Photography: The More Things Change...

Posted on 3/19/2018 by Jose Azel | Printable Version | Comments (0)

In Aurora Photos latest newsletter to contributors President and Founder José Azel offered insights on the current state of the stock photo industry that are worth every stock photographer considering.

The more things change...

Over the past years I have heard and read comments such as these from photographers:
    Photography is not a sustainable career any more.

    What the industry pays for our work is ridiculous and insulting. It’s not realistic and absolutely crazy to earn $2 or $3 for a picture.
A long time ago, my first paycheck for doing photography came in the summer of 1973.  At the end of my freshman year at Cornell University, I got lucky. I was hired for the Universities’ Visual Services Department through a work-study program. I shot and did odd jobs for the two seasoned professional photographer on staff; a wonderful first experience.

Forty-four years later my experiences in the photography industry have been numerous and varied. From newspaper photographer, to National Geographic, corporate assignments and, of course, the founding of Aurora Photos, a photo agency that turns 25 this year.

“A lot has changed,” is a cliché and an understatement, but very true. Throughout my photo career I have embraced change, even when change hurt deeply. The road has lead visual storytelling through steep climbs and twisting paths, from film to digital, from print to web, from hand shakes to multipage contracts. Through all those changes my motto has been and remains,

Evolve or Die

At the heart of today’s changes we have the downward spiral of fees paid for existing stock photography and the stagnation of rates for commissioned/assigned photography. We also have the maturation of video online and the merging of stills and video productions.

More than ever photographers communicate that they can’t make a living wage from photography. Invariably, they blame the low prices and feel deeply that there must be a way to bring the fees up to levels of the past.

Unfortunately, but realistically, I have to tell those who insist: I am sorry, today’s value placed on single images by clients is much, much lower than ever. In general, there’s little a small stock agency can do.

Why can’t we push fees up from current levels is a complex situation, but it has clear reasons.

1 – Digital photography, aided by the amazing software that helps capture the image makes it easier than ever to make good frames. Getting action in focus is not a problem, near perfect exposure is a given, manipulation post capture is incredible.

2 – In a field where there’s nearly no barrier to entry, there are more people wanting to be professional photographers than ever. Many of them take whatever is offered for the photos. Bill Larkin, a photographer from Reno, NV, wrote for the web site, “…in my area there are well over 600 photographers in a town with about a 10 mile radius.” 

3 – The Internet allowed savvy business people to consolidate the industry, and compete globally amongst everyone. To keep clients and fight the competition, prices dropped. One can blame some of the giants with the view that they should have kept prices up, but this is unrealistic. The easiest way to gain customers is to lower the price. When you see your market share drop, you follow their lead.

4 – A tough reason to swallow, but as valid as any is the incapacity, especially in the early stages of the changes, for photographer and smaller agencies to band together. It is still an impossible feat to organize the population of photographers to band together. Interestingly, I wrote about this in great detail for The Digital Journalist in 2002. You can find the piece via this link and be amazed at how little has changed,  

5 – Prosumer, high-end amateurs, contribute to the photo market with no need for meaningful revenue. They simply love to shoot, get their images out there and get feedback and recognition.

6 – Demand for professional photography is going down as nearly everyone carries a phone camera, capturing images by the billions. Even if they aren’t the best, most professional quality, many companies/client find them “good enough.”

Please, remember that I am speaking in a broad general manner and that there are those who will command high fees, be able to reject work or be diverse enough to make a good living with their work. One needs to embrace change to rise into that level.

It is still worthwhile for professionals to participate in the stock world, but throwing whatever you shoot at the marketplace might not be the right strategy. Sophistication, finesse and planning what and how you shoot becomes more important than quantity, even if the quality is good. Today’s successful stock shooter needs to be better than just good.

So what can those of you with the talent and the tenacity to continue do to find success?

Aligning yourself with the right community of peers can help. While I hear negative comments about pricing and the tough state of the industry, I also hear many of Aurora’s contributors telling us that joining Aurora has been an excellent experience. They praise the feedback they get from editors and staff as invaluable, and the regular information they get from the agency about the marketplace as helpful and informative. They also tell us that being an Aurora affiliated photographer has caused others to regard them as high level,  even elite photographers.  Aurora accepts a small percentage of those who want to contribute and even when accepted, our acceptance rate for images is less than 25% of what is submitted, maintaining our brand and reputation among photographers and clients as an agency of quality.

Our new era goes hand in hand with technology. The Internet has been the place where great work gets found and where today’s photo editors, creative directors and corporate marketing executives go to find photography and photographers.

Become a marketing pro. Get knowledgeable about the web and especially web marketing. Your website has to be as good as your photography, maybe even better. It must be designed well, navigate easily, show big, fast loading pictures that make the viewer say, “Wow!”. All easier said than done. Embrace Instagram and other new forms of photo-centric technology that helps get your work in front of others.

Know your business
. Understand the basic principals of business, because to some extent, being a good business manager is more important than being a good photographer. Business folks know about brand and how important that is. They understand financials and how one must invest to get a return. Don’t get hung up on the prices, except to understand what the marketplace is, and know how and where you fit into that marketplace.

Know yourself. One thing that is often not written or spoken about when giving advice to photographers is this: Know yourself. It’s tough to be honest about who you are and how you act. It’s hard enough to succeed at photography, but if you are shy, and reserved, afraid to put yourself out there, perhaps even boast a bit (call it marketing), then you have a big wall to surmount before you even encounter all the other barriers to entry. People like to be with people that they like. Clients want to have fun and work with those that make the experience interesting and enjoyable.

Embrace video. Millennials are 1.35 times more likely than older generations to say they find it easier to focus when watching videos on mobile. One in five Facebook videos is now a live broadcast. By 2020, over 75% of the world's mobile data traffic will be video. Videos earn the highest engagement rate, despite making up only 3% of content.

Keep abreast of what’s coming. Recently the two camera smartphones combined with software creates a system can extract depth. The iPhone 7 Plus uses this by isolating a subject in the foreground from the background layers, simulating what a DSLR photographer would gets by using very short depth of field. The Stanford Multi-Camera Array, sports 128 separate cameras. The compact Light L16 Camera captures the details of your scene at multiple focal lengths, then uses sophisticated algorithms to combine 10+ images into a single, high-resolution photo.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. From analog to digital, from non-cyber world to wired world, the challenges remain. The biggest difference today will be your success. Success will be sweeter for the competition has blossomed to millions of others who want the allure of a romantic photographic career.  The ability to make a solid living within the world of visual communication will have to include video, an affinity and ability to market and create meaningful relationships with clients, and of course, as always, talent, dedication, resiliency and tenacity.

Copyright © 2018 Jose Azel. 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


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