Professional Photographers Find Massively Successful New Careers Helping Amateurs Be Better Photographers

from the don't-sit-and-whine dept

One of the most vocal groups of folks we’ve seen, when it comes to resisting the changing market dynamics brought about by digital technologies and the internet, is not the music or movie industries… but photographers. We’ve seen photographers compare microstock photo sites to pollution and drug dealing in terms of the “harm” that they can do. We’ve seen photographers complain that amateurs are destroying the market. Certainly, not all professional photographers are like this — and we’ve heard from plenty who are doing cool and unique business models as well. Rob Hyndman pointed us to an interesting story at Slate, that discusses a few professional photographers who have found massive success (much more than they had before) by helping those nasty amateurs become much better in the craft of photography:

At first glance, David Hobby looks like just another casualty of the decline of print media: A longtime staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun, he was one of many employees who accepted a buyout in 2008 as part of broad staff reductions at the distressed newspaper.

Yet last month he embarked on a sold-out, cross-country tour that will visit 29 cities. Approximately $1 million in tickets have been sold for the privilege of hearing Hobby and famed magazine photographer Joe McNally speak about their craft. Hobby’s blog, Strobist, on which he teaches amateurs the lighting techniques used by professionals, welcomed 2 million unique visitors last year.

Those two photographers totally have the right attitude. Rather than looking at the changing market and crying about how they can’t make money the way they used to, they both see these changes as an opportunity, which is allowing them to do quite well, from the sound of things. The attitude that McNally has is really perfect:

McNally doesn’t see anything demeaning in sharing his insights with thousands of amateurs; rather, he says he’s come to enjoy teaching. “If you encounter passion, you have to counter it with your own passion,” he says. “Even if, at the end of the day, you feel they’re not going to go out the next day and climb the Empire State Building.

That sentiment is alien to the old guard in the professional photography world, where, Hobby says, “there’s a lot of information-hoarding, and [a sense that] if I teach this person how to do this, he’ll become my competition.” Once the dust settles from all the change he’s helped bring about, Hobby thinks there will still be legitimate careers for professional photographers. “You’ll have fewer rock stars, and a much larger middle class,” he says, a group of photographers who will find ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

Those two paragraphs could certainly apply to almost all of the various industries we talk about here. You can fight change, or you can realize how change often opens up a much larger market, and you can take the same passion you have directly into that new market.

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Comments on “Professional Photographers Find Massively Successful New Careers Helping Amateurs Be Better Photographers”

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Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

This is the future of music

I’ve very much an advocate of giving everyone the tools to become creators themselves. I think the “direct to fan” model that has replaced the major label system is just the same old model on a smaller scale. It continues to assume there are music creators who will get to sell their creations to passive fans who are happy to consume them.

I think the successful musicians of the future will be more like enablers or community builders. Their shows will be about involving the fans in the process so that the fans feel creative themselves rather than worshiping the performer on stage.

This is why the local cover band that gets everyone dancing or the community singalong may be the better entertainment experience for average people than paying for expensive tickets so they can sit in seats and watch someone else perform.

It’s been hard to convince many musicians that the future may be more about them helping others make music than in finding audiences for their own music, but I think it is already happening as the music app market continues to grow. When everyone carries a music-making machine in their pockets, they become interested in what they themselves can do.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: This is the future of music

It is happening, but a lot of the discussions about music are still about being your own rock star. “You’ll sell merchandise.” “You’ll sell VIP packages.”

What I am suggesting is that the most successful musicians may not be “creators” at all. People won’t come to them to buy what they create. People will come to them to become the creators themselves. While this sounds like teaching, it’s not in the old sense. It’s more about participatory art, where everyone does it and gets to make an “original” they can call their own.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: This is the future of music

Here’s another way to understand the distinction. The new music “rock stars” may be the app developers rather than people who play music to entertain passive audiences. Those who put the most music-creating tools into the hands of everyone will have a more profound influence than those who merely use the tools.

We’ve already seen how producers often became more famous than the artists they worked with. Now take that a step further to a world where the artists and producers fade back and it’s the apps creators who take the lead.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: "Photographers"?

Just because someone has a digital camera and a copy of photoshop does not make them a photographer, amateur or otherwise. Browse through flickr and you’ll see what an amazing amount of crap that’s out there now. And don’t get me started on facebook or instagram – FFS

What does that have to do with anything in the story?

Yes, there are plenty of people taking crappy shots. So what? We’re talking about people who aren’t taking crappy shots.

vbevan (profile) says:

That was my first thought as well, that it’s a little presumptuous to say that a professional photographer should be happy moving from photography to teaching. It’s not like an athlete becoming a coach, where it’s an inevitable move you have to make to stay in the industry. I’m sure alot of photographers would prefer not to teach, simply because they don’t enjoy it.

But in this case, I think Mike is actually focusing on the existence of a group of photographers who don’t teach due to fear of competition, not on some sudden new market niche that professional photographers should be filling.

On the fear of skill transference leading to obsolescence, isn’t this akin to a musician teaching someone how to play the piano, or write sheet music, and then finding that there is no longer demand for them in the music world?

Taking that further, imagine how many techniques and skills in photography die because people are too afraid to pass on the knowledge. Experimentation is good, but almost all the great musicians were mentored by someone equally famous.

It’s funny, but this puts me in mind of the whole “infringement=theft” argument, where people think that the reproduction of a piece of work someone means there is now less of that work in existence.

It’s sad that some photographers must think their work can be replicated by “having the right settings and pressing a button”, since they obviously don’t believe they add anything to their work beyond that.

Wow, that was a ramble, obviously I must be sleep deprived. Didn’t think I had that large an opinion the short-sightedness of parts of the professional photography industry.

Richard (profile) says:

Re: Re:

As has always been the case, the major income earner from cultural activities is teaching. Before the advent of recording it was pretty much the only significant source of income for professional musicians.

It is also true of sports people too – most professional golfers are teachers not tournament players.

In the far East teaching is not looked down upon like we misguidedly do in the West.

In Japan “sensei” (teacher) is the greatest possible term of esteem.

Photographers should look upon the advent of teaching as a major activity as being an elevation of their profession from a utility to an art.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

A great instructor, teacher, master, mentor, what have you, makes all the difference in not only gaining or expanding a skill but teaching also benefits instructors by learning from their students, seeing from other perspectives, exposure to methods, technology, the unfamiliar…

None of us live forever, but a great teacher’s work will always live beyond them in what they’ve imparted to their students.

The MaskedAvenger says:

Think about this!

Anyone can be taught how to hold a brush, mix colours, the principals of light and composition. But not everyone will be a daVinci or a Turner or a Picasso. True artistry and creativeness that lifts the extraordinary above the merely competent is something you either have or do not.

Sure lessons will help and maybe there will be less ?crappy? photos around so all power to those professionals who are willing to help empower the masses.

Hjoranna says:

I have run into the old guard on several forums. The one thing that always amazed me is that I get called an amateur, a hack, a noob (and I am). I am told my shots are bad, the lighting is wrong, composition blah blah blah, but in the same breath these “pros” will complain that I am ruining the market because I give away all my stuff for free. What I dont understand is that if I am so bad and they are so good, how am I a threat? If they cant compete with a “monkey with a camera”, who is really the problem?

Anonymous Coward says:

IMO, this quote says it best:

You’ll have fewer rock stars, and a much larger middle class

Many creative professionals that are reliant on the old system believe that they aren’t good enough to fit into the “rock star” category, and this frightens the bejeezus out of them.. This goes for photographers, musicians, writers, filmmakers… All of them.

It frightens them because they think that the new world order (so to speak) will “out” them as the hacks they think themselves to truly be (whether they really are hacks or not is actually beside the point). And in this new stratification, they will lose their place as a “true artist” and end up in the ocean of mediocrity that is starting to swell at their feet.

For the rest of us fish, though, this ocean swell is just what we need to go from being the weird uncle who carries his camera everywhere to someone who actually may make a little weekend cash on his favorite hobby.

It’s the same thing as what’s happening in the music world: the labels are starting to flounder because they were only interested in the “rock stars”, and the swelling middle class is starting to think out their ranks.

a-dub (profile) says:

The strobist blog is awesome.

Two grand a weekend isn’t bad if you ask me…and thats on the low side of what wedding photographers charge. It may not be glamorous work, but it will certainly pay the bills.

Basically, any good photographer can make that kind of money so when they start complaining about not making money, they either choose not to go out and get it or they really weren’t that good to begin with.

Paul Pelak (profile) says:

Long Answer…

There is a lot to consider as technology changes the face of industries it touches; most professional photographers that have started their business in the days of film long for the “good old days”. What we did back then was special, not everyone could do it like a pro; it was like alchemy! We would move around strange lights, peer into our black boxes, shout out at our models and make big flashes. Then we would take our pieces of treasure, stored in dark containers that let in no light, to a special place that only professionals knew existed. Here it would be handled by other pros in lab coats that would go into the dark and using crude and smelly chemicals turn that piece of acetate into a precious colored jewel that would be reproduced thousands of times over. Our glass was better, our shutters faster, our film larger; we had meters and polaroids that allowed us to be accurate within a half stop in exposure (anything more and the chrome was just about usleless).

I know of some pros that would buy a case of Kodachrome, store it in the rafters of their barn, test shoot it and when the color was just right, they would freeze it so they could use it for jobs. Now people complain whtn their 16GB CF card takes more than a few moments to download.

So when a pimpled faced kid from Iowa with no training gets lucky, shoots a decent composition then runs it though some filters to mask his lack of knowledge and gives it to a company to use for free, maybe you could see why there is a chance for some animosity.

Everything changes, we all need more and more training; we all need help in doing what we love better. I personally do not know of any professionals that are not willing to share everything they know if asked. Maybe because all the pros I know all have big enough egos but are not even close to thinking they know everything. What I hate is what the buying public is willing to use to save a buck; but can you blame them when I personally make those same choices to save a dollar in my own life.

I just thank God that I get paid to do what I love to do; it helps during the lean times.

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