ITS A TOUGH OLD WORLD. OR IS IT?

KEVIN MULLINS speaks to 25 photographers to get a feel for the current state of the industry-are your peers thinking of packing it in. or are they laughing all the way to the bank?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘the state of the industry’. Mostly fuelled by conversations I’ve had on Twitter and social media in general, stemming from these articles. There seems to be a real concern with some professionals within the industry about its future, whereas others are very positive about it. So this month I spoke to around 25 full-time professional photographers and actually got their opinions on the state of the industry.

The professionals I chose ranged between those that have worked in the industry for a quarter of a decade right down to those who have been in it a very short period. My only criteria in selecting them were that I knew their work, and that they were full-time professionals solely reliant on photography for their incomes.

I’m not going to simply reel out the answers, instead I’m going to compile the results into something that’s a bit more digestible. After all, this is only a small sample set — it’s by no means a fully qualified ‘state of the industry’ report, but I guess it will give a glimmer into the opinions and thoughts of those on the coal face at the moment.

One of the questions I asked was: «Are you earning less now than you have been previously?” I appreciate this is somewhat subjective as people may exaggerate what they earn, however, all bar one of the responses implied that yes, they were earning less now than before.

This didn’t particularly surprise me — as we all know the economy is still rattling along in a very low gear. I followed up with a question asking if they are having to work harder to earn more or sustain the turnover they required, and this threw up a couple of interesting points. Of the ones that said they are earning Less, only half seemed to think they were working harder (to presumably earn less!).

When I Look back at my own business over the Last two years I’m definitely working harder to maintain the turnover I’m happy with, and I think, in times of economic woe, all businesses really should be expecting to work harder to remain financially sound. There is no such thing as a level playing field it seems these days, and so I presume we should all be prepared to pull our shirt sleeves up and put in a few extra shifts if we want to keep the cogs of financial stability turning.

It does seem that many of the photographers are adapting their business models with an aim to build their business. This is more of an entrepreneurial move, rather than a survival move, and pretty much all of them seemed excited about bringing new strands into their business. When prompted, primarily this seemed to be other forms of photography such as commercial, schools, baby and newborns.

Is ‘full-time’ still possible?

It does appear, speaking to the photographers, that some will need to offer more services to continue being full-time wedding photographers. Is time being called on full-time wedding photography? Is it a sustainable business model over the next five years to be ‘just’ a wedding photographer?

Well, I asked the question: “What is the biggest issue you see in the wedding photography industry at present?».

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the answers were split between the so-called ‘weekend warriors’ and the devaluing of photography by the public. When pressed, it turned out that actually both of those were real concerns to all of the photographers, and, I have to say, it’s a concern for me too.

I’ve spoken here about ‘weekend warriors’ before. It’s a term I hate and I welcome people working in our industry on a part-time basis, so long as they play by the rules — essentially, tax, fair pricing and professionalism. Some of my best friends in the industry, and in fact some of whom I consider the best photographers in the industry, are so-called ‘weekend warriors’.

We discussed the issue further, and I asked directly: «Do you believe most photographers are ethical (pay tax, have insurance, back-up gear, etc?)»

And this was a big issue, it seems. It does appear that a majority of the photographers would like to see some kind of regulation put in place, which ‘could’ weed out the dubious suppliers of photography and at the same time impart on clients the actual value of photography.

Many mentioned they would like to see venues only work with photographers upon proof of insurance (some venues do this already I would like to add), as a minimum requirement. «I would like to see a more level playing field — have photographers registered so that no one can operate without insurance or paying taxes. Once these are addressed, many will not see weddings as the ‘easy money’ they do now,» was one reply, which seemed to summarise a lot of the opinions across the board.

And this: “The wedding photography business has become so saturated with people who ‘can take a picture’ and see weddings as an opportunity to make a bit of pocket money at the weekend, that it is becoming increasingly difficult for those paying taxes and insurance to compete at a price that makes for a viable business. Also with the rise of social media type images, people are becoming less discerning over their images, to the point where wedding photography has just become another ‘commodity1 to be included in the list of items necessary for a wedding — if some money is saved on the photography it means that the couple can perhaps have a chocolate fountain as well,”

Personally, I don’t know or see how a regulation could work. Even the Corgi Gas fitters, I’m sure, have their own equivalent stress of people practising too cheaply for a bit of cash on the side.

What’s a photographer worth?

A real concern too is the public’s perceived value of wedding photography at the moment. In this 24/7 social world we live in, where Instagram, Twitter and Facebook give us access to images by the thousands, every day, how can we improve the public’s perception of the true value of photography?

I don’t know what the answer to that is and neither did any of the photographers I spoke to.

We all, it seems, struggle with the enquiry that simply states: «How much for a disc of images only?” Talking to the photographers questioned, it seemed that they are resigned to ‘most’ enquiries being of this type in this day and age.

“I have to spend a lot longer these days persuading clients that an album is important,» was a common reply. Which brings us back to the «are you working harder?» question. And of course, we know the answer is a resounding yes in most cases.

One of my greatest concerns, as a documentary photographer, is the amount of guests at weddings that seem to have as much gear as me. They spend more time taking photos than interacting with the wedding itself and a lot of the ‘emotion’ seems to be evaporating from weddings because of this, I find.

I posed the question: «Are the more powerful, and cheaper, cameras and smartphones on the market affecting people’s decision to pay for a professional photographer?»

By and large, the answer remained positive here. Most photographers concurred that it is much more difficult on the day to operate, or to avoid guests shooting over our shoulders, but essentially that is considered par for the course. Whilst consumer cameras are becoming more powerful, and cheaper, so it seems are the professional cameras.

The photographers I spoke to did see an issue with a lot of people using a ‘friend with a fancy camera’ but almost all considered this to be less of an issue than perhaps I do. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice of shooting thing?

I’m not sure.

I also asked them if the professional suppliers such as album manufacturers are helping the industry at the moment. The consensus here was split. Most appreciated the fact that it’s probably lean times for them too and didn’t expect them to be reducing their prices. However, it does appear to be a worry that it is becoming a trend to offer consumer-level albums and prints online. I think a lot of the photographers expressed concern that some of the major album manufacturers, in the future, could go down that route too, which could be quite detrimental.

Whilst this may appear quite a negative slant on the state of the industry, I wouldn’t expect it to be any different in an economic downturn. I’m guessing if I asked the same questions in the previous recession we would see a similar trend. Hopefully, if I ask these questions again in a couple of years, with the recession behind us (it will be, right?) we may see a bit more positivity.

Of course, this was just a very quick snapshot from a few photographers. It’s not a conclusive piece of analysis but I suspect it’s an opinion shared by many photographers.

What are your thoughts on the state of the industry? We’d love to hear them via Twitter @kevin_mullins and @prophotomag.

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