Sunday, 3 May 2009

Why is it that so many professional photographers seem to be having such a difficult time at the moment?

Why is it that so many professional photographers seem to be having such a difficult time at the moment? It isn’t just the economic crisis that seems to have been triggered by the banks, as many editorial photographers at least have been under increasing financial pressure over the past ten years.

Many have blamed digital imaging, but that is not really true either, although without question the ‘digital revolution’ for want of a better expression has certainly been a trigger. There are many myths about digital photography, not least being how easy it makes taking good quality photographs, and how cheap it makes photography. The former is of course nonsense, as the skill required in taking a good picture has not changed since the day of Fox Talbot.

Even though we now have auto-focus, auto-exposure; the taking of a high quality photograph still lies in the hands of the camera-user (photographer), and no amount of automation can determine the exact moment to press the shutter or the framing of the image. (Even with the fastest of motor drives, and greatest of luck, the choice element is still with the photographer).

Many people think that good exposure and sharpness denotes good photography - which is of course nonsense. These are merely, (and there are exceptions), the most basic, taken-for-granted requirements. All good photographs should be well exposed and well-focussed, all digital imaging has done is remove the mystique of the darkroom, and replaced it with the joys of the computer. Because in this day and age, even our children are taught to use computers, the familiarity with PCs has given so many people the false illusion that comfort in using a keyboard is the same as actual knowledge and skill. How many times has ‘John’ in ‘I.T.’ been given the job of producing photographs based on nothing more than the misconception that proficiency with computers is the same as thirty years professional experience with a camera?

Despite so few of us being real masters of colour management (and I include myself in this), the entire population now truly believes that the mere ownership of a digital camera makes one a photographer, with the acquired skills of thirty years professional photographic experience.

Even those people who really should know better, the editors who so often are those most directly involved in selecting imagery have been sucked into this idea that it is all now so easy. Easy then becomes synonymous with cheap. Remember when the travelling editorial photographer had to use those Hassleblad drum scanners, and the horrendous price they cost. We were all (newspaper photographers) told that without them we would not get any work, only those who invested in the equipment. Hundreds of us, (thousands), spent (perhaps) £20,000 even then. The papers saved a lot of production time and effort, and yes we got 'wire fees' but probably not enough to quite balance the extra cost of the equipment, and the papers were 'quids in' as we say in the UK.

The next big step (1992?) was to ‘Macs’ and ‘Coolscans’. Thousands of us got sucked into this one. Something like £5,000 to buy an Apple-Macintosh laptop - mine was a 180c, a Nikon Coolscan and ‘Codex’ modem, plus the software to make everything work. No tuition, all skills acquired on the job. This equipment was the minimum required for the sole trader working on his/her own. We produced 4-megabyte files that would be laughed at now, but they did sell well for newspapers, and was the base of an income for many of us for maybe seven years. But this kit had to be upgraded, three times during the next few years and the increased costs were rarely fully recoverable, and within a couple of years, the newspaper clients that had insisted we buy all this still slashed the fees they were prepared to pay for all this extra digital work. The Sun started it and the rest of Fleet Street followed suit, and I am sure there was a similar progression in the US and other market places. The papers saved a huge amount in equipment costs, not to mention manpower, as the images were supplied already digitised, and in many cases practically ready to use bar perhaps a simple digital conversion.

Once so many of us were 'mobile' and able to produce and send imagery almost immediately the papers began to trim the numbers of photographers being commissioned to cover events. Why send your 'own staffer' on commission when you could get regular submissions from the local guy? As this progressed, it became why take stuff in from the 'local photographers', when you could get material in from the regional agency. Which today has become why use any agency when we can get the stuff on the PA feed, which we pay for on subscription?

From a situation where each paper (probably) directly or indirectly employed two or three hundred photographers, we now have papers directly employing five or six with maybe a similar number on contract and possibly using the occasional regional freelance for those 'special' stories too far to send their own guy/gal. Multiply this by the more than a dozen national daily and Sunday newspapers and one can see how our marketplace has changed. No doubt the scenario is repeated in the States, Europe and elsewhere.

These skilled photographers no longer getting work from the national press are doing what? Some (many) have left the industry altogether, but those who remain are working in ways that enable them to earn a crust. Many produce stock. It isn't all amateurs that the professional full-time stock producer is now competing with, but skilled professionals moving over from other parts of the industry.

As for the latter suggestion that digital photography is cheaper, well anyone who is caught in the trap of upgrading, whether it be cameras, computers or software knows that this to be a serious error. Back in 1980s, I had Canon A-1s and F1s that lasted what ten years? In fact they never needed actual replacement, but I chose to go down the EOS1 route in 1990. The EOS-1 was a wonderful camera, but cost more than three times that of either of its predecessors (£1500), just buying two was a huge investment. True these cameras also lasted me until I was market led into going digital thirteen years later, but the difference in price from a conventional body to an electronic one has set a trend which has not slowed down. Whilst in £s and pence terms the price of cameras may seem to have stabilised, market requirements (and the lack of longetivity of the bodies themselves) have meant that they need upgrading perhaps as often as biannually. Each body far more expensive than the F1s of yesteryear.

And then one has to take on board the cost of the computer kit that makes all the imagery work. That first 180c Macintosh laptop was £3,500, Photoshop, £500+. Whilst today's computers are no question cheaper, their operating life seems to be no more than two years. More cost in both machine and software.

In 1994 I worked out my operating costs including overheads, running a separate office and working on a 48 week working year, four day operating week, (one day in the office), and my running costs were £50 per day. This included replacement equipment, servicing, car, phone everything. I did the same exercise in 2006 and came up with a figure of £105. In the twelve years between the two calculations my overheads and operating costs had doubled, whilst the commission fees paid by newspaper clients had remained static. Worse than this the expenses paid by those clients had fallen dramatically.

I did the same exercise last year and my overheads have reduced slightly to £95. I now work from home, have an older vehicle, etc.

Whilst I am fortunate in that some of the excellent lenses I purchased back in 1990 are still serving me well, like every other professional I am forced to upgrade camera bodies, computers and software at least every three years. If I don't, I remain less competitive in a market where there is now more competition than ever before.

As a photographer I have had to reinvent my business many times, and in today’s difficult economic climate that is an absolute essential. I am continually examining the services I provide and the markets within which I provide it. I no longer supply to newspapers (95% of my work in 1994), but my main selling point remains personal service and quality.

If my Unique Selling Point (USP) were price, then there would always be someone prepared to take me on. Providing a better service, makes my clients loyal, and despite the difficult times helps provide a regular income.

I no longer do sport either, something which I was heavily involved in from the mid seventies until the end of the last century; that market has died for all but the persistent few who have made themselves an unassailable niche (it can still be done). Sheer quality will always win through, although due to the nonsense thinking in the current market place which places (in so many cases) price above quality, (‘Never mind the quality, feel the width’), one still has to work hard and be diligent, and not expect the earning power of even fifteen years ago.

The myth that digital, has made processing unnecessary is a difficult one as well, as many operators out there do none at all, and even more clients accept this, which is shocking. Gone are the days when film could be given to a specialist processor and a while later prints are produced which the client paid for (all the processing costs). Now, the photographer does that processing – what we need all that expensive hardware and software for. Even with my limited knowledge of colour management I spend between 100% and 400% longer digitally producing the files that my camera produces before I am prepared to give them to a client, than I do actually taking the photographs themselves, it is as much my diligence to processing and editing my images that makes me a quality photographer. This sort of thing is difficult for non-photographers to take on board. I have had many editors simply refuse to believe that this work is needed. What clients deem unnecessary they simply refuse to pay for. These are the clients who want to employ a photographer by the hour and receive a CD of JPEG images totally unedited after the job. Known as ‘Dump and Run’, there are many less professional photographers who simply see this as the way a photographic business is run. No wonder the marketplace thinks that photography is cheap, and why in so many cases the photographs we see in print are so poor quality. Since when did ‘Good enough’ become a marketing strategy for professional photographers?

The days when our collection of stock (our stock library) was for most of us seen as our pensions have gone, (this was a huge shock to me), but photography is not dead. There are more images used today than ever before. The marketplace has changed and we simply have to change with it. It doesn't mean that we have to lower our prices or our service, or quality, but rather that we have to adapt our rather unique services to fit in with client requirements. It also means we have to be evangelists, for quality, colour management and service.

With everyone else chasing prices down to the bottom, there comes a point in every market place when low price simply isn't enough, and clients start asking for something better - quality. The trick for most of us will be to survive until that pendulum swings our way. That means we have to keep our wits about us! :-)

Pete Jenkins

Member of: The National Union of Journalists

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