Lots of photographers, and other small business owners, point to competition in their “low barrier to entry” field as the reason they are struggling with their business, OR the reason they won’t pursue a career as a photographer. I’m gonna lay it on the line, that is a lame excuse at best. I call it the competition myth.
Being a photographer IS a business
First off, if competition scares you, business probably isn’t for you. Second, be wary of any time there is “no competition.” A good friend of mine went to a fancy business school, so she learned lots of things in class that the rest of us happen to pick up at the school of hard knocks. I remember her saying, “Usually lack of competition doesn’t point to innovation, but rather lack of demand.” In laymans terms, if it doesn’t exist there is a good chance that nobody wants it. That isn’t to say that people don’t embrace new ideas, but competition is actually a nice predictor for success.
One could argue that when Edison invented the lightbulb that he had the privilege of no competition, but that isn’t really true. His competition was gas lighting. Sure, light bulbs are superior in every way, so much so that other companies came along to produce their own. The market ensured that he always had competition, and it was a good for business.
Do you really want people to be stuck with you?
I grew up in a small town, so that means that often there would be only one option for a particular type of business. You’d think that is great for those businesses, and odds are most of them found security in it. The problem is that in our capitalist democratic culture we crave choice. For consumers the lack of choice is a deficit, not an asset. What resulted was this idea that any competing business in a bigger locale was assumed to be “better.” People like to choose the “best,” whatever that means to them will vary, but lack of choice means they are “stuck” with what is available. At the end of the day do you want customers who are with you begrudgingly, or by choice? (Guess what, there is a right answer here–choice wins and the numbers support it.)
In the film days photographers had a firm grip on their market and they did things to control it in their favor. We could hold negatives hostage, controlled the printing process, and were the only ones with the equipment required to take good quality images. Lots of people look back on those days as the good ‘ole days before digital destroyed their business. I disagree. Today photography is better than ever.
Hey, this is a Democracy
Digital democratized the artform. Memory cards and digital storage make images easily stored, processed and replicated. Printing is cheaper and easier (even if more varied in quality), and equipment is more affordable than ever. For many this marked the death of photography. I always laugh to myself when I hear that argument, it just reminds me of a little lesson from art history.
At the birth of the camera the art world panicked, some pronounced the death of painting. And yet today the art world is all the better for it. Different, but certainly better. If not for the camera we wouldn’t have had the Impressionists, Pop Art, and countless other movements we’ve all come to love. Up until the advent of the camera painting was a highly technical skill used to realistically represent reality. Once the camera came along painting necessarily evolved, and today it is far more often an expressive art form.
Don’t believe in the competition myth
Now photography is going through the self same growing pains. Once upon a time photography was much more about that realistic and accurate image capture, now most phones can make a decent image. Since the means of producing and printing an image are available to all, photography must, and is evolving, and that is a good thing.
There is all kinds of competition, and like Edison, a good photographer is poised to easily outshine the competition. Without any formal training the average person can tell the difference between a good photograph and an average or poor one. That’s why people still pay for photography even though they own cameras and printers.
If you’re good you have nothing to be afraid of
What are they paying for then?–the skill of the photographer. It’s not about equipment or prints, it’s about this other thing that they can’t buy on Amazon. The way I see it, this is the advent of an AMAZING era in photography. One that is about the art and science of our craft more than about hoarding negatives and gouging our customers for prints. Now I suppose this is all bad news if you’re really lazy, but honestly I doubt you’d read this far if you are.
The future is very bright for photographers who are passionate about learning, exploring, and growing their skills. There is so much bad photography out there, that the good stuff has great value. The market is ripe with people who will pay for that quality because it’s scarce. A good photograph isn’t the product of fancy software and pricy gear, it’s a labor of love born out of passion and curiosity, and that can’t be bought at Best Buy, or faked with an Instagram filter. I love the competition, bring it on!