This year I have given a presentation to a few different ASMP chapters on Staying Relevant in the current photo industry. This presentation covers a wide variety of topics concerning the photography industry. Chiefly, it discusses how the industry has changed in the last decade and how photographers can cope with those changes. As with everything in life, the times they are a changing, and as the slide below shows, the advertising industry has undergone seismic shifts in how it reaches potential consumers in an age where most people go to great lengths to avoid advertisements. The rise of on-demand video has eliminated TV for many, and in doing so that has drastically reduced the number of people who see TV ads. The main question in advertising these days is “How do you advertise to people who don’t watch advertisements?”
The economy, at least here in the USA, is as strong as it has been in the last three decades as far as I can tell. But for professional photographers, the digital revolution has spawned massive changes in camera technology, distribution and publication, as well as how we market ourselves to potential clients. In effect, we are facing the same issues that large ad agencies are facing in trying to get our work in front of potential clients. The supply and demand curves have been going in the wrong direction for sometime now, i.e. huge supply and steady or slightly expanding demand. This puts pressure on all professional photographers to build buzz around their work and themselves. Honestly, this has always been the case. Forty years ago, the supply and demand curves were better for photographers but it was still hard to get noticed and even harder to get work.
What has really hurt individual photographers is the massive drop in pricing. If there was any doubt that photography was a commodity, that doubt has pretty much been erased. In the last decade, since the 2008 crash, pricing for photography in the advertising space has dropped anywhere from 60% to 90% depending on your genre. For direct stock licenses, if I can get 50% of what I used to get pre-2008, then I feel like I am doing pretty well. There has never been a time in the photography industry where pricing has been pushed downward this aggressively. With the supply and demand curves skewed heavily in favor of the client it isn’t surprising that pricing has taken a nose-dive. I have to say that giving this presentation, it is hard to stay positive. But when I think back to the early days of my career, and even a decade ago, I remember a lot of the older photographers bemoaning the end of the photo industry. Maybe it has always been that way. The industry is ever changing, just as every other industry is as well. The reality is that we as photographers and content creators have to keep adapting to the new way of doing things: social media, video, data driven advertising, and much, much more. Stagnation is the slow downhill ride. As never before, we as creators have to be creative and continue to come up with breathtaking work to advertise our services and satisfy the needs of our clients. And if you happen to have a million or more would be consumers in your back pocket (i.e. on Instagram) that doesn’t hurt either.
There are still many young photographers, just coming into the industry, that are thriving. They are hungry and they understand the new age of advertising to their peers. This is a natural cycle in the industry, and why it is so difficult to extend a career as a photographer past the twenty to thirty year mark. Photographers that have had a fifty or sixty year career in this industry, like Annie Leibovitz, Jay Maisel, Albert Watson, and a handful of others, is rare for a reason. How long can you keep working as hard as it takes in this industry to make a living? In my own genre, the adventure sports photography world, the current top adventure photographers have already extended the average length of a career considerably from the generation before–and this genre is really only fifty years old at most.
In short, the answer to how you stay relevant is easy. You work your ass off, create amazing work that is hard to replicate, and get creative in how you promote that work.
The talk obviously goes into much greater depth, and on a wide array of subjects, than this blog post allows for. I will continue to give the talk around the country – stay tuned to your local ASMP chapter to see if and when it will be coming to an area near you.