The line between professional photographers and amateurs was once well-defined. Shooting film with manual cameras required pros to know and understand all kinds of complicated things such as f-stops, light meters, and Ansel Adam's The Zone System—things that boggled the minds of average consumers and enthusiasts alike.
Their equipment was also bigger, better and a lot more expensive, leaving most hobbyists in the dust. Thanks to digital imaging, all that has changed, of course, and enthusiasts have fast encroached on the pro's space, publishing websites, printing business cards and opening their doors for business.
“With the advent of digital imaging and online advertising, the hobbyist/pro photography sector has grown by leaps and bounds,” reiterates Henry Posner, Director of Corporate Communications, B&H Photo-Video and Pro-Audio. “Thanks to online tutorials and advice from bloggers, etc., it is possible to become a fairly decent, if not spectacular, photographer,” says Posner, who adds that this phenomenon is really limited to the wedding/portrait market. There are far fewer enthusiasts in other areas of photography calling themselves pros.
“The guys who labor to make furniture look good or who shoot cars for Ford tend to be real pros. Those are more limited fields, which require more specialized knowledge, experience and hardware. It'd be a good deal harder to fake credentials there.”
“Ten years ago,” adds Adorama's Vice President of Marketing, Brian Green, “digital cameras were primarily two and three megapixel cameras that were no threat to the professional photographer. There were a lot of point-and-shoot cameras on the market but hardly anything that would interest a serious photographer. But due to the low cost of professional-level digital camera kits, ease of entry into digital imaging has likely attracted more enthusiasts working and calling themselves professionals today. This increased competition has hurt the working pros' margins.”
However, he notes, the biggest change for professional photographers today is the process of photography itself. “Ten years ago serious photographers were shooting film and sending it to the lab for processing, then sending that film or prints to the retoucher. This was all very time-consuming. Today, thanks to high-end, easy-to-use DSLRs, fast computers and powerful imaging software, photographers are often able to achieve the same professional results in a fraction of the time and share those results with their clients hundreds or thousands of miles away with just a few mouse clicks.”
B&H's Posner also sees a shift in how the public perceives photography and what they deem as quality imaging. “I liken it to McDonalds,” explains Posner. “When I was young, McDonalds was where you went for a cheap, filling meal, despite the unremarkable quality. Now, too many people actually think this is a quality meal.”
Posner believes there's room in the professional photography spectrum for expensive and inexpensive photography, but there's a difference between inexpensive and cheap. The high-end pros that produce real quality must now show prospective customers what the difference is.
“It's too easy for a newbie starting out to offer cut-rate prices and full-resolution CDs as part of the deal,” says Posner. “When that customer goes to a more expensive pro's studio, the pro has to find ways to overcome these sales hurdles to help the customer understand what they get for his higher prices. That means marketing, and I know too many excellent photographers who aren't particularly gifted at self-promotion.”
Good News for Retailers
While this photographic shift poses a boatload of challenges to pro photographers who need to find new ways to stand out from the crowd, it presents a multitude of opportunities for retailers—all retailers, not just those that traditionally catered to pros. Businesses, including commercial labs, consumer sites (Snapfish, SeeHere/Fujifilm, Walgreens, etc.) and specialty retailers can all profit from this market as the photographers themselves have varying degrees of experience and expertise. Many photographers work with a diverse number of retailers, taking advantage of print and product specials to save time and/or money. One big reason for that is there's no longer a huge difference in quality among labs. Today, prints from drug stores (once the butt of industry jokes) are on par with those from specialty stores.
At B&H, all levels of photographers are welcome. “B&H is here to sell cameras to folks who want to buy them,” states Posner. “It's not our business to judge who is a professional and who is not. We try very hard to make sure each customer is matched with the equipment best suited for their needs. Because we don't pay commissions, we help ensure our sales associates offer what's best for the customer, and not what's best for the sales associate's paycheck. Our motto is 'The Professional's Source.' We treat every customer with the same courtesy and attention as if he or she was a professional. If we limited our clientele to working pros, we'd be a much smaller shop, struggling to survive.”
According to Posner, professional photographers want what they want when they want it, at a good price. “Price is important,” reiterates Posner, who says retailers must also understand the pressure pros are under, whether it's meeting budgets or having equipment arrive on set when the photographer needs it. Posner believes pros need and want to talk to sales associates that understand their lifestyle and its demands, and who can offer good advice and sound solutions for any problem they may have.
They also want value for their money, adds Adorama's Green. “More than any other time in the last 10 years, value for their money goes a really long way for the professional photographer. The more a retailer can offer their pro customers not only product value—but personal value—the better. Professional photographers today want a retailer that acts as their partner in success. They want and need personal relationships they can trust and rely on because now more than ever their reputations are on the line.”
Green added that a retailer that stocks a full line of system accessories from the popular to the unique, “is sure to become a trusted and respected source for the professional photographer.”
Green also believes retailers need to provide rental, video and used equipment departments, plus an in-house photo lab and broader mobile/consumer electronics products, which all play into making a retailer's business friendlier to today's professional photographer.
“Retailers also need to be present at trade shows that the professionals attend [WPPI, PhotoPlus Expo, Focus on Imaging, PMA, to name a few, are chock full of photographers that run the gamut from true pros to soccer moms with a passion for pictures], and they need to listen to their customers and understand that a photographer's business doesn't start and stop with buying products alone,” he explained.
Social Media Challenges
By now, you know that Facebook is a great place to reach both new and current customers. Green says that Adorama has fully embraced the social media challenge. “In addition, we have embarked on several partnerships, sponsorships, increased advertising and a national public relations campaign to relay our messages to photographers,” explains Green. “We are always excited to engage our audience and have fun along the way. As long as we continue to grow with our customers, it's truly a win-win for us all. And because we do so, we were just awarded the Dealerscope 2010 Retail Excellence Innovation Award, which is very exciting.”
According to Green, Adorama is always changing and growing as a company. “We consider it our responsibility to help photographers grow their passion and we put our money where our mouth is by investing in creating free educational content for all skill levels, ranging from live workshops, tutorials and now our new AdoramaTV video channel available at www.youtube.com/adora matv.”
Every week Adorama features videos relating to topics such as Mobile Photography Apps and, “Although you will rarely find professionals doing a shoot with a mobile device,” adds Green, “there has been a tremendous growth in photo enthusiasts of all levels utilizing various apps to creatively edit their images. The innovation taking place now in the photography industry for mobile devices is very exciting and opens up new creative possibilities every day.”
In conclusion, Green says it is vital for retailers to truly care about their customers' needs and to ensure their retail business model is agile and flexible enough to embrace all innovations that come along with a rapidly changing landscape. “Today's photographers need updates about workflow and ever-changing technology so much so that retailers also need to be available to their customers 24/7.”
Hence, retailers not only need to offer a full selection of products for the professional, but they also need to provide a support system for their customers to be on the cutting edge of this rapidly changing industry.