buying public can't tell the difference between a good photograph and a bad one. When you see the rubbish on Instagram, etc it makes you wonder! As a pro wedding photographer, I thank God that there are still couples out there that can tell the difference and buy on quality and not just on price.

  9. One of the ways I sell wedding photography is to tell the bride and groom about the organization that is involved in the day and how the posed shots are structured. It helps highlight a great difference between an amature photographer and a professional.

    As many people have said, Joe Blogs can't really tell the difference between auto shots and manual shots (Even though it is glaringly obvious to pros!)

    I think the recession has forced the price of photography (particularly wedding photography) right down, with more companies and individuals shooting weddings and under cutting established full time professionals.

    Unfortunately it's the way of the world now. Grin and bear it, reinvcent yourself for the billionth time or get another job!

  10. Please have the brains to recognize the difference between a "professional" photographer with years of training & experience, and a "winger". There has ALWAYS been those that shop by price alone, and it sure it something new. When I observe that this is the generation of "it'll do", it happens to be MY observation, thru the trained eyes of a 45 yr. pro. Just make an F16 fighter plane available to ALL who want one,,,, and it STILL doesn't make them trained pilots. These high quality, cheap cameras don't make better photographers, just higher resolution photos, where the low quality work is easier to see. Those that read & write these posts should visit a few preofeesional studios to see first-hand what really PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY really looks like, BEFORE making uneducated ststements,,, like the term "winger".

  11. HOOO SNAP, MAN. So much negative feedback on this article!

    Anyways, now that's out of the way, I have to agree with what people said, "It's the photographer. Not the camera." To be honest, I really don't like it when someone judges two photographers on who's more better based on their equipment.

    *Laughs*...I'm 16 years old as of right now. I've been called creative several times, but I managed to capture photos that no one in my school has ever did in my days! There are photographers who has equipment more than $1,000 in my school, but I have a basic entry-level DSLR, kit-lens, and one telephoto lens. That's all I really need to capture the same photos they did.

  12. I'm really glad you've thrown in the towel, you're hanging up your gloves, you're closing the door on that chapter of your life, and all the other horrible cliches I can think of that relate to your own personal withdrawal from the Professional Photography world.

    Losing someone like you from the professional realm is precisely the reason the rest of us are around, and the best part about making it through (and hopefully out the other side of) a nasty global economic depression. The competition has been thinned, the survivors are leaner and meaner, and the opportunities are far greater than they were with people like you still competing for clients in our world.

    Happy trails! Enjoy retirement or working for the Bus company or whatever you choose to do now. I'd like to say we'll all miss you.

    But we wont.

  13. I am a professional. I find it interesting that there are sooooo many professionals with such strong reactions to this. As professionals we know our field and are the best at it. I know what I know, I do what I do. The whole world can fall apart, does it matter? I am and will always be a professional. I have no need or interests to defend or promote my profession. Maybe some professionals on this site spewing out such passions are—still on the quest of becoming something they are currently aware they are not. Glad to be me and thanks Talbert for allowing us the privilege to post on your site.

  14. I'm not a pro photographer, but the truth is that most pro studios will be forced to close and far cheaper, far better quality digital cameras and video are the reason for this, as well as an unwillingness to afford a photographer. This article is 100% true. The same thing that has happened to video stores and new bookstores is going to wipe out photographers (overall) as well, unless the average American suddenly starts making a whole lot more money.

  15. As technology replaces skill it becomes very difficult for a qualified photographer to apply any ethics to his trade. He has been robbed of his craft.

  16. This guy would have you believe that Bresson never made a picture but rather his leica did. Or that Keith Richards never played music, his guitar did. Or that Mario Andretti never won an auto race, his car did.

    I am so tired of seeing articles like this. And I happen to see most of them on this site.

  17. Although I feel the author's frustration about an overall, diminished respect for our craft, and a pervasive attitude that we should work for peanuts or free, his comparisons to amateurs with digital point-and-shoots is off of the mark.

    It is also naive to think that the over-saturation of good enough work by amateurs, willing to give it away for a photo credit, isn't putting a serious dent in the pro's ability to procure assignments at rates which will enable us to stay in business.

    That said, I do see opportunities for pros to stay afloat in the new photography industry paradigm, as long as we are willing to think way beyond the traditional ways of doing business.

  18. The party is over. Photography from here on will be done by amateurs. When I say amateur I mean someone with no specific training in the field who believes that they can do just as well. I saw it when I used to go to art shows people would come into my booth just to tell me that they had never used a camera before but since getting a digital camera they cannot believe how good they are.

    Photography is no longer seen as an art or even a skill anyone can do it so everyone will. As we go forward the quality will be hit and miss, because the people that will be doing the work will lack the basic understanding of composition or art. Let alone an understanding of lighting that was so critical in days of yore. It is too bad really photography will just become another thing that most people can do marginally and the medium that always had trouble being defined as an art will no longer have its status held in question.

    It's sad really and as you said unstoppable let us hope though like it did in the novel "Bridge of Memory" photography will someday be rediscovered and the perfect blacks and detailed whites that made photography such a great medium will once again be cherished.

  19. "You are what you are because of what you think. You change what your are by changing what you think." If you believe that photography is totally doomed, then to you it will be. For me, I do not believe that is true. I am a small business solutions and development consultant as well as owner and main photographer of a growing studio in Ohio.

    There are many areas of photography which an amateur just cannot touch or do the job. Sure, you will see them in seniors and wedding photography, but in many other photographic arenas, you will not see them.

    Your job should be to stop whining and begin to look at other areas where you can make a huge impact. We have written a turn-key business development system for pro photogs and have another in the works for 2014. If you do the system, as shared, you will make a significant income and grow your business. I have seen 153 new clients in the last 37 days come into our business.

    You could as well, and maybe you would not have a "woe is me," dooms-day view on life as a photographer.

  20. Photography has become a job that you do if your no good at anything else. It's so easy you only need a bit of practice with the new cameras today.

    It's a case of being a camera operator not a photographer.

  21. Photography has become a job that you do if your no good at anything else. It's so easy you only need a bit of practice with the new cameras today.

    It's a case of being a camera operator not a photographer.

  22. James, I could not disagree with you more. If that is how you look at professional photography, get out and leave it to us professionals that can make a difference.

  23. Everyone is missing the point here.

    Of course there's going to be people willing to spend on good photography.

    Of course there's going to be room for professional photographers to thrive.

    HOWEVER...

    Because of market saturation, the job has gotten a lot harder. You can't deny it.

    If digital photography wasn't invented, would you STILL be a photographer today? I would venture to say that about 90% of you would say NO. Just think of how much less saturation there would be without the advent of digital photography.

    That's how saturated the market is.

    Someone made an analogy with being able to cook at home yet restaurants are still thriving...

    Completely disagree. The restaurant industry is NOT thriving--it is an 80-100 hour a week job for not just you but your entire family, and most restaurants shut down in their first year.

    Facts.

    If no one in the world knew how to cook except for highly trained professionals, the restaurant industry would be a lot easier and profitable for the select few who went to school for it and honed their craft.

    Like doctors and lawyers and such.

    The restaurant business a tough, tough industry to venture into, and only the strong and smart survive--just like in photography. Good branding, marketing, and selling techniques will make you stand above the rest.

    Don't believe the lie that "you get what you pay for" in photography.

    It's not always true.

    I've seen tons of cheap photographers make great work and make little to nothing while tons of expensive photographers do crappy work and make a fortune.

    It just so happens that the successful ones have business degrees or are very business savvy and know how to sell while the cheap ones are artist-first-business-last people and are making "artist" money.

    Might as well go be a poet or a painter.

    But there is definitely hope.

    You can make money in any industry--yes, some a little harder than others--BUT if you know how to SELL, you will succeed.

    Not that selling is everything, but I would wager it's about 80-90% of your success.

    Hair & Makeup artistry is saturated. Wedding planning is saturated. Wedding flowers are saturated. But how do they survive? THEY LEARN TO SELL! Aggressive marketing! Top-notch branding! Hone your craft, too, in the meantime, so you actually produce good work to fill the rest of the 10-20% of your success.

    But all in all, in order to adapt and set yourself apart from the average joe schmo photographer, we must learn our business and we must learn to sell.

  24. Talbert,
    I only read the first 6 replies. I can't believe how all of them missed the whole point of your article. These people are obviously not professionals making their living as photographers. Check your egos at the door boys and girls and smell the roses. 300 Chicago news photographers were just laid off. The reporters will be taking photos with their I-Phones.

    It will be interesting to see what happens when the pro photographers stop buying all the gear and all those suppliers hit the wall! I am sure you guys with your phone cameras will be in great demand.
    Maybe we will get so advanced that we will not need images. We can use the written word to describe the scene. That is cheaper.

  25. Being good at business is knowing the best time to get in and just as importantly the best time to get out. Staying put with your head in the sand has destroyed many.

  26. Joseph,
    I'm not surprised. So many people read half of something and it becomes a half-truth...so popular in our world these days.

  27. So photography is just a business for you ... good to see you are leaving.

  28. Talbert,

    I've thoroughly enjoyed this article and following comments. Unlike most others here I'm nothing more than a casual hobbyist. For me this is a bit of looking in from the outside.

    That said, I would have assumed it's somewhat common knowledge that professional photographers may not be soon extinct, but at least becoming a bit of an "anomaly".

    In recent years haven't a large number of news and entertainment outlets laid off many thousands of photogs? What about the hundreds of locations of Olin Mills, Sears and others? Loads of people lost their jobs as photographers. How professional these people were or weren't is unimportant. They made a living as photographers and now they don't for the most part. The weak economy and changed attitudes have a played role.

    Cheap, plentiful, capable digital gear is a game changer....The democratization of imaging technology isn't coming; It's here. So I agree that the future of professional photography is hard to predict. The only thing I see as certain is the market functioning more like the present than the past.

    Some will thrive and many left behind? Of course. Seems obvious to me as well.

    Well.... Clarity is usually at odds with consensus. I think this article is spot on.

  29. I see the article as at least partly very true. Certainly things like even iPhones are really making things weird for pro photography, if not just for aficionado photography. It is a definite thing that in the past few years respect for the PHOTOGRAPHER seems to have been diverted to an awe for the technology. Anytime that I or some others take a good picture, it seems the first thing I hear is 'wow, what CAMERA did you (they) use'...
    What is happening, with the invading/superseding of the art with straight-out technology, is also happening in the other arts.
    In music for example, there's getting to be almost no need to be able to keep a beat or a pitch anymore because drum machines and pitch-modulating devices can 'cover for it'... A much much less talented individual can now almost sound like a real musician. (the difference between the musician and the photographer is that the musician still largely 'takes the credit' for whatever the result is -- regardless of how much talent was put in)

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