Cary Grant: “My goodness! Where did you get that mink coat?”
Mae West: “Goodness had nothing to do with it, my dear.”
I love that line! It transcends Hollywood and is applicable to everything our free market system stands for. The truth is that people have been selling themselves for ages and in some cases have made a pretty good living at it. It makes no difference whether you are good or mediocre at something, you can succeed if you peddle your wares to the right market. It is no different in photography.
Recently I wrote about how software is helping photographers improve their images, and somebody had negatively replied about software contributing to the downward spiral of photography due to excessive PhotoShopping, cheap stock images and the like. He was certainly correct about the masses of crap polluting the Internet and sold as photography, but photography as a profession or art form is certainly not dying. In fact it is getting better and this is why.
The line from the Mae West movie suggests that she did not acquire her mink coat in a respectable manner. That’s not so shocking, really; people have been doing that for years in order to get ahead. In photography we tend to think of ourselves as above that and for the most part, the vast majority of reputable, quality photographers certainly have much higher standards than those found on a street corner. However there is a market for crap — a very big market — and there is no shortage of Mae Wests willing to provide it.
‘Good Enough’ Really Isn’t
If I was a photo editor and put out an announcement stating I required a photo of a sunset in Hawaii and was willing to go as high as $10 to get it, I am sure there would be a flood of submissions. If I was really lucky, one or two of them might be almost good. That is simply a result of having very low standards: I am willing to accept garbage because I do not want to pay for quality.
On the other hand, if I was an editor for a major journal, those submissions would be unusable — my mag/agency/whatever would not accept this and I would be looking for a photographer or stock agency that I have previously worked with to get the right image. Not any sunset will do if you have high standards.
Higher Standards Pay Off
A few years ago I was playing golf with a new member who told me that he was a retired stock photographer. As we were playing, he told me about a shot he had taken years ago of a sunset that he considered mediocre at best but nevertheless he had submitted it to a stock agency’s file. One day he received a call from an ad agency about the image. It seems they wanted to use it as a logo on their client’s credit card (guess who) and to this day it is his biggest revenue producer. He receives income to this day for the use of that photo. The agency of course could have hired some hack to go out and get a picture of a sunset for $25 but their standards were much higher than that. They must have pored over thousands of sunset images to arrive at my friend’s image. They were looking for just the right photograph.
So it comes down to this. If you are a $10 photographer, you will end up with $10 clients. If you are a $1,000 photographer, you will end up with $1,000 clients. Do the math. How many $10 jobs does it take to get to $1,000? Oh yeah, one more thing: If you are known as a $10 photographer, that is all you are worth. Nobody will pay you more than that because they see you as cheap photographer, and it is very difficult if not impossible to move up to the next level.