Why I Think The Photography Business Sucks

I’ve always loved photography.

Capturing a moment in time like my son’s toothless grin, my daughter shooing me away because she’s a teenager and hates to be photographed, or a client’s fresh newborn. Moments like that are the reason I became a photographer — it just so happened to turn into a business, a business that I loved until now . . .

The last few years have been hard and I’ll admit that I could have done more to help my business move along but I just didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have the passion I once had for photography. Something that I once loved was now a chore, a paycheck, a nuisance. I found myself irritated with every new inquiry:

” Hello Ashley, We just adore your work and would love for you to come photograph baby! She is 10 days old and we’ve emailed a few photographers but your website is the one we fell in love with. What if we only want a disc of images? Is your pricing negotiable?”

When I first started receiving inquiries like this I would simply reply explaining that, “No, my pricing isn’t negotiable and here is why . . .” but eventually I had to create a form letter because I was getting this sort of email so frequently that I was getting tired of typing the response.

Now, I have many theories about why I was getting these emails and I am sure you’ve heard them all. it’s the same old story of new photographers coming into the industry and not running a real business, charging pennies, overwhelming the market, causing prices to drop, and making the rest of us unable to compete OR maybe it’s the amazing photo capabilities of the iPhone — OHHH The iPhone (cameras being more accessible & easy to use. i.e. the “prosumer”)  

BUT . . . if I take an honest look I can tell you that, YES, I am sure that the above factored in — in some way but *I* was the reason my business wasn’t running to its full potential and blaming it on anyone else is just plain stupid.

So, what caused my increasing apathy?

I_hate_my_Job_by_Gromator

I suppose that there are many reasons why . . . I was jaded, I was uninspired, and I was, above all, EMBARRASSED. I dreaded telling people what I did for a living but even more than that I dreaded the entire conversation. “I am a photographer,” I would say and 99% of the time the response was, “Oh so is my wife/neighbor/cousin/sister! You guys should hang out!” — No, I don’t want to hang out. I don’t do playdates.

Photography was something that was now cute, not something that anyone respected. “Oh you’re so lucky to do something you love!”  Who said I loved it? I am just trying to pay the bills the same as you!

I was tired.

Tired of justifying my prices, tired of being embarrassed, and tired of the photography industry of today and I am sure that’s exactly how the photographers before me felt. We would call them “old school photographers” because they didn’t like pictures of babies in baskets or “photojournalistic photos “ (Which let’s be honest, was just a phrase we used because we were bad at posing).

Back in the day, being a photographer required REAL skill and knowledge.

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Now the camera does most of the work for you, there are Photoshop actions to edit your photos for you, and endless workshops for the newbie photographer promising all the secrets of running a successful business. I hate to break it to you but a workshop WILL NOT make you a successful business person. You and you alone are responsible for the success or failure of your business.

Like most things nowadays there’s an online community of people that share your interests, you participate because you hope to learn or simply chat with people who like your hobby as much as you do, whether it’s a website, a forum, or a blog. Many of us use these places for knowledge or support or both. I stopped participating in these communities a few years back because it was becoming less about supporting your fellow artist and more about shaming them. I keep hearing about photographers bullying other photographers. This cycle has gone on for as long as I can remember and it only gets worse, it goes something like this:

Photographer posts on a photography forum
Photographer gains a mass following and starts to be known as an industry ‘expert’
Photographer starts to sell to other photographers
Photographer thinks their shit doesn’t stink
Photographer thinks it’s their right/duty to give other photographers unsolicited advice or bully them for having any opinion that is contrary to theirs.

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Just a few years ago you were a stay at home mom with a hobby and now you’re a ‘Rock Star’ (I use the term loosely . . . I mean really, none of us are really rock stars) but good for you, you’re popular! You can take that new found popularity and do something good or you can take that “fame” and use it to intimidate others. I see more people doing the latter and frankly, it’s cowardly and I am ashamed of what it’s become.

When you are viewed as an industry expert you have a responsibility to guide and help people. When you take that title and trash people you are equally responsible for what comes from that.

Know one thing: the list of ‘Rock Star’ photographers is ever-chaging and as quickly as you rise, you will fall. When the fame is gone you will either be remembered for the people you helped, guided, and encouraged or you will be remembered as the bully, the self righteous ass who was took self importance to a new level. The enemies you make will stay with you and they may rise above you and when they do they will remember how you treated them…. People will not remember your images, they will not remember your Photoshop actions, they will not remember the workshops with promises of success; they will remember how you carried yourself so I say this–be kind, be giving, and be grateful because just like the moments you capture, this time won’t last forever.

You will soon be replaced by robots. You’re welcome. You think I am kidding? I’ll be here waiting, one step ahead of you.


  • Aaron Paxson

    Fantastic writeup. My wife is also a pro-photographer and you nailed every challenge they have w/ running a business including the price justification.

    Well written. Thanks!

    • Sad that we’re going through the same thing but glad that she knows she isn’t alone. 🙂

  • Tisha

    Amen. Can I just say I stepped FAR away from any “play dates” or photography friends after a mean girl interaction that I just never understood or even saw coming. It was always hard for me to just know who was an authentic really nice friend/person or who wanted to just step on me to climb some invisible ladder to “internet rockstar”. All I know is that kindof life of bad behavior and mean girl crazy town was NOT for me. While I loved photography as a career once everyone and their brother became “a pro” and had a workshop to sell. I had to step away before I became bitter from it all. I don’t regret leaving the industry but I do miss my studio and “the good years”. My only do over would have been to NOT make friends from forums and just never have gone near them in the first place.

    • People can be cruel in any industry but I have a special spot in my heart for Photography / Photographers and I know that we can be kinder to each other.

  • amy coe

    This may be inappropriate: I think I am in love with you.

    You have stated what is written on my heart- and has been for over a year now. I could have written your post word-for-word, if I were better spoken.

    Thank you. I may just have to copy and paste your post when I finally get to get out.
    I get it. I am sorry for what this business has done to us.
    amy
    (11 year almost-former-photographer.)

    • I love you too! 🙂

      • amy coe

        *blush*
        Mutual admiration society.

  • Pingback: Yep - The Photography Business Still Sucks (Part 2) | Ashley McNamara - Technology Media Art | Ashley McNamara Technology Media Art()

  • Lisa

    Awesome post – and exactly what so many people have wanted to say but too scared of the cult following backlash to say anything. But I will say I’m sad to see someone who is TRULY talented (YOU) fall out of the business. This is why the industry sucks more than anything. It forces those with true talent out of work.

  • Eric Visa

    Thanks for the candid analysis, Ashley. As it’s been said by others, I’m sure it took guts to pen what has apparently been on everyone’s minds for quite a long time.

    I’m actually not a photographer myself but can totally relate to the above phenomenon. As an event DJ since 1991, I can tell you that we in this industry experienced something very similar not too long ago, and even more so when the iPod first came out (thanks to MP3 technology).

    In addition to that, cheap gimmicky DJ “prosumer” equipment that has features that, as an example, are apparently meant to “synchronize music mixes for you” (a.k.a the SYNC button) came along and made everyone with a “Now That’s What I Call Music” CD collection an overnight DJ. In fact for a lot of them, the ability to rip said CD collection and share it with others had a whole lot to do with it.

    This and other elements pretty much drove drove me to the same place where I feel you’re headed (with regards to your shifting attitude and interest in photography, something that you clearly love deep down) but when I began to focus primarily on clients who could actually tell the difference between a seasoned DJ and a “bedroom DJ”, things changed almost immediately.

    I have since stopped marketing directly to the end users (who shop purely on price) and began to create partnerships with event planners and other industry professionals who come into contact with any prospective end-clients seeking DJ services. The initial idea was to let the end user find me via a recommendation from someone who actually knows what a great DJ should sound like, based on their years of direct exposure to mediocrity at a gazillion events.

    I’m happy to report that the resultant interest has been very positive. I no longer have to spend days (or endless weeknights) writing emails to justify my pricing! I feel like this may be a viable approach for you and others. The obvious downside would clearly be lower volume, but in my opinion it’s a worthy compromise. I’d rather spend 20 hours closing deals than 100 hours negotiating price points.

    My point is, as business people, we’ll all need to adjust to the market place and the above is just one of probably many examples of how we can do this. Unfortunately, these trends are not going to reverse anytime soon (I don’t think) so we might as well figure out creative ways to stand out and remain relevant. And by the way, bedroom DJs and their equivalent photogs have always been there and will continue to be (as we once all were). We just need a clearer way to communicate to prospective clients where the difference lies and until everyone realizes pricing has a lot to do with it, we’re all screwed!

    Just my $0.02…

  • Bird

    I completely get what you are saying here. I do photography as an extension of my art, so not as a commercial enterprise.

    I’m an ex sound recording engineer. You could pretty much substitute ‘Sound Recording Engineer’ for ‘Photographer’ in your piece. I’m now happily doing live sound, which I was always doing in parallel with running a studio. To work in live sound you can’t bluff your way in, like you can in the DJ, photography and music studio business with consumer equipment and a wix template.

    I have had years of people thinking I’d be up for recording their masterpieces for free, as obviously, anyone who does sound recording full time loves music so much they want to be doing it 24/7.

    I do photography as an extension of my art, so not as a commercial enterprise. Because I have a reasonable camera, and produce reasonable results, I get asked to do actors head shots, photograph studios for websites and the like. It’s that same assumption that if you love it, you will happily do it for free. I say no.

    B

  • Jamie Vesay

    Nailed it!
    Least for me, the word embarrassment is the big one – a.k.a Guilt By Association. Technically my title is not Photographer but have worked around it from the days of the “old-school.” I work more in motion pictures & commercials. This week’s GBA “Hey, did you see that guy who won the super bowl commercial contest? Dude said he shot it for like $300. Can you do one for us for $300?” Or insert your favorite awful local commercial here____________. Recently when I told a kid I worked on one of the Oscar nominated movies he said, “Yeah, I shot four movies last year.”
    The spread of “will work for pennies” and FREE-vil has been kryptonite to the creative industry. Photography was once a semi exclusive club. Because of open membership, all of the things you mentioned above have happened…. If you don’t like doing something, don’t do it any more. But (and think hard about this for a moment) – if you still really love it – keep doing it!

  • Tim Meisburger

    You got a link to this at the Large Format Photography Forum. Lot of pros there, but mostly amateurs like me. We, who use fancy cameras, know more than most that its not the equipment but the artist that makes the image. We feel for you.

    I love your work, and if I had small kids, I would happily pay for your talent.

  • Jim

    You DO have permission to use the copyrighted images in your article, don’t you? A concerned ‘professional’ wouldn’t be using them without permission, right?

    • Ted

      Jim the self-appointed bathroom monitor