Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is The Amateur Really A Threat to the Pro?

Consider the photographer who has an unlimited amount of time to accomplish an image. Or, the student, who has a week or two to complete an assignment on, say, lighting a bowl of fruit. Or, the hobbyist photographer, who stumbles upon a great image. Are these photographers a threat to the photographer who works on assignment?

(Continued after the Jump)

I submit that they are not, in almost all cases. Judy Hermann, over at the ASMP Strictly Business blog wrote a few days ago - A Walk in Your Client's Shoes - and noted, in part, "If it was your job on the line, what would you need to see, what would you need to hear, what would you need to know to feel safe hiring a particular photographer?"

A track record of success is one of the key elements that a prospective client is looking for. Sometimes, a client is looking for multiple jobs for the same client in a portfolio over a period of time - say, a campaign. This suggests continuity and consistency that they can depend upon. Sometimes, a client will see your coverage of a significant event, and determine that if you were hired (i.e. depended upon) to cover *that* event for someone, surely you could cover X event that your prospective client needs you for. And sometimes, not seeing just sample work on a website, but clips and covers is a demonstration that you can deliver on time and with a high degree of certainty.

When you are a student, you might shoot the assignment three or four times, realizing you missed a critical issue each time, and then, finally got it right. The hobbyist photographer can take thousands of images of the sunset, their kids, and so on and, based upon the laws of statistics, eventually get an amazing shot. Sometimes, they simultaneously stumble into *how* to make that image, and thus repeat it. Usually, however, they don't. Einstein once famously said "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

No one has to say "he's a professional accountant", or, "she's a professional doctor." Merriam-Webster sets forth the use of the word "professional" - "participating for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs {a professional golfer}", thus, "professional photographer" needs the modifier "professional" in front of it. As does "professional surfer", "professional volleyball player," and, yes "professional bass fisherman."

Journalist Samuel Friedman wrote, in the CBS News piece - Outside Voices: Samuel Freedman On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro:
To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.
Rob Haggart, over at A Photo Editor, defined professional by quoting a Mario Batali, in writing that the difference between an "amazing amateur chef and a professional chef is the ability to make that perfect meal 100 times in a row." Thus, the counter to Einstein's insanity definition, is the definition of "professional" that I will put forth here. The definition of professional is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting similar results."

How many times a month can a magazines' photo editor commission an assignment and get nothing usable back before their job is on the line? Once? Twice? If twice every other month a shoot was unusable, their judgement would be called into question and in short order they would lose their job. How about the advertising job, where the photographer can't deliver while the ad agency rep and their client are both on set, and the shoot fizzles because of the photographers' inability to deliver?

The challenge for the photo editor, art buyer, and so on, is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the professional who can deliver, from the amateur who has a nice portfolio, but can't be counted on with a high degree of certainty to produce. The problem arises, when the prospective client is not comparing apples to apples, but the professional and the amateur, as if they are interchangeable. It's one thing when the art buyer is looking at a stock image - it either is good enough, or it's not. It either meets their needs, or it doesn't.

However, when it comes to assigning work, commissioning it, or otherwise asking for images of non-repeating, or not-re-shootable work, getting a professional who can deliver, means the amateur will lose out. When the amateur doesn't lose out, a risk greater than gambling in Las Vegas is undertaken, and the commissioning party is betting their job. Over time, those who fail to discern the differences between the amateur and the professional, become the chaff to their "wheaty" brethren who survive in their field.

Please post your comments by clicking the link below. If you've got questions, please pose them in our Photo Business Forum Flickr Group Discussion Threads.


Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

The client who posted on Judy Herrman's blog said it all. That's 80% of the corporate clients and 90% of the agencies. That leaves a fraction of the market for photographers to do something nice in.

I live with it every day. It might be different in DC but not in the other 50.

John Harrington said...

Kirk --

That client wrote, in part:
>>>Most of the time, I find great images online for almost no cost. There’s no risk, and I can see what I’m getting up front....I bought 5 images for a project this morning for less than $40.

That's in reference to STOCK imagery. The portrait assignment, the assignment of an executive's portrait, a CEO, a new product on seamless, a new-and-improved production facility for the annual report, the coverage of an event/press conference/symposium/conference, and the list goes on and on.

That photography client - as a Fortune 500 business, they HAVE money. There are tons of stories of high profile companies buying stock and using it only to find their direct competition using the SAME image. ASMP has great examples of Dell and Gateway doing just that. That "photography client" is just a part of the chaff that is on the other side of the field, and hasn't been separated yet from the wheat. They will learn, but it may take some time.

Will Seberger said...

John, I largely agree with you except for one caveat:

Nearly everyone with a camera has a few good frames in them no matter how much time they spend shooting.

The Internet allows them to get their few (or many) good frames out there much more easily.

There are enough people out there that, en masse, the one-hit wonders pose more of a threat to the tried-and-true grinders.

Additionally, while there are many great ADs out there with talent and vision, there are more who can't be bothered to give a stuff; to the extent that "available free/cheap" outstrips "good."

Frankly, as corporations find ways to monetize everything that's out there under CC licenses a lot of the paid-for work is going to fade away, if it hasn't already.

People consume and dispose voraciously. We have safe tap water in basically every corner of the US, and yet we buy bottled water in a container that will be used for mere minutes (excluding shipping).

People look at the picture, and then it's on to the next thing. That's how the amateurs individually providing a few pictures, but collectively providing tons (and freely, at that) become a threat.

Edward said...

People look at the picture, and then it's on to the next thing. That's how the amateurs individually providing a few pictures, but collectively providing tons (and freely, at that) become a threat.But that's stock....which IMHO I think is dead or dying for the exact reason you state. Individually an ammeter can't deliver but collectively there is a glut of free images out there (potentially) and if an image fits the need then any business will prefer spending $0 than some +$1 multiple thereof.

Personally I'm seeing an ever so slight reversal back to paying pro photographers for pro work (weddings, portraits, the one off unrepeatable non-stock images) rather than people shopping for bottom dollar.

William Beem said...

I think your comments may hold true for most, but not all, amateurs. There's no reason that an amateur can't get a great shots as often as a professional if he or she is dedicated to the task at hand. Most amateurs probably don't give it that much dedication, but there are some amazing photographers out there who shoot as well or better than many professionals.

Never underestimate your adversary.

Dave said...

I think what your saying holds true for certain types of photography clients. I think there is an invisible line somewhere with the kind of work where price is becoming the number one concern of clients. I really believe that there is a trend of "all we need is good enough". I've listened to all these asmp examples and lines about professionals and they all seem to exist in a vacuum. Yes, when there is something critical about the shoot, the client will probably look for a proven pro. I just think the the middle to lower end clients are really starting to put price before anything else. On top of that I think most of their photography needs are just not that critical. Designers are getting so talented with photoshop that they can turn a mediocre image into something much better for their clients. I've chosen to not waste time on this trend and focus on quality clients that are looking for quality photography.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

Hmmmm. It didn't seem like a response about stock when I read it. It seemed like stock vs assignment. Here's the real deal: The economy is beating up a lot of traditional businesses (outside of DC...) and the one's that aren't getting beat up are in hibernation waiting for the market to return. When the buyers return the marketers will have a new understanding that print is going away and TV and Web are the two best mass market buys left.

They will maximize their expenditures in these two markets. Ad pages (the real market for still images) will continue to shrink into tiny niche areas.

The web is all about low res, short time frame exposure. It is a conceit to think that clients need or will pay for very expensive photography when so much almost free stuff is available.

You may disagree but I had lunch on Monday with an AiGA Fellow, distinguished designer, who has worked on both coasts for 25 years. He's as busy as a one armed paper hanger but he admitted that neither he nor anyone else in their agency has commissioned a traditional photo assignment in at least the last two years. This was an agency that spend millions each year on productions in the 1990's.

Most designers and AD's seem quite happy to buy a generic image and then PhotoShop the hell out of it to "personalize" it.

I agree that CEO's still need their images taken and products still need to be shot but the trend in our city is for the really big companies like Dell, etc. is to forego the relationships we've built for years/decades and hire in-house entry level people who shoot to a format and provide "good enough for the web" stuff.

Let's not fool ourselves. There is a decay in all traditional areas of opportunity and all the bluster that the ASMP wants to put out there isn't going to change the equation or empower photographers to get back work that the client can now get from a royalty free disk.

Yes, the very top of the market will do okay. But once those one hundred have been through the buffet the rest of the photographers will be lucky to find the few errant crumbs.

And it will go on this way until the web goes high res and the audience can see the missing details, etc. But by them I fear most of the content will be moving. Video.

And Vincent LaForet not withstanding, the video market is complex, mature, collaborative, and very, very competitive.

According to some sources the only growth market for established photographers in the last year was.......teaching workshops to amateurs.

Matthew Saville said...

I'll start by mentioning that the LAST paragraph resonates with me, at least a little-

...Yep. A company takes a huge risk when they hire an amateur to do something that has for years required a highly skilled, trained professional. Snapping a family photo is one thing, but using 5+ off-camera lights to perfectly illuminate a model, product, or scene is an entirely different task. Photographers go to school and pay thousands of dollars to learn "perfect lighting" for a reason- there is a market for that skill, and you can NOT fake such a look if you don't know what you're doing. Just pick up any architectural magazine, and tell me how many amateurs you know who could shoot that amazing quality of work. Half of them won't even have a clue what perspective correction is! And the same thing goes for runway fashion, advertising, etc. etc. You just don't hire amateurs for that kind of work. Or if you do, you quickly see why you should never make that mistake again.

HOWEVER. In MY industry, things are totally different, because well let's face it, I'm offering a kind of photography that is already very commonly executed by the amateur. The amateur spends half their time shooting nature, or "portraits", or snapping candids at their friend's wedding etc. And let's be even more, brutally honest- Anyone can shoot an amazing candid moment / portrait at a wedding. You don't have to be professional for your results to be professional looking. It's not that hard at all to get even a dozen or more truly memorable photos on a wedding day, even if you don't know jack about your camera.

This presents problems for OUR industry:

1.) The amateurs will always, always, ALWAYS be around to shoot our business for us. The well never runs dry. DSLR sales are in the millions now right? My point is, they will always make up a LARGE part of lower-end competition, because their friends will ALWAYS be telling them "you're good, you should go pro!" Maybe some day they'll even put the lower-end pros completely out of business, and "affordable portrait photography" will become "FREE portrait photography". ...Just call up your flavor-of-the-month, ambitious amateur!

2.) The amateur can get really good at this kind of photography really quickly WITHOUT an incredible amount of schooling. You don't need to know how to set up a profoto light pack and pocket wizards, and/or shoot tethered etc. In fact just the other day, I myself shot some really kick-ass portraits (and for free; oops.) ...with a Canon Rebel XTi and a Nikon SB800. Using skills that were 100% self-taught. (Even though I did study photography in other areas) ...My point is, there is no bar exam. Amateurs can do almost as good as us in many of our shooting capacities.

3.) The clients are new every time. A company looking for a product photo might hire an amateur ONCE, but couples usually only get married once, seniors only need senior portraits once. etc. etc. My point is, there will ALWAYS be fresh clients to fall for the amateur's lower or non-existent price. You can try to argue this with me but I witness it first-hand, continually. It's not getting "better" either, it's getting worse.

...And also, don't think that even the established, schooled professional photographers in advertising, or studio owners etc, aren't hurting. They ARE losing a considerable amount of business simply because of the FLOOD of amateurs out there. I myself am probably guilty of shooting one or two family portrait sessions that really kinda stank compared to what the clients could have got in a properly lit studio. And the inquiries keep coming, it's just that now I flat-out turn them down.

...Anyways. Those above items will put all but the absolute best out of business. All but the ones who are "undeniably good", or who have immaculate marketing campaigns, or a perfect brand, etc. etc. Basically, you either rise to the VERY TOP, or you compete neck-and-neck with amateurs for the rest of your career.

And you know what? Personally, I say bring it on! This is a challenge I'd LOVE to rise to, compared to getting up every morning at the crack of dawn and sitting in traffic to go work some horrible 9-5 job I loathe. Come on, amateurs, I'll kick all your asses!

=Matt= (just in case you think I'm a hack, check out my work)

XXX said...

And I quote . . .

Einstein once famously said "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Thus, the counter to Einstein's insanity definition, is the definition of "professional" that I will put forth here. The definition of professional is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting similar results."

Putting these two comments together its easy to see that there is a fine line between being insane and claiming to be a professional.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Saville has covered many of the points I would have so I can keep my reply shorter.

The biggest is change is "good enough mentality". Without question many local design agencies and clients ARE using amateurs to do masses of their work. Think everything related to tourism, economic development and local government. Think small to medium sized business who are substantially using web based advertising for much of their promotion now.

I have deliberately cut almost ALL commissioned work out of my services now. I used to shoot everything from interiors, and locations, to yacht racing and magazine portraits, even the odd few weddings but now!? I run my own fine-art photo gallery. I was the only one in the county, probably two counties! Now there are about 8, two have gone bust already but the point is they are all but one set up and run by amateurs. They are offering chocolate box canvases and so on, all super saturated and yuk but of course sell to the unwashed masses, by the truckload at cheap prices. In doing so can they now be called professional?

This leads to the ultimate point - do ANY clients care enough to keep our profession alive ? From wedding clients who now have hundreds of amateur mates to choose from, to designers shooting their own snaps, to agencies and local government all employing camera club members and stock libraries with MILLIONS if not billions of amateur's snaps, as a collective shattering the professions of almost ALL stock shooters. They all seem to be saying that if its reasonably exposed with pretty colours that it will do, because ultimately it's cheap.

I think amateurs are more of a threat now than they have ever been, in large part due to accessible technology where they can see a result on the camera back rather than wait for a disaster in the lab!

Yes some pros will survive but only by working and marketing ourselves harder than any time in our profession. This does NOT make better photography,but it can lead to burnt out highly skilled pros.

Anonymous said...

I think it's funny, all this talk about the amatures, even a blind squirl finds a nut very once in awhile, finding a few good images.

Imho, you guys are your own worst enemies. Relationships and results imho. I use to hire photographers to shoot product. The first photographers I would remove from the list were the ones who disparaged another photographers character or workmanship.

You lump amatures in one big pile. I am an amature and I'm very proud of the work I have done, do and will do.

You lump all the pro's in one big pile. I can't count on two hands how many clients said we hired a pro, paid 5k and didn't get a single image we liked.

Newspaper photographers should hide their heads in the sand if you ask me. Ask them to do a pole about the rates they charge people. Low ballllll?

Be the best professional you can be and have integrity. Anything else is blah, blah, blah imho.

Anonymous said...

One last note. Look at there is a thread from Brad Mangin about purchasing the new version of Fotoquote. Look at the mamby, pamby feed back he gets. Oh, the user interface, the user interface.

It's a pricing software! Get it!! Want me to spell it out for you IT'S PRICING SOFTWARE.

It took me 30 minutes to learn this software. You do HAVE to learn a new software when you buy it. Screw that! I'll do it for $50.00

You pro's can really make an amature laugh.

T. C. Knight said...


I believe that the amateur is hurting the pro right now. But for other reasons. As mag and paper revenues fall, editors are trying to save money so accept less quality for less money. The lesser quality found in the published work makes the publication less desirable, they loose more revenue and have to cut costs again, so look for even less quality in their photos for even less money. This has become the viscious cycle of publishing these days.

Editors want to blame their reduced circulation on the net, reduced ad revenues, 24 hour news, etc. However, I submit that when they cheapen a publication to the point some of them have, how do they expect to keep circulation?

Have you read a National Geographic Magazine lately? The quality of the photography continues to decline, the format has become something akin to Mad Magazine, and the articles have added a noticable editorial political slant. There once was a time I could learn many things about the world from National Geographic. Now you only learn their political views of world events and how adept they are about using photoshop in stealth mode. I stopped taking my local newspaper because you could not tell the difference between the editorial pages and the news.

Pick up any other nationally and internationally circulated magazine and look at the photography. As photographers we look at pictures in these magazines and say "wow, wish I had taken that" because of the difficulty of the shot and the detailed photoshop actions applied. However, have we ever stopped to determine whether the non-photographer reader likes them as much as we do? As a photographer, I appreciate the level of skill needed to pull some of them off, but as a magazine reader they are irritating and do not illustrate much of anything except that the magazine is "artsy". Photoshop actions have been the cause of my dropping subscriptions to many of the magazines I once subscribed to because the photos have a negative effect, IMHO.

So, yea, amateurs are affecting our livelyhood. But they are not so much doing it by supplying cheap shots, but more often by providing reduced quality and causing the magazines publishing them to loose circulation. Therefore, it is not the fault of the amateur photographer, but more the fault of the editor who is driving his publication into the drink, by reducing the quality of the publication to the point of reduced returns.

Many corporations have reduced advertising budgets recently due the economy. This is contrary to all advertising economic models which point to the need for INCREASED advertising to keep market share. (Subaru has taken that stance and is not bleeding money the way their competitors are).

In my opinion, editors are doing the same thing, and will run themselves out of business, on their own terms, not because of amateur photographers, but because they are taking advantage of the cost savings of the reduced quality that amateur photographers are providing.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the web has anything to do with the decline in readership. I mean...who uses the web?

Mr. Worry said...

worry worry much to worry about much to read and worry about on the web...worry worry time for pictures...must worry. I'm scared.


LIFE is to be lived people!

Mark the tog said...

I was recently chastised by another "photo instructor cheerleader" for not taking a hard look at my business and adapting to changing realities.

The enormous growth in photo instruction is evidence of the profit in teaching not shooting.

The truth is that some areas such as school photography and less glamorous technical photography can still provide a career: just not the sort you can brag about at cocktail parties.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

I think Mark hit the nail on the head. the growth industry in photography is workshops and "teaching". I don't know how some people have time to write a book a year, teach a five day workshop a couple times a month and still be "totally available" to their demanding clients 24/7. The math is a mystery even if the hype is not.

Jimmy Herring said...

just write a blog about how everyone can follow you on facebook and twitter while having a video guy photograph your stock shoots or road trips. Remember, its all about you, all hype, all the time.

Trevor said...

I agree that a professional photographer and amateur photographer are on two very different levels as their definitions suggest. If you want consistent, repeatable results for commercial work, where time and money are just as important as the results, then you want to hire a professional photographer with a proven track record. All of the points you use to define a professional photographer I agree with 100%, but the name of your article is "Is The Amateur Really A Threat to the Pro?" and as far as stock photography goes I believe they certainly are.

As you stated, anyone has a few good frames in them and in the world of stock photography that's all they need. Shooting a still life over and over until it looks just right is fine. Time is money but when you have the time and you are not pressured to deliver results quickly it doesn't really matter how long it takes you to make the image. As a "professional" graphic designer/photographer working in the field for the past 20 years, I've seen our industry change greatly since stock photography became available and even more so since micro-stock came in to play. Most clients don't want to spend their marketing dollars on a custom photo that costs thousands, when we can go to and pick up a very high res. image for a few dollars that will do the job.

If we were to define a professional photographer strictly as someone who makes photos for their full-time living, then the time it takes to make a photo is a very important factor. As anyone who has dabbled with the micro-stock sites know, you don't really start making decent money until you have a very large number of popular photos on the site. So from an amateur standpoint, they most likely will not be able to make a full-time living on stock photography, only a few side dollars. However the photos posted by the amateurs, being of equal quality to a professional, could certainly cut into their market. If you look at the numbers, there are a lot more amateur photographers out there than there are pros, and if each one of those amateurs only post a few photos at a time, the shear volume of amateur images added could certainly outweigh the amount of pro photos.

My business partner always says, "The cream rises to the top." and in the graphic design and photography business that is absolutely true, but sometimes the milk at the bottom of the bottle will work just as well and in these economic times that's what we are seeing.

Anonymous said...

It's almost the same as the graphic design business.

Charles King said...

Great, so amateurs (or is it "amatures"? :p, must be great working for an AD who can't even spell - if you want to be taken seriously, go learn basic spelling and grammar and use it) have killed the stock business. Hands up all those who didn't see this coming five years ago.

If there's one thing for which I value John's blog, it's his continued insistence that working as a professional is about a whole lot more than taking pretty pictures. It's about being able to provide the imagery that the client needs when they need it. It's about attitude, and it's about commitment.

I'm sure there are lots of ADs who think they can get by on cheap non-exclusive microstock, these would be the same ADs who are going to find themselves on the street: the current climate doesn't favour non-performers who make basic mistakes.

Yes, professionals are getting squeezed, but they're getting squeezed at the mid-range part of the market: Wedding photogs who can't prove how they're better than Uncle Joe etc. But any AD who thinks they can cut budget at the high-end by using 'amatures' is just looking for a pink slip.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

To the poster above. If you believe that you've got your head so far in the sand you must be eating chinese food. The high end art directors are using stock. They're all using stock except where they can't avoid it. John is right about one thing. You can't buy stock of your company's CEO.......yet. One morning you'll wake up and that will be a reality as well. The whole market is changing quicker than anyone over 30 can possibly imagine.

You can be as good as you want to be but if no one is assigning you might as well be doing it for fun. Frankly, I don't see any growth market in photography except for teaching workshops. And if you look at all your heros you'll find they're doing more and more workshops for wannabes and fewer and fewer days of assignment work. And not by choice......

Anonymous said...

Deer Kirk:

Eye kan't tel yu howe grate it has bein reeding you're posts. Finely, on off the pros' get its.

Eye agre with everything you're ritten and your ded one in my opinion.

Pleezed to meat yu. Your dueing grate worc imho.

An eye thot tha proses wood make us look bad.

Bee Well

Anonymous said...

PS: Matthew eye luv you're worc. U bac you're words nicely. Everyone should take a minute to look. You won't be dissapointed. Eye candy beautiful eye candy. Damn, back to work.

Anonymous said...

That was so weird.

Anonymous said...

ocourse, uz aramtures is knot az gud az pros' Wee luk funnie tu.

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