Big Bertha And The State Of Photography

I watched an episode of The Grid with Scott Kelby and Matt Kloskowski a couple of weeks ago discussing the state of photography today. Their summary, not good. In some ways they're right, but I think they're also wrong. Here's my take on things.

The Battle of Lîege

I'm a fan of history. It's amazing to me how the actions back in the time of Julius Caesar can shape events centuries – even millennia – later. It's also fascinating to see how frequently the lessons of past events repeat themselves in everyday life.

That's why my view of the discussion on The Grid reminds me of the lesson from the Battle of Lîege. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, I'll give you a bit of a recap of  few decades of war.

The Germans of old seemed destined to fight the French and the Russians, despite periods of peace and partnership. The first battle of WWI was the Battle of Lîege in Belgium, based upon a bold plan. The idea was for the Germans to swiftly invade France and then turn back to face the Russians before they could react and damage the eastern parts of Germany.

Moving quickly for an army in the early part of the 20th century was a bit different than today. Armies still moved mostly at the speed of a foot soldier. Even by WWII, the German army still wasn't completely mobilized. They still used horses and carts as they did during WWI. That was the state of warfare since the invention of the wheel.

The Germans realized that they could capture the railroad lines in Belgium and France to speed up their progress. Technology was making a change as never seen before.

The first problem they had to face was a series of bunkers built around Lîege. These were marvelous structures. Complete bunkers with little more than openings for huge guns to blast shells of any force approaching Lîege. The Belgians built these bunkers about two and a half miles apart and had a great overlapping field of fire.

They built the bunkers to resist the strongest shells feasible – 210mm. It just wasn't possible or practical to build a larger howitzer because you couldn't move it.

That's when the Germans built Big Bertha, a 420mm howitzer. Unlike most Europeans, they learned from the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese war that you could build larger weapons.

Big Bertha guns were massive. They had to be transported on train cars and assembled once it reached the destination of the battle. Horses weren't even a consideration. The Germans could arrive to their battle destination on train, assemble the guns, and then fire upon the Belgians who thought they were snug in their bunkers.

The truth is those bunkers weren't built with the best cement. Never hire a contractor to build a defense if he doesn't have to be in it to protect his own life. After a few days of shelling by guns twice the size of the ones the bunkers were designed to withstand, the fortifications collapsed and the Germans proceeded.

You see, the Belgians built these bunkers as a result of the last war some 40 years earlier. They were looking back, not forward. The people who were looking forward blew the snot out of them and kept on moving.

The world changed and it belonged to those who looked ahead.

The State Of Photography Today

Ubiquitous photography is the Big Bertha of today. Everyone has a camera capable of taking some pretty decent images. As a people, we take more photos today than the collective history of photographer just a few years ago.

Photography isn't dead. It's the most relevant social aspect of our lives. People love photos. So why are so many photography businesses tanking?

They're fighting the wrong war.

Remember how you could always depend upon Sears or Walmart to have a photo studio? They were run by CPI Corporation, a company that didn't see the change coming and has a crushing $100 million debt.

People used to go to portrait studios because photography wasn't practical for most families to do it themselves. Now everyone is posting “selfies” on Facebook. We even see the President of the United States posing for one during a funeral. Photography is ubiquitous. It's in your pocket and there's no need to pay anyone for a photo if you have a camera phone or DSLR. You don't need a lab to develop film, you don't have to wait, you don't have to buy an album full of prints. Photography today is immediate and rewarding.

The photographers who are still trying to sell photography itself as a service are a dying breed, and their businesses deserve to die. That's the fate of anyone who fails to adapt or change with the times.

If this is your business model, then I agree with Scott and Matt. Things look bad.

Change Brings Opportunity

Like I said, people love photos. You know what they love more than photos?  Good photos. Great photos. We all want to be better photographers. There is an industry of photography training and workshops that just didn't exist a few years ago, and it's growing.

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a photographer and there were two great photography schools in my path. I could either go to Brooks in California or Daytona Beach Community College (now State College) to learn from the best programs in the country.  Seriously, who would expect a community college to be one of the best? It was just an hour away, too.

I didn't go. No matter, now I can't swing a dead cat without hitting someone with a photography workshop or class. There are a lot of great instructors out there, too. You can learn in person, you can learn online. You can go to a workshop just because you know you'll get great photos and yet not learn a damn thing. What an industry!

What many photographers learned is that there's money in training the new generation of people coming into photography. If they won't pay for the photos, they'll pay to learn how to make their own photos.

That's not the only path, though. Selling the photo itself isn't really profitable. People won't pay much for something as common as a photo. However, people will pay boatloads of money for an experience. Photography vacations are becoming another industry. Seasons veterans of travel photography take groups of photographers to wonderful locations and show them how to get the killer images we've seen in magazines and other sources. People are paying several thousand dollars per trip, per person, for these experiences.

Now that beats trying to sell another photo of a gopher to a dying nature publication.

The world has far too many wedding photographers. So why are some people racing to the bottom to shoot $500 weddings while others can successfully sell their services for $10K per wedding, or more? The difference is the service and experience you provide. The difference is how you market and select your clients. Those who are starving to take anyone will take anyone, and all they'll get are $500 gigs who try to talk them down to shooting it “for the exposure.”

Photography Is No Longer A Product Industry

The people who went to Sears or Walmart for a photo studio wanted an end result. They didn't go for the experience. Most people didn't like the experience, anyway. Lots of screaming kids and a faint smell of a soiled diaper in those places didn't exactly make them a treat. They can get the end result from their phone now.

Photography is a service industry. The photo isn't the star. The experience is the star. If you're still trying to sell prints, you're fighting the last war and you're going to lose. Use your photography knowledge to make people feel good and they'll pour money into your pockets.

That's how I see the state of photography today.

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