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Photographers Devaluing their Own Photography

Episode 38 of Allen Rockwell's podcast covers a topic I've thought about off and on for a few months: photographers "devaluing" their own work by giving away photography to local newspapers, websites, friends, stock photo sites, etc. It's a bone of contention for professional photographers, and one I've given some serious thought to since becoming a bit more serious about photography earlier this year.

Yet nothing I've read on the subject has convinced me that pro photographers have a legitimate beef. Pros argue that amateur photographers are putting them out of work and simultaneously disrespecting themselves by not getting the money they could get from some of their images. Pros point to sites like iStockPhoto - where images of good or great quality can be had for a dollar or so - and pronounce them abominations that are ruining their careers.

Frankly, I think it's silly of pro photographers to assume that the amateur has any responsibility whatsoever to care for the pro's livelihood. If an amateur takes a great photo, has it published for free or very little, and is happy to have done so, good for him.

Sports Illustrated will never do away with their team of professional photographers to shoot the Super Bowl. National Geographic will not have a monthly contest to decide which guy with a Canon Digital Rebel will get to go to Africa to shoot the elephants. Large papers or syndicates (like AP, Reuters, and Getty) aren't going to disappear because there's still a need for reliability. Newspapers can't call up a rotating list of amateurs when they want an event covered. The last time I checked, there were still needs for fashion photographers, advertising photographers, event photographers, wedding photographers, and more. You can't hire an amateur to do these kinds of things.

Back in the old days, SLRs were a bit tougher to operate. The odds of an amateur both taking a publish-worthy photo and having the means to quickly provide the photo to an audience (be it their local newspaper or a stock photo website) were between slim and none. The digital SLR (and even point-and-shoot digital cameras) changed all that. Pros need to adjust.

So what if some one-off images are being given away by amateurs? There are plenty of other ways to earn a living as a photographer. Take just about any task in the world and you'll find someone making their living performing that task. You can give yourself a manicure at home, but just about every town has a nail salon. You can paint your own house or hire people to do it for you. You can fix your own car or take it to a repair shop. You can get your college buddy to photograph your wedding or hire someone who's been doing it professionally for 30 years.

Professionals differentiate themselves from amateurs or the "do-it-yourself" approach in a variety of ways. Reliability, quality, the general experience, artistic touches, and more can all be used as differentiating factors. I think it's high time professional photographers realize this and stop putting down the amateur photographer who is excited to see his picture in his hometown paper.

Some points of reference:

7 Responses to "Photographers Devaluing their Own Photography"

  1. I think if anything, it should just raise the bar for "pro" photographers. I know a lot of great photographers who have actually gotten exposure from using tools like Flickr and the like...

    I guess it all depends on whether you choose to adapt and use technology to your advantage, or fight it and let it run you over.

    In closing, viva Sebastiao Salgado - a truly amazing photographer... I don't think this "new" tech phenomenon will hurt him one bit.

  2. I agree. This argument being made by professional photographers is really their unwillingness to change with the times. The Internet has made it uncomfortable for a lot of different professions because of the ease of comparison shopping, wealth of knowledge, and so on. New digital cameras have also made it reasonable for an amateur to pick up a camera and experiment without the worry of spending hundreds of dollars on developing film.

    Besides their unwillingness, there also seems to be a 'want' of self-imposed protectionism--to the benefit of the 'pros'. I would argue that a lot of professionals out there aren't that great to begin with (our wedding photographer offered mediocre results and for a price resembling highway robbery).

    However, all of that being said, there are some photographers who really stand-out which warrants their services for things like weddings, anniversaries, family portraits, etc. A friend of mine who is a photographer in Erie has absolutely outstanding work (Aleksander Photography) where you can see in his photos what makes him a "professional." You could probably argue there is a glut of professionals which is probably part of the problem as well.

  3. I remember this same argument being bandied about when the personal computer really took off and "desktop publishing" was new. Every secretary (or secretary's boss) thought that they were graphic designers. True, some tasks that used to be the purview of typesetters and designers became easier, but most tasks that need to be done by graphic professionals are still done by them. If anything, people can tell the difference between bush-league and pro work more easily now.

    As a graphic/web designer I welcome competition. If you want to get the tools and work at it, it can only make the business better. I think the same applies for photography.

  4. The bigger issue, IMHO, is that places that used to pay for images (from magazines to random things, like telephone book covers) have stopped in many cases now. People who's images aren't bad (but not as good as a professional shot) will send images in for free, just happy to see their image published, and different places will choose to go with the free images rather than continuing to pay for slightly better ones. If more people are shooting, great, good for them. But I think if people are going to use their images in any non-personal way, they should get paid, even if it's just $25. It's not about supporting a pro's lifestyle, it's about doing work and being appropriately compensated for it. I'm sure some people will say that seeing your work in print is worth it, but given how much good equipment costs, a few bucks is a nice perk too 🙂

    The other bit is that so many things have become overshot now that even if you have an amazing image, good luck getting it sold or published. 10 years ago, almost no one knew about the slot canyons in AZ. Last fall when I went there, everwhere you walked there was some idiot with a $20 tripod yelling that you got in his shot.

  5. [quote comment="42706"]But I think if people are going to use their images in any non-personal way, they should get paid, even if it's just $25. It's not about supporting a pro's lifestyle, it's about doing work and being appropriately compensated for it.[/quote]

    The very word "amateur" comes from the word "love." Again, if someone is happy just to see their work published, who are you (or me, or anyone) to tell them they should not have been happy?

    I don't view golf as "work." By definition, it's not because I'm not paid for it. It's a hobby.

  6. [...] good friend Brian has known me and my work since junior high. He sent me a link to a blog entry about the current Professional Photography market, the trends, and the influx of amateurs with [...]

  7. Well I see no pros here. Well here I am. You can't compare golf as a hobby to amateur photographers, who take on weddings by the way. Yes they do go for the money and nothing but. I know of approx 5 in this town. They advertise as "professional photographer" even though there is absolutely nothing professional about their photography. They shoot weddings on automatic settings, not even knowing about iso, depth of field and manual exposure readings. Well their photos are real crap, but they're cheap so they get customers. Their customers even like their photos (for a short while).
    No you can't compare it to doing golf as a hobby, when you actually take the big contracts, lying about your experience in the field. Maybe you can compare it to ticket scalping, or as mike holmes would say about the phony construction companies, these guys should not be in this business.