Let’s All Climb to the Top

At Photoshop World in Las Vegas in August, automotive photographer Tim Wallace made a point that I wholeheartedly agree with, and which I need to amplify. 

What point would that be?

If our images aren’t valued highly by customers, real or potential, it’s our own darned fault. 

Our images aren’t valued by others because we’ve never taught them to value them, nor is our self esteem high enough to correct people’s viewpoints on this. We tend to just pile on the “images aren’t worth much” bandwagon ourselves. In other words, this is a self-pepetuating cycle: we don’t think images are worth anything, thus customers don’t think images are worth anything; and if customers don’t think images are worth anything, we are reinforced into thinking that images aren’t worth anything.

Not long after hearing Tim make his case about photographers needing to teach others to value good images, I walked by Peter Lik’s gallery. Lik certainly doesn’t say to customers “hey, here’s an image, and it isn’t worth much.” Quite the opposite. Good images presented well should be worth something. Peter Lik understands that and his entire marketing efforts are 100% set up to try to reinforce that. But why does it sometimes seem like Lik is the only one doing this? All photographers need to be responsible for putting the message out for all to hear that images are worth something, good images are worth more, and great images are worth a lot.

I’ve written quite a bit about how “good enough” has distorted the camera market, but it’s distorted the image marketplace, too. Let me ask it this way: what magazine(s) puts enough emphasis on unique and outstanding images that it stands out from its competition? Not many any more. Too many magazines are running on formulas that long ago began showing signs of wear. Newspapers? Not many even have a photography staff of significance any more, let alone an emphasis on producing or obtaining images that stand out. Newsstand sales for both? Down, down, down. Coincidence? I think not.

Down sales, once acknowledged, then precipitates another tactic in these media outlets: cost cutting. And cost cutting obviously makes the problem worse. If your product is experiencing declining sales, you need to invest in making the product better, not cheaper to produce. The only way you reverse the decline is to attract new customers. You won’t be doing that by taking away quality through cost cutting.

Those of us who consider ourselves photographers really need to take the lead on getting the world to value good images again. This takes all kinds of forms. If you’re constantly trying to get bids by undercutting your competition, you’re part of the problem. Yes, I know you want and need the business. But when you compete on cost you start a vicious race to the bottom. 

I had a boss once who constantly told me this: you can always lower your prices, but it’s rare that you can raise them. So once you get a client that you’ve lowered prices for, you’ve just set expectations that you’ll lower your price. You’re never going to get a higher price from that client. It’s remotely possible that you could work hard and improve your product—your photography—to such a degree that a client recognizes that you’re doing better work. But still, you’ve established yourself as a discounter, so even if he thinks maybe your work is worth more than it used to be, he’s still going to expect a discount. 

Selling to royalty free stock is discounting. Giving away images for credit is discounting to the max. Doing jobs on spec is beyond discounting. Yet it seems that every photographer I know is doing some variation of these things that essentially devalue images. If you don’t value them, do you think a customer will value them more? Dream on. 

So I propose that we all turn our attitude around. We need to do everything we can to value images. No, I’m not willing to work at lower than your standard day rate. No, I’m not going to just give you all rights forever to my images for any purpose you see fit. No, I’m not going to produce unlimited editions on cheap paper and sell them at low prices. I happen to think I’m a good photographer—notice I didn’t write “great photographer”, as I still have a long way to climb to the peak—and I believe that the images I produce when I’m working for a client are valuable. Moreover, I get better every year, and so does my work. I’m not going to race to the bottom with prices, I’m going to climb to the top.

But it’s not just about price that creates value to images. It’s respecting good work in the first place. 

When was the last time you let a photographer know that you really liked an image? That a image they took really stood out from the pack? That you saw that they got the cover to your favorite magazine and it looked great? That you saw their images in a gallery and really appreciated them? If you don’t value the images of others, you probably don’t value your own.

I’ll have much more to say on this topic some time in the future, as I’m working on a project in the background inspired by Tim’s talk. Until then, value and acknowledge good work, and make sure you aren’t undercutting and undervaluing your own.

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