Commodity Failure: A Rant

In How to Feed a Starving Artist, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, VisionMongers by David44 Comments

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.


  1. Thank you for this; it’s a refreshing change of voice from the prevalence of vitriol against amateur photographers, beginners, and “moms with a camera.” I don’t even have children and that one chaps me.

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  3. I agree with you on creating value, but there’s been a mentality shift with publishers as well. I’ve been contacted many a times by publishers to use some of my photos in their issues. Some of these sell their product for premium prices on glossy paper.
    It’s not so much about the giving away, there is a growing expectation that photographs are free. Is it just because there are so many photos and vaguely good amateurs?

    I hope we can at least agree that it “feels” wrong that people want to fill their product with “our” free content and make an awful lot of money with it. It feels wrong that the expectation nowadays is for photos to be free of charge.

    1. Author

      Yup, no disagreement over how it feels, Mike, Just a question of how we respond and choose to invest our time and emotions.

  4. Amen Brother!

    I’ve had other photographers tell me that I am hurting them by selling my art at a certain price and that I have an obligation to THEM to price my work higher.

    Wow. How does one respond to that?

    They may want and hope and desire that I sell my art for more, but I have no OBLIGATION to them.

    Why do I price my work as I do? Brooks Jensen once asked me if I had to choose between my work selling for thousands of dollars, or my work being in a thousand homes…which would I choose?

    I choose a thousand homes. My choice was right for me and my objectives.


  5. Great Piece David, Been saying basically the same to many folks for years as a 55 year Photographer and 25 year Painter. They just don’t listen. Glad your here man.

  6. So true. The same can be said for all of the visual art and writing. The ebook has removed the gatekeepers for publishing in the same way digital photography has opened the door for so many people to explore photography. But a tsunami of production increases competition for the creator and makes it harder for the client to find what is excellent. The key is working harder to be that most excellent of producers AND find a way to position yourself so that your clients can find you.

    As an artist and designer, my most loyal clients are those people who are as interested in me as a person as they are in what I can produce for them. If people just want a mural, they can go online and order a wallpaper mural of just about anything, have it installed and be done with it.

    But that doesn’t give them the experience of working with an artist in their home, seeing each day’s progress when they walk in from work, watching the magic happen on their own walls, seeing their vague personal ideas transformed by the artist’s vision. Building a relationship.

    The experience is something people will pay for.

  7. David, what you articulated is true for any commerce, be it a corporation or individual in the working world. Most of us are guilty of complacency and need to dig out of that hole not just once but many times. It takes a lot of discipline and determination.

    Anyway your “rant” (not really) was very well written and helps with bring things back to reality. Great food for thought.

  8. PS: maybe make your site mobile friendly and your books non PDF, otherwise you might wind up being irrelevant one day…i don’t mean it in a bsd way, just a frienfly suggestion.

  9. Hi all,
    Also none of these photographers are complaining that the computers, software, telephones, etc… Have gone down in price, thanks in part to transfering manufacturing/developping to cheap labour places like China. Though it is the same principle being applied.
    Like everybody complaining about these poor 7 SI guys being laid off, but nobody complaining about the thousands at Ibm, Hp, ebay, etc….
    When it hits you it’s unfair competition, when it hits others, it’s good because prices of <name product here€ will go down
    I was like this after my company reassigning me the first few times, now i know that within 2 years i'll be laid off. Spending my little bits of free tome taking courses to be as relevant as posdible when it happens… Instead of whining

  10. Wow. This is, as some have pointed out, better than a strong cup of coffee or a Gibb’s Slap Upside the Back of Your Head (CBS’ “NCIS”).

    I am definitely bookmarking this “rant” to the top of my bookmarks so the next time I see someone whine, bitch, complain, moan … BOOM!!! Kind of like those television commercials for Snickers candy bar. I’m going to probably reference that as I am sharing your “rant.” 😀 (Huge Grin)

    Thank you for posting this as it, as previously stated by others, does describe in a crystal-clear way the type of thinking that more folks need to adapt to. It’s like Mr. Karl Taylor indicated in his response, he made the change he thought to be appropriate for him and his organization. He lost some clients because of it, but he also retained many as well. That’s a common theme in business, in my experience. “You win some, you lose some.” Doesn’t mean I want to sit here kicking and screaming at the sand in my sandbox and then pout about those I lost. Nope. I want to stand up, wipe the sand off my backside and go find more to come and play in my sand box. In my experience, as many of us can attest to, those who leave were ones who were just looking for an excuse to leave. What is fun is, when they come back because the fun in my sandbox is far more enjoyable than that in the other sandboxes. Every now and then you just have to remember to update/upgrade your toys in your sandbox so others will want to continue to come back. 🙂

    That’s the message I am getting from David’s “rant.” So, Thank You!!! 🙂

  11. Pingback: Commodity Failure: A Rant – news.iNthacity

  12. David what you have raised here is of course simply fact. I think you have also explained it in such a way that it becomes very clear that ‘it is what it is’ and that’s all it can be. But what you haven’t mentioned is if ‘what it is’ has made the standards better?

    Personally I think that standards in some areas of photography have dropped. It’s not just in photography but also across many industries and this may again be a result of technology, the lowest common denominator is now lower. Clients who don’t appreciate image quality in such an aesthetic way have actually been happy to accept a lower standard of work because it is cheaper. But if that is the case then it simply means that these clients never needed a higher standard of work in the first place. That is the market economy.

    Many years earlier I predicted that the advent of technology would multiply exponentially the amount of photographers and the interest in photography. Fortunately I decided to approach this as a potential opportunity and as a result my company has become recognised as one of the world’s most popular photography training companies. At the same time I realised I was going to loose a considerable amount of bread and butter work from the commercial clients who just did not require a higher quality of image or they could just get similar quality cheaper because the new emerging amateurs/semi professionals did not have the overheads of a studio etc.

    I therefore also made one other drastic decision in my business and that was to substantially increase my prices for the more specialist work that clients required (advertising photography) that was beyond the scope of most amateurs or semi professionals. Interestingly some clients did disappear but many remained and this in turn meant my annual revenue actually grew even though the annual hours of labour decreased. With that additional time I spent more time growing the training side of our business, which ironically now we have to compete with amateurs trying to train other amateurs.

    So while I agree with most of what you have said I do think in many cases standards can decrease, especially in the area of lower budget commercial/architectural photography. But as I mentioned earlier maybe the standard never needed to be there in the first place. If the situation now arose where CGI or 3D technology could match the standard of my photography for half the price then I don’t think I could bring myself to make that adaptation to such a different approach from my skill set. I’m sure I would simply call it a day, stop whining and try to find something else I enjoyed. One could argue though that such circumstances share similarities with your article? Would circumstances of photographers being ousted by CGI operators be a good thing for photography or not? I guess it depends entirely on your point of view, I’m sure the long dead portrait painters who were ousted by photographers would probably disclose a sly smile from the grave ☺ –

  13. Best line: “If only you studied your marketing as well as you studied the B&H Catalog.” (A close second was, “I don’t give a tinker’s damn…”) Ha ha ha. This was a great read and conveyed what I try to tell people about branding/business but said in a much more, “Ah ha!” way! Will share! 🙂

  14. I really like this new way of seeing this “issue”, because when I graduated college, and started looking for a job, I got really angry when advertising agencies wanted me to work for free (which is never fair), and I got angrier with the people who accepted that kind of work. But I now see the other side of the coin, and its definitely a happier place to be haha.

  15. I recall hearing a fairly well known photographer rant about the “democratisation” of photography being a bad thing. Still makes me laugh. I also remember hearing an agency head complain about “DIY designers” undermining that business. Funny thing is both ranters fell silent when I asked if they had paid for all the tunes in their music libraries.

    Karma is a bitch.

    I can see why folks mourn the old career model – train, qualify, earn a job for life, keep the riff-raff out, then retire. But, I never got into creative work for that – so I’m not really lamenting the fact its gone.

  16. Well said. What you describe reminds me of Apple. They bring their A game all the time. Product differentiation is crucial to their success and they work hard to avoid becoming a commodity. The seek the high end premium and avoid scraping the bottom of the barrel like everyone else. What I don’t understand is why people don’t get this, but then again Wall Street doesn’t “get” Apple either.

    1. GREAT example using Apple Computers. Especially with what is currently happening at Microsoft with Windows 10. Apple has been able to cause Microsoft to change their ways, so why can’t David change the way some folks think too with his post? 😉 Sometimes all that is required to start a bonfire is one little spark.

  17. Hey David…Amen to what you have said here. Can we ask what triggered this “rant”?

    I love it, and always wanted to know what to say to my fellow professionals who complain about so-and-so giving away their photos for free. I hear this time and time again…especially from those that sell their photography to magazines and other publications….they always get angry with the random photographer that gives their photos away for free. Now, thanks to your “rant”, I can send them to this post. Personally, I have always shaken my head when photographers get angry about this….I usually say, “well, good on that magazine for finding a quality photograph for a cheap price…”. Research can pay off….why not use a great photograph for free if you can find it??

    Your analogy of Ferrari not giving a rats ass about some other company giving away cars is brilliant!!

  18. I’ve been on the cusp of being the thorn in the side of pro photographers for a while now. I am the one they are complaining about. In fact I let a magazine subscription lapse due to the repeated anger towards amateurs.

    I’ll be the one who will start a web site with free photography educational resources. I’ll be the one who runs a free photography class at my local library. I’ll be the one who takes photos at my kids’ activities and sporting events and give them away to the other parents. I’ll be the one who volunteers at his office to take head shots and other photos for internal promotional activities.

    Thanks for the defense David. Those who can’t adapt will unfortunately perish. Are we really still mourning the decline of CDs, film, cassette tapes, vhs, vinyl, 8-tracks, newspapers, or even printed books for that matter? We adjust and move on.

  19. Brilliantly written and said. I think it is good enough to close this subject once for all. Again, congrats on this beautiful and great editorial.

  20. Rants are a dime a dozen but you have taken this to new heights, and you’re right on…Brilliant.

  21. Is this directed at the same photographer complains about other photographers working for free, then uses unlicensed music on their free WordPress template. The same one who also edits all their photos on a hacked version of Photoshop and uses a crowd-sourced design site to have their logo designed for $50?

    1. Author

      Might be. Among others. But truthfully, it’s not really aimed at anyone. Those people aren’t likely to be convinced. I’m much more interested in encouraging the amateurs and the ones chasing their dreams to not listen to the naysayers and the gripers. 🙂

      1. Agreed! The sooner (especially) wedding photographers understand that their service and products gets filtered through the experience economy- the better for them and their business. Photography does not stand alone, the experience – and an experience of excellence and value – is what generates your next client. As the saying goes – if you can’t smile, don’t open a shop… And don’t begrudge the dude who smiles!

    1. Love that quote from your Mom, Tracy. I am going to try very hard to remember that one and use it myself when necessary. 😀 (Huge Grin)

  22. I finally had to choose between art and business. With the rest of my crazy life, I just can’t do both. So, I choose art.

    Rant away. People need an occasional reality check.

  23. I can’t remember ever hearing a fine art painter complain about paint brushes being sold at dollar stores.

    I’ve already lost track of the number of times I’ve heard professional photographers complain about camera phones and cheap point and shoots.

    The camera is as much about photography as the light that comes from the sun, which is absolutely free.

    Good rant!!

  24. Somehow I have a feeling at least HERE you won’t catch too much hell for it… Now, on some message boards that I used to go to (but avoid now like the plague) someone is going to post a link to this and you will be vilified. But at the end of the day, you made it. Many others have made it. And that’s living proof of your argument. Plus your argument works in almost any business, service or otherwise.

    There are times when I feel a twang of guilt doing a photo shoot for practically nothing…but at the end of the day I also know that I’m not taking business away from someone. They come to me not just because they like my work but because (many times) they can’t afford the other rates. This is especially true for senior portraits. I know I sound like I’m justifying what I do (and I am I suppose in a way) but…yeah…if you can take my side business away from me, more power to you.

    Hopefully most of your readers don’t need to hear this and they already know it? Though then again, the internet is a vast wide space….good luck dodging the flames 🙂

  25. HaHaHa! Good one David, and good luck with the “shit-catcher” hope it’s a new one…. 😉

    It doesn’t only happen in photography, when I had my ceramic gallery I would actually have other potters come in and get angry that I was charging so much for my pots! I used to tell them that they should take it as an example to value their work more….

    On the other hand, I had clients come in and tell me I was “giving it away,” it’s a big world out there and room for everyone and every price point.

  26. David,

    Did you not get breakfast this morning? Or did the coffee run out?

    Joking aside, well said! Takes being brave, to make changes in yourself, and being self employed means you aren’t only a picture maker but also your own bookeper, lawyer, sales person, HR consultant, travel rep etc, etc, all unpaid! Who, in their right mind, would set themselves up for all that malarkey?

    Well here’s the thing; we all do, who take this road. We choose. So don’t gripe, grab whatever you have and do the BEST you can.

    Oh, and keep the company of people you admire!

    Now I’ll get off my soap box.

    Keep smiling. Very close by there is someone who is far, far worse off than you.


    1. Author

      Thanks Will. Might be time for me to go get more coffee. Or stop drinking so much of it. 🙂

    2. awesome rant made me sit up and take notice ..we have tons of shooters in our area ..I will just have to do better and stop beating myself up I’M WORTH MY PRICE AND SOME >>GO SUE

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