I’m optimistic about the future of professional photography. Call me a fool. In fact, I’ve been called an idiot for leaving my staff job at the Tribune. “How could you leave a staff gig like that?” and “Don’t you know how hard it is to make a living as a photographer?”
The irony is, as soon as I left, the first people to congratulate me were freelance photographers in Chicago who startled me with words like, “You’re going to love it!” and “It’ll be hard at first, but you’ll find your niche.”
But that’s not why I’m optimistic. Everyone has individual reasons to back-up their opinions and I’d be foolish to bank my family on someone else’s opinion. I’m no Pollyanna. I also certainly wouldn’t leave without clients lined up.
What makes me optimistic is how our current society consumes visuals.
In a word, it’s constant. We’re inundated with images. We take billions every year. Estimates are close to a trillion images in 2014.
What does this mean? It means disruption to the old way of doing business. Slowly receding are the days where a company is going to invest a ton of money for one or two images from a big shoot. I’m grateful for those I’ve had and believe me, I hope they’ll be around for awhile.
From a return on investment perspective, however, I know some companies are questioning it. If you’re the owner that just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, typically through an agency, your shoot will yield images that are going to be seen for a short while and then go…poof.
That image is going to be overrun by Instagram feeds, tweets, blogs and the capricious feeds of social media. Websites and micro sites run by companies also increasingly need fresh imagery.
As they say in the news business, what have you done for me lately?
Not all companies are large enough to afford those shoots anyway. As many companies and organizations are finding, having your own publishing platform can be a blessing and a curse. They can create their own content to have authority and loyalty in their space, but it comes at a price. They now have to “feed the beast”, that monster of appetite for visual content that lives at news organizations, where publishing never ceases. And the images have to be high-quality, not the stock type used to illustrate everything from vacations to Viagra.
If companies or organizations don’t update their visuals on a frequent basis, then their page, feed or stream looks vacant, lifeless and ultimately disengaging. There is nothing more sad (or alarming) than a website that hasn’t changed its visuals in a long while. It’s brand erosion.
It’s no wonder that there is a movement towards small production houses to create visuals that can quickly and more effectively churn out images for clients that are demanding more images and video for less.
Yes, the rates that photographers used to charge are getting squeezed because of it. But what you lose on the value of each shoot, you can make up with a longer-lasting and trustworthy client relationship.
Isn’t that a trade-off that photographers have historically made?
You can see the problem that companies and organizations face. They need more visuals, but they can’t afford the prices (or at least the limited return on the investment) to feed all their platforms and projects. So consequently they’ll pursue other methods for getting images on the cheap. They’ll promise free exposure, sponsor a rights-grabbing contest, crowdsource images or even steal them outright. Then they get busted and shamed by all the content creators on social media. It’s ugly. Again, brand erosion.
But what if photographers took the initiative and said “look, your name and brand is hurting and your visual content strategy is hurting. For XXX (or XXX,XXX) amount every six months or year, I can provide you with a regular stream of visuals that will keep your company not only front-of-mind with your customers, but will provide professionally-produced, high-quality, emotionally-engaging, inspiring visuals that will translate to more sales or donors to your business. I can even bring you a level of consultancy and brainstorming to the process, based on my experience, that will raise the level of your visual sophistication and move the dollar sign.”
Some photographers, you know the “fools”, are doing just that. They’re starting companies, changing their pricing strategies and making their pitches.
As an editorial photographer who has told real stories for a living, I’m even more excited because storytelling as a form of persuasion is a dominant paradigm in our culture, from testimonials to video docs. Reality, truth and authenticity matter to consumers but done in a way that emotionally engages an audience. As a photojournalist, it was all about finding the heart of a story, working effectively, and being creative to make the scene better than what was expected back in the office.
Where there is disruption, there is also innovation, problem-solving and opportunity.
All good reasons to be optimistic.