Last week I received a request to from one of my photography business friends in Germany who writes for photography magazine PhotoPresse. Klaus wanted to know what my predictions for the future of the photography industry are. The very same day had a private coaching call with one of my clients, a portrait photographer who is very frustrated that he can’t seem to get his people and portrait business moving forward. While I like to stay away from predictions as a rule, this one I feel very confident in making:
I believe that portrait photography is in serious trouble.
And here is why.
Allow me to digress first and give you a little bit of background. The generational consumer behavior is something I spent a considerable amount of time with because I believe it affects the way we do business in a very significant way. Buyers are changing. Even if that is no news to you the why is what matters to your business. Buyers are changing because the generational gap is becoming more prominent and we see its effects everywhere. From what we watch, what we buy, where we go, and hang out, everything is driven by a more intelligent and technology driven behavior. Sadly there is no code in place for how we should do that in a communal type of way but that is what I address in my other business, The Women’s Code and it is an entirely different conversation.
Back to the way buyer behavior has changed. We check reviews on Yelp, consult Trip Advisor, google negative and positive keywords when investigating another person, we check out LinkedIn, and look at Facebook making sure “peeps are legit.” The handshake days are all but gone. That means for your business if you want to make money you need to look at where people are spending it, why they are spending it at this and not that, and which businesses are booming. If they don’t come to you in its most simplistic terms you are not appealing to your buyer because either you offer something obsolete or you market to the wrong buyer. Or you haven’t done the appropriate education and you assume too much.
Personally I consider it a huge advantage that I am at the cusp of being a Baby Boomer to Generation X. To top my good fortune I am the mother to a daughter from the Millennial Generation. My personal evolution is simply driven by my wanting to be able to connect with my child. My advantages are further that I am curious, nosy, and I like to figure out the why.
The baby boomer generation has been at the helm of making decisions for much longer than any other generation. We started very early to be in charge and it feels as if we skipped Generation X (and was there or is there a Generation Y) and we are still in charge. But, that is changing. The Baby Boomers are exiting the work force and also this planet due to old age. We’ve been the largest group for a long time but the next, and even bigger group with a force 78 million strong are the Millennials or as they are also called the lost generation.
They are now entering the work force in huge numbers and they are a force to be reckoned with. Smarter than any other generation, fast, furious, yet lazy, and feeling very entitled. They are our own fault. We raised our children with the consciousness that they matter. Sometimes matter more than we do. We let them interrupt us, stop us, influence our buying decisions, got them what they thought they wanted, and did all of that in the spirit of competitiveness. Much like our parents wanted to afford us a better life we did the same.
This generation believes it matters and they are here to change the world. They believe that they are the most talented and the most knowledgeable. Especially when it comes to technology and content creation and use – they are inventors, creators, and users. They created outlets for their creativity such as Flickr, Instagram, and Pinterest along with hundreds of other specialty sites that are all feeding their mantra: I am current and I matter. Look what I can do and I am willing to look at what you do and I will give you my opinion about it. I don’t care if you are a professional and I am not one either.
Follow me so far? Great, let’s move on to why that matters to portrait photography. There are certain areas of photography where you cannot fake it. Some of the areas are food, architecture, studio photography, still life, and automotive just to name a few. If you don’t know your craft and have the skill you can and will burn and sink. Not so if you are a portrait photographer. Here your skill doesn’t matter.
You may disagree with this statement. And tomorrow we will be looking at the facts and why I believe I am right about this.
What are your thoughts on this so far? Agree with the notion that portrait photography is a dying profession?
P.S. Did you sign up for your New Years Resolution my 7 Step Video Bootcamp on how to find more clients and fill your bank account? It’s free and launches January 6th
Generally speaking I believe you are right on target. However, I would extend your comments to include, commercial and fine art photography as well.
There are exceptions determined by a host of things. such as location, how long in business, client base, charisma of the photographer and others.
However, for the avg. studio owner really tough times are facing them. In fact I know a good number of studios that have just closed their doors in the last 4 years. What people seem to like, when it comes to portrait photography, is the totally raw and snapshotish work of amateurs and the neophyte. Main factor being “Cheap.”
I agree with Gregory in the fact that people want cheap but I also think that in this day and age the family unit is different and back when I was a child (baby boomer) families had a family portrait done often and had them hanging on their walls to show how the family had grown and changed through the years. In this day and age portraits are not important to people because “families” are not the same, don’t last as long generally and are made up of non traditional types of families. These are not the keep sakes that the younger people want except if you want to do “babies” you might have some success.
Right on, Beate – and Gregory – and Sony. The people ‘in charge’ these days have very specific ideas of what they like, want, and will accept. Not sure if everyone on the opposite sides CAN work together. The gap is VERY wide, and it may be that the most difficult (and smartest) thing some of us face is finding like-minded and ‘appropriately-aged’ co-workers. Post-war thinking and frugile attitude are nothing like today’s ‘I want the best and I want it now’ and ‘cheap’. Personally, I prefer a good, solid handshake.
This is a great page/discussion. 1st a little background, I have been a professional portrait photographer for over 20 years, I own my own studio and the building it resides in. The changes to the photography business over last 20 years is Huge. I think you’re right on with the generational gap. One comment made I hadn’t thought of “They believe that they are the most talented and the most knowledgeable. Especially when it comes to technology”. I feel some have been told they take good “pictures” and have become professional photographers with little or no formal training. Most work out of their homes and photograph on location or shoot weddings. The backlash is a lowered quality expectation of the general public. We can shout all day long “but my photography is better!”, But if the lower quality photography is good enough for Little Johnny’s mom or the bride on her wedding day it’s just wasted breath.
From a marketing standpoint I have been focusing on studio photography and digital artwork to set myself apart from the newer generation of part-time photographers.
There are alot of factors responsible for the professional demise of the professional photographer. Many of you have already identified many of those factors, so I won’t repeat them. But two other issues are significant:
1. non-professional photography is much more photo-journalistic, and therefore are more interesting. The new photography shows much more reality, character, and interesting moments. By non-professional photography I do not mean amateurs who promote themselves as professionals, I just mean family and/or friends taking photos of each other. There’s no appointments, pricing meetings, model releases, heavy equipment, going to uninteresting studios (compared to real events venues), etc. The subjects are more natural. Besides the domain of portraiture had a long run, beginning hundreds of years ago by sketchers and painters. Mounting a big expensive frozen portrait on your wall is very old school . . . no one but the residents of the home ever see it, and after about a week even they no longer see it. Portraits today are active, not frozen. Photos today are meant for others to see. Photos today are shared online. And they are commented upon by many many people. And they are free.
2. Everyone enjoys taking photos nowadays, perhaps even more so than having their pictures taken. So the activity of taking pictures or being in pictures is a fun social experience for everyone. The whole mental, emotional, spontaneous, and spiritual experience of photography has subsumed the old-school notion of having a rare snapshot portrait of oneself is passing: nowadays most people have literally hundreds of their photos each year. Having that one special “professional” image no longer makes sense in the context of the modern social experience.
No, I am not some young person bemoaning the elders and labeling them as “old-school.” I am 67 years old. Professional portraits have gone the way of the horse and buggy. Personally, I can’t stand the crappy miniature cell-phone snaps everyone is swooning about these days . . . but they are thrilled and happy.
There is definitely a hugh swing in the clients attitude. I live on a small island and the story is still the same as in any large city, so how does one industry suffer from the same effects across such large differences in market size, educational background etc?
It’s the new village, the new society. The online society driven by Facebook etc. Before mums would invite friends home to view her wall… and they would talk and share and like common interests in the comfort of their four walls.
Today mums (and just about every one else) invite friends to view her ‘wall’ and they ‘share’ and ‘like’ entirely online. It’s instant and infinitely changeable. Traditional photography cannot match this demand for constantly updated images so people are driven to produce their own.
The quality expectations are also being driven way down as well. Who needs a professional portrait online with the attendant fees when it will need changing by next week at the latest?
The proliferation of ‘amature’ snapshots online is lowering the publics expectations of what ‘good’ photography should look like as well.
We also need to wake up to the fact that Facebook is doing to photography marketing what the digital camera is doing to the profession. Digital camera technology makes it easier for anyone to take technically acceptable images in a ready to use format. This has blurred the line between amateur and professional somewhat (ignoring obvious experience & creativity factors) and has negatively impacted the industry. No one has to purchase, expose and develop tricky slide film anymore or purchase the expensive equipment needed to meet the requirements of professionals then. The genius of photography has leveled out the playing field to a large extent.
Facebook is also leveling out the marketing playing field as well as ‘anyone’ has equal opportunity to put out their services in the online market with minimal budgetary considerations. Professionals will increasingly no longer have ‘privileged’ access to the eyes of the clients as before.
It’s a challenging time but ‘gloom & doom’ is not necessary, just understanding the trends and trying to ride the wave.
Here’s an example that some clients are getting back to the professional when it matters.
Do not underestimate the consumer. I find clients coming to me & are willing to make a premium investment in what they consider extraordinary portriat photography services. Tthey can see the differenct between a $25 8×10 and one costing several hundred dollars. As portrait artist we have to be able to demonstrate the difference in the caliber of work that capturesa mood, a moment or poignent reflection of life. Great works of art evoke feelings. The secret is learning to master the tools, self mastery and communiction skills to get your unique message across in a congruient manner which is indicative of the value you assign to your work. Most of the new kids on the block do not have a clue about portraiture and that is why they charge so little. Do not compete, just be about communicating what unique and special about what you have to offer. If you cannot figurre it out on your own, then hire a coach.
Has anyone considered that the high cost of framing these portraits could play a part in a customer’s decision?
Your thesis seems overly general to me. I don’t disagree that certain disciplines in photography are and will continue to suffer as a result of the changing demographics and the technological revolution, but I don’t really think that there is such a thing as “a portrait photographer”, at lease as you are generalizing the term. Some of us are portrait photographers, but someone who creates say, editorial portraits shares very little with someone who has a retail, family portrait “studio”. Unfortunately, I think your comments apply fairly well to the latter, especially in terms of what products younger people might value, or not, such as large prints, frames, etc. At the same time though, someone who is artistic and creative, and happens mostly to photograph people, is also a portrait photographer and his or her work is easily discernable from iPhone selfies. Remember, it’s not about “having a really nice camera”. It really depends upon what you are doing, for whom, for what purpose and whether creativity, both in terms of the technical aspects, as well as the artistic ones, are important to the buyer. Frankly, I see more iPhone road-kill shots of food on restaurant web sites and FB pages than I do bad “portraits”. In my area, IMHO, food photography, at the local level is dead, mostly for the same reasons you state about portraits. Bottom line: yes, the earth is moving under our feet, some things will live and some will die, but general categories, such as “portrait photography” are not really useful.
Great discussion. I think that larry reibstein in his post said it perfectly. When I got into the business, back in 1984 photography was something that was valued. Our profession and ability were highly sough after and valued. Now, with the advent of digital, cell phone cameras and people taking photos all the time, (many of them very good photos) people don’t value the professional photographer as much as they did. As one bride put it last year, “why should I pay you thousands of dollars to photograph my wedding, after all, all your doing is taking pictures”. We as photographers, be it portrait or wedding or commercial must find different avenues to make money. School and event photography, business portraits etc that the average weekend photograph can’t or wont do. There is still value in professional photograph, but not the same as in years past.
People like my grandmother that passed away some 16 years ago still head to WalMart,
and the likes for a cheap family photo. Especially those for the growing kids that cost so much money to take.
But, to your point, anyone with a cell phone camera, or a cheap digital camera can be a portrait photographer and achieve professional results if they know how to use professional editing software. There is your key. There is still the <1964 population
that will continue to frequent a professional photographer for a family or individual
portrait. However, those of us tail-end baby boomer's will reach for our I Phone 4S / 5's
and take a snap of our kids and be done with it after uploading to our p.c.and printing
on our HP's / Epson's. Sad to say, but digital has all but wiped out the golden age of
photography as a profession in portrait photography. Yes, I agree!
Great article, and feedback. Someone has “moved the cheese” How shall we respond?
1. Bury our head in the sand and hope that things turn around?
2. Slash our jprices in an effort to compete, and keep slashing, until we are broke?
3. Find a different client base that is less effectied (Commerecial? Fine Art?).
4. Close our doors and sell our gear while it still has value, and find a new way to feed our families? This is probably a better option than many would like to believe. Remember the ealry days of digital? Remember the cries of “Film will never die”? Remember how a H’blad kept it’s value for decades… until digital, and now it’s practically worthless?
5. Be as creative in our advertising and marketing as we are behind the camera to find new markets and products.
I’m not saying the industry needs to choose a path, and follow it. Each of us as individual professional wedding and portrait photographers must make some very hard decisions, and work like never beofre to make them happen.
I konw what I”m doing. And although it is a bit hazy, I can see light at the end of the tunnel.
Wow! I totally disagree with your take on the industry Bette, and most heartily with the statement that “Not so if you are a portrait photographer. Here your skill doesn’t matter.”
As the first consultant in the industry and one who has guided photogs for over 30 years,
I feel pretty confident in my knowledge base. As I work daily with portrait photographers, agents and clients who hire photogs, I would say that more than ever before talent, knowledge of craft and VISION are the key components that successful photographers must show on their websites and in their print and iPad portfolios. I was a reviewer in NYC last year at a portfolio review for 3 days.I met with over 70 buyers, editorial, design advertising and all of them reflected the words I’ve shared here. It does NOT serve our industry to alarm people with statements that just aren’t true.YES our industry is suffering as many are, but to say its because of one factor, generational differences is also not true.There are many factors that have created the tough situation that all photographers face today, yet there are many photographers who are succeeding and there are specific steps they have taken that contribute to their prosperous business.I know this intimately as I work with them every day.
In regards to your statement: “Not so if you are a portrait photographer. Here your skill doesn’t matter.” tell that to Michael Grecco, Daniel Root, Daniel Arnaldi,Andy Goodwin, Kike Calvo,or Zave Smith, they’d be outraged.
Selina: Glad to see you participate in our discussion. (For anyone who doesn’t know her – Selina has been a consultant for quite some time and is well respected.)
The portrait photography I refer to in this article is not geared toward portrait photographers like Michael Grecco (whom I work with) who create business to business portraiture. This article is written specifically about the largest group of professional photographers that have portrait studios, do family portraits, and often weddings. The photography business to consumer segment of our industry has been hit very hard as I explained in the article.
Generational differences in consumer behavior is a HUGE debate in the marketing world and probably the biggest and most valid argument of the article. Changing values do affect buying behavior drastically. But, I can agree that we disagree on this point.
My article does not alarm an industry in general. It is very specifically addressing one segment of photography. It is brought up every single day from photographers all over the world. This discussion must have gotten several hundred comments on all social media channels and most photographers do agree with my sentiments, although there are exceptions.
Just like you, I work with quite a few photography professionals that are building businesses and are flourishing. My apologies if it wasn’t clear from the article that this was geared toward consumer portraiture.
Your passionate response just shows how dedicated you are to help this industry! So I thank you for that.
Thank you Beate and Selina for your attention to the photography biz. I follow both of your posts – and appreciate reading the exchange you are having here (seemingly opposed but simultaneously true) on the subject of generational changes, technology, and photography. I recognize myself in Beate’s description of herself – her age and relationship to a young adult child; I am also very inspired by my kid’s world – it shows me what the future looks like … while gaining access to a future that is in reality present tense; As to Selina’s point – I like to believe that cream rises to the top; so talent in all genres of photography always remains in demand. The practical issues remain (which you two both address): how is the word getting out there, who’s listening, and who is spending (and how much).
On the heels of rapid change – we are in free fall – ultimately though highly creative, experimental, and productive times. May the best land on their feet!
Thanks Roberta, you have said that very well. I appreciate your thoughtful comments.
Not that portrait photography is a part of my field, I still feel the need to express my agreement with Beate, in terms of where the more common portraiture has been heading. Someone above expressed it perfectly when they quoted a bride about her wedding photog, “Why (paraphrasing) would I pay you thousands of dollars when all you are doing is taking pictures?” So for this genre of client, perhaps generationally different than others, her point is extremely valid, IF and only IF you accept that she and others like her, don’t need the value of and artistic eye in a shoot. She only wants pictures. That may or not be a generational thing, but with the availability of the iPhones and small inexpensive digital devices which capture images, the need for quick captures can be much more important than a desire for a very long-lasting set of multi-generational images to hang, or place in an album. And yes cheap is a key word, unfortunately today, for different generations of people and for those in any generation who cannot afford a great photog. Nice start in your series Beate.
Great post and comments.
While there is a change in what the consumer wants, as a photographer, it’s you that needs to change, not the consumer that needs to remain the same.
It is also comical to hear comments about weekend photographers and arguments as to why the portrait industry has suffered, as well as, their portrait business due to these shoot and burners with cheap cameras and cheap prices. As one is those weekend photographers with little training and experience (started in 2009) I used to be offended, now I just laugh, it’s just so funny. I listed my website, check it out, trust me I put my best on my site but do you think for one minute Michael Grecco is worried about what I’m doing, what kind of camera I am using, and how much I’m charging?
Be creative instead of whining about what others are doing. If your confident in what your doing, what other people are doing is unimportant.
Take for example a recent photo salon I attended with a new presenter no one knew. Everyone was just amazed at the art this women created and finally everyone wanted to know what kind of camera did she use. It was a cheap point & shoot!
Have you heard of http://www.ippawards.com? Check it out! There is a wealth of inspiring art created with iPhones!
Jim Johnson said it so well, here is my version: What is going to happen is the new portrait photographer is going to figure out how to market their skills to the new generation of consumers and create a new product and consumer experience to match. Those will be the successful portrait photographers in my opinion.
In the early days of Photography every day people were not well enough educated to posses the skills to do photography. But today every one has imaging devices that require no skills at all. So people that are in the position to be well enough educated and have generated the skill sets to create there own plates for B&W, and Mono Chrome, as well as Color, and process them. Without the aid of another persons lab. These are the Photographers that will always have as much work as they want. As they are interesting people, and interesting people do interesting work. And interesting work will always have a market. I have so much fun bending light. With plate, film, digital.
There is a very solid act of entitlement in diminishing people in a fawning but veiled nature. I here mention of the number so Generation Y, and the skipping of generation X. I hear a voice assuring these people they are smart for knowing certain technological gadgets better than say a Boomer. I hear one respondent claiming it is better to shake with hands and to find comfort and like thinking, lets keep more of ‘us’ the boomers around. So let me begin my attempt at fawning. The boomer generation was not there parents greatest generation, but they did, as some have said, have the highest amount of ontological awareness. It is well socially documented, it was entertainment at the peak of this awareness of being, documented and blown in Easy Rider, and sung to the end of the night by the Doors. After all the excess of the boomers early adulthood, the inherited reward for burning Japan and Germany to the ground in World War II, they discovered cheap labor and slowly sold the middle class for foreign currency exchange. In microbiology, bacteria are known to have a lag, an exponential growth, and a death phase. From 30,000 feat, and most likely from the historical perspective, our moral and ethical contracts have been so neglected in view of excess resources, it is no wonder younger generations have sociopathic manners and need for I mediated gratification. These things don’t happen in a vacuum, just look at the drug, free sex, economic hedonistic policies of their parents the boomers. The greatest generation is great in my mind because they faced good versus evil scale ethical decisions, in a Kantian sense, and evil was destroyed. It is a shame that with the spoils of that rich outs victory, those children where spoiled. Do not indulge your children, they must work for their personal economies.