Waiting for the Air Force to decide whether they’re going to launch an Atlas 5 rocket or not is a good opportunity to get to know your fellow photographers. At some point it’s inevitable that the conversation will turn to how hard it is to make money in photography. The usual topics are disappearing markets, lower income, more competition.
While those observations are accurate, it’s always been hard to make a living in photography. It could well be argued that the challenges today are no worse than they’ve ever been in the business. More likely what I’m hearing from others who have been in the business for decades is that the way you make money is changing and many old timers are having trouble adapting.
Photography Business 2.0
It’s true that digital photography has, in many ways, revolutionized the business. Cameras are better, sensors are better, computers inside the cameras are way better. Digital cameras today rival and even surpass film in terms of quality. Film may never completely die, but these days it’s becoming more of a retro novelty.
That change is good and bad. The price of cameras has come down, putting pro class hardware in the hands of amateurs. No one has to spend large amounts of money on film. Drive space is cheap and it costs very little to blast away with a digital camera. The photography equivalent of “spray and pray.” Digital cameras are everywhere and there’s an explosion of available photos. Have enough people taking enough pictures and it’s inevitable one or two will be keepers. Even a blind sow gets an acorn once in a while.
Stock photography sites are stuffed with low cost competition. Fewer and fewer companies are hiring assignment photographers because there will almost certainly be someone with a camera at any major event. Why hire when you can spend a few dollars buying shots from someone who’s already there?
And yet opportunities abound in photography. So many that many photographers have been able to abandon traditional bread-and-butter specialty markets like wedding photography.
There are entire new markets that didn’t exist before in specialty photography. Specialties like high speed photography. You can’t take pictures of industrial speed processes with a point and shoot camera. Not only do specialists in high speed photography make a good living, some of them are booked for months in advance.
For the artistic among us, another specialty market is food photography. Never underestimate the demand for pictures of food. It just astounds me. Food photographers are always booked and the best command truly eye-popping rates.
Infrared photography is another specialty that’s continually in demand, particularly in applications of energy efficiency. Figuring out where businesses are losing heat, where they can lower their utility bills. Big money there.
Industrial photography, specialized equipment that can be threaded inside pipes and machinery to give engineers and technicians pictures and video of what’s going on inside their machines, is another area of strong demand. And, if you have a background in science, it’s endlessly fascinating.
So, the key to making a living in photography is just what it’s always been: Finding a niche and establishing yourself. These days you have to think differently about how to make a living, but, lucky you, you have so many more options to think about.