Over the course of the last few months, I’ve had a number of interesting conversations with quite a number of people involved in various areas of the photographic industry – from the corporate juggernauts that make the hardware, to the niche manufacturers, to professional photographers, to amateurs, clients/ image buyers and everything in-between. I suspect the nature of my work and involvement with the greater photographic community means that I have a little more insight into the big picture than most, and what I’m seeing honestly concerns me.
For the longest time, most of the money circulating in the industry was from selling film and supplies, then hardware; and finally closely followed by selling images. Digital has eliminated the first cash cow, upped the average revenue per sale/ item/ buyer (pick your metric) of the second, and I think it’s difficult to gague what’s happened to the third: on one hand, the average ticket price of a job has fallen, but on the other, there are a lot more small jobs, more photographers who perhaps are not full time pros, and more people still who’ve found a new passion thanks to overall lowered costs of entry*.
*Hardware has gone up, come down again, image quality potential has shot through the roof, but pros no longer have to burn through hundreds or thousands of dollars of film and processing on each job. The per job cost has definitely fallen.
I don’t think anybody would argue that digital is not mature: for the vast majority of consumers and pros, we’re there. It is easier than ever to achieve higher image quality than ever; long past what we could achieve with film. Even cameraphones in good light are not far off the best 35mm could deliver. But I think it isn’t image quality that’s the true measure of maturity: it’s the fact that sales are tailing off in most parts of the world for the core hardware (bodies, kit lenses etc.) The people who are serious – enthusiasts and pros – will buy whatever they want or need regardless, but they represent a small market. The volume buyers have what they need, and don’t feel the same urge to upgrade as the rest of us (and presumably most readers of this site) do: it’s like a washing machine for us. We may do some research and buy a good one, but we’re not going to buy another one because it spins with 10% more rpm or washes 15% faster or can take a bit more load. It does the job so we’ll continue using the one we’ve got until it breaks – and that’s what a camera is for most people.
The manufacturers are now struggling with the next wave of adoption. Over the last few years, there’s actually been a very good reason to upgrade; each successive generation delivered tangible and visible benefits that didn’t really require a lot of explanation to sell. The majority of buyers could see the difference with their own eyes. We are now at the point where we’re splitting hairs, and even photographers who can a) tell the difference and b) consistently deploy it and c) afford it are having to think multiple times to justify purchases: is the Zeiss 1.4/55 Otus really worth 4x the ticket price of the Sigma 50/1.4 Art? For most, the answer is a definite no. I doubt any more than a small fraction of the market can see the difference, and even less than that can use it. Even I frequently wish I had autofocus. Would I like to own every Otus? Of course. Will I? I don’t know, because each one costs a small fortune.
In order for Zeiss to sell one, they have to convince the potential buyer of the value. The only way for them to do that is to show tangible results: education. It’s a similar situation with the recent Nikon D810, over the D800E: headline numbers on the spec sheet are almost identical. Photographers with plenty of mileage on the D800E had to think quite a bit before upgrading: the improvements are so specific and applicable only under certain situations, not all of which every photographer will encounter. And you won’t know whether they’re even useful for you or not without some serious introspection into the way you shoot.
Consider this progression of hardware, aimed at the same serious amateur/ working pro: from D200 to D700, we gained full frame and about two stops of high ISO; from D700 to D800E, we gained three times the resolution and didn’t lose much – if any – low light capability. D800E to D810 – err, 1fps, new mirror/shutter and EFC, a few video modes, and a slightly larger buffer. Did Nikon sell a lot of D800Es to D700 or D3X users based on numbers alone, over every other camera that came before? Definitely. Are they going to sell as many D810s to D800E users? I highly doubt it. And each successive generation from now on is likely to be the same: just because there’s a quantum leap in one aspect of the hardware does not mean the rest of the imaging chain is up to supporting it. We early adopters of the D800E discovered this the hard way when it came to lenses, for instance.
But even though we can see something is wrong – we may not know why, or how to fix it. And there’s something similar going on with the market for images, too. It’s getting harder and harder to sell work to clients simply because the average level of ‘free’ is approaching the level of sufficiency for a lot of companies who would previously have paid for at least an ‘entry level’ job. Instead now we have friends of friends and relatives shooting for free or very little; this has thinned out an entire strata of the professional photography market. It is no longer possible to make a decent living from many small jobs frequently. This was previously a good strategy simply because the loss of one job would not affect the end of the month’s numbers too badly; things would average out. No longer. There’s now a ‘middle class’ of photographic providers who don’t do it for a living, but at the same time aren’t doing the things pros used to do: educating clients and providing consistency of service, for a start**.
At the high end – the commercial jobs that used to have creative and art directors and more than one person working – budgets have tightened in response to global economic conditions, and expectations of the unrealistic have risen thanks to the public perception that Photoshop can fix any multitude of sins – this is not a good place to be in at all. Naturally, those pros involved in these markets have grown even more protective of their territory, since it’s shrinking. I’m no longer sure that this is a good market to be in, either: the bigger the job, the bigger the risk, the higher the upfront costs, and the larger the egos involved – plus there are more people who want to have their ‘creative’ interests represented, too. At the end of the day the results land up being a dog’s breakfast and the photographer is blamed, because they are the most obvious person at whom to attribute the images.
At the core of this, the misalignment of expectations is usually to blame. I’m finding with increasing frequency that I get asked to quote on jobs based on the creative and experimental work in my portfolio, but then told that the final look would be decided by one of the clients (who inevitably have no or little creative experience) or an external art director (who usually isn’t any better). Perhaps this problem is limited to Asia and the developing world, but I can’t help but ask the obvious question: why hire me because you like my work, then ask me to copy something a competitor did and then be unhappy that the results look the same?
There are some clients to whom I explain this in as simple terms as possible, and some will go with my suggestion of trying something different. If they keep an open mind, they’re usually happy. The rest don’t listen and then complain. I don’t work for them again, nor do I want to. The only thing we can do is educate our clients: to trust that we should be an integral part of the creative process, and that’s why they hired us in the first place.
As for the art market, photography never really had the scale of painting or sculpture or ‘traditional’ arts to begin with; it probably never will now that the majority of people believe they can create their own – and they’re right, with practice and guidance, of course. Galleries and promoters of photography as art are not really helping themselves by keeping the market cliquish and closed.
We’ve now come full circle again: we’re past the point of selling based solely on the obvious. Even the niches are being filled, and there are only so many quirky experiments the market will support; most people cannot be buying expensive non-essential items every few months. And there simply aren’t enough people at the high end who can to support the R&D investment required to develop these things. This means that long term sustainability of the camera business is dependent on a few things: firstly, the influencers – i.e. the pros with a visible public profile – staying in business; the responsibility for client education and management falls on them. Then, the only way to get mass consumers to become enthusiasts is to enable them with skills and knowledge: they need to be engaged, and preferably by a brand. The first companies to start will be the winners, because they will have captured the loyalty of the most consumers. It’s easy for people to spend money on something if they’ve already convinced themselves they need it.
But there are only so many images or cameras you can buy. Invest in developing proper structured education programs for your hardware buyers; include them as value added extras (or heavily subsidized, and watch as more buyers convince themselves they need upgrades. I personally believe education is the way forward, and this is why over the last few years I’ve invested significant time and resources into developing this site, the workshop syllabuses and the teaching video series – there’s no limit to how far individual creativity can go. I’m openly stating it here because I know there are a lot of industry readers to this site: to any camera maker who’s keen to explore such a program, I would love to collaborate with you to keep our industry healthy and growing. It’s in everybody’s best interests. I have the structure and the track record – hundreds of students, a full range of videos and a complete end to end syllabus for everybody from compact camera beginners to serious artists looking to push creative development. Which manufacturer has the courage to take up the challenge? MT
On an unrelated note, this is post number nine hundred on this site – the vast majority of which were about education or the making and analysis of images.
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