|A guy walks into a camera store...|
|Written by L. M. Lloyd|
|Wednesday, 10 September 2008 01:39|
I have been lucky enough, or unlucky depending on your perspective, to live in a time and place where I have seen many cataclysmic changes in many industries in my life. Oddly enough, I always seem to be right at the epicenter of them too, as a result of my odd career path. I suppose it is the fate of anyone in this day and age who is both creatively inclined, and technically knowledgeable. I have fond, if odd, memories from high school of sitting talking to the father of a friend of mine, who set type at a newspaper, as he explained to me how my youthful exuberance for these new personal computers that were just getting popular, blinded me to the fact that they would never replace professional layout and typesetting as the way real publications were produced. I also remember, not so fondly, seeing the pain he, and some of my other friends went through years later as they realized they needed to start looking at new careers, because they were now dinosaurs. I still remember getting turned away by venture capitalist after venture capitalist, as they explained to me (still in my late teens, early twenties) that I was insane, because it would never be possible to create professional quality 3D animation on a personal workstation, and would always require colossally expensive supercomputers. I also remember years later seeing a mass exodus of talented pioneers from the computer animation field as they became disgusted with what the industry had become now that there were tens of thousands of barely trained animators being churned out of various artist factories like the Art Institute, and everyone thought that having a PC and a cracked copy of 3D Studio now made them the next George Lucas. I remember getting literally the second Sony Professional DVCAM camera sold in the US, and then having to fight tooth and nail to prove through test after test to the people in the video production department that it could produce "broadcast quality" video. Just like all the other changes, I also remember the first time, years later, I saw a video production company fold because they could no longer compete with the hoards of people who read about a DV camera in a magazine, ran down to Best Buy, and picked one up and suddenly decided they were a professional video producer.
The list goes on and on. Digital compositing systems, NLE systems, multimedia authoring, DVD authoring, distance learning, web development, and a slew of other technologies. In some instances I was even sitting down with engineers and telling the companies making these systems and software how to improve it to better fit my market. I just always found myself drawn to the bleeding edge of production, and as a result, got to see it go from the state where people thought it was just a fad, to watching it completely change the landscape of production. That is except for photography. For whatever reason, digital photography has never really interested me until recently. I just stuck with film. There are a ton of reasons for it, but at the core it was just the fact that the cameras cost so much, and were so clearly inferior to film, for so very long, that I didn't see the point of it until the past few years. However, over the past few years, the cameras really started getting better than film in most ways, and earlier this year the prices came down to the point that I could no longer ignore it, so I jumped in. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.
You see, one of the odd side effects of my circuitous career path is that it has let me see up close and personal what the death throes, and subsequent rebirth, of a creative industry really look like. They are all pretty much the same, and boy can I tell you, is photography ever a dying industry! I can see the symptoms, because I have been on both sides of the battle. Hell, most of the time I made pretty good money being, in the parlance of the times, the agent of change. But I have also been on the back end, watching an industry dry up as something new took its place, and having to adapt. It is really pretty easy to track down the already rotting corpse of a industry, if you know what to look for. First you have to sniff around for the unmistakable stench of bitterness. Then you have to listen for the sound of a million voices complaining about how incompetent and unskilled the "newbies" are, who are just getting into the business. Last, you look for the arrogant swagger of people insanely overstating both the level of skill required for, and the importance of, their chosen profession. Once you have found those signs, you are probably just a few steps from tripping over the corpse of their industry. I have to say, the corpse of the photography industry must be an elephant, because I haven't smelled, heard or seen as much bitterness, complaining or swagger since the final days of traditional press, and early days of desktop publishing!
It is actually quite interesting, because you would think that by now, everyone would have seen how the creative world has been changed repeatedly by technological innovations, and would have it down pat. But no, apparently photographers are little 21st century Tasaday tribe, still living in some distant past the rest of us can barely remember. As such, it provides a rare opportunity to see, almost like some sociology experiment, the whole story play out as though it has never happened before. What is most interesting, is to see the incredulity and even vitriol they spew if a citizen of the 21st century travels to their alternate dimension to try and warn them of their apocalyptic fate. It is hard to explain, so I suggest that if you are interested in the phenomenon, you find a forum full of professional photographers (yes, they paradoxically know how to use the Internet, and can even recognize how the Internet has disrupted other industries, but can't see how it should change theirs in any way), and try suggesting that they rethink their core business models. The ensuing shitstorm will amaze you, and could probably give someone an entire books worth of academic exploration into how people deal with stress.
I think one of the most interesting, nonsensical and yet common reactions I have seen over the years, is the desire by people to try and say that their customers and competitors aren't qualified to tell them that they need to change how they do business, because they don't really understand the business. They will admit they are losing business. They will admit they are facing more competition. They will admit that their customers are becoming increasingly demanding, and less willing to pay for their services. Yet, the second anyone attempts to suggets any strategies for adapting to the new market, they turn like a pack of rabid ferrets, and demand to know who you are that you would dare to question their grasp of how to run their business. It is funny to me, because the last time I saw this particular reaction, it was when I suggested to the Tech Pubs department of a very large company I was working for, that they distribuite their manuals in this new PDF format Adobe had just introduced. After six months of them explaining that I had no idea what I was taliking about, and giving a million reasons why you couldn't just distribute manuals on CD as a computer files, pretty much the entire department was laid off except for a few writers, who were moved to my department, and we started producing PDFs instead of printied manuals, saving the company litterally several millions of dollars a year. To this day I maintain that no one had to lose their job, had the Tech Pubs department been less worried about who "knew better" and had they just worried more about giving their client (my department) what we asked for.
Well, this attitude is exactly what the entire photography industry is about these days. Sure, you still have, and will always have, the real artists, who are selling their way of looking at things to clients willing to pay for their vision. But the workaday photographer, who made his living doing wedding photography, school pictures, and family portraits, and then selling the prints at a huge markup? He is a thrashing, bitter, dying beast, who can't even begin to admit that maybe it is time he changes how he does business. All of this is because, like just about every other industry on the planet, digital technology has lowered the barriers to entry enough that anyone who thinks they might be interested in photography, can now make a credible try at it. Problem is, some of them are actually good. Now that you don't have to be 'in the know' as to which labs have the best processing, and don't have to spend years perfecting a process in the darkroom to get a special look, it turns out that a lot more than just the people who had tens of thousands of dollars to drop, have a decent eye, and can take a nice picture. This causes a major problem for a lot of these photographers, because they maybe weren't actually that good to begin with. Turns out, that having the technical skills, and money for a studio, were what brought in business, not their talent or ability to take a compelling photograph. As a result, they are now watching more and more business go out the door, as people actually prefer the photos taken by the kid next door on his cool new digital camera.
History has shown us that there are many ways to deal with this, and that ultimately, it will probably be a huge boon for the photographic industry, but only after the dinosaurs die out.Â The problem with dinosaurs, is that they never adapt fast enough. I heartily reccomend to any photographer reading this, that you sit down and try to take an honest look at your skills, your industry, and your business model. Chances are that all three need some work. The simple fact is that, like most pre-digital creative industries, you were largely protected by fairly high barriers to entry into your market, which are no longer there. You are going to have to become better at what you do, work faster, and be more competitive. There will still always be money to be made in photography, but you aren't going to be able to get buy with that same bolted down three light setup you have been using for twenty years for family portraits. You have to get more creative, and hve to figure out how you are going to make money by providing files, instead of charging astronomical prices for each print. The days of "keeping the negative" and having clients individual get your permission to make a new print are over. It just won't fly anymore, and the sooner you get that through your head, the sooner you can start moving into the 21st century. You might think that Photoshop is a difficult skill, and that retouching commands a huge premium, but most of your customers aren't going to keep paying you $60 to run the healing brush over their mole. You have to either step up your game, or lower your prices. It doesn't do you a damn bit of good to complain about how ignorant the intire world is about how perfect your business model is, because if you cannot provide the product they want at the price they are willing to pay, then you will go out of business no matter how well you thought you should get paid. There is plenty of opertunity, just leave the past behind, and figure out how to move forward.
Of course most most won't listen. That is the other thing I have learned, they never listen. They always go down with the ship swearing to their business' dying breath that people just don't get how hard they work, and how important their contribution is. Change can be a hard thing for some people.
|Last Updated ( Sunday, 30 November 2008 09:22 )|