The Business of Photography


“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” -Andy Warhol

What is a professional photographer?

Back in the day (under a decade ago), I wandered into a local “pro” lab that had a front counter for retail and a dedicated side room for pros only. Of course I went to the pro-counter and I asked a bunch of questions about E-6 temperature control and turn-around times. The guy looked me up and down and politely asked if I was a pro. “Uh-huh,” I replied. Then he asked if I was a full-time, earn-all-my-income-from-photography pro. I thought about it for a split second and said, “Yup.” It was the truth, but there has always been a part of me that is uneasy with the fact that sometimes the phone doesn’t ring. Sometimes the phone doesn’t ring for a long time. And, once an eon or so, it rings a lot.

Increasingly the phone has been replaced by email, but that doesn’t change the psychological dynamic. What has changed the psychology is the business environment, and that’s when you look to your pals like  Andy for, um, inspiration.

Now I am not an expert on the business of photography (or anything else!). But I like everyone else watch the trends, read the stories, read the forums, and talk to others in my industry. I am also not in NYC, where (I’m told) photographers showing their books on an iPod to clients in bars are legion. So, I am not up on the latest sure-fire way to win jobs. My opinion is just one of the masses on the fringes rather than the usual formulaic success stories.

As background, a couple general trends of note are the fact that there are more part-time pro photographers than ever before. (Not big news.) Photography prices are still going down. (Yawn. Tell me something I didn’t know.) And, you’re expected to deliver more for the same, decreasing pay while keeping up with rapidly depreciating electronics and software.

Plenty of people are bemoaning the death of old business models (hey just ask the record labels!) so you won’t get that here. Look instead to the new frontier where photography is being reinvented. Making multi-frame composite images, combining images with audio, and combining still images with moving images are just some of the ways the old distinctions are being blurred, if not erased. That trite old term “multimedia” has been coming of age.

Single frame photos still have a place and probably always will, but new means of expression are being probed by progressive artists and clients all the time. The rest of us, and the economies/mindsets we represent, are the things that are catching up. A long road, and not an easy one either.

So what to take away from this ramble? Just the usual: know yourself, know your market, don’t be afraid to change (especially if it means letting go), and finally, have fun. If photography for you is a fun hobby, continue to be blessed. If you make a little on the side from photos, be blessed. If you make a living from photography, be blessed but “get back to work!”

In his book “Made You Look,” graphic designer Stephen Sagmeister recounts how record labels “changed colors even on Andy Warhol.” Disgusted, he realizes that as long as money is involved, there will be compromises. Therefore he concludes, “Instead of giving up on graphic design, I should try to reinvent it for myself.”

If building a business is your thing, Photo District News is hosting seminars in several cities: PDN On the Road features leading photographers, getting down to business.

PhotoShelter also recently hosted a series of seminars in September. Their online storage service is becoming an alternative to large agency collections, as is Digital Railroad which features similar services for photographers seeking to sell stock.

By Laurence Chen | 

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  • Tom says:

    How come you have not commented on event photography? Have you ever thought of another photography product with which you can make so much money (except motion pictures)?

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