Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is professional photography still a viable career?

I am not against amateurs and semi-professionals selling their photography. It's a great way to earn some extra cash. However I am concerned about the level of high quality published work and the standards that clients and the public accept these days.

It seems that just about everyone is a photographer. The line between amateur enthusiast and professional is fuzzy to say the least.

Photography enthusiasts are selling their images through stock libraries and microstock websites, directly to magazines or through their own and third party sites. They're accepting commissions to shoot weddings, being hired to shoot for magazines and selling fine art prints from their websites. They're teaching photography on the weekend and guiding photographic holidays and safaris.

Photography became accessible to the masses with the first non-expert cameras and the famous Kodak slogan"You press the button, we do the rest." The digital camera age has taken the whole thing to a new level of democratisation. Automation and user-friendly, so called idiot proof modes mean that photographers can get decent looking results under most circumstances.

Companies and organisations that previously employed professional photographers to shoot their brochures, directors' portraits for annual reports and images for corporate magazines now increasingly rely on the ubiquitous staff member who is a photography enthusiast, a dab hand in Photoshop and has the latest digital SLR.

Inevitably the results are not that great. But does it matter? I work with a few of the leading business communication agencies in the UK and despite the protestations of the graphic designers the clients say they've not got the budget for professional photography. The poor quality snap by the staff member will have to do.

What happens is that the photographic content often becomes a mixture between, staff generated images and a perhaps one or two features shot by a professional.

The quality of photography in corporate brochures and magazines is often appalling and the trade press is not much better. To keep costs down they often rely on advertisers and PRs to provide images. Out come the company photo enthusiast's pictures again. And nobody seems to notice or mind.

This goes through to the serious press as well. The reputation for superb photography once held by the UK broadsheets is more than a little tarnished. The glory days of great photojournalism are over. Now newspapers are sending out journalists with HD video cameras and extracting stills for print. They're also increasingly asking journalists to take their own pictures.

On the subject of image quality. I recently read about a stock library that closed its doors after more than 20 years of trading. The reason. They couldn't get a fair price for the high quality images they stocked. The Managing Director said that clients just didn't value quality anymore and their commercial model appeared to no longer be viable.

I've seen agencies at work and know first hand that if they can buy an image for a dollar on a microstock site they are going to put up with lower quality, the client doesn't seem to mind (tight budgets), and they're not going to hunt for a top quality rights managed image.

A professional photographer in the UK earns an average of £19K per year. I've just had a look on some job websites and seen adverts for photographers at a national chain of portrait studios. The advertised salary, £12K per year ie not that much above minimum wage.

Professional photographers rates have not really increased much over the last years. But they're working harder than ever. Long hours, that they cannot charge a decent rate for, spent at the computer processing images diminish their time available for administration, marketing, sales and photography. Actually professional photographers spend very little of their day taking pictures. Most of the time they're in front of screens now just like any corporate worker.

How about social photography. Let's take a look at the traditional portrait studios. The high streets are now dotted with chain stores where portraits are churned out using a standard formula. The pictures all look the same with bright white backgrounds and here and there a bit of tarting up with a Photoshop effect. There is no individuality or creative vision. They seem to be giving the public what they want though.

Many professional photographers supplement their income with other work, for example shooting video, writing, giving seminars and coaching amateurs. Competition is fierce, not only from other pros but also from amateurs and students who are prepared to work for next to nothing.

Yes you can still make good money as a photographer if you find the right niche. Only a very, very few will get rich. Still, when surveyed most photographers said they wouldn't want to change their job. I suppose photography is a bit like the priesthood. It's a calling and a lifestyle more than a career.

Many of the professional photographers that I admire are more interested in what they can achieve through using the medium to communicate than in photography itself. People like Yann Athrus-Bertrand and Jim Nachtwey want to communicate with us about the state our planet and humanity.

I think professional photography is still a viable career if you do it for the love of the work. On the other hand the daily grind may well kill your passion for the medium. I know of a few photographers who are now enjoying photography for the first time in a long while after giving it up as a profession.

So if like many of my friends you get that far away look in your eye when you say the words "professional photographer" and you harbour romantic notions of the lifestyle then I would suggest taking a deep breath and having a good think about it. Of course most people who say they would like to turn pro will never actually take the step.

What are the differences between an enthusiast and a pro? The enthusiast takes pictures because they want to and they like it. The pro takes photographs to put food on the table. That sharpens up their instincts and they try harder to produce excellent images. The good professional photographers produce work is way ahead of what amateurs do. That's a fact. If you don't believe me visit a few pro sites or agencies and then afterwards trawl through the pages on Flickr. It's two different worlds, photographically speaking and to be fair the people who upload their images on photo-sharing sites have no pretensions about their images. They are just sharing their photography for everyone's enjoyment.

What about me? Well I've not done too badly. Every day is a challenge and I'm hungry to improve my photography. This article is an attempt to share some of my experience and present a frank appraisal of professional photography as a career. You'll have to forgive me if I gently raise an eyebrow if we meet in the street and you gush about wanting to be a professional.

I'd be delighted to read your comments.

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