Observations and commentary on the state of the photographic industry

The photography industry as we know it is changing. In this article, I want to examine some of the dynamics of the ‘old’ industry, and the ‘new’ industry – and how we as photographers can survive commercially. In some ways, this is the state of how I perceive the actual roles of the various job titles in the past, and how they’ve now evolved to fit the new ecosystem.

In the pre-digital era, and up to the transition point – oh, I suppose 2004 or so, when DSLRs became accessible to the mainstream:

Camera companies – Made cameras and lenses only. Made money from both of these; product generations were long (10+ years!).

Camera shops – Made money from selling photographic equipment to individual consumers.

Film companies – Made film for those cameras, and sometimes cameras and lenses too. Made money from this.

Amateur photographers – Bought mid-level cameras and film, used services of labs, publishers, photo schools etc.

Professional photographers – Bought cameras and film, especially the aspirational products; used services of labs, publishers, galleries, taught at photo schools. Made money by charging for images and prints.

Stock agencies – Held large collections of high-grade images for licensing; made money through royalties. License fees in the same order of magnitude of cost as hiring a professional for the job (usually).

Printing companies/ labs/ developers – Processed film, made prints, made money from this.

Publishers – Produced books, magazines, etc; made money through advertising and sales.

Galleries – Exhibited and sold prints.

Photo schools – Made money through selling courses to amateurs.

Today, the landscape looks very different (old guard remains in bold):

Camera companies – Made cameras and lenses only. Some now make sensors and electronics, too; have begun a battle of attrition killing each other on price in the hopes of increasing market share. We’re in the odd position of having CSCs that cost less than some compacts, and CSCs that cost more than some DSLRs. Money is made on the lenses and accessories, rarely on the camera bodies, and almost never on the compacts. The smaller players who can’t compete on price or incredibly short-lived generations have and will die or merge (e.g. Ricoh Pentax, Sigma).

Camera shops – A lot of the larger brick and mortar chains have gone; sunk by huge overheads that can no longer be sustained by narrow margins or price wars with online companies. In developed markets, people go to fondle, but not to buy – the prices are poor, and the service is abysmal – usually, nobody has any clue what they’re selling. In developing countries – like Malaysia, for example – only the large volume dealers survive; again, it’s a price thing; we are an even more price-sensitive environment than the US. RM50 ($15) can often make the difference between selling an M9, or not. Even the rich here – perhaps especially the rich – are very, very price sensitive. To make things worse, the local distributors give bonus payouts if a certain volume threshold is met; in order to meet the volume, you have to lower prices…you can see where this destructive spiral goes. It’s possible that these places may form small chains, but unlikely because it doesn’t make sense to have multiple physical locations if you can serve a lot of customers via the internet. Basically: the days of your corner pro shop are long gone. Interestingly, the lack of availability for niche models means that even more attention is paid to what’s written on the internet by pros and so-called ‘experts’.

Film companies – Kodak has gone under, and sold off the digital business – need I say any more? Although it seems that film is making something of a revival in amateur circles, I don’t see the businesses supporting it – there are only two proper pro labs left in Kuala Lumpur that can handle slide film well; even finding a minicab that can handle normal color negs is becoming challenging. The reality of professional work these days means that it is not a viable option because of falling rates and increasingly demanding throughput and deadlines.

Amateur photographers – Now represent more sales of ‘pro grade’ equipment than professionals; photography has become in vogue again. Consumers of content, makers of content, some excellent, some utter rubbish; supporters of the voracious demand for teaching and new product. Often swayed by marketing gimmicks – first it was more pixels, now it’s higher ISO numbers and ‘art filters’ or ‘scene modes’. This market is by far what keeps the camera companies in business.

Professional photographers – There are many breeds of pros these days – assuming the definition of pro is ‘makes all or most of their living from photography or related activities’. There are those who work for studios, or as press photographers – i.e. drawing a salary. There are those who shoot weddings and events; in this part of the world, they are mostly amateurs who charge for their work, but do not deliver consistency of quality or reliability. Unfortunately these people are the group the public interact with the most, and frankly, give the true pros a bad name – even those in the same industry. There is a small group who shoot for stock, or international agencies. Finally, there are the commercial photographers and studio owners, whose jobs are increasingly being supplanted by the huge quantity of stock out there, or worse, being taken by the amateurs who vastly undercharge, do a poor job, and generally threaten the sustainability and image of the industry. The reality is that the jobs that pay well – commercial work, advertising – are both shrinking and being heavily guarded by the established photographers; and the portion of the work that’s evergreen is becoming commercially unviable – there are event photographers in Malaysia who charge about RM50 an hour (that’s US$15) including processing (assuming they do any at all) for a huge number of images. In this price sensitive environment, that’s death. Needless to say, at those rates, it takes you 20 hours of work to pay off a D3200 kit; you’re not going to be having backup bodies in case things fail, nor are you going to be able to produce anything indoors except with direct flash.

The upshot of all of this is that the smart pros are doing many other related things – notice the increasing number of workshops and seminars offered; product endorsements; sponsored or ad-driven blogs; etc. You can’t just produce photos for money anymore. About a third of my income is from teaching; I’m staying away from advertising because it affects my credibility; but I will use other unique tools like the Email School of Photography, paid competitions and Amazon referral links.

Stock agencies – The old guard of stock agencies is still charging an arm and a leg, for (admittedly) higher quality images; however, they’re also giving the photographers a rather lousy deal. Getty takes between 60 and 80% of the royalties for each of my images it sells; ouch! The alternative is no money, or micro stock – where you get 20-30 cents, and hope like hell you sell a lot of images. The question is, would you rather have nothing, a bit of a lot, or next to nothing?

Printing companies/ labs/ developers – Almost dead, at least in this part of the world; the labs that survive are focused on digital printing; there are good ones, and bad ones, and few who really understood the transition well enough to be considered master printmakers. I’m lucky to have one here in Kuala Lumpur who takes care of my printing and is also a HP Master Printer. (Wesley Wong @ Giclee Art). Online print-on-demand bookmakers like Blurb are doing very well – there have been more and more of these emerging, though quality is somewhat hit and miss – even with Blurb, who appear to subcontract the actual print work to many different vendors. Getting replacements usually isn’t too difficult, though. And you can now print small runs instead of hundreds, as was the norm for offset printing.

Publishers – While amateur photography magazines have proliferated with the increase in interest in the hobby, they’ve also suffered stiff competition from websites, who can put out more content in a more timely manner – and offer things like full size files to play with – that the magazines simply can’t compete with. The magazines are trying to maintain their edge based on content quality, but I feel even that’s eroding. (I used to be Editor of a photography magazine here; finding people to produce quality content was so difficult that in the end I was writing and shooting nearly 90% of the magazine myself.)

Galleries – I can’t speak for overseas, but there just isn’t a market for photographic prints in Asia. While there seem to be a lot of galleries in Europe (at least there were on my last trip there) – I don’t know how they make money; it isn’t from print or ticket sales. I suspect that most are sponsored by camera makers or wealthy patrons.

Photo schools – Nothing much has changed here, but there are now more of them – though a lot of the ‘photo schools’ in Asia are just one-man shows who hire some seminaked models, set up some lights, and charge for entry. Needless to say, you’ll learn nothing. On the other hand, there are a number of very good pro shooters who’ve now turned to teaching to supplant their dwindling professional income; I’m one of them. You have the opportunity to learn from people who perhaps five or ten years ago, would have jealously guarded their secrets and techniques. Choose wisely, is all I can advise – looking at the quality of the person’s portfolio is an excellent way of doing this.

Photography blogs and news sites (like this one) – The majority of sites exist to satisfy the desire for content – reviews, validations of personal equipment choices, or information on whether one should buy camera X or camera Y. Preferably yesterday. Traffic spikes are huge when exclusives are in play (from experience, here) – and advertisers and referral fees are how these sites are supported. Some of us try to be a bit more esoteric in our choice of topics and deal with other photography-related things beyond equipment, but that’s not always the case. And it’s clear that while a lot of these sites still respect IP – I’m fine with people syndicating my articles/ posts with proper credit, and it does happen – but there are an equal number who frankly just don’t give a shit about IP, image rights or NDA agreements.

Rumor sites – They exist only because human nature wants the latest and greatest. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion to break NDA and reveal what I know; I can’t think why anybody would violate their position of trust for…well, precisely nothing. No money, (obviously) no credit, and nothing else whatsoever. I can’t help but wonder if some of the camera companies are leaking things directly to stir up interest in advance of product launches, though. They support themselves with referral links, of course.

Image sharing/ hosting sites – While most are free in some form – basic services of Flickr, Picasa, etc – the premium services for serious photographers are charged. Though how Flickr makes any money off me is baffling; I more than get my annual subscription worth through hosting and server bandwidth alone. I suppose there must be others who don’t have 14,000 uploads, though. Notably some have folded, though – Kodak’s PictureGallery, for instance.

Computer companies, software companies (e.g. Apple, Adobe) – I’m sure part of Apple’s meteoric success in the last few years is due to digital photography and the support/ processing requirements – actually, I’m surprised that there isn’t an Apple camera yet. Without the support ecosystem – photoshop, a decent machine to run it on – digital is pretty worthless, because I still haven’t seen a single out of camera jpeg that I’d be happy to present to a client. I don’t know how many iPads were sold for use solely as portfolio devices, but I’m sure it’s a lot; if I hadn’t won one in a contest, I’d probably buy it solely for that purpose. Beats carrying around a print portfolio, and it’s cheaper, too.

Mobile phone companies – The fact that we’re seeing innovation in this space – the Nokia 808 PureView comes to mind – says that photography is being taken seriously even by non-camera makers. Coupled with internet connectivity and social media, picture sharing has skyrocketed – however, it’s unclear who on the hosting end is making money out of this. I’m sure Facebook will eventually find a way to charge us for sharing our images using its platform – never mind that it’s one of the worst image sharing platforms ever, between compression, sRGB color spaces and horrible interfaces – but we still use it anyway, because it’s the easiest way to ensure that all your friends see something.

Microstock agencies – Microstock only works with volume – high numbers of purchases for newly-minted content and websites; and high numbers of eager photographers to make some money out of their images, even if it’s only cents. Without that huge amount of content to trade in, the micro stock model just doesn’t work. I don’t know how sustainable this is in the long term, either.

Accessory companies – The burgeoning increase in amateurs also means a bigger market for what would formerly have been very niche accessories – there are businesses making nothing but stick-on grips, or replacement rubbers, for instance. I welcome diversity, cottage industries and craftsmen in general – I hope these are sustainable, and honestly, given current camera sales volumes, see no reason why they wouldn’t be.

Self-proclaimed ‘experts’ – People with no clients, a crap (or worse, nonexistent) portfolio of work, no credentials but very, very loud voices have come out of the woodwork in recent years; the problem is that the louder the voice, the more they get heard – especially on the internet. Controversy is seen as a good thing, even if there’s no substance behind it – because it gets traffic, and traffic is directly proportional to advertising revenue. The problem is not that they exist, but that they’re assigned far too much weight by both consumers and camera companies alike. I would be very, very weary of any opinions by ‘experts’ who obviously are incapable of taking a halfway decent photograph. This of course assumes one can tell the difference at all; perhaps a better litmus test is to look at the proportion of disparaging or negative comments received: in over 700,000 views, I’ve had no more than 5 negative emails/ comments. I know you can’t please everybody, but I try hard to have the bases covered.

Online retailers – Almost all of today’s successful brick-and-mortar retailers also have an online presence; not necessarily the opposite. And the unsuccessful brick-and-mortar retailers simply don’t exist in cyberspace. Correlation? I think so; the online portion of a physical retailer’s business gives them enough volume to be competitive on price regardless of the sales channel; this is self-reinforcing in that you’re more likely to buy from say, the B&H Superstore in NYC if you’re there, since you know the prices are the same as on their website. But if your local camera shop is more expensive or can’t afford to keep the inventory range in stock because of lack of volume, the chances of you making a purchase there decrease dramatically. And there may be a store on the other side of the country (or even in another country) that does mail order – but if you don’t know about it, how are you going to make a purchase at all?

Online bulk retailers (e.g. Amazon) – Photographic equipment is a natural progression for existing retailers of electronics and other consumer goods – the one thing you have to be careful of is that descriptions are accurate, and goods are in stock. What we consider to be important differences – kit lens types, for instance – probably get overlooked by the clerk doing the data entry into the system. And not always having a number to call to confirm (or having the number, but a person who obviously can’t remember the details of the hundreds of thousands of products they sell) can sometimes make things risky. The flip side, of course, is that the enormous volumes and lack of sales tax can make these a very attractive option price-wise. They’re also often the first to receive new product in any significant quantity, simply because initial order volumes are so huge that manufacturers allocate priority stocks to them.

So what does this all mean? When the dust settles, we’re going to see a lot of consolidation in some areas – manufacturers, retailers – and a lot of proliferation in others – blogs, self-proclaimed ‘experts’, workshops, etc. I think we’re not quite done with the change yet; the shift to digital has killed or nearly killed a lot of industries, but at the same time opened up entirely new sectors to the enterprising individual or company. If you’d asked me even five years ago whether I thought there was any other way to make a photography-related living than from selling images or perhaps sales referrals through blogging, I would have said no. But here we are today – who knows where my income in another five years will originate. All I do know is that as photographers, we’ve got a whole load of new tools at our disposal to master, but once we do, we can always improve the quality of our images and broaden the shooting envelope. I may not be making most of my living from my commercial clients in future, but I do know that I’m going to continue using everything available to up the standard of my work, and help those who are interested to do the same. MT


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  1. Thinking both about “then and now” and “camera recycling periods” I can recall back in the mid-60s the impression was that if you had a screw-mount camera you were dubbed an amateur, but if you had a bayonet-mount camera you were definitely looked upon as a pro! Mind you, if I were going back to film (loved it so much for four decades I even published “Darkroom User” magazine for seven years in the UK) I would rather go back to a Leica IIIc and/or Pentax Spotmatic (screw) rather than Leica M3 and/or Nikon F (bayonet) not only for the many lenses (with a vintage “look and feel” to the imagery) still available, but also for the slowing-down in the manual photographic process… carefully screwing a different lens to a body must surely create, and stabilize, a different state of mind than a quick quarter turn of the wrist does!

  2. OK…I did not know too much about Steve Mccurry then,…its beyond my limited knowledge,..i had also read somewhere that he had a group of image editors.

    About post processing stuff to hide poor shots,..i kind of agree with you. I had personally shot some lousy photos, picked the best of the worst bunch,… spent several hours and many days post processing it,…then I completely given up on the photos, and went back out to re-shoot. No matter how hard I tried, it doesn’t work.
    But when I happen to get the shot looks ok or good,…then post processing is a very satisfactory experience,..it gives me the pleasure to maximize my photo.

    About print shops, I am from Penang,…yes those online print shops are very disappointing, I had engaged one only so far in my short period of photography. I went to the shop to see them, understand,…and its disappointing. I asked them what printer they use and how I should soft proof the colour based on different types of paper,..they have zero knowldge of that. They asked me to trial and error,…thats nonsense, I have to pay for the album and I am not expected to know how the output is…
    Luckily its just my baby’s 0-3 months album with lots of cartoonish design with lots of phone camera pictures,…which would not matter too much if the colour is abit off. But I find it extremely disappointing when a complete self taught newbie knows more about technical stuff in printing than them. And they cannot even give me an assured answer that when I am uplooading into their software, there will not be pixelation if I adjust the image bigger / smaller/ then bigger, I do not know if their software has those smart object functions. They kept on telling me to use 300 PPI, and they do not know difference of DPI and PPI. And their end product was disappointing as well,…wrongly crop the edge,…then accused me of doing it wrongly,..but when asked them to check their softcopy, then only they admit they cut it wrongly. They amended it only on those affected pages,…so after tweaking, some pages is slightly crumpled.

    About camera shops, not much better. I asked for parallax type of panaromic mount, they have no idea whats that. They just said a normal tripod will be ok for panaromic stitching photography. But I still try to get parallax,…I would like to do something creative and different such as taking panaromic in tight confined spaces,…whereby we could get parallax errors with normal tripod (as I understand from the internet)

    • Behind every big name photographer is a huge team of assistant and editors – it’s the only way they can keep the juggernaut rolling. Doing everything yourself requires a huge amount of time and skill in every area – you might be a great photographer, but poor in photoshop and abysmal at accounting – that’s not good for business.

      I have an excellent printer here in KL who takes care of my printing, as well as the exhibition prints for Leica, HP and Olympus. Shoot me an email if you’d like his details.

      For perfect panos, you need a rail mount (try the Manfrotto 454) to shift the center of rotation to match the nodal point of your lens (which isn’t usually marked, sadly).

  3. MT
    I follow your site and completely agree with your assessment.
    I put myself through engineering school with my photography hobby by working in camera stores and assisting. In the process I learned a lot. I pretty much left photography behind about 12 years ago due to career demands. When I left digital was in its infancy and the only real quality products were the $25k+ LEAF digital backs for medium format. I suppose I was a luddite and thought almost all digital was crap up until about 2007-2008 and bought my first ‘real’ digital camera in 2009 – a used Leica M8. That choice was deliberate as it was one of the only device that was more camera than digital. I used that camera with the lenses from the 1960’s that I’ve owned and used since the early 1990s. I admit that digital has taken me some time to adjust to, but (I think) I have gotten the hang of it. <>

    That the industry has completely changed in a short time and not for the better. Having worked with and sold to ‘old school’ pros, I’m appalled at what generally passes fro ‘pro’ gear these days. If you had dropped off most of this stuff at the camera store back in the 80’s or 90’s most serious photographers would laughed it out of the store. Mostly, I’m appalled by what passes for photographic knowledge today and an endless army of pixel-peeping bloggers droning on about fall-off, soft corners and other crap that largely doesn’t matter unless you’re photographing perfectly flat pages of printed text. Worse still, most of these issues are things that can easily (and automatically) be corrected during import. I’m also deeply saddened at the prices and respect paid to what is still fantastic equipment (Hasselblad, older MF Nikon, MF Canon, older Leica) that was build to withstand a lifetime of use. It somehow breaks my heart to see an old Nikon F or Hasselblad 500CM outfit selling for a fraction of what I know is its true worth.

    I do love that digital gives me the freedom to view what I shoot right away, but that’s also the problem. It makes us sloppy. With film I knew I had to be on my game and pay attention. If I missed an exposure I wasn’t going to get a second chance. I had to think through every important shot and be as certain as possible that I had it right. The luxury of being able to check instantly, and correct almost infinitely has indeed made us (and admittedly me) lazy and sloppy. Its especially making all the newbies sloppy since they constantly lean on the crutch of technology rather than every trying to really know and understand what they’re doing. I think this holds true for soooo much of the digital age, and its something we should learn an important lesson from. Technology is not bad- but it tends to be a poor substitute for knowledge and experience.

    • Agree with most of your assessment – my F2 was definitely much better built than my D3, and even the D700 was more solid than the D800. Soon they’ll all be disposable.

      As for digital – Yes and no. You can be sloppier in the studio, but you can also get a lot higher precision. You don’t get a second chance in the field, though. In that way it’s probably more difficult than film as there are a lot more variables to master. Either way, sloppy shooting results in sloppy output and vice versa – I just feel that with digital, the boundaries of what is possible if you are conscientious have moved even further.

  4. Nice article…
    I am a newbie in photography,…but I see alot in my common between myself and you (the way you view things,…your in depth and realistic analysis of life and photo equipment)…
    Many things in common with you except for my photography ability / talent and knowledge.

    Comparison to my work industry, yeah,..I think its the same problem in every industry, you face competition who is willing to charge very low.
    But then again, looking at it from another perspective, you can’t blame them too much I guess –
    – Its an open and free competition
    – many amatuers charge very low service rates because they are new in the industry, and the only opportunity for them to break in is to start somewhere,…and to charge cheaply,…if they start off with professional rates, then who would engage their service.
    – And yes,..some not so good so called professionals also has to charge cheaply,..its survival..

    Its just unfortunate that they spoilt your market.

    On another note, saw from one of your older article, you were saying that your clients thinks your image is technically too perfect, too clean for photojournalism,…but they love it if it is studio environment.
    I kind of agree with them. ( if you don’t mind a photography newbie and mediocre photographer like me giving opinions)..
    For photojournalism type of photography,…I think images like Steve McCurry with not so sharp and not so perfect technical shot has alot of soul and charisma in the image,…it just looks powerful. Of course it has lots of factors in it that makes it look so charismatic.

    Mind you,…don’t take my opinions if you think it is crap….I may not know what I am talking about.

    • I think it’s a problem with both clients and service providers: if you’re crap, and charge high rates, nobody will engage you – or engage you and regret ever hiring an ‘professional’ – there are also misrepresentation issues there. If you’re good, and charge accordingly, then it’s fair value. If you’re good, and don’t price according to your worth, you’re destroying the market for yourself and everybody else. The problem is, there’s so little transparency and education here that the former and the latter are the most common scenarios; it happens so often that most clients just think that’s the way it is.

      I don’t know if you’ve were referring to my article on perfection vs content yes, there’s too much of a good thing. But you need to be at an even more perfect level in order to control precisely how much chaos enters your shot; this allows you to control the mood and feeling. It’s a bit counterintuitive, but I think it makes sense from a human psychological point of view: we don’t see every moment perfectly, because there are always other distractions. The job of a good photograph is to isolate those unique moments, but not lose the context of the events and other things surrounding that instant in time – and it’s for this reason you need to be able to control the level of imperfection.

      • Yes I was referring to this article. I was thinking that other than the points you mentioned, the imperfection also involves other technical side of the image such as the less than perfect overall color or ambience of the picture.
        I mean a overall mood and color processing that is not so close to real life when captured, but still ended up being very catchy to the attention and still “acceptable” to the human perception as being a great picture. When I see such images, sometimes the color look too desatured, yet still very catchy,…sometimes it looks too strong and vibrant compared to real life,…yet still very catchy,…it is just different to exact real life colour. What I love about photos from Steve McCurry is that they have these points.

        On the other hand, sometimes an image that is too technically correct, has a very gradual enhancement of the original real life colour (but close and the enhancement of the colour mood is inline with real life colour).

        Coming back to original point of this article, I hear you,… yes its unfortunate when you have a real competent pro who wants to go down the route of price war to get more business, it does happen in my different work industry as well.
        And also with the popularity of photography, there are more and more pros wannabes flooding all over facebook,… adding friends all over the place in facebook,..doing their best to self advertise. Based on my own opinion (again I believe that I have the rights to criticize even if I am a mediocre photographer myself),….alot of those pro wannabe are simply just not good enough in many ways.
        – uninspiring composition
        – amatuer-like level of post processing
        – no tonability in the overall picture that brings highlight to the main subject
        – lacks creativity,…its either pose A, B , C , D , E (or A1 , B1etc)
        – even posting very mediocre images in their profile, I think this is a killer. It is one thing posting great images in portfolio, then not being able to produce it consistently,….its the biggest sin to post crappy staff. This means the person himself has got NO CLUE at all that his image is poor.
        So I thought that, even though those wannabes are amatuers, but I think that if they don’t show some kind of talent at this stage, means they are not having enough of it to be good. Of course, I believe there are some wannabes with great potential out there.

        I am just glad that I learn now that professionals also need to rely quite alot on post processing, its a combination of the photo itself plus processing. Even before I bought my first camera beginning of the year to shoot photos of my new baby, while I was cluelessly surveying all over the sites for camera, I already knew I am going to include post processing in my photos, and I already understood what post processing can do for me.

        Another point that I think was not mentioned in this article that I would like to add on the current photography industry –
        Post processing has helped to bridge the gap between normal entry level system camera vs a top end full framers?
        Am I right to say that?

        • Steve McCurry relied on Kodachrome for his color, and now an army of assistants for his processing. He also does a lot of pose A, B, C, D type shots – I don’t think he’s a good example at all.

          What you’re talking about is using or emphasizing color to create a feeling – I cover that in this article on the inexact science of color and emotion.

          Relatively, we’re all crap compared to somebody else – I make no bones about the fact that there’s always an opportunity to improve yourself. When you stop acknowledging that and think you’re the best – a lot of pros and ‘famous photographers’ in this country fall into that trap – then you’re simply digging your own grave with your arrogance.

          Wrong on post processing. Yes, PS is the equivalent of the darkroom in the film days; but it doesn’t bridge the gap between entry level and top end. The simple truth is that sensor technology has long passed the point of sufficiency for most people, as well as being capable of more than the skill level of the user – a good example is the number of people who actually have sufficient shot discipline to maximize resolution from a D800E at actual pixels – very, very few. Most mediocre photographers use extreme post processing to draw attention away from the fact that the fundamental composition of the image is poor.

  5. Ming, nice assessment. Some thoughts:

    Amateurs ALWAYS bought more of the high end “Professional” equipment than “Professionals” did.

    At least in the US, there were far more photography schools than there are today.

    In the US, photo equipment was far cheaper through the 80s relative to salary than it is today. More, retailers were allowed to compete on price in a free market, rather than to have draconian high, unchangeable prices forced upon them by domineering manufacturers

    You bought a camera and lens, it was good for years and years without replacement. Today the marketing is to consider last year’s product as disposable. You should dump it at a huge loss, and spend good money for its brand new replacement. It’s one thing that manufacturers promote this early obsolescence; it’s another that most blogs- especially those who promote themselves as sophisticated experts- also promote this. It’s ultimately unsustainable.

    • I’m not sure that was always true – there used to be a reason to buy pro grade over amateur grade, and that was durability. Same lenses, same film = same image quality. The body was just the vessel, if you will. Now, the better sensors come in the better bodies – so in a way, if you want more resolutionn or more image quality or more dynamic range, then you’ve got no choice but to buy the best.

      Agree on the oblescence part – there is absolutely no reason why this year’s camera won’t take just as good pictures next year, or better, because (hopefully) you’ve improved as a photographer. However, I do notice the new gear doesn’t seem to be as built to as high tolerances/ quality as older gear; this is probably going to result in a shorter lifespan anyway due to mechanical reasons. Just one more way the manufacturers try to increase profits – reduce assembly cost, and increase replacement frequency. One of the reasons why I posted the ‘Inspirations from older cameras’ series was to prove that there’s nothing wrong with older gear if you know how to use it. Sadly, although most people are willing to open their wallets to improve their gear, they won’t do the same to remove the biggest limitation to improvement: their own skill.

  6. Thanks, Ming. A lot to chew! (At this moment, the formatting in the first few sentences seems to need fixing, where there seems to be an unintended paragraph break where words should be.)

    I continue to be fuzzy on the concept of photography as an “industry”. It seems so large and diverse, and, of late, in such extreme flux, that any attempt to get my head around it results in said head spinning off into space. It’s a mysterious and elusive beast, in other words, but I think this post at least gives me a better idea of what it might look like. btw where are the retouchers in all this?

    On the other hand, perhaps the word “industry” is throwing me off. To my mind at least, “ecosystem” or “economy” or something like that may be a promising approach to something so complex and diverse. Will think on that too.

    Whatever term is more appropriate, a recent blog post by a.d. coleman illustrated for me yet more surprising and frankly disturbing developments at both the high and low ends of this industry, in which he highlights top venture capital firms bidding billions for Getty Images, and then people hiring pros to take their vacation snapshots. http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/2012/07/30/dog-day-afternoons-bits-pieces/

    • There was some text missing. Odd.

      I think what you’re describing is the high end…the low end is what we see in Asia, where commercial jobs are done by people who just bought big cameras which now automatically admits them to the professional ranks. And clients land up thinking all photographers are crap because of their experience. 9/10 people I work with locally don’t even know what image licensing is, or that you need model releases if there are people in commercial images…

  7. Ciao, excellent article, yes things were definitely easier when we all used SLR cameras and film, l had a great relationship with my photo lab and usually met up other professional photographers there to chat and exchange info etc, Sadly l seem to spend more time at the computer not l may add messing around with the image but adding metadata for the two stock agencies that l am with.
    Everyone likes taking photo, but hardly anyone is really ‘looking’ just pointing and shooting. Thanks for your interesting blog.

    • Thanks Lynne – same here – most of my time seems to be spent in front of a computer, even if I’m not writing or maintaining the site.

  8. I agree with you completely about Facebook when you say:
    “never mind that it’s one of the worst image sharing platforms ever, between compression, sRGB color spaces and horrible interfaces – but we still use it anyway, because it’s the easiest way to ensure that all your friends see something.”

    And about your statement on Self-proclaimed ‘experts’ “The problem is not that they exist, but that they’re assigned far too much weight by both consumers and camera companies alike. I would be very, very weary of any opinions by ‘experts’ who obviously are incapable of taking a halfway decent photograph. This of course assumes one can tell the difference at all…”:
    I believe (now) I’m able to tell the difference between a good photographer and someone with a different agenda. One of the reasons I haven’t join Google+ is because I perceive that there is a race over there… where 20% of the photographers wants the other 80% to follow them and get into whatever they sell or make. (This is probably the reality of the internet in general, but for me it’s more palpable on Google+.) It took me a few years to learn much about photography, and although I don’t produce very high quality work, I believe today I know what a good photograph is… and what the whole industry is about. I will keep going for the love and fun of it, while giving respect to people like you, a professional in every sense of the word. Thankfully, I have a full time job that I also enjoy and I’m not in what it seems a race of who gets more followers*.

    *Audience = People that will read and go by what I post.

    • There is definitely a race. Except I feel it’s a very small, closed circuit – kind of like going around in circles. If 20% are competing for 80%, that’s 1:4 or thereabouts – or maybe a much large disproportion for the better ones – but it seems rather energy intensive for not that much gain. Plus I have to be honest, I don’t like the UI there either.

  9. compulady says:

    Thanks for your unfortunately accurate assessment of the photographic industry. I have always loved and have been involved in photography (for over 40 years though I chose another profession 20 years ago) it’s sad to see while photography is becoming ever more popular in general, ironically it has become hardest for professional photographers who used to have to wear 10 hats now have to wear 20 hats so to speak.

    Thank you for your integrity, creativity and sharing.

    • Agreed – it seems today the big business is no longer in the image making, but in the image producing. With that, I’m off to buy another hat rack. 🙂

  10. A true reflection of the industry and why it would scare me into entering the industry unless I have a clear niche to aim for as well as a clear plan on the ‘other’ aspects such as teaching.

    What I think could happen is if the market is flooded with ‘cheap’ photographer options that sooner or later people look for say ‘high end luxury’ photographers. By this I mean individuals who simply charge more than others and so assumed to be better. Like watches always a market for the high end.

    As for the fine art photography market, it is there and I think is growing. I look at a lot of my friends who have disposable income and they are willing to spend a few hundred dollars on a print…..for the younger generation photography is the new in vogue thing, just need to access them. Peter Lik is an example of when it works, it works massively in your favour (albeit an extreme example!)

    I think the luxury high end is where to aim in the longer term, but it’s great to have the teaching alongside. Tried doing a few basic teaching with friends and it’s not easy and a lot of effort! Keep up the work on the blog, if anything I think it’s required to keep people interested in you and thus to help with sales and business!

    • The ‘luxury’ option is already here – but they’re just cheap photographers in a suit charging 10-100x as much. They’re not any better, they just have society friends. One well known high end wedding photographer here actually uses his photography as a vehicle to get more clients for his multilevel marketing business…

      I’m hoping with this much imagery in the marketplace, eventually buyers will be savvy enough to tell the difference between good and bad – and that good necessarily costs money because of experience, equipment etc – there will be a resurgence eventually, but the question is how long.

      Fine art doesn’t work in the developing world, period. Not at the moment anyway.

      As for the website – it hasn’t helped the commercial side of things at all, but you can’t do any teaching without it.

      • So the ‘luxury’ photography market is like a 10k watch with a standard 2824 movement beating at its heart then 🙂

        I think the market will get savvy – but it will take time for them to have the bad experiences to appreciate higher quality. In the end this is becoming a more and more ruthless business, to an extent photographers need to use the conditions to their advantage and really have their own ‘Unique Selling Point’, one just has to work even harder unfortunately.

        Geography for fine art is important in terms of where wealth is concentrated – just need to somehow make use of the Internet to reach them (easier said than done I know….)

        • More like a 20k watch with an undecorated 7750…don’t laugh, it actually happened – and the collectors still didn’t care, they bought it anyway.

          The only solution is to keep pushing yourself and be so much better than the next guy that there’s no question about why you charge what you charge.

  11. Wow, that was really depressing, although much of it came as no surprise to me.

  12. I will echo the others in how thoughtful and in my mind accurate article. I live in America and one other avenue for fine art is craft fairs. Of course you will see varying degrees of ability there much of it depends on the craft fair organizers themselves. I assume people selling there must be doing pretty well since I continue to see them present in the craft fairs that I attend as a buyer. Though they sell the large print on occasion what they tell me they mostly sell are postcard sized prints that are inexpensive.

    • Thank you. I suppose if you do 20-30 $25 prints a day, that’s definitely worthwhile – but it might be a lot harder to shift a $500 large print in such a setting. One other thing is that most people just don’t carry that much cash…

  13. Like you say, everything has changed.
    “The alternative is no money, or micro stock – where you get 20-30 cents”: this has changed too. iStockphoto pays very little percentage, but the total for each image (to me as contributor) is much higher than that. Easily around 3-15$ for sale.

  14. Robert Stark says:

    Thank you for this interesting, reflective and very honest essay. You write honestly, without conceit and hubris. I’m glad that your contributions through your Blog are now widely read and well received. You are a gift.

  15. radiantlite says:

    Honest depiction on what’s going on in this crazy photography world today 🙂

  16. I like and see what you’re writing. Unfortunately I’m one of these amateur Photographers who charge for Events and weddings 🙂

    • Haha. Well, charge the right amount – commensurate with your services.

      • wouldn’t you even say, that there are some amateurs, that deliver better work than some professionals? (I speak of people gaining money only with photography)

        • Absolutely. In fact, I think they have a huge advantage over professionals: they only shoot and deliver what they want, not what they have to do to earn a living. This means the creative process isn’t forced/ on demand, resulting in potentially better images.

  17. I enjoy these type or articles you write. VERY honest IMO which is a good thing.
    Did you consider holding a true beginners workshop?
    Even for those who dont own a dslr. Maybe just mirrorless or dare i say compact.
    Workshop that teaches the fundamentals and let the student progress from there.

    • Thanks Peter. Fundamentals of photography could be covered theoretically in a day, but practically it’d take longer. Compacts are actually better for teaching composition than DSLRs because you have to get the composition perfect instead of relying on bokeh.

      I could put something together for you or a small group, please let me know if this is something that might interest you.

  18. Ming, I think this is an accurate assessment, but i’m surprised that you didn’t bring up the shift from DSLR’s to Mirrorless camera technology and video included in most cameras these days too. The market for photographic prints in galleries in the U.S. is huge for established photographic artists in the gallery scene or celebrity type photographers and of course for the estates of deceased photographers too. Marketing and PR influence can be a key. One of the most remarkable galleries I’ve seen in recent years is in New Orleans http://www.agallery.com/ I think another very interesting topic that you touched on briefly is the blurring of the lines akin to what Spotify does [seemingly legally], which is the portability or ease of appropriating other’s images in the digital age. A very interesting time we are living in for sure. I think that there is still much room for inovation in the camera companies sector and in the pro photographer market were I live and make my living actually shooting and selling my images. As good as a camera may be it is still the photographer that makes the image. And there is a world of difference between an Instagram snap shot {don’t get me wrong I’ve seen some stunning iPhone-photography}….oh hell…..a camera is a camera …. put in the right hands photo magic can be produced. And to produce that magic consistently instead of coincidentally or sporadically as a happy accident is what separates an amateur from a pro.

    • Thanks Marc. I don’t think DSLRs are dead, or being replaced by mirrorless just yet – certainly not the current crop of CSCs, and the Sony translucent mirror tech has the huge stumbling block of the EVF to overcome – it’s in some ways, the worst of both worlds because you have the size of a DSLR, but not the viewfinder benefits. I don’t know why nobody has revived the pellicle mirror yet.

      In Asia at least, the fine art photography market is not at all developed – and I don’t think it will ever be, because consumer proliferation of cameras came before consumer education to value photography. Completely agree with your comment on amateurs vs pros – the next differentiation is that the first thing you see is the image and the composition, not the signature of the equipment used.

      It’s not a dead industry, not by a long shot – but the balance is definitely shifting.

      I cover IP and image rights in a future article 😉


  1. […] The photography industry as we know it is changing. In this article, I want to examine some of the dynamics of the ‘old’ industry, and the ‘new’ industry – and how we …  […]

  2. […] The photography industry as we know it is changing. In this article, I want to examine some of the dynamics of the ‘old’ industry, and the ‘new’ industry – and how we as photographers can survive commercially. In some ways, this is the state of how I perceive theIn the pre-digital era, and up to the transition point – oh, I suppose 2004 or so, when DSLRs became accessible to the mainstream.  […]

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