There’s never been a worse time to be a photographer. Newspapers are cutting staff. Prices are dropping through the floor. Rights are being reduced and the only part of the industry that’s showing signs of growth are the competition. There’s also never been a better time to be a photographer. The price of equipment is falling even as the quality improves. The walls that kept out talented enthusiasts are collapsing, giving part-timers a chance to bring their talent to market. If print is feeling squeezed, it’s only because the Web has stolen its readers — and the Web has an insatiable demand for images.
For the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts, it’s the second of those two scenarios that holds true. The cup isn’t just half-full, it’s overflowing with new opportunities for people willing to put in the time and effort to learn how to use their camera:
“Realize your photographic vision to pursue a livelihood that satisfies your imagination!” the school’s website declares. “With constant digital advancements in photography, the demand for well-educated artists is growing!”
The school’s course lasts two terms for full-time students or four terms for those taking the evening classes. Both approaches lead to a “professional photography certificate.” Classes emphasize practical aspects of photography, with several modules on camera and workflow, Photoshop techniques, studio and location work, wedding and model photography, as well as story building and portfolio development. Faculty include National Geographic photographer Cary Wolinsky, and fashion photographer Rob Van Petten. According to Allie Dennis, the school’s marketing manager, 60 percent of the photography students study full-time. Part-time students include retirees and seasoned photographers as well as lawyers and high school graduates. Students can benefit from unlimited career assistance and are welcome to continue using the school’s facilities and attend workshops even after graduation. The course costs $26,400.
“Every area of photography is growing.”
That’s not a small sum, and it’s only worth paying if you believe it’s going to lead to a lifetime of higher earnings in a career you love. General skill improvement for enthusiasts can be picked up for much less in dedicated workshops, books and even for free online. But the professional opportunities the center’s fee opens will only be available if the school is right to claim that the demand for skilled photographers is growing. Asked which areas of the industry are hungry for new images, Dennis was expansive:
“Every area. Because the technology has become so great, everyone can purchase a digital camera, but not everyone has the experience to go along with it.
“One of the big engines of growth, driving demand, is the web,” he continued. “Today, over half of work goes onto the Web. The Web is starved for content, particularly rich media.”
But measuring the gap between the number of photography graduates entering the market and the number of jobs available to them isn’t easy. In 2007, the Art Institute, a chain of private art colleges, reported that almost 84 percent of its photography associate degree graduates were working in a related field within six months of graduation. The number rose to more than 90 percent for bachelor’s degree graduates. The Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts didn’t provide figures but did point out that students have gone on to land jobs at National Geographic. One worked as a second shooter at Chelsea Clinton’s wedding; another had booked 22 weddings before graduation. Many work as photographers while studying and even those who do go on to take “traditional” jobs in photography, also do freelance work, says Dennis.
Freelance Work Is Not a Steady Job
Occasional freelance work though isn’t the same as a steady job, and even the demand from the Web might not be as insatiable as it looks. A two-dollar price-point for Web-ready microstock images is more likely to indicate a supply glut than a scarcity of good photographs for digital platforms. Online publishing might be growing and need images but the price sites are paying for them suggests there’s already more than enough to go around.
And it’s not just Web publishers who are enjoying the benefits of oversupply. According to the US Department of Labor, the median annual wages of salaried photographers as a whole in 2008 was $29,440. Two years later that median had dropped slightly to $29,130. That decline doesn’t suggest an industry enjoying booming demand, let alone offering high incomes.
It might be best then to redefine the nature of photography “jobs” and the kinds of opportunities that photography schools can offer. There will always be demand for full-time photographers but as schools like the Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts train enthusiasts to use properly their new low-cost DSLRs, so there will also be increased competition and larger numbers of images chasing buyers. For many photographers then, especially enthusiasts, working in photography may well come to mean accepting freelancing jobs rather than building a long-term career and watching their income decline as more photographers join the market.
The Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts is right to advise photography-lovers to “act now” and “follow your passion” because
“[t]his is a great time for creative people. With the growth of new media, it is a great time to be a creative professional.”
It is indeed easier than ever to make money out of photography. It’s easier than ever to buy professional equipment, learn how to use it, discover the images that the market wants to buy, and make them available to editors and buyers — something that is more likely to happen with the sort of knowledge that a school’s course supplies than without it. But it’s harder than ever to make photography pay, to turn photography knowledge into a career and to make a living out of photography however enjoyable it might be — and however much the Web might be demanding new imagery.