At the risk of losing your customers…

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Build it and they will come…for a while, and then it becomes an antiquated and cancerous white elephant. First published in the May issue of Medium Format Magazine.

Advance doom and gloom warning: If the photographic industry continues in its current trends (turning spec sheets up to 11; increasing launch prices then decreasing them dramatically over a product’s lifecycle; being inconsistent/imbalanced with design intent – tiny bodies, enormous lenses; ever shrinking ‘incremental’ improvements between generations; poorly implemented software UI/UX; launching of what is basically beta hardware; influencers who produce rubbish images but have large numbers of “followers” “likes” etc.) – expect to see some serious contraction and consolidation soon. In fact, the hard financial numbers suggest this has already begun. The reasons why are not rocket science, but pretty much every company is acting like a paralysed ostrich hoping that if they continue as they have been and pretend it’s all okay, it will be. It won’t, and the ones who survive are going to need to find some cojones.

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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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