Around 1.2 trillion photographs will be taken worldwide this year. For perspective, if one person was shooting one photo a second continuously, without pausing to sleep, that would take them almost 40,000 years. That’s a lot of selfies. So why is the photography industry in decline?
Precise UK statistics are muddied by the categorisation system used by the Office of National Statistics, with video, radio, TV and photography grouped together under the same bracket. Freelancers, who dominate the photography sector, are also excluded from ONS Creative Industries data. French government statistics are more nuanced, however, suggesting that over half of ‘photographic businesses’ have folded in the last decade, and the value royalty payments for images has reduced by over 80% since 2005. It’s certainly paints (or rather, shoots) a worrying picture.
One reason for these gloomy prospects is that while quality professional photography is at risk, photography as a whole certainly isn’t. Every person with a smartphone carries a capable camera in their pocket. Point-and-shoot cameras are the cheapest they’ve ever been. Instagram, VSCO, and other photo apps have put accessible editing controls in the hands of consumers, who can shoot and colour grade a photo in seconds without any professional assistance. Photography is simply not the expensive, exclusive art form it once was – which is great news for the average consumer, but less so for those trying to make a living from it.
The truth is that in such a saturated marketplace, ‘quality’ photography is increasingly becoming a needless luxury. Why pay a rate of thousands for a freelance interior photographer to take shots of your restaurant, when your assistant manager can do an adequate job with his £300 bridge camera? Professional wedding photographers, meanwhile, are finding themselves redundant as the trend for friends and family to take over snapping duties becomes more prevalent. The standard may not be the same, moments may be missed, but sometimes, that’s okay. Not everyone needs perfect wedding photos that cost more than the honeymoon.
The greater consumer interest in photography brought about by Instagram and similar platforms has also lead to a rising subclass of amateur and semi-pro shooters, who are often willing to undercut professional services or even work for free. With entry-level DSLR bodies and bridge cameras available brand new for a fraction of the price of pro kit, the barrier for entry is much lower than even five years ago. Industry photographers are no longer competing simply with each other, but with a new wave of casual enthusiasts who are far more tantalising to budget-savvy businesses.
It is a problem that is particularly common in the music industry, with the skewed ratio of willing shooters to available press passes at many gigs resulting in publications opting to have voluntary photographers cover the event. The amateur shooter gets a great opportunity, the publication gets a usable image, but the work of the professional concert photographer becomes significantly devalued. Much like businesses using unpaid interns for actual work, the practice will continue so long as the status quo remains unchanged.
The reality is that when the Facebook Wedding Album is viable competition to the pros, and businesses can find cheaper ways to meet their own imaging needs, the industry of mostly independent freelancers must learn to adapt. It is not enough to simply be a photographer; professional shooters in 2017 must also be competent salesmen, effective marketers, and excellent social media strategists in order to remain competitive. Quality professional photography can still rise to the top of the digital jungle – it’s just going to take a lot more work.
All photos taken from Pexels.com, licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license.