Taylor Davidson · Lesson 1: Photographers are your customers, not your competition

Where is the money in photography?
by Taylor Davidson · 01 Oct 2008

For the background behind this post check out the introduction: Five Lessons: How Photographers can Create New Business Models. This is the first lesson in the series…

Where is the money in photography?

“The way to make money in photography is to sell stuff to photographers.”

The usual sources of income in photography are hitting a bit of a rough patch, to say the least.

From a photographer’s perspective, you’d be pretty worried if you tried to use Porter’s Five Forces to understand what’s going on:

  • Threat of new entrants: Massive shifts in the supply of photographers armed with comparable, easily and relatively inexpensively acquired technology during a massive upheaval in the technology used in the industry. (High)
  • Threat of industry competition: Tremendous competition between existing players throughout the industry, squeezed by a declining amount of traditional employment opportunities. (High)
  • Threat of substitutes: Technology has created substitutes for static images, changed the notion of what cameras do, changed the notion of what photographers do. As we’ve discussed, we’ve seen a fundamental shift in the technology used to create, distribute and consume images and stories. Old technology, however, continues to have a use to define niches and specialization. (High).
  • Bargaining Power of Buyers: Buyers continue to be unorganized in a diversified, fractured market for images and photographers. Buyers lack any real power to dictate prices outside of the ability to find competing photographers easily. Low transaction costs, low costs in changing photographers. (Low)
  • Bargaining Power of Suppliers: Massive competition between the manufacturers and suppliers of equipment to photographers has resulted in amazing changes in the pace of advancements in the industry at declining marginal investments. (Low)

More photographers, more cameras, more point-and-shoot and more DSLRs, all with faster replacement cycles, producing more images, shared with more people, more often and more immediate. Everyone is a photographer.

What do all these new photographers want to do?

Do they really want to compete with the traditional professional photographer?

We are seeing an interesting mix of competition between and within amateurs and professionals. 2 The flood of images to stock photo sites and the rise of microstock has permanently damaged the stock photography industry and has crippled many professionals surviving on stock sales. Traditional wedding photographers have been hurt by the shift in demand towards the looser “photojournalistic” style accompanied with more “friends with cameras.”

But this competition is primarily at the fringes of each segment of the business: the cores remain firmly in the grasp of the professionals. Many of the “lost sales” to amateurs are not true lost sales: in most cases the buyers would never have paid the price for traditional professionals and would have either bought far less images or none at all.

Sound familiar? Would everyone who downloaded “pirated music” or “pirated software” for free really have paid for them?

What is the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional photographer?

An amateur can take a great picture: a professional will create a great image.

Put simply, given the same conditions (same time, same event, same subject), a professional will consistently out-produce an amateur. While an amateur will get 10/100 usable images, a professional will get 80/100 usable images (note: the ratios aren’t important: what is important is that a pro will have a much higher “hit rate”).

Amateurs will not make the same commitment to photography and the industry as professionals, and it will show. Amateurs have different lives, different priorities, different goals, lower experience levels, less industry knowledge and less contacts, clients and relationships within the industry. Amateurs don’t really want to become professionals; despite what they say, they’re not willing to take the risk, make the commitment, spend the time and effort.

But amateurs still want to take great pictures; every photographer wants to create great work, but the biggest difference between amateurs and professionals is what they aim to do with it.

They are not your competition; they are your customers.

What do amateurs want to do? To start:

  • Take pictures. The phrasing is important; it’s not “tell stories”, or “make images”, but “take pictures”.
  • Share pictures and share their lives with friends, family.
  • Showcase their pictures and lives for their homes, their offices, small shows with friends.
  • Learn more about how to take better pictures.
  • Find people that share their interests and connect with other photography enthusiasts
  • Do more with their pictures: make photobooks, mugs, calendars, t-shirts, etc.
  • Take pictures for friends, help them capture times in their lives.

In summary, most amateurs are focused on their images, not yours. Most amateurs, at least the ones buying the bulk of the new cameras sold today and without traditional photography training or eduction, are not interested in delving into the history of photography, seriously attending and critiquing photography exhibits or going to industry festivals and building business relationships.

So, if you’re a pro, don’t fight the rise of the amateurs. We all know success in the industry is not just about the images. Embrace amateurs. Help them. Better yet, sell them what they want.

We’ve started to explore the new demand in photography. Next we’ll focus on what to sell, how to price it and touch on examples of how some people and companies are redefining the opportunities.

1 Or everyone thinks they are…
2 I know the line is blurry and far from cut and dry, and that many people have “amateur” and “professional” photography interests. But let’s start with the simplification…

Introduction: Five Lessons: How Photographers can Create New Business Models