Rangefinder Magazine Cover, Sept. 2006, ©2006 Rolando Gomez

Rangefinder Magazine Cover, Sept. 2006, ©2006 Rolando Gomez

I just returned from the WPPI (Wedding & Portrait Photographers International) trade show and conference for professional photographers and though it was unusually cold and wet in Las Vegas where it’s held annually, over 10,000 people attended. Attendance, composed primarily of photographers, was up 25-percent from the pervious year making it seem that professional photographers are doing great during these tough economic times, but unfortunately they are not and the photo industry is learning to adjust to this pinch by targeting some of the very customers that are impacting photographers’ incomes.

Many photographers have seen less assignments over the years and their income is spiraling down thanks to digital cameras and the home/office ink-jet printer along with the corporate climate today. The general feeling amongst photographers queried at WPPI is that they were hoping the seminars and lectures at WPPI would teach them new ways to survive as many are experiencing diet days.

With over 300 trade show floor exhibitors and a record crowd at the much larger MGM Hotel conference center from the previous location, the recurring theme I heard from exhibitor executives was that professional photographers are going through a paradigm shift. The trend now is to pay professional photographers less for the same type of work when it comes to commercial, editorial and advertising assignments. Very few, top professional photographers are being offered what they once commanded in fees for their name and talent they’ve established and the photo industry is now targeting corporate executives and higher-income earners, ironically even some of those that are impacting the professional photographers bottom line.

Peter Poremba, owner of Dyna-Lite, a top studio flash manufacturer said, “It’s sad and unfair. Top photographers are being told to bring their prices down.” He attributes the decline on talent fees for top photographers because corporate executives are taking the stance of sacrificing talent over a “It’s close enough for government work” attitude.

Photo industry executive Peter Geller, visiting from Germany and owner of the California Sunbounce light reflector company realizes photographers’ incomes are down and stated, “Sales are level but I’m introducing a new product, the Sun Mover that helps photographers use light creatively while keeping costs under $100 verses the more professional reflectors that range from $300 and up. I’m doing the best to help photographers out while keeping costs down for the tools they need.”

At the same time Art directors, photo editors and advertising executives are being told to search stock houses, micro-stock or royalty-free sources first, if they can’t find the images they need, then the trend is to search for local talent rather than incur the expenses of flying in known, top talent.

“I’ve seen it before, eventually everyone’s advertising and marketing materials look the same and they’ll soon realize it’s time to go back to the professional quality photography provided by proven photographers in their fields,” said Geller who is riding high on his son’s recent award as the “Best New Menswear Designer” by GQ magazine on the eve of Fashion Week in New York City.

Rest assured, GQ and other top-fashion magazines still hire talented photographers for their publications, but these top spots usually come from photographers who have established a name in the advertising and corporate, commercial world first. Corporations that traditionally hired photographers for their name and talent that often provided bragging credits and spring-boards for up and coming photographers are now settling for someone in their office to scour less expensive stock photography or royalty-free images that come without the production costs of a fashion editorial spread produced by a top name.

Stock photography is where photographers provide finished images on speculation to a stock agency, like Getty images owned by the oil-rich Getty family or Corbis, owned by Microsoft’s Bill Gates. A stock agency then will sell images from their stock hoard to advertising and corporate clients charging a price based on usage. Traditionally, about half of what the image is sold for by the agency is paid to the photographer while the stock agency keeps the remainder of the fee for marketing the image. With the advent of the Internet, stock agencies and micro-stock houses now market their images quickly through on-line portfolios.

Stock photography prices have tumbled over the years thanks to new contracts that favor the agencies combined with the abundance of micro-stock and royalty-free images, where photographers provide images in a similar fashion but for a fraction of the cost in hopes to get their photos published. On the positive side, image quality is up thanks to improved camera technology.

Thus, the result is that the once reliable, additional income from an established stock photographer is severely down. Stock photography is not as lucrative for a professional photographer as it once was to market their extra photos unless done in a significant volume to offset the lower royalty payments. Digital photography and the Internet have made photos abundant, thus, kicking in the law of “supply of demand” for prices and the “law of economies of scale” for the corporate executive watching budgets resulting in a downward spiral for photography prices even more.

Some photographers are no longer adding stock photography to their repertoire as an added benefit of commissioned assignments, while others are being forced to become full-time stock photographers to provide the volume required by stock houses in order to eek out a decent income because of the lack of paid assignments. Many are accepting as little as a nickel per sale where once an image would bring them $500 or more per sale. When an image is sold to thousands on the Internet for a nickel royalty, it no longer commands a high price should it be needed for a national campaign so a photographer’s image loses its value. Creative executives are taking advantage of these super low prices for photographs for their corporate prospectuses, brochures, marketing materials and even advertising.

If an image can’t be found through royalty-free or stock, creative departments are settling for the less expensive and often starving local talent, many who will work for $200 per day or less. In an era where corporations are no longer spending thousands on lavish corporate functions, top corporate executives are frowning on photographers who command $10,000 per day or more as the executives are already forced to take their own pay cuts and lower salaries, thus forcing their creative departments and advertising agencies to cut their budgets too. This new, politically correct aura on top of protecting one’s job has created the attitude of “why pay for top talent when many who view an advertisement will never know who shot the image?” Even publications are cutting their staffs while hiring freelancers per assignment at these lower, local rates.

Ironically, the photo industry itself is realizing that the top-of-the-line equipment purchases are not coming as much from established professional photographers but instead those same corporate executives who will not quit their day-job to become lower-paid photographers. It’s these upper-income demographics that seek top-quality products because they can afford it while wanting to feel like a top-professional photographer thanks to the instant gratification and private, in-home printing provided by digital photography. These upper-income earners also want the best technology has to offer as many still believe they can outdo the Joneses.

It’s no longer a Rolex, but a $7,000 Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III or the $8,000 Nikon D3-X. It’s like the Jones’s trying to outdo the Smiths, along with the attitude “I have more mega-pixels than you.” Interest in watches has suffered too, thanks to clocks in cell phones and it’s not unusual to see someone showing off their photography portfolios on an i-Phone or Blackberry.

“Sometimes it’s just a status symbol why a non-professional photographer would purchase a top digital camera with professional studio lighting like a Profoto system that retails for thousands. In fact, top studio lighting companies are now manufacturing mid-level professional lighting kits once reserved for lower-line companies who have never produced sophisticated and more expensive, professional lighting kits,” stated one photo industry executive who did not want to be identified.

“The target market for the photo industry is not so much the professional photographer or mom and pop studios but instead the “prosumer” who can afford to shoot like a pro but in reality only does it to quench their passionate appetite for photography or to show off their talents to their country club buddies,” he added.

Some executives even enjoy the ability to prove they can save thousands of dollars for their company by doing it themselves for free and while actually taking pride their photography gets published for all in the corporation to see. They feel this added corporate exposure solidifies their employment status during these tough economic times.

As a photography instructor with over 320 workshops in the past nine years, I’ve witnessed many of my attendees shift from up and coming full-time photographers to corporate executives, business owners, doctors, lawyers, stock brokers, engineers, IT consultants, etc., who also use photography as a creative outlet for stress relief. Higher-paid professionals no longer fear depressing the shutter, their confidence comes from the fact they are degreed professionals that can handle a trade profession like photography that rarely requires a degree. They are willing to settle for pictures instead of the skill and creativity a professional photographer brings to a photograph for the sake of the corporate books.

It was evident at WPPI that the photo industry is realizing the real mass of paying customers is the corporate executives and upper-class professionals, not the full-time, professional photographer struggling to survive. While the professional, full-time photographer realizes some days they may starve as they scramble for new markets, the photo industry is realizing that the high-paying, non-photographic professionals will save their bottom line.