Being a photographer today

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Whoops, that was yesterday. But I don’t think any reader will mind the eye candy.

There is a point to the ‘wrong’ image: it ain’t like it used to be, and if that’s a cliche and somewhat ill-fitting statement given I haven’t been in this game that long, perhaps it’s also a sign of just how fast the market is changing. As I come to the end of my fourth year full time as a photographer and start planning for the fifth, I’ve got to ask myself what’s changed in the last few years and where that fits with my plans (or rather how I’ve got to adapt not to be left behind). What’s a bit frightening is that niches seem to be coming and going both extremely fast and in a way that is almost impossible to predict what works and what doesn’t; luck, as always, plays a massive role in the proceedings.

Not that long ago – probably when I started photography seriously around the turn of the millennium*, there were basically the editorial and news photographers, the commercial guys in studios, the landscapists, the event/wedding/etc. people, and the lower end mall studios. You could make a decent living out of any one of these, though the first winds of change with serious accessibility to digital were starting to blow. There was definitely some consolidation going on, though: client budgets were doing strange things and inflating in some areas but contracting heavily in others. The high end was getting higher and harder to get into, and the low end was getting lower – though not to the same extent as the wealth gap is increasing today. In short though: pure photography – selling images and prints for as living – was still a viable career option.

*Now THAT sounds odd to write.

Fast forward ten years to when I made the career jump stick, and pure photography was on shaky legs. The gap had widened even more, though it didn’t seem to be a case of the high end getting higher and the low end lower, but the bottom dropping out of the market. Access to hardware made it easy to both supercharge the learning process or fool uneducated clients into thinking you knew what you were doing. It also meant a lot of people getting into the game who a) perhaps shouldn’t or b) represented serious competition – mainly for the first reason. You could still just about make a living out of being a pure photographer, though almost nobody delivered prints anymore. Other things were beginning to creep in at the edges, though: video convergence in a big way, firstly. Secondly, teaching. Thirdly, the 900-pound gorilla: internet, reviews, referrals etc. We suddenly had a generation of ‘photographers’ who did nothing more than post snapshots, rave or rant about some hardware, and get paid indirectly. But because they have volume and visibility, those opinions gained far more credibility than the limited experience of the writers warranted.

A handful of years on from there, and those trends have cemented even further: there are so many ‘experts’ online that there is almost no value in referral fees anymore because the margins (and thus absolute commissions) are much lower, and the distribution of income is far more spread out. It is still necessary – perhaps more than ever – to have an internet presence; sometimes I really think that being a successful photographer is really built around a cult of personality. And being eccentric doesn’t hurt, though perhaps too eccentric and nobody will take you seriously. Most photographers have been, or are, involved with video – myself included. Aerial has become commonplace, and whilst I would love to spend some time exploring this arena, I still believe it’s only a matter of time before a serious drone accident shuts the whole thing down** – or at least renders it inaccessible.

**Last year, when shooting in Hong Kong, we found out that drones were actually harder to deploy than helicopters because of the permits required and the difficulty of shipping batteries in. They are heading towards proper legislation in the interests of public safety, and this is the way it should be. Whilst a commercial helicopter has to be certified and inspected regularly, this is not the case with a drone – and some of those things may weigh north of 50kg or more. Even a 1kg drone – or something improperly secured – falling from 100m will kill anybody underneath it.

In the last year, teaching seems to have exploded – every photographer is offering courses of some sort. However, judging from the feedback I’m getting from my own students who’ve also attended other workshops, it seems that this is a reaction of necessity: there is less and less work going around so there’s no choice. A lot of the people who are teaching probably shouldn’t be; walking around taking pictures without explanation or instruction or properly structured pedagogy isn’t teaching. The real surprise is that a lot of the culprits are big names, some of which who are unwilling to share everything, or never shoot with the students – possibly out of fear or being outdone. On the flip side though, it’s also allowed for some surprises: people who perhaps weren’t first grade photographers, but make really excellent teachers. I believe this too will shake itself out eventually. Personally, I’ve cut back on teaching in the last two years, and will continue to cut back next year. The simple reason is that whilst I enjoy meeting new people and travelling, I simply don’t have the time.

The fine art market appears to be moving but is still very much a nebulous target requiring a lot of luck and timing to hit solidly. I’ve had $300 print runs that have sold precisely zero copies, some which have sold out, shows that have raised over a million dollars for charity, commissioned pieces going for large numbers…in short, completely random. Unless one is very well connected and has the time and energy to fire a lot of arrows, you can’t make any predictions or plans. I am now looking at it as an income supplement which happens to let me really shoot anything I want and perhaps make something out of it, rather than a main business line for this reason.

Very last comes the conventional business of selling images…and yes, sometimes, prints. Volume is the name of the game at the low end, which is concerning for so many reasons: there’s an absolute ceiling to your income, and it’s going to reduce every year as you get pushed harder – that’s against rising costs of living and everything else. I see this happening at the low end of the business, though things appear to be easing up a bit compared to the incredibly competitive 2013-2014 – at least in Asia. I think a lot of people who tried at that point realise that you cannot make a consistent living like this, and perhaps photography is not for them. Very disturbingly though, I have been asked for kickbacks and cuts out of almost every local job I was requested to quote for this year; I have turned them all down because I do not operate that way. Paying a ‘commission’ or ‘agency fee’ to somebody representing a company and working for that company is wrong in so many ways – though many photographers disagree, which only contributes to the problem.

At the other end of the market, I’ve had a record number of other clients this year who have hired me specifically because of my work and given me full creative freedom and a fair budget, and in turn been extremely happy with the results. Those jobs have been amongst the most enjoyable I’ve done, partially due to the variation (helicopters, huge prints, Ultraprints, locations, subject matter etc.) but mostly due to the people and inspiration. They have kept me excited and energised and restored my faith that it is possible to pick a creative/stylistic/artistic niche, focus 110% on it, and still survive.

All in all, though it seems that diversification has been the main method of survival for most photographers in the last few years – online, video, teaching, aerial, art etc. – I don’t think that’s going to be the case in the future. We’ve had an enormous shift in the medium and those changes are only starting to really settle. Whilst it’s possible to be very, very good at one or more of those aforementioned streams – you have to be superhuman to manage them all, and unfortunately there are only a fixed number of hours in the day. It’s almost as though what makes a successful image and what makes a successful photographer have converged: a compelling story, unique presentation of interesting subject matter, and better focus than not. MT

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Comments

  1. And about drones crashing and regulations. Here’s one from a couple of weeks ago. I think they’ve banned them from alpine skiing competitions now.

  2. Ming, Don’t settle.

    I’ll shamelessly borrow that. I’m convinced that there exists a sub-set of our population that can be entirely emotionally invested in their work while at the same time capable of a transcendent view of themselves. This view of self is rooted in intellectual capacity (often expressed as business acumen) and emotional stability. Being brutally honest with yourself and then sharing (a some risk!) the results of that self evaluation is inherently a positive process. Carry on! As Steve Jobs said: If what you are going to do today is not what you would do on your last day on earth, make changes.

  3. you title picture made me smile. It is almost exactly my gear from 30 odd years ago. Maybe I can call myself lucky to have changed profession? Good thing about photography, though: you don’t have to stop taking pictures, once you’re out of this business.

  4. Patric Gordon says:

    Ming, This article makes me want to go out and buy that new Nikon D5.and call myself a professional photographer……………….., I don’t think, so!
    As always your inciteful observations and commentary on the “State of the Art” are much appreciated and I am sure that my fellow readers would agree. I do hope for you and your family, that you can find a reasonable middle ground with your work in 2016.

    If you do not mind, changing the subject a bit. I have recently, peaked some interest in 35 mm film cameras and thought it would be interesting to try some film camera photography. I will not ask you what the best film camera is (I seen your reply, before), but, I would ask: What film 35 mm camera would you buy for yourself to play with. I know you own a Nikon Titanium and probably a myriad of Leicas, etc., but, I am referring to a good camera that is not being held hostage by the auction houses of Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the hyper-disposable monied crowd.

    Anyway best to you and your family in the coming year.
    Gracias
    Pat Gordon

    • Patric, I hope you meant “insightful” (having or showing an accurate and deep understanding, perceptive, as in
      “thank you for all the insightful comments” and not “inciteful” (the action of provoking unlawful behaviour or urging someone to behave unlawfully) :D)

      • Patric Gordon says:

        Terry, I believe you’re right! I guess that I was trying to be inciteful. Actually, it is my Scotch/Irish lineage, just
        troublemaker at heart. But, I got to laugh!

        • memyselfandi says:

          🙂 sometimes it’s good to be “inciteful” instead of “insightful”.

          Sorry to be the grammar nazi but I’ve seen this mistake about a kajillion times in the last two days: The word is “pique”, not “peak”. You don’t “peak some interest”, you “pique some interest”.

          That is all, carry on.

    • You can get a solid film era Leica for around 500-600 euros (M3, M2, M4, M4-2/P, M6) and a 40mm Summicron for another 400ish euros, not super cheap, but doesn’t break the bank either and it’s a very functional combo. I had the 40mm until I bought my Elmarit 28mm F2.8 IV and I’ve been using that as my main lens ever since (sold the 40mm to fund the 28mm). The 40mm is quite good, optically, though wide open the corners are a bit soft (though not absurdly soft). And for another 500ish euros you can get a quality scanner as well (I have the Minolta Dimage Elite 5400 and I’m extremely happy with it, used to have a Reflecta Crystalscan 7200, but it had issues with banding and it was incredibly slow).

      Those are cameras and lenses that have limited collector’s value beyond them being Leicas. They are just functional (albeit a bit pricey, but not overly so) cameras. If you like how M cameras handle, then I would definitely recommend getting one of those (though personally I’d stay away from the M2, M3 and M4 [but not the M4-2 and M4-P] simply because the adhesive used in the viewfinders is very brittle at this point, because it doesn’t age well and you can get the viewfinder separation[viewfinder blackout] issue if you drop it, the M4-2, M4-P and M6 have a newer style viewfinder that is not prone to the same issue because of a different adhesive used).

      Those are the cameras I’ve been using more or less exclusively (two M2’s both of which I broke and now an M4-P) for over two years now (and before that I had an M8, before which I had the X100 and 5D mark I), I recently also got a Mamiya RZ67 mostly for urban landscape and portraiture stuff when I sometimes want the bigger negative and 6×7 aspect ratio (I don’t particularly like cropping), and whilst I am looking at digital cameras for video and possibly work, I am probably never moving back to digital for personal stuff.

      My basic point is that you can get a solid long term system that will give you quality comparable or superior to digital (depending on which cameras you are comparing it to and what exactly are you comparing – in terms of colour and overall… uh… feeling… I don’t think digital has ever gotten to the level film has been at for a long time, though with some sensors it has come close at times, namely the one in the M8 and M9 [they have broadly the same sensor, the one in the M9 is just a bit bigger], and probably a few others that have been decent, some of the older Olympus ones definitely, and their colour processing is pretty good even in the newer ones) for a surprisingly reasonable amount of money even if you go for a Leica.

      Hope this was of use to you.

      • Good advice – I’d go with the medium format options, though…

      • Patric Gordon says:

        Yes, Erko Thank you for taking your time to explain these cameras, it was very helpful. I now need to do some research on some of the makers you mentioned. I love it.

        • Hello, Patric.

          When considering Leica M’s be aware that they use a bayonet mount and which means that with a simple and not expensive lens mount adapter, you can fit any L39 screw thread lens ever made, be it from Leica, Canon, Minolta, Russian, and others. The M3 v/f is often regarded as the best as it has an almost life-size image, so both eyes can be kept open, but only offers frame finders for 50 to 135 lenses. For 35mm lenses, Leica offered M3 lens versions that incorporated spectacles to widen the v/f view. One can of course, use any w/a lens with an appropriate v/f but the purpose of the specs is to retain rangefinder sighting and focusing in the v/f. The M2, in contrast, has a native 35mm FoV v/f, but the image is smaller as a result and only provides frame finders up to 90mm.

          By the time one gets to an M6 with TTL metering, not to confuse it with the “M6 TTL”, which refers to TTL flash metering as well, the v/f incorporates frames, in pairs, for six focal lengths from 28mm to 135mm, but I find it cramped and small compared to my M3.

          If you are happy to use screw lenses, you can consider any number of Leica, Fed or Zorki cameras, the Russian models are basic but cheap, but don’t be tempted to buy from Ukraine. Quality can be questionable and many may not be original. A much safer bet would be a Canon screw body and the one to get is the Canon 7. In many ways this is superior to an M3, it came out 7 years after and Canon had the M3 in its sights. They are much undervalued and good fully working examples can be found for around 1/4 or even 1/5 the price of an M3. And if you don’t mind a non-working built in selenium meter, even more cheaply. I recently purchased a fully working Model 7(first type with selenium meter, but no accessory shoe as this is where the meter scale is located) from Japan for just £86, including original case. I was delighted at its condition, that I went back to the seller to get the contemporary Canon lens for it.

          The v/f is every bit as good as the M3, but improves upon it by having the lens frames controlled by the user via a selector. The rangefinder is bright and clear, the meter is coupled to the shutter dial and built in and is double range via a switch, (the M3 needs a separate meter that fits into the accessory shoe, but does couple to the shutter dial). The big difference is that the 7 uses thin metal shutter curtains not rubberised cloth, so is more robust and even works, it seems, when it has been damaged by prying fingers!

          You may read all about them here: https://www.cameraquest.com/canon7sz.htm

          And this is where I got mine from:

          http://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Excellent-Canon7-Range-Finder-Film-Camera-From-Japan-2-/301839622922?hash=item46470b230a:g:OJEAAOSwt6ZWWYu3

      • Erko,

        With reference to the early Leica M film cameras, I was surprised to read about potential issues regarding the viewfinders. It isn’t something that I’ve seen posted elsewhere, although I can’t say I’d done much research. I have a 1954 DS M3 with no viewfinder issues at all, and it was dropped, fortunately fully enclosed in its leather ERC, in the mid 1990’s. The point of impact was the nose section of the case and the impact was sufficient to distort the Voigtlander f1.7/35mm Ultron focusing helicoids and also the camera retaining screw in the case, such that it was difficult to get the M3 out. The camera, however, survived undamaged, and not even the rangefinder had been knocked out of true. Something I suspect a digital M wouldn’t have as seemingly their rangefinders drift even through normal usage.

        Mind you, my M3 has been carefully looked after, certainly not something that has seen abuse by being used in adverse conditions or damp storage. Your indicated prices do seem to be on the low side, certainly you can get good user models for this, but if you want something in better condition then the price does rise. Older Leica lenses though are, IMO, somewhat over-priced on a price v performance ratio. But used with film this won’t be that apparent, if at all.

        Where we differ is in the film v digital debate. Film is not better, per se, than digital, and neither is digital, per se, better than film. They each have their own particular set of imaging characteristics. Judged on some comparators, digital can be shown to be superior, especially in out and out sharpness and extended ISO performance, where film is severely restricted in scope and image quality, especially if the film is 35mm format. Medium and larger format are much better if one intends to scan them. Even my old Canon F9900 flatbed produces excellent scans of my medium format (usually FP4) negs, but its 35mm capabilities are not good in direct comparison.

        For 35mm film I use a lower res version Minolta Dimage Scan Elite II, which only goes to 2900 or so dpi, but this is more than adequate for my purposes and can clearly expose the differences between film stock. I would naturally expect your Minolta to be far superior.

        However, to see film at its best one needs to forget about scanning altogether and have a proper silver halide photographic print. It is only then that one will see the true qualities of film. But which is still better? Well, that’s down to the individual user.

        • “Where we differ is in the film v digital debate. Film is not better, per se, than digital, and neither is digital, per se, better than film. ”

          I do agree, I’d say they are just different tools that are better for different things – for my personal work, I find film FAR superior to any digital system I have used, even though the resolution (for the most part, at least, I still get higher real resolution scans from low ISO colour film than I did with the 5D or X100 or M8 and higher than the files from the 5D mk II’s I’ve used) and high ISO performance is worse than I would have gotten from digital. In most practical ways, digital is better, but in some ways it just flat out isn’t (I’d say colour quality is ALWAYS better with film, at least to me, and also highlights retention is significantly better, and burnt areas look nicer), and one must choose the system one can live with the best, for me it was film, for others it will be digital. Even preferences in regards to the same metrics will vary, depending on what one wants to do and whatnot. Point is, film is better *for me*, but that needn’t be the case for anyone else. I tried to make that point in my previous comment, but I guess I didn’t succeed very well.

          In regards to the viewfinder separation, you have simply gotten lucky – there is a moderate likelyhood of it happening if you drop it near the area of the viewfinder and/or if the impact is not softened by the lens and/or leather case and/or something else, whilst the same issue would not occur with newer models. But do be careful, it is an expensive repair (around 300 euros + shipping, IIRC, if you send it to that chap in England, or more if you send it to Leica, but they will just replace it with a newer viewfinder which is in some ways inferior and in some ways superior [it’s the M6/M4-2/M4-P viewfinder, so tighter framelines, more cluttered viewfinder, different adhesive not prone to the same issue] – I honestly think the viewfinder on the M2 was the nicest one I have ever used from any camera ever – including that of the M3, which a friend of mine owned, that’s one thing I still miss of my M2).

          Leica optics tend to be overpriced in regards to their optical quality and whatnot, yes, though some are more so than others, and for the most part, they are all nice in one way or another, I have not used a Leica lens I did not like the overall look of, whilst I have used lenses from other manufacturers I’ve hated the overall looks of (and some that I’ve liked, but none that I’ve loved quite as much), in regards to colour transmission, amount of “harshness” (probably a matter of how microcontrast is displayed – Zeiss lenses have been the worst for me in that regard – also I’ve never liked the colour transmission of almost any Zeiss lens, except the ZM 35mm F2 on Kodak Colorplus 200, but not on digital. The old WW2 or pre-WW2 era Sonnar 50mm F1.5 is another exception for me, though I don’t think it’s colour transmission is that nice, I just get a decent starting point with it, but the rest of it’s overall look is quite nice). But yeah, I can understand not wanting to put that much money into a lens that isn’t of absurdly high quality. With the M system, as you have pointed out, you have a fairly wide variety of choice of lenses, simply because you can easily adapt L39 lenses on to it and you have M mount stuff from Zeiss and Cosina Voigtländer.

          • I once ran an M2 in parallel with my M3 but part exchanged it for my 5×4 enlarger as I found I was increasingly using 28mm and not 35mm. I still preferred the v/f in the M3 because I could keep both eyes open with advantage to more easily “scan” what was outside the FoV.

            The colour transmission of Leitz lenses is not a myth and is what prompted my adopting the R system in a move away from Nikon (F) in the early 1980’s and I was thus able to take advantage of newer Leitz designs and glass. A friend had been using an R4 and whilst I had had no issues with the Nikon lenses with my b/w work I was staggered by how clean his K25 slides appeared in comparison to mine. It was though a veil had been lifted; everything looked so natural. The effect is not easy to describe, it has to be seen. In those days it was easier to assess colour transmission as there was always the standard reference point – K25 Professional. Today, it is more difficult as one has to take into account the sensor and processing engine and one can’t really rely on colour negative film as this has a mask which has to be filtered out and then filtration has to be used to make a print. And of course, papers have their own unique colour rendition.

            But my favourite lens for b/w 35mm film? One you’ve already mentioned – the Zeiss f1.5/50mm Sonnar and which I used on my Contax IIa and IIIa bodies. This is the post-war lens with better coating, and it works exceptional well. I used FP4 developed in Aculux. But my big disappointment was the expectation I’d built up using it with a digital body, in this case the Sony A7. Central definition was fine, but it was let down badly by poor coverage across the frame away from the central 1/3rd and is, in effect, unusable on the A7. But, then again, so few standard to W/A lenses are.

    • Damn. I must be an amateur because I don’t have one. Or even a D3 or D4. Uh oh!

      Film cameras: I have the F2 Titan, an Olympus Mju II and a Hasselblad V. No Leicas. Of the three, I’d get the Hasselblad – no question. 35mm is nice, but you’ll probably be disappointed compared to today’s digital of the same size/format. Medium format still retains something special since there are no 6×6 sensors…

      • Patric Gordon says:

        Thank you, Ming, for your Insightful view, I do stand corrected, bowed and non inciteful (kudos to terryB, I had to laugh and really slow down on the phonetic spelling)

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      Just found this all sizes film scanning apparatus mentioned in Swedish “Fotosidan”.
      http://www.filmtoaster.photography/

      Might be of interest to anyone photographing on film.

      Re. film cameras:
      There were some good to very good, and even excellent, collapsible 6×6 (and 4.5×6 and 6×7) film cameras.
      I loved my Zeiss Ikon Superikonta with sharp Tessar 75mm f:3.5 and coupled rangefinder. In coat pocket size!
      Speed and aperture dials were coupled with an EV scale and it had a selen exposure meter.

      • Kristian Wannebo says:

        EDIT: Re. MF.

        Also Rollei made SLRs in Hasselblad style.
        One model (1970:s or -80:s) had a bellows between the mirror housing and the lens mount allowing for 8° (or 6° ?) of downwards tilt.

        • That would be the SL66: an impressive beast, and I have no idea why they weren’t more popular. Zeiss lenses with a reversible front bayonet too, to allow for very close work.

          • Ming, this must be one of life’s unfathomables. The drop lens and built in bellows made it a more versatile camera than the Hassy. Did it have a reputation for unreliability; was it seen as too expensive compared to the Hassy which was a tried and tested design? I would have loved one, but I opted instead for the less expensive, almost as versatile Mamiya C330S, as I was already wedded to the TLR way of life with my Rolleiflex 3.5f.

  5. Happy new year Ming,

    Very interesting and informative post as always.

    Two questions;

    Do you think that it is possible to someone to earn his life by selling pictures via stock photo agencies?
    Do you consider that “stock photo-grapher” to be “professional”?

    • Thanks, same to you.

      Stock: once upon a time, but almost impossible now. Of course it depends on what kind of images you are selling, exactly…

      If you make your living from it, you’re professional.

  6. Alex Carnes says:

    I have to say, none of this causes me to wish I made a living purely out of photography, although I like having it as an aspect of my work. I think the increasing importance of video alone would scupper my chances anyway these days, because I have to say it doesn’t interest me in the slightest.

    Can I ask how actively you market your fine art prints? Do you rely on your website or are you out there pushing them in other ways?

    • I actually think the more video is out there, the more specialised it’s going to get. You cannot cross over and do both at the same time and get adequate quality out of either – it’s physically impossible given the amount of hardware and physical operators required.

      Fine art: I have representation by a couple of galleries (Rangefinder in Chicago, Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong) and through the site. What I really need is a Lik-esque team of agents…

  7. Very interesting article but you don’t cover the barriers to entry for someone looking to enter the high-end studio business of portraiture / fashion / product photography. Professional lighting equipment is so expensive (you are probably looking at an initial outlay of some US$ 15,000-20,000 assuming you’re going for high quality and it can even get higher (a recent quote from a European manufacturer of parabolic umbrellas came to EUR 10,000 for 1 light and that excludes the price of the generator – just a lamp and umbrella). Many will say that you can manage with Chinese flashlights and cheap modifiers (in fact, one fashion shoot advertised in a recent edition of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia was made with an iPhone and some reflectors) but if you’re going to deliver the same level of quality that high-end clients now expect, then you’re going to have to bleed. So unless you can compete at that level from the word go, what are the chances that you’ll be able to break even any time soon especially given that the competition, even at these lofty levels, is fierce? Or how about the actual camera? Want to shoot jewellery for Cartier, Bulgari? OK – your experienced competitor, apart from years of experience and many contacts / relationships is shooting with the latest Phase One XF + SK 120mm F4.0 tilt-shift lens which comes to approximately US$ 44,000. Will I ever see that money back in the local market? Unless I’m really good and very patient (heh, heh), then I don’t think so!!!

    • Actually, that’s not true. I still shoot my product work with speedlights and a D810. So does McNally, funnily enough – and he’s a lot more famous than I am. So it’s definitely possible. You might want that equipment for bragging rights, but you certainly don’t need it. 🙂

    • You RENT exotic equipment for special projects. I have been impressed by the variety of high end equipment out there for rental by video and stills photographers, not to mention the boring mundane modifiers / clamps / stands / backgrounds / RF units / speedlights. Rental houses are not just providing lenses to amateurs.

  8. Michiel953 says:

    Very enlightening and thought provoking article Ming. The thought of being a photographic professional in an ever and very quickly and unpredictably changing marketplace would scare me to death; I’m very honest about this. Doesn’t it frighten you, young family, responsibilities, obligations?

    I’ve always managed to do (professionally) what I thought was interesting, and the income followed. Can’t believe how lucky I was.

    That marketplace has no middle ground anymore. It’s either (hopefully) well paid niche, or its iPhone work.

    • Yes, it does scare me. More so than it did a few years ago, but I was young(er) and stupid(er) then. I probably would not make the same choice again given the risks and current state of the global economy – and worse still, the local economy in Malaysia. But we must move on and make the most of where we are now…

      • Michiel953 says:

        And I wish you the best of luck with that. Given your talent, drive and dedication, it’ll continue to work out.

        Ps: never sell that F2/T!

  9. Ming, a very thoughtful post, and an interesting insight.

    Looking back over the years when I started as a hobbyist photographer in 1960 and doing my own d&p from the outset, I have noticed this trend, starting slowly but gathering pace to what you experience now. At first, my output was admired by my peers as I could do something that was somewhat mystical to them: I could produce photographic prints and enlargements. I should point out that at this time the general print quality from High Street shops was quite poor, but then so were the negs, usually from cheap box cameras. So comparing my prints to those was like chalk and cheese.

    In the decades that followed, cameras improved in their quality and technical capabilities (AF and metering modes) were such that for the most part 35mm cameras, especially, had become true point and shoot for the masses with (mostly) correctly focused and exposed images, and competition amongst the High Street processors had improved to the point where really cheap colour 6×4 inch prints could be produced to a high technical standard. So the technical gap had already narrowed quite a lot. But still the masses were relying on TP processing labs. Then from around the millennium, as you point out, digital started to get a foothold and we began to see what, for the time, were some quite advanced consumer cameras (my first digital camera, the Canon G2 comes to mind) and, of course, we all know now to where this led. With a computer and inkjet printer they were now in charge of the whole process if they wished to be and the materials cost, for example, of an A4 colour inkjet print, was way below what one would have to pay for a conventional photographic print.

    But all this didn’t, and still can’t, be a substitute for photographic experience and as you rightly point out, every man and his dog now thinks they are photographers, and to prove it, they have their own blog sites! What jokers they are.

    Anyway, enough of this rambling as I want to wish you the best for the year ahead and hope you will still be able to find time to entertain and educate with your postings.

    • Thanks Terry – happy new year to you too.

      Even if things have become easier, and technology more accessible – this applies across the board. The cheap boxes have been replaced by APSC and low end mirrorless, and JPEGs instead of crappy discount color neg. There’s a night and day difference between desktop inkjet or dye sub print from a SOOC JPEG and an Ultraprint from our modified Epson 9900 from a high quality gigapixel file…what’s changed, however, is that the bar has shifted past the point of good enough for even more people, and the ability to discern has not.

      • Some of the problem is that people don’t see high quality prints that often. I think that it would be a revelation to many, and that there are more people out there who are capable of discerning high technical quality in a print, given the exposure.

        • That’s also very true. Few people are willing to make the investment in time; the web has rather killed the print experience. As much as I’d love to show even one set of work properly to the usual audience here as prints, it’s just physically impossible to do so.

  10. Looking forward to your upcoming article “FD Shooting with the legends: Rolleiflex 2.8F” 😉

  11. I suppose people hiring photographers get what they deserve 🙂 (except for the illegal commissions…)

    The local wedding photography market here works in a nice way: there are students who finance their hobby that way and get jobs by recommendations (from people who don’t care much about the art), and there’s a handful of pros who get jobs by displaying their portfolios online. It’s a small market but at least it’s fair. Others like school photographers (a weird national tradition) work in shadier ways, magazines effectively fire their photographers to make them “freelancers”, etc. Definitely not a profession that I would consider.

    • I didn’t realise there were any illegal commissions in photography!

      • From what you wrote I understood that even employees of your clients have asked for a personal “commission”, but I suppose you were referring to agencies (which would make it illegal only if they breach the contract with their client, which in turn probably happens if there are kick-backs but cannot be proven).

        It seems that as soon as there is a middle man between the artist and the client, the business changes from normal trade to a game where each participant tries to extract maximum benefit while the client loses (I’m sure there are photographers who are only in the business due to these agency commissions).

        • No – I was referring to employees, hence the dismay. Agencies I can understand.

          • Yes, if the agency represents you on a commission basis. They should never be paid by both the client and the artist, or there’s an enormous conflict of interest (though not technically illegal if allowed by their contract).

            Ever thought of reporting the commission-demanding employees to their employer, just for fun? Probably not a wise move to enhance your business, though…

            • There’s no point, because there’s a high chance the person you report it to is also in on it. Recently, senior management from more than one camera manufacturer’s local principal in Malaysia were dismissed for similar reasons…

      • Michiel953 says:

        I’ve seen kick back fees in the legal profession as well; fortunately not up close. reminds me of the time (some fifteen years ago) when I was president of my local cycling club and potential sponsors asked for bogus invoices, so they could skim something off the top. I put an end to that, which didn’t increase my popularity. Spoilsport!

      • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

        To be hired to document art robbery or contract killing?

  12. Eccentricity certainly has a role.There’s a lot of cloak and dagger stuff out there. Ever considered getting an earring an/or dying your hair blue! 🙂

  13. This is a very interesting post. People like me are part of the problem. I shot my nieces senior pictures and we had them printed through Bay photo. Although they were not quite as good as a pro, they still turned out great and saved hundreds of dollars. Good luck with your future business. I think in the end, quality will always win out and your work is excellent.

    • Yes and no – for the low end, perhaps. Amateurs are not really competition for the serious jobs because clients paying that kind of money generally want to know they will get the results they expect – they are paying for experience, redundancy, minimum standards, no excuses delivery, and the creativity…at least that’s what I’d like to believe, otherwise I might as well give up 🙂

  14. Most interesting. As someone who has always dallied (but never seriously engaged) with the idea of making a living out of photography, it’s always worth reading the thoughts of someone who actually does so.

    I’ve always been intrigued by the motivation of the client, just as much as that of the photographer. It sounds (extrapolating from your post) that you have been able to find clients who demand high standards and are willing to allow the photographer to do what he deems necessary. Yet these clients are likely the minority, I’m guessing; most people who want “a photographer” are probably penny-pinchers who want “good enough” (if even that) and neither know nor really care what is required to get photos of high quality..which is probably no different from any other business! Maybe it’s a positive feedback loop : you do good work for one client, who tells another, and you eventually get to be known as the photographer who will provide the goods if allowed.

    Looking at it from “the outside”, it seems like you have the high-end clients who are willing to put up the budget, the low-end clients who will hire a teenager with a DSLR on full auto (and wonder why they end up with trash)…but what’s in the middle? Or is there a middle at all?

    The other question is : at what point, if any, does one become “established” – well known enough to command one’s own conditions? There are clearly a small group of photographers who can do this – people like Annie Leibovitz, etc – but in such a fragmented and rapidly changing market, do you think it’s possible for a photographer to become that famous anymore? Looking at the true superstars out there, they tend to have started decades before…

    • Talking to my colleagues, the middle seems to have disappeared – especially in Asia, somewhat less so in more developed markets.

      I have no idea about being ‘established’ – I’m definitely not there yet; I think few of my generation will ever get to that point. I suppose the point at which you can cherry pick jobs and still have people knocking down your door is is when you know you’ve made it 🙂

      • Race to the bottom for most photography. The Walmart business model. Good enough is always good enough! In the high end photo jobs, it’s who you know! I earned a decent living from 1970 to 2000. Those were the good old days. Actually, the best of times for photographers were from 1950 to 1970. After the film “Blowup” came out, everything went downhill. Too many people wanted to meet super models, drive Bentleys and shoot Nikons. The photo schools exploded.
        The simple fact is that there are just too many people on this planet! Mother nature is feeling the load and will react to our detriment.
        Incidentally, I remember when dye transfer prints were the apex of color prints……..Now I’m making a bit of extra money with stock. Just enough to pay for a few vacations and camera gear. What more do I need. I still enjoy my 1983 Ferrari Quattrovalvole even though places to drive it ( besides a track ) are getting few and far between here in the northeast USA.

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