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.