The Future of Still Photography: Hobby or Career

Posted on 2/10/2011 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (4)

    Emily Chow, a photojournalism student at Northwestern University's Medill School, posted a story on Black Star Rising (see here) which basically takes the position that photography students should ignore what experienced professional photographers are telling them and forge ahead with determination to launch careers in photography. I had to respond. Be sure to read her story first.

Memo to: Emily Chow

After reading your story “To Succeed in Photography, Today’s Students Must Chart Their Own Course” I have mixed emotions.

Determination in the face of overwhelming obstacles is admirable. But, it saddens me that photo schools are preparing students for a hobby, not a career.

A Hobby, Not a Career

You say that photographers are advising you to “Stay out of the business” but they are “still taking photos” and that gives you some comfort that you too can build a career in photography or photojournalism. Keep in mind that the reason many photographers are still taking photos and still hanging on is that they haven’t been able to identify any better other options for making a living. They were trained to do one thing and when that thing is no longer needed they aren’t prepared to do anything else.

This leaves them with two options. Get new training in a totally different field and then try to get a job in that new career, or try to hang on as long as possible at what they have been doing hoping they’ll be able to earn enough to support their families before all the jobs disappear or they are ready to retire. Many are choosing to hang on because the other option isn’t easy or a sure thing either.

In the case of young people just starting out “adapting to change” means recognizing that the demand for professionally produced still photos is declining rapidly and then figuring out how you will earn a living doing something other than photography.

I’m assuming here, that earning a living is the goal, not just having a fun hobby that you enjoy. A lot of people get satisfaction from doing photography part time and earning a living at some other full time career. If that’s your aim you should be making some plans for that “other career” while you are in school.

Like It or Not, Things Change

If a hobby is all you want, then by all means work at improving your photography skills. You’ll be able to sell pictures occasionally and probably earn enough to more than cover your business expenses, but only a very small percentage of those who try will earn enough to cover all their personal needs as well -- assuming they want to live comfortably and eventually have a family.

Sure, there will be exceptions. There will be a few people who do well, but their numbers will be a lot less in five years than they are today, or than they were ten or more years ago. As a career, still photography is in serious decline.

If you think this can’t happen think about aerospace engineering and what a big deal it was in the 1960s (I know that was before you were born), and how many lost their jobs and ended up doing something else entirely. Or think about all the photographers who used to make a good living just doing darkroom work. They were in the dark all day with their hands in developer and fixer. Dodging and burning were real skills. Where are they now?

Beyond Camera Work

If you are still determined to be a photographer then look to video and story telling more than stills. Develop all the necessary skills including writing, graphics, gathering appropriate sound, editing and story development. Don’t just focus on camera work.

Our society is moving rapidly from a period where the still image was king to a point where virtually all information and entertainment will be on video devices that need motion, sound, narration and a compelling story to communicate information.

The producers who can bring all these elements together and sell, or find funding for, such projects will be the future winners. Everyone else will be technicians – small cogs in the production machine – and earning technician wages.

Get educated on what is happening with iPads, and other tablet devices and consider how they are going to impact the kind of visual information that will be needed. Photography is one aspect of the communication business. What skills will communicators need? Look at the education business and the use of electronic whiteboards. How will they change the demand for visual materials in education?

A Look At Career Options

If you can find one – and they are rare – look for a staff job with a guaranteed salary. Most photographers are self employed, and that provides very little security. If your goal is to somehow work with pictures consider the support services rather than shooting. Be one of those who takes the raw material (photographs) and turns them into a marketable product. Many people supplying support services to photographers earn more than the photographers themselves.

If you are trying to make photography a career then it is an absolute necessity that you study business and marketing. Most successful photographers spend 80% of their time in marketing, business development and operating their business. They are lucky if they spend more than 20% of their time behind the camera. Most successful photographers are skilled marketers and usually that is more important than creativity.  

You say your friend is taking photographs for Shop Evanston. How much is he being paid for those pictures? What are his expenses? How many hours does he spend producing those images and what is he earning per hour of actual work? Assuming that Shop Evanston can’t afford to pay any photographer a full time salary, how easy will it be for him to get other part time work that enable him to earn enough to support himself?

You will find that even very experienced photographers who have one or two good part-time contracts find it very difficult to string a lot of small projects together so there is no down time between jobs. Down time is the killer. It is possible to make good money on certain jobs for a limited amount of effort. But the down time between jobs eats away all that extra profit.

It is relatively easy to find people who want to use your pictures so I’m not surprised that some of your friends are shooting headshots for theater and film students, shooting for a student fashion magazine or covering fraternity and sorority events. The question is how much are they being paid for these services? My bet is not very much. Yes, they are doing it to polish their skills and build a portfolio. But, it is huge leap to go from receiving little or no money for your work to getting paid a reasonable fee for what you do.

Timing Is Everything

The major problem still photographers face is that technology has advanced to the point where virtually everyone can produce acceptable pictures for their needs, without the aid of a professional photographer. Therefore, they will use professionals sparingly and be reluctant to pay very much for professional service because all it accomplishes is save them a little time. There is a huge oversupply of people who can produce acceptable images relative to the demand.

I was one of the lucky ones who entered the photography business when the demand for professionally produced still photography was on the rise. My first major image sale was a Life Magazine cover of the overthrow of Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam. Back in 1963 a Life cover was a big deal. There is nothing like being lucky enough to start at the top. (Incidentally Black Star negotiated that sale for me.)

Looking back, I’ve had a successful career. But timing is everything and this is not the time to launch a still photography career.

One last thing. Don’t show this story to your mom or dad. They may wonder what they’ve been paying for.

Copyright © 2011 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:  


  • Paul Melcher Posted Feb 10, 2011
    Jim, You see the market through the distorted eye of commercial stock photography that has been ravaged by crowd sourcing. It is not an adequate perspective and certainly not one that should be applied industry wide.

  • Ellen Boughn Posted Feb 10, 2011
    I agree with Paul...photographers with the skills to solve visual problems will find success in advertising and soft editorial pieces. Those that can bring back a story, especially ones that are unique or dangerous to get will also thrive. Off the shelf photography now belongs to it should.

  • Shannon Fagan Posted Feb 10, 2011
    A gutsy commentary, and provocative. I applaud its efforts to educate and drive discussion and I thank Emily for her initial post. At times, I wish there was more commentary input here to add a mix of opinions.

    I hope that Emily isn't discouraged by the contents of this article, but rather, simply educated by the variety of opinions that are out there. If one were to ask a hundred photographer and analysts, that person would get a hundred different responses. Ultimately, it is Emily's responsibility to inform herself and make her own decisions. Hence, if she is reading this article and its commentary; I hope that she walks away refreshed that someone has provided an analysis specifically to her directly. To gain such attention is extremely rare in our industry. I personally can only count on one hand the number of times that I was provided with such insight (positive and negative) as I was emerging out of photo education and into my career. I needed and used both to make decisions. One needs mentors to succeed. Emily (like all of us) will find exactly the same when sharing her photography portfolio around...the variety of opinions will be astounding.

    Certainly Jim's commentary in opinion based, but it's not without its factual support as well. One only need thank Malcolm Gladwell's book "Outliers" for demonstrating that for success "timing is everything" and as well as a healthy dose of luck mixed in. Our market for photography (and all digital content) is permanently changed. That is the important take away from Emily's article and Jim's response.

    Thanks Emily and Jim for taking the time to share your thoughts. Jim is highlighting the one thing that all business analysts suggest (and all venture capitalists require)...get into a large and growing market when building a business. Analysts will also tell you that you must first be passionate about your endeavor, or it will undoubtedly and ultimately fail. Thanks to Emily for reminding us of this side of the argument.

    One needs both.


  • John Harris Posted Feb 15, 2011
    Paul is right, in the rest of the industry the skill is in producing meaningful journalism not in reenforcing visual stereotypes. It does mean photographers have to stand up for themselves and not accept defeat from the hands of those "savvy businessmen" intent on monopolizing all markets by undervaluing the picture.

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