Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Race To The Bottom?

There have been a couple of phone calls recently that have 1) left me scratching my increasingly balding pate in wonder & 2) left me considering whether or not to begin arranging proper funeral services for the once great profession of photography. 

A couple of weeks ago, I received a call from a friend & art director at a major H'lulu ad agency. This AD called to ask me if I had ever heard or knew anything about a certain BRAND-X digital capture back. I hadn't and as I am a curious sort anyway, asked in return why she was asking me. The reply came back that PHOTOGRAPHER X (from the west coast) was touting this brand of digital capture back as state of the art and just the thing my friend the AD needed in order to capture images of jewelry for a prominent chain of island jewelers... a client my friend has been entrusted over the years to produce high-end catalogs for (and she does a damn fine job of it too). It seems that PHOTOGRAPHER X had all the cool, techie schizzle needed to win this account and if that wasn't enough, was planning to do it for $30-$35 per shot. 

There was a time when I worked on this account... pre-digital... shooting large format, 4x5 studio cameras on sheets of transparency film. Even back then, maybe eight to ten years ago, I was also working "by the shot" but at a rate more than twice the fee X is currently pitching. Yes, even though several hundred shots were required, the project tied up my studio & in-house lab for nearly a month. Days were spent polishing pendants, arranging chains and small groupings, meticulously filling in reflective surfaces, carefully testing each exposure on polaroid. I would have done it again had it not been for the client insisting that the AD shop around for a cheaper rate the next time the catalog was slated for production. Having done it once already, I was fully aware of the time required, the amount of work involved and there was no way I was going to tie up another month of studio time for less money. 

In the end, it wasn't necessary for me to lower my rate... the job went elsewhere. There seemed to be no shortage of photographers out there willing to do the job for half the money and the client got what they wanted and the price they demanded. Welcome to the new economy.

Yesterday, I get a call from a long time, well established H'lulu architectural photographer. Though we had never met previously I had both seen and admired his work over the years. His call came to inquire whether or not I was interested in working with a client from the mainland, advertising and booking Hawaii vacation rentals. This photographer was going to work for the client on projects on Oahu. The client needed another photographer on each neighbor island to shoot properties on those islands. The job, as it was described, involved going to multiple Maui vacation rental properties and photographing them inside & out... quickly and efficiently, no lighting required. The pay was $40 per property. Was I interested?

Which brings me to the point of today's entry. Those of you that follow my rantings here know well that I have been consistently lamenting the demise of the photographic industry since first taking up this chore of blogging. There was a time when there existed a demand for the services of highly skilled, creative, photographers. In exchange for our skills and talents, most of us were rewarded with the ability earn a comfortable lifestyle, afford new equipment, health-care, maybe an annual vacation...  If current industry trends continue to head in the direction we've seen ever since the advent of digital capture, I fear it won't be long before those days will be just a distant memory.

I see it here on this island more & more amongst my colleagues. Check the Creative Services Offered section of Craigslist in any city or town and you will find so-called professionals offering their services for about the cost of a Happy Meal. There's a group of photogs here, crowding and jostling amongst themselves at the foot of any performance stage, just dying to shoot bands established or not for the privilege of posting their photos on their Facebook News Feeds and blogs. One would like to hope that these photogs are at least hoping that a band or two will throw work their way at some point when promotional materials are needed, but from my experience, that's just not happening. 

Coincidently, Rob Haggart, author/editor of the ever-so-popular A Photo Editor blog summed things up rather nicely in today's entry titled: Welcome To The Demand Economy. Rob argues, and most of us would have to agree, that photography has now reached a point of oversupply: 

"If your job is simply delivering a photograph then all you are doing is adding to the oversupply. You don’t have to look further than the discussion boards on Sports Shooter where it was revealed in a deal for Gannett to buy US Presswire that photographers were happily shooting games for $100 (or on spec). How’s that for oversupply."

But fear not... Rob goes on to state that there always has been and will continue to be a demand for those with creative problem solving skills, with the flexibility to adapt to new ways of finding clients and most importantly, meeting the needs of those clients in increasingly creative ways. Find a demand... then strive to fill it.

Our jobs have evolved over the years. When I first got started, you had to be a bit of a mad scientist/chemist/print maker. That quickly evolved, with the rise of digital technology, to becoming a tech-wiz and problem solver... the evolution in recent years has been furious, swift and radical as Rob points out. Still, opportunities remain for those of us flexible & creative enough to adapt to the times. Even with the current climate of oversupply & a couple of years of failing economics, I'm finding that a demand still exists for my services though the balking at my fees is at an all time high. That said, there ARE clients willing to pony up for creativity, expertise and the ability to visually communicate ideas and solve problems. Fill those voids and learn when to say NO and there may still be a future for those of us that have chosen this profession. It's not always easy... sometimes it may even be painful. Evolution is the key.

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