Pricing, Photographers & the Race to the Bottom

The bottom is getting crowded.

I read Seth Godin’s blog daily. He’s usually concise and right on target. His post entitled,”Clawing your way to the bottom” really hits the mark as far as what professional photographers and other visual creators are up against.

I used to make a lot of money shooting stock – that is before the consolidation of agencies and the commoditization of stock. While it’s understandable why that happened when the world went “digital”, the prices and value of images has dropped so far that an “average” stock shooter can no longer make a living shooting stock.

I’m grateful that I never relied solely on stock photography to make a living. However, commissioned photography has not escaped the race to the bottom as far as photographers pricing themselves out of business. There’s only so low one can go on their fees. It’s a short fix to nowhere.

The solution is there for anyone who is willing to do the work – that is, make the effort to stay at the top of your game. Focus on the big picture. Be curious. Don’t panic. Stay away from trends., Focus on the story – not on the gear. Tell them a story. Live life because if you don’t – your work will show it.

 

 

 

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A Word to Photographers

The bottom is getting crowded.

I read Seth Godin’s blog daily. He’s usually concise and right on target. His blog today, “clawing your way to the bottom” really hit home as far as what professional photographers are up against.

I used to make a lot of money 9th hole on combined golf course and air field, Arthur County, Nshooting stock – that is before the consolidation of agencies and the commoditization of stock. While it’s understandable why that happened when the world went “digital”, the prices and value of images has dropped so far that an “average” stock shooter can no longer make a living shooting stock.

I’m grateful that I never relied solely on stock photography to make a living. However, commissioned photography has not escaped the race to the bottom as far as photographers pricing themselves out of business. There’s only so low one can go on their fees. It’s a short fix to nowhere.

The solution is there for anyone who is willing to do the work – that is, make the effort to stay at the top of your game. Focus on the big picture. Be curious. Don’t panic. Stay away from trends., Focus on the story – not on the gear. Tell them a story. Live life because if you don’t – your work will show it.

 

Commitment

Commitment is everything.  It’s what makes us get things done.  It’s what makes relationships work.

Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand
Gail in bamboo hut in hill tribe village, northern Thailand

It’s what makes us not give up, no matter how bleak it may look at times. It’s what gets us to stay focused on “the story” and be true to ourselves.

To some people, commitment can be frightening.  Their heads are filled with negative “what if” thoughts of failure that hold them back.  So, they plod along through life letting things happen to them instead of going after what they want. Those are the people who let resistance win.

I’ve always been a determined and committed person – if I say I’m going to do something, you can count on me to do it.  It’s tough sometimes though, to stay committed to myself and to what my true purpose is – it’s far too easy to get caught up with the regular flow of work and life.  But every now and then I get an idea for a creative project that just won’t go away.   When I finally decide to stop ignoring the idea and do something, I have a mechanism I use to help me make the commitment – I tell someone about it.  I’m the type of person that feels, once I’ve told someone I’m going to do something, then I have to do it – just to save face.  I call it “forced accountability.”

Seth Godin writes today about commitment: “One way to play in the digital age is to appeal to those that browse, the window shoppers, the mass audience that can’t and won’t commit.  The alternative is to focus on impact, not numbers and impact comes from commitment. “ He says: “ price is more than an exchange of coins. Price is a story.” Essentially, Godin is saying that in our noisy digital world, where ideas and content are free – we’ve got to be better, to make an impact.  In order to connect with the buyers on an emotional level, we’ve got to be “better than free”.

Every commitment that I’ve ever made has come with tremendous personal growth.  When I traveled around the world a couple of years ago making a feature length documentary, Opening Our Eyes, I not only challenged myself physically and creatively, but spiritually as well and I feel that I became a better person because of it.  I would not have been able to endure the hardships of that journey, nor the intense workload of post production had I not been committed to the idea.

What are you willing to commit to?  Commitment may be frightening, but without it, you may be spending your later years wondering, “what if I had”

What Professional Photographers Can Learn From Kodak

To cut right to the point, Kodak

The logo from 1987 to 2006. "Evolution of...
The logo from 1987 to 2006. “Evolution of our brand logo”. Eastman Kodak . . Retrieved 2007-09-26 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

found out that “quality” wasn’t necessarily what the public wanted.  In Seth Godin’s blog today, “Misunderstanding quality”, he states:

“It turns out that what people actually wanted was the ability to take and share billions of photos at vanishingly small cost. The ‘quality’ that most of the customer base wanted was cheap and easy, not museum quality.”

He goes on to say:

“Quality is not an absolute measure”

Before you shoot me, or Godin, stop and think about the world we live in where we are bombarded by millions of images daily.  Some are great, some mediocre and some are really bad in terms of quality.  Add to that the millions of videos on You Tube and we are witnessing an avalanche of imagery.  It makes my eyes glaze over and my head hurt just to think about it, let alone try to digest it all. But the fact is that we have become a culture where imagery is quickly replacing text to communicate.

So, with imagery becoming so prolific in terms of how we communicate, why are so many professional photographers struggling or going the way of Kodak and Polaroid?  Because they assume that the general public wants quality images.  Quite honestly I wonder if most people these days even notice the difference. Like Seth says, they just want to take photos and share them with their friends. Ironically, companies like Kodak, Polaroid, and other camera manufacturers, along with the ever-growing supply of electronic platforms enable us to do this easily and cheaply.

So how does a “professional” photographer compete in a culture that doesn’t always appreciate or need quality imagery?  Two suggestions – recognize what the market wants and is willing to pay for and produce something that is unique and authentic to whom you are.  Oh, and one more thing – don’t whine about the state of the industry because it won’t do you any good.  Instead, of looking in the rear view mirror and lamenting the past, embrace the opportunities that technology has brought to our craft and prosper. And remember that “change” is inevitable, so stop resisting it.

Fear and Innovation

One Fear illustration from Book of Fears
One Fear illustration from Book of Fears (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are taught from an early age to conform.  Think about it.  Schools emphasize conformity with rules, regulations and a system built on recitation and memorization. We are told there are two types of answers – “right” and “wrong” ones. I suppose when speaking about math and science, it could be stated that there are only two types of answers or conclusions – it’s either right or wrong.  But is that true?  Are there really only two types of answers?  Or is that merely a mechanism that makes it easier to grade tests and papers?

Is it any wonder that we are programmed from an early age NOT to be innovative or creative with our thinking?  Is it any wonder that we are afraid or fearful to take a leap and question something?  But what are we afraid of? Essentially, we are afraid to be wrong.  We are afraid to fail.  So what do we do?  We let our fear stop us and in doing so we stifle creativity and innovation.

We have been trained to obey rules, comply, sit and stand in an orderly fashion, “don’t rock the boat”, “be a good soldier”, and in the process we stifle innovation and growth.  The problem is that “system” left over from the industrial age doesn’t work anymore. The world has changed.  These days, people are entering a “workforce” that is no longer contained within geographic boundaries with an established set of rules and controls. It’s out of our control. Wow, that’s enough to make anyone afraid.

So, what do most people do when their world is changing and they are scared to death?  Sadly, they tend to desperately hold onto a system that is broken and no longer serves them well.  They spend enormous amounts of energy defending this broken system from the past because it’s all they know.

We can either succumb to change, and merely react to it little by little over time, until there isn’t much left of a life we once knew, or we can face our fears and take responsibility for our lives.  In order to do that, we need to change our outlook and identify what it is we are really afraid of.  Ironically, what most of us fear is failing, so in an effort to protect ourselves from this fear – we ultimately fail because we end up with a life that brings few rewards.

Listen to what Sue Bryce and Seth Godin have to say on this topic.

Abundance or Scarcity – What’s Your Choice?

I read Seth Godin’s blog this morning and as usual, he was right on target with his observations of our culture and the shift in our economy.  We are moving out of the “industrial age”, an economy based on scarcity and into a “connection economy” Roller skaters jump over teammates, Tokyo, Japanbased on abundance – abundance of  “choice, connections and access to knowledge.”

In our new “connection economy”, we can connect with more people and “leverage our skills at a higher level.” This is leading to two races:  a race to the bottom which is forcing us to lower our prices, because it’s easy to find plenty of people who will do something cheaper or a race to the top which gives us the opportunity to use our new connections, resources and knowledge and become the one “they can’t live without.”

“The connection economy doesn’t create jobs where we get picked and then get paid; the connection economy builds opportunities for us to connect, and then demands that we pick ourselves.”  It’s no longer sufficient to just deliver a job at a fair price; a “connection economy” is all about standing out and being remarkable.

We need to invent – not duplicate.

So how do we stand out in a world of noise?  I believe we need to be authentic and true to ourselves.  We need to take the ultimate risk and listen to that voice inside because that’s the voice that should be heard.  We need to be vulnerable in order to race to the top.  At the end of the day, we are all human and we can spot a phony or an imitation when we see one.

Most of all we need to remember, we are human beings with basic human needs  – one being the need to connect with our fellow human. We don’t connect merely on devices alone – you connect by telling your “story”.   If your story resonates with others – it spreads. Today that means it gains traction quickly and spreads globally.  But you don’t connect with people by doing the same things as everyone else or regurgitating the same information.  You make connections because people are human and they’ll always spot “the real deal” in a crowd.

So be vulnerable, be different, be brave enough to stand out with a fresh approach to old problems and you won’t need to race to the bottom along with others clamoring for those “scarce” jobs.  You’ll be the one carving out the opportunities and picking yourself.

Creating Inspiration

I’ve gotten away from writing lately, maybe because I’ve been really busy, and maybe because I’ve felt uninspired.  That’s a terrible feeling for me, it’s as if I’m void of any “feeling” at all.  It tends to happen when I’m spending more time doing the things I don’t want to do instead of what I feel I’m here to be doing.

When I woke up this morning I thought, “anything can happen today”.  Temple of Horus, Edfu, EgyptThat thought in it self makes me want to get out of bed. I start thinking about the endless possibilities that can happen on any given day.  I grabbed a cup of coffee, checked my email and read Seth Godin’s blog and it was like it was written for me.  It was called “The moment of highest leverage”.  He was talking about moments when you’ve either lost something or won – when it feels hopeless or when it appears to be a lock.  He said that these were the times you can choose to do what’s in your heart and bring your real work to the world, instead of the lesser version that you think the market wants.

I’ve been struggling with feelings of hopelessness after a slew of rejections and misses. I knew I needed two things:  a change of scenery and some insightful conversation.  I went to Hawaii on impulse and got both.  One day, my good friend PF Bentley was showing me the “film” that he made for National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones.  Dewitt has been shooting extraordinary images for the Natl. Geo for over 40 years and he had hired PF to create inspirational corporate training videos.    The “film” segments were a combination of Dewitt speaking about his life and his career in an inspirational way and b-roll of him shooting in beautiful Hawaiian settings interwoven with his amazing still images.   The piece was so touching; it brought tears to my eyes.  When it was over I started crying and I apologized to PF.  He said, “that’s ok, I know I’ve done my job right”.  PF and Dewitt had done theirs jobs right and they had inspired me.

I’ve had two speaking engagements and a screening of Opening Our Eyes this past weekend and in each situation, I was feeling good and that I had something to say and to share.  It must have come across because at each venue there was at least one person who I inspired – I could tell – I could feel it.  There was one woman at the screening, who had found out about it through one of our subject’s blog, Maggie Doyne. After the movie was over and most people had gone, I talked to her for a long time and I could see that the film had inspired her greatly.  I knew that I had done my job right and it was the best feeling in the world.  It reminded me of what is most important to me in my life and that is to create awareness with my still images or movies and move people or inspire them.

I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook these days but I was looking at my news feed at the end of that long weekend and I noticed a photo that Ethan Browne (Jackson Browne’s son) had posted on his page.  It was a photograph of Jackson with one of his fans and Ethan had commented underneath it  “proud of   my pops – he stokes people for a living”.  I smiled and I thought, “That’s what I want to do”.