Five Lessons: How Photographers can Create New Business Models

BY Taylor Davidson | September 30th, 2008
Fortune, Hong Kong, 2005

The industry has been flooded with news lately; Photoshelter closing their stock agency, Corbis laying off more jobs, Photokina and a raft of new camera announcements, etc., etc. But if the only conversation in the industry is about new cameras and dying business models, then I’m scared we’re missing the point.

I’ve been thinking about the changing nature of the photography business for awhile, and I’ve teased about my thoughts about the future of the business and how photographers need to change their business models to adapt, to survive, to thrive.

Well, here we go. Today we’ll start with the introduction, and we’ll break up the five lessons over the coming days to give you a chance to take it all in a little easier. Let’s go.

We are all aware that the photography business is undergoing some changes that is making it difficult for photographers to maintain their previous levels of income. But it’s not just about that: the entire field of photography is undergoing massive shifts in how photographs are produced, distributed, stored, sold, viewed and critiqued. Additionally, the number of people involved with creating and viewing photographs has increased drastically as the the tools for producing and distributing images are easier to use, cheaper to buy and much more available than before.

More importantly, it’s not just photography, and it’s not just the creative industries; all industries are undergoing their own “democratization of the industry” in different ways.

Can a photographer just focus on “how have things have changed for my business this year”? No: a limited, myopic view will not enable photographers to understand how external pressures are affecting the execution their own business plans. (Wait: you’re a photographer and you don’t have a plan? Drop me a line.)

Instead, by understanding the larger changes throughout the industry photographers can develop a better understanding of how to invest their time, money and passion across the many potential routes.

The basic economics of the photography industry have been absolutely, fundamentally, permanently upended, flattened by the democratization of the tools of the production and distribution and a shift in the technologies, mediums and methods of communication. (link)

Technology has democratized access to the tools of production and distribution, leading to a surge of creators, squeezing the middle class of the industry; the long tail of photographers are getting squeezed. But the stars continue to stand strong: the rich get richer at the expense of the rest. If you look around, this isn’t unique to photography: across industries, countries and within societies, the rich continue to reap the benefits of increasing marginal returns to effort. Instead of railing against this economic order, let’s spend our time figuring out why it is happening in photography and figuring out how we can leverage the opportunities.

We are seeing a massive mismatch of supply and demand; photographers have flooded the market with an oversupply of images created and distributed using mediums and based on economic models no longer in demand. While our ability to consume images and stories has increased, our ability to mentally process, physically consume and filter out quality has decreased.

Framed under these pressures, “good enough” is the mantra of new consumers and creators of photography. The idea of a “good” image has been wrenched from the traditional photography and artistic elite and realigned to the larger mass market of populist photographers. The mass market has stormed the compound and they’re not leaving; better to learn how to leverage and profit from them rather than attempting to ignore or shut them out.

Most of the recent thoughts on how photographers can adapt have focused on either expanding what photographers create or how they market themselves and their images. Photographers have been adding multimedia and dynamic content to their traditional static images to find new ways to communicate and share their stories. We have been exploring how to use the Internet to market themselves and their images to the traditional industry gatekeepers.

But these are tactics, not goals, and as technology changes the tactics will change as well. Photographers need to identify their goals and find ways to introduce learnings from other industries facing similar threats.

Thus technological changes have altered the economic, social and cultural expectations of photography and photographers. Professional photographers need to utilize new technologies and leverage the newer cultural expectations of photography to stay relevant and profitable. Consider the changes in the industry as an opportunity, not a threat. While the existing routes to success have been under increasing pressure, many new avenues have opened up. Photographers have more opportunities, not less, as long as they are willing to explore new technologies and define their exact business models more precisely.

So what can professional photographers do?

Five Lessons for Professional Photographers