Don’t Panic: Thoughts on the NYT Article about the Future of Commercial Photography

by Heather on April 6, 2010

Wow, reaction to the recent New York Times article continues to trickle in. At least four different people sent me the link (this is great guys- keep it up, if you think I might be interested, I likely am. That’s exactly what this blog needs- stringers).

And as I combed Twitter to see how the article had been framed in retweeting, I came across these two statements which were made almost simultaneously and make a lovely and fitting juxtaposition:

• Democratization of technology & distribution channels eliminates institutionally-contingent professions

• I have been / will continue to be part of this problem

My two cents? I think this NYT piece fits well with APE’s recent article about the mail-in product shooter. I’m convinced a lot of us have been deluding ourselves for a long time that what we do has any real artistic value or meaningful import for the clients.

Think back on the jobs you did last year. How many of them utilized your true vision? How many jobs asked you to creatively interpret an idea instead of just executing a layout?

When I review the jobs I’ve work on over the last few years, I can certainly think of several which needed particular vision and style. And for one job in particular, a very involved treatment was required. In that case, the work was being commissioned at the highest level- it was not a one-off but instead would contain the entire brand’s look and feel. Consequently, the photographer did well on this assignment- the images had “brand value” and not just “execution value”. (Sadly, the client managed to slowly but methodically strip away everything that made this photography worth the money).

But I can also think of some jobs in the last couple of years which used photography as an incidental part of the ad. For the photographers it was just executional, it was not particular, no style was employed, it was not special. There was nothing creative about it. And yet, arguably, we still pay the same type of fee and usage rates for this type of photography- is this sustainable? I think it might be delusional to think that in these cases, your creative effort has value that you will be able to retain against the tide of easy access to high resolution cameras and distribution methods.

Another ultimate example of the coming apocalypse (scary for Art Buyers too on this one) is the fact that Leo Burnett Toronto won gold at Cannes in the outdoor category (and it became the most awarded outdoor campaign ever) for a campaign that relied on user-generated photography. And the funny thing (laughing to keep from crying) is that the whole idea behind the campaign is that James Ready couldn’t afford to advertise AND keep their beer prices so low so they crowd-sourced their imagery. That’s right, in the end the images on their billboards didn’t cost them any money at all.

But you know what, it worked- it’s a super smart campaign and people loved it. What’s that… oh, it’s putting poor photographers out of business…? James Ready doesn’t care and if you think they should, you’re in the wrong business. As Leo Toronto CEO and super cool guy David Moore said of the campaign: I’m particularly proud of the simplicity of the idea—no high tech, no special effects, just pure creativity in one of the world’s oldest mediums.

Now we’re starting to talk about the future of marketing here. I’ve noticed that when you read blogs about the future of advertising, they are all about innovation and insight. Why we don’t talk this way about photography?

Bud Caddell has a great article on his blog What Consumes Me called Who Says the Future Needs an Advertising Agency in which he writes: I think Joseph Jaffe probably isn’t too far off – it’s easy to see agencies splinter between the idea-havers and the technicians. And from the comments to that article:

I think the problem can be solved rather easily:

Change your mission statement.

The mission statement of the GM was “We build cars.”
That’s not a mission statement that would have allowed for the innovation that is needed now. Their mission statement should have been “We bring people from A to B.”

Remington’s mission statement was “We build typewriters.” Unsurprisingly they didn’t invent the personal computer.

It seems to me the mission statement of a lot of advertising agencies is “We create advertising.” Because that’s what they are staffed to do, because that brings in the awards, or whatever else perverse reason.

Their mission should be “We solve problems.”

And, as hokey as this might sound- your mission statement should have the same flavour. Are you brand-building with your work and your innovation or are you just another technician in a crowded field?

There is no way to compete against stock in the jobs for which stock is appropriate so I think you should mostly stop trying (and definitely stop bitching about it). Instead, make sure you’ve got a look and feel that the brand needs; that you are an innovator, offering solutions. And take heart- as per Jaffe’s article referenced above, these are the same demands that clients are making of the ad agencies.

There will always be some demand for commissioned, generic, safe imagery but this is a field that is enormously oversaturated. On the other hand, there is tremendous opportunity to find new ways of working right now. So don’t panic, just figure it out.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles Tyler April 7, 2010 at 9:18 am

I think the message of the article is spot-on; photographers need to come to terms with the new trends in the industry driven by technological advances.

I do wonder if there isn’t a distinction to be made, at least within advertising photography, because shoots that *necessarily* involve the combination of very specific products and people and shoots that do not. For example, advertisements for banks, for grocery stores, etc., often do not necessarily involve people being shot with very specific products. One can see quite easily how stock professional photography and amateur photography form Flickr could supplant commissioned shoots in these cases. However, in the case of advertisements that necessarily involve the combination of the latest products and people — for example, fashion shoots that display the latest jacket or car shoots that feature the latest model — it is hard to imagine stock photography having as disruptive of an effect.

Does anyone else see the future of the industry breaking down along these lines?

Jeremy M. Lange April 7, 2010 at 9:32 am

The article makes a good point toward the end that the ability to come through with great images under any and all circumstances day in and day out has not changed. Some can and some cannot, as always. Especially in the photojournalism field, the issue of trust and professionalism will always be important as well. We all know images can lie, but those who have established themselves as a trust worthy source of quality news based images should be able to continue, especially in light of all the new, albeit low paying, opportunities for the dissemination of projects and photos.
Those in the more editorial/commercial field should also benefit from this as they can be trusted by the client to make the needed imagery under all circumstances. This is perhaps harder than the image making in and of itself. As many know, there are so many other things that go into a shoot other than the taking of the photo. I am all for open markets, but I think after the initial thrill of cheap images wears off, and the coming onslaught of mediocre takes that will occur from that, the true “professionals” whether new shooters or old, will rise to the top of this very fluid market.

Heather April 7, 2010 at 11:10 am

Charles, thanks for you comment and you’re right- there is a big distinction between the stockable work (generic lifestyle) and the work that will require special circumstances- product placement, real people (customers etc.), specific locales etc. As you point out, fashion is another good example of specific photographic needs.

However, not to induce more panic, but some people think that CGI will continue to eat into these markets as well.

Nevermind, there will always always be room for new ways of seeing but if you’re aiming your career at generic lifestyle, it’s going to be tricky- it’s do-able and I’ll try to do a post on that tonight, but it’s tricky.

Anthony April 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm

It’s not tricky. Who wants to be that photographer anyway? If I wanted to do that, I’d have become a dentist.

I tend to agree with those discussing this post on APE. Art buyers are not on our side, they are beholden to the ad agencies where it’s all about cutting the bottom line. It’s also why they employ sooo many junior art directors who get paid what baristas make. They crowd source from within. Don’t panic and don’t bother. I can’t see who this really effects except at the level of the discounting of photographers further, in general, to those that hire photographers. Use stock then and use amateurs. I’ll gladly take the reshoot when it ultimately fails.

Simon April 7, 2010 at 12:09 pm

“But I can also think of some jobs in the last couple of years which used photography as an incidental part of the ad. For the photographers it was just executional, it was not particular, no style was employed, it was not special. There was nothing creative about it. And yet, arguably, we still pay the same type of fee and usage rates for this type of photography- is this sustainable? I think it might be delusional to think that in these cases, your creative effort has value that you will be able to retain against the tide of easy access to high resolution cameras and distribution methods. ”

At the end of the day, the photog. is beholden to their client. In this case, the agency that hired them. If “executional” is how the direction was, then yes, the fees still stand up. Also, high resolution cameras are not what makes a photographer. It’s vision and technical expertise. You can have the best gear under the sun, but if you can’t use it properly it’s not worth squat. Even with the James Ready ads…just having a camera isn’t going to give you the technique to properly light the bottle so the beer glows that amber color. I think an analogy for what might be going on here is when someone says, “Modeling is so easy. You just have to stand there and look pretty.”. I’m sorry if I’m misinterpreting this.

matt haines April 7, 2010 at 1:40 pm

I think it’s wise that we remind ourselves our clients need to sell stuff. That’s their main, overriding mission as a business. To sell stuff, they need to convince people to part with their money. There are many, many ways to do that, and photography is only a small part of that. While we compete with other photographers, our real competition is *all* the myriad methods a client can use to get their message out. We compete with the graphic designer, the social media consultant, even the ad agency.

We need to change our thinking. Repeat after me: “I am not a photographer. I am someone who convinces people to buy things, using visual aids.” This is how we have to think, if we want to appeal to today’s client.

Chris Bohnhoff April 7, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Thanks, Heather, for adding your perspective. Especially the last sentence.

Crowdsourcing is solving multiple problems for advertisers these days: it makes them hip, it connects them to their audience, and it supplies them with cheap images. But crowdsourcing images clearly has its limits, and its place within the advertising landscape.

We as image creators just need to be on our sales game to remind clients of the problems we solve, as well as the problems unsolved by amateur images. We need to own our strengths – understand the strengths and weaknesses of our competitors.

Don Giannatti April 7, 2010 at 2:48 pm

I had to sit in a waiting area yesterday.

The only magazine there was a very recent copy of Glamour.

I began to flip through it and was simply floored. The photography ranged from awful to fairly impressive. I am talking page by page here, so ad and editorial mixed in.

Bottom line, awful won by a landslide. From hackish cutouts to auto shots that looked amateurish at best (sure that could have been the point of it and all, I get that) to detail shots that looked like EBay pix.

From beginning to end there is a total fail as creative, hi-end photography, but a total glut of the kind of stuff most photographers simply ‘mail in’. Is it the photographers fault? Well, I have been a shooter for nearly 40 years and 10 of that was spent as a CD at a mid-sized agency… no, it isn’t the photographers fault.

They are asked to do this kind of ‘just shoot it’ crap, and that is what they do… and most do it as best they can.

Photographers are constantly pushed to create something new and exciting and ‘attention-grabbing’ and, well… you know. Then the gig comes in and it’s a “can you get us a shot of this CEO and you will have 20 minutes, and oh, btw, don’t worry about the background, we are gonna just cut him out and…”

Sorry, but it gets a little tedious.

The war stories are legion, to the point where they aren’t even interesting anymore… they are becoming the status-quo. Maybe everyone is a little cost conscious, maybe the fear at agencies runs too deep to step up and step out, maybe it is simply that the ‘look’ of the 0′s is one of ‘meh’ and the trend may turn toward something different in a few years.

When I got home I read your article (kismet?) and the part where there is discussion of the lower end of photography costing the same as the higher end really made me laugh. Exactly what I was thinking sitting there looking at Glamour. “What would some of this crap really be worth…”

I wondered how I would work today if I were sitting in that big ol chair as CD (damn dotbomb killed us) and making decisions on photography for my clients. Would I be willing to pay top-dollar to a guy to make a shot of some machines that were gonna be cutout on photoshop in about 10 minutes, or would I look for a more… uh, accomodating photographer.

And this is coming from a long time photographer, staunch supporter of the industry and lover of great advertising.

This blog shows such amazing work from a wide, diverse set of photographers. The folks you show here week after week are so wonderfully creative, and incredibly talented/

None of that level of work was on display in the magazines I looked at for an hour or so at the haircut place. Not in advertisements or editoria.

(Why would I spend that long waiting for a haircut? Who the hell knows…)

Bruce DeBoer April 7, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Both Heather and Don are right dead on in my opinion – be happy or sad about it but don’t shoot the messenger. It’s not always the photographer’s fault but ultimately it’s the photographer’s responsibility to inspire art directors to push imagery beyond meh.

My advice to photographers, as if anyone cares, is to tap into individual creativity but also to expand their vision to include greater aspects of the profession like storytelling, or market strategy, or writing, etc. Your influence as a photographer is very limited and often you’ll find that other photographers will be hired based on a style you feel you own so FIND ANOTHER WAY TO ADD VALUE! You are more than a photographer right?

Bob April 7, 2010 at 7:48 pm

The reason a brand will spend big bucks on creative work is because they want me buying their crap instead of going to their competitor, going to the $.99 store, or not buying it at all.

The price for good art is usually the smallest figure. Compare that cost to the media buy (space), and the RISK of failing. Failing to create quality art (on time) and capturing market share with the advertising.

Why be pennywise and pound foolish? Of course that never stopped clients from making bad choices.

The real future of advertising is when the consumer matures. Realizes most of it is hype, and makes conscious intentional decisions on consumer goods and services.

c.d.embrey April 7, 2010 at 8:57 pm

There is new kind of photographer. He doesn’t read HMAb, APE, PHOTO BUSINESS NEWS & FORUM, or Burns Auto Parts. He reads Seth Godin and other entrepreneur/sales sites. He doesn’t sell art, he sells photos by the pound. To him, photography is a commodity. And if your style of photography can be commodified, he can, and will, eat your lunch.

Good story tellers like Terry Richardson and Steven Meisel won’t be affected, but many others will. So don’t be among the “many others.”

Bob April 7, 2010 at 10:40 pm


How many pounds of digi can I *buy* for *FREEEEEE!*? :D

c.d.embrey April 7, 2010 at 11:28 pm


I know a local entrepreneur who will pay you $.10 to to take away a pound of digi, BUT you have to Pay Full Price for a pair of Shoes, which he also sells, to get this Special Price. Such a deal. :D

Clark Patrick April 8, 2010 at 12:24 am

Hey Heather,

I think this is a great post. And the comments are great too. All this has been true for a couple years and not enough people were even aware of it or owning the fact that the market has changed so much it seems almost impossible for many shooters to make it at any level. But it has – and it is a whole new game (where in a lot of ways the old rules no longer apply).

I really liked what Matt Haines’ said – if someone is working as a professional commercial shooter they need to step back and realized how they fit into the broader advertising landscape…. and then come up with creative ways to use their photography business to fit into how things are moving forward. (for example, I guarantee Chase Jarvis now makes more money selling Iphone apps. than he does shooting ads)

It’s no longer about the camera… it’s only about you, what you want, what risks you’re willing to take, what ideas you have, if it’s worth being in a business that is shifting so fast it’s hard to find the revenue streams… etc. – everyone is asking themselves the same hard questions…. or should be if they want to make it through the next few years.

And I myself have been apart of the sky is falling crowd during 2009 – but there is a huge opportunity many shooters are failing to see now…

Photography has now officially entered the ‘idea’ phase. And the best most impactful ideas will carry a few people straight to the top and leave everyone else wondering why they didn’t think of them first.

What I mean by this is that we as shooters are no longer limited by our tools to create images… (have you seen CS5? It’s amazing what it can do… or how about anything CGI? – no camera required to create photo realistic images – wtf!!)

And more importantly we have NEVER been limited to thinking about our businesses as needing to follow a textbook model for making money – the best business ideas of the future will find their way to the top and the the shooters who are creating these new models now will survive.

Being in the business of photography requires 2 kinds of creativity – one in business and the other in image creation. And 2 great opportunities for ground breaking ideas to connect to major revenue and greater societal visual inspiration.

Think of it like this – most people recognize a really great idea once it already exists in the world – light bulbs = great idea. More of us need to start inventing the photo biz version of the light bulb or at least try. And most people also recognize a universally amazing, beautiful, and inspiring visual image….

Ok, so there are 80 bizillion people walking around with cameras, selling all their pixs for free, and more young guns are raising the bar for the old guard…. ok, so RAISE UP – the bar is set higher. Reach for it or look for a new profession.

I fully intend on being an industry game changer – with my ideas. I may fail. But, will have failed knowing I aimed for the top.

Davidikus April 8, 2010 at 6:29 am

Dear Heather (this starts like a letter to an agony aunt, but will hopefully get better),

I replied to your comment out of context on “A Photo Editor”. My apologies: I agree with you wholeheartedly. There are two markets in photography. One is for pictures which are banal but technically accomplished (I always think all those photographers as following The Strobist avidly). These are ready-to-wear photographs, usually bought from stock agencies. Nothing is wrong with this, but since technology has democratised the technical aspects of photography, this is becoming a low value-added business.
The second market is for haute-couture photography: made for purpose, and creative. I don’t mean any harm, but I am not certain the art buyer is the best interlocutor in that case; relationships with photo editors, magazine editors, art directors, are often more important as they can feed into the creative process more than most art buyers can.

Last but not least, I am sceptical about the idea that a photographer has “a true vision”. Firstly, a photographer needs an eye but many visions (at least on the haute-couture market, not on the ready-to-wear, one-size-fits-all market).
Secondly, commercial work is not the best outlet for “a true vision”. Personal projects, blogs, books, websites, portfolios are better outlets. (That is why, for example I maintain a blog on top of my portfolio website

Heather April 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

Awesome additions to this thread here in the comments- thanks guys, you’ve rounded out my post really well with insightful additions. Although Davidikus, as you can imagine, I do disagree with your comment over at APE that Art Buyers don’t help in the creative process. You’ve toned it down here and I think what you’ve written above is a little more accurate. And I do like your point about having many visions- I think that’s a good clarificaiton.

The best Art Buyers (on those appropriate, brand building jobs) do help facilitate the creative process and can be your best “guy-on-the-inside” to help you protect your creative integrity. But Art Buying is changing (and in some cases becoming outmoded too) along with commercial photography. In the short term I think there will be an increasing demand for creative (be it photography, video, flash, etc) sourcing and if I had my druthers we’d be situated in the strategy department of an agency and not in the print or even the art department. But that’s for another post.

Bob April 8, 2010 at 12:45 pm

@ Clark Patrick

Clark, where ya been?
Photography has been about ideas for decades. Mostly the rubes have looked at photography as about the gear. A term that has become cliche’ over the last dozen+ years in commercial photography is “vision”. This isn’t about eyes (gear), it’s about ideas! In the late 90′s a person could go to an APA meeting and listen to a speaker talk about VISION! Long before this realization went mainstream it was being practiced on the street, and in studios. Then it became adopted in the commercial & editorial sectors.

So while this may seem like an epiphany to the newb digerati, it is old hat. Even ADs have been using portfolios, sourcebooks, etc., for idea generation (stealing) for decades. Now, this new “officially about the idea” means it will be copied by hacks (through the *democratized distribution* of digital) in a heartbeat.

“the best business ideas of the future will find their way to the top and the the shooters who are creating these new models now will survive”

The best ideas MAY find their way to the top. Those “shooters” MAY survive. (Why would you want to just “survive”? You can do that doing almost anything.) Of course those with brilliant ideas that DON’T make it will not be seen or included in the discussion. This may provide a distorted picture about the industry, marketplace, and how success is really achieved (or not).

Very little has changed in the last 20 years. The things that have changed are the models of production, consumption, and supply. The change in technology have allowed these changes in behavior. The paradigms of creativity, not much. Even when PS allowed pigs to fly in the 90′s the collective conscience went 180º to reality based imagery requiring little to no PS. In fact some of the best still use film for this (and other) style(s).

@c.d.embrey :

Getty will give ‘em to me for $.09/lb- quantity discount :)
I get get the shoes 2-fer-1 over at WallyWorld, and sell the second pair on Craigslist to recoup the costs “;P

Jon April 8, 2010 at 9:59 pm

Back to the James Ready ads.. will any of the billboard shots featured remain memorable images ? (Maybe for a short time, if seen in their true form.. not possible for me in Aust.) But then this is irrelevant, when the campaign has been wildly successful. These images do no more than conjure up ideas for photographers who could have shot way more interesting (and way more memorable) executions. It would have probably been a better end result for photographers to be asked come up with the images, and have the agency to pay for their services using the beer.. so the reality is it seems more an ‘economic’ decision than a creative one.. but the ‘creative’ one has had the last laugh being an ‘award’ winner.

Clark Patrick April 9, 2010 at 12:24 am

@ bob

Where’s the link to your work?

“The paradigms of creativity, not much.” Are you kidding. I’m def. of the younger generation of shooters and there is mostly certainly imagery being created now that is in some ways much more advanced than work from 20 years ago… why would anyone keep shooting if they believed it wasn’t possible to create work that hasn’t been seen before?

The “ideas” I’m talking about are actually new. And are ways to make money in an industry in a new way that has never been possible before.

I’m not talking about the same kind of “vision” you are. That vision was always meant to be applied to imagery… I’m talking about a kind of “vision” beyond the image.

And you’re right on one thing – very little has changed over the last 20 years which is why people have been able to build businesses copying each other – and not being forced to have a total shift in thinking around every aspect of the commercial photo world.

But, it really is a whole new game now…. the old rules are falling away.

And I hate to break it to you, but for decades many professional level shooters have made good livings with no “vision”. I have in the past assisted many many commercial shooters who have zero creativity and were following a formula in an industry that had one. They were tools in a process – they were surviving as tradesmen and it was about the gear and the studio. Much more so than now.

And when I say that photography has entered the ‘idea’ phase – I mean only people with new ideas will survive the dramatic shift that is happening right now. New never seen before images and business models will come out of the issues facing the whole industry.

It’s almost like you don’t understand the gravity of problems on multiple levels that are facing this business.

I’m based in Minneapolis – theoretical the 4th largest commercial photo market in the US (the largest marketplace in the world). There is somewhere around 150 commercial shooters/studios based here – over the last 2 years – these shooters collectively have faced the most dramatic decline in business that the industry has seen in the last 50 years! And it’s not just the economy – just like the NYT article points out (some of these issues). Extremely creative and highly paid commercial shooters are going out of business. Survival is actually a “success” now. Thriving in the future is going to look differently than it does now…

Think of it like this – what happened to the portrait painter when photography spread in society? – they all essentially went out of business. What happened in painting? – it went crazy – cubism, expressionism, abstract painting, etc. (think about that – there was no abstract painting before photography – you know why? Painting was defined by making things look real – and photography killed that…)

Now big chunks of photography are no longer even about photography – it’s back to painting. The computer is a way more important tool now in image creation than the camera is – and that means something for the future of the industry.

Bob April 9, 2010 at 1:52 am


I don’t see the “James Ready ads” as being about the art at all. The visuals are of lesser importance – just the cherry on top. I have no doubt James Ready could afford visual artists. This was just the shtick (copy) they put out. The goal with these ads is to connect with the public on a more personal level. It is social networking as advertising. James Ready’s creatives wanted the consumer to feel they have involvement/interaction with the product/brand. An attempt to break down the barrier between brand and consumer. Make the brand part of the community, a cultural interaction.

Here’s another thought on visual communication. Those selective few visual artists that are able to advance may develop skills which circumvent the use of ad agencies (CDs/Ads). Visual artist as primary creative director working directly with clients, and possibly independent media buyers, graphic designers, and post ad producers.
Essentially this means the advertising agencies current business models may be grooming the creation of
direct competition through the use of independent (visual) *agents*.

Ch April 12, 2010 at 7:02 pm

we can’t discount the fact that clients hire professional photographers for their experience, business acumen, trust, etc, etc, and so it many times doesn’t matter that “anyone can do it” or that it isn’t that difficult of a photo as the client is buying security that the image can and will be done in a professional manner…in other words its still not the tool its who is behind the tool…so yes the difficulty of the image should be taken into consideration when estimating and/or billing but I have no problem charging more for an image that I know “uncle bob with the latest dslr can create” since I have a whole array of photo and business tools that make me worth the extra money…add up the hard drives and back-up hard drives, photo gear, back up photo gear, monitors, computers, etc, etc, and you quickly realize you are worth more than the “easily executable image”. I recently quoted a shoot in which the guy wanted a “simple dynamic portrait”, quick and dirty photo-j style as he called it…when I started talking about the creative fee + usage fee, he flipped, but then when I explained why this is and the difference between me and “uncle bob” and as well the guy whom he is used to hiring whom is a staff photojournalist undercutting the comp by “freelancing on the weekends” he totally got it and understood why…I can’t say I got the job but the very next day I got a call for basically the same thing for a little more money from someone else, so I say stick to your guns, make a real assessment of what it takes to stay in business and charge accordingly…after all it only takes one camera or one hard drive to crash on the client that hires Uncle Bob and he/she will wish he had called a professional…

as for the photojournalist/newspaper photographer that is under cutting by freelancing on the weekends (while getting a weekly paycheck) and has no idea what an image is worth well there are a ton of them getting laid off and realizing they have been shooting themselves in the foot while they climb the steep learning curve of trying to survive as solely freelance.


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