Friday, January 22, 2010

The future of photography as a business

Recently, I got engaged in an online discussion on the future of photography as a profession. Well, more than engaged, I was monitoring everybody's comments.

The predominant topic of the discussion was driven by the frustration of long-time photographers whose business has eroded as a product of the technological evolution.

To be honest, the tone of many of those writing, wasn't very positive.

For many years, professional photography's high fees were based on the exploitation
throughout time of a costly asset. The business model resembled more an equipment rental than a professional service delivered by a skilled tehnitian who is also capable of infusing the final product with creative energy and visual appeal.

I have been lucky enough to work or be related to a variety of fields of work and unfortunate enough to see the competitive advantages vanish in one way or another. I will give you some examples:

The recording industry.
Recording studios used to be expensive, difficult to afford. They would be equipped with hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment. Somebody would make the investment and musicians would use their services for a fee. The quality they offered just wasn't obtainable otherwise. Talent was not necessarily what got you into the studio to record, it was more a function of how you related with the investor, willing to back your musical project.

How it changed? Recording and sound processing equipment got more and more accessible and it became part of the musician's or recording artist's gear.

How did they adapt? After this, everybody had recording gear.The primary value and differentiator became talent,creativity and professionalism in meeting deadlines. The "soft skills" like setting up microphones and blending the layers became also more valuable.

The Computing Industry
I remember when in the 70s my dad was evaluating a business proposal that involved buying a Wang computer with 4K of RAM and a 5M HDD for processing books for third parties.

How it changed? Everybody knows that. Your iPhone is more than 200 times more powerful than that machine. Nobody would hire a company because of their computing power. You can do pretty much everything in-house. That's it YOUR HOUSE.

How did they adapt? Even after all this, you still hire an accountant, and the main reason is usually that he or she should keep you out of trouble.

I am not going to join the whining, I am interested in breakthrough ideas...

* Photography is more alive than ever (look at all the DSLRs sold), it is the Photographer species that is hurting.This means there is a demand for the still image, it is just being fulfilled differently. How do we steer them back? Most people want to do them themselves, not because it is less expensive (they shed $600 out already), but because they want that sense of accomplishment. Don't you enjoy making images? Why shouldn't they!

* The Tablet/eBook reader hype as a magazine replacement: They come with a monopoly built-in. Most of this is just new media with the same hurting business model. I am not sure on how Pro Photographers can "plug-in" here...

* There will always be need for new images, stock can't win. Images wear off, customs and fashion change, you have to update the library constantly.

* Whoever shoots his once-in-a-lifetime event with somebody who cannot guarantee results is making a poor choice. It will not take very long until the market understands this. Listen to me: there will be skits about this on SNL and will become an example on what not to do.

* Video might be the answer, but it looks like just another field. I have a videographer friend complaining about "all these newcomers with their 5Ds" cannibalizing his business...

* We should look at how other industries are tackling this. Some examples:
- Phone companies: No longer selling minutes, now bundling the proverbial triple-play.
- TV and Cable: Product placement is the new revenue generator.
- Music: The CD is just a marketing vehicle to sell the live show.
- Open source software: Software IS FREE, the support costs you an arm and a leg.
- One that is still holding strong: Lots of cooking shows on TV, still, you go out and pay $16/entree. You are paying for the experience, not just the plate.

* We should move away from "thinking gear". For many years, $$$ spent on equipment is what set the Pro away from the amateur. Now, anybody can buy a decent camera. You can buy a set of clubs for $100, not everybody is Tiger (maybe I should have used a different example).

So maybe the learning is:
- Adapt and include the new stuff out there.
- Don't panic.
- Act professionally.
- Create images. Really CREATE stuff, don't just "steal the soul".
- Create an experience, by bundling with innovative services.
- Charge for the production, not for pressing the shutter. You can even invite your customer to do it (press the shutter) himself, after you set-up, lit, framed and adjusted the camera. Oh,I almost forgot, gathered all the releases.