When I lived in California, you sometimes saw orange, olive, and/or avocado trees with fruit falling off of them and no one (apparently) harvesting the bounty. So you’d take a few home and have a free snack. This ubiquitous supply made it somewhat difficult to rationalize spending money on these things at the grocery store or the farmer’s market. Sometimes the free fruit wasn’t perfect, but the price ($0.00) lowered your standards a bit and you still had a wholly satisfactory experience.
I get the sense that people think of photography in a similar way. Nowadays, almost everyone has a digital camera or a an electronic device that happens to include a digital camera (e.g., a cell phone camera). Scenes or objects that photographers photograph in public places (indoors or outdoors) are also available to others with cameras. The thinking goes something like: “Why would I buy a print from a professional photographer of a scene I could just take for myself with my own camera for free?”. “Sure, maybe it’s not the same quality as the professional’s, but hey, it’s FREE!”.
I think this happens all the time at events like weddings too, where wedding guests take their own photos and then don’t feel the need to buy prints from the hired wedding photographer…even if they can see that the professional’s images are quite a bit nicer. They’ll live with their lower quality representation (at least they’ve got something!) to save the money.
I know there are photographers and photography organizations out there that think professional photographers and photography groups should be doing more marketing and PR work to disabuse the public from thinking that the work of professional photographers isn’t so much better that it’s worth buying prints from them even if one has a camera and can take one’s own photos.
My inclination is to accept the public’s behavior as it is–because I have no interest in spending time or money trying to change their behavior or values–and figure out what works (in terms of selling photography prints and/or services) taking the current state of the public’s attitudes as a given.
Some of the options available to photographers:
- Photographing things/scenes that the public can’t easily photograph themselves (aerial photography is one example of this; constructed scenes is another example–especially when they’re quite elaborate or done with famous subjects who aren’t easily accessible)
- Making and exhibiting large, high-quality prints that wouldn’t be possible with the images from smaller, cheaper cameras
- Photos that most people don’t have the nerve to take (e.g., Bruce Gilden quickly goes up to complete strangers in the street and takes flash photos; most people I know wince at the very thought of it)
- In terms of photography as a service: offering reliable and consistently high-quality photographic work (this works particularly well for repeat/ongoing clients; getting the client in the first place means having a long record of consistently high-quality work–done for other clients–to show)
I think that one of the biggest dangers facing art photographers trying to sell prints is if the general public no longer distinguishes between photos they can and cannot make for themselves, or–similarly–if the devaluation of photos (e.g., one thinks one can take with one’s cell phone) “spills” over into devaluing *all* photos–regardless of whether special equipment, expertise or an elaborate construction is required to produce the photo.
In any case, if any of you photographers out there have any other ideas about what professional photographers can do to have a chance at making a living doing photography in a “sea” of amateur photographers, please feel free to comment below!
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