Writing on wall.

The writing has been on the wall for many years. Now, Sears and Walmart USA portrait studios have shut down, unable to make ends meet. No more family or portrait photos.


As the article says:

Store photo studios, which did big business in the 1970s through the 1990s, have been closing in recent years due to the move to digital and smartphone photography, where anyone can create, crop, and edit a family photo online. In addition, the demand for paper photo albums has all but disappeared.

What do I think when I read this?

On the one hand, I think there are reasons these guys did not do well. Reasons such as:

  • They failed to keep up with society (people often want electronic files, not prints, for example, and the old-fashioned “sears backdrop” is, well.. old-fashioned).
  • They did not employ proper photographers, just minimum-wagers who can push a button and follow a script.
  • Thus, their quality was “okay” – not great.
  • They promised $8 for a shoot, but wanted in-store staff to upsell to $100 each time. That is a stretch: if you try to attract “$8-customers”, these people are not interested in “$100 sales”.
  • Their business model did not work: you simply cannot sell photos for $8! Underpricing is a grave error.

On the other hand, the writing really is on the wall. Everyone is a photographer now. Perception versus reality! Now that everyone with a camera thinks they are a photographer even without training, the market for family shots has declined.

“Yes but in Canada, they are still open!”. No – the writing is on the wall here, too. We simply get it later than Americans, who are often ahead in many ways.

And since a large print is $2 at Costco, paying $80 seems odd to a market that cannot distinguish “making a print” from “making a photo and printing it”. I think we have to face it: photography for money is a declining market except in niches (like “people who want top quality and are willing to pay”).

Is it all bad news? Yes, overwhelmingly (seeing skills disappear is a shame), but taking all this into account, it seems to me that for photographers who want to make enough money to eat there are still a few avenues left open:

Find niche markets: there are always niche markets that are willing to pay, since in those markets, photography is not perceived as a commodity.

Go upmarket: even in saturated, commoditized markets like portraits, there are always those who can see quality. We have a lot to offer. Good composition, perfect lighting, great artistic insight, experience, good “post”-skills, redundancy, reliability, customer service. The fact that there is a McDonalds does not mean there is not space for $200 a meal luxury restaurants also.

Teach: If everyone thinks he is a photographer, let’s make them all into real photographers! This is a good market, if you are a great teacher. Beware, though – everyone thinks they can teach, and few actually can. But if you are one of those few, you will do well. I am delighted to teach, here on this blog and also at Sheridan College, at Vistek, at Niagara School of Imaging, and at CameraTraining.ca – and by way of private coaching. Come see me tomorrow and Sunday in Toronto: http://photonetworkexpo.com/ – book online and use promo code Michael2013 to get 50% off a weekend pass. See you then!

So no, it’s not all bad news. The world, and the photography market, is changing. As it always will continue to do. Adapt, and change the business you are in. I am in the business of getting people bueatiful images – whether from me or from themselves after I teach them how.



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