When I started in advertising over 20 years ago using photography was the expensive option. It meant hand retouching, scanning and colour separations and clients would always suck their teeth at the costs. We would spend days looking at photographers’ books, selecting models and props. The client would come on the shoot and after a good lunch and the afternoon drinking in the studio would totter home feeling that their money was well spent.
Fast forward two decades and the combination of a recession and royalty-free photo libraries mean that the art and craft of photography is becoming seriously undervalued. Don’t get me wrong, the big ad agency shoots are not dead. If you want to do a poster for the BMW launch or Kate Moss modelling the new H&M collection, you’ll still need a shoot. What I’m talking about are the second level images, the brochure shots, the direct mail photography, the images in emails. These have been rendered effectively worthless by the rise of royalty-free image libraries like iStockPhoto and their ilk.
In the past photo libraries charged on the basis of readership. How many people saw the image, so for a global use of an image you could pay more than a shoot. This was fine as often it was cheaper to re-shoot something and then retain the rights and use it as the client needed. But then came along the royalty-free libraries and the price of stock started falling to the sub $30 region and clients seized on this as a way of saving money. The result is that photography in advertising is increasingly under valued. I recently had a bizarre conversation with a client who asked me to prove why spending $100 on an image for an email to their entire customer base was better value than a free shot. I informed her that short of showing her every free image on the internet that would be difficult and that, by the way, this conversation would probably cost more than the $100 image.
The result of this trend is that in many cases photography has become a graphic element as trivial to visually illiterate clients as typography and design. It’s a space filler. This problem is not going away anytime soon because as professional photographers get less work they have to charge more for each shoot they do get just to stay alive and so the gulf between the free images and the professional work grows.
Now that everyone has a camera and the barriers to becoming a casual stock photographer get lower every day, the number of people who can make a decent living in photography will fall. In the US, wedding photographers who could command $3,000 a wedding are now fighting amateurs who will charge $500.
I’m not sure there is a solution and that depresses me. We need to avoid the decent into the bland pap that characterises so much stock photography and start a campaign for real photography. The brands that care will support us and after all those are the ones we want to work for.