Professional Photographers Must Adapt or Die

I’m occasionally unpopular amongst certain photography circles because of my view on mass “prosumer” photography, Flickr, and the changing (disappearing) market for traditional stock photography. Earlier this week I got a bit of a flame in response to a blog comment, but that comment spurred me to think a bit about the situation and make some comparisons with another industry which has changed in recent years: software development.

In the last ten years or so, software companies have discovered that they can employ overseas contractors (often in India) for a fraction of the price of a U.S.-based employee. Positions which might have traditionally been filled with a high-cost employee at a Silicon Valley headquarters were subsequently offered to an offshore shop, either a third party or one specifically managed by the company. Lower costs of living and other factors contributed to a lower overall cost for the company in terms of salary and benefits.

The overseas movement in the software industry hasn’t been perfect. Many companies shifted operations offshore, only to then reign in some of that business back to the U.S. as they sought a balance in the workforce that provided the best bang for the buck.

What has that meant for the role of software developers in the United States? It means that some of the lower- and mid-level jobs have gone overseas. As offshore employees have gained the skills to create the same results at a lower cost, developers in the U.S. must adapt their skillset to remain viable. Those who keep up to date on current technologies and provide high-level design and architecture services have no problem with career growth, while those who remain stagnant or only focus on routine menial tasks risk that their job might be outsourced.

As the photography market changes, photographers are in a similar situation. Some of the “old standby” markets (such as stock photography) are going away or being replaced by new models. Buyers looking for a few stock photos can now use services such as Flickr to find material; that material might be available under Creative Commons licensing or they may contact the photographer directly. I’ve made several image sales to folks who discovered my work on Flickr and then licensed the image for commercial use.

Photographers need to adapt. The fact that an activity was once a viable way to make money does not mean that same activity will always be a money-maker. With the rise in availability of decent images available to the masses, professional photographers will need to distinguish themselves in quality, consistency, and value-added products above and beyond the traditional photo sale in order to set themselves apart from the new generation of image producers.

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