When Fear Rules the Photography World, We All Lose

One morning you wake up, and it’s facing you. Everything you took for granted and that made your life comfortable is suddenly gone. Probably forever. Welcome to the economy of fear.

Your formerly cozy job, which once brought you a new batch of creative challenges every day, now brings you a daily dose of doubt and uncertainty. From photo editors who are not sure how long they will keep their jobs, to staff newspaper photojournalists who could be shooting their last images, everyone is living in fear.

In the last decade, the photo industry has pivoted from an economy of wealth and abundance to an economy of fear. It is not so much about talent, creativity or effectiveness anymore. It’s about who can scare the other into submission.

Decision-Making Based on Fear

Pricing for example, is no longer based on usage, or talent, or even level of professionalism. It is based on the fear that someone else could price it lower and thus take the sale.

Whether assignment or stock, images are priced on how high they can go before losing out to the competition; these days, that is not high. Photo editors negotiate with the “I can get it cheaper” stick raised overhead — forcing photographers and agencies into fearful submission. There is little conversation about quality anymore.

The fear factor goes beyond pricing. Companies like Getty Images approach and retain photographers on fear. If you do not work with Getty, they claim, your images will never be published. If you work for a competing agency, you will never work for Getty, and so on.

It’s a bit like Walmart’s infamous strong-arming of its suppliers: “We own the market, we own you.” Some Walmart suppliers, by the way, have been forced into bankruptcy, because they were forced into unsustainable low pricing.

Stock shooters fear the ever-growing crowd of microstockers. Photo agencies fear other photo agencies. Wedding photographers fear lower-cost wedding photographers. Photo editors fear their bosses. Publishers fear the future.

On top of that, almost everybody fears Orphan Works, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the government, new technology, and in some cases, even their car.

Recently, an image-matching company released a report saying that eight out of 10 images appearing on commercial Web sites are being used “non-legitimately,” offering their service as a solution. Fear as a selling strategy. If I scare you enough, will you buy my product?

Magic Potions and Security Blankets — for a Fee

When the future is uncertain, like it currently is in the photo world and elsewhere, it is natural to be worried and scared. No one can seriously say today that they know for sure where they will be five years from now.

However, for companies, or individuals, to capitalize on that fear, to use it as their primary bargaining tool is despicable. It is like pushing down on the head of a drowning person with the promise of saving them. A false promise.

Photography does not live well under fear. Creativity gets lost and conformity becomes the norm. Snake charmers invade the land with their make-believe magic potions, orators take to the podiums to agitate more fear and offer their security blankets — for a fee. Opportunists see opportunities to make deals that defy reason, well aware that fear is a powerful logic sedative.

We are going to see a lot of decisions driven by fear this year and next, mostly creating poor results for our industry. We’ll see a lot of people jumping off cliffs in order to avoid the fire. But mostly, we will see a lot of fear-smellers taking advantage of the situation.

21 Responses to “When Fear Rules the Photography World, We All Lose”

  1. Photography does not live well under fear. Creativity gets lost and conformity becomes the norm

    I look at it from the opposite perspective. Fear, or the idea of it, pushes me to be more creative and shoot more compelling work.

  2. This is a sad, but very real and interesting posting, Paul. I hope you'll write more on this topic--though I think you've spoken profoundly in just this short post. I started selling stock in 1971 (at Shostal, later bought by Superstock--who recently filed for bankruptcy) and in those days agents would sit down with you, look at your portfolio, guide you to the most lucrative subjects (which only helped them make more money) and, most importantly, they assured you that they were YOUR advocate--and they were. I can remember selling single images for $3,000; if not on a regular basis, at least it wasn't that rare.

    I honestly think that photographers shot their own feet off by not yanking ALL of their images from the files of agencies that turned from advocates into leeches--feeing photographers for a hundred things that should have been seen as *their* cost to do business, not ours. But, photographers responded out of fear, fear that they would be left out, fear that the market would move on without them--and instead of saying "no" to agencies, they agreed to everything.

    The same is true in so many aspects of our industry: when clients try to screw us, we give up out of fear. Personally, it always makes me think of the old Rick Nelson song line: "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck." If I have to work at a loss just to keep clients, well, in my father's words, "Wish them a nice life--and move on."

    I have the same problem in book publishing: publishers forget who is filling the pages of their books--the photographers, writers and artists. They use fear to get you to sign contracts, fear that if you don't agree to their terms, you won't get published. This is, of course, nonsense. If the quality talent says "no" enough, the contracts will change. They have to.

    The best thing photographers can do is to have confidence in their abilities and to not fear turning down work or contract clauses. Perhaps some industry watchers are correct and microstock is the future of all stock and all photography is now a valueless commodity. But personally, if I have to peddle my valuable photos for $1 a download--I'd rather drive at truck.

    If someone tries to push your head under water, ask yourself who it is you're hanging out with these days. There are still good and noble people in the business world and they will, ultimately, always be the survivors. They never use fear as a bargaining tool--they use respect.


  3. You both hit the nail on the head. Fear is taking over. But I really think there is another problem in the mix. The media in its infinite wisdom has decided it is cheaper to put out a "call" for photos from readers/viewers. Weather Channel, all news outlets, even newspapers. So if you the average Joe Blow or even really not so talented but calling themselves a pro gets a photo chosen then they have been validated. Problem then becomes because they have been "published" they must be good. So now everyone who sees that image on the Weather Channel thinks wow that must be a really good picture if it is on the Weather Channel. So now the circle of death of an industry begins. If viewers don't know what constitutes good photography then how can we expect them to be willing to pay fair prices for our services?

    I had been beating my head against the wall for the 8-10 months trying to set some type of pricing structure that would meet with our new screwed up economy without selling myself out. Like you both if I can't make a fair income then rather than sell out cheap I just refuse the work. I don't post prices now at all. When someone calls if the first thing they ask is "how much" then I know it is more about pricing then about skill. If I don't hear "I love your work" then I know it is just about price.

    Anyway, I was editing a wedding and a lifestyle shoot a couple of days ago. Once finished I realized I had lost track of time (I don't just edit I choose specific images to tweak artistically). I sat down and added up how much time I spent shooting, editing and post processing. I sat back took a deep breath and said to myself "self, you are working for too little".

    Solution: I am putting together pricing that is fair for our economy but I am not lowering my prices out of fear that no one will hire me. I see value in my work, if the potential client does not then they aren't the client for me. Years ago my husband and I had a successful landscape design and contracting company in Phoenix. I "interviewed" potential clients. If what was most important was the price then quality work and design wasn't most important to them. And our services would not be appreciated so to speak. I definitely turned down lucrative work. But I also found that the contractors who took those jobs went through hell trying to please clients who couldn't be pleased. So now I use the same approach. If you love my work then we talk. If your budget is low then we discuss how to meet budget. Payment plans, less images, less time, whatever, but never lowering my prices. If you can't afford my services I am happy to discuss ways to work with you but I am not giving away my unique talents and skills.

    If I have to take a "regular" 9-5 non-photography job to support myself then so be it. Anyone who thinks professional photography is an easy way to make money then they aren't a pro, cause it is lots of work, time and money. Almost like a doctor, constantly studying and experimenting, learning new techniques, cameras, lights, software. Keeping up with technology.

    I can only hope that this industry shakes out. If not then I guess my next question is: "do you want pickles on that burger?"!

  4. Great post Paul, and Jeff for your follow up. I am starting out in the industry, and trying to negotiate my way around those who seek to take advantage, or sign up to contracts that do the same. I have come to the conclusion that it will probably be many years of being extremely stubborn for I get anything resembling respect! Even so, I can't wait!

  5. As a freelance photographer and web designer, I can tell you that over the past 3 years both industries have deteriorated in this manner to the extreme. The days of selling photos for $3000 or building a website for $5000 are gone. Those days will not return, at least in my lifetime. I do not make what I used to on projects in either industry.

    I see our economy as a test. A test of will, fear, intelligence, creativity and commitment. If you have the "will" to survive in this economy, if you can stand and face the "fear" that is being pushed on you by publishers, clients and buyers, if you are "intelligent" enough to look over your entire business as often as necessary and revamp your entire structure in preparation to do business in this new world, if you can push the limits of "creativity" and stand out from the many so-so photographers in this new world and if you are "committed" to your industry, the quality of your work and the clients that choose you, then you will survive, flourish and make your way in this new world.

    This is the industry, like it or not. The more technology makes photography easier, the more people (some talented, some not) will dive in and try their hand at being a photographer. The entire world is a visual one, we market everything visually and the digital age makes it easy for everyone to produce a visual. Our industry is now diluted with semi-talented photographers who have a place in the industry because "clients" of every facet have made sub-par work acceptable based on price!!! Why? Because some of the honest clients don't have the money to spend like they used too and the dishonest clients see this as an opportunity to take advantage of this economic down turn. This kind of predatory behavior happens in every industry and has for hundreds of years.

    If you want to stay in this business, if you have a passion for it, you will have to look long and hard at your own practices, work flow, end product and spending to find your place in this ever evolving industry.


  6. I won't buy into the fear. I've already hit the bottom having had no commercial/advertising work for 3 years. I've decided to concentrate on my personal projects and if something comes of that, so be it, if not; my wife is set to retire in 4 years and we've found a nice affordable town in central Mexico where we can eat locally grown food and walk the beach... And maybe I'll write my novel about the NYC photo biz in the glory days of the 1980s?

    For those younger than me I recommend you get a government job, put in your 20 years (it will be over before you know it) then pursue your passion with money in the bank. Eventually things will come around again.

  7. Very well written! 🙂

  8. I could list a long series of articles on the same topic, from the New York times to blogs like this one.

    The analisys is always exact, but easy: the photo world is dead.

    Someone will say that is dead the way we thought about it, but it's not true, because you can add anything on top, video making, story telling, photoshopping etc etc. But still the outcome is similar.

    It's like gambling at the casino, you always lose.

    For the money you throw into it and the time you spend on it (working or figuring out new solutions) there is not enough revenue.

    Am I negative? NO

    It's time to face the truth, if we say how things are then at least we start from a common ground. I never liked the imposed "positive" state of mind.

    Everyone should face the truth, from suppliers to clients, to service providers. As Jeff stated aboce, paying $3000 for a picture is impossible now, but it shouldn't be.

    Think of your expensive equipment, you are on an assignment, something goes wrong and your ... name it, your flash breaks, or worse a lens or a camera.

    With a $500 dollar assignment (or less) what's the possibility that you'll be able to fix it or that you have a back up camera, given the update rate of the digital equipment? (Clients may know nothing about photography, but often recognize the latest high tech tool)

    We are strangled between the cogwheels of the two industries.

    Lately I had an interview with a fashion magazine editor, the person quickly decided that they liked my portfolio, the second step was (quoted): "Here we are talking about equipment"

    I replied

    "You get what you pay for, if you want digital medium format, you pay for it and you get it"

    the answer

    "Here we pay peanuts, but you get a lot of visibility"

    Peanuts ... I immediately visualized Linus by my side, with his blanket, sucking his thumb.

  9. I agree with your thesis.. It's important to understand the true market for your services and endeavor to optimize it. I turn away at least as much work as I accept... and it just about kills me to turn away work. My time is better spent promoting my work than doing almost free work in the hopes that someone will notice. I also find that your reputation for being cheap travels ten times as fast as for being good..

  10. I'M SORRY...I have to say it... "Ladies and Gentleman"...THE WORLD IS CHANGING >>> There are markets opening...and markets closing...But come on...we all ride the ride, and accept the possible outcomes; we all love what we do. And if we are good enough at it, we will survive...I'M NOT JADED!!! I see photography all around me...Everyday...AND I KNOW... There is a future in it. I AM NOT AFRAID!!!

  11. Wonderful post! I just tweeted that a big production company had offered me $2,000 for three days commercial shoot. They need about 100 images for a Tv commercial for a huge corporation and are expecting to own the images and copyright for this amount!!! I refused of course, but two young photographers asked me to pass the assignment to them. I refused again.

  12. It's not about being afraid, it's about the next move and the next decision to take.

    Fear is not a real issue (in my opinion) being a freelance has always been a matter of risk taking, so no surprise.

    I just think that the generic picture taking trade has faded, I find myself more and more into art direction, where photography si just part of it.

  13. Great Article!

    You hit the nail right on the head. I also feel that not only "fear" is driving the market but the camera companies that are making driving the prices down on the cameras. This gives a false impression to many people that they can take a picture just as good as a professional. Add to this the 19 cent 4x6 one hour print.

    This is the picture the public sees of the photographer and they gasp when see our pricing schedule and fees.

    The industry is, in my humble opinion, doing it to all of us. Every time you see a 12MP camera for less that $500 someone buys one thinking they can now be a professional.

    Makes you wonder if the digital camera was a creative wonder or a horrible curse.

  14. I enjoyed this emensley as i fearlessly try to find my place in this industry, I believe photography is still an art and as I learn everyday more and more the fear that appears around me is not in my heart as i believe in something more powerful. Maybe it is passion to put the art back into Photography raise the bar maybe. I am a newbie but believe in the old, maybe those masters in the industry need to find their faith before others may follow.

  15. After thirty years of learning and honing the art of photography, one day it was swept away by a technology that promotes quantity over quality. Those of us who didn't jump on the electronically driven bandwagon have suffered in more ways than one and it's hard to earn a living by standing by your principals. My equipment works as well today as it did 30 years ago and I've never accidentally erased a roll of 120 m/m and I don't have to replace camera bodies every two years but in today's immediate gratification market it counts for little. I may be standing my gound but the patch I hold is shrinking.

  16. My first camera was given to me on Christmas 1956/57. I still have the Kodak Brownie and actually found some flash bulbs in the box.

    I was in Germany as a soldier in 1976 and bought my 1st 33mm camera, a Minolta 101. WOW, I was in heaven and then realized that I'd never have the "perfect" camera or lens as there were then and still are better bodies and lens made everyday.

    I feel Lee's pain as there is truly something special about doing a photograph from "clik" to "pic." I know how great it feels to say, "I made that." Taking the knowledge, the risk to try something new and giving "birth" to a treasured photograph is beyond words.

    The problem now is more obvious with the industry turning out the high end megapixel cameras for less than $300. Couple that wih the 1hour print specials and 19 cent 4x6 photograph we can't compete with that mentality when a client comes in and reminds us that our prices are "rediculous."

    I had one client insist that they could do a better print, so I set his child down, posed him, and said, take a picture with your camera and I'll take one with mine.

    He had a Canon 'sure shot' and after 5 minutes he finally had one shot.

    I posed his son, gave him a toy, and took 5 shots in less than 1 minute.

    I downloaded his, and mine, put them on the screen, and he was shocked to see the difference in quality, clarity, and color.

    We can't always convert clients, but it is harder today as the "instant gratification" comes in as a barrier to overcome.

    In 1976 in was a computer programmer learning about cameras. Who would have ever thought then that both would share the same computer space?

    Now in 2010, our technology is growing so fast that the software can hardly keep up with it. Every 2 years new MS operating systems, every year new Adobe Photoshop, etc. My point, I agree with Lee, and for that matter Western Union: "If it isn't broke don't fix it."

    Kim ... live your dream, live to photograph, and always remember: It is never the technology, it is the artist!

  17. One of my favorite books is Dune and the main teaching of the masters to the student was this "Fear is the Mind Killer".

    It is true, true, true. Fear can gut us into inaction or spark a fire because we don't want to feel this any more. Very natural to be taken aback in our "perfect storm" situation and I love this discussion so much. I have spent some time wrangling with extra fear in the last two years over the economy and the changes in photography and my bank account. Alas (just used that word for fun, not to be pretentious)... I think I have wrangled fear for my entire 28 year career every year during the slow months wondering if this might be the year I become a bag lady. So far... hanging in there and haven't had to go get a real job.

    I also will admit that I have been stronger in my photography and selling skills than my marketing. It takes time and effort and when the work came easier I was not as committed to it as I am to the quality of my work. But in this era, marketing and salesmanship (and thinking outside of my comfortable box) are central to the career of this photographer. So I have devoted oodles of time into marketing to find my clients, which are high end families that still have the budget for nice cars and clothes and vacations. They appreciate the artist when I reach them and let them know who I am and what I will create for them.

    My relationship to the digital world has been love/not love. I miss my Hassie but I couldn't really focus it easily any more so having a pro camera that focuses, zooms and auto exposes when chasing children in and out of lighting situation is sweeeettt. I learned with film to expose and compose images so that very little custom work or retouching was needed with film but I love being able to do my own "darkroom work" at the computer and make it much more the way I want to see it. So I am very happy about this new ability and not happy about the computer time. Love love love that I can photograph in low light situation, shoot at the beach 20 minutes after sunset...and yet I so miss the square neg. Such is life.

    And even though images are easier to create and find than before, there is so much more need for images. Humans are in love with photographs now and that is cool to me...even though they don't value individual images as much, there is much more use of and value in imagery itself.

    Where does that leave us? Isn't change the only constant? And doesn't sitting in the fear disempower us? Or can't it push us to grow and grow some more? That is why I love this profession and art because it forces me to keep learning and reaching and imagining.
    Cheers, Luci Dumas

  18. In times of fear candy sales rise drastically, as do pop sales and similar products. When people are in a fear state, they want comfort and that, albeit false, sense of security that they get from eating that lovely chocolate (or whatever their personal craving), and do you know why? Well, the answer is that it makes them feel good. Period. They want to feel good. In fact, we all want to feel good. I believe that no matter what you are selling or what service you are providing, if you can make yout customer feel good about their purchase, you've got the sale. Ever since I started being a photographer and living with another one, I have been amazed at how people feel after having a session with us. I realized quickly that this was the answer.

    I am very pleased to say that my husband and I are going into our tenth year as photographers and we are more successful than ever. Like Luci, I love this business, as well, and hope to continue doing it and enjoying it for several more decades to come.

    Good luck to us all ...

    Cheers -


  19. Excellent post and extremely accurate summary.

    I tend to take the view that life never did come with a written guarantee so I might as well just get on with it. Fear is a choice, it is purely a subjective response to a perceived situation. Nothing to be gained by being scared.

    I may just be in denial though.

  20. I put the commercial cameras down a few years ago to concentrate on building a photographic archive. It's history, and now that Uncle Charlie's digital camera is in the hands of so many, so am I.
    In the OVERALL scheme of things, no-one cares about the quality of what I do: they focus on the price.
    So I write for local papers, which pays, bizarrely, 4x what they will pay for a photograph for similar work, time and effort.
    I'll keep shooting digital and black and white, and negotiate a deal with one of the local colleges to get a tax credit when I die.
    End. Of. Story.

  21. Well, I have to say, reading all of this has been quite depressing. I'm a 43 year old student in the process of spending in excess of 60k for a degree in photography at The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale. I've lost my career in the automotive industry after 25 years, and decided to turn my 30 year hobby into my income as a freelancer. It's very difficult to hear all of your stories about this industry, and still keep my chin up about my new career.

    The one thing I see is that all of the people we deal with (art buyers, agencies, clients, ect.) have all figured out how to sidestep us by using stock, uncles with cameras, costco print centers, and the list goes on and on. It seems to me that they've all done their homework. So how about we do ours. That's not to say that most of you who do this for a living haven't sat and thought about it during what is now your "spare time," but there must to be a solution to our dilemma.

    I'm not sure where to start with all of this, because I'm new to this industry, but when I repair and refinish motorcycles I have definite sales tactics for my pricing. Once I've educated my client about why and what I'm charging him for, my closing ratio is 60-70%, which tells me my pricing is pretty much dead on. Even that being said, I've had to lower my prices by 10-15% just to maintain market share, but I've closed my shop and move it home to increase my profit margin.

    I'm sure you all have similar tactics, but are they dated? Do they fit this new economic structure? Do we need to find ways to cut our expenses so as to maintain our profit margins at a lower overall price to the customer? I'll be the first one to say that I won't lower my prices because we all know how difficult it is to get them back up, but I DO have to eat. However, I would be willing to drive a Toyota instead of a Mercedes if I could eat steak instead of cheese sandwiches.

    This economy can't stay this way forever for several reasons, the worst of all, civil war. Now wouldn't that make for some interesting pictures. We'll see how many point and shooters show up on the battlefield!!. I know thats a little extreme, but civil war has happened here before.

    Instead of stewing about where we're at, let's try to figure out what we can do about it and how to make it happen. We've figured out how to shoot successfully in low light situations. I think we can put our heads together and come up with some ideas, and still maintain our integrity. Like I said before, our clients figured out how to do it to us!! The ball is in our court people. Let's get on the offensive!!

Leave a Reply