This is a challenging time for photographers, as it is in most sectors of the economy. The photo industry was already facing a gloomy outlook even prior to the recent stock market meltdown.
The economy is cyclical. Booms followed by busts are the norm. But for many areas of professional photography this recession is a watershed moment. Print publishing, the financial lifeblood of commercial, editorial and corporate photography, was already rapidly loosing readers and advertisers. The current recession will only accelerate the loss of advertising dollars and hasten the death of many print publications.
General estimates are that this recession will last 18–36 months. Once ad spending does begin to increase again, fewer ad dollars will go back into print and more will go into Web, mobile, games and product placement. Much of the costs of creating an ad campaign that previously went to photographers will instead go to videographers, graphic designers, user experience designers and 3-D modelers.
Of course commercial, editorial and corporate photography won’t disappear. There will still be print publications as well as billboards, bus shelters, brochures and other marketing and promotional needs that only photography can fill. But much of that will be filled with low-cost microstock whenever possible.
These areas of photography that rely directly or indirectly on print advertising will continue to exist for a long time to come. But when the pendulum starts swinging back to more prosperous times, these areas are not likely to see the same opportunities that existed in the past.
Faced with these challenges, what can a photographer do?
Specialize in areas that don’t depend on ad spending such as weddings, fashion, portraits and product photography.
There will be fewer assignments over the course of this recession and budgets will shrink for those jobs that are still available. But some area of photography are more recession-proof than others. Less ad spending means fewer commercial jobs but people will still be getting married, new clothes and products will need to be promoted and companies will still need to document their work. Naturally, not every photographer can do, or wants to do, any type of photography just because it’s where the opportunity lies. But if you’ve done some work in these areas, or have considered it, this is a good time to explore moving more in those directions.
Stay away from any area that can be filled by microstock (i.e. lifestyle, travel, conceptual, etc.)
Even prior to the current economic difficulties, microstock has put extreme downward price pressure on many types of photography. Not only has it absorbed the money at the lower-end of the market but it’s had the effect of lowering the value of much commercial and editorial photography in general. If your work tends to represent “iconic” concepts such as health, financial security, friendship, family, etc., then you are at great risk of losing your market to microstock. Take the time to really look at the images available through microstock agencies such as iStockphoto, Dreamstime and Crestock and evaluate how different (not just better) your images really are.
Learn to shoot and edit video.
Photography is the ideal medium for communicating rich concepts in print. It’s less ideal for the online and mobile worlds. Video, audio, 3-D renderings, animations and other creative mediums are better able to take advantage of all the features of these newer ways that advertisers are using to reach their audience. Even once the economy recovers, few new print publications will arise the replace the many that have recently closed and will close in the coming year. At the very least, an increasing number of assignments will require that both still photography and video be shot, so the smart photographer will get in front of that trend.
Reduce spending in non-essential areas.
Now is a good time to cut overhead and eliminate planned purchases. Do you really need that new lens or digital back? They won’t help you bring in new business. Can you find someone to share your studio or office space? Perhaps share your Office Manager with another photographer as well? But this doesn’t mean you should go into hibernation. Carefully considered spending on marketing and promotion is always money well spent. That leads us to the final point:
Network and market like crazy to make sure that you are not one of the many who will be squeezed out.
Warren Buffet, the legendary investor, has a simple rule: “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.” For photographers, this means that a recession is the perfect time to market and network aggressively. If you cut back on promoting yourself and your work you will inevitably end up in a worse position when the economy recovers than where you are now. Others will make that mistake and be unable to recover. Make sure that when the recovery finally does arrive you are in the best position possible to take advantage of it.
While there have been short periods of time when it was relatively easy to make a living as a professional photographer (the mid-80s and the dot.com boom are recent times that come to mind), long-term success for photographers has always been a tremendous challenge. This is largely because the economy is cyclical and only those who survive, or even thrive in the hard times are around to reap the benefits of the good times through more than one cycle. We are entering a time that may be the most challenging yet. How you handle the challenge will determine whether you can sustain a career as a professional or are just enjoying what will look like in retrospect a brief burst of success.
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