Monday, July 20, 2009

So you want to be a Photographer?

About three or four times a week I am called upon to either dispense advice to an amateur photographer on how they can become a professional, or called on by a graduate to give them a job assisting or shadowing, or by an ‘A’ level student wanting work experience. This then is generally what I tell them.

A career as a professional photographer frequently polls among the top three most desirable careers, ranking alongside pilots and footballers. However, this is mostly likely because the public's perception of photographers is as glamorous jet-setting, party going, rich individuals. But this rarely matches the reality, and it may come as a surprise that these days many photographers would not recommend it as a career.

The world of professional photography is becoming very crowded, especially with fresh new "dedicated" talent seeking to "make it big" as a pro. However, the work that there is, is frenetically paced, fraught with legal issues and is suffering from a general decline in the value of images. Over recent years, photographer's income streams have continued to decline, while at the same time, standards and client's expectations of image quality and delivery of service, have grown significantly. One can also add to that the fact that the costs of running a photographic business have risen. Due in part to the cost of equipment being much higher (when compared to equivalent film equipment), the time taken to produce an image much longer, and the marketing costs being much higher as well. This is frequently misunderstood by clients, who generally believe that since the introduction of digital technology, costs and delivery times should have fallen.

The past six years has probably seen the most significant changes in photography since its invention, not only technologically but in the way images are used. There has not only been significant progress in professional cameras but also in digital compact cameras and mobile phone cameras, where many who own one, believe they are only one step away from being a professional. Of course while we have seen digital cameras come of age, we have also seen the birth and spread of the internet and the digital images on it. Both of these factors have served to fundamentally changing the public's use and perception of the photographic image, and crucially of its value. It is hardly surpring then that it is a constant source of frustration to professional photographers that while the issues surrounding film and music theft feature heavily in the media, and it is becoming a moral issue, the same cannot be said of still images.

There is no doubt that since the introduction of digital, the standard of images taken by burgeoning, and experienced photographers alike, has risen enormously. But this has also meant that it has opened up the profession to those who would not have considered it previously, creating an over supply in the market place. This is especially true in the stock image market. Four or five years ago a commercial photographer may have expect to cover the running costs of a studio from the income generated by images sold through the likes of Getty and Alamy. The explosion of images produced by amateurs that is now submitted, held and sold by these libraries, means that this no longer true. Some established photographers have seen their income from stock images fall by more than 75% in six months. This decline was further helped by the growth in Royalty Free images and Flicker and price cutting by libraries across the board. I was once told by the Creative Director of reasonably sized design agency that they would first mine Flicker to see what they could steal, then go to iStock to see what they could buy for £5, then get RF, then go to Getty, and then they might consider commissioning a photographer. His justification for stealing from someone on Flicker was that individuals do not have the resources to search for stolen images, and if they did, and they were caught, it is unlikely that the photographer would be able to afford the legal muscle to gain more than the initial purchase costs of the image.

Digital technology has also created a boom in DIY imaging for start up and some more established companies. It is true that with the growth of ecommerce, there has never been a greater requirement for images. However, most of that imagery will not have been commissioned from a professional, but preformed in house, on low budget equipment. What's more, many design agencies have now invested in their own mid market cameras. Some have even purchased studio lighting and set aside studio space to create their own imagery. These agencies will often now only commission a professional when they require imagery, either more creative than they can achieve, or when they require high resolution shots.

So are there any careers to be made in photography? Yes there are, but I would say beware, it is a tough market. Photography must be in your blood and second nature to you. You will need to be at a stage where you will never be left wondering how to achieve a shot with your camera. It is a tool that you will need to know everything about and how it will record an image. Consequently if you're a student, you shouldn't need to study photography at university. If you do, I would say that you'll most likely struggle as a pro. These days success as a professional photographer is as much about marketing as photographic skills. There are some well known photographers, with great marketing campaigns, earning small fortunes, while much more skilled photographers struggle. You can be the best photographer in the world, but no one's going to commission you if they don't know you exist. What's more, there is huge competition in the market place, so more than ever, marketing is the overriding key to a successful career.

As a student going on to university, I would say study Marketing, look for a career working in a design agency and study photography in your spare time. That way after a few years, you'll have gained experience commissioning shoots, you'll know what is expected and what and how to deliver. You'll also have the marketing skills to market yourself, and a list of contacts you already know to turn into clients. What's more, if the photography career doesn't work out, you always have a fall back position in Marketing.

Finally, there are two things to bear in mind. Firstly, there are very few salaried jobs in photography and secondly, you will most likely require significant funds to stand out from the crowd and succeed. Photographers in general, set up their own businesses, rather than work for another photographer. And, although you can start working as a professional on a fairly reasonable budget, there is significant competition at that level, and many charge nothing or well below the market rate. To progress to dizzier heights, the funding required is disproportionately large when compared to the financial rewards.