Photo illustration for Time by Arthur Hochstein. Coin jar from iStockphoto. Insets, from left: Jon Rasmussen/AFP/Getty Images; Andrew Macpherson/Corbis Outline.
Aside from the dramatic technological advancements, broad cultural shifts have occurred, too. More and more people have taken advantage of the D-SLR's instant feedback to improve their photography, helping them to become more creative and more successful image makers. Many people now feel capable of making high-quality photographs in ways that only pros were once deemed able, inspiring some of them to venture into the commercial realm of photography. This is where things get tricky.
Digital technology has changed the way photographers are able to charge for their work. The rise of Flickr as a centralized venue for showcasing millions of great amateur photographs has changed the way photo buyers shop for images. Creative Commons licenses, which are often employed by Flickr photographers in search of exposure, have transformed many buyers into borrowers—trading the publication of an image for simple credit in lieu of cold, hard cash.
Such crowdsourcing has permanently changed the value of the photographic image. Many professional photographers (myself included) have long resisted this devaluation as a threat to our incomes. But we'e overlooking one simple fact: It is done. The market for photography has already transformed. The changes aren't happening—they have happened. Images are not worth what they once were. The value of many photographs today has been deemed—by their creators—commensurate with the value of a byline.
Some photographers do still prefer payment in lieu of credit, but the payments aren't what they once were. Whereas stock agencies may have traditionally represented 10 or 100 or even 1000 photographers to produce high-level photographs that sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars each, microstock agencies rely on many more photographers to create many more images that sell for a fraction of the previous cost. It’s the "infinite monkey theorem:" Give enough amateur photographers enough time and they will produce great work. Saleable, even. Microstock capitalizes on this "accidental excellence" to create a booming business. Booming for the agencies—like the one that Getty bought for $50 million—while professional photographers who once made a living via stock are going bust.
A recent cover of Time magazine (www.time.com) clearly represents the change. It was made by an amateur photographer and licensed—for $30—via a microstock agency. Good, bad or indifferent, it happened. This is the new value of photography, a value set by the photographer who licenses his work for pennies on the dollar. If you believe that the value of something is only what a buyer will pay for it, you understand that no amount of wishing or hoping or resisting will make a photograph worth any more than what it's sold for. Professional photographers may insist that a cover of Time magazine is "worth" thousands; as proven in this instance, however, it is sometimes worth only $30.
The time for resistance is over. Photographers must start looking ahead.
There have always been newbies happy to donate their work in exchange for exposure. Continuing to fight the web-based version of this trend just makes the establishment appear whiny, bitter and out of touch. The crowdsourcing genie is out of the bottle, and nothing is going to put him back in. Instead, established photographers had better learn how to earn an income in this uncharted photographic landscape.
Photographers without a monetary stake in the game, without any aspirations to ever make dollar one from their photographs, will remain blissfully exempt from these suggestions. They're not trying to give up their jobs as accountants or carpenters or schoolteachers in favor of a career in photography; they just want to take great pictures and get them seen. All a professional can do in the face of this is to grin and bear it—and then find new avenues for income by improving their own work. They won't ever persuade customers who want good photos cheap to spend more for quality, but perhaps they can find the ones who will pay for nothing but the best. The cream always rises, and the best of the best will surely fill the niche where "good enough" just isn't. That's the first task on which photographers who hope to make a living should focus their attention: Become a master photographer.
The second way to earn a living with photography is to take assignments instead of shooting for stock. When a company needs photographs of its specific employees, products or locations, it will hire a photographer. Sure, there may be competition from amateurs and newbies, but this again is where quality comes into play. Buyers of the best, those who won't compromise to save a buck, will continue to provide a living wage for photographers. Cater to them.
There also is a gray area between pure hobbyists and professional photographers, however, and the people who reside there have an interest in photography's value too. Not long ago I might have pleaded with them to not give away their work for fear that it would devalue photography, but that is now a moot point. These days I simply ask advanced amateurs and semi-professionals who do aspire to someday earn their living from photography simply to be careful when licensing and displaying their work—because if they're not, there may be no profession for them to aspire to.
Amateur or professional, photographers with the long-term commercial viability of their medium in mind have never been well-served by giving away work today in hopes of charging for it tomorrow. Pros have long dealt with this sort of amateur incursion, and most new competitors quickly learn that promises of future work in exchange for current credit aren't worth the paper they are printed on. With two billion photographs on Flickr, though, there's now always someone willing to step up and give it away.