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Insights & Thoughts

Change or Die: Ignoring Photo Industry Changes May Be Detrimental to Your Business

By Angela Pointon on February 6th 2014

“You’re so screwed,” I thought to myself as I shifted my weight and rocked back on the heels of my polka dot pumps.

There I was, reluctantly standing at the front of an ultra-mod conference room leading a marketing and branding brainstorming session for a chain of traditional copy and print shops. I worked for the marketing agency hosting the meeting as chief operating officer at the time, and the client had paid us a five-figure fee for some marketing help.

My Charge?

Moderate the conversation and facilitate the creativity in a room full of young, brilliant marketers, copywriters and creative directors, along with the client’s executive team, which consisted of the owner and CEO (about 85), his son (I’d guess 55) and the son’s new wife (30, possibly younger).

The Task?

They wanted to continue making copies, direct mail postcards and brochures, only for more people. In their words, they so desperately needed our help “cracking the code” to branding their business the right way so they could “capture the local markets and retire happily.”

The Problem?

The world began changing around that business model years ago, and they were too obsessed with the details inside their business to notice. Rather than brainstorming ways to adapt to change and fulfill new needs, they clung onto the existing model by their fingernails and spent hefty dollars copying (pun intended) bigger guys also clinging onto the same exact model. A model that was dying.

Sound Familiar?

If you’ve been in denial that the photography industry is changing and that the role of a professional photographer may never again exist in the forms we’re all familiar with, it’s time for a wake up call.

Now, normally I’m a glass half full kinda girl who hugs people upon introduction, but this is serious, people.

Dramatic Changes To Come:

1. Stock Photography Income Dissolves

Joe McNally’s post at the start of the new year talks about the ridiculous decline of stock.  While he comes at it from the angle of an artist, one that photographs for the art first, money second, one can’t help but read the underlying tone of defeat and insult from the lessening dollars that art seems to be earning photographers in the world of stock photography, in particular.

2. Editorial Is Drying

With news networks accepting photographs taken by consumers (how exciting!), it’s no wonder that stock earnings are deflating. Newer stock entities like Stocksy are trying to better represent photographers and keep things fair. From all of us photographers to the dwindling companies out there like you, thanks for the effort, Stocksy.

3. Consumers Get Pro Access

Just last week, a product was beta-released to make it easier for consumers to plan their wall gallery layouts. Via Simply Galleries,  a mom can doodle around with print sizes over a photo of her own living room wall and order professional quality canvases right from the same app–the same canvases that portrait and wedding photographers normally sell for 3-4 times markup in order to put food on the table for their families.

4.The Shift Of A Pro Photographer’s Model

I’m not here to merely suggest that the photography industry is being flooded by new photographers. That’s been said a million ways in a million places, already.

The photography business model is changing, and we (myself included) have to adapt and be one step ahead of that change. Complaining about access to digital cameras, online photography training classes and, now, professional quality print products getting into the hands of consumers is not elevating and progressing the industry of people – people like you and me – who earn their living with a camera.

[REWIND: Would Your Photography Business Survive if Facebook Died?]

While it can be fun to comment on blogs written by people who complain about the negative photo industry changes or have a chuckle when we poke fun of consumers with cameras, we’ll be the last laugh if we can’t respond quickly. In fact, things are beginning to change and move so rapidly that we’ll likely find the act of trying to catch up exhausting if we don’t start getting one step ahead of what’s going on.

5. Technology Acceleration

One shouldn’t assume that the continuation of technological advancement will follow the same pace as our past. Rather, technology is predicted to accelerate over the next 100 years at a frequency that will feel more like 20,000 years. Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, observed this in his 2001 essay, “The Law Of Accelerating Returns.” In this piece, he displayed how technology changes exponentially the further along in time we get. He demonstrates this with this graph illustrating the growth of computing power over the course of time seen here:

I told you I’m a glass half-full girl, so I’m not going to leave things in such a wrist-slitting state. Instead, let’s consider two things you can do to keep one step ahead of future changes.

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Two Ways To Keep Ahead:

1) Don’t Toss This Aside
There are thousands of photographers who are not reading this blog post. They’re going about their day, worrying about adjusting their white balance or tinkering with their new lens.

They’re focused on the details of their work while you, my friend, are beginning to think about your business in a holistic sense. Yes, white balance and lens functionality are both important and critical, but obtaining a macro-level view at the world that the photography business lives within is necessary, as well.

You may decide to be among the photographers reading this who’ll cast it aside and continue going about their day.

Or, perhaps, you’ll be the rare kind of photographer that gets this article stuck in a space within your brain.

You’ll think about it frequently and constantly search for what might make a more innovative, responsive model for a future photography business. Your microenvironment will remain important every day, but the macro environment will mean much more than ever before.

2) Repeatedly Touch the Train Tracks

Ever seen Stand By Me?

There’s a scene where Will Wheaton’s character places his hand on the rails of a train track to feel whether or not a train is coming.  Feeling no sensation of a looming train, he’s confident that he and his friends are safe to cross a dangerously long bridge over a cavernous body of water. They begin to slowly cross it.

Wheaton’s character touches the rails again about halfway over the bridge after quite some time has passed. To his shock and disbelief, he feels the gentle vibration of a train approaching and then confirms that by seeing puffs of smoke rising above the distant trees. Before he knows it, the train is close enough to create human pancakes out of him and his three other friends.

Had he checked the rails more frequently, they could have made a plan to safely get across or, worst case, just had a few more moments to book it in the opposite direction of the oncoming locomotive.

Check the tracks frequently (figuratively, of course!). Know what’s going on inside the industry and make a habit of peeking outside of it. Talk to consumers, listen to what they’re saying and take the time to connect and speak with business thought-leaders.

How Will You Get Ahead?

If you’re up for the challenge and want to remain a viable business in the future, what things will you do to try to be on the forefront?

This site contains affiliate links to products. We may receive a commission for purchases made through these links, however, this does not impact accuracy or integrity of our content.

Angela Pointon is the founder of Angela Pointon Photography and Steel Toe Images, which offers advice and inspiring motivation for creative business owners. Angela’s weekly email newsletter is packed with advice for creative entrepreneurs, which can be subscribed to for free here. In addition, she has authored multiple books, is a monthly columnist for Professional Photographer Magazine.


Q&A Discussions

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  1. Tim Rudziensky

    In response to Nancy Nobody: you couldn’t be more wrong. Are you one of the photographers that hasn’t evolved? This article was spot on and you missed the point entirely. You expected this article to give you the wisdom to save your business? That’s a very unlikely expectation. The business is changing rapidly and it’s going to evolve, with or without you. Better keep up, time to sink or swim!

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  2. Nancy Nobody

    What an enormous waste of time! There was literally no information in this article! The problem with photography today is that everyone is a self proclaimed expert. This website is full of “experts” writing articles for wannabe’s and yet, the authors are rank amateurs. It’s galling and silly how little actual knowledge is being given here. You’re being link baited like Upworthy, someone is giving these authors “exposure” in exchange for getting your greedy eyeballs in front of them so they can serve you ads.

    The real truth is almost none of you will ever make a living as a photographer, it’s almost impossible to actually be successful in any meaningful way and giving away your crap pictures for pennies just makes it harder on the rest of us and lowers the standard of great imagery. You’re all loving photography to death!

    I know it sounds like fun “make money with your camera” but, please, you’ve ll done enough damage! Now go find another hobby that you want to turn into a job and leave the few of left making a few bucks alone!

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    • Angela

      Dear Nancy:

      I’m sorry that you felt the article was a waste of time. That, obviously, was far from the intent.

      I would advise, however, that posting a comment asking people to “go find another hobby” isn’t going to change anyone’s passion for photography or cause them to change.

      Which brings up the point of the article: changes are happening and awareness coupled with realistic sensitivity to the changes is imperative for survival.


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  3. aooo

    I’ve been playing a photographer since my early 20’s, 42 now.
    Marketing should answer : get back to your soul, find where you’re unique and bottom line your life with it.
    One of the best graphic designer of the 90’s talks about how he works :
    – “i listen to the client and then i do what i want because i was hired for that.”
    (was hired for who he was, his style, and not his confortable skills to anderstand a brief)
    You’re an artist what makes you unvaluable is your eye upon the world your eye upon the brief
    unvaluable, because it’s hard to give it a price.
    How much would you pay yourself for doing what you’ve been hired for ?
    if you’re an artist be the most creative you can be,
    if you’re into wedding or more human direct relations kind of stuff
    be the most “place an adjective here” of your geographic market segment,
    and tell it loud, as your bottom line.
    Be unique, you’ll get more valuable, toh ! be yourself so !

    What you are means where your difference is,

    You have to reinvent yourself as the world does,
    that’s it !

    grab a new customer with this new super teky stuff 32 bit blablabla,
    you will end keeping this customer by yourself with,
    who you are, how you trust in yourself, how your customer feels it.
    We are animals we feel the fear in someone else’s mind,
    so this glass is full of Champagne, enjoy it,
    santé !

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  4. mark

    Ok, I’m following you on Twitter but I’m not an accomplished Twitter user.

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  5. mark

    Interesting and thought provoking article. You wrote, “Check the tracks frequently (figuratively, of course!). Know what’s going on inside the industry and make a habit of peeking outside of it. Talk to consumers, listen to what they’re saying and take the time to connect and speak with business thought-leaders.”

    The problem is understand or figuring out exactly what is happening and then knowing what to do with that info. Yes we all see the change but there is so much chaos (even among the so called experts ) that it is extremely difficult to make heads or tails of what is happening or where it is all (or even a small segment) is going. My business had one of it’s best years ever last year (don’t ask long many years but I can assure that we are talking about more than one decade :) ). But I can’t figure out why, I literally have no idea. I didn’t really change much from previous years other than revamping my website about this time last year. This year on the other hand is currently looking like it may turn out to be the worst ever or at least the worst in the last 14-15 years. So far I haven’t changed anything from last year but obviously I need to fast but I have no idea at this point what to experiment with.

    Chaos rules or so it would seem. :)

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    • Angela

      Mark – wow! Follow me on Twitter and let’s start a convo. Maybe I can help. My handle is @steeltoeimages

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  6. Wilde

    The rate of change in both photography and education is mind-boggling right now. As both a photographer and an educator I’m fascinated and stunned by the pace required to keep up with both, but I love the constant new possibilities for creativity. I strive to provide my students and my clients with fresh, but relevant means to attain their goals. It’s a fun (but exhausting!) time!

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  7. Oscar De La Villa Jr

    Anglea…plain and simple…Friggin’ remarkable!

    Basically stop complaining about the inevitable and adapt!

    I actually found myself reflecting on the possibilities of headshot photography and after a couple hours I concluded that “I better get off my ass because I’M BUSY!!” VisuoBranding™ is the future…

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  8. Nicky Jameson

    Angela – a thought-provoking article. The photography industry is changing – as are all industries however there are some things that will still enable savvy aware photographers to rise above crowd. The worst thing one can do is bury their head in the sand (I see many forums where all photographers seem to to do is snipe at each other. A real turn-off) It’s no longer just about taking a great image, or great art, it’s how you find enough people who are aware of and like your work enough to purchase it. And that means marketing and you never finish learning all there is to know.

    One way photographers can stay ahead of the curve – as well as watching and monitoring trends – is to start to become better marketers and really define what it is they are selling – and it isn’t photographs. It’s feelings, moments in time, memories, stories, skills, talent, creativity, sensations, uniqueness – to some even magic… and they create this with their subjects… in other words they have to communicate the “sizzle” is because they are selling the “sizzle” not the steak. When I look at many professional photographers portfolios, be it wedding, newborn, lifestyle or another genre I see what it is people are willing to pay for. It is something beyond just taking photographs. For my own wedding a few years ago I looked for a professional wedding photographer, though I had plenty of friends who could take photos (and did). I knew what it was I was looking for, but I couldn’t necessarily put it into words. My photographer could though. I believe you get what you pay for and that people wanting great memories captured with very high quality will be willing to pay for it. It may take more effort to find them though.
    I like talking with other business leaders and entrepreneurs instead of just other photographers (as we tend to do on social platforms) – they have great insights. Building a mailing list/newsletter is another – you get to talk directly to your specific audience and find out what they are looking for and what their issues are, and then of course there is word of mouth. Blogging is also effective if done right.

    I love the digital age, phoneography and the new horizons technology and the Internet have opened for me as a photographer to get my art out there, and reach more people. But a camera is still only a tool. Become more marketing and business savvy is the best advice I would offer photographers, so that they can find new markets if the old ones stop delivering.

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  9. Tanya Smith

    One thing I’m hearing from my clients is that they’ve had a bad customer service or shooting experience with a “less professional” photographer in the past. They appreciate the time I take to pose them if needed, be patient with their kids, go out of my way to give them a custom experience and actually create stunning images. They’re willing to pay for that (especially after the not so great time with someone less expensive). They also want digital files. And I’m willing to offer them, for a price.

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  10. Nuno da Silva

    I am beginning this amazing journey that is trying to capture the “decisive moment”.
    I was a DJ since the time where we had to put a needle in the record.
    Back in those days there were few of us.
    Now, everyone is a DJ. Just grab a MAC and a good software and you’re done.
    Or NOT!
    You can use all the best technology to mix music without error, but you cannot lead one thousand people to ecstasy if you don’t have that gift.
    Same goes with photography. All the actual technology lowered the price of one capture. That result in people like me investing money in one camera and some lenses. We can capture a thousand stills without grab the attention of one single person. But we noobs all dream “One day I can show the world how I see it! ”
    Let there be competition. That only lead to better results.
    Those results are tougher to catch? Yes, for sure. Work harder.
    Great post there.
    Thank you

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    • Angela

      Thank you, Nuno. Love the DJ metaphor.

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    • Hermawan Tjioe

      I also come from the needle era (analog metaphor), with skills now taken for granted today, DJ’s today can create wonderful effects to stimulate the minds of the crowd. Luckily the old technique is making a small niche comeback, just like today’s film photography. Either way it remains the skill of the user that can elevate their business sense of marketing, identifying the tastes and tastemakers, locating the shift of evolution that breaks them away from the pack. Finding a unique take on the everyday things is a challenging and fun way to keep oneself motivated and creative. Sometimes it keeps the money rolling in.

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  11. Solomon Elohor Abe

    In a way I concur with Mr. Rojas, but the way technology is advancing this days, anything is purpose. With a good mobile phone an amateur can creat great stunning images, plus the fact that there are many tutorials out there on the web on how to create more better images, so photopreneurs, we have to look for ways to standout despite the trends or else we would fall apart… Thanks Angela for such a great article…

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  12. Mauricio Rojas

    WHAT is happening and WHAT should we do? WHAT did YOU see when you looked out of the industry and with consumers. Besides people appreciating the work given to them, and how photographers are able to create narratives with simple yet complicated captures, I don’t really see anything else. How can I find what it is that we should look for. I just ordered a bunch of 4×5 sheet film for a customer who wants to take these kind of pics. People love the idea of having their photographs taken with cameras that aren’t seen everyday and I think that’s what gives such value to it. With technology being able to create similar results, like for example, a smartphone with ridiculous megapixel counts can take amazing pictures, those pictures aren’t as good as what you can capture from a 5d. When it comes down to photography I believe its not just about someone somewhere getting a picture of something. technology advances but not everyone will adapt and many like the newspaper readers, will hire photographers. There will always be people who want the best, and they will hire an expert in photography.

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    • Angela Pointon

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Mauricio. I’d caution against technology or camera equipment ever separating or differentiating a pro from a consumer (or prosumer). We’ve already seen that wave begin to come. Yes, a 4X5 is unique, and if customers are calling you because you have that equipment — great!

      I imagine it’s more for your talent, eye and how you use that equipment, however.

      Also, I advise what to do at the end of the piece. Keep watching. Maintain intense awareness of what’s going on in the industry (and outside of it).

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