State of the Industry: Business Trends 2012

by Dave Good

October 15, 2012

When looking at the growth of commercial photography from last year to this year, most industry analysts are drawing a flat line. Slow inflation, bargain hunting and more full- and part-time photographers in 2012 meant little room to grow. That said, commercial photography is still a potential 10-billion-dollar business on the mend, according to IBISWorld, the world’s largest independent publisher of U.S. industry research. In the following report by Rangefinder writer Dave Good (pages 58-62), we outline the current climate of our industry, breaking it down into various segments, with stats on where we are today, and where we’re headed.

Photography in 2012: Industry at a Glance

The very foundation of the business of photography remains in flux. An election year in a struggling economy, coupled with affordable digital technology and the market shift away from point-and-shoots to the instant gratification of phone cameras spells changing tides ahead. 

“These are tough times for working photographers,” writes ASMP general counsel Victor S. Perlman in the April WPPI newsletter. He blames two primary sources: increased competition from amateurs, and the rapid growth of social media and Internet photo sharing. “All of this,” he writes, “has created an enormous supply of photographs that increases daily at an ever-expanding rate.”

The biggest hit thus far has been to standard portraiture, according to IBISWorld. With digital cameras in more than 66 percent of households in the U.S. and limited discretionary funds, IBIS describes a “dulled enthusiasm for portraits” and a marked increase in the uploading of homemade portraits taken with digital cameras or camera phones. Still, portrait revenue is expected to rebound this year as the economy slowly recovers. And even though CPI Corporation (which runs Sears portrait studios, for example) reported an 18 percent loss in revenues last year, it—and portrait giant Lifetouch—are expected to grow at an annual rate of 1.8 percent over the next five years. 

Women’s Day

InfoTrends says amateur and weekend shooters continue to go pro and compete with existing shops. Ed Lee is the group director of InfoTrends Worldwide Consumer and Professional Imaging Services. “The number of female photographers has grown,” he says. Now it’s a 2/3-to-1/3 split of males to females, a pickup from last year.” Forty percent of them are part time, while 28 percent, he says, are full time. “And it’s a younger female at that,” he says. “Age 45, and younger,” according to the 2011 & 2012 InfoTrends Professional Photographer Study. 

“It comes down to the economy,” Lee says. “With families still struggling, people are turning to part-time photography as a way to bring money into the home.” He sees the photo business as a changing of the guard. “The average age of the full-time male photographer is 50. The average age of the full-time female photographer is 41.” The implication is that more full time male photographers are retiring. “You’re going to see a shifting towards an even higher percentage of females.” 

The Album-less Bride

But that doesn’t mean commercial photographers aren’t concerned about the negative effects of digital and of file sharing. Last year, WPPI described a growing phenomenon: the album-less bride. “What is an album-less bride?” writes Kathleen Hawkins, a Florida-based photographer and author, in the WPPI newsletter late last year. “Amazingly, many of the photographers who took pride in the fact that they were artists and not business people are now seeking the quick and easy sale with the evolution of digital photography.” Or in other words, an album-less bride is a shoot-and-burn job in which the client (often a bride) gets the master images on a disc to do what she wants with them; she, in fact, doesn’t order any prints from the photographer at all.

As a business practice, shoot-and-burn has a collateral effect, says Graphistudio director Maureen Neises. “The photographers that cave in and give their clients a disc are creating a pent-up pressure in the market place,” she says. “The trend now is that consumers are calling us directly.” Or, she says, they are searching online book printing services. “Shoot-and-burn photographers that provide a disc are not finishing the job.”

Graphistudio is the first and largest wedding book producer in the world. File sharing is huge, Neises agrees, but so far not to the exclusion of the photo book. “We don’t see it having much influence on our numbers. It is a trend, but if it were a huge problem we’d see our business trending down, not up. From a book sales standpoint, we’re having the best year we’ve ever had, and we’re in 54 countries.”

Neises says a recent trend is to put anything in a book format. “When I started at Graphistudio, it was primarily weddings,” she says. “But it’s exploded. Now, it’s infants, high school seniors, anything.”

InfoTrends, meanwhile, reports an increase in revenues derived from the sale of photo merchandise last year. This year, “We’re seeing the market slowing,” says Lee, “but it’s still growing in addition to calendars and photo books and post cards.” He says that canvas is still a growth market, and that “merchandising in general still offers good opportunities for professional photographers. But if we look at the percentage of pros who offer photo merchandise, it is unchanged with 44.4 percent in 2012 vs. 44.6 percent last year.” He says the percentage of total business revenue derived from the sale of photo merchandise has seen a slight uptick, from 6.4 percent in 2011 to 7.9 percent in 2012.

DIY Weddings

The Wedding Report ( queried some 600 vendors and came up with its own industry snapshot. As expected in an economic slump, DIY weddings continue to be on the rise, along with the use of less experienced photographers. The survey also indicated that wedding videographers have been moved to the back of the budget line, and this is where Lee sees a growth trend for wedding still photographers. 

“More DSLRs are offering video capture capabilities. We’re seeing more videos now, and those DSLRs are making their way into Hollywood as well,” says Lee. Instead of dropping big money on a high-end video camera, he says $3,000 to $5,000 will cover the cost of a quality DSLR with video capture. “It’s a relatively new tool. More people are experimenting and exploring with it.”

Staying Afloat

In the final analysis, the photography business is still trying to ride out a poor economy. During the past several lean years, the consumer has learned to take acceptable pictures with pleasing results. The bigger question is this: will they remain satisfied by their own efforts? And is it false hope to think that the photography business will go back to the way it was once the economy recovers and people have money again?  

“I don’t have a crystal ball that will help me predict that,” says Graphistudio’s Neises, “but indicators are that there will always be the shopper that cuts corners, and there will always be the consumer that appreciates quality and professional service. I think the business will

Dave Good is an award-winning journalist, author, and occasional photographer. He writes about music, pop culture, and American life for LA Weekly, OC Weekly, the San Diego Reader, San Diego magazine, and more. He lives in La Mesa, California, and is currently at work on his second book about five Southern Californians who changed rock and roll.

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