Professional Photography Is Dead. Long Live Professional Photography!

This is Dr. Dhiraj Kacker’s second guest blog post here. Read his first post on album manufacturing too. He is the CEO and co-founder of Canvera, an online digital photography company based in Bangalore, India. Dhiraj can be found online on Twitter, his company blog or his personal blog.

This post has been on my mind for a long time as I think a lot about the changing role of pro-photographers in the digital age. But in some ways I got beaten to the punch by a much more spunkier take on the issue by Allen Murabayash, CEO of Photoshelter, on his blog post “Rant: I Love Photography”. Please go read it. My post here will be much more sedate and boring! With that warning, let’s dive into it.

I have much more insight into the market where pros get hired for personal or corporate events (such as weddings, portraits, bar/bat mitzvahs, etc) so I will focus on that and not on commercial, editorial and stock photography which has its own set of dynamics in the digital world.

What do we all hear and say everyday: DSLRs are getting cheap, everyone has a camera, it’s getting tougher to earn a living being a pro! A lot of it is true. Digital Photography combined with the internet and cheaper and cheaper capture devices have made it simpler for all and sundry to take and share images like never before. Unshackled from the physical limitations of film and the cost of taking each picture everyone today can pretend to have some proficiency in photography. There are weekend wedding photographers who are taking business away from full time pros just based on price. There are pro-sumers who are building online galleries, showcasing their work and in fact selling their work.

But here’s the funny thing:

– For the first time in the history of pro-photography we have celebrity wedding photographers! Celebrity status was limited to fashion and editorial photographers, never to wedding photographers. How did this happen?

– Family portraits on the wall look like model shoots today, not just people saying cheese into a camera and accepting whatever came out. Perfect lighting, perfect smile are must!

– Corporate mug shots make management look like celebrities and anything lower quality doesn’t speak well of the company

– I am hearing more and more that right after a wedding date is fixed the first or second service provider that gets booked is the photographer; this used to be an afterthought

– Senior shoots are blurring the line between model portfolios and what was considered just pictures of the teenage years

– Parents want their kids’ sports pictures to look like shots from pro sports

– Never before have engagements & boudoir shoots been taking place in such large numbers. The smart photographers have also created the “trash the dress shoot” as well!

I don’t believe any of this was common a decade ago.

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So what’s really going on? Let me talk a little from my personal experience. I had a run of the mill point and shoot film camera in the 90s and in 2000 bought my first 3MP digital camera – an Olympus 3000 for a $1000 (yes, a thousand bucks for a 3MP P&S camera). I remember the excitement of getting pictures back in the film world and just being able to relive those memories was amazing. At the time the pictures looked great but today, they look mediocre (and I am being generous). Too much sharpening, probably done by the minilab and too much contrast because of the film I bought. And of course I had no eye for composition or lighting. Initially I really liked my P&S digital camera – it was quite simply the excitement of digital. But my appreciation of photography kept going up and at some point that quality was just not good enough.

After my first kid was born, I finally invested in an SLR and for a few years managed with the default lens. And then I got fancier with the lens. It is safe to say that today with two young kids I shoot a lot of pictures, but here’s the kicker: unlike in the film world where I did not know any better, I can immediately tell how many decent shots I got. It takes me possibly 100 shots to get one really good one! I don’t have an eye for light or composition, and I rely on sheer volume to get lucky. So much so that on a recent birthday party I did the unthinkable: I called up a pro friend of mine to hire him to take pictures. By playing around a lot I have come to realize just how difficult it is to consistently take good shots. It is kind of like playing sports and developing a greater appreciation for the professional who plays the same sport. Isn’t it true that the omnipresence of little leagues and minors grows the business for the majors?

Here is what is happening: never before have average consumers been exposed to this much high quality imagery – web, mobile, magazines, hoardings, blogs – you name it. The quality of images on Pinterest or Tumblr is just mind blowing. Sub-consciously consumers have developed a greater appreciation for good images. Everything I’ve listed above is happening because of this trend. I believe that today consumers (like me) are experimenting a lot more with photography trying to reproduce the quality they observe. And like me they are coming to appreciate how difficult the art and craft of photography is. So when it comes to important life events (operative words being “important life events”), my prediction is that over the next decade pros will be hired in record numbers. Consumers will be spending in record amounts.

None of this means that things have not changed and pros can simply fall back to what they did in the 90s (which was essentially to build a physical portfolio and get referral business). Like a pro-sportsperson, they have to be savvy business people. I am writing on a photographer’s blog so I know that this audience is aware that from building a brand, to marketing to sales and operations, a pro has to do a lot more; a pro’s life has become lot more complicated. But boy, I don’t think there has ever been a greater appreciation for the art and craft of photography as it is today and I think we are at the start of a golden age of professional photography fueled by the omnipresence of images in our lives.

So, what do YOU think? Pen your thoughts below!

  • A Krishnam Raju

    Great thoughts. I like your list of ‘funny thing’

  • Dhiraj Kacker

    Thanks! I should have added baby/maternity as an item on that list  – but the ones there make the point sufficiently. 

  • PlumeriaAlbumDesign

    I agree. Sure, the overall pool of professional (more or less) photographers has gotten much bigger, but the quality of images is going up also. Looking back at images from my childhood and my parent’s younger years, the quality is humorous it’s so bad. I wish I did have some professional shots of me when I was younger, or my parents were younger, that weren’t out of focus or blurry or just boring stand-and-smile portraits. And even though I have a nice camera and can get lucky with some nice shots, you hit the nail on the head, that I’m no where near as good as the real pros. So I’ll still hire a pro to come and take photos of my dog, and cats, and us, and our Friday night car, and a day in our life. Because I can’t make them good enough on my own, and I want to be in them, dang it! I’m glad it’s easier to find a photographer that fits our needs, rather than being stuck with one or two options, because they’re the only ones within a reasonable distance.

    Thanks for bringing an optimistic perspective to an often gloomy subject!

  • willwohler

    Great thoughts. Like you said the important events in our lives will be what we want to remember for years after and why not have amazing pictures show for it. The Internet is a huge influence on consumers and puts the work of great photographers out in the open. This has raised the bar for photographers and consumers in terms of quality of the images. You either need to step it up or get lost in the back of the pack of photographers, and passed over by the studied consumer.

  • Dhiraj Kacker

    It feels gloomy because we are going through a massive disruption and all of us in the industry are grappling to find strong footholds. But this was a trend that Peeyush (my co-founder) and I felt so strongly about that we started a company on this thesis! 
    It will settle down, the grey skies will clear out; it will be a very different world than what photography has ever seen before; and pros are going to play a much bigger role in it compared to the past. That I am sure about.

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