Technology today seems to make everyone a photographer. The introduction of inkjet printers and digital cameras in cell phones seems to make everyone believe they can contribute to the royalty-free market. While I encourage the gospel of photography and love to see new photographers evolve, the evolution of a slow photography market didn’t start recently with the current economic state and the evolution of digital cameras. Though it should take some credit, the real dilemmas facing photography started before digital cameras in the late 1970’s when the first one-hour mini-labs entered the market, thus creating a slow, chain reaction as photographers and the photo industry today scramble for new ways to survive.

When the first mini-labs entered the market, from the Nortisu QSS systems to the smaller KIS systems, the face of photography changed. Some may argue it all started with the Canon AE-1 a few years before, but in realty, the AE-1 only forced camera manufacturers to spend more money on research and development for cameras that provided more than manual modes of operation.

These one-hour, photofinishing, assembly-line machines opened the door for a new market, initially mom and pop photofinishing labs that would evolve into photo studios (by offering passport photos and baby pictures), photo copying factories and even camera stores. The long-standing camera stores, which rarely made profits on actual camera bodies (low turn-over inventory items) and only on point of sale and peripherals products like filters and frames were either forced into photofinishing and adding their own photo studios, thus ultimately competing against their own customer—the professional photographer.

The camera stores that didn’t add photofinishing mainly went out of business. Even the larger camera store chains like Fox Foto, FotoMat and even Kodak felt the competition of mom and pop mini-labs popping up everywhere. Some of the larger camera store chains bought out the smaller stores and even Kodak purchased Fox Foto only later to sell the camera stores back to Fox Foto while keeping their main photo lab.

Soon the mom and pop mini-labs and studios faced their own attacker, the large retailers, drug stores and even grocery store chains. K-Mart, Walmart, Sears, JCPenney, Walgreens, Eckards and large grocery store chains added one-hour photofinishing in their stores. This influx of these big chains in the photofinishing industry was based on the business methodology, “if we add photofinishing and drop the prices, people will come to drop their roll of film and while they wait they’ll spend at least an hour in the store shopping and the money is made up in volume sales of all our products.”

This “cheaper” photofinishing by the same quality mini-lab machines led to the original mom and pop and camera stores not being able to compete, many went out of business while others added other services like photo studios and photo copy services.

Perhaps this was one of those milestones along with fast food burgers that sociologists will say fell into the turning of America into a “convenience based” society—we want it now!

This increased popularity of photography, fast and inexpensive photofinishing led large studios, government entities (including the military) and even large corporations and industries to invest in their own mini-labs. Some invested to save time, some to save money, but all to do it “in house” especially where privacy and control was important. Some consider this the predecessor to desktop publishing, the production of the product moving closer to the creator.

Eventually the drug stores and super markets opened their own mini-labs on location, including Walmart, Eckard Drugs, K-Mart, Walgreens, super market chains and so forth. Then as digital photography came on board, the more “pro labs” and one-hour mini-labs were forced to create “products” and provide services that would cater to digital photographers. Tons of money was invested and the return (ROI) was slow that was further hampered by better-quality and lower-priced inkjet printers that became archival—the printing began to shift to the “home-lab” or “home-studio.”

At the same time, digital cameras became like computers, the market penetration became saturated with owners and products, thus the photo industry began to hurt, combined with the fact cameras now become obsolete as fast as they are introduced, unlike film cameras known for low-turnover inventory rates.

In the midst of all this, the God’s of stock photography, the Getty’s and the Corbis’s, began to swallow up the little agencies and even larger ones like Tony Stone and the Image Bank. Then royalty-free was introduced thanks to the Internet and cheaper broadband conduits of digital traffic. As bandwidth expenses and computer costs fell, Adobe Photoshop became more popular outside of professional hands, thus photographers soon were asked by editors to provide final images with post-production, gone were the film retouchers and some photographers became image-makers instead of creators of photographs. Evan photo stock agencies require special formats and sizes of images, noise and blemish free. Long are gone the 20-slides on one page.

While many photographers are facing hardships today, many fail to realize it’s not all the cause of the economy, high gasoline prices or even the digital evolution, but a combination of many factors.

The fact is, long before the latter, many magazines, even [I]Zink[/I], have never paid their photographers as they know photographers want tearsheets in hopes of being noticed by those that do pay, like [I]Vogue[/I] and [I]Vanity Fair[/I]. The photographers who will survive are those that have known this has existed before and understand how the market is pyramid shaped–the leaders are at the top of the pyramid and it’s a tough climb.

It’s been that way even before the advent of digital, just like any corporate, military or even magazine staff structure. Some start their careers in the mailroom, very few if any start at the top, unless they’re born into family and the entity allows nepotism (think Playboy, Christy Hefner; Donald Trump and his four children; even Angelina Jolie, daughter of actor Jon Voight).

On the glamour side of photography, it’s was once viewed as a negative genre, now it’s “in.” Even the use of the word “glamour” is in. While the markets are tough, one must pay their dues and often it’s “connections” but more often luck, like in all artistic career fields, being at the right place at the right time. The “breaks” often come due to nepotism, race, religion, sexual orientation (yes it’s true), political connections and again, just mere luck, being at the right place at the right time capturing the right moment (think of a few, though not many, Pulitzer prize winners.) Actors, directors and filmmakers know this concept above very well–way before digital ever arrived. It’s often said, “Many actors even change their names and religious preferences to move forward.”

Digital photography has affected everyone, from portrait shooters to established professionals, much like graphic software programs caused many corporate executives to fire their graphic arts departments (graphic artists, typesetters, writers) because suddenly they thought they could design newsletters and brochures. Desktop publishing has killed many careers. Oh, not to mention, those same executives purchase royalty-free images instead of hiring photographers for content.

In a nutshell, whether it’s glamour, fashion, editorial, commercial, weddings, etc., the digital world we all enjoy has killed many photographer’s incomes and the survivors are barely surviving as they are still doing the same or less work for cheaper prices. Part of selling images and getting those commercial contracts isn’t always talent either, though talent helps. (see above reference to politics, religion, race, connections, luck, sexual orientation, etc.)

In fact, many of the people that purchase photography products today are not professional photographers, but those that can afford the “toys” to run their in-home studio and in-home print lab. Some have these toys just for their own family use, which also has impacted professional studios and photo labs.

My best advice to photographers today, keep shooting, keep your portfolios updated, knock on doors, send mail-outs, have a beautiful website and do a lot of praying. Digital has changed the face of the world in many ways, in fact, even the watch industry is hurting because people no longer wear watches to check the time, those that do own them wear them for fashion, as we all have “watches” and even “alarm clocks” on our cell phones. Which leads to ask, “How many people have turned off their home phones and use the now cheaper cell phone for everything?”

And if you read all of this, this far, then you have passion and are truly interested in your photography, now that’s a step up from those that just want to take pretty pictures. Just my thoughts, all the best, rg sends!

Evolution of the photography related dollars:

*Camera Stores and photo studios (prior to 1979) made the money as did a few top photographers.
*Mini-labs arrive, Mom & Pop photofinishing opens up and gluts the market.
*Mom and Pops add cameras, lenses, photo studios (think just passport photos, baby pics) etc., thus becoming camera stores with photofinishing and studios that leads to the “original” camera store declines.
*Large retailers (Walmart, KMart, Walgreens, etc.) add one-hour labs (and some even photo studios and copy stations) to keep the customers in longer, drop photofinishing prices, thus killing Mom & Pop labs and studios.
*Digital cameras arrive (digital revolution)
*Pro-labs create new products for digital shooters and the pro labs invest heavily in new equipment for specialized digital output, ROI not what expected, begin to go out of business.
*Royalty free invades, thus hurting small stock agencies.
*Large stock agencies buyout smaller agencies.
*Large agencies begin to suffer because of digital photography do-it-yourself, stock agencies change contracts, take more, pay less.
*Photo studios suffer because of DIY, print at home.
*Everyone is now a photographer, their own stock agency and are driven to save money.
*The established photographer makes less and less work is requested the market dwindles for stock agencies, photographers, labs and studios.
*Today’s main buyer of top photography products are the “haves,” that can afford the toys, the majority are not professional photographers but want to shoot and feel like one when they click that shutter.

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