The supply and demand of photography: What it takes to become a professional photographer
Photography is a $11.5 billion dollar industry and one of today’s fastest growing occupations — projected to grow 17 percent from 2020 to 2030. It’s also one of the most difficult markets to break into.
To succeed as a modern professional photographer, you need more than just a rudimentary knowledge of how to operate a camera. Aspiring pros need to be familiar with historical trends within the industry and aware of changes in supply and demand. Having a basic understanding of effective advertising methods and sound financial principles to help start your photography business doesn’t hurt either.
“It’s important to have quality gear, but education is even more important,” says Savannah Conley, professional photographer and owner of Savannah H. Photography. “Educate yourself on how to use that gear, how to edit properly, and how to run a business. Learn how to work with clients, how to pose people, and how to market yourself. It's worth investing the same amount if not more into education as you do your equipment.”
The highs and lows of the photography market
Photography began in the 11th century with the invention of the camera obscura. This early technology projected images onto other surfaces so they could be traced.
In the late 1830s, photography hit its next major milestone when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce exposed a pewter plate to light using a mobile camera obscura, creating the first recorded image. Niépce’s experiment inspired others to later develop daguerreotypes, emulsion plates, and dry plates.
Operating these early cameras required specific training that few people could afford. It wasn’t until Kodak developed film rolls in the 1880s that cameras became both affordable to the middle-class and simple enough for amateurs to operate. These two advancements threw the doors to the industry wide open, making it possible for anyone to start a photography career.
Over the next several decades, photographic technology continued to focus on lowering the barrier to entry. The Polaroid camera let photographers develop photos at home rather than sending them off to a lab. Digital cameras came onto the scene in the 1990s. Then came the smart camera, with its uncanny ability to sense and automatically adapt to lighting conditions. Suddenly all the user had to do was point and shoot.
Playing with saturation
Today, high-quality digital cameras come standard in not just phones, but also tablets and other handheld devices. Even still, consumer demand for professional photography continues to grow. Almost 20,000 new openings for photographers are expected over the next several years. This may seem like a lot, but be warned — the competition is steep.
As photography’s accessibility has increased, so has interest in it. Many markets are threatened with oversaturation as more and more amateurs look to go pro with the help of a basic website, an eye-catching Instagram account, and a few Pinterest-inspired props. At the same time, today’s photographers face the challenge of working in a fluctuating market where styles and photo trends are constantly fading in and out of popularity.
“I’ve lived through all sorts of changes in this industry,” says Drake Busath, photographer and owner of Busath Photography. “I’ve witnessed the trend away from brick-and-mortar studios and a migration to working from home. I’ve seen demand for different specialties ebb and flow. The high school senior portrait market, for instance, has fallen off recently because kids love taking pictures of each other themselves. At the same time, the demand for professional headshots is on the rise because a good public profile is essential for networking and remote work.”
Can you stand out in the crowd?
Today’s photography industry is very much a consumer’s market. To be successful, you need to capture attention and stand out from other professionals. Work to distinguish yourself and your style from others in the industry by doing the following:
Constant travel. Difficult clients. Sporadic schedules. These are just a few of the less glamorous realities that await many who decide to go pro as a photographer. To break into a creative industry, you have to be 100 percent committed to your craft. “You have to be passionate about it,” says Conley. “It can't be something that you dread doing. If you’re passionate and committed to it, you’ve won half the battle.”
Learn the tools of the trade
The more skills you have, the better your work will be. This may seem obvious, but in practice it can be hard to make room to develop your craft and a new business. Start by getting to know your equipment and how each setting and part of your camera changes your photos.
Once you know how to take a good picture, you are ready to learn how to edit one. There are all kinds of photo editing software available, all with different strengths. Adobe Photoshop Express makes editing photos on your phone a snap, while Adobe Lightroom’s presets, easy-to-use sliders, and batch edit feature are perfect for quickly editing entire shoots. Finally, Adobe Photoshop is the program you will want when it comes to fine-tuning individual photos, be it taming flyaways or opening someone’s eyes.
Become familiar with a variety of programs. Then, specialize and perfect your knowledge in the ones most suited to your work.
Understanding the basics of photography is absolutely essential before going professional, but your education shouldn’t stop there. The photography industry is constantly changing, and you need to keep up your skills to stay relevant. Make an effort to keep learning throughout your career.
“By far the best way to learn is to teach,” says Busath. “I’ve always made it a practice to volunteer to give lectures and workshops to peer groups. I’ve spoken at every opportunity, and I’ve made almost nothing doing it. Why? because it forces me to take a hard look in the mirror. Facing your peers brings you back to reality and points out places to improve.”
While understanding the basics of many types of photography and editing styles can be helpful, it’s easier to grow a business when you specialize.
“Because we do one thing well every day, we’re far more efficient and can offer a better value to our clients,” says Busath. “The equipment we use, the Photoshop techniques we have to master, even our staffing becomes more specialized and more efficient if we stay in our lane.”
The old adage “People buy from people they like” is as true in photography as any other industry. Smart branding and marketing are important, but should never replace good old-fashioned relationship building.
“Even in the age of social media, photography is still really a word-of-mouth business,” says Conley. “If someone connects with you and likes you, they're going to recommend you to their friends and family. It's easy to look at someone's photos on Instagram and think, ‘Oh, those are really pretty,’ then never book. But if someone has met you in person or knows the work that you're doing within your community, they're a lot more likely to book with you.”
Build a business
“I don’t know any business more prone to underpricing and inefficient bookkeeping than photography,” says Busath. “One job you do to make a profit, the next you figure you’ll do for exposure, another you do just to buy some new gear. A few good small business accounting classes will have a dramatic effect on your eventual success.”
Think outside the box
Nothing sets you apart more from other photographers than a unique style. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your photography rather than jumping on the bandwagon of Instagram trends.
“Avoid trying to look like everybody else,” says Conley. “If you can just make your style true to who you are and unique to yourself and what you think looks best, you're going to stand out.”