The State Of The Photography Business Today

by William Lulow

Note: This article was published over a year ago and due to its relevancy, I have published it again here with some updates.

 An article in an edition of Photo District News (about a year ago) about Time Inc.’s new policy toward photographers indicates that TIME has relegated photographers to the ranks of undeserving folks who are totally subservient to the companies for whom they work. (Never mind that photographers had really built the reputation of LIFE magazine back in the 1930s and ’40s).  I haven’t shot for Time or any of its divisions for a long time, but back in the ’80s, when I did quite a few articles for PEOPLE and MONEY magazines, I was paid something like $750 per day with a “page rate over day rate” contract which meant that they would pay more if more images were used in an article than just straight time (number of days the assignment took).  These days, it looks like the day rate went down and now they no longer want to pay for the number of images they use. Plus, they want to have complete rights over reuse of the photographs. They once paid me $750 additional to use some of my photos on a back cover of PEOPLE as promotional material. This certainly represents a considerable reduction in what they want to pay photographers these days. They want photographers to give up more rights AND, they want to pay them less from the outset!

I want to say that this might be due to the fact that they can get photographs of various “breaking news” stories and maybe even some feature images from many more sources today than they could in the past. With digital technology, everyone’s a photographer! If someone happens to be on the scene of some news story, they often can simply upload their iPhone images directly to a news app! Maybe, the news outlet will credit the image taker, if they know who it is and if there is any metadata attached to the pictures. But, maybe not! It looks like feature assignments are given out to the photographer who comes up with some interesting content, a regular contributor, someone with access to a particular person or story the magazine’s interested in, or perhaps, a photographer they are interested in working with. So, they’re relying on the photographer to provide content as well as the images!  No matter, that person will have to give up more and get less just to have pictures published by Time Inc. In addition, these days there seems to be a mentality of mediocrity surrounding the taking of images. If they show an event or person, it doesn’t always have to be superior quality. “Good enough” will often do because the photographs will only be seen on screens and not in 11×14-inch publications.

People who make their livings taking pictures for use in major news outlets these days have to band together and insist on the viability of their careers in the face of the onslaught of digital images. There has already been a “good enough” mentality that pervades much of the photography on the internet. It seems that it doesn’t matter that images for websites aren’t top quality, as long as they show something. About the only use I can think of for really high quality images is when someone wants to sell a product or person.

I have written many times about how professional photographers (those who make most of their money from producing images) need to set themselves apart from the run-of-the-mill picture takers. One of the only ways we can fight the trends these days is to keep making superior quality images. We can also try to stick together as a group by refusing to work for companies who don’t pay going rates for images and assignments. This may be difficult to do, however.  I have said, many times, that photographers cannot compete on price alone. There is always someone who will do a job for less. Part of this is because photography is perceived as a “glamour profession.” People wanting to get started in the business will often take less money just to be able to say they have something published by some magazine or newspaper.

For my part, I have been trying to educate my students as to what makes quality images. I teach them the classical lightings. I show them how to make quality digital prints. I teach them the value of getting the correct image in the camera versus relying on Photoshop to fix mistakes! I’ve been asked whether or not I’m giving away trade secrets. My answer is that no two photographers will ever photograph the same person, place or thing the same exact way. Elevating someone’s knowledge is never something to fear.

So, photographers and wannabees should stand behind the professional picture makers and fight for decent working conditions and pay!