Today, let’s discuss some of the biggest changes currently happening in the market and how those changes will affect our lives and our businesses as professional photographers.
Even as I sit down to write this, I’m well aware that it is something of a fool’s errand. Sort of like buying a new TV only to realize as you’re leaving the store that an even newer model will be announced next week, laying out some of the massive changes occurring in the marketplace today may be far out of date if you happen to be reading this tomorrow. Yet, as we operate within a market as entrepreneurs, it is a requirement of the job to understand shifts in the market so we know how to best serve our clients and grow our business.
Since this will be a business related article, I feel the need to point out the perspective from which it is written. I am a professional photographer, director, and cinematographer. I work in both the narrative and commercial space. But today we will be focusing on the commercial space. I work in high-end commercial advertising. My clients are brands, ad agencies, and production companies hiring me to create key art for advertising campaigns. My business is based on day rate, plus usage/licensing, plus expenses. I point this out simply to alert you to the fact that I am not an event photographer, wedding photographer, headshot photographer, or photojournalist. Simply meaning that some of the shifts I outline below might apply more to my own type of photography business and not to some of those others. Much of it will apply to all photographers, but it’s always important to keep in mind the context.
So, what are the biggest shifts in the market facing professional photographers right now? Let’s have a look.
Shift to Video
Every time someone asks me which camera they should buy, or if they need to upgrade to mirrorless, I ask a simple question. Do you shoot video? I was a long time DSLR holdout but now am completely mirrorless. So I understand both sides of the debate. But, as much as I love my new camera setup, I still say, even in 2023, that, if you don’t care about video at all, the benefits of going mirrorless are not nearly as appealing. In fact, you can save yourself a boatload of money and still get great still images by sticking with DSLRs for the foreseeable future. But there’s a reason why mirrorless cameras are slowly taking over the market. When it comes to video, DSLRs just can’t keep up.
Now, I know what some of you may be saying. “I’m a photographer. I don’t give a crap about video. I don’t want to do video. Stop talking about it.” And I get it. If you wanted to become a filmmaker, you would have done so. Instead, you chose still photography. But the world and business which many of us first entered, where still photo shoots and motion shoots were completely separate, is quickly becoming a thing of the past. There are certainly still campaigns I shoot where they are 100% stills. But those are few and far between. For the most part, there is at least some element of video involved in every project, whether that be a full-blown commercial or simply a 10-second TikTok.
As we’ll get into in our next section, this isn’t driven by a belief that video is a greater art form than stills. Rather, it is market driven. The increase in social media dependency leads to a higher demand for content. The increase in social media dependency leads to even advertisers being at the whim of tech companies. So, when Instagram changes its algorithm to favor video over photography, it means that, in order to get the most eyeballs on their products, advertisers have to follow suit. When clients’ insights suggest they get more engagement with video than stills, they’d be crazy not to shoot more video.
Even beyond social media, consider the number of ad campaigns we are now asked to shoot, which would have previously been done as standalone photo campaigns with their own separate budget, but are now hybrid shoots where you are squeezed in alongside the video team. Advertisers are cutting costs at a time when they need more content than ever. So this has driven the two ends of the spectrum, film and photography, closer together.
So, how do you react? You could just stick to stills and ignore motion. You can still make a living only doing stills. It’s your right. But you are limiting your job opportunities by closing off certain projects. It’s okay if you don’t want those projects anyway. But, it’s a choice you should be aware that you are making.
Also something to consider is how you will fit into this new equation. Offering motion doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to become Roger Deakins overnight. I am a director, cinematographer, and photographer. So, I am trained and experienced in each of those roles. But that is because I started as a filmmaker, with over almost 20 years of filmmaking experience before I ever picked up a still camera, and the photography thing came second. But you don’t have to shoot your own motion work as a photographer if that makes you feel uncomfortable. Filmmaking is a team sport. So many clients will find it perfectly acceptable, occasionally preferable, if you bring on a separate DP to a project and serve solely as a director. This allows you to maintain your vision for a project without having to have all the technical mastery necessary to shoot the next Indiana Jones movie with your own hand. Teamwork is the key in filmmaking. So, you offering video might be as simple as partnering with a filmmaking team you feel comfortable bringing onto your project.
There are many ways you can go about offering clients motion. So it doesn’t have to completely overhaul your workflow as a still photographer. But it’s something they will be increasingly asking for. You can decide how or if you will provide the service to your clients. Because of my background, shifting more of my business towards directing/cinematography hasn’t been so much a shift as a return home. But how you respond will depend greatly on your clientele and personal interests.
As someone who is still getting used to the idea of even having a cell phone on me at all times, the world’s shift to social media in the last couple decades hasn’t exactly been something I’ve enjoyed. I became an artist with dreams of making standalone works of art that would grace gallery walls, billboards, magazine covers, and movie screens. I did not go through all those years of practice to create “content” that would be scrolled past in three-tenths of a second on Instagram or forced to make vertical video on TikTok. If you sense a hint of bitterness in my voice, you aren’t wrong.
But, much like the shift to video, these things are driven by the market. Social media is no longer an additional marketing outlet. It is now the marketing outlet. It is the most effective way advertisers have to reach customers.
I remember in the early days of social media, clients would haggle over the usage fee for social media, claiming that it’s “just Instagram.” The suggestion being that the usage fee for something posted on social media shouldn’t be equivalent to the usage fee for something that would show up in print. And that argument held sway for a while. But in 2023, when visibility for a billboard atop a building in downtown is limited to the number of people who drive by, and the number of eyeballs that see an Instagram post can easily reach into the millions, the argument that it’s “just Instagram” no longer carries the same weight.
This shift has meant a number of things for photographers. Some good, most of them bad. The upside is that social media gives us greater direct access to clients than ever before. It also gives our work an easy platform to be seen by potential buyers. You can get on a brand’s radar with a simple DM, if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
But the transient nature of social media, where “content” is not so much meant to be savored as it is to simply be consumed, means that getting customers’ eyes on your product often is more a matter of having the most content as opposed to the best content. Every Instagram user is flooded with posts every day. Customers have to play the game of not only creating a striking image/video to catch their attention, but also have enough posts, numerically speaking, to be seen in a customer’s feed.
This all means that clients need more content than ever before. In theory, this should be good for photographers. More content should mean more assignments. But, while content demands have increased, advertising budgets have not. That means that the amount of money advertisers have to spend on each individual campaign has decreased. This leads to lower budgets and lower fees for the artists providing the art as advertisers look to spread their dollar across multiple platforms and multiple categories.
To compound this issue, due to the rise of cellphone photography, mirrorless cameras, and an aesthetic shift in the market (largely driven by social media) towards more naturalist lifestyle content, where less professional looking imagery can actually be a benefit, there are more “photographers” than ever in the market for clients to choose from. Because many of these photographers have yet to understand the economics of commercial photography and are more than happy to shoot for exposure, brands looking to find someone to shoot their campaign for criminally low rates have a lot of options to choose from. This just drives down rates for the entire industry.
To further compound this issue, we’ve seen the rise of influencers as a market force. Any personal thoughts about influencers versus actual photographers we may have aside, being an influencer in 2023 is a legitimate career choice. And while some may quibble with an influencer’s artistic output, their value in the market isn’t that they are better artists. Their value is their ability to connect directly with an audience and convince them to buy products. They don’t have to be Irving Penn. They just need to be more personable than the pitchmen on the Home Shopping Network. And, if that sounds like I’m putting down influencers, that isn’t my intention. Many influencers will make more money in a year than some photographers will make in two. It is a real option for a career track and a reasonable choice for those who decide to go that route (although even that may be affected by our next point).
What that does mean for photographers, however, is that the advertising budgets that were already being split up to deal with additional content needs are being further subdivided to make room for influencer spending. So the pot that was already small, is getting smaller.
I know, I know, I know. “Can’t we go five minutes without discussing artificial intelligence?” Well, sadly, no. I’ve written a lot about my thoughts on AI. And, the way things are unfolding, I’ll be writing a lot about it in the future. But rather than harp on a debate about whether AI is art or the theft of intellectual property rights, let’s look at it today in terms of the business drivers and likely effects on professional photographers.
In the last section, I spoke about how shrinking marketing budgets and increased demands for content are squeezing professional photographers from both ends. Now, imagine, a new product comes along that can provide customers endless content on-demand for zero dollars and absolutely no obligation to pay for things like licensing or a model’s image rights? Do you think clients might take note of this?
AI is still not perfect. But, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll likely know that new AI platforms and tech developments are now occurring on a daily basis rather than an annual one. In an effort to be ahead of the curve, I started teaching myself AI prompting a couple months ago. And while there are still some limitations, just the number of developments that have happened in those couple of months has led me to the realization that whatever aesthetic shortcomings still remain are likely to be fixed within a matter of months rather than a matter of years. Just think about the images possible in Midjourney version 4 versus Midjourney version 5. Now, try to think forward to what will be possible with Midjourney 10, for example.
Like the video question, photographers have a choice as to whether or not they will engage with the technology. You don’t have to use AI. It’s perfectly reasonable to not want to spend any more time than is absolutely necessary sitting behind a computer typing in prompts. But, as I heard said by one of the tech CEOs in a recent interview, whether or not you choose to engage with AI, it is going to engage with you.
This goes beyond simple photography. We are entering a world where we can no longer believe anything we see with our own eyes. We can no longer believe what we hear with our own ears. Recently, there was a news story about a poor mother who was victimized by scammers who cloned her son’s voice with AI. They called the mother, impersonating the son, said they were in desperate trouble and begged for money to get help. The mother, naturally, emptied her bank account to help her son, only to later realize that it wasn’t her son calling at all, but a thief who had cloned her son’s voice. That woman could be forgiven for not being completely up to date on the AI revolution. But, whether she was paying attention or not, AI has the ability to affect her life in powerful ways and can’t be ignored.
So too for photographers. The reason we can’t stop talking about it is because burying our heads in the sand won’t make it go away. Not because of the aesthetic quality of AI. But rather because of the business proposition it offers our clients. I have a lot of issues with AI. Mostly due to the widespread theft of intellectual property necessary to feed its models in the first place and the lack of compensation for the artists whose work has been used to train the robot. This problem is made worse by current copyright law not nearly up to date or designed to deal with these issues. This means that it is currently impossible to copyright your AI creations. And it is very difficult, unless you have the deep pockets of something like Getty Images, to successfully sue AI companies for infringement. So, we are in something of the Wild Wild West with new AI adopters not necessarily understanding intellectual property rights, AI companies not caring about intellectual property rights, and the court system providing little cover for existing artists.
With all that said, I’ve learned three things in my exploration of the technology so far. It’s fast. It’s relatively free. And it’s fun. All of which means that its adoption into larger society will be brisk. This also means its adoption by our clients will be brisk. Perhaps not as brisk as it could be due to the unsettled law. Clients, generally speaking, need to know they have exclusive legal rights to their campaign artwork, so the current inability to copyright AI images is actually protecting photographers at the moment. At least in that one very specific way. But that, like Midjourney’s trouble with hands, will eventually get sorted out.
Already, a major beer company has released a new campaign made entirely with AI. They even used ChatGPT to develop the product itself. Then created the product design and campaign art in Midjourney. ChatGPT to write the copy. And, even crazier, used ChatGPT to design the marketing plan. So, think about that for a moment. Not only did that cut a photographer out of a job, it also cut out the production company, the photo assistants, stylists, etc. And they even cut out their own marketing and product development departments as well. While this approach wouldn’t work for all products, it suggests a direction where a large number of existing jobs will simply be replaced by technology.
Again, I’d love not to have to talk about it. And I don’t think photographers need to immediately close shop and throw in the towel. A world where photography is obsolete is a far way away if it were to ever come at all. More likely, we are talking about a shift of the landscape rather than the obliteration of an art form. The world’s rotation is slow. And the change won’t happen overnight. But, it’s coming. And while we can choose not to engage with it. It will, nonetheless, be engaging with us. So it behooves us to figure out how to make it work for us rather than in place of us should we wish to remain in business over the long term.
Okay, so I’ve just laid out three major challenges that threaten the long-term survival of the photography industry. Or, some might say, I’ve laid out three potential opportunities. Like getting the best shot, sometimes it’s all a matter of perspective. These changes, and many more, have led to a photography landscape vastly different than the one I entered when I began my career. Heck, it’s even vastly different from the market three years ago. And surely the market will continue to change with or without my encouragement. So, what tools do we have as photographers to ensure our survival in the market?
Luckily enough, you likely already have these tools, as they are the same ones that were required to establish yourself in the marketplace to begin with. Even while working in AI, the most astonishing thing to me is how consistent my AI work is with my traditional work. Without consciously doing so, the body of AI work I’ve created feels very much at home with my photography portfolio or my director’s reel. What that suggests to me is that, regardless of technology, an artist’s unique voice can shine through in their work. As is the old adage, it’s not the paintbrush, it’s the hand wielding it. This remains true regardless of technological advancements.
Also remaining true is that your clients aren’t hiring you because you’re a nice person. They are hiring you because you can add value to their project. You offer something that they can’t do on their own. You have spent years or decades developing both your personal aesthetic and your technical skill set. That’s why they are paying you. So, as technology changes and the tools necessary to do the job change, you have no choice but to continue to develop your skill set. If you want to continue to get paid, you have to continue to provide value. If you want to get paid more, you have to provide more value. It’s as simple as that.
The last thing you have going for you is your humanity. AI systems may do a reasonable facsimile of humanity, but they are only machines. By definition, they are learning based on what they are fed. S,o their skill set literally can’t exist without ours. And while it is frightening to know how easy it is for a computer to replicate our skills set and perhaps even improve upon it, coming up with original thoughts and innovative ways to think is the exclusive province of human beings. I heard a robotics professor put it this way recently, and it rang true. Computers are inevitably going to be more efficient than human beings at most tasks. They are machines, after all. But, what robots can’t do is the first ten percent. In other words, they can impersonate the idea. But they can’t come up with the idea. That is where you and your artistry come into play.
It’s a wild world we currently live in. And it’s only going to get crazier. Time to step up to the plate and show the world what we are made of.