I first saw digital media photography in action about 14 years ago. I was covering the last of the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Races (It’s since become the Volvo Race).
I was contracted to the Toshiba Team and, for a change, being paid good money to travel around the world, stay in decent hotels and do all of the things which give people who don’t do these things a warm fuzzy feeling. Some people have a funny notion of news work, they don’t understand how bloody hard it is.
A colleague who was contracted to one of the other syndicates was working with an early professional digital cameras. It was a mongrel spawned by Nikon and Kodak, had the memory of a gnat and had cost him about $25,000. He was also using a state of the art Mac laptop. These days they’d be about as useful as a garden gnome but in those days they represented state of the art technology.
I don’t think many of us working at that time realised we were on the threshold of a revolution which would have massive repercussions in the media.
I was working with a few Leica R bodies and lenses which weighed a tonne. I was also working with film, C41 colour neg. which I processed in hotels, in the bathroom basin with a two bath kit of powdered chemicals. I then scanned the negs on a Nikon Coolscan and was able to caption and send pictures from my computer. In the time it had taken me to do that my friend had download his camera’s memory cards, edited them, captioned them and hit the send button. In fact he had pretty well finished his work before I had unloaded the film from my cameras.
It was in the first few days of the race that I realised the potential of the new technology. My colleague, I’ll call him Bert (that isn’t his name because I’m going to talk about his financials here).
In addition to the contract he had with his team he made deals with about 200 newspapers and magazines around the world, offering them a simple service from the race. He would photograph the end and beginning of each leg of the race (when they arrived and left each destination). He would also supply a story for each of 10 days during each stopover. The stopovers were generally for a couple of weeks and there were about ten of them. So, on each of those days he sent half a dozen pictures with captions and a short story. Now here’s the stroke of genius. He didn’t mind how the pictures or stories were used. They could be covers, spreads, postage stamp size, whatever. The customer had no rights to sell them on to others nor did Bert lose copyright.
I know a heap of photographers who, with some justification, bleat and moan about the small amounts we can be paid, particularly now. But Bert was offering a service and for what he offered he was asking US$40! I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t open the filing cabinet drawer for that amount. Now look at 200 x $40. When I went to school (I did go to school!) that was $8000. Now look at that for ten days – $80,000. Now look at ten stopovers. $800,000 for ten months work plus the syndicate’s contract. I was impressed.
And so, very slowly, I was dragged, kicking and screaming and probably biting, into the digital age. I don’t like the cameras much. I do like the convenience. I still use my old Leicas and film for what I deem serious work – which doesn’t make money. But digital is convenient, it’s fast to process and pump out material.
I have, for the best part of my career, worked as a freelance for some excellent magazines. I would be commissioned to work on a story, deliver the goods and, hey presto, get a cheque in return. I retained copyright and put pictures into stock libraries which gave a tidy turnover. I also received syndication fees from the magazines – generally 50% of ongoing sales.
It was a gravy train. These days there’s no train and no gravy to speak of. We all know times are tough.
I asked myself, in light of the rapidly changing market, what I felt I should do. The answer was simple. Carry on as you are – writing and illustrating stories. But instead of looking at the megabucks hit five or six times a year offer publications shorter stories with fewer pictures. Then sell them many times for small amounts. A few years ago it was possible to get good four to five figure payments from magazines. I decided to make a new business plan and spreadsheet based on average sales of $200. It showed that by doing about six stories a year and syndicating each of them methodically I could make a reasonable quid without actually stressing too much and with radically reduced overheads.
Is it working? Well, it is. The early signs are good. Sales are going up, not down and it’s a difficult market with magazines and newspapers closing and the competition increasing. Basing my business plan on $200 sales was a bit low as sales average above that.
Would this be possible without digital technology? Well yes but it wouldn’t be as simple. While the big change has been in equipment the bigger shift has been the effect the web and electronic media are having on traditional markets.
Digital images make it possible to cut overheads dramatically. About 15 years ago it was necessary to supply magazines with either original transparencies or duplicates. That meant high film overheads and high duplicating costs. Many magazines would expect to see anywhere from a hundred to well over a thousand images. That made it necessary to get high publication fees.
Now it is possible to fill neat little markets with stories of a 800-1200 words and a selection of about 20-100 pictures. The production and freight costs of preparing and dispatching are, to all intents and purposes, zero.
What of the immediate future? Well, here’s a thought. Statistics from the USA show that the industry in the most rapid decline is print media. The industry showing the most rapid increase is electronic media. My conclusion is that the market is still there but it’s highly fragmented and, like shrapnel from a bomb blast, nobody knows exactly where it’s going land or who it’s going to hit. And we know there are plenty of casualties.