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Commodity Failure: A Rant

Oh, am I going to catch shit for this one…

Every once in a while, despite my best efforts to keep my head down and avoid this stuff, I hear someone complain again about “amateur” photographers (don’t even get me started on the term faux-tographer, I’ll have an aneurism) cannibalising the photography market because they work for less than industry standard, or – God help us – for free. And then these complainers head off to Walmart to get their discounted goods. Sigh. I’ve done so well at restraining myself lately, and haven’t had a rant for ages, but God help me, I’m about to jump down this rabbit-hole.

Most of us conduct our business in a free-market economy. People offer things for sale, and people buy those things. The price is determined by the value you offer. And yes, if someone offers something for free, it can sting. And it can make you want to complain. And lash out. Because that’s easier than getting creative about finding a solution, and it’s sure as hell easier than recognizing that if someone is hiring a Craigslist photographer for $1.50 instead of you, they clearly don’t see (this is going to hurt) enough value in what you offer to pay for it. In short, you think it’s more valuable than they do, and that’s a problem. You know whose mind is easier to change? Yours. You will change their mind only when you change the value of what you offer.

Lada could give cars away for free and you won’t hear Ferrari complaining about it. Ferrari aren’t just selling cars; they’re selling sexy, prestige, and the colour red. You still think you’re selling photographs.

You, my friend, have allowed yourself to become a commodity. You are just selling average photography, and someone else is giving average away. It’s the way it is. And the only way to combat it, is not legislation or licensing or accreditation with some Governing Body of Mediocrity. It’s to find a way to offer something valuable enough for people to pay for it. That is the skill of being a professional photographer. It’s in making something of value to someone and making that connection. If only you were as creative with your business as you are with your photography. If only you studied your marketing as well as you studied the B&H Catalog. If only you spent more time connecting to your audience, listening to their needs, and finding ways to make exactly the thing you want to make, in such a way that it uniquely meets their needs. That is what people pay for.

The world is full of painters, many of whom, like photographers, are pretty mediocre. Picasso, as an extreme example, is not a commodity. He is a brand, even if he’s long dead. And people pay millions for it. People could give away cars and there’d still be a market for Porsche and Ferrari. And you wouldn’t hear Ferrari complaining about it. Because they aren’t just selling cars; they’re selling sexy, prestige, and the colour red. You still think you’re selling photographs.

Business models change all the time. Some of them are easier to work with than others. Some help us for a time and then turn on us. But the same people that are groaning about amateurs doing work for free or less than industry average are the same people groaning about Facebook starting to charge for the value they offer. Stop whining, do some soul-searching, raise your prices, and give people so much value they’d be happy to pay twice that. Not realistic you say? Then you need to get creative. That’s the hard work.

“In the fast moving water of commerce on which we float this boat, the only thing that’s going to make a difference is how hard, and in which direction, you paddle. The rapids aren’t listening to your thoughts about how unfair the other guy’s paddle is, or how he should have built his boat with the same flaws as yours.”

I don’t give a tinker’s damn whether you are a professional or not. I love photography as an art and art is meant to be given away and any amateur out there that makes great art for the love of it, and gives it away, will get nothing from me but cheerleading. If they’re professionals, or want to be, they’ll go bankrupt soon enough by ill-choosing a business model that doesn’t pay the bills. So that’s their choice. Your choice is how you will offer such value that people will pay for it, it’s in learning to apply the craft of commerce as creatively as you do your photography. It’s in opening your heart and mind to new possibilities in a changing marketplace that might not be fair, but is what it is, and won’t respond to whining or wishing. Sometimes it sucks, I know that. It stings when we get complacent only to find our marketshare snapped up by some young buck with a camera and the hunger to do what it takes to build his business. But it’s our complacency to blame, nothing else. This is the way the world of commerce has worked for hundreds (thousands?) of years.

I know I sound antagonistic. I don’t mean to be. My greatest hope for you is that you find a way to do what you love, in the way that gives you both a good life and a good living. And God knows it’s not fair when the business model we relied on changes. But you can be right or you can be happy. If you want to be right, if that’s enough for you, then keep griping. It won’t help, but you’ll feel justified. If you want to be happy, then do something. Change the way you do business. Find new collaborations. Question everything you thought you knew about business. Listen to your audience, or maybe find a new one. But do something, because in the fast moving water of commerce on which we float this boat, the only thing that’s going to make a difference is how hard, and in which direction, you paddle. The rapids aren’t listening to your thoughts about how unfair the other guy’s paddle is, or how he should have built his boat with the same flaws as yours.

Feb 2nd

2015

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CategoryPosted in: The Craft, The Life Creative, Vision Is Better

Finding Vision?

Tetrapods in the Sea of Japan. Hokkaido, 2015. I spent way too long last week trying to come up with a way to express something in the 140 characters that Twitter allows. I had seen something in one or another of my social media streams, something about a course where you can “find your photographic […]

Jan 28th

2015

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CategoryPosted in: PHOTOGRAPH Magazine

PHOTOGRAPH, Issue 11

When I met Ken and Michelle Dyball, who created a stunning featured portfolio in the latest issue of PHOTOGRAPH magazine, they were managing a small safari lodge on the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Before we got there we stopped at a hippo kill, to watch the lions eat the massive body. Across from us, a […]

Jan 26th

2015

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CategoryPosted in: Travel

See The World Packing List

On February 11 we’re releasing SEE THE WORLD: 20 Lessons for Stronger Travel Photographs. As I gear up for it, and start packing for the trip to Kenya that follows hot on its heels (I leave February 15), I thought I’d give you a copy of my own packing list. I’ll drop it down at […]