What Happens When Photography Becomes A Commodity?

- - The Future

I believe much of photography is already a commodity and I plan to speak about it during the ASMP Symposium next Thursday the 27th in New York at the Times Center. The topic for the event (more details here) is “Sustainable Business Models: Issues and Trends Facing Visual Artists” which is a topic I’ve been thinking and writing about since I started this blog. the ASMP goes on to say “the rules of the game have changed and it’s no longer business as usual in today’s crowded visual arts marketplace” which to me leads to an obvious conclusion: photography is a commodity.

Commodification is a scary thought. It means you are competing on price and racing to the bottom.

Ok, so that’s the bad news. But, there’s an upside. Before we get to that, let’s destroy this cliché that I hear all the time how “photographers brought it on”, because they didn’t do something to prevent it. All the bitching and whining about weak willed photographers who wont hold the line and clients who wont pay the fees. Commodification is a natural market process. You cannot stop this.

To see the upside you need to take a more nuanced view of photography. You need to consider photography services a value chain and the act of taking a picture, what I like to call being a “camera operator”, as one part of this value chain. You also need to understand that commodification occurs when the improvements to a product overshoot the needs of the client. Better equipment and techniques matter little to the majority of clients. There will always be exceptions, but sadly, it seems we are all past the point of good enough (even if in some parts of the industry good enough is distirbingly low). Nevertheless, don’t dwell on it. Technology that blew your mind ten years ago is now completely commodified. It can’t be stopped.

The upside is that if you have commodification, somewhere else in the value chain a reciprocal process of de-commoditization is at work. In the book I’m reading now (The Innovator’s Solution) author Clayton M. Christensen goes on to say that “commoditization destroys a company’s ability to capture profits by undermining differentiability, de-commoditization affords opportunities to create and capture potentially enormous wealth.”

You just have to find the spot in the value chain where performance is not yet good enough, where you can differentiate yourself by being better than the others. Exciting, right?

I have lots of thoughts on this that I will get into during the symposium but here’s one simple observation.

Not too long ago your personality mattered little in photography. You could be the most abhorrent dick-wad and land all the work you wanted if your photography was awesome. I see plenty of evidence now that this is not longer possible. An art director I sat on a panel with even said “the top 5 photographers for a car shoot are all qualified to do the job. it comes down to personality as to who will get the job” Personality is one tiny part of the value chain, but it’s now more important than the photography. That’s astounding.

Sad if you enjoy operating cameras, but very exciting if you enjoy the entire value chain of photography services. My favorite photographers to work with have always been the creative problem solvers. Now I can clearly see the de-commodization at work.

There Are 64 Comments On This Article.

  1. I’ve always preached that photography is not only a product (images) but also a service. You can’t be a curmudgeonly entrepreneur – and why would you want to?

  2. Well said! The most successful creative photographers are the ones who can think outside the lens, and find that sweet spot of differentiation.

  3. Everything said here couldn’t be more true.

    As an art buyer and agency producer, the “experience” of the shoot is really what I’m romancing my client with. (Really my creative team, as well.) The photographer and who this person is, becomes part of this. Justifying the cost of a quality shoot has to come from more than the final image….at least in my clients’ eyes. They know when they see an image that shows bad photography, but they don’t always undersand the difference between “good” and “great”. Selling them on the experience helps me get the “great” for my creative team.
    And this doesn’t even touch the creative side of things. After creative calls, my team immediately knows who they want to work with. I mean as you said, everyone that we talk to about a particular project is capable…or we wouldn’t be talking to them.

    • Totally agree Tiffany!
      As an agent representing top US commercial photographers, I can tell you that we place a HUGE amount of emphasis on the character/personality part of the value chain! It is really part of our brand. The reason it’s so difficult to unseat an incumbent photographer on a project? Because that pre-existing relationship is so important! And thankfully, we’re often that incumbent.
      MW

    • The experience of a shoot is an interesting thought. Similar strategies are applied for investors in Hollywood movie production. Looks like it all boils down to personality – not only of the work, but also of the artist.

      • One of our most likable (and talented) photographers brings such an optimistic, unassuming and cooperative perspective to every shoot, that Creative Directors who work with him are constantly trying to hire him for projects way outside of his comfort zone. Attitude is everything – a positive outlook can make a huge difference on even the most stressful shoot!

  4. Most of it is probably true although I think concluding that personality is more important than the photography is a bit of a stretch. Whoever of top 5 finally gets the job might come down to personality but the reason they’re in the top 5 is still the photography, not the personality.
    While I do see the point you’re raising about commodification, hasn’t it always been easier to get jobs if you have a good personality? I mean look at Mario Testino. Sure, he’s a good photorapher but he probably wouldn’t be where he is today if wasn’t so terribly charming.

    • In your first paragraph you say it is a “stretch” that personality is more important than good photography and then in your second paragraph you say that in the case of the one of the most successful photographers in the world, it IS probably because of personality.

      • No. In my first paragraph I said that while personality is a way to differentiate between several photographers who are all very good at what they but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is more important than the photography.
        In my second paragraph I argued that this is nothing new.

    • I don’t think personality is a stretch. Photographers who are still in the game are technically sound, yet I’ve seen (YAWN) work with less punch that a baby in a wet paper bag. I think it reflects on their personality.

      Who would want to work with a droll or the other extreme of the ego maniac? The creative problem solvers as mention know how to push, or pull, to get the best results.

    • Would agree: “the reason they’re in the top 5 is still the photography” – so the personality bit MAY only come into play at the very end, IF you are talking about a shoot which they will personally be at.

  5. Great article. As a non-creative that got into the production side of the business 7 years ago, I was shocked to observe how few of our photographer clients really understood their business. While they had amazing craft, their grasp of how they monetized that craft was amiss and often neglected.
    Now that budgets and schedules are tighter than ever, we see our thriving clients share in a clearer understanding of what their value proposition is to their clients. One way this is apparent is the level of collaboration that takes place throughout the pre-production process.
    The end client, or brand, relies on the voice of the photographer to tell the story. While our perspective is skewed due to specifics of our photographer client base, I’m sure it’s representative.
    Also, I’d point out, most photographers leave a great deal of bottom line profit lost in waste among their expenses and cost of business.
    The profitable photographer of today does not just understand their value proposition and get paid for it, they also understand that their business processes can provide real profit if managed properly.

  6. From the folks who stocked the pyramids with vases to Da Vinci, certainly most artists understand that art is a commodity. that’s not the revelation. What has changed, perhaps is that 1) unlike in the truly old days, anyone can be an artist; 2) when anyone can be an artist, there is going to be rampant discrimination; 3) discrimination can be good or bad,–but it also runs up against inertia. That’s the main problem here, b/c those top 5 photographers create a comfort zone for buyers. Photography needs those buyers to be less comfortable with people they like, and stretch to get a wider voice. So many talented photographers, so many high paying projects! But, it’s no good if the same (fashion/stock) photographers get all the work!

  7. Good post Rob; I wish I wasn’t so damned far away from New York. When talking about commodification, I think it’s helpful to be a little more explicit. ‘Commodity’ is one of those words that people use a lot without a real understanding on what it means. The word ‘fungible’ is a lot more precise and helps get to the core of the issue. Fungible products are those that are not distinguishable to the market. Copper is a good example. It doesn’t matter if it’s mined, recycled, produced in Asia or in Mexico, or stolen from an abandoned houses—there is a global price and it’s all the same. One ounce of copper can be substituted for another and nobody cares.

    So the question is: is photography fungible? The answer depends a lot on what part of the market you’re talking about. Photography is a little too broad to make these kind to generalizations. Shopping mall portraits: fungible; Juergen Teller: not fungible.

    Photographers can learn a lot of lessons from other essentially fungible products that have avoided the race to the bottom. Blue jeans come to mind. When I was a kid I absolutely insisted on a certain brand, while to my mother jeans were a fungible product. She sure as hell wasn’t paying $50 for a pair that was exactly like another, but I was incorrigible. The fashion industry learned long ago that fungibility could be avoided with targeted branding—while jeans may be fungible, a brand is not.

    Another good example is eggs. Unless you make a lot of soufflés, one egg is pretty much like another. But a lot of people are willing to pay a premium for cage free or organic. Rather than spiraling to the bottom, egg producers continue to support higher price points by being nice to chickens. They have found a value external to their commodity which they can sell. I would probably pay 50% more for eggs from chickens who listen to classical music all day even if the product is exactly the same.

    The point of this all-too-long comment, is that there are plenty of opportunities for photographers to avoid fungibility. The comments touched on a few: personality, service, etc. There are many others: having a unique voice, understanding certain businesses sectors and their visual culture, being a brand name, engendering trust, etc. The list is only limited by your creativity. Commodification is a problem that is continually addressed and often solved in other industries. Photographers should take note of those successes.

  8. Nailed it. As the photographer industry evolves, as did other professions including software and hi-tech, the hardest thing to accept for the KOTOGs (Keepers Of The Old Generation) is that the image no longer matters as much as the person. The WHAT is being replaced by the WHO. Thanks for adding your voice and logic to this difficult, and inevitable, transition.

  9. It’s a brilliant observation and one that can be observed by simply looking around to see that photographers who work the most have great relationships with their clients and have had those relationships for many years. In fact, in the early days of digital that’s how many of them started – right time, right place, right people. Breaking past that is the challenge and it always has been.

    When I think of photographers with great personality I immediately think of Jeremy Cowart. But, he’s got amazing talent to boot. I think of Chase Jarvis who is far more than a photographer – he’s a “solution provider” of sorts.

    Besides blogging, I’m curious how to differentiate yourself from the pack when many times you’re “calling card” is your website of pretty pictures.

  10. You can differentiate yourself, by having a website that’s more than just a bunch of pretty pictures, but has a voice, some writing that’s not just the “about us” section, but a personable tone of interaction that’s about the concerns of potential clients, not about your honors and awards…

    ….and a good blog goes a long way…

    The hard part here is that many photographers became photographers, rather than, say writers, or public speakers because they are more visual than verbal…. so we have to step up and become more verbal and interactive!

  11. Great post. I would have loved to be at this symposium! This is something I have seen explode in the past 5 years after I sold my studio on the coast and relocated back to the Rockies. This trend is forcing me to look at other ways to create a profitable model in todays over saturated market. I agree that the quality of work now is such that prior to digital, would have been laughed at, the individual escorted out and told never to return. Memory is cheap. You could teach a monkey to operate a camera and given enough captures he would probably get a few usable shots. It’s all based on law of averages. I still believe from all this turmoil, great new ideas will emerge by those with ingenuity.

  12. I think this is similar to the discussion of Artist vs Designer. A lot of designers believe their are artists. It’s the same in photography. Many photographers believe they are artists and hence have the ego to go with it.

    No problem being an artist in design or photography. Many have managed to merge the two. The only problem is to be successful at and to run a business which turns a profit (otherwise it’s a hobby) you need to be a well known and established artist first. Otherwise it agree. Focus on your clients needs first.

  13. Us here in LA would definitely appreciate more reporting from the ASMP symposium in New York. It’s a great way to stay current with how this business is developing – and at the same time spot those moments that that stay the same on the inside while their appearance changes: you always needed great work well presented to be successful.

  14. scott rex Ely

    When have there been opportunities for photographers to say I want to only work with art directors who aren’t jerks?
    When can I get a photo assignment from a magazine where the PE doesn’t spend 5 minutes explaining how long it takes to get paid and gosh it will be so much easier the next time you work for us?
    When can I get an assignment from a magazine where they don’t tell me what particular aesthetic ,which might be negligent of my work’s provenance, they are thinking of would be a good departure point for the story.

    It’s a buyer’s market gone bad.
    Where’s the push back from the contributor’s side to say screw you don’t try to make my work fit into a square hole when it’s truly a round peg?
    All of this is about servicing the client’s desires when all of those parameters are purely subjective. The commodity here is not photography it’s clients living vicariously thru their vendors.
    A food critic can sit down and commission a meal from a chef but can that food critic really go in the kitchen and knock out that recipe under the same circumstances? Probably not.
    Let’s get back to understanding that the creators rule not the buyers.

      • scott rex Ely

        If it’s fungible then how can there be apparent value to other dimensions of the product like the atmosphere of the service it was delivered in? You know like friendly, compatable, personality related attributes?
        I’m not so sure that the descion to go with a particular photographer over another is strictly just related to the product .

        • it’s not. in your case the decision is based on who can I boss around and get to push the button on the camera so I don’t have to. there are many choices when this is the criteria. you are one of the choices for the shoot because you are selling your ability to operate a camera.

  15. scott rex Ely

    I would also argue that if there are 5 photographers who can adequately “Do” the job and the choice boils down to a subjective selection process, then I would argue it’s about kickbacks. Ego kickbacks being the most prominent. I’ll leave the other forms to ones imagination.

  16. To avoid becoming a commodity one must find an organic way to become unique and irreplaceable. Of course becoming the best barbecue chef wont help if you work at a vegetarian restaurant.

  17. Case in point: Got the word tonight about a job I estimated 2 months ago to do the photography portion for an advertising venture for a local community. The director wanted me but the client opted to use another photographer they have used in the past….relationships.

  18. Super Zimmer

    I’d imagine that instead of hiring a first assistant, a photographer
    should bring a butler/concierge on to the set.

  19. Donnor Party

    Among equally qualified shooters, my agency asks this question: who do you want to sit in an airport with for 12 hours when flights get canceled? Who will be a comfortable dinner companion? Seriously. Creative always has lunch with potential photographers, just to watch them eat. Manners and grace at lunch are great indicaters of manners and grace under fire.

  20. Great perspective from You and the comments. Here’s an example from this morning. I agreed on doing a shoot for a luxury seniors resort. Just a couple of hours on a boat. Sounded fun, actually. Agreed on a very fair price. Not giving it away, mind you. Got a call from the Ad agency, the client is going to use one of the residents who has a nice camera. I’ll be surprised if they even qualify as “good enough” Meh. Just gotta keep slugging away. And, I totally agree that a good attitude is so important. The agency has been very good to me in the past based not just in doing a good job but being nice. Times are crazy, but it’s still a pretty good job.

  21. I have to agree with is whole hardily. Though I can decent photo I know that there are many photographers out there that are much more talents than me. Even in my local market. I know for a fact that much of the work I get is based on who I am rather than what I am. It’s not a complaint however. It is what it is. We all have our strengths and weakness. I just happen to be a people person.

    Now I just keep bringing my skill level up.

  22. Great points, Rob. I couldn’t agree more. As the Chinese saying goes: “In every crisis lies opportunity”. In fact, in my 2005 article, “The Commoditization of the Commercial Photography Business,” I suggested that since Moore’s law will continue to affect both photography processing and image storage, the best refuge for a photographer is in the one area that can never be digitized: their vision. In order to survive, a photographer must carve out a niche; one that’s built from their passion and supported by their personality. If anyone’s interested, a copy of the article is available for download on my web site’s Contact page. http://www.cpotts.com/25855.html:

  23. Agree. I’ve been working on changing my website to reflect this truth. As someone who’s run multi million dollar programs and sold hundreds of millions of dollars of equipment, this is a simple truth. People buy on emotion and from people they like and trust. The work begins once you have the job. The next job depends on it. Best regards,
    James

  24. Henri Grau

    Great article. I wish I could attend the symposium to hear more about it. Nothing could be further from the truth that people buy from or work with photographers they are most comfortable with. I am a professional photographer and graphic designer who happen to be deaf since the age of three. I find myself having to work twice has hard as my competitive photographers because for one, my speech isn’t perfect and I rely on lipreading and/or sign language to communicate with hearing customers. Two, I need guide customers on the best way to communicate with me all before I have an opportunity to get to the next phase of selling my work and for personality to shine through. Sometimes, for a customer, the convenience of having no communication barrier wins over my personality and craftsmanship and the best I can do is not to take the rejection personally and as hard as it is, move on.