Jun 20, 2013

Do You Have A Future In Professional Photography

Article by Jason Wallis

Do You Have a Future in Professional Photography?

At the beginning of the movie Press Pause Play, the musician Moby says “Now everybody is a photographer, everybody is a musician and everybody is a filmmaker“.This sentiment is echoed by author Dane Sanders   “It wasn’t always this easy to get into the pro photo game. Now it is – everybody is a photographer. If you own a phone you’re a photographer.”

Indeed, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off its entire full-time photography staff a few weeks ago in favor of training its reporters to use iphones.

Professional Photography vs Social Proof

With all this social proof that Everyone’s an Expert does this mean there is no future in being a Professional Photographer?

No of course not. I will explain why in one sentence: Just because you can pull your own tooth doesn’t mean you should consider yourself a dentist!

Is everyone a photographer now?

In reality all these so-called photographers have no “expertise” and never actually make any money at photography. OK perhaps their friend lets them shoot a wedding for a few hundred dollars, they do a family portrait once a year or an unpaid TFP model shoot… Maybe the company they work for lets them be an unpaid photographer for its advertising purposes.

I’m sorry, that’s not being a professional photographer!

Don’t listen to people who tell you what you do is not a profession anymore… that anyone can do it. They don’t know what a Photographer is or even what makes a good photo! Napoleon Hill writes that opinions are the cheapest commodity on earth and their only real cost is the patience to listen to them. In fact I am sure you are constantly bombarded by opinions of others on what would make a photo look better. Listen: If someone doesn’t know who Richard Avedon is I am sure as heck not going to let them tell me how to take a photo.

Being a Professional Photographer means you make your living from the craft.

I guarantee you that not “everyone” can do that! In fact probably only one in a thousand can make a living from photography.

Being a professional and staying in business means you compete against the best and no one can get there by simply picking up a camera on a whim and taking a few shots and uploading them to Instagram. There is much, much more to it than that!

Can anyone be a Professional Photographer? No.

That’s like comparing a kid with crayons to an artist. Sure they have the sametools and they may even produce one “interesting” piece of work but that’s where it ends. Apparently even a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Does that make the monkey a professional author? No of course not.

A professional photographer gets consistent high-quality results and can problem-solve the situations that each assignment brings. A professional can also bring a vision and point-of-view to photos.

For example, I like surfing and some days I am good and others terrible. I never really know what to expect. Kelly Slater always knows what to expect. Likewise for professional photographers.

If you still truly believe “everyone is a photographer now” then go and look at ANY of the professional photographers represented on these sites:

They are as good as it gets. True professionals that earn hundreds of thousands and are trusted with major campaigns worth millions of dollars.

So what are the real threats to being a professional photographer?

Here are my predictions for the future:

The Paradox: Software like Instagram, Hipstamatic and iPhoto get more and more user-friendly while Photoshop remains notoriously difficult and gets more and more advanced and esoteric.

The Photoshop learning-curve is huge. In some ways Photoshop is the new barrier to entry. People argue “just outsource post-production” but from my experience the quality is bad and retouching cheesy when you do that.

The Age of the iPhone

However, there is no doubt iPhoto and cheap high-quality digital cameras opened up the possibilities for amateurs to play professional.

We have the amazing iPhone camera and click-to-edit programs like Instagram and Hipstamatic.
These and other Apps make the photos look edgy and vintage. All with a single click of the button you’re a professional photographer!

So what does this mean? This is a serious threat in my mind. If anyone can  press a button and get “professional” post-production results then photographers need to wake up and take notice!

But you protest “I have a Canon Mark 3 (or Nikon equivalent)!” So what, the cover of time magazine was shot with an iphone and hipstamatic!

So the technical became easy. What is left? Your passion and point of view! Also your artistry and skill with Photoshop.

Your photos must stand out above the crowd whether by concept and composition or by post-production. I covered this concept in my previous article. You need to work on your individual style. You need to shoot what makes you passionate.

For example: Like you, I love photography. I research photographers constantly, I learn Photoshop enthusiastically every day and after shooting I cannot wait to edit my photos. And this is after 16 years professionally doing it.

I believe you should have a career that is your passion. I believe it does not matter which profession you choose: there are poor and rich people in the same careers -sometimes only a few blocks from one another. My point is there are plenty of wealthy photographers despite any opinions that everyone is a photographer now. What separates them from part-timers is their commitment, passion and commitment to continuously learn and stay ahead of the curve.

So while the biggest threat I see for the future are the “one click” creative software programs and apps, ironically I also see the biggest opportunity in knowing how to use complicated programs like Photoshop.

Why? Photoshop is a powerhouse with incredible results when you actually LEARN how to use it properly. The results achieved by Photoshop are incredible and separate professionals from amateurs. Just look around this PHLearn and see what you can do with it!

You have the resources right here on this website and many others to learn Photoshop to a professional level and to constantly improve these skills until you are far and away ahead of weekend warriors and unskilled amateurs posing as professionals.

So is photography a dying profession?

Some people will tell you this: they’ll point out that they found a photographer on Craiglist offering to shoot their catalog at 1/2 your rate with their point and shoot (in a garage). That’s great, let them waste their time and potentially ruin their own business with less than professional results. That’s not your problem. Just shrug and say: If you are not happy with the photos I will be available to do a professional job for you later on.

This is the point: Yes anyone can take AVERAGE photos. Anyone can take good photos some of the time. Professional photographers own the key distinctions that make the real difference between a good photo and a great one.

Professionals know all the resources needed to make a great shoot. They know all the models, the stylists, the locations, the right lighting to make something look its best, the right poses. A professional photographer will not fumble around and waste a subject’s time and take weeks to get photos back to them.

All these things create value. Time is money: I was taking a photograph of a large group of executives the other day. One of them was running late and the CEO said: They need to hurry up, this shoot is costing me $25,000.

I laughed: I wish!

He then turned to me and said: No, it really is! I pay each of these people $400/hr.

Think about that: When someone hires you it is costing them their time as well as your fee.

This can help you understand your value of your professionalism. Mistakes are too costly to be left to an amateur.

So what do you think? Is professional photography on the way out? Do you accept low payment and bad terms because you are afraid of non-skilled competitors? Know that there are many photographers out there earning six figure incomes that know the opposite.

In conclusion, the general consensus is probably that photography is a obsolete profession due to the perceived low barriers of entry like iphones and easy photo apps. Indeed this has affected the profession as seen in the case of Chicago-Sun Times. However the irony lies in that the future of photography is actually in the skills you continuously upgrade through Photoshop -a notoriously difficult software program with no peer in my opinion.

Yes there are lots of unskilled amateurs posing as hipster photographers. They will undercut you and people will hire them once or twice. But there is a massive gulf of talent and skill between them and the true professionals earning big bucks such as those on the websites I gave you. The choice is yours to which group you want to belong. The choice is easy in my opinion but the road is hard (and rewarding).

Don’t get me wrong: We all start at the bottom. I challenge you to ignore cultural paradigms that “everyone is a photographer now”. That just devalues all your hard work and skill. Rather, look at the best in the profession of photography (I have given you some examples) and aim to be like them or better. No one is more talented than you or me at the end of the day. The only difference between you and these top photographers is in accomplishments and belief. You have all the tools. Now aim high and don’t listen to people who tell you that anyone can do what you do.


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    Ryan Cooper

    Very well written article and I firmly agree with most of it. One thing I question though is that in my experience I notice that being and maintaining standing as a top earning professional is less about devoting every waking hour to staying ahead of the photography curve. In fact most of the most cutting edge work is being done by a tiny subset.

    The thing that I see consistently of the most profitable pros is more that they focus just enough on photography to be able to ensure consistent, professional, results and then they pour the rest of their focus on business, marketing, networking, etc

    Ultimately I think that has been my biggest challenge as I adore the photography learning and exploring part but I loathe the business side of things. While I have learned to tolerate it I feel that those who naturally are interested and like that side of the business enjoy a very significant advantage.

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    Wow! Get off your high horse and come join 2013. Really? The only people who are photographers are the ones doing ten thousand dollar shoots and magazine spreads?

    So the new mother that takes absolutely stunning photos in her spare time, she’s not a photographer cause she’s not making money? Or just not enough money? What about the kid who’s putting himself through school (ie. Nicholas Scarpinato) they’re not a photographer yet either?

    Pierre Beteille works part time as an art director, he’s not a pro?

    The photographer who takes average photos but quit their job and loves the craft .
    . . are they a pro, or do they have to be better for thou to bestow the professional title on them and consider them a photographer. By definition they’re a professional, but just not your kind of professional right.

    Welcome to the spectrum. There is no longer a distinct line that separates professionals from enthusiasts and photographers from the rest of us.

    You’re right about a few things, technology has allowed the rest of the world to catch
    up. You can make pictures with a 16mp point and shoot and GiMP that were unheard of 10 years ago. That has left some holier than thou photographers with a serious confidence problem.

    That, and your opinion is just a tiny piece of the “cheapest commodity on earth.”

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      I think you missed my point completely.
      This article was a challenge for photographers to go out and expand their skills and reach for the sky.

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        You wrote an inflammatory article that chastised anyone who is not capable of starting a full time photography business as lacking vision and having no expertise. You completely omitted the growing demographic of photographers who have great equipment, knowledge and passion but are committed to another job/family for any innumerable reasons. That police officer you referred to might be sporting a Mk III and spend all their time surfing 500px because they love photography but you completely dismissed them as being obviously inferior because they work as a police officer. Your article compared every “so-called photographer” to a kid with crayons trying to be an artist without recognition that there may be something in between.

        In the past you might have dismissed anyone working with a point and shoot as only capable of taking snapshots, but now that point and shoot is a NEX 7 with a Zeiss lens and that momtographer who works full time and can afford a sweet point and shoot spends her free time on Pinterest getting inspiration.

        If you wanted to just make fun of people taking pictures with their iPhones, sure, whatever blows your hair back. But lumping every enthusiast photographer in the same category and saying that the only way they can produce a quality product is to get lucky every now and again is completely shortsighted and unbelievably arrogant.

        If this was supposed to be an inspirational article then why don’t you acknowledge that the amateur photographer is capable of producing really exceptional works. Technology has allowed that kid that is working part time packing groceries to start up a deviant art account and put up amazing and meaningful photos that were unheard of before. Because of this environment and the complete market saturation of cell phones and access to Instagram it is up to pro photographers to do even more. If you want to be a pro photographer, give the client something that they can’t
        get on their iPhone. Take each client with the same passion as that policeman that can’t wait to get off her shift and start compositing and let each photo you give you client show that passion.

        Like it or not, the amateur photographer (all of them Mr. Wallis, not just the iPhone crowd) is getting better and better. In fact, I’d argue that the amateur is using technology to close the gap on the pro much faster than the pro is using that technology to widen it.

        I didn’t miss the point of the article; you just need to do a better job of making it.

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    This sounds like another case of…

    They took our jobs!!!!

    Im sorry, but I dont pity people that are doing the same thing for the last 20 years and dont see things coming and then complain about people working for free as the reason they are not making money.

    You are not making money because you didn’t know how to reinvent yourself. Because the world changed and you havent change with it. From general things, to particular things from photography, everything changes every 2 years. The same happens in other fields.

    There were always people that photographed for fun, and that did jobs for fun. It is only now that people complain. IF someone that does it for free gets your jobs, then you must be doing something wrong. I’ve been on this problem. Been laid off in 2009 during the crisis having to look again for work. Getting into a worst job, and finally changing how I do things, went freelance and reinvented what I did. And it took me sometime, and Im still not completely there (I need to make a lot more as a freelancer), but you get the idea. This happened once, with AF, with digital, with a lot of technologies, and now it is happening because the world changed. You may say for bad, but still, that wont change what happened.

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    Thank you for the great article, SPOT ON. Sadly photography and photographers are dead in Sweden. I had to quit my struggling a year back, after 8 years in the business 🙁 Thanks to the new culture. Thank you for killing my profession and my passion.

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      I never saw a wild thing
      sorry for itself.
      A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
      without ever having felt sorry for itself.

      – D.H. Lawrence –

      You really should stop feeling sorry for yourself and complaining about others killing your “profession” and “passion”!
      If you’re so passionate, get your f… ass out there and do anything it takes! Do you really think success comes easily?
      Times are changing, and although I don’t really like it either that it gets harder every day, complaining won’t help you or me.
      Adapt to the situation, be willing to give everything you have and work your butt off, that’s what seperates the so called professional from the enthusiast!

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    Jeff P K

    I know there is mixed emotions about articles of this nature, but for me I took a look at the 4 links (Art Partner, Art + Commerce, Art Department, Management Artists) and I realized that if I want to be the best of the best, I’ve got a lot of hard work ahead of me. (Thanks to PHLEARN I may get there!)

    I think that photography is going through what music has gone through about 10 years ago. The cost to produce a creative project is much less than before allowing greater accessibility to the masses. So now like the multitude of garage bands and local singer-songwriters with a self produced album, there are more photographers able to hit the market with well polished work posted on a website. What that means is that the act of ‘looking’ like a photographer may be easy, but the possibility of standing out above ‘all the other’ photographers is the personal challenge only the individual who carries the camera must choose to take on.

    I love the article… I’m motivated to get more creative. Thank you.

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    Anthony Urbina

    The article seems pretentious….as if the guy in the garage who has the skill can’t do the job. Joey L started with homemade soft boxes made of cardboard, shower curtain, and a speedlight. I can see the threat because back when I was djing, the technology had everyone saying “damn, look at these idiots. They’re software does everything for them”…. eventually, I would be using the same thing as the early adopters. Did the instant computer djs make it? Very very small few did because they were innovative. The one button wonders however hardly made an impact on the business because a bad dj is a bad dj regardless the equipment. There is more to it than playing records…like reading the crowd, knowing when to throw what on blah blah….same with photography. What I learned in the flame wars of djing is embrace change.

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    This is the worst article I have ever read on Phlearn. There are many people that make a lot of money from photography and are terrible photographers. Any photographer that has to use the ‘don’t make a living from it, therefore not a professional photographer’ argument needs to really sit down and consider what makes them different than anyone else. If you’re using the argument mentioned in this article, it’s probably because the mass production of cameras has seen a large assortment of photographs arise that are just like yours. The reality is it’s the person behind the camera and the results they conjure that count.
    The guy in his garage can take amazing pictures but can’t market himself. The paid photographer takes okay pictures but is a marketer.

    Professional photography will survive and some of those ‘professionals’ will continue to not reach professional levels.

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    (Sorry, I’m late to the party). Interesting article. You raise some good points, and many are obvious if you’re the kind of pro whose ‘been there’ and already ‘done that’. If someone is taking your business, they are either ignorant, or you’re shooting stuff that you could do with your own iPhone. After 25 years behind the lens, I have plenty of examples.

    “Ignorance” comes when an experienced client is replaced by someone with an MBA and skills in Excel, and a belief that it can be done cheaper because that’s how they crunched the numbers. Then a year later they come back, sorry, it’s not about cheaper gear. Oops.

    “iPhone” Sure. even I can do what I do with something that fits in a pocket for $400. Wow. You would be amazed at the quality a Pany LX3 at iso 80. Providing it can trigger the $7000 worth of studio lighting and support gear I use, (and I have done so on occasion). “Oh.”

    “Enthusiasts.” Of course they are photographers, and if they get paid, then they earn the “Pro” title. Just let them shadow me for about 10 years, and they might just replace me. Sorry, go invest in about $20K of gear and get your own wings.

    I have to admit. I am very fond of all these eager beavers and the huge popularity of photography. I can tell you, though. Folks were shooting $hit on film that looks worse than cheap cell phones decades ago. Some of my early stuff looks like garbage. Thank god for digital, (What? did you think digital was meant to replace us? Makes my job easier).

    Yes. What you describe as arrogance is something called ‘brutal honesty’, something that I picked up from clients whom make more in a day that I made in a month. You learn quick.

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    Wow you got really upset didn’t you! Did it hit a nerve?

    Of course you are completely wrong to my motives: to inspire photographers to aim higher and not be afraid of hipsters who pick an iphone and call themselves professionals. I stand by what I said 100%.

    Like it or not professional photography at a high level requires a lot of technical skill and experience. I pointed out that people with iphones are not a threat and what I talk about is based on 16 years of experience. I am not threatened by iphone photographers and completely disagree with you. Believe it or not I am working every day and know what I am talking about.
    I’m sorry you got so upset about my article perhaps you can write a better one? Go ahead and contact phlearn and submit some articles and I look forward to reading your musings. Good luck.

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      Unfortunately, for most of even the very best of the amateurs believe the article speaks the truth. Ie; I shoot weddings occasionally, but enough to be very good at it. And am at least a match for all but the absolute top 2 % of shooters. But became that good after decades of repeatedly shooting. Am am told have natural ability too. As evidenced by the extreme sums of money the rich an famous pay me for portraits.
      That said, hire and use as a second or 3rd shooter on weddings and advertisements a friend of mine who style is similar to Diane Arbus and so good I think he is better! When he hits, the earth moves, people will throw money at his prints, etc. He may even be remembered in museums.
      However, it is “when he hits” that is the tell. The tell of not being a pro. He may hit one out a hundred shots. While I get nearly as good, and sometimes as good shots about 80% of the time. And can get to 95% if a budget allows. And we are good. All our team(s) shots are significantly better than most and stand out as art as well as commerce, in my view, and more importantly, in the clients’ view.
      Additionally, my friend, admittedly the great artist, cannot think strategically about situations and confrontations and how to make things work under any given circumstances. He has some ability to think, being an accountant an lawyer, but not field ability to direct and coordinate men and material. An art, perhaps even higher, in and of itself.
      I can do it on a whim. And have. He and all my assistances and wannabes no matter how good they are cannot deliver this. Day in and day out, I can and do do this. Time is money, but more importantly, all these self proclaimed great photographers have blown jobs for me with bad pictures when under pressure or not, cost me much money.
      So this needs to be seriously considered as part of the equation.
      The most dire thing for me though, and it is an everyday reality for me at the giant CPA firms I work for, is only the best do survive. For photography, I see the truth in acknowledging your artistic level and be truthful whether or not you are good, and good enough. That is the most daughting truth that scared me till I acknowledged my own strengths and alas weaknesses. Ultimately I am good enough creatively. But you need to face up to this as Instagram and technology has truly allowed the common man to produce reasonable pictures many times.
      Good luck.

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    A photographer who takes terrible photos is not one who will be in business very long! I often hire photographers for my business. The photos that I use the most for advertising and magazine articles come from the professional photographers; those that not only know how to take a photo properly, but that understand advertising and composition and what will work for a commercial need.

    And though I have a small business, I am willing to pay a good photographer what they’re worth rather than pay less for someone who is a hobbyist and has another job doing something else. I need results, and an experienced professional will get me that.

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    Excellent read, Jason! I think the people who wrote negative comments on your point of view did not read your entire article. For some very strange reason they are taking what you wrote personally!

    There are many factors that have made it more difficult for photographers to earn a good living these days; one is your description of “everyone’s a photographer” now with all the devices and aps out there. Another factor is the economy, which has forced companies to cut back on the professional services and try to do a lot of things in-house.

    We have seen the decline of hiring pros in the art and illustration business as well.
    THE GOOD NEWS for professionals is: Many of these companies are now seeing that they need a pro to do the work; the amateurs aren’t able to get the results they need.

    There are many differences between a professional and an amateur: one is sheer experience and knowledge; a part-timer that might be great at taking photos still lacks the years of experience of working on shoots, how to deal with human subjects and how to get the bottom line results a commercial client needs. That experience comes from relentless ongoing study/education, and live experience of just doing it.

    Apply Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule to being a master at what you do; that’s what it takes to be a pro!

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    I enjoyed your article Jason and could relate to the majority of what you said here. I have been a pro photographer for over 30 plus years.

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    Jason Kirby

    I think one thing that is missing is the discussion around the business of photography. Not only do you have to be skilled and creative individual with the knowledge to create with your tools, but you also have to know how much to bill, identify customers, market yourself and always be selling. There are some amazingly talented people out there that shoot stunning imagery but don’t make a living from it because they either choose not too, or don’t know the first thing about business. I feel that is one of the largest gaps to becoming a professional that lives off their work as a photographer. That is something I feel is grossly underestimated in our business.

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