A Photographer's Predicament - Creating Value in a Low Barrier to Entry Environment
Doesn't it bother you that there are so many photographic images out there? If it doesn't, it should. It is not like the more pictures the merrier. With an abundance of photographs floating around the internet, there is essentially what economists call an oversupply.
The consequence of oversupply is diminished value. This is the basic premise of economic supply and demand. The more we have of something, the less we value it. To put it in layman's term, we take for granted the things that we have in abundance - like water and air - hence our polluted environment.
To make matter even worse, photographic images are posted online for free - essentially rendering its value to zero. As a result, there is an expectation in the eyes of the public that photographic content should be free, despite the effort taken by photographers to capture the image.
The cause of this oversupply is what economist call low barrier to entry. In layman's term, it means it is very easy to become a photographer. Its not like one requires formal accreditation from a recognized academic institution to become one. To become a photographer, all one requires is a camera, a computer, and the initiative to take photographs. It's easy. That's why there's so many people taking pictures. And that's why there is an oversupply of photographic images diminishing the value of photography. This is the predicament facing photographers.
Sad isn't it. So now, doesn't it bother you that there are so many photographic images out there. What is a photographer to do?
From an economic standpoint, the logical course of action for a photographer to take, in getting out of this low barrier to entry predicament, is to create value where value no longer exist. Value could only be added if the photographer artificially increases the barrier to entry. In other words, the photographer has to raise the bar and do "something" that isn't likely to be replicated by the competition, and certainly not by those responsible for diminishing the value of photography by oversupplying the internet with free photographic images.
But how is a photographer to increase the barrier to entry and thus increase value? What is that "something" that isn't likely to be replicated?
Admittedly, I cannot tell you exactly what that something is, but I think I can show you the way. If I were to borrow a saying from the business world, my advice would this: be first, be better, or cheat. Obviously, that may appear somewhat ambiguous, but if you apply that mindset accordingly to the objective of creating value as a photographer, it gives you a starting point.
So how does being first increases value for the photographer? A photographer who is first to photograph something worth seeing is essentially providing something of demand that is in scarce supply. In other words, everybody wants to see it, but only a very few have captured it. From an economic perspective, that is a prime example of high demand and low supply resulting in increased value.
And because being first is no easy task, barrier to entry is also more difficult. This adds to the value of being first.
A photographer can also increase value by cheating - namely by doing something that isn't related to photography. In today's online world, the most notable way to cheat is by becoming popular. The more popular a photographer is, the more the photographer becomes in demand. Hence, an increase in demand will also increase value.
In practical terms, popularity increases value because more people are interested in seeing the photographic images of a popular photographer - regardless of merit.
Unfortunately, for most photographers, being first, and being popular aren't options available to them. The usual method of creating value is by becoming a better photographer. Despite this option being more immediately available to most photographers, it also requires the most effort.
So how does a photographer become better, for the sake of creating value in a low barrier to entry environment?
The photographer cannot do what the crowded field is doing. In order to create value, the photographer must seek differentiation. The photographer will have to do something better, that would either be in demand or short in supply. No easy task, I admit, but this is the starting point.
So what is in demand and what is in short supply? Unfortunately, I can only lead you to water. It's up to you to figure that out. If it were that easy, we'd all be doing it, thus diminishing the value of this realization. And besides, what works for one photographer might not work for another.
In reality, the best way to create value is to do your best to optimize all three objectives of being first, being better, and cheating. This is called stacking the dice in your favor. To be honest, this works for almost anything you do in life. In fact, those are the guiding objectives that I've adopted in growing my site. When I started my blog, I realized that blogging is a low barrier to entry activity. Anyone with a computer and an opinion can do it.
However, in doing my site, I have done my best to create value. I've tried to increase my barrier to entry in providing content that is more difficult to duplicate. I've tried my best to be first. And I've done my part in gaining popularity. In the end, I've gained a modestly sized audience for someone who is only doing this in his spare time - all within a period of four months.
Trust me, it can be done. But you just need to fill in the blanks on how to be first, how to be better, and how to cheat. When you figure that out, you will separate yourself from those responsible for causing that oversupply, increase your barrier to entry, and therefore increase the value of your work.
So does it still bother you that there are so many photographic images out there? It shouldn't. Personally, I love seeing all the free images out there, and I love sharing my images for free. But as a photographer, you just need to step up your game and not be a part of that group that's responsible for diminishing the value of photography.
PS - If be first, be better, and cheat sounds familiar, that's because this business mindset was popularized in the film "Margin Call" - though in the movie, the exact line recited by Jeremy Irons was "be first, be smarter, or cheat".
Special thanks to Lada!
Some images in this writeup were cropped. All images have been optimized on Lightroom