Updated: Feb 20, 2021
Imagery is everywhere. Most anyone with a phone now has the ability to take decent photographs and edit their shots. Social media provides an outlet of immense proportions. Intelligent cameras allow near flawless automatic execution, and the results are immediate, providing instant feedback to make adjustments and produce the perfect image without waiting. Likewise, the access to submission of that work is easier for everyone, with more online uploads, international open calls, and countless outlets for stock inventory that has heightened competition and reduced revenues to pennies on the dollar per image. In 2018, both CareerCast and the National Bureau of Labor Statistics list "professional photography" as one of the 25 worst jobs in the United States. The median annual wage of $34,000 falls below the national median of all jobs at $37,690. Plus, growth for all jobs is projected to increase by 7% between 2016 and 2026, while the amount of professional photography work will decline by 5.6 % across the same period. Oh joy.
Naturally, there are differences when using an informed and trained photographer, his networks for submitting work, his experience and the enhanced quality of his equipment. Most any trained professional will continue to produce greater consistent and prolific work than the amateur -- that's true in most any profession. Like most jobs, those with a slight edge and more hustle can pound out a living that stays ahead of the competition and puts enough food on the table. There are many fine photographers out there today making an okay, if not an exceptional, living in spite of the proliferation of images now produced out there. However, the industry has changed, and will continue to do so. What we once thought of as the craft and artistry of a specific technical skill set, has now been largely reduced to a commodity, not unlike tax preparation, website design, construction, retail, etc. Like most advancement, our industry is just one of the thousands over time that have had to adjust to easy access, standardization, fabricated production, and excessive proliferation.
Likewise, almost all creative professions have always felt this disparity between the majority that cannot make a full-time living at their craft, versus the few, who based on exceptional talent, driving persistence and a lot of luck, have found their niche and prospered greatly. Most photographers are left in a place where they must either specialize in unique areas where the common man treads less, such as adventure photography and technical work, or they move towards artistic output that creates a narrative context often involving heavy manipulation of an image far beyond that done through the general practice of the public.
Though the process of taking pictures has been greatly automated, it's not just the taking of pictures that photographers must address these days. You still have to cultivate clients and build a business. You must also handle or oversee all aspects of production beyond editing to include printing, installation, promotion, and product logistics. Added skills may require you to combine your work with writing, deep sea diving, technical mountain climbing, film making, industrial innovation, public speaking, or some other endeavor that provides you an advantage over the average photographer taking wildlife shots at the zoo. Freelance work is now outpacing staff photography positions that provide salary and benefits, as is the case in many fields trying to remain competitive. It's not just photography that's affected, but the entire American workforce that's being impacted. Yes, you have to hustle more, hold down other jobs, seek benefits where you can find them in a society that continues to emphasize the coming of the free agent. The past concepts of fixed salaries, single employers, career tracks, job security, retirement and pensions (while living and raising a family in one house, on one paycheck, and in one community throughout your working life) is now a fantasy of the past.
You're a practitioner in a crowded field, but a field where demand for images continues to grow. Sure, the supply of "photographers" is also expanding, and much of this work is being offered for free. However, in a free market, if you can't make a case and differentiate your work from that which is offered at no cost, perhaps you should re-evaluate the quality or approach of what you produce. Clearly many potential buyers lack the ability to discern between good and bad work, and will often opt for the cheaper option (like not knowing good art from the bad, "pretty", repetitious and mundane). Well, it's your job to sell it, as well as to seek out those clients with a greater capacity to appreciate the value of your work. The issue is both one of passion to drive beyond standard output, and your effort to diversify across related skills to find a unique expression that surpasses the status quo. In spite of national statistics designed to paint an over-simplified canvas of industry in decline, the reality is a shift in the field where an adaptable photographer can make it work. So screw the statistics and go make your own. Even if you approach these changes valiantly, there's no guarantee you will succeed financially -- as in life, some compromise is likely to be certain, but hopefully, you'll still be doing what you want professionally -- and with a little ingenuity and luck, you can easily be among those who make a decent living in this field.