Would You Like Files With That? … The Emergence Of Fast Food Photography
By Jennifer Johnson
I’d like to address something that I haven’t touched on before. Answer a question, so to speak, and in doing so discuss something that’s been floating around in various forms on Facebook and other social media.
There’s a lot going on in the photography industry right now, but if you’ll bear with me for a minute, I’d like to take you out of your element; let’s talk about a different industry. Let’s talk about the restaurant industry. Crazy right… or is it? There was a time, a time I surely don’t remember, when people rarely went out to eat. Instead, they sat around the table with their nuclear families and dined on a home cooked meal. Over time this has changed drastically due to a great many factors, some of which are very real to most of us, for example: increased job demands with two working parents, longer commutes, school commitments, extracurricular activities and of course, the convenience and affordability of a meal you just didn’t have the energy to cook.
At one time restaurant dining was commonly associated with “a night on the town” and now it has become a routine part of everyday life. However, the demand spans all budgets and occasions. The fast food industry has cornered its market just as the “chef’s table” with VIP service and a themed tasting menu has become its own niche, in what seemed a saturated market.
If nothing else the restaurant industry, in all forms, has exploded based on consumer demand. It was forced to adapt to the changing market and those most successful capitalized on that demand. They would tell you they had no choice, but I’m here to tell you there is always a choice. You can change, or you can get left behind. So I ask you (you passionate enough about the photography industry that you’ve taken the time to read this far) how adaptable are you? Can you adapt to the changes this industry is going through and maybe more importantly do you need to?
Maybe we should start at the beginning… what are you? There is a question that keeps popping up, and it’s so seemingly simple; “Can I be a Professional Photographer?“ It takes many forms, your sister with the new camera she got for her birthday, your neighbor who thinks it ‘just might be fun’, your best friend who’s a new stay at home Mom and is hoping to make a ‘little extra cash’ in her spare time. The thing is, it’s such a loaded question, and it really needs to be broken down into two parts: photography and business.
The photography side requires a number of things, including but not limited to, talent, skill, determination, patience, technical ability, artistic sense, and people skills. And then there’s the business side, which is a whole other can of worms. There are many people who possess one set of skills or the other, there are a few people who possess some of both and there are even fewer, who have them all. Having said that, I should add that not all people running a successful photography business are amazing photographers, and not all people who are amazing photographers have a successful business. The photography industry is pretty sexy. How can it not be? Its lure on the front cover is beauty itself. Beautiful imagery, like music, can envelop you in an instant and keep you mesmerized until you pull yourself free. There are many members of this industry and various equipment choices for each level. Anyone can have a digital camera, and you can take a beautiful image with any camera. However, if we let ourselves generalize these members into three categories, there are some very distinct differences that are often overlooked or misunderstood. For the purpose of this article, we’ll use the following categories, as defined below, with the understanding that they may not be the only working definitions and there are obviously many shades of each category.
Amateurs are learning to take the image that they envision. They are in the process of becoming and they may or may not know what they will eventually become. This does not speak to level of effort or time spent on the craft; it’s a measurement of skill and industry position.
Hobbyists can be just as skilled as professionals, but they are taking the images that they choose to take because they want to take them.
Professionals have learned to take a beautiful image in any situation to (hopefully) fit a culmination of both the client’s vision and theirs. The key is that this is an image that they are trying to sell. This is often done in their style, with their artistic vision. However, as with most arts, what is in your mind and heart, and what pays the bills aren’t always mutually exclusive. That doesn’t mean that as a professional, you have to sell yourself short. You do, however, have to be wise enough to understand your market and your goals, above simply the love and enjoyment of your art.
Once you’re sucked in, it doesn’t take much work to learn what you want to produce. You start following some photographers, you learn to use your camera in manual mode, maybe you even charge for a few shoots. You know what you want your SOOC’s to look like but you’re not quite there yet. Ok, fair enough, everyone starts somewhere. But what’s your next step? This is where it gets hazy. You see, there is no short cut. There’s no one action or preset that you need that will turn you into something magical. For some, it just clicks (pun intended J ); their angles are fantastic, they immediately grasp the technical skill required to manipulate their equipment and they are born with the artistic nuances that will set them apart in the industry. That is not the norm. Repeat that to yourself right now. That is not the norm. Most people have to practice… a lot. If you do that, it’s likely that you will learn how to take a great photograph, but it’s not guaranteed. You can add to that, this little fact, just because you have learned what you should do, to take a great photograph, doesn’t mean you’ll possess the skill to do it. Memorizing a cook book doesn’t make you a great chef. Understanding and performing don’t always go hand in hand.
Let’s say you’ve gotten far enough technically and you believe you’ve got the artistic skill required to set yourself apart. Step back for a second and consider the industry itself. One thing you need to keep in mind is what this industry is going through.
I’ve seen an animosity in this profession towards the aspiring professional. That is likely due, in gross majority, to the massive flush of entry level photographers over the past 5-10 years. This is likely directly linked to the availability and affordability of excellent hobbyist and entry level professional digital cameras. I was not part of this industry prior to this influx; however, I suspect that it will never be the same again. Those hoping to revisit “the good old days” are likely in for a shock. As with most industries, you’re often forced to either adapt, to handle the new market, or be ready to change your career.
The thing is, I see anger and resentment from both sides of the fence. The aspiring photographer is frustrated and desperately trying to make it, while the established professionals are constantly fighting to stay afloat and relevant now that “everyone’s a photographer.” Is this a brand new problem? Heck No! These struggles have always been around. So, what’s the difference? Why does it seem so bad now? Obviously, the availability of equipment is part of it, but it’s the social media that levels the playing field. Facebook has revolutionized and handcuffed this industry. Suzy down the street can just as easily create a business page and start posting pictures, prices and advertising, as the local anchor photographer. It’s the comparison that’s killing us. Competition is healthy, especially in business, but you have to understand what you’re competing against.
The largest mistake I see out of beginning photographers, is the belief that they can function as a hobbyist and produce like a professional.
Running a professional photography business is not a fly by the night, weekend warrior, no big deal I’ve got this fancy camera so why not, kind of job. It takes work. I know what you’re thinking right now. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know all about working hard. Shoot, you may have worked quite successfully in another industry. However, unless you ran your own business previously, you may be overlooking a few things. However, I may have jumped ahead of myself here. What we’re really talking about is perception vs. reality. Facebook gives everyone the perception that the “big dogs” in the industry are running around, taking pictures, posting some fun comments and having a la-t-da kind of life while basking in the sun of the professional “good life.” As an amateur, that creates an unfeasible goal. You may or may not be trying to make this your full time job; you may or may not be contributing to a household income with this job. But if you’re not running a business, you have no business comparing yourself to those who are. Does that mean you can’t ever do it? No. Of course not. But know your level. Don’t be in such a rush to jump into the deep end that you forget to learn how to swim. There are many, many articles about what it takes to run a business. And they all talk about the thousands of little details that go into business maintenance before you even get to the fun stuff, ie. doing the actual job. The difference between your old job and running your own business is that there is no one to call. You have to do everything yourself. Marketing, accounting, sales, administration, public relations, technical support, oh yeah, and then there’s the photography.
My point is this; know the level where you need to work and its limitations. Understand your goals. Then, work to grow to accomplish those goals, within those limitations. Let those who are working at a higher level inspire you, rather than hold you back. If you’ve quit your full time job to support your family as a new photographer, then you’d better make sure you’re up to speed on all of the business strategy you can get your hands on, to set yourself apart in this industry, because you’d better believe that the industry leaders spend all of their “spare time” thinking about it. If you’re Suzy down the street who thinks it just might be fun, don’t expect the biggest business in town to unload all of their secrets, train you and be your best friend in their spare time because I can assure you, they have no spare time.
Today, I learned that something major happened in our industry, Sears and Wal-Mart portrait studios closed their doors. You know why? It’s because all of those entry level photographers are taking their place. Again, here’s where the comparisons come into play. If you’re a “big dog” in this industry, I bet you never compared yourself to Wal-Mart or Sears portrait studios. You wouldn’t would you? As a custom portrait photographer, you’re likely miles ahead of what they could and did offer. Unfortunately, time has gone by, equipment has gotten better and more available and the competition is fierce. Things will never be the way they were 15 years ago. If you’re comparing yourself to the new equivalent of Sears or Wal-Mart portrait studios, maybe it’s time to rethink your business model. Discover what sets you apart. Now, don’t get angry; this is not a criticism or a lecture. However, it’s pretty easy to write about the problems with amateurs, and there are an awful lot of discussions out there, but I rarely see anyone hold up their own mirror. You struggled hard to get to where you are, I get that, but unfortunately, as is discussed so often, this is business and in business the struggle is never over. You have to constantly evaluate your value-added and ask yourself those hard questions. If you’re coasting, it probably won’t last forever, so you’d better be ready with your next play. All of that “business stuff” that distinguishes you as a professional and is all so often, included in the standard lecture to the aspiring amateur, is not a checklist that you can be done with. It’s not a checklist at all, it’s a never-ending circle, a circle called, the work required to run a business. Man, it’s exhausting just thinking about it.
So now what? The amateurs, the hobbyists, the professionals, you’ve defined who you are, what’s next?
Stop spending your time wishing this industry was something else, and start doing whatever it is that you believe sets you apart. Perhaps there’s room for everyone, or every level. If we let the market divide itself can we all find our spots? Probably not, regardless of the tier, the top dogs will emerge. Let the Sears and Wal-Mart photographers fight for the Sears and Wal-Mart clients. You’ll never hear Ruth’s Chris ask you if you’d like to supersize it, and I can guarantee they don’t worry about the 5 McDonald’s popping up down the street. Don’t fool yourself, there’s a potentially successful market at each tier. You may not want to run a McDonald’s tier business, but Donald Thompson, McDonald’s CEO would gladly argue its market value in dollars and cents, and you’d better believe there are people in this industry after just that. My point is this, no one’s going anywhere. The market will change and shift based on supply and demand. If you’re in this to run a business, figure out what your market is and set yourself apart, your job is depending on it.