Posted by: David Vernon | July 27, 2009

Two Takes on Time

We were dining with some friends on Friday night when their youngest, Natalie, brought us the new edition of Time Magazine – dated August 3, 2009. On page 13, in their weekly “The Moment” section, was a short entry on the appeal of Harry Potter to all age groups. The story, which can be read here, ran with the image you see above. Natalie was excited because the moment was right here in Peoria. But I was ALSO excited because the photo was taken by a member of the Peoria Flickr Group – one Mr. Adam Gerik. Okay – so Adam also shoots for the Journal Star and the image was picked up by the Associated Press and found it’s way to the magazine but STILL – way cool.  And the photo credit reads “Adam Gerik – Journal Star / AP”. So way to go Adam.

And speaking of Time Magazine, their April 27, 2009 cover is causing a little controversy, particularly where John Harrington over at Photo Business News and Forum is concerned. Harrington got his panties in a bunch over the fact that Time paid $30 for the photo on the cover of the issue. The image, shot by Robert Lam, was hosted by microstock photo site iStockPhoto. Time’s usual cover rate, according to Harrington, is $3,000 – so the controversy really ensues because of the 99% discount on the cost of the photo from Time’s persepective – and its impact on undervaluing the commercial photography business – something that just kills Harrington.

Now I haven’t worked up the nerve to write about stock photography – and particularly microstock – where photo prices are at rock bottom. It’s definitely one of the elephants in the room inside the commercial business. But the fact of the matter is I’m not sure anyone is at fault here (hence the panties in a bunch statement) – particularly when we look at the market for commercial photography in and around Central Illinois.

And maybe that’s the thing. Harrington lives in the real world of commercial photography (he’s in Washington, D.C.) where people who derive their living from that business have a right to be concerned over losing business to hobbyists and semi-pros. But I think it’s the exception and not the rule. And I think that notion carries through to smaller markets. Central Illinois falls prey to the same market forces when it comes to commercial shooting. That’s why I can count on less then two whole hands the total number of folks in the Peoria area who make a living doing that. But for a lot of folks who want to make a little extra cash – the microstock route is one of many alternative ways to go. Does it hurt the locals who are big time pros? I don’t think so. And here’s why. The folks who are very good at this are known for being very good at this. And they have a lot of customers who care about the quality of the work they use and who are not going to hire any semi-pro off the street to save a few bucks. They’re gonna go with a quality job because they need to stand out – and there are only so many people who can deliver that job. There are certain things you just don’t want to trust to people you don’t already know can do that.

I think the folks that are suffering more right now then commercial shooters are the ones who’ve been in the portrait business for a long time. I think the huge influx of advanced ameteur shooters who’ve entered this market has to have been an absolute killer. I’m constantly amazed by the number of portrait studio businesses that are popping up in and around Peoria (and I know I live in a glass house here). The thing is – I think it’s hard for folks who’ve been doing this for a while to differentiate themselves anymore. For the top-notch locals – it has become the opposite thing. Instead of undervaluing their work – they place themselves at the far (high) end of the price scale and then deliver an experience second to none. They – to some extent – overvalue their work – but are very good at convincing people to see the value they create. And they help pull the industry up for everyone. We can all charge a little more because there’s a perception that the work we do is valuable.

But you can’t ignore supply and demand. If there are 50 or 100 folks out there selling portraits and weddings, and a lot of them don’t have to depend on the income they make from photography, then underselling an industry is an easy choice.

As one of the commenters on Harrington’s blog, “Saradah”, points out,

“The point is to UNDERSTAND the value of your work and time, and not to undersell ONESELF, and in doing so, undersell an industry.”

That applies everywhere I think. What does this mean for you? I think it means if you want to make a living doing this, you better know what your cost of doing business is and take it seriously. You cannot undersell yourself and survive. But if you have another means of income… underselling yourself is an option that may drive business your way as long as you can deliver some value. The economics of the world say we can yell at you all we want about underselling the industry – but it doesn’t mean squat. The real bottom line is that the industry has changed forever so if you’re underselling and surviving – the rest of us need to shut up and figure out how to add value.

Moving on now.


  1. Congratulations to Adam!

    Being one of the those newbies in the business, I am amazed in just one year how many people have jumped in right behind me (maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised given the economic times). The market is flooded with photographers (both pro and likewise) trying to make a buck and it is timely that you bring this up now. I have been swimming in the sea of my mind the last several weeks over weather or not to jump out of the crowded kiddie pool next year. What little demand there seems to be is demand at a much lower rate. I do my best to rate myself with the market and not undercut local pros, but it seems it isn’t me they needed to worry about, but rather hobbiests who are willing for work little, if anything.

    I think it is important that if you want to start a photography business that understand your real expenses for running that business so you don’t undercut yourself, but also that you compete at fair market value (a hard thing to pinpoint when when it comes to art). I currently am not dependent soley on my income from photography, but I am not going to cheapen the work I (and others like me) create by letting potential clients talk me into working for less. The cost of doing business remains the same for me even if that isn’t the dollar amount some potential clients want to pay. As long as I am staying in the kiddie pool, I am going hold my head above water and keep my feet firmly planted on the bottom (and luckily, I have that luxury, which unfortunately some of my peers do not. But I won’t make it worse for them by low-balling the price).

    However, I don’t blame clients at all for worrying about the price. Who doesn’t do that then they shop? I check the price tag before I buy anything. If I can buy a pretty blue cashmere sweater for $30 instead of $130, then I will, but only if the $30 sweater won’t unravel.

    Like anything, sometimes cheaper photography is a great deal and sometimes…well… it is just cheap. So the real question is – did Time magazine get a great deal or next time will they hire Mr. Harrington?

  2. Good points to add to the discussion Ms. Hanna. Thanks.

  3. David
    Congratulations to Adam indeed. The wonderful thing is he DIDN’T KNOW he had a four-column picture in Time until I called to tell him. What a great surprise!

  4. This is exactly what friends are for.

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