While pessimism about the economy in general continues, the commercial photography industry as a whole is showing signs of life. According to industry analysts, 2010 saw the photo industry recover to pre-2009 levels, and if the strong first quarter 2011 numbers mean anything, then continued growth can be expected through the end of the year and beyond. One indicator is the number of photos captured per month by pro shooters, which different sources report is trending up this year. With revenues anticipated to top $8 billion by the end of 2011, industry observer IBISWorld projects steady growth to $10.1 billion by 2016.
It comes as no surprise that digital photography is still having an impact on the industry. But this time around the market is feeling the incursion of a new and unexpected demographic: the amateur-turned-semipro. And more than often, says Ed Lee—group director of the consumer and professional imaging group at the Massachusetts-based Infotrends—that entry-level shooter is a woman.
“I think you are getting more part-time and weekend photographers in the market,” he says, “and it’s more than likely that they’re on the female side of things where they are just looking for some additional revenue to supplement the household income.” Lee says that access to low-cost, high-end digital gear has spurred growth among amateurs-for-hire. Identified by some analysts as a potential threat to the industry, is the new wave of shooters helping or hurting the market? Both, he says.
“It helps that you have more professional photographers entering the market who are buying more equipment and are spending more money on software and services and things like that.” But, according to Lee, it all depends on how they conduct business. “If they treat their assignments like full-time professionals and not do the shoot-and-burn model where they just shoot the images and then hand over the CD, then I think it’s a positive for the industry.” At any rate, competition from amateur and weekend shooters, says IBISWorld, is expected to escalate, which translates to projected employment growth of 1.7% as more shooters enter the market.
Along with the enticing price points on digital gear, the painfully obvious declines in consumer spending and a rise in consumer-level online photo sharing have also been identified as having had an impact on gross sales at the pro level over the past two years. But the scramble to remain competitive, says IBISWorld, has taken a bite out of the bottom line as well. The cure? An influx of consumer spending. If 2011 remains on track, IBISWorld projects that an increase in sales following the path of economic recovery will likely pump flagging profit margins from 4.3% to 6.1%.
Another boost in profitability comes in the form of the growing trend toward photo merchandise and personalized photo products such as photo albums, greeting cards, canvas prints and large format posters.
“We’re seeing that the inclusion of a photo book from a portrait session is what’s causing a big part of that jump,” says Simon Anderson, the chief marketing officer at Pictage. Press print photo books, he adds, is a product category that is showing significant growth. And while purchases of large format “keepsake” and “wall art” prints are trending up significantly, Pictage data shows that smaller “reference” print sizes, like 4 x 6-inch and 5 x 7-inch, are trending down. “Sharing of digital images and online slideshows is increasingly fulfilling this consumer need, with greater utility,” Anderson says. Otherwise, large format prints can represent a “pretty high margin product for photographers if they price them appropriately,” he says. “They’re differentiated in that they’re not the kind of image that the client can take to their local pharmacy and have printed with high-quality output.”
Infotrend’s market data is in agreement. “Photo merchandise has become much more popular for consumers,” Lee says. There is an increased awareness that consumers can go out and buy products themselves to make nice keepsakes of their photos.
In other realms, first quarter sales figures in 2011 mirror those of 2010 in that traditional portrait studios have seen slow to no growth and have fallen behind wedding photography, which is now the industry leader.
“The average number of wedding and portrait events shot per photographer,” says Anderson, “has increased 15.6% from the first quarter in 2010 to the same period of 2011.” Pictage based its report on data drawn from a sample of over 17,000 wedding and portrait events. Anderson says that wedding events per photographer declined slightly by 6% while engagement events increased by 22.8%, and portrait events increased by 10.7% year over year.
“We attribute the increase to improved marketing by photographers,” says Anderson. Photographers now promote portrait events like baby’s first year, consisting of three or four photo sessions with a newborn over its first year, and beyond to include senior portraits and boudoir sessions. When it comes to wedding pricing, “We’re seeing a stabilizing of package pricing,” he says, “which is good.” Pictage data shows that the average wedding photography package booked has declined by only 2.5% from the first quarter of 2010 to the same period in 2011, a sign that pricing is stabilizing after the double digit percentage declines in 2008 and 2009.
School portraits continue to be the single largest market for photography services, a segment that is expected to grow through 2011. Likewise, event, sports and church directory photography shoots are all on the rise.
Let Their Own Fingers Do The Talking
Retail portraits, meaning those shot within in-store studios, are likely feeling a digital pinch. CPI Corp operates studios in Wal-Mart and Sears outlets. Its data shows that in slow times, amateur photography may be impacting their business. Consider the evidence: A decade ago, barely 10% of homes in America had digital cameras. Today, the figure is up to 66% and growing. With the increase in online photo-sharing platforms and ease of printing, more consumers are satisfied with shooting their own portraits and events in a down economy.
Likewise, has the trend toward camera phones and smartphones (such as the ubiquitous iPhone) had an effect?
For the most part, Lee says, Infotrends does not believe that camera phones or smartphones (or even digital point-and-shoots) have had a measurable impact on the commercial photography industry thanks to their generally low image quality. “But the two areas I can think of where the digital point-and-shoots and smartphones do overlap slightly with commercial photography is photojournalism,” he says, due to citizen reporting and the right-place at-the-right-time phenomenon. “Not that the quality of the photos are great,” he says, “but they capture the moment in question.”
Infotrends expects to see smartphones and camera phones impact point-and-shoot camera design and function at some point in the future. “Right now camera phones and smartphones are still contributing to getting people more involved in photography,” Lee says. “Many are getting their feet wet with phones and then upgrading to a DSC (digital still camera). Our 2011 Mobile Imaging study, conducted this month, shows that 29% of respondents who already had a DSC before getting their camera phone increased the number of digital camera photos taken and 27% increased how often they use their camera since owning the camera phone.”
Of prime consumer smartphone interest is the ease of pointing, shooting and instantly uploading images of, say, one’s lunch date, to social networking sites such as Facebook. “Conversation about printing photos from mobile devices, is moving beyond camera phones and smartphones to include tablets,” Lee says. “Our research shows that there is interest in printing photos among tablet owners.”
Thank You, Mark Zuckerberg
On the subject of Facebook, the trend in using social media applications to attract more bookings or make more product sales is huge. Social media is essentially free advertising and can be very effective because consumers increasingly trust friends to make product and service recommendations online. To that end, Pictage implemented a tagging feature last year, which enables any client or guest of an image gallery on www.pictage.com to link images to their Facebook friends’ accounts. “They can pull up their list of friends while they’re on the Pictage gallery,” Anderson says, “and they can tag each person in them. That person then gets notified on their Facebook wall that they’ve been tagged in an image on the photographer’s Pictage gallery.” Anderson says their data shows an average of four times as many visitors to the gallery, and a 2.5-times increase in the product sales generated for that event. “That’s the difference between an event that does have a tag and an event that doesn’t. It’s a significant lift in visibility of the photographer’s images in the safe environment of a Pictage gallery, as well as a big lift in the actual sales of books and albums and prints that we’ve seen.”
According to Anderson, Pictage has also seen a 76% increase in the number of photographers using ShootQ studio management software from the end of the first quarter of 2010 to the end of the same period in 2011. “We believe the reasons for this are the need for photographers to automate more of their workflow and use Web-based services that help them manage their business with fewer resources.”
The Question Remains…
If the consumer can shoot his own family with his DSLR upgrade and is satisfied with the images, what’s left for the pro shop? Experts say that aside from pro-level skills and the acquisition of higher-end cameras and lenses, digital technology continues to give pro shooters more and faster options to meet their customers’ needs. Successful commercial photographers must continue to identify new markets, including ways and means to separate their work from that of price-cutting entry-level shooters. And, in the years to come, to look for new business opportunities in post-production services, image sharing, image storage, printing and the continued implementation and sales of personalized photo products that serve the market.
Dave Good writes about American culture and pop music for San Diego magazine, the Reader, Pacific Magazine, sandiego.com, and more. The occasional freelance photojournalist, he is based in Southern California.