The Law of Total Probability Is Just One Factor
While interest in photography is at it’s all time high, thanks to smart devices and social media, for a professional photographer it’s at an all time low—so low that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2014-15 Occupational Outlook Handbook cited the annual mean income for a professional photographer today is approximately $38,350, or $18.44 an hour. Five years before, in 2010, the mean hourly wage for a professional photographer was $17.30, that’s a little over a dollar pay raise in five years!
Not a set of numbers a professional photographer wants to hear and it’s not just in the U.S., as a report released earlier this year from France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication on the state of photography notes that the Internet has made huge impacts on professional photographers in the past 15 years. The report claimed 43% of photographers in 2013 reported earning less than the equivalent of $16,500 annually and only 24% made more than $33,000. That report blames “unprecedented inflation in the availability of photographs, market deregulation, and an undermining of the legal protections for artists’ rights.”
Basically more photos are being captured than ever, by basically anyone with a smartphone, or inexpensive digital camera and regardless if you’re a professional photographer or not, if you shoot enough, you’ll eventually capture one great shot—aka, the Law of Total Probability. According to that law, if it normally takes an experienced professional photographer ten frames to capture one great photo and it normally takes an amateur 30 frames, an amateur still has approximately a 10% chance at capturing one great photo in ten attempts.
It’s like Vegas, you have professional gamblers and amateur players; eventually they all win a hand if everyone plays long enough. Gone are the worries of the cost of film and processing, you just have to know where the delete button is so you can try again until you get it right. Throw in the many mobile phone apps that convert a mediocre cell phone photo into a masterpiece in less than a minute, and bam, you’ve got a new breed of so-called professional photographers—those that get a lucky shot, or will get one eventually because of probability laws but generally knows nothing when it comes to the fundamentals and principals of photography.
Today, smart phones have cameras with better resolution and stabilization than digital cameras of yesterday and it’s becoming hard to judge if a photo was taken by a tenured professional photographer or an entry-level amateur. Let’s just say that the delete button, great inexpensive digital cameras, the Law of Probability and amazing mobile apps, all combined are making amateurs better than film ever did. Is it truly possible, without a doubt, to distinguish whether a professional photographer or a lucky amateur took a “great photo?” Was the photo taken with a mirrorless, DSLR or a smartphone?
How Can You Compete Against A Selfie?
Still other factors that are killing photographers include selfies, along with “the undermining of legal protection for artist’s rights.” One of the best examples is now the world famous “Monkey Selfie,” shown here. In fact it’s become such a legal mess that in Dec. 2014 the U.S. Copyright Office ruled, “…works created by a non-human are not subject to U.S. copyright.”
There has been a barrel of battles over the monkey-selfie that it’s probably driving professional photographer David J. Slater bananas as just two months ago PETA filed a lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the monkey. PETA wants the monkey, now named Naturo, to win full copyright of the photos captured by Slater’s camera after he traveled all the way to Indonesia to set the shot up. Seriously, a monkey living in the wild? Now that makes me question cameras left on self-timers, who really owns the copyright?
Between selfies, Instagram and other social media channels there are so many photos out there that all a photo researcher has to do is scour hashtags to find a photo that is “good enough” for their needs—and this is where it gets nasty for a professional photographer. Hipstagrammers, for little or no compensation and a chance to get published, are generating photos by the millions, and for companies watching the bottom line, why hire a professional photographer at a much higher rate plus expenses when you guy license one for less than $100?
The Reasons to Hire A Professional Photographer
Well I’d like to answer my own question. First, an experienced professional photographer is going to give you consistency and top-notched photos, or finished photographs. A professional photographer normally has great photography gear and knows how to use it plus preplans the shoot, or previsualizes the concept. A professional photographer knows how to get it done, even if it includes travel to another part of the world. A professional photographer understands his client and the intended audience.
A professional photographer normally has a unique style and many photo editors or commercial clients hire them for that reason. Some professional photographers are also hired because they’ve built a brand name like Leibovitz or LaChapelle and have a proven track record that they will get it done right.
Things Change, It’s About the Bottom Line
Well it was that way during the old film days, but with a few rare exceptions, no one really gives a crap. Ask a millennial today if they’ve ever heard of Leibovitz, LaChapelle, Weber, Demarchelier, Testino, Benson, von Unwerth, etc., and unless they are a practicing professional photographer who has studied the greats, nine times out of ten they will look at you with that dumfound selfie duck face.
Get over it, no one of importance really cares who you are, where you learned your craft, much less how old you are or if you’re even a monkey that captured that great shot, they want what’s cheap, trending and good enough that fits their content need. Proof of that was an article written five years ago by Stephanie Clifford of the New York Times called For Photographers, The Image of a Shrinking Path. When that article first came out, I made printed a copy and carried it around to all my photography workshops letting photographers now it wasn’t looking good for us.
Even the stock photo agencies are killing photographers and in that article Clifford cites where one of the world’s largest stock photography houses, Getty, made a deal in 2008 with Flickr permitting their photo editors to scour the website and make licensing deals with amateur photographers.
Jonathan Klein, the chief executive of Getty Images at the time of that article is quoted, “The quality of licensed imagery is virtually indistinguishable now from the quality of images they might commission,” Mr. Klein said. Yet “the price point that the client, or customer, is charged is a fraction of the price point which they would pay for a professional image.”
In 2009 Getty licensed 22 million photos, most user generated and many purchased through its Flikr program with amateurs from $1 to $100 per image. A year later, Holly Stuart Hughes, the editor of Photo District News, the equivalent of the Wall Street Journal for photographers stated in that same article, “There are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting.”
Last year, after five years, Getty’s contract with Flickr ended and according to Popular Photography, “Getty Images curators have assessed over 90 million images, selecting 900,000 from 42,000 contributors as part of our Flickr collection.” While it appears on Yahoo’s Flickr FAQ that Getty and Flickr are still working together in some capacity, if you scour the Getty and Flickr user forums, the consensus amongst the photographers is that everything is vague about the new arrangement between Getty and Flickr, but some type of agreement still exists that allows Getty to still scour Flickr and license dirt cheap images.
Professional Photographers Are to Blame Too
The photo buyers or clients really don’t care if you’re using a selfie-stick or a monopod, they just want what they need and they want it as cheap as possible—and besides the latter information discussed, many upcoming professional photographers, and even some of the old dogs, are to blame too.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen photographers charging less than $100 for a full-blown portrait session or accepting $200 to shoot a wedding. If the income for professional photographers is to increase in the next Occupational Outlook Handbook, then photographers need to learn to charge their worth—or at least read my article The Picasso Principle—Pricing Photos.
When I quote a price to a customer, sometimes I get the, “Why should I pay you X when I can get it cheaper from other photographers?” My response is simple, “Do you want to pay for Rolando Gomez or economics?” I then give the client a few examples, but just enough to prove my point. As an example, I once had a client that wanted some photos for commercial use that wanted to show the logos of some high-end cars along with the model, so I asked the client, “Have you secured permission from the car manufacturer to include their trademarked logo in the photo?”
The client’s answer was, “No.” “Good,” I said, “I just saved you thousands of dollars in legal fees and a product you’d never use once you received that cease and desist letter.” Releasing the shutter is only five-percent of the equation and you must show your client why you are worth what you are worth and trust me, it has nothing do with how much money you have invested in equipment when it comes to the value you can deliver.
It’s Up to You
Remember, you have major stock houses and potential clients purchasing photos created by smartphones or inexpensive digital point and shoot cameras—the majority of the buying, or commissioning market doesn’t really care if you own an iPhone or a DSLR, they just want results. It’s up to you to show them you are a professional, even if you choose your smartphone as your camera of choice, but you have to produce results, not mediocre results, but great results.
In fact, you rarely hear the words professional and photographer together anymore, you just hear, “Oh, you’re a photographer?” Personally when I hear that, my answer is, “No, I’m a professional photographer.” It’s up to professional photographers to introduce ourselves, verbally or in writing, that we are “professional” photographers not “just a photographer.” We are the only ones that can put professional back in professional photography, through our words, interactions, and especially through our photographs.
Professional photographers also need to diversify into other areas such as capturing, editing, and producing video plus quite possibly learning multimedia platforms overall to qualify as consultants in the ever changing visual fields. You have to deliver more to your potential clients than just photographs and your photographs need great postproduction too. It’s about making yourself valuable in the visual world without making yourself look like a jack of all trades.
Don’t blame social media, stock agencies, lucky hipstagrammers, smartphones, or even the all time high interest in photography, go execute great images, brush up on your marketing skills, and get it right in the camera with consistent results. Push yourself, push your brand, and push your mind in a positive direction. It’s not easy, and for the record, it never was to begin with, we just operate under a different landscape today, but it’s an open field full of life, not a deserted desert.
With that I close and ask everyone not to forget the men and women that protect our freedoms. God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando