Everyone takes pictures.
There was a time when a camera was only used by a skilled and trained craftsman, whereas now, everyone walks around with a camera 100 times more powerful, right in their pocket. As the speed, availability and ease of taking pictures has improved, pictures themselves have become somewhat disposable to a lot of people.
Would you agree?
For most non-photographers, a picture is a snapshot; it’s here for a moment, and then gone the next. When it lives on the phone (the camera-of-choice for the majority of consumers), it often dies there, too. It gets lost in a sea of thousands of other pictures and a constant onslaught of status updates, text messages, emails and tweets.
What happened to the magic of photography?
Once upon a time – and it wasn’t that long ago – taking a picture felt magical. The ability to freeze a moment in time and immortalize it in a single frame was nothing short of amazing. Today, we take that for granted. In a way, we’ve commoditized pictures.
Don’t you find that even the way we appreciate pictures has changed?
How many times have you seen a horrible picture posted to Facebook – one that you would have thrown away as an outtake – and it gets dozens of comments saying “oh, that is beautiful!” People can even “filter” their images on Instagram and on other social networks now, and they think it’s creative. As an industry we laugh at it, but it’s the new reality.
We are the most photographed generation, yet we enjoy those photographs the least out of any generation that has come before us.
I don’t say this all to poke fun or be a grouch about it, quite the opposite actually. I think we need to embrace it, and the way it’s affected our industry. Put simply – the artistic integrity and appreciation for photography as a medium has been cheapened. We need to change with it.
Why the perceived value of photography is decreasing
As taking pictures becomes more accessible, the perceived value of photography as a medium decreases. While at the same time, as more photographers enter the market and the competition goes up, the likelihood of you standing out from the crowd decreases.
These two forces work together, and collectively they make it more difficult to make and sustain a living in today’s market.
Here’s what I’m seeing – the gap between a successful photographer and a photographer who just can’t seem to get things off the ground is widening. The cream will rise to the top like never before, and those struggling will continue to struggle without much movement. I see our industry very much going the way of the music industry. If we don’t shift the way we look at what we do, then we’re going to go by the wayside, just like the CD.
Another industry that I think we can be compared to – the newspaper and magazine industry. They’re going through this same shift right now, and many of them are fighting a losing battle because they continue to do things the same way they’ve always been done.
This is not meant to be a depressing article or one where I suggest that you should choose a different career path. All I am suggesting is that we have to embrace change. We must accept this shift in our industry and shift with it.
Now – what is the shift? I can summarize it by saying this:
You are no longer a photographer. You are no longer selling pictures.
Sidenote: many would argue that this is always the case, and I agree. It’s just that now, I don’t think we have a choice.
What you should be doing with this shift is creating an experience and providing a service.
– Sally Hogshead
You must find a way to separate what you do from what the average person can do. And this is no longer just a matter of doing it better. It’s a matter of doing it different.
What you really should be focusing on
What you do is not just about the pictures; it’s about the experience you create that surrounds the pictures.
As these forces continue to grow stronger, the demand for photographers to be hired to take pictures will decrease, because people can take pictures themselves. The perceived value for editing, retouching and designing will decrease, because people can “filter” images themselves and design their own books in easy-to-use software.
What you sell and how you make money as a photographer needs to be about more than the pictures and the photographic process itself. It needs to be about the entire experience. You need to create that experience.
You are not a photographer
You need to redefine your role as a photographer and look at it in a different way. You need to look at pictures as the byproduct of the experience you provide.
Here are a few examples. Instead of being a photographer …
You could be a therapist for couples. You could help guide couples through an emotional experience that is designed to re-engage and re-connect them. You could re-kindle a fire in their relationship. You could help them recognize the small things about their partner that they have taken for granted, and give them an excuse to slow down and live in the moment. Jesh De Rox is leading a movement in this genre of photography. Couples would hire you as a gift to each other with the intent of reconnecting and rediscovering their love. The pictures would be a byproduct.
You could be a planner for engaged couples. You could collaborate with them to design a breathtaking styled shoot for their engagement session. You could help bring their dream to life by choosing special locations, props, accessories, and by involving a whole team of professionals to plan a unique session. Couples would hire you to fulfill their fantasy and feel like they were a part of a big production that was centered around them. The pictures would be a byproduct.
You could be a therapist for women through your boudoir photography. You could create an entire brand around empowering women to feel confident and be proud. You could give them the self-awareness and reassurance that they are beautiful no matter what season of life their in, or what shape their body is in. Women would hire you to help show them their beauty and feel a sense of confidence that you can bring out in them. The pictures would be a byproduct.
You could be an event planner for groups of friends who want to experience a different “night out”. You could plan mini-events for groups of friends that they plan and look forward to, such as a portrait party. You could provide hair and make-up, have the party catered and make it all about having a good time. People would hire you as something fun to do with their friends and to feel pampered. The pictures would be a byproduct.
You could be an interior decorator for families. You could visit families at their home and help plan where they could to display images of their family. You could advise them on size, display, presentation, framing options, and so on. You could help them redecorate their entire room with the focal point being their family portrait. Families would hire you to create an heirloom for them and create a room full of warmth, joy and love. The pictures would be a byproduct.
You could be a concierge for out-of-town clients who want to experience what your local area has to offer. You could plan a tour of your city for them with an itinerary of places you’d take them, sights they’d see and things they’d get to experience. You would act as a documentarian, photographing the entire experience for them. Jason Groupp did this so well with his “I heart NYC” photo sessions. Tourists would hire you to experience your city in a way that only a local could. The pictures would be a byproduct.
These are just a few examples of ways you could re-frame what you do as a photographer. Providing an experience and doing something different for your clients will help you stand out in the crowded market, all while increasing the perceived value of what you do. And in every way, the experience must come first, and the pictures are a byproduct of the experience.
How do your clients enjoy photography?
All this being said, I feel strongly that if you want what you do to stand out from what your clients can do for themselves, not only do you have to do it different in the way (as I’ve described above), but you have to design the experience so that they also enjoy the images differently.
You can go to all this effort of designing a great experience, but if you end up giving them a USB key of their images that then live with the photos they took on their vacation last month on Facebook, you aren’t really giving them something to differentiate or remember the experience. It’ll get lost in that same sea we spoke about earlier, and the experience will be cheapened.
That is why I believe you must design your photographic experiences to include something tangible and meaningful – a portrait book, an heirloom album, a wall portrait, a beautifully designed artisan box of prints, and so on.
Your clients are already enjoying their disposable, commoditized images digitally. In fact, that’s likely the only place they’re enjoying their images; and I use the word “enjoy” very cautiously. Do they really “enjoy” those disposable, commoditized digital images? I’d say it’s more like “storing” the images, and they just happen to see it for a moment. But then the next, it’s gone, pushed aside by the latest update, text message, tweet or picture.
If you want sustainability in this changing industry of photography, you must stand out; both in the experience you provide, but also in the way those experiences are enjoyed.
Start strong. Focus on the experience. Finish strong. Be different.