Professional photographers are endangered species. One that, unlike the California Condor, is headed the way of the Dodo. Within five years, I predict that the professional photographer, as we now know the profession, will be largely extinct. Granted, there will still be some in “captivity,” but those will likely only be photographers with such unique styles that their client-base never wanes or those on-staff at photography-centric publications such as National Geographic that recognize irreplaceable talent. For the most part, professional photographers will not exist as they do today.
You may find this unfathomable. Surely, photojournalists and wedding photographers (among others) cannot cease to exist. Just ask the photographers at the Chicago Sun-Times how valuable these positions are. Oh wait. Likewise, wedding photographers soon may find less demand for their services thanks to “crowd-sourced” alternatives, gains in consumer technology, and changing mentalities. This may render professional wedding photographers to be deemed unnecessary by couples getting married. Just how much value will young couples place on the standard posed shots? Thanks to social media such as Instagram and Facebook, these shots aren’t the flavor of their generation, anyway.
This article isn’t meant to pass judgment with regard to the erosion of professional photography, just to comment on it and the future. I have seen many photographers themselves recognizing this trend and issuing “calls to arms” to fight back. I believe these efforts are for naught–the writing is on the wall. Photography’s trajectory is predicated in technology and changing societal dynamics, both of which are irreversible. So too must the professional photographer either change, or die.
Technology is the big thing. Many professional photographers scoff at such devices, but camera phones and lower-grade equipment will continue to improve. Even higher-end cameras are more accessible to ordinary individuals who care about improving their photography. Whereas film posed significant barriers to entry, each subsequent generation of digital photography has made it easier to practice and hone photography skills. Likewise, prosumer equipment continues to decrease in price, while becoming more capable and portable. While this has undoubtedly led to more people using nice equipment as expensive point and shoots, it also has undoubtedly led to more people taking a serious interest in photography. It’s a game of percentages, and the high quality “amateur” work posted by relative newbies on places like Flickr, 500px, and Instagram bears this out.
Changing attitudes will flow from technology. One such attitude change stems from the high quality amateur work mentioned above. Through such sites, people and organizations in the market for high-quality photography will learn (and to a large degree already have learned) that it doesn’t require a “professional” designation to capture great photos. Likewise, these amateurs will be able to easily connect with audiences without the time and resources a pro might have. The other changing attitude is at the other end of the spectrum, and will be in terms of what type of photography is acceptable.
This is in terms of both quality and price. In five years, the number of people who have never owned a camera that wasn’t attached to their phone will be incredibly high. While camera phones will keep improving in quality, the day they reach DSLR quality is probably far away. Yet, young people are accepting of the quality of camera phones, and society as a whole will increasingly be more accepting of lower technical and composition/storytelling quality, as we are exposed to more and more photos from phones. In terms of cost, as photo editors see the value and power of easily crowd-sourcing hundreds or thousands of photos with the click of a hashtag, any lingering concerns about photo quality are likely to be vanquished.
The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities for professional photographers, perhaps now and in the future more than ever. Hence the opening line that the professional photographer as we now know it is on the verge of extinction. (No, it isn’t all doom and gloom.) Rather than just selling their photos, I believe the new paradigm of professional photography will be a hybrid. Some of this is nothing new. For years, many photographers have made their livings via other means with photography as a part of that. For example, is the photographer leading guided photo tours into Yosemite not also a tour guide? Is the photographer writing books not also a teacher and author? The examples of “pure” professional photographers, ones who trade primarily in their photos, are already increasingly limited.
The ex-Chicago Sun-Times photographers are a good example here. Even though they arguably had other responsibilities as photojournalists, the primary thrust of their occupation was delivering photos. The photography staff there has been replaced by journalists armed with iPhones, crowd-sourcing, and freelancers. Going forward, it would seem logical that the Sun-Times will hire journalists with both writing and photography skills, or at least someone whose resume highlights both will have an advantage. If the reporters are going to be tasked with doing both, it only makes sense that they best journalists will have skills in both. It’s not a shift that will happen overnight, but inevitably, it will occur.
Journalists who can write and take photos is one such shift towards a hybrid pro. Another big one is internet (for lack of a better term) photographers. This vague umbrella encompasses everyone from photo-bloggers to eBook photographers. Basically, any photographer reliant on their web presence. Many of these photographers might not see what they’re doing as a hybrid, but I’m betting the successful ones do. I’m not any sort of photographer by profession, but if I were, I would be a good example. This blog is centered around photos I capture, but it would not exist were it not for my writing and–more importantly–understanding of blogging. Certainly, just about anyone can start a blog, but without knowledge of backend blogging “stuff” and how to technically market that blog, even the best photobloggers will fail to find an audience. I expect the number of hybrid photobloggers and other internet photographers to substantially increase in the next several years.
For many photographers, the other half of this hybrid will likely involve something with little relation to photography. They will have regular day jobs, and just do photography on the side. For the most part, I think the photographers who this describes aren’t the current crop of professional photographers, but are individuals who already have those regular day jobs, but will increasingly be able to do photography on the side. There will be some current full-time professionals who will enter this group out of necessity, but I think it’s mostly an opportunity for current-amateurs. I suspect that many professional photographers resent these amateurs, believing the amateurs are encroaching upon their turf and being concerned that their livelihoods are in jeopardy.
However, I consider it one of the upsides to this shift. Companies and clients will potentially be able to find amateurs passionate about a variety of subjects and will go where the quality is for freelance or contract photography. For example, I have a talented friend who loves aviation photography. If tasked with a contract for taking a photo of a particular plane for an airline, he’d voluntarily go to great lengths to photograph it in the best light and circumstances, regardless of the hours that meant him putting in at sunrise, sunset, or beyond. It’s his passion, and quality is his priority–the only thing holding him back is access. In this example, let’s say the airline has a staff photographer (I’m not sure airlines even have staff photographers, but this example could be applied to a myriad of clients and interests who do) who was hired based on his nice portfolio, but this photographer has no real passion for planes. It’s just a job, and he takes publicity photos from 9 am to 5 pm. In cases like these, I think there’s a high probability that the passionate amateur will take better photos.
While this “extinction” is on the horizon, the asteroid is still far enough away (sorry about my corny metaphors) that professional photographers are in charge of their own destiny. Well, some of them. As I see it there are two types of photographers: the tech savvy that are quick to adopt the newest means of communication and pieces of technology (photography or otherwise), and the contrasting side that is generally averse to change. You know, the ones who still dislike all HDR “just because,” who don’t provide digital copies of photos to their wedding clients because their archaic business model depends upon prints, and the ones who avoid sharing photos online because they can’t stand the thought of anyone stealing their work.
The photographers on the bleeding edge have always done well with shifts in the business of photography because they anticipated changes and have evolved. The same will remain true going forward. By contrast, the change-averse have clung to their old ways, kicking and screaming with each new shift, ultimately changing too when they saw themselves being passed by. This new paradigm of photography will be different. Unlike going from film to digital where the concepts stayed the same but the means of capturing photos changed, this will largely flip the photography universe on its head, demanding totally new things of photographers, many of which cannot be picked up on the fly. Certainly, the most talented photographers in this group will be able to survive in some capacity, but the middle-of-the-road pros will be marginalized and will render themselves obsolete if they don’t stay ahead of the curve.
It’s a brave new world for the concept of professional photography. If you’re a pro, here’s hoping you go the way of the Condor and not the dinosaurs!
Today’s photo is actually what inspired my post above. Yesterday morning as I stood in the below-freezing temperatures at the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, waiting for the sunrise, I was surrounded by other photographers, none of whom were “professional,” at least within the conventional meaning of the term. When a couple of them showed me their photos from the previous week, I was blown away–those shots were better than anything taken by the official park photographers in the Visitors Center.
In fact, most times when I find myself in such situations, the photographers with whom I speak are “merely” passionate amateurs. Sometimes, they have found a way to monetize photography on the side. Most of the time, when I later check out their galleries, I am very impressed (dedication is fairly universal–if you are dedicated enough to something to get before sunrise to photograph it, chances are you have the dedication to learn how to photograph it well). For whatever reason, that experience led me to spending a lot of time thinking about the future role of professional photographers. What can I say…it was a 7 hour drive back home!
This is already a long post, so I’ll keep the technical section shorter than normal. This shot of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was photographed with a Nikon D600 and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8. Processing is very basic, and almost all in Adobe Camera Raw. Shadow levels brought up, contrast increased, highlights adjusted, clarity slightly increased, and vibrance increased. I also did some tinkering with the individual color channels, as the shot was very green straight out of camera for some reason.
What do you think about the future of professional photography? Do you think my assessment is accurate, or will the market for professional photographers always thrive? Please share any of your thoughts on these things (or other topics) in the comments!