Professional Photography: Accident of History?

Lately, I’ve been hearing a growing number of complaints from professional photographers about the introduction of pro-sumer grade digital SLR cameras. Pro-sumer is that fuzzy patch between consumer-grade toy and professional-grade tool. These days, professional level photography tools are accessible to a non-professional audience. I don’t have to take out a loan to purchase professional-level equipment these days. I don’t have to spend years learning all the technical processes involved in making my expensive tools work. It’s all within my reach.

When accessible high-quality tools meet up with the awesome power of online aggregates and search, the micro-stock photo industry almost seems inevitable. This also means that the idea of professional photography as a profitable career is put into jeopardy. There may no longer be a need for as many photographers as there once were.

Here is one idea that although not a pleasant one, is one that I believe must be considered: maybe photography as a profession is just an accident of history. The window between photography being possible and photography being easy allowed the profession to exist, and that window is now coming to a close.

Everyone can shoot thousands of images. Everyone can post their images online. Anyone can view, tag, sort, organize and search through those images. When the right infrastructure is put in place, anyone will be able to offer to purchase a commercial license to use those images. And those licenses can be cheap, since the vast and ever growing number of images to chose from will likely drive prices down.

Professionals are expensive. They chose to make a career out of photography, and they have to charge a fair wage that allows them to live a comfortable life.
Amateurs are cheap. They have a job, photography is just a hobby on the side, and if someone offers them a few bucks for the rights to use an image, they don’t have to charge anywhere near the same rate as a professional. They may not even know what rate a professional would charge. Having someone offer money out of the blue for work that’s already been completed? That’s exciting!

Exciting for everyone except professional photographers. The surge in low-cost, even free stock photography is under-valuing the perception of the photography profession. Why should a magazine pay thousands for a staff photographer when some online searching can generate results that are “good enough”? Why would a blogger pay for images when free ones are available? Why would a couple hire a wedding photographer who charges thousands when a member of the family has a really nice expensive camera?

These thoughts make me very glad that shooting photography is something I stumbled on to, rather than something I invested a lot of resources into.

Many photographers talk about the need for tough new laws, for stronger copyright, for stopping piracy, for advertising campaigns to change public opinion. My view is that the desire to change the law to prop-up a business model is evidence that the business model sucks. Change the failing business model, not the law!

I would start by asking myself, “What business am I really in?”
“What can I offer a client that no one else can?”
“What unique touch can I offer to earn your business?”

In my case, I am not “a photographer who shoots album covers and performance shots for a few local bands”. I am the person responsible for documenting the band’s early days. I’m responsible for helping to shape the image that is projected to the public. I am responsible for making sure that the image people see on the liner notes in their minds matches what they see on the stage. I have to know the band to get it right. No other photographer has the same relationship with these band that I do, so changing me would change their image.

It could be argued that this line of thought doesn’t really change anything; I’ve just described the same situation using different words. How does that help anyone? That criticism is half right, I have just taken the same situation and described it differently, and that helps me quite a bit. Re-framing my roll like this changes how I approach the shoot, it changes how I deal with the band, it changes what I focus on, what I produce, it unlocks new ideas that I may not have considered if I was limited to the “I’m just a band photographer” paradigm.

It also helps that I’m really, really affordable. I don’t have to charge all that much, since I’m not a professional attempting to make a career out of this; I’m just a guy with a nice enough camera who does this as a hobby on the side, because low cost DSLRs have allowed professional level tools to finally enter into my reach.

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Kyle Clements

Kyle Clements is a Toronto-based artist and nerd. During his thesis at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Kyle began working on his Urban Landscapes series, a body of work that aims to capture the energy and excitement of life in the fast-paced urban environment. After graduating from OCAD in 2006, Kyle spent a year living in Asia to gather source material and experience in a different kind or urban environment. His work is vibrant and colourful. Whether painting the harsh Northern landscape, or capturing the overwhelming buzz of life in the city, his acrylic paintings hover between representation and abstraction.