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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.



Anonymous said…

Another great article. I like that you are very honest and direct to the point.

I'm definitely an amateur that just loves to take photographs and share them with my friends, family, or whatever. I belong to a great local photography club here in Indianapolis in the states. We're small but have that backing of an art guild. Having the backing of the art guild, we're allowed to show our work at local art shows and even try to make a little money. A couple of months ago, we had a "show" at a local art gallery. The only requirement that the art gallery had was that we had to put a price tag of no less than $80 US on our work. What?!? We're amateurs. Why would we ask this kind of money for our work? I didn't feel comfortable with this so I declined to participate. I just want to share my work and never, ever have the intention of even selling anything. If I have just one person tell me that they enjoy my work, well, then, that makes me very happy. I've never been in it for the money. Would I like to become a professional and do this for a living? Sure! But right now, I just want to enjoy what I am doing and learning new technique.

Thanks for the great articles.
Stuart Turner said…
Very honest and real post.

I guess people just want fast and easy photos these days.

It really gets on my nerves when I see these "portable photo studios" down the high street, two flash lighting, set up exactly the same for every child that sits in their chair.

There is no art or talent in that. Just a blatant rip off.

Interesting read.

Anonymous said…

This was a great post and it's one that I've pondered ever since I started selling. I've always had the passion. I just didn't know about stock photography, but now that I know, there's no turning back.
Kurt Schlatzer said…
I went through the very same phenomenon as a graphic designer in the late 80's and early 90's when Apple let everyone became a "desktop publisher." It happened to me again as a web designer in this last decade thanks to WYSIWYG design tools like Dreamweaver. Now, it's happening again as I transition to a career in photography (bad timing on my part, but I believe it's my calling).

The thing I've learned from these experiences is that every career is subject to a shake-up from advances in technology that lower the bar for entry. Those who embrace it, and push the limits - specializing as they go - often ride out the storm and go on to maintain successful careers. Sure it sucks for a while, but in the end, the wheat will be separated from the chafe and the profession will experience a rebound.
Anonymous said…
A great article here. I'm an enthusiast, and personally, I'll be glad if my employer or my superiors acknoledge my being a photography enthusiast and consider making use of my "talent" (at least everyone doesn't have it), and publish my pictures in for example the company brochures. Just my opinion.
Tana said…
Even though I am only an amateur, the more I learn about photography, the more those second-class in-house pictures in company brochures annoy me. Ugh!

Unfortunately, good taste in pictures does not always necessarily follow the ability of improved equipment to take better pictures.

Hitesh Sawlani said…
I'm what you'd call an "enthusiast". Last year I was working as an industrial placement student in a large company. In one of the business events (day out of "fun") I took my camera along and took loads of photos of people having fun etc... They didn't ask me to do it, but were glad I did since they used the photos in a presentation reviewing the years events) .

They normally wouldn't have used a photographer in such events, but I'm hoping I might have opened their eyes to the possibility of asking staff members to take photos since it doesn't cost much (or anything). In this case, its not like a professional was replaced, but an opportunity for an enthusiast was created.

Here are the mentioned photos:
Anonymous said…
I have generally stayed far away from this debate, which I have heard repeated ad nauseum all over the photography blog world. But there are a few points here that I must address.

First, while DSLRs have afforded a large amount of people entry into the world of photography, I don't buy the alarmist attitude of some that this will lead to the decline of professional photography. People KNOW quality. And if they want it, they will pay for it. Everyone knows that in every walk of life, you get what you pay for. If they don't mind settling for crap photography, maybe they weren't the best client to be pursuing anyway. Along these lines, I must point out that the portrait studios that churn out generic portraits have been around for a VERY long time. This is nothing new, and has next to nothing to do with the digital revolution. Many people are fine with simple family portraits (and the low prices that accompany them) and this has been a large part of the market for a long time. I have to agree with Kurt's comment that this is a shake-up that happens all the time in many careers. Those who adapt survive. If someone keep growing as a photographer and striving to create powerful images, they will be OK. I'm sure you will have no problem with this.

Also, your comments about the distinction between enthusiast and pro are a bit fuzzy. If they enthusiast is selling his/her work, taking money for teaching workshops or private instruction, etc., aren't they ALSO putting food on the table through their photography?

This is the problem I find with this entire argument about the death of professional photography. Professionals always seem to attempt to build some wall or boundary between them and the newly minted DSLR user. The definitions change with each person, but it is almost always motivated by fear. Many people attempt to build this wall through pretentious language or passive-aggressive sarcasm.

Luckily, there is only a smidgen of this evident in your entry. For example, your raised eyebrow at the person claiming they want to become a pro photog.

But the real problem I have with comments like this is causes people who you label "enthusiasts" to continually apologize for their mere existence. A great example of this is the first comment on your entry. Mr. McCullough (doing what most people feel they have to do to avoid the anger of pro photogs) begins by stating outright in the very beginning that he is an amateur. He further belittles himself by calling his photography clubs exhibition at an art gallery a "show", as if it is not deserving enough to exist without quotes. Later, deuts refers to his/her "talent", again using quotes as if afraid to admit that he actually possesses talent. Tana is also quick to call his/herself "only an amateur".

I can't stand the fact that the pretentious attitudes of some have caused so many people to speak in this way. I see it EVERYWHERE, EVERY DAY. If you are passionate about something, take pride in it! Who cares if it accounts for only 50% (or 10%, or 0%) of your income. When I read comments like these (every day), I can visualize these people, heads hung low, shuffling their feet, begging to be recognized, even if "only as an amateur" by the great gods of professional photography. It makes me sick.

Other than that, love your blog. ;-)
Thanks to all for your comments, and for the emails too. Interestingly it seems the pros prefer to send an email direct to me and the enthusiasts prefer to leave a comment. Not sure why.

I'd like to respond particularly to Zack.

The facts about the changing dynamic of pro photography:
The microstock model did not exist a few years ago (1 dollar an image available for any graphic designer to download anywhere in the world.

Digital photography has lead to more images being taken and more people being willing to market their work and have a go.

Companies and agencies are using more amateur work for their professional products.

The standard of general amateur photography has improved.

Professional photographers have to increasingly seek their niche.

Competition on all fronts has increased.

Quality work is not always appreciated. Budget is more important than ever.

The above and the article are an assessment based on personal experience and working in the industry. I am certainly not one of the photographers that needs to fear amateurs. My clients appreciate my work and are fortunately willing to pay for it. In fact I've just increased my prices quite a bit and no one has complained because my relationship with them means that I can explain my pricing rationale.

Finally the raised eyebrow was really tongue in cheek.

My blog is all about helping enthusiasts and I certainly would not put the effort and time in if I were an ivory tower elitist pro tog. I love sharing my passion for photography.

This particular article is meant as a frank and open appraisal, a snapshot of where the world of pro photography is today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? There's no harm in a good shake up of an industry. As has been said it separates the wheat from the chaff.


Anonymous said…

Thanks for your reply. I admit I got a little hot under the collar while reading your entry, simply because I have read so many pro photogs writings that pooh-poohed the influx of enthusiasts. But, in becoming upset so quickly, I missed the point of your entry, which WAS a frank assessment of the state of the industry. For this I apologize. I had something that I had been needing to get off of my chest, and I used your blog to do it, even though you discussed the issue in an extremely fair manner. So apologies again from me. I am now descending from the soapboax.

I also overstepped my bounds in pretending to have any insight to what is actually going on in the photography industry. It just simply baffles me that people would accept shoddy work to save a few dollars. In a purely visual medium, it seems that quality (or lack thereof) would be immediately evident.

I DO understand the problem many people have with microstock. I do not understand this trend in the least. Even if I only put an hour or even ten minutes into a shoot, I'm pretty sure I would never sell an image for a dollar. I will either share my images freely with friends for our enjoyment, or charge someone a fair price for a product into which I invested my time, knowledge, and sweat.

So, once again, I apologize for using your blog to mount my defense of amateurs/enthusiasts/semi-pros/people with cameras. I knew the whole time that you were not an ivory tower type, it just didn't translate well from my brain onto the keyboard.

BlankPhotog said…
Is it possible to be a disgruntled enthusiast? What I have learned in 4 1/2 years of portfolio development is that people are flaky, temperamental, and cheap. Also, if you have no talent for selling yourself, then you have nothing, even when no money's involved. I've flirted with going pro -- even taken an odd assignment or two -- but it seems less palatable every day.
The art photography world has failed if it ever wanted to show people what a good picture is. Now there are hundreds of thousands of photographers who don't even start with training, but have learned amazing technical skills in Photoshop, and put up some interesting amateur work which certainly looks as good to the untrained eye as the professionals' work. I say, more power to them, and if they want to make money at photography, good luck. The market's glutted to the point where it's hard to even distinguish a market.
Anonymous said…
This is a great article indeed. It's kinda funny on how I came across this blog. I was "googleing" on why professional photogaphy is deminishing and i came across this and a few other articles. I am a professional photographer. At 20 I am a young one but a professional one at that. I work for a Professional Portrait studio.
It's what puts food on the table and my passion in life. But I have to agree with everything you have said. times have been rough this season... People these days settle for less, because I don't think they know. The media puts out that anyone can be the photographer, just as long as they have the camera. But im sorry buying an expensive DSLR and switching it on Automatic mode does not make you a photographer. Yes photography is still a viable career... all depending on your drive to be successful... That doesn't mean sell out and do the job the cheapest, it means be smart... Know that cilents aren't paying for "a picture" They are paying for your time, your knowlegde, your professional printing lab for the best possible quailty print (sorry Ritz camera shouldnt cut it for wall portraits) the expeirence/intimate one on one session. And you should make your cilent feel like they had a photographic expeirence and not justa photo session. I remember one time I did a wedding with my boss/mentor (who taught me everything)and we were sayign our goodbyes to the bride and groom, the groom runs up to me and goes "you give me a F*cking hug buddy!! You were outstanding!" Making them love you and the session or whatever the circumstance is, makes them love your work that much more and they wont think twice about paying. A lot of People forget that its not only about the photograph, but also about the expierence.
Yes Paul, Photography is still a viable career or any career wee so choose. But one must understand that change is accelerating. One can not but help notice how they affect us professionally or personally. It is up to us. It is the individuals ability to learn adapt and think independently and creatively to this change. You see technology and the internet, "Supper highway" has launched a tsunami of seeking and self interest to more easily better ourselves at work as well as hobbies, and if we can make money at it so be it, all is game! Sad but true. At the same time this information glut leads to sinisysym, fragmentation, and a sense of helplessness. we have more freedoms, more possibilities and more options now than ever before due to the rapped change in technology and is affecting how the professional photographers think. We only hit a road block when we stop adapting or educating ourselves for this change. Logistics is forcing us to learn or get swept back with the rest. And one should note that if you want to make good money with what ever it is you choose to make your career or hobbies and be the best at it , you have to hang with the best! From the book by Napoleon Hill, "Think and grow rich" You become who you hang with! As far as making great money as a photographer, My brother is a senior art director for Chicago Foods International, And he is in the top ten percent in his career, and he told me his in house studio photographer makes a wapping 1.5 million dollars a year! There is good money in anything you do! Or it's monetary equivalent that you call good. Don't look back at the competition, Be above it! ATTITUDE is EVERYTHING! And last proof is in the pudding, It's in my pudding? I am not a professional photographer yet but i am a tradesman by career and i am studying Professional photography on line with the New York Institute of Photography. Soon I will be the Best! And should not look back at the rest! See you all at the top! Gordon J Holman.
Unknown said…
Another great article. I like that you are very honest and direct to the point.

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