Monday, April 10, 2017

State of the Photographic Industry 2017

What is the state of the photographic industry in 2017? Where is it headed?
I've been asked to comment on what I believe the state of the photographic industry is in 2017. I have no special insights on this, just my own knowledge, experiences and observations, which probably aren't worth a whole lot. But since I was asked I'll give my two cents.

The question can be divided into two departments: gear industry and photography industry. These are two very separate things within the photographic sphere, and I'll talk about both.

State of the Camera/Gear Industry
The Wonder of Film Photography - South Weber, Utah
It's no big secret (even though some companies have tried to make it a big secret) that camera and photographic gear sales have been in decline for a couple years now. People just aren't buying new equipment at the rate that they had in years past. The sales decline is found in almost every category and subcategory of gear.

There are a couple reasons for this. First, digital camera technology has reached a point where everything is pretty darn good and at the same time there aren't enough new innovations to lure upgrades. Very recently a photographer confided that he was disappointed his brand new $2,000 camera wasn't all that much better than his five-year-old camera. He asked, "Why did I just spend two grand on this?" And that's the industry right now in a nutshell. People aren't sure why they should buy that new gear and so they don't. What they already own is more than good enough.

The second reason that gear sales are in decline are cellphones. A big chunk of camera sales used to be pocket point-and-shoots. Even though "professional photographers" weren't the ones typically buying these, the big profits helped support the development of higher-end gear. But cellphones, which now have sufficient image quality across the board, have significantly eaten away the market for pocket cameras. People decided that they didn't need to have two cameras on them, so they chose the one that also allowed instant editing and sharing (among other things).

It makes me wonder why Canon and Nikon and others have not ventured into the cellphone marketplace. Why aren't these camera companies making Android phones designed with photography in mind? They should be leading the way on this! Instead, Google, Apple, Huawei, Samsung, Sony and others have been the innovators. It seems like such a lost opportunity.

It's not all doom-and-gloom. There are some areas where sales have been growing. Two areas in particular are fascinating to me because many had left them for dead.
Three Cameras With Stripes - South Weber, Utah
One is digital medium format. When the full-frame Nikon D800 came out (followed quickly by the D800E and then the D810), which had tons of resolution and dynamic range and pretty darn good high ISO capabilities, some thought that this was the beginning of the end of medium format. Why spend three or four (or more) times the money on something that's only marginally better, if better at all? Sony and Canon weren't too far behind with full-frame cameras that had even higher resolution. Added to this was a tiny trickling of new medium format gear.

Yes, digital medium format was going to be a memory and nothing more. Except that's not what happened. I don't think many would have guessed two years ago that medium format would be booming today, but right now it is! This is one of the big areas of growth within the photographic industry, with Fujifilm and Hasselblad leading the way.

The second area where sales are unexpectedly growing is film products. Film died in 2002, right? Not exactly. Film products of all kinds are significantly on the rise, and the growth seems to be largely with young people who had no prior experience with film. Go figure!

What I'm about to say is a little off topic, but this seems like a good place to insert it. I have a great idea for a camera. I think it's the next million-dollar photo product. But I don't have the money or skills required to bring it to market (not even close on both accords). If you are a camera company executive and reading this, contact me. I'll pitch the camera idea to you and see what you think. I believe there is a real money-making opportunity. Anyway....

Camera gear is always in a state of fluctuation. There are ups and downs. Right now things are largely down, but don't expect that to last very long. Soon there will be a new hot product, a new innovation, a new trend, that will drive the next great wave of sales.

State of the Photographer
Two Photographers At Glacier Point - Yosemite National Park, California
What's the state of the industry like if you are a photographer? Are opportunities abounding or shrinking? How easy or hard is it to break through in 2017? Do photography jobs still exist?

I believe that there are three basic tiers of professional photographers: low, mid and high. On the low end you have those who earn a part-time living from photography. The middle tier are those who are full-time photographers whose household income comes mostly from photography, but aren't exactly earning the big bucks. At the high end are those making a really nice income from photography, somewhere well above the average national income level (roughly $75,000 annually or more, just throwing a figure out there).

The low tier is significantly over-saturated with run-of-the-mill talent. Everybody has a camera and everyone's a photographer. An entry-level DSLR (which is capable of more than sufficient image quality) is easily affordable, and a website and business cards are cheap. It doesn't take much to begin earning something. But because there are way more photographers than there is a demand for low-budget photography, most of these people will never move up from this level.

A side effect of the low tier being over-saturated is that it requires more talent to move up out of it than it used to, even compared to just 10 years ago. There are a lot of talented people that just get lost in the overwhelming crowd. And being talented with a camera isn't enough. You have to be just as good at the business side of things as the photo side of things.

All the while the over-saturation of the lower tier has made the work available for the middle tier significantly shrink. Access to sufficient quality images has become much easier and cheaper. What once required a middle tier photographer doesn't anymore. So it's become more and more difficult to make a full-time living from photography. You are just as likely to get squeezed out of the middle tier as you are to move up to it from the lower tier.
Today's Girl Photographer - Barstow, California
The upper tier, which is where you want to be, has plenty of work. The demand for this tier is just as great now as it was 10 and 20 and 30 years ago. But it takes much more to get to this tier. The skill level and business acumen required is much higher than it used to be. Whatever genre you are in, you have to be one of the best of the best.

In a sense it has never been more difficult to break into the photographic industry. And in another sense it has never been easier. There are so many resources and so many avenues, any old Joe with enough photographic and business talent can quickly make it to the top. There is so much right at your fingertips. The right person under the right circumstances can have mega success, and it might even seem to the outsider as if it were easy.

Once upon a time not all that long ago, if you didn't go to the right schools, or intern for the right photographers, or hang out with the right crowds, it was difficult to get discovered. It was more about taking the "right" steps than anything else. Often it was more about who you knew. All of that has been tossed out the window.

So whether or not the industry is better or worse, easier or more difficult, growing or shrinking, it all depends on your perspective. Because it is all of that and more. So you have to forge your own path and make your own success. You can do it, but don't expect an easy path.

There's another large group within the photographic sphere that I haven't mentioned: the hobbyist. These people aren't in it for the money, although they certainly have an impact on all aspects of the industry (to one extent or another). But it is hard to figure out exactly what their place is in all of this (except that hobby photographers spend lots of money within the industry). These are exciting times for the hobbyist, with gear becoming better and more affordable every year, and with plentiful platforms to share one's images. For these people, the industry has never been better, and next year holds even more promise.

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