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What If Clients Don’t Really Need ‘Professional Photography’?

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Author’s disclaimer: This article is aimed toward commercial, business-to-business photographers. Consumer photographers may get something from it as well, but there are different market forces at work in that genre.

Yes… it is sort of a “link-bait” sounding headline, but I worked hard trying to figure out how to say it without sounding like I was tricking you into reading something far off the mark.

And here is why I think it is on the mark; photography has become ubiquitous. It has become the ordinary and the mundane, the avocation and the whimsical. With the advent of digital, 80-90% of the tools photographers needed to make photographs were eliminated. The learning curve was now no more than a bump for those wanting to simply record what they see as a photograph.

Many people see this as a bad thing… the end of professional photography. Again. Professional photography has died many times before… from the Brownie to built in light meters to autofocus, challenging the status quo of technique always leads to the death of professional photography.

I see it as a natural progression of what imagery can be as far as a communication method. Photography is now communication, a language. Like taking “English” in American high schools where we learn to read critically and write without sounding stupid, most of us do not end up being literary critics or “Writers”. I am quite sure this is the case in most schools worldwide.

This is a needed education to help the population communicate. From news to entertainment to innovation and the most simple of jobs, the ability to communicate is critical. And photographs are communication tools.

Teens text a photo of the mall to mom when they get there. Wives send phone shots to husbands for dinner ideas. Bosses expect images from the field while their staff are out of the office. Photographs tell us where, why, what… even how the world is at any given time.

When a plane landed in the Hudson River, the first images were from ordinary people with camera phones. The “Pros” were miles away. And so it is with nearly every news story. The citizenry is there on the scene, the cameras are technically proficient, and the coverage can be massive. And fast.

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Communication

So where am I going with this idea that clients don’t really need photographs anymore? Part of it may be a simple matter of semantics; the term ‘photographer’ has been coopted to be anyone who takes a photograph. And really, there is nothing wrong with that. A photographer designates someone making an image, not how many years one has been doing it or whether that awesome NiSoCanOlyFu has a billion pixels or not.

When you discuss photography with a client — other than ad agencies, designers, MarComs and magazines — ‘photography’ is something they know everyone does. They may even pull their pocket camera/phone out to show you some awesome Instagrams they did at the basketball game last week.

Your designation as a “Photographer” simply doesn’t carry the weight it once did. Sorry. By putting cameras in everyone’s hands, everyone can then be a photographer. Add to this situation the fact that photography has become quite easy technically and we have the reality of a lowered bar of entry. It no longer has a steep curve for entry to the ‘acceptable’ level.

I could give everyone a microphone and ask them to sing an Aria from Carmen and find far fewer takers than asking for a photograph. I could even say that it doesn’t have to be great, just ‘acceptable”. I would guess we would still have fewer takers than making a photograph to the same ‘acceptable’ level.

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Life. Changes.

How many of us look forward to going out for a bland dinner and an evening of mediocre entertainment? How many of us state our goal as wanting to be really average photographers who can do ‘acceptable’ work for people who don’t really have much taste anyway?

Yeah.

No one needs photographs anymore. They are everywhere. Some photographers even give them away on their sites. We have micro-stock disruption. Instagram disruption. Subscription imagery disruption.

And yet we photographers are still trying to market something no one really seems to need. And it is pretty obvious that selling something to someone who doesn’t need it is really not a good way to go. Unless of course you are in politics.

What do clients need?

They need more sales.
They need more customers.
They need more inquiries.
They need more investment capital.
They need more engagement.
They need more visibility.

Hey… I bet there is a visual communication method that can deliver those things for them. I bet you know one too. A visual, graphic, powerful medium that because of its wide ranging appeal can deliver all of the above.

When this powerful visual tool is unleashed correctly, it can deliver every one of those points above quicker and with more engagement than any other medium.

We use various technical devices to deliver that visual marketing communication medium, but they are not as interesting as what can be created with them. At least they aren’t to the clients.

Perhaps it is time for photographers to start focusing on what they deliver: visual solutions. engagement, and brand awareness.

And those solutions may be photographs, photo illustrations, motion, full video, social media graphics, Instagram/Vine combos… whatever it takes to create something that helps a client grow their business.

Not just a ‘photograph’, a visual marketing medium that delivers solid results.

“Hi, I’m Don Giannatti. I’m a photographer.”

BFD. So is their sister, brother-in-law, cousin, neighbor, checkout girl, the guy at the juice bar at the club, and boss.

“Hi, I’m Don Giannatti, I help businesses define their message visually with communications tools that engage their customers.”

Tell me. Does their sister or juice-bar dude do that?

We must turn the discussion toward what a photograph DOES rather than what it IS. What it is has become ubiquitous. What it does is dependent on the ability, aesthetics and vision of its creator. What it can do is what business needs it to do.

Marketing visual solutions and higher engagement can be far more interesting to businesses than seeing another portfolio of millenials staring off blankly while standing next to pastel colored seamless. Those same millenials staring blankly can be a brand marketers dream in the right situation… helping them see that situation is what we need to focus on.

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Here’s something photographer’s representative Heather Elder recently wrote over at Notes from a Reps Journal:

So now idea of great work is a given. Since creatives have so many talented photographers to choose from, photographers aren’t even being considered if they aren’t amazing or 100% right for the project. The primary conversation no longer has to be about how relevant the imagery in the portfolio (site) is or how confident the photographer is with the task at hand. The assumption is that if you are even on the table being considered, your work is amazing and you can handle the shoot.

Therefore, the first conversation has changed.

Now, instead of scrutinizing your work, it is about how much can you shoot? What is your vision for the photography? Do you have similar libraries to show the client? There will be a lot of moving parts, how will you produce this project? Are you willing to negotiate? And, will they enjoy being on the production with the photographer?”

This change from image focus to photographer focus means they want someone who can work with them to critically enhance their brand, provide solutions that work, help them engage with their customers.

This is a change from the days when the portfolio was all that was needed; show the hero shots, let them know that you are competent with a view camera, and medium format cameras, and have enough gear to make the shot. Those days are long gone and they are not coming back.

Those were the days when clients needed “a photograph”. They needed a visual representation of their widget or their service. They need much more now. They need engaging visuals, they need creative partners, and they need someone who understands what they need.

For many of us it will come down to a decision. Is this new paradigm a problem? Or is it an opportunity?

Choose wisely.


About the author: Don Giannatti is a photographer, designer, and writer who has never owned a Subaru or an Escalade. He once owned a PT Cruiser, but that it a long and tortured story not fit for telling without a few beers. He lives and works in Phoenix, Arizona, and prefers Mexican food to anything else. In fact, there may not be anything else. You can visit his website here and his online portfolio here


Image credits: Photographs by Don Giannatti

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