Field Report:

The Non-Glamorous Side of Photography

Professional Photography in the 21 Century is Like Mixed Martial Arts

For thousands of years, masters of a single martial arts discipline would have an almost mythical status. Karate, Kung Fu, Muay Thai, etc… If you could master your art then it was assumed that you could win any fight with relative ease. It wasn’t until the early 90’s at UFC 1 that a skinny Brazilian in a white bathrobe (gi), Royce Gracie, stepped into the ring and submitted his opponent, a pro boxer, with moves that most people had never seen before that a new era was born. After defeating two more far larger opponents that night in similar fashion, Gracie went on to win several more UFC tournaments but people started to realize that they needed to add jiu-jitsu and other skills to their existing arsenal just to compete. Experience, toughness and size were rendered irrelevant by Gracie because they had been caught off-guard. Unprepared for change.

I see much of the same things going on in the professional photography industry nowadays. Photography has always been seen as a print medium since it was invented but now the Internet has matured, many experienced photographers are struggling to adapt to the technological changes. Photojournalism is the area that has experienced the greatest amount of change due to all of the cutbacks and financial struggles of mainstream newspapers. Even in good times, the pay was shit, but now there is just not enough work doing traditional news for the amount of people qualified to do it. Many of the ones that are still working now have either adopted new business models such as the Strobist or those who have become multi-media journalists simultaneously recording still photos, video and sound gathering. Those who are still working and haven’t tried to learn anything new are treading on thin ice.

As if becoming a great photographer wasn’t difficult enough, now people are saying that we have to be photographers, videographers, writers, social media experts and recording artists at the same time?!? Crazy! I think that is a bit alarmist but there is truth to that as well. To fight in the Octagon, professional photographers have to at least have a working knowledge of the various disciplines in case they might need to apply it sometime. Not knowing is going to severely limit the upside for income opportunities.

Honestly I believe that once this all plays out there will be a place for everyone if they play their cards right. Just like there still are karate instructors, there are still going to be successful photographers that never record any sounds or video but there are also going to be those who don’t specialize in any specific discipline and create their own style by mixing a little bit of everything together. But I guarantee that all of the successful ones will be the ones who keep tabs on what else is out there even if they never pursue those avenues.

Recently, a Karate expert, Lyoto Machida became the light heavyweight champion of the UFC so now Karate is the rage again. But he didn’t get to the top by solely training in Karate. He also has a black belt in BJJ and is trained in sumo wrestling. He uses that other stuff to prevent others from dictating the fight, so he can stay upright the whole fight kicking people however he feels like. It is the same concept for photographers. Don’t let the changing market conditions take you out of the game. Adapt to it, dictate where you will play and kick the competition’s ass.

By the way, I recently posted a multi-media project on my site. Check it out: Nature Photography Multi-Media Video.


July 5, 2009 - Posted by | Marketing, Photo Business, Web | , ,


  1. You certainly are on to something – being a pro photographer is very much like being a MMA fighter (just look at whats going on at the red carpet during a movie premiere). 😉

    One thing needs further inspection though: where does this need to be “everything to everyone” originate? I believe it’s the relentless quest for higher efficiency. It just does not pay enough to be “just” a photographer any longer. Customers are increasingly working on tighter budgets (thus decreasing demand) while the improvement of digital cameras has created a never-ending flood of good images (increasing supply) that can be easily shared on the Internet.

    Imagine this – decreasing demand meets increasing supply. From Economy 101 we know that this can only mean: FALLING PRICES! Which is exactly what most of us are experiencing.

    I strongly believe that there are still niches that can be explored though. You (and several colleagues) have proven that there is a profitable premium niche for high-end poster prints. Others (like me) have successfully entered the wedding market. There are other opportunities that are yet to be discovered.

    Multimedia is another way to increase efficiency. To extend photography into multimedia production (video, audio, stills) will require more work, compared to “just” taking photos, but it will reward the multimedia producer with more potential customers and higher revenues.

    Many who do not adopt to a more efficient workstyle will face dramatic changes though. I still see colleagues going out of business. I am afraid that this trend will continue for the time being.

    Comment by Mark Zanzig | August 19, 2009 | Reply

  2. Hi Mark. Good point about where this perceived need to be a jack of all trades comes from. I think in the business world, it is about creating the perception of value. If you can appear more valuable to the client than the next photographer then that separates you because honestly most photos aren’t that unique so you have to bring some services to the table to set you apart.

    Agreed regarding the other niches. Everyone has a certain style or styles they gravitate toward so it’s best to make the most of it whether it is doing stock and selling prints from some of the images, or if you are a photojournalist to add wedding photojournalism into your mix of services. It is really the same story as it always has been, to diversify so if something drops off that you still have something to hang on to.

    Comment by Richard Wong | August 20, 2009 | Reply

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