Friday, May 8, 2009

Embrace your Photographic Niche and Thrive

Fact Number 1: It takes hard work to make a living as a professional photographer.

Fact Number 2: Contrary to what you may read, most art directors still value good imagery.

Fact Number 3: If I hear one more ‘professional photographer’ wax poetic about the good ole’ days –you know, when there weren’t so many darn amateurs taking all of their business– I’m going to write a ranting blog post about the subject.

Fact Number 4: I'm about to go into a rant…(see Fact Number 3...too late)

Is it just me, or does anyone else find it shocking that so many working pros these days seem to seize any opportunity to separate themselves from the ‘evil amateurs’ who are stealing away their business and diluting the market with crummy photography? At least once a week I listen to a pod-cast or read a blog post in which an established photographer is complaining that sales are down because there are too many hobby-photographers out there selling their work for next-to-nothing and stealing all of their market-share.

In the spirit of fairness, why don’t I just go ahead and acknowledge a few things right off of the bat: 1.) Yes, there are a lot of photographers literally giving away their work willy-nilly 2.) This does hurt the business of established photographers from time-to-time (or possibly quite, often). 3.) This isn’t going to change as far as I can tell so I recommend for others to get over it, move on, be creative, make good images and learn how to market yourself in a changing economy. In other words, stop whining and get on with your lives for goodness sake!

Yes, I know, what does a whipper-snapper like me know about such things, right? Well, as someone who comes from a graphic design and advertising background, I can testify that there are similarities between what is happening right now and what happened during the rise of desktop publishing in the mid-to-late eighties. During that time, everyone and their mother was buying page-layout software so that they could eliminate the need to waste their money on over-controlling designers. Ironically, it turned out that the software was nothing more than a tool intended to be wielded by someone with artistic skill and not some type of magic-genie-design-lamp that would make great brochures on command. In the end many corporations of the world found themselves stuck with a boat-load of poorly executed collateral that did little to serve the purpose that it was created for. It was at this point that many companies started buidling their own in-house design groups with qualified professionals.

So what does that mean? Well, although there are lots of really nice images being made by hobbyists, there are also a ton of very bad ones as well. And guess what? Just because someone has a few images (or several) that would look nice in a brochure doesn’t mean that they are necessarily professional, easy to work with, dependable, able to reproduce the same types of results over and over on command, etc. As a result, I would bet that, even if some of these folks outbid a pro for a particular job, unless they are able to deliver the same level of work as proficient shooters, the clients would bail. Granted, there will always be some companies who simply don’t care how good a photo looks and will accept just about anything. On the flip side, some up-and-coming pros may bid low, get the job and do fantastically. If they are serious about their new career, they will most likely raise their rates and the cycle will continue.

What is affected, and may be affected long-term, is your general, everyday run-of-the-mill stock photography sales. You know, your sunsets, business guys looking serious on a cell-phone, a tight shot of a handshake between to different ethnicities, and so on. However, if a photographer is able to be clever, and find their own unique niche, really focus on it and work very hard, I believe that success is still a huge possiblity. On the very top tier (to take this back around to nature photography), not everyone is going to have a photo of a so-and-so bird of paradise displaying in Papua, New Guinea. Therefore, those that go to the trouble to shoot these types of things are going to have an advantage in the marketplace. Shoot it well, with style, creativity and finesse and the odds get even better. So where does that leave the rest of us who don’t have the funds to go globe-trotting, you ask? Pretty much in the same boat, I say.

Our world is an extraordinary, amazing place absolutely packed to the brim with unique species, habitats and cultures from pole-to-pole. I imagine that I could spend the rest of my life sifting through the leaf-litter of my backyard and not discover absolutely everything that there is to photograph, much of which presents fantastic opportunities for stock.

I guess what I’m saying (ranting on about) is that although times are tough for photographers, in the end, the cream will rise to the top. I really believe this. Some businesses will go under, which is very unfortunate, and new careers will be made. It might sound like a ‘pie-in-the-sky’ type of philosophy but I feel strongly that editors, publishers, art directors and print buyers will ultimately gravitate towards new, fresh approaches to subject matter. As it turns out, everyone isn’t able to produce the same quality of work, just because they happen to have good camera equipment. Ultimately, it is what we bring to our images, as people, artists and observers of the world around us, and in-turn, how we market this work, which will determine the fate of our careers. We are not only selling our photos but ourselves as well. As far as I’m concerned, all of the micro-stock, hobbyists, amateurs in the world can’t change that. Besides, a little competition only stands to make us better if we have what it takes.

What do you all think? I certainly feel better but I'm not so sure that any of you who have waded through this might feel the same way.



Niall Benvie said...

Hello Clay

Well, as someone who has been doing this professionally for 16 years and still every month wonders "will I make my sales targets", I take a lot of hope from your words. You may have added - if you agree - that the surest way to fail is slavishly to follow "what the market wants": there are always many, many more better resourced individuals than us who can service that demand more effectively. But what users actually want to see is individuality, something unexpected - even humorous. Digital imaging is no more effective at producing great, original photographers than a word processor is at producing outstanding literature.


Niall Benvie

Clay Bolt said...

Hi Niall,

I couldn't agree more and your comment elegantly sums up what I was hoping to get across in the post. I believe that some photographers find themselves getting caught up in trends that add very little to their careers and which result in a homogenization of their body of work.

As you mention, interjecting humor, individuality and a unique perspective into our imagery will go a very long way towards grabbing our users attention. At the very least, these devices will give us the greatest chance to remain current and memorable.