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Are amateurs giving pros a run for their money?

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  March 30, 2010 06:00 AM

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Our parent publication, The New York Times, had an interesting piece about the untenable situation in which some professional photographers, mostly freelancers, find themselves: An advertising downturn that has led publishers to buy fewer photos, an explosion in digital photography -- and the quality of digital equipment -- that allows amateurs to take very good photos, and the willingness of stock-photo companies to buy less-than-professional images for a lot less money than they pay pros.

Interestingly, or perhaps annoyingly for us here at RAW, one of the photographers the piece features is D. Sharon Pruitt, the "Pink Sherbet" lady who agreed to judge our October contest, and then disappeared on us. Oh, well.

Here's the Times article:

For Photographers, the Image of a Shrinking Path

By Stephanie Clifford
The New York Times

By the time Matt Eich entered photojournalism school in 2004, the magazine and newspaper business was already declining.

But Mr. Eich had been shooting photographs since he was a child, and when he married and had a baby during college, he stuck with photography as a career.

"I had to hit the ground running and try to make enough money to keep a roof over our heads," he said.

Since graduation in 2008, Mr. Eich, 23, has gotten magazine assignments here and there, but "industrywide, the sentiment now, at least among my peers, is that this is not a sustainable thing," he said. He has been supplementing magazine work with advertising and art projects, in a pastiche of ways to earn a living. "There was a path, and there isn’t anymore."

Then there is D. Sharon Pruitt, a 40-year-old mother of six who lives on Hill Air Force Base in Utah. Ms. Pruitt's husband is in the military, and their frequent moves meant a full-time job was not practical. But after a vacation to Hawaii in 2006, Ms. Pruitt uploaded some photos -- taken with a $99 Kodak digital camera -- to the site Flickr.

Since then, through her Flickr photos, she has received a contract with the stock-photography company Getty Images that gives her a monthly income when publishers or advertisers license the images. The checks are sometimes enough to take the family out to dinner, sometimes almost enough for a mortgage payment. "At the moment, it's just great to have extra money," she said.

Mr. Eich and Ms. Pruitt illustrate the huge shake-up in photography during the last decade. Amateurs, happy to accept small checks for snapshots of children and sunsets, have increasing opportunities to make money on photos but are underpricing professional photographers and leaving them with limited career options. Professionals are also being hurt because magazines and newspapers are cutting pages or shutting altogether.

"There are very few professional photographers who, right now, are not hurting," said Holly Stuart Hughes, editor of the magazine Photo District News.

That has left professional photographers with a bit of an identity crisis. Nine years ago, when Livia Corona was fresh out of art school, she got assignments from magazines like Travel and Leisure and Time. Then, she said, "three forces coincided."

They were the advertising downturn, the popularity and accessibility of digital photography, and changes in the stock-photo market.

Magazines' editorial pages tend to rise or fall depending on how many ad pages they have. In 2000, the magazines measured by Publishers Information Bureau, a trade group, had 286,932 ad pages. In 2009, there were 169,218 -- a decline of 41 percent. That means less physical space in which to print photographs.

"Pages are at a premium, and there's more competition to get anything into a magazine now, and the bar is just higher for excellent work," said Bill Shapiro, the editor of Life.com, who ran the print revival of Life before Time Inc. shut it in 2007. And that is for the publications that survived -- 428 magazines closed in 2009 alone, according to the publication database MediaFinder.com, including ones that regularly assigned original photography, like Gourmet, Portfolio and National Geographic Adventure.

And while magazines once sniffed at stock photographs, which are existing images, not original assignments, shrinking editorial budgets made them reconsider.

"When we began, stock photography or licensed images, preshot images being licensed, was perceived as the armpit of the photo industry," said Jonathan Klein, the chief executive of Getty Images who helped found the agency in 1995. "No self-respecting art director or creative director would use a preshot image, because it wasn't original, it hadn't been commissioned by them, it wasn't their creativity."

At the same time, the Internet has made it easier for editors to find and license stock photos -- they can do it in seconds with a search term and a few clicks, rather than spending seven weeks mailing film transparencies back and forth.

Concurrently, digital photography took off. "It used to be you really needed to know how to use a camera," said Keith Marlowe, a photographer who has worked for Spin and Rolling Stone. "If you messed up a roll, you couldn't redo the concert." Now, though, any photographer can instantly see if a shot is good, or whether the light balances or other technical aspects need to be adjusted.

That meant a flood of pretty decent photographs, and that changed the stock-photography industry. In the last few years, stock agencies have created or acquired so-called microstock divisions. They charge $1 to $100, in most cases, for publishers or others to rerun a photo, often supplied by an amateur. And Getty made a deal with Flickr in 2008, permitting Getty's photo editors to comb through customers' images and strike license agreements with the amateur photographers.

"The quality of licensed imagery is virtually indistinguishable now from the quality of images they might commission," Mr. Klein said. Yet "the price point that the client, or customer, is charged is a fraction of the price point which they would pay for a professional image."

In 2005, Getty Images licensed 1.4 million preshot commercial photos. Last year, it licensed 22 million -- and "all of the growth was through our user-generated business," Mr. Klein said.

That is because amateurs are largely happy to be paid anything for their photos. "People that don't have to make a living from photography and do it as a hobby don't feel the need to charge a reasonable rate," Mr. Eich said.

With stock-photography payments declining and magazines pulling back on original assignments, some Web sites like Life.com and BurnMagazine.org have popped up as homes for original photography. Life commissions about two projects a month -- it sent Mr. Marlowe to Haiti after the earthquake, for instance, and the entertainment photographer Jeff Vespa to cover the European news media tour by the "Avatar" cast.

There seems to be an audience for professional photography on these sites. The average number of photos each visitor viewed for "Michael Jackson: The Memorial" at Life.com was 41, for example, and for "Oscars 2010: The Best Dresses," it was 38 images.

Still, the pay, compared with print, is "less, for sure," Mr. Shapiro of Life.com said, since some professional photographers "are really more excited for the exposure than they are to drive a hard bargain."

But it is hard to live on exposure alone. And some professionals worry that with ways to make a salary in photography disappearing, the impact will be severe.

"The important thing that a photojournalist does is they know how to tell the story -- they know they're not there to skew, interpret or bias," said Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the Masters in Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. "A photographer can go to a rally or demonstration, and they can make it look as though 10 people showed up, or 1,000 people showed up, and that's a big difference. I'm not sure I'm going to trust an amateur to understand how important that visual communication is."

"Can an amateur take a picture as good as a professional? Sure," Ms. Eismann said. "Can they do it on demand? Can they do it again? Can they do it over and over? Can they do it when a scene isn’t that interesting?"

But amateurs like Ms. Pruitt do not particularly care.

"I never followed any traditional photography rules only because I didn't know of any -- I never went to photography school, never took any classes," she said. "People don't know the rules, so they just shoot what they like -- and other people like it, too."


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