Thursday, September 3, 2009

Where is Photography Going?

Whenever I photograph a wedding, there are usually several people among the guests taking pictures...and it's not uncommon for a few of them to have digital SLRs with flashes and even flash diffusers attached.

An increasing number of people perpetually have a digital camera with them, whether it's attached to a neck or shoulder strap, in their pocket or purse, or built into their cell phone. Digital cameras are virtually everywhere.

When Kodak came up with the Instamatic 35mm film camera in the 1960s, many more people started carrying around cameras. But that's nothing compared to the percentage of people walking around with cameras now in the digital camera age!

So, what does this omnipresence of digital cameras (usually with built-in video capabilities as well) mean for photographers trying to make a living from photography? This is an interesting question for me because I'm one of those people trying to make a living from photography.

It's a dual-edged sword. It means that:
  1. More and more people are interested in photography because digital cameras are so readily present and available.
  2. More and more people are making and trying to sell photographic images (often as fine art prints or to stock photo agencies) or parlaying their photograph-making into income-producing services (e.g., portrait and wedding photography).
Item #1 is a good thing. I have sold a non-trivial percentage of my fine art prints to photography enthusiasts. Also, photography enthusiasts are interested in paying successful and established photographers for some of their acquired photography knowledge and/or tools and shortcuts they've developed.

Item #2 tends to be a bad thing, especially if you are trying to sell photographic images and/or services to the same audiences. (More about this: a recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle called "Photo hobbyists snapping up more business".)

Photographers of the "weekend warrior" type threaten to bring wedding, portrait, and other event photography prices down. However, from my experience, there will always be customers wanting to pay extra to know they're hiring an established full-time professional who has proven him/herself over and over and who they can depend on to deliver the "goods". I believe a very small percentage of weekend warrior photographers actually end up becoming professional photographers. (Once you turn it into a professional occupation, it's not that fun little hobby anymore...!)

My quandary is what if it's really from the fine art and stock photography markets that you want to make most of your income?? For some reason, this reminds me of something photographer Chuck Close said (next 3 paragraphs):

"The thing that interests me about photography, and why it's different from all the other media, is that it's the only medium in which there is even the possibility of an accidental masterpiece. You cannot make an accidental masterpiece if you're a painter or sculptor."

"This is simultaneously photography's great advantage and its Achilles heel: it is the easiest medium in which to be competent. Anybody can be a marginally capable photographer, but it takes a lot of work to learn to become even a competent painter. Now, having said that, I think that while photography is the easiest medium in which to be competent, it is probably the hardest one in which to develop an idiosyncratic personal vision. It is the hardest medium in which to separate yourself from all those other people who are doing reasonably good stuff."

"A recognized signature style of photography is an incredibly difficult thing to achieve."

What Chuck Close said about photography has not changed. And if--as it seems--many more people are doing photography now with the advent of digital photography and (another important factor) photo-sharing websites, it can only be *more* difficult now to distinguish oneself and one's photography from the mass of photos being produced and displayed on the web and elsewhere.

If fame is your goal, that's one thing. If making a living from photography is your primary concern, it would be good to remember an important marketing principle that hasn't changed: you must find a market for what you have to offer; this applies to photos and any other product. Photographers who are successful in fine art and stock photo markets will have found that market for their photos.

It's easier to find a market, then produce what that market wants. Doing it in the opposite order (producing, then finding the market for the product) can be much more difficult...and could, ultimately, exhaust one's resources (time, money) before success is achieved.

So, "where" do I think photography is going?

Having so many suppliers of photos/images--and even photography services, like portrait and wedding photography--does tend to push market prices for these products and services down (it's a basic economic principle!). However, I don't think this large supply is going to reduce people's interest in photographic images or services. Quite the contrary, I think it's expanding people's interest in photography!

As a result, those photographers able to distinguish themselves and rise about the heap of suppliers out there, will actually benefit from the increased interest in photography! Photography enthusiasts is a great market for photography-related goods and services, like fine art prints, books, training, consulting, portraiture & weddings (yes, photography enthusiasts want the best photography for their weddings!), and so on.

Related to what Chuck Close said, the tricky part is distinguishing your work from the work of the other thousands of photographers out there jamming the Internet with digital images! This is where such principles as "branding" come into the discussion. But branding is a topic I'm just coming to terms with and which I will likely expound upon further in future blog posts...:-).

Michael Grace-Martin is a professional wedding, portrait, event, stock, and fine art photographer based in Upstate New York. He is also the author of this blog. All images and text are (c) Michael Grace-Martin Photography. His main website is:

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