Saturday, August 29, 2009

Not Out-Gunned, Devalued

Everytime I post something or read somewhere where something is written that is critical of amateur, pro-sumer, volunteer, or free photographers, whether these folks are in credentialed positions, getting a magazine cover or photo in an ad or newspaper, I hear some variation of " pros are just worried about getting out gunned...". Honestly, nothing could be further from the truth.

A pro knows the value of their work, and, as a result, the value of the effort they bring to the assignment. Product shot on white seamless? Seems simple, but it's not. What about transfer edges? Highlight shapes? Angle/perspective, and so on. This is one of a hundred examples I could provide. Case in point - I recently had a client drive a long distance to come to my studio for a product shot. At the conclusion of the shoot, he commented that he had no idea how much went into doing a shoot to get superior results. He expected it to take an hour for four products. It took seven hours (frankly, much of that time was product-build time). Afterwards he recognized what was involved, and definitely pleased with the results.

When someone sells a commodity for $10 that everyone else is selling for $100, it devalues that commodity. If the commodity was easily selling for $100, why would someone - anyone - sell it for $10?
(Continued after the Jump)

Photography is, however, not a commodity. Just because some people choose to devalue it to that point, treat it as such, price it as such, doesn't make it so.

Some organizations have chosen to price images, for example, by the pixel dimensions alone. This does not take into account so many things, it's just rediculous. The image of the hindenberg engulfed in flames or JFK being shot cannot be priced by the pixel. Doing so devalues the work because it does not take into account the content of those images.

Consider, for a moment, that an inventor created a product, and it costs that inventor $10 in materials and overhead, per product, to manufacture it. Following common business practices, that product will wholesale for $20 each. Following again common business practices, that product will retail for $40, and likely sell on the street for around $30. Understand, this is an example and these are generalizations.

With those figures in place, the company decides to spend $250,000 for ad space (online and in print) to market the product. It is to be your photograph, of the product looking so cool and so amazing, that is the entire ad, with a tag line "Buy it and be cool". As a result, the client sells 250,000 products. That means that the client spent $2.5M in raw materials, and netted $2.5M in profit. The retailer too grossed $2.5M as the middleman for the product, providing retail shelf-space. How much are you, the creative mind behind the image that convinced the buying public to actually buy, due? 1% of the profits? 5%? How about just 10% of the ad buy? What if your single image were one of four on the page, would you be due 0.25% or 1.25% of the profits, or 2.5% of the ad buy?

A photographer brings to an assignment an understanding of the subject and their quirks. Whether it's a sporting event, where you know how a particular player will likely act, a portrait where your subject has a duration they will be willing to sit for before their unhappiness at being photographed shows in their expressions, or food photography, where the concoctions that photograph like, say, ice cream, are almost inedible despite looking great through the cameras lens, all assignments have challenges. Can any given photographer stumble into a great photo? Sure. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in awhile. The pro however, must get it right at a level of expectation for success that approaches that of a surgeon. The problem is, unknowning clients look at the bottom line and then ascribe equality to an amateur's work and that of a seasoned professional. In the end, the client is unaware of the risks, however, the damage of devaluing photography has been done. The client will just blame the photographer when the shoot fails, not themselves for hiring the photographer without a proven track record of success.

The collateral damage of the client choosing on price, is that photographers will feel pressure from clients to lower their prices, and some will. Then there will be more pressure, and more lowering of prices. Please understand, I am not writing this as someone who has lowered their prices (I have not), but as someone who is watching as photographers' sales reports that used to show average per-image licensing of upwards of $600 now showing those same images for similar uses averaging under $100. Further, photographers who used to earn $2,500 off an original assignment and several thousand dollars in re-sales licensing over the years are now being expected to sign away all rights (and thus all future resales) for $1,000.

In the end, not only are you devaluing your work, and those of your colleagues, you are doing damage to a profession that is a passion for most in it, and you are leaving a lot of money on the table.

I know of no photographer who feels the young upstart photographer, the amateur photographer, or even the pro-sumer will "out gun" them, but almost all of the photographers I talk to about this know that these same folks are devaluing their work. Interestingly enough, that means that the pro sees quality, capability, and talent in the images produced, and knows they are worth much more than they are being given away for.

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