Photography is Headed for an Industry Storm

Sarah Connor
Sarah Connor looks towards the impending storm.

At the end of Jim Cameron’s sci-fi thriller “Terminator,” Sarah Connor the reluctant hero (played terrifically by Linda Hamilton), the mother of the savior of the world, is sitting in a jeep at a Mexican border gas station, looking solemnly towards the hills. Her face is wrought with sadness and anticipation. The wind blows. A tumble weed rolls by (no seriously, a tumble weed actually does roll by, it’s kind of funny). Then a little Mexican boy runs up to Sarah’s jeep (the boy who snapped the famous Polaroid that will be the driving force of the man who will father her child), and yells with vigor, “¡Viene la tormenta!” Sarah turns to the old man who runs the dilapidated station and asks, “What did he just say?” The man translates, “He says there’s a storm coming in.” Sarah returns her gaze to the foreboding horizon and replies,”I know.” (Queue dramatic score.)

Well, I don’t have the charm of a little Mexican boy, but let me just say to all you photogs out there, “¡Viene la tormenta!”

Some of you may argue that we are already in the midst of a storm. That too could be true. But I think something bigger, something we haven’t seen yet, is on the horizon. (If I may offer yet another Cameron blockbuster film analogy, I’m reminded of “Aliens” when Ripley (played brilliantly by Sigourney Weaver) says in answer to the question Who’s laying these eggs? “I don’t know. Something we haven’t seen yet.” I tell ya people, there’s somethin’ in my bones telling me that we’re ripe for a storm and/or shake up in the professional photography world that will force those unprepared to radically change their business.

Lighting and Thunder

As a kid you were taught to tell how far away the center of a storm was by counting the number of seconds between seeing a lightning strike and hearing the crack of thunder. Here are three major lightning strikes we’ve already seen in the industry:

  1. Equipment: the proliferation of consumer and prosumer SLRs and digital stills have significantly lowered the barriers to entry. One of the most oft phrases I hear veterans utter as a complaint is “Anybody thinks they can be a photographer now.”
  2. Education: Jesh de Rox’s controversial 1-on-1 price notwithstanding, the investment required for education is now at an all time low. CreativeLive has created the new education model: offer free education online by world class professionals, sell the recording at a fantastically low price thereafter. We’re already seeing the model being duplicated in events like last year’s Escalate Live and the upcoming Sara Petty “High School Senior How to Event” (full disclosure: for you cynics out there, no, I’m not an instructor nor am I getting paid for mentioning it. But a couple of friends and talented photographers Scott and Adina Hayne are teaching, so I want to support them.)
  3. Digital Distribution: the internet has been both a bane and a blessing for visual artists. More and more clients are requesting/demanding digital negatives, and are using every means available to get them. (We’ve had senior portrait clients from Teen Identity take iPhone photos of their mounted prints to post on Facebook as profile pics.)

If these are the lightning strikes, the associated thunder crashes are increased competition, a lowering of perceived value, and dramatic drops in fees and bookings (the sour economy plays a big role in that third one too). Many of your are saying, “This is nothing new Ron.” And you’re right, they aren’t. The difference I’m seeing, and the reason for the storm analogy, is the increasingly shorter amount of time between the “lightning” and the “thunder.” There’s a quickness, a sort of cadence if you will, to how these things are playing out and their effects on the industry. I still think we haven’t seen the really big thing yet. I’m not sure what it will be. Maybe a new form of social media architecture like Color. Maybe a new business model. Who knows. Whatever it will be, will you be ready for it? Tomorrow let’s talk about ways to prepare for the storm.

What are your thoughts? Is this all just hype and hyperbole? Or is it a valid concern?

28 thoughts on “Photography is Headed for an Industry Storm

  1. I definitely think you’re right Ron. We’re just circling the Event Horizon right now, but once we’re in the middle of the black hole, all the laws of the photographic universe will collapse and we’ll need to look at things differently in order to survive.

    The problem I see every day is that people “NEED” their photos. They’re desperate for them, they get seriously grumpy when they can’t have them RIGHT NOW. And yet, at the same time that these photos are so incredibly important to them, they aren’t willing to pay for them. How can people think something is so extremely valueable, yet not cost anything. It drives me nuts. But that’s where it’s at. You have people taking cell phone photos of prints to use as their Facebook image when they really should have paid you the $20 or whatever you charge to get a Web Ready copy that would have been 200 times better quality.

    I’m still trying to figure that one out.


    1. The sci-fi geek in me loves your blac khole analogy. 🙂 But you make a great point. In many ways, photography is kind of like water. People need it, but there are so many places to get it cheap or free, it’s hard to be an Evian or San Pellegrino. 🙂

    1. It’s funny you say that Evro. I was actually going to use “tsunami” instead of “storm,” but decided against it, just in case it would come across as insensitive. But I agree with you, I think it’s more of that magnitude. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. A storm for sure but you have to adapt and overcome because you can’t stop it!! I came in on this storm and all I can say is find a niche or wave in this storm and ride it. It’s working for me.

  3. Like you, I am seeing this coming “storm” in many indicators. As I’ve said many times, I know the name of every PRO photogs’ top 3 competitors: Canon, Nikon & Sony. All three are spending millions every year to slice off a piece of your business by delivering straight to the consumer. I also love the tsunami metaphor, as I believe the only way to combat this homogenization of photography is to specialize on something that you, as a person, bring to client relationships. (Coincidentally, I address this exact thing in my blog post yesterday.) If it is a tsunami, I’m glad my clients are all working hard to get to the top of their pyramids. That’s clearly the “high ground.”


    P.S. No, Ron – I did not steal your blog theme idea… we just both have good taste. 🙂

      1. We as media production professionals (photography, film, video, design, audio, multi-media, take your pick) are a reflection of the media industry and the industry as a whole is a reflection of ourselves. It matters how we are, and our work is, perceived by our clients and the public both as individuals and as an industry.

        By mentoring others (newbies and veterans alike) we raise and improve the perception of the media industry as a whole. A perception from which all of us benefit, newbie and veteran alike. I don’t want my prospective clients to view my work and surmise that they could do equivalent work no matter how unskilled they may be. I want them to view my work and the work of my colleagues and realize that the only way to have that level of work themselves is to hire us. The goal is to cut through the noise of YouTube et. al. and show our industry and ourselves as the most desired alternative.

        So by mentoring (newbies, veterans and ourselves) and creating a benchmark that clients perceive as attainable only through ‘pros,’ we all benefit. That’s why I say “mentor unselfishly.” Those who can learn from you will, and the rest… well…. There’s a storm a-comin’. Those willing to learn (whether it’s new skills or basic skills) will raise their personal benchmark and the benchmark for our entire industry.

        As I like to say; “Why hire the rest when you can hire the best.”

  4. Storms and Tsunamis are events, not conditions. Once the tide has receded, all the low-level detritus will be washed away. Those who’ve established themselves on solid, high ground (a well-run business delivering quality work with great customer service) will prevail. All those ‘wannabes’ rushing to “catch the wave,” will not.

    1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. On both your recognition of storms being “events” and on those on solid ground being the ones who will go the long haul. The question is: is a well-run business JUST quality work and great customer service? Also, please please correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you’re saying I’m only referring to “wannabes” rushing to catch a wave. In case you did think that, I’m not. The wannabes may rock the boat, but what I’m talking about is actually not so much people entering the market, but the market itself. You’re correct that storms and tsunamis are events. But they are events that change the landscape. That’s what I’m referring to. The changing landscape. The “quality product” to which you’re referring may not be today what you think it is (i.e. quality photos, etc.)

      1. I agree that a well-run business is more than the quality of it’s products and services. And that products come and go. It is the ability of those in business to recognize oncoming events (new products, greater competition, seeing past the FUD and short-sighted speculation) and understand the effect those events will have on the landscape, that will be the one’s who remain after the event passes.

        I’ve seen the landscape change many times over the 30+ years I’ve been involved in media production. There always seems to be some new technology or service on the horizon that’s going to be a ‘democratize’ the market. Yet the market remains. As do those on the ‘high ground.’

        I see your post as a call-to-action to recognize adaptability and foresight as vital components of your business. Embrace the change, enjoy the new toys and mentor unselfishly those who have may not have your experience and acumen. Look at change not as a destructive process but as necessary component of success.

        1. I could not have said it more beautifully Ken.

          Just curious, as a 30+ year veteran, are you threatened at all by the infulx of newbies? You mentioned “mentoring unselfishly.” I love that attitude. But, not all vets share that sympathy. What is your take on the topic?

      2. Ok. I replied but it ended up attached to the comment prior to this one. My bad.

  5. While most right now might disagree and its not the popular thing to say…I see this industry being mostly part time in the coming years…there low entry barrier and people’s need to save a Buck will raise the amount of photogs thus creating less demand and as we all know in economics 101, higher supply lower prices. So it will become a weeknd thing as there is not enough work to go around or the amount of work that is there is not paying much…I’m willing to bet a lot that this will happen.

  6. Wow … Ron. The Harbinger of Doom! I’m going to get you a black robe and a scythe just to complete the picture. Lots of stuff to consider here and I hope those who think the business of professional photography will be fun and easy are listening. There are no tricks, step by step paths or get rich quick schemes in this business. This makes it pretty much like any other luxury product business. Are you building a large, sustainable clientele or are you simply shooting a series of money making events?

    I don’t know that I agree or disagree. I love the use of the extremes here, obviously designed to flare some passions…

    Onward my friend.


    1. I can see how it might look like that (doom and gloom). I admit, I can tend to be melodramatic. :). I had to update this comment because I was making references to tomorrow’s post. 🙂 It’s all running together. 🙂

  7. You are right Ron. I believe a big part of it is that people have too many photos. They are so overwhelmed with photographs that they do not see the value of hiring a professional. Photography has become so incredibly cheap and easy for the regular person, that it has lost its value. Its marketing 101, supply and demand. If there is too much supply, demand drops off, and the only way to move product is lowering prices. We all talk the same talk about our percieved value. Its not the product we are selling, its us, the photographer, but in all honesty, to the family on a budget it is still the product and the price that matters. I understand the value of owning a Rolex watch, however I still wear a fossil. People have more photos than they know what to do with. Literally! They have hard drives full of photos, a phone filled with thousands of pictures, and they are constantly being tagged in other peoples photos. Its like that great song that the radio plays every 15 minutes. After a while, you can’t stand to hear it anymore. I believe for a lot of people photography has become so abundant that it has lost much of its value.
    The question now is how do we put value back into photography? Is it by offering new products, a new method, maybe shooting film? I shot part of this weekends wedding on film, and everyone was so interested in checking out my gear and asking questions about it, you would think it was a new top secret model from Nikon, not a camera I had been shooting with for 15 years.
    Can the industry be saved, or is it destined for the same fate as the iceman, the chimney sweep, the shoeshine boy, or the milkman?

  8. Instead of “blaming” certain people for the “shift of the industry”, is it not, as Jeff said above, completely due to the fact that technology is getting less and less expensive? If cameras cost $15k, things would be different. Period. (And we’d be complaining about THAT too, I’m sure). I guess we don’t like to acknowledge our “problem” being a technology/economy issue foremost, because we benefit from low cost technology in so many other ways in our lives. To complain about low cost technology would be hypocritical. So we in the photography industry seem to have chosen to identify and chastize more “suitable” villans. Which does make for a more dramatic time, doesn’t it?

    1. You make an interesting point Julie. I do see a lot of scapegoating going around. While I think cheap technology is a big part of it (as is cheap education), as one commenter suggested, it’s also a shift in the perceived value of what photographers (and video producers for that matter) offer. Perhaps the ultimate scapegoat should be Facebook. What other entity has had such a profound effect on how people intereact with photos? Even more so than Flickr, which is really geared towards photo enthusiasts. With the ability to crop photos, upload photos, create albums, and now download high res images, perhaps no other company has so affected the pro photog business (both positively and negatively). A lot of ideas we’re toying with in our photog business is directly a result of how our clients have used Facebook.

  9. A lot of doomsayers are responding to this post…most seem to think they are rightful in doing so. I think many just haven’t been around long enough to see all the storms that have hit our industry in the past. It is a no-brainer that in this day and age technology is leveling the playing field and bringing a great influx of new image makers into the craft, but the bold few will always stare into the face of the storm, embrace the challenges and refuse to be swept away into a sea of mediocrity.

    25 years ago a pair of three tube industrial level video cameras, lenses, 3/4″ u-matic portable VTR’s and the ancillary grip equipment cost upwards of $50,000.00. 25 years ago I had more than $100,000.00 invested in my video editing suite (Three VTR’s, an a/b roll VTR controller, timebase correctors, 3D digital Effects unit, special effects generator, Chyron graphics, waveform monitor, vector scope, patch bays for video and audio, 5 studio quality monitors, signal/pattern generator, etc, etc, etc). All to shoot and edit weddings and light industrials. Only the “big boys” could work on broadcast level productions and their camera gear and edit suites cost millions. Today a good Mac computer and Final Cut Studio are capable of cutting Hollywood releases.

    Digital photography, over the past few years, has experienced the same technological super-growth that digital video underwent earlier (Simply because video required much lower resolution files than a still image that was destined for enlargement in a wedding album or on a client’s wall). And yet myself, and others like me, are still in business, commanding substantial rates for our services and filling our calendars with clients eager to commission our services.

    I often walk into a client’s home and see their shelves, mantles and refrigerators “littered” with low quality images…probably captured on their point-and-shoot camera then poorly printed on their home computer system. To reiterate what Shane said earlier, I’m sure their hard drives and smart phones are crammed full of images as well. Yet in these same homes I will see my photographic art, perhaps from another family member’s wedding or portrait session, enlarged and handsomely framed, displayed on their walls. I know full well that some of the images I create this day will find a place of honor in their home. So do I think that my client’s perceived value of my photographic art has changed? A resounding NO.

    I do believe that there has been a decline in perceived value and I’m saddened in my belief that this perception is being caused by some of the photographers in our own industry. Photographers that think that applying a few canned Photoshop actions to an image makes their work valuable are kidding themselves. Photographers that shoot thousands of throw-away images in hopes of capturing that one extraordinary candid are kidding themselves. Heck…even a stopped clock is right twice a day! This industry is being diluted by image makers that think it’s cool to be a professional photographer, yet don’t make the effort to learn AND PRACTICE the fundamentals that will allow them the freedom (Creative & Financial) to grow as artists and businesspeople. Most won’t weather the technological storm for lack of a firm foundation on which to build. I’m not going to touch the whole Jesh de Rox controversy, but I will agree with him when he stated that a lot of people in our industry need to develop a healthier outlook on the ‘art’ of being business people. There is nothing wrong with being compensated handsomely for our efforts. Jerry Ghionis said it better than anyone: “What is priceless tomorrow must be expensive today”. If more photographers studied and practiced their craft the perceived value of a professional image would be self-evident.

    In the thirty plus years I’ve been in this industry I have witnessed the coming and going of more fads than I can even remember. Every year a new “rockstar” tours this country telling the uninitiated “what today’s bride wants”. What today’s bride wants is what every bride has always wanted…to look beautiful, captivating and in love on the most important day of her life. Period. Has my style of photography changed over 30 years? Of course. A dinosaur can’t survive in this era. Do I embrace the technological changes? Passionately. I’m doing things with my camera and computer that we only dreamed of in the film & darkroom days. Have I changed the way I advertise and promote my business? Tremendously. I was in the audience when you and Tasra spoke at the inaugural Skip’s Summer School and what you taught me about social media has had a monumental impact on my bottom line. One look at my Facebook wall will support that…it is full of posts from my clients singing praise for my work. Gotta’ love it when one of the first comments on a recent bride’s complimentary post was made by a bride-to-be for 2013.

    It’s a whole new world, to be sure, but the world has faced, survived and grown in the face of countless storms in the past. So too will the members of our industry that stand on solid ground.

  10. So true Ron! Thanks for always leading the charge and encouraging photographers.

    Keep rockin!

  11. I opened two emails this morning from professional portrait studios in Wisconsin. They are going out of business and selling their equipment/business. Then I opened Ron’s blog. Time to buy a lottery ticket Ron!

    For those that are ready to retire, now seems like a good time. For others, stay true to your brand/style/service. It’s the reason your clients seek you out. I agree that the capital expenditure to opening a photography business is significantly less these days. The web learning opportunities and decked out tour buses cruising to cities across America is a quite phenomenon. Seems like there’s a lot more money to be made teaching photography than actually doing it – at least in the portrait world.

    No doubt there will be a contraction in photography providers, labs, and suppliers. This year I’ve seen more labs and suppliers having more sales. Could there be a slow down in the sea change with a disruption in the supply of gear from Japan?

    1. Don’t know about the lottery ticket Peggy :), but I bet you can expect the labs to be changing/adding ways in which they serve photogs in order to adjust to the consumers needs.

  12. I feel you are a bit reactive.The educational freebies you site are helpful tools (ive created a bunch) but they dont replace true education which still costs $20,000 and up for 4 year ventures. It s great to have educational opt that are for free it helps everyone
    But they do not substitute and are not meant to replace assisting and eduction.Yes some folks will take short cuts they always have and pros know that they are not competing with wannabes. Iv e been in our business for 30 years , instead of worrying about this years model of negativity, photographers would be best advised to focus on what they can do to improve THEIR craft and service.

    1. Selina, how would you define the education that costs $20,000? It’s a bold statement to say a person needs to still get a $20,000 education to be a professional photog when the overwhelming photogs I know (many of whom are quite successful) did not have that education.

  13. Well I think that as photographers its up to us to set the standards. If our equipment manufacturers produce equipment that anyone can use to produce an acceptable image then we must educate them on how much better a image crafted for their specific purpose is and that the price is worth the difference to them.
    After all its the manufacturers business to sell equipment, and they educate their consumers that anyone can use this and produce good pictures. That’s what they do.
    Now we must do the same, educate our clients that what we do will produce more return then just thumbing though a catalog. So far from what I’ve seen we just go “The bar is falling, The bar is falling.” These people who buy photos know that images make the sale, we need to remind them that there is a world of difference between a good image and a perfect image. That’s our job.

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