Future Opportunities For Careers In Photography

Posted on 5/4/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

Recently, I started a discussion on future career opportunities in photography on several Linkedin groups. The topic has engendered a lively and interesting debate.

The original post was:

“In the 1950s, I decided to make photography my career. It has been a great ride. There have been new experiences and new learning every day. It’s never been boring. There have always been new challenges and opportunities to explore.

“But photography as a business is changing. Where will those just starting their careers find opportunities in 5 or 10 years, or more? Will they be in stock, editorial, commercial assignments, video, portraiture, as a corporate employee, or something else? Or will photography just be something to do part time for fun, rather than a career?

“Most of the current ways to earn a living in photography are in decline. At the same time, more and more people want to be photographers. The current state of the economy is only part of the problem. The biggest driver of change is technological advancement.

“What advice would you give to a young person who wants to launch a career as a photographer today?”

Scott Highton of the American Society of Media Photographers responded:

“There are far fewer [opportunities] than ever before. And certainly making a reasonable living as an independent photographer today is significantly less plausible than at any other time in the history of the profession.

“There are opportunities, however, but photographers choosing to go down this path today must be so enamored and so dedicated to what they're doing that they can't imagine pursuing anything else, even if it means barely eking out a minimal living for a long time.

“The other 99% should seriously consider alternatives where they might have a better chance at earning a living wage over the longer term.

“Consider that a couple of months ago, ASMP’s general membership dropped to a level lower than it was 20+ years ago, both in total [general members] AND in their percentage of ASMP’s total membership. Back in 1986, working full-time professional photographers—comprising most of ASMP’s general membership— represented close to 70% of ASMP’s total membership. Today, less than half (and perhaps closer to 1/3) of ASMP’s members are general members.

“So our organization, which was founded 66 years ago to protect and promote the interests of professional photographers whose work is primarily for publication, today expends most of its efforts primarily serving the interests of those who are not necessarily full-time pros.

“The industry has changed dramatically. ASMP struggles to remain relevant in it, choosing now instead to offer educational seminars on digital imaging, workflow, basic technique, and business practices (where at least one ASMP leader reportedly encouraged attendees to consider working professionally for free). ASMP now widely encourages photographers to expand into video production (since our still cameras often include video capabilities), apparently unaware that the video industry has long been far more competitive (many more people clamoring for far fewer jobs) than the publication industry, and with well-established working standards far less favorable to authors (i.e. almost exclusively work for hire). Somehow, ASMP leaders, who have been unable to stop the erosion of rights and fees in our own industry over recent years, seem to think that ASMP's members will have better luck by jumping into an industry in even worse condition and in which we have little collective experience.”

Richard Lord added:

“It is one thing to make good photos. It is another thing to be able to make a living selling photos. Today's photo market is dictated by price and speed—not quality. For an independent photographer to make a living, competing with the resources of huge corporations, becomes more difficult every day. If your goal is to make great photos, it is possible to continue in that endeavor. If your goal is to make a living by doing it, you are forced to think and act like a business. It doesn't feel good, but it is reality. People considering entering this field will be best advised to consider photography to be a business. If they can make great photos as well, that’s fine, but it isn’t the primary criteria for making a living in photography.”

Some people imply that if a photographer has the passion to produce great pictures, tell a story or expose the truth, then success will come. In my experience, these often play a very minor role in the careers of those who are successful. More important is the ability to find customers, deliver what they ask for and need in a timely manner at what the customer considers a reasonable price.

And a “reasonable price” does not always mean cheaply. Some customers are willing to pay quite a bit for an image when they receive great value from using it. Having a successful photographic career is more about business, being a competent craftsman and a pleasant professional to work with than producing great images. What it cost the photographer to produce a great image has very little to do with what the customer is willing to pay to use it. More and more frequently, the customer is able to find a suitable alternative for less than it costs the photographer to operate his business.

For those interested in joining the discussion, the most active Linkedin groups are ASMP: American Society of Media Photographers - National, Photography Industry Professionals and Stock Photography, Buy and Sell Images.

Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  


  • Ellen Boughn Posted May 12, 2010
    The high school in my town has an impressive photography program: on an island with less than 25,000 total population, the high schoolhas 600 students enrolled in photo classes. I'm going to speak to these incredibly enthusiastic students next week and will quote some of the above. The program is so popular and the teachers so inspiring that a few students regularly go on to study photography after graduation. Time for a reality check!

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