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Adapt or Die: Tech Disruption in Photography | A Help or Hindrance?

By Danielle & Shaun King on April 9th 2018

If you’re reading this, you probably love photography, like me! But our tribe is small. SLR Lounge writer, Holly Roa, reported recently on the economic contribution photography makes on our GDP and it’s sobering. Basically, GDP is the total monetary value of the goods and services produced by a country, in a year. And by producing $10.2 billion dollars in goods and services, the photography industry contributes about .06 of 1 percent of total U.S. GDP.

Our economic contribution, at $10.2 billion, can give us a sense of how much we, as a group, are worth to business leaders. This data was pulled from 2015, so it stands to measure what other industries had similar valuations that year.  Well, photography is worth less than the bottled water industry, but at least we’re worth as much as the domestic porn industry!

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Given the above, it’s a big deal if any business leader (individual or business) takes us seriously, not because we’re porn-adjacent, but because we’re minor figures in a big U.S. economy.  In a recent interview, Scott Galloway, rising YouTube phenom and a leading business professor at NYU, recently posed a question to which the answer has a direct correlation to this topic:

How has tech disrupted photography?

His interviewee is seasoned photographer and author of The Good Fight, Rick Smolan, who describes how tech has changed the careers of photojournalists.

Companies like Getty Images have expected more and paid less in recent years. In cases where a photo agency is the only viable buyer in a market, they have a bargaining position that Galloway calls ‘monopsony power’. Where monopolies are one seller for many buyers, a monopsony is one buyer with many sellers. For any photographer who is interested in labor market trends, this is worth watching. He adds,

“It seems in general, the same thing is happening in photography that is happening in other artistic sectors, that is there’s been an enormous transfer of value from the artisans to the platforms.”

Galloway asks another important question, “Who’s been hurt the hardest: the commercial photographer, the sports photographer?” But Rick Smolan isn’t prepared to discuss industry trends at a comparative level so he returns to the field of photojournalism he knows well. The pressures and needs of news outlets evolved so fast in the last 10 years that many photojournalists lost their livelihood. Smolan argues that the newest generation of photojournalists need to learn and use a full set of multimedia tools, not just rely on still imagery.

But the good news, left unstated in this video interview, is that for many genres of photography, generalization is not a benefit. Specialization and niche creativity are thriving.

For example, focusing your photography business on just newborns and family portraiture can create perceived market value that a more generalized jack-of-all-trades photographer would. And trying to learn how to use a tilt-shift lens to correct for converging verticals in your high-end architectural images will not help you run a successful newborn portrait studio.

The most scarce resource is your time, and the great thing about tech disruption is that the innovation side of disruption frees us to take on new, bolder tasks. Photoshop selection tools work faster, TTL flash is too, and the average customer’s cellphone, in 2018, showcases our images better than any 4×6 print finish could.

The disruption also affects manufacturers. Even ten years ago, a company like MagMod would not have offered a viable business model because at that stage in our industry, the average event photographer was struggling to get reliable off-camera flash. Now, 10 years on, tech disruption is killing radio trigger companies like PocketWizard because radio triggers are now commonly built-in nowadays, and since the majority of flash units have reliable radio triggers built inside, the average event photographer can focus on higher level questions about light modification.

This is what is missing from Galloway’s interview: tech disruption in photography has undermined some traditional pathways to career photography work, but has made some pathways to professionalism easier. A new, fully-digital photography career is still on the horizon, and maybe someday, if we don’t sell ourselves short, we’ll be more than just porn-adjacent.

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Danielle and Shaun specialize in wedding, commercial, and event photography and are based in North Carolina. They also create content for photographers on their YouTube channel: When traveling isn’t an option, they fill their spare moments with coffee dates, exploring the city on skateboards, swinging kettlebells, or catching up on the latest issue of their favorite magazines: The Economist, PDN, and The Atlantic.

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