Wow, do I love this story about David Hobby, a photographer who was voluntarily laid off by the Baltimore Sun in 2008 started a weblog on how amateurs could use lighting to get professional results. The result is stunning.
By teaching a horde of novices the skills necessary to shoot photographs of a quality that was until very recently only within the grasp of an elite few, Hobby has played a significant role in the transformation of the profession. In the last few years, the market rate for many types of professional photographs has dropped by as much as 99 percent.
Ninety-nine percent? Crazy, you say. But here’s the proof.
To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers right now, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its "New Frugality" cover story in late 2009, it purchased Lam’s image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, "I am happy"—the payment was more than he’d expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio.
Lam told me by phone that he’s only a part-time photographer—he makes most of his income through a furniture store he owns. Last year, he earned $4,000 from stock photography. Since it’s his passion and hobby, not his job, that sum is fine by him. Most of what Lam has learned about lighting has come from reading online, on Strobist and similar blogs. Typical of the DIY approach of this set, Lam’s Time cover was shot using materials Lam found at a local sign store.
Shouldn’t everyone be happy about this? An unknown gets a shot at the big time, while Time magazine saves between three and ten thousand dollars. Well, not everyone was happy.
Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an "IDIOT," among other unkind words.
Why so upset?
Professionals, naturally, are upset with amateurs like Lam for diluting the market for their work. IStockphoto is littered with high-quality photographs, the kinds of shots that used to come out of studio shoots that cost four or five figures to produce. You can buy the rights to iStockphoto images for a few bucks if you want to hang them on your wall; for a few bucks more, you can run them in your widely-read publication. [Emphasis added]
The writer goes on to claim that the professionals are mistakenly placing the blame on the stupidity of amateurs and photo buyers.
But professionals who are outraged at photographers like Lam or at sites like iStockphoto miss the point. Neither Lam nor iStock would have had such an impact if their photography didn’t meet the market’s demand for quality. What’s diluting the market for elite photography is the transfer of professional skill to amateurs—the work David Hobby is doing. Though his blog is entirely about how to light photographs at a professional level, his reader surveys reveal that 86 percent of his readers are amateurs.
But I think the writer has missed the much more significant culprit, which puzzles me because it is sitting right there in his article: the direct connection of buyers and producers, in this case via iStockphoto. Just as is happening with digital music and books, those interested in purchasing a photo are now able to deal directly with photographers, no intermediary required. The gatekeepers have once again been circumvented.
I understand the outcry from professional photographers. I hear the same continual whine from professional musicians, who despise the amateurs who “steal their business” by playing local venues for much less than a professional can afford to charge. But I have no sympathy for them. They have ridden for free long enough, making money not off the value of their work but a market inefficiency that has now suddenly been kicked out from underneath them. Buyers are better off, opportunities now abound for those who want to produce, and the old guard should start their painful adjustment to the new reality, since it won’t be adjusting to them.