Some days it seems like there’s a new photographer on every street corner begging for work. I can imagine the cardboard signs they hold up that read: “Senior portraits for $60!” or “I’ll shoot your wedding for $200.”
These cheap photographers get called many names: Fauxtographers, Shoot and burners or “wanna bes” among others. The photography forums are buzzing about the cheapening of the business . And its not just event photographers that are being accused of grossly under-pricing their services. I routinely see landscape and nature photographers hawking their images for next to nothing.
My colleague and friend Tony Avila from Aperture Priority has wryly called this proliferation of cheap-priced photographers “The Race to The Bottom.” (Note: I joined Tony in studio to talk more about his view in a recent podcast. You can listen to it here.)
Before you assume I think the photographers in question are putting out poor quality, think again. More often than not they show real talent and skill.
In my discussions with other photographers I find there are two schools of thought. Those that think the easy access to digital cameras, including cell phones, has created never before seen challenges to full time photographers. As Jamie Pflughoeft, a highly-regarded pet photographer in Seattle laments:
“Photographers who don’t think this issue affects their business or the industry in any way have blinders on. (I originally wanted to use the word ‘deluded’ here, but I decided to be kind). OR, they are just lucky enough that this trickle-down affect hasn’t hit them yet…. The damage has already been done. I’m even beginning to wonder if this industry isn’t FUBAR’d.”
Other professionals in the business disagree. They note that every service industry has low-cost competitors and somehow businesses survive in them. Photography is no different. Brian Fitzgerald, a commercial, editorial and advertising photographer based in New England notes:
“I hear this one all the time. On the surface it feels like truth, and seems to make sense. If there are tons of high-quality, low priced photographers out there, how do the rest of us (established, presumably more expensive photographers) compete? Yet, we can and we do.”
I land somewhere in the middle of the discussion. First I have to acknowledge that technology has had a HUGE impact on photography. I know that is true of every industry, but photography has arguably been more impacted than most:
With the proliferation of cell phones, there are over 8 billion cameras in the world today. Everyone is a photographer today.
It has never been easier for a photographer to have direct and complete control of the entire creative process from image acquisition to the final print job. The digital darkroom is very egalitarian.
So yes, the craft has experienced a higher than usual pressure from low-cost competition. But, let’s face it. No one picks up a modern DSLR and builds a five-figure business overnight. There is a pretty steep learning curve required to master the skills of digital photography. You may have the talent, bit without an understanding of your camera, post editing skills and file management your photography will suffer.
And there’s another skill sets that most artists do not have:
More talented photographers will fail because of a lack of business sense than any other cause. Things like customer service, marketing, accounting, insurance, strategic planning, taxes, licenses and reporting are critical to professionals. Home owner insurance probably won’t cover the loss of a pricey camera if the insurance company discovers it was used in a business. Without mastering the business end you are at grave risk of a single event wiping out years of successful photography.
Here’s the dirty little secret about cheap photographers who want to make a living in the craft: They rarely calculate the true indirect cost of a photography business. If they ever wake up to the business side of the profession, they eventually charge appropriately for their work, or they go out of business.
So dear photographer, don’t focus on the competition. Focus on your market, your niche. You cannot be everything to everybody. There’s a market for every level of photographer.
So get out there and get to light painting. But don’t forget to check your insurance policy to make sure if you drop your camera from a cliff it is covered.
About the author: JS Engelbrecht is a talented nature and landscape photographer, trainer and business adviser.
He began his photography career in a High School dark room for the school's Year Book. Later he entered the fashion industry and product photography before turning his attention to Nature. "I moved from shooting pictures of beautiful jewelry to shooting pictures of natural beauty."
Now JS Engelbrecht enjoys capturing beautiful scenes during his travels. Click here to see his fine art gallery.