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Why Did Photographers Stop Selling Paper Prints?

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I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. I have no idea how to wear a scarf without looking like it’s 1974 and I am constantly changing my online passwords because I can’t remember them. I am not skilled at statistics and conducting a simple cost analysis makes me break out in hives. But… I think about things. A lot.

And one of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is why photographers stopped selling paper prints. And I have a theory.

Back in the days of film, the phone would ring and the caller would ask the question that caused many a photographer’s eyes to roll: “How much is an 8×10?” If I had a dime for every time, right? And, we knew… just knew… that what the person at the end of the line was asking was not really the price of an 8×10 (although there is always a percentage for whom that is ALL they want to know-those for whom photography is not a priority and price will trump quality.)

No, they asked “How much is an 8×10?” because it’s all they knew to ask.

They wanted to know price, sure, but what that question really meant was:

“Why should I pick YOU?”
“Am I going to love these?”
“What if I don’t?”
“Are you right for me?”
“If I pick you, will I be happy with my choice.”
“Tell me why YOU are the right photographer for me.”

Of course, they didn’t come out and say that. Instead, they asked, “How much is an 8×10?”

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Fast forward to now and the digital age. I happen to love it. I really do. Digital photography has made possible things that have stretched the imagination and broadened the mind. Heck, you and I are talking because of digital communication. And, for many photographers, digital technology has changed their final product.

But why? Why did it change? Were clients banging down the door demanding digital images only…or, as I suspect, does the fault lie more with the industry? Were photographers more than happy to shoot, hand the digital images over, stick a fork in it, and say, “I”m done.”

Personally, I think it’s the latter.

Again, why?

Well, with digital only, we don’t have to sell photographs. And selling, well, the thought produces tremors in a lot of people. And then, having sold, we have to produce a product. And then, we have to hope the clients like the product. And then, we have to deliver the product.

All that…when you could slap ‘em on a CD, grab a little pocket change and be done? Well, it’s easy to see, at least to me, why that became attractive and “the thing to do.” It was easy. And who doesn’t like easy? (Not to mention this method was advocated and promoted by those who stood to profit from the shift to digital only. We, as an industry, allowed the inexperienced and cunning among us to change the industry, and not for the better, while they profited off the masses. Of course, that’s a whole other conversation, one that is best discussed over lots of vodka.)

But…I submit digital images are not always what clients want…even when they say it is. Like the 8×10, they think they need to ask: “Can I get the files?” That’s what their friends did, right? And that’s the offer they are getting everywhere they turn, so they figure it’s “what’s done.” And, having received the CD, or USB drive, or online gallery, the images will be shared for a week or so, and then, the excitement will wane and the disk will be placed in a drawer.

And it will be forgotten.

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Sure, a handful might, just might, print them. Will they look how the photographer who created the images intended them to look? After all, their name is on it, so they better hope so. I say the odds are doubtful.

The bottom line, at least, to me, is that we have devalued many things in this industry: the work, the final product, the relationships between client and photographer, the way we market… and it’s time we get back to making things MEAN something again.

Sure, prospective clients will still ask for digital images, but it’s up to us to change the conversation.


About the author: Missy Mwac is a photography satirist, a lover of bacon, a drinker of vodka, a lover of sparkle, and a guide through the murky waters of professional photography. You can connect with her on Tumblr and Facebook. This article was also published here.


Image credits: Header photo by martinak15, “Mom” by Rachel Zack, CD photo by Junior Silva

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