The Changing Photography Business

Posted on 1/13/2012 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (1)

The photography business has changed dramatically -- and at a very rapid pace. Kodak is near bankruptcy and trying to sell off its photographic patents. Most of the photo labs that used to process film and make prints have long since gone out of business. Locally, Penn Camera Exchange the largest photo equipment supplier in the region is closing 5 out of its 8 stores. Professional photographers aren’t the only ones who are hurting.

Technology has been the primary change agent. The microprocessor is nowhere near done remaking the photography industry. Professional photographers must step back and take a hard, critical look at why people take pictures and how they use them. Photographers need to recognize how those engaged in other aspects of photography will impact the professional’s ability to earn a living taking pictures.

4 Reasons To Take Pictures

There are at least 4 very different reasons why people take pictures. It is important to understand the motivations of both photographer and image users in each instance. The four reasons which I’ll examine in some detail are:
    1 – For a personal record
    2 – To communicate information to others
    3 – Express one's creativity
    4 – Earn one's living
Most professional photographers engage in all of these activities at one time or another. The reasons for each activity and how each impacts on the photographer’s ability to earn a living are worth examining.

Personal Record

The vast majority of pictures are taken by individuals to help them remember something that happened in their lives. In most of these cases the picture does not have to be perfect it just has to be a reasonable facsimile of what was happening at the moment. Seldom can a professional be hired to take such pictures because the moments can not be anticipated.

Some events like weddings, business meetings or class portraits can be anticipated. In such cases the cost of hiring a professional must be balanced against having a friend or someone within the organization take the pictures. The improved quality of digital cameras compared to film has made it easier for amateurs to take more of the pictures they want and have greater satisfaction with the results. They know whether they have what they wanted because they can review it instantaneously.

Thanks to digital technology more and more of the images taken for these purposes are delivered and stored online rather than as prints. The market for photographic prints is declining as consumers share more photos electronically, particularly via social networking sites. Custom photo books are another way of keeping a record of an event. It is estimated that worldwide in 2011 the custom book market generated about $1.4 billion. Photobooks and photo products deliver far more profit than snapshot prints. InfoTrends and Lyra Research both expect that such photo merchandise will remain popular even as more photos are shared via social media sites.

Photo books can also be used to organize information for homework assignments, class projects, a family cookbook, a professional portfolio and more.


Traditionally still images have been used in newspapers, magazines and books to communicate information, but dramatic changes are taking place in this segment of the market.

The amount of space for information in traditional print publications is declining due to declines in advertising. This means publications will need fewer images. Most print publications are placing images online as well as in print. Consequently more images may be getting used, but overall the money allocated to pay for the images that are used, both online and in print is declining. This means fewer jobs and lower pay.

Book publishers are insisting on longer licenses for lower fees than were paid twenty years ago and are demanding the right to print many more copies for these lower fees. In addition the education market is moving toward much wider use of electronic whiteboards and the Internet as educational resources. The current compensation for electronic use is even lower than for print and there is no indication there will be any improvement when the education business transitions from print to digital.

Customers are bypassing professionally produced sources of information -- unless such information is available for free -- and getting much more of the information they want from online blogs and social media sites. Recently, CNN layed off 50 staff photojournalists. In future they will rely to a much greater extent on visual material coming in from amateurs on the scene.

Publications will increasingly rely on consumer generated content produced by smart phones. Suppliers of these images will receive little or no compensation for their use. For the most part it will be impossible to understand supplier bias or whether the image is an accurate and fair representation of the event.

I’m reminded of a recent story line on the TV drama Blue Bloods. A police officer was accused of police brutality based on a piece of footage that went viral on the Internet. When the uncut footage was finally made available it was clear that the officer’s actions had been justified. This was a dramatization, not a real situation. But it illustrates the unreliability of much of the information we currently receive and can expect to receive in the future.
Much of the information we receive will not be fact-checked. The economics of the information business will make it impossible for publications to use staffers to create their entire report. As it becomes easier to manipulate images, it becomes harder and harder to tell what the truth is in any image.

The business of communicating informtion will also transition away from stills and become more heavily dependent on video as more and more of the information we receive is delivered via the Internet and mobile devices rather than print.

Express One’s Creativity

A significant number of photographers simply want to create something new that is uniquely their vision and an “interesting image.” Usually, these creations have no commercial purpose. Realistically, the photographers don’t expect to receive monetary compensation for their efforts. If someone were to offer them lots of money for their creation they might take it, but for the most part their only goal is to share their vision with others and know that someone else “likes” their creation.

Why is this important? What impact do those who create for personal satisfaction have on the market for photography? With so many photos available for free viewing, and in many cases free use, it becomes harder and harder for people to understand why they should pay to use any photography.

Increasingly, such images will be created with iPhones or smartphones rather than DSLRs. Currently, there are more than 5 billion (with a B) active cell phone accounts. Within a year or two most of them will be smartphones with cameras. Developments in smartphones and wireless networking have freed digital photos from the flash cards and hard drives. For people who want to share their images the iPhone has two advantages over a DSLR. There are over 9,000 photo apps that allow users to easily manipulate their captured images, a favorite pastime of many photo artists. Because it is a phone the image can be easily sent to a friend or portal where others can see it without the need to transfer to another device. As Chase Jarvis has said, “The best camera is the one that’s with you.”

It has been estimated that over 90% of images shot appear on the web. The 8MP iPhone file is perfectly satisfactory for online, TV reproduction and power point presentations. This file size is also sufficient for 1/4 page or less print use. Probably in excess of 75% of all print uses are 1/4 page or less. There will remain a few photo situations that can only be captured with a DSLR, but increasingly the iPhone will become the primary image capture device. More and more features will be added. This technology will bring about another dramatic change in the way we do photography. More and more of what happens with a photo takes place after the image sensor does the first work. Software and Web sites for editing, cataloging, printing, and sharing photos are increasingly important, developed a little over a year ago, is “a fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends through a series of pictures,” according to the promotional material. So far more that 15 million people have uploaded more than 400 million images to this site. While only 5% of Instagram users have uploaded more than 50 shots that represents 750,000 photographers and the number is growing rapidly. Soon, everyone will be a photographer.

A significant number of the photos taken by people whose focus is creating art, and by amateurs who post their images on Flickr, will be the kind of images those who might have bought images in the past will be perfectly happy to use for their projects. Most of these photographers will be overjoyed with nothing more than a byline for the use of their images.

Earn a Living

Finally we come to that very small percentage of photographers who pursue the craft/art as a way to earn their primary income. We call these people “professionals.” They don’t necessarily produce better images than the amateurs who photograph the same type of subject matter. Often they have no formal education in photography. They are professionals because they have chosen to earn most, if not all, of the money they need to support themselves taking pictures.

While the number of professional photographers is only a fraction of all those taking good pictures, the number of those who want to earn their living taking pictures is growing much more rapidly than paid work for them to do.

Usually, the professional’s job is to produce the best picture possible based on a number of narrowly defined parameters, rather than being given free range to create an exciting, unique, artistic image. Often this means that satisfactory results will be rather mundane.

Some photographers have a very narrow subject matter specialty. More often than not photographers are forced to accept a variety of jobs because there is not enough work in their desired specialty to generate sufficient income to meet their economic needs.

Photographers who is engaged in photography as a sideline (avocation, not a vocation) are often willing to devote a lot of time learning a specific skill or developing an expertise because of their interest in the subject. They will do this despite the fact that they have no hope of ever earning their living from their photography, or even enough to offset the cost of the time invested in learning the skill.

Full time professional photographers tend to make fewer mistakes than amateurs. They may be better at assessing what is needed to complete a particular project and deliver quality images on deadline. But hiring a professional is no guarantee of a better visual result than using an amateur for whom monetary compensation is of secondary importance. Digital technology has made it much easier, than was the case in the past, for amateurs to produce quality images of many subjects.

People who pay professional photographers to produce images do so because they can’t find any other way to get the images they need -- for a comparable cost. Given the current and every growing competition in the marketplace it has become much easier for someone who needs a photo to find someone with a camera that will produce what they need for a reasonable price.

As a result, photographer fees are declining. As the people described in the three categories above gain skills a few will go out and try to market some of what they have, or can produce, as a way of supplementing their primary income. This not only tends to undercut prices, but also reduces the number of projects available for professionals.

Photographers choose the profession because they love taking pictures. However, often very little of their time is actually spent taking pictures. Time will be spent in marketing to find work, in pre-planning for a shoot and in post production after the shoot as the work is prepared for final delivery to the customer. It is not uncommon for a photographer to spend 4 or 5 times the amount of time in pre-planning and post production as is actually spent shooting. And this doesn’t count the time spent in administration and running a business as most photographers are self employed. More and more of what happens with a photo takes place after image capture. Some of the pre and post work can be sub-contracted, but the photographer must be able to keep busy shooting in order to justify the added expense.

Good communication skills, the ability to direct people with whom the photographer is working and good time management skills are extremely important for anyone who hopes to be successful as a professional photographer.

Professional photographers have a right to be scared because the market for what they do is getting smaller. An increasing number of the photographic needs can be handled by part timers. Skilled professionals are no longer in as great a demand as was once the case.

My purposes is not to discourage those who love taking pictures from entering the profession, although for many it may be more satisfying to engage in the business of photography on a part time rather than full time basis. I have simply tried to provide a realistic examination of the challenges that will be faced. A few will find a career as a photographer constantly exciting and interesting. For most it will be a difficult slog with limited economic rewards.

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, 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:  


  • mauricio jordan de souza coelho Posted May 11, 2012
    How the amateurs smartphones photographers will deal with model and property release, caption, keyword and categorization of the images?

    Flickr is already full of nice content hardly findable. The vast majority barely put a caption or even a correct caption of the images they uploaded. When they do,it is in their own language and in many cases the spelling is awful, which makes hard the job of search engines. Most are confined to the audience that speaks their language.

    Correct keyword work? Forget it. It is already a hard task to dedicated professional stock photographers. Categorization work? They have no idea about what is this.

    And about the "artistic photos", I do not believe that today is more difficult than was in the days when Athens was the center of the universe, or even during the golden period of art nouveau ... On the contrary, I believe that is increasingly easy for someone to find their own audience. Youtube is a great example. But understanding the demand and do a great network job is not a task for anyone.

    So I do believe that the stock photographers (that "small percentage" reponsible for 25% of the industry revenue) and stock photo and footage industry still have many years ahead.

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