Sad, Bad Changes To ‘The Good Old Days’ of Photography

Once upon a time in the land of photography and photojournalism, there were these amazing things called JOBS and proper PAYCHECKS for people who had a trained eye and a degree in the arts or journalism. Those are practically non-existent in media now unless you are a fresh-faced intern straight out of university and willing to work for slave wages or you are in a specialty category such a sports.

Is there still a market for glorious human interest photos or breaking news shots? Not unless the digital or print news publishers can get them for free or practically free!

Several years ago, when we were still living in the small Central Victorian town of Clunes, an hour and a half north of Melbourne, I had a very informative afternoon coffee break with a charming man who had been an award winning photographer for The Age — Melbourne’s big daily newspaper. We laughed and talked about ‘the good old days’ when you’d get your assignment, do the shoot, and then even do the darkroom work on occasion.

All of that is gone now as the newspapers around the world have phased out full time photojournalists and frequently rely on everyday people who take shots with their camera phones and upload them (for free!) to a newspaper so that they can say, “Wow! I’ve been published!” Newspaper publishers also use stock photo agencies who have stringers, freelance photographers, who send them images from around the world each day which get sold on to daily newspapers for mere pennies.

Finishing our coffee and our commiserations about the state of the industry, we both agreed that the ever-improving digital cameras that were sold to every Tom, Dick, and Harriette had been the death of a huge segment of the photographic industry since everyone fancied that they were able to shoot equally as well as the pros. In some cases they were correct since some of the more expensive Nikon and Canon cameras were practically goof-proof for things like scenic shots. And scenic shots still sell well, but cheaply, to stock agencies for calendars and greeting cards.

There are still large companies who pay a professional photographer to come shoot their annual report images and yes, wedding photographers are still out there fighting for every dollar. But even wedding photographers have been eliminated at times by a family friend with a decent camera and the lack of expertise and inspiration truly does show in the final results.

As my loyal readers know, we’ve recently returned to Australia from living in Europe for several years and I have profiled weekend markets in quite a few countries. These weekend markets are always awash with simply beautiful photos, lovingly matted and placed in clear plastic protectors, stacked in a display area or perched on small easels. And those photography booths are walked by again and again as you hear the passers-by saying, “Well I could take that same image with my camera. Why should I pay for that?” Back when we all worked with film and we printed our work in the darkroom on various types of specialty papers, fine art photography seemed to be regarded as more interesting and valuable than today’s digital products.

Along came another death knell in the form of microstock agencies who sold images uploaded by the Tom, Dick, and Harriette brigade for those previously mentioned pennies per image. And here’s an example of how deadly that was to professional photographers. If I had a premium image at a premium agency that was listed for several hundred dollars for one time use with copyright restrictions and a microstock agency had Harriette’s similar-yet-not-perfect image for sale for lifetime use for a $3.00 download, just GUESS which one an advertising agency would pick? Right you are! Harriette’s image gets chosen more and more often in this day of cheap-cheap-cheap or free-free-free.

I’ve been registered with several agencies for several years and up until recently, I was making a decent side income from that. Unfortunately, the state of the industry now is in such shambles that even formerly reputable agencies are selling off images in ‘package deals’ to their larger clients and leaving the poor (and getting poorer every day!) photographer with a handful of dollars for a hell of a lot of work! For that reason, I have de-registered with all but two agencies and both of them are in the UK. They are still full service agencies that sell images for premium prices. But I’m not holding my breath about the revenue stream from them since they too are in crisis as more and more of their work slides away to the cheapened ethic of using $3.00 microstock downloads.

Somewhere on my List Of Things To Do will be creating an online database of images so that I can sell my OWN stock images at a fair and reasonable price — not a giveaway price. And I guess I’ll have to go back to actually pitching story and photo packages directly to publications. What a pain in the patoot!

However, the bottom line is that we do no credit to ourselves as self-employed artists if we allow our work to be so devalued by the big commercial agencies who toss a few pennies our way and then rake in the profits for themselves. And it certainly doesn’t help when behemoth media corporations continue to put their smaller scale competition out of business altogether by buying them out and then systematically lowering the commissions to photographers.

Our costs of running a business go up each year — not down. And I’ve been reading some of the professional members on one of my LinkedIn groups who have, after 30 years on average in the industry, actually given up trying to make a living from photography altogether. We’re all in a state of mourning for the way we used to work and the income that we formerly could depend on. And truly, isn’t it a sad state of affairs when iPhone pictures sent to the Internet via Instagram are now considered to be professional. (sigh!)

I’m a Lady Dinosaur and I’ll admit it. But gads, my dears, I do miss the ‘good old days’ when art and creativity and a level of craft were actually things that were valued and respected.

Ah well — end of rant…

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