I see an awful lot of whining on flickr and other photographic blogs regarding the state of photography today. Let me rephrase that: the state of photography as a business.
I hear the usual: lack of barriers to entry driving the cost of everything from wedding photography to portraiture to stock photography down. Digital cameras and software enabling virtually anyone to produce photographs.
I think what the whiners fail to realize is that every industry faces similar competitive threats at differing levels. For example, the software industry – the industry I have spent my entire income earning life in – is an intellectual property business. What are the barriers to entry here? Look and you will see undeniable parallels in the 2 businesses.
Even high capital cost businesses like automobiles face similar challenges. At one point there were over 900 different models of cars and consumer trucks offered for sale in the United States. 900.
I see the whining as a result of an inability to assess the photography business as a business and a failure to properly position oneself in light of fundamentals: what is my market? How do I sell to that market? etc.
People whine about losing business to sub-$1000 wedding photographers when they charge a minimum of $2500. O really? So they are telling me that a price sensitive client is really their market? How interesting.
Anyone with a camera and Photoshop elements can create good photography? O really? Hmm. How interesting. And I was naive to think that the real barrier to entry in photography was skill – the understanding of composition and lighting and balance and that artsy-fartsy stuff.
Exactly how large a barrier to entry did Michelangelo face? For his sculptures he used a big block of marble (a relatively soft rock), hammer, chisel, and some sand for crissakes. Sand (to polish it with). And contrary to popular belief he was a fabulously wealthy man (he was just fabulously cheap). And don’t for one minute think that an artist or sculptor in Renaissance Italy was a rare or uncompetitive occupation.
He did what anyone who wants to succeed as an artist and a businessman (for you must be both unless you want to starve) did: he differentiated himself by knowing his market, his customers in particular, and used his skill to justify his pricing model by delivering to his customers what no one else could. They were willing to pay because he delivered.
To succeed in photography or in any other business, you must do the same.
Does this mean that all markets are constant? Of course not. There is not, to use the classic case, a large demand for buggy whips any longer. Or newspaper staff photographers. But in understanding the market (gee, it isn’t going to be around anymore) some newspaper staff photographers identified a new market (how about a blog for other photographers to learn lighting), knew how to price for that market (nothing! use the currency of advertising clicks to generate income, sell DVDs, hold seminars, etc) to sell their skill (a thorough expertise in off-camera lighting).
There will always be a market for wedding photographers. Do you really want the ones where Uncle Bill is an able substitute? Could you possibly compete (or would you want to compete) in this market?
If the photography business really has changed to the point where there are too many photographers, even wedding photographers, to make a living pursuing, is that really the end? Or perhaps the market has changed – could your target now be the (new) legions of wedding photographers? Do you throw up your hands (always an option) or do you continue as a (wedding) photographer, only this time in pursuit of a new market and a new vehicle for your work?
One door closes, another opens, as they say.