The Online Photographer

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Do Photography Websites Need to Grow Up?

TOP has been an online success story. Its popularity has grown and grown (although I'm aware that it's still a "little" site), and I actually derive income from it in about four different ways—not enough to live on, naturally, but enough to make me pay attention. It's gotten some very flattering press from around the internet, and enjoys many loyal adherents (you, that would be), for whose interest and support I'm grateful on an ongoing basis.

I have some doubts about photo websites in general, though. You may be aware that most of the professions—doctors, lawyers, accountants—went through a "sole practitioner" stage, maybe a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago, very roughly speaking. Each professional, trained as a generalist, rented an office, hung out a shingle, and took in clients off the street. Every individual had to do everything that needed doing, on the practice side and on the business side. Gradually, this evolved into the paradigm of professional groups, where handfuls, dozens, or even hundreds of practitioners banded together—in hospitals or medical practices, or law or accounting firms. There were numerous advantages to such arrangements: specialists could be supported, clients could always be accomodated regardless of their differing needs, business specialists could be hired to handle those aspects of the practice, equipment could be shared, and overhead and shared costs could be spread out among many earners. There are still sole-practitioner doctors, lawyers, and accountants, of course, but for "power user" customers the new model has taken over.

Professional photographers themselves have not really been able to move past the "sole practitioner" model simply because the product is so dependent on the one person's skills. If a client hires Joe Smith, they want Joe Smith to shoot their job—not some lackey from Joe Smith & Associates Inc. The business is dependent on Joe Smith's "eye," so to speak, and there's only one person who has that. This puts a stern limit on growth (as well as on other desirable things, like inheritability). Certain professional photographers periodically try to move on the "professional group" model, and a few have been able to beat the odds and make a success of that, but for the most part it hasn't become common.

My notion of photography websites is that we're still mostly in the age of the "sole practitioner"—the single, non-specialist jack-of-all-subjects who runs one little idiosyncratic website and remains king in his own kingdom. This suits the web, because viewers—who actually use things called "browsers," indicating what is ordinarily done with them—can flit about so easily from one place to the other, gathering tidbits from hither and yon.

And each "sole practitioner" eventually settles down wherever his or her own abilities and interests lead. So I go to Bythom for Nikon camera reviews, Luminous-Landscape for Canon camera and printer information, photo-i for printer and scanner reviews, photographyreview.com for user's equipment reviews, Steve's Digicams for digicam recommendations, dpreview for DSLR reviews, photoSIG or pbase to look at amateurs' pictures, the Digital Journalist for photojournalism content, a handful of my favorite blogs for entertainment, a couple of different industry sites for news, and so forth.

So far, it seems to me that only dpreview and imaging-resource (and perhaps to a lesser extent photo.net, which seems to keep trying but hasn't been very consistent about it) have made any real efforts to expand to become something more—that is, to expand past the sole practitioner stage.

While there's nothing wrong with the status quo, necessarily, there are disadvantages to it. There's no editorial coherence past the boundaries of one site (and sometimes not even within certain sites); there's a whole heck of a lot of noise you have to wade through to get the information you want (especially on forums); and needs are addressed haphazardly—some well, some poorly, some in-between. For instance, there are a lot more digital camera sites than there are options for traditional photography news, and there is almost no place to go for news about major museum shows and exhibits.

And, of course, the biggie: atomization encourages fractiousness. Years ago I got hooted off the LUG (the Leica User Group) just because I wasn't willing to swear undying, unquestioning fealty to the automatic superiority of Leicas over everything else (my attitude of "it's just a camera" got me burned at a virtual stake, guilty of heresy). As we've seen in many places, dividing forums according to brands of equipment is just a bad idea. It encourages parochialism, divisiveness, bigotry, narrowness of viewpoint, and an overall shallowness to the discussions that may be convenient in a limited way but is ultimately counterproductive to encouraging an interest in photography as a whole, and deleterious to finding and encouraging a collegial commonality amongst participants.

The ideal answer, it seems to me, would be for photographic websites to take a lead from—hate to say it, but—porn sites. In what way? By requiring a monthly subscription fee for access.

Before your knee jerks up and hits you in the chin and you cry out, "I hate pay sites!", think about the raw potential for a sec.

If the right group of complementary content providers banded together, we could create a "supersite" so good that it would be a mandatory hangout for anyone interested in any kind of photography. If enough people got used to the idea of paying a few dollars a month for access to such a site, the income generated would be enough to compensate each content provider for the loss of the income and control we each now have on our little personal-kingdom sites. We could each concentrate on what we each do best; we could hire an ad salesperson, like any self-respecting magazine; we could have translators creating mirror versions of the site in different languages; we could have an editor correcting our English, and a software genius attending to the interface. And so on.

For the web-using photographer, the advantages could be substantial. Imagine a site which cost you, say, about as much a month as a fancy coffee in a really good coffee shop, but that offered you a choice of RSS topic feeds; a lead blog posting all the best, most interesting news from all around the site; a reliable source of pertinent up-to-the-minute information on everything from software updates, to industry news, to current museum shows; correspondents from around the globe; multiple-expert reviews of equipment; tutorials; columnists; articles on who's who; exhaustive, well-groomed links resources; a database of enthusiast book reviews; and original portfolios and photojournalistic stories, actually commissioned by the site and posted on it (I've always daydreamed of the return of LIFE magazine, something The Digital Journalist comes closest to providing now). Want me to go on? I could—but I'm sure you're already thinking up other possibilities yourself.

A sort of super-magazine. As I say, I think the site that's coming closest to such a model so far is Imaging-Resource, and they're certainly doing an impressive job, but it's only baby steps compared to what would be possible with real resources to work with, the kind of resources that could come from hundreds of thousands of subscribers from around the world all continuously committed to supporting the same site.

It may never happen. Maybe photo websites, like commercial photographers as opposed to doctors or accountants or lawyers, will stay mired in the sole practitioner stage indefinitely; it's possible that it's just the nature of this beast. But I wonder. Possibilities are always fun to think about.

Posted by: MIKE ("king in a tiny kingdom") JOHNSTON

Both photos are of my brothers, for no particular reason....

24 Comments:

Blogger DonovanCO said...

Consider me a subscriber, Mike. I already pay that much per month for NY Times Select, so as to have access to a range of commentary and news, which I do not always agree with, but which causes me to think.
Going to a photo single site with a range of content, and a good search capability, would be a timesaver and I think would attract even better content than your current site. But I would not want it to be only oriented to digital photography and no arguments about which is better (film vs digital).

1:06 PM  
Blogger Scott Kirkpatrick said...

Have you talked to Sean Reid lately? He's run his kingdom on subscription fees for a year and a third now. He seems to be working awfully hard for the privilege of kingship, but still enjoys it. But I have no idea how it is working financially, or what the stresses are like.

scott

2:14 PM  
Blogger eolake said...

An intriguing idea.

I would certainly pay, say, thirty bucks a year for suck a site. Which is all a paper mag gets, often, and they have to pay for printing/distribution.

2:25 PM  
Blogger John Sarsgard said...

I look at TOP almost every day. I don't believe you can cover everything, but you hit lots that I value. It has a good feel as a place to check in often, and I value TOP more than any of the photo magazines I read. The content, plus the links, provide way more than any magazine does, or could. I would definitely pay a reasonable toll, even if it didn't change much.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Andy Smith said...

Excellent article... brings up some items worth thought.

If such a beast existed and provided worthwhile content, I'd cerainly participate through payment.

Having said that, losing several (?) smaller sites to one larger, and more powerful site also risks some negatives.

One reason photography sites/magazines may not have joined as some other industries may be the mix of the factual content with the "art" end. There will always be varying opinions on what art is, and if any given work is good art... or art at all.

One possible risk would be a stifling of variety of opinions and outlets for emerging artists.A monopoly of sorts.

Contradicting myself again... it would certainly be worth exploring. If those involved appreciated the importance of varied opinion, we could stand to gain a great resource.

3:12 PM  
Blogger robert e said...

Mike, two comments from a minority readership (poor, mostly-vintage-film-camera-using amateur hobbyists?), which won't help you but might interest you.

1. I almost said this in the Thom Hogan thread: of all the photo sites I read, TOP seems the most readily translatable to a print magazine format, of the kind I would enjoy sitting down with at the breakfast table, or in an armchair with a scotch--one with an excellent balance and variety of editorial, feature, technique, criticism, hardware, news, gossip, history, appreciation, OT... Kind of like a good issue of Black and White Photographer, but much more eclectic and frequent. On the other hand, the interactivity of the comments is also important to the TOP experience and, obviously, to you, Mike, and I don't know how that would translate.

2. I already have a web site like you describe, and it is my RSS aggregator (I use Bloglines) and my browser (Firefox). Lately, it seems the bigger the photo site, the less interest I have in it. My photo blogroll at the moment consists of these core sites:

TOP
Alec Soth's blog
Conscientious
APUG
DigitalBlackandWhiteThePrint

Except for APUG, they are all smallish sites with distinct personalities. The bigger sites are not on the list because I don't usually read them more than once a month, if that. And rather than go to them, I'd rather read photo-i, LL, photo.net or Megapixels if they have what I need.

I also trust those small sites in my blogroll to tell me what else might interest me, in print or on the web, and what I might want to add to my blogroll. I trust the larger sites to cater to a larger, more mainstream audience, and therefore to have less overlap with my interests and a lot more noise.

I realize you are concerned with production economics, and I have no good ideas for you at the moment. I don't know...if a super-site had an editor in chief like Mike Johnston I'd definitely give it a chance, and if it fenced off some of my favorite content, I'd probably pony up, happily or grudgingly depending on the cost.

IMO, TOP is near-perfect the way it is, and I am therefore loath to see it change in any way, even get bigger. But I represent an insignificant part of your readers and fans, and anyway, you must pursue your instincts and interests. That's how TOP became what it is and how it will best evolve.

3:16 PM  
Blogger stephen best said...

Short answer: no. Maybe I'm being selfish, but I kinda like it the way it is. I travel to all the other sites you list on occasions, but none of them meet my needs for looking at and thinking about photography ... and with the humour and sensitivities that you have. Maybe you don't fully appreciate what you've achieved.

One thing that I don't think has been fully explored yet is online galleries of photographs for sale. There's plenty of individual sites, and collective sites where people seem to upload EVERYTHING, but I'm thinking of something more like what www.photoeye.com is doing.

Anyway, I sincerely hope that you come up with a financial model that helps support your undoubtedly considerable efforts. Regardless, it will have to be something that you want to do, rather that what others want.

4:11 PM  
Blogger Hank said...

Photographers are not one homogeneous group. Hoobyists tend to focus on equipment, art photographers on image and professionals are devided into groups with very wildly different needs and outlooks, PJ, commercial, wedding/event, etc., So I think that should be reflected in the plethora of sites.

We do now have photographic businesses that are run like regular businesses- visit a portrait studio in a mall. The 'photographers' could just as easily be selling shoes.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Bruce McL said...

Interesting article. Here's a couple of counterpoints.

I'm not sure Doctors banded together and specialized of their own free will. There is a lot of overhead involved, record keeping, insurance fees, etc. This high overhead can be a lot lower per Doctor if the Doctor is in a group.

One area where photographers do band together is in selling images through agencies. If copyright law gets more and more complex then perhaps the independent photographer selling their own images will become a thing of the past, much like the independent GP you describe.

I think it will take an outsider rather than a practicing photographer to create a site like you describe. Perhaps someone from the magazine industry may give it a try. I have seen two or three articles lately where a magazine fails but it's web site lives on. Someone from this background might decide that there is no market for another magazine for photographers, but there is one for a good web site.

Perhaps it's just my Scots blood, but getting people to pay for content regularly on the Internet may not be easy. Certainly this is where companies like Comcast and even AT&T want to take the Internet. I'm not sure they will be successful.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Michael Seltzer said...

Hello,

I'm not so sure. Most of the professions did move from sole practitioners into groups, practices and firms. However, over the past 20, 25 years or so, there's been something of a move in the other direction: professionals moving out of their associations, young people choosing not to go in. This has been happening in other fields as well, such as farming, where there has been a movement toward smaller, individual homesteads. Some of that impetus has to do with environmental sustainability, but some is about the sustainability of small, individual operations over larger ones. The latter sustainability issues would apply to the professions as well.
I think the major reason, though, that some professionals are choosing smaller practices and even choosing to become sole practitioners again is that at some point conglomeration robs one of the advantages of being a professional: the ability to set the time, place, and means of one's production. Once you create a practice, even though you are a partner in the firm, you become something of an employee as well, having to give up control of those very things that differentiate a profession from other careers. It may be this effect that has caused people to seem to forget what it means to be a professional.
Today, most people seem to think that being a professional simply means to be thought of as good at what you do. It doesn't. It means to have control of the time, place and means of your work (as well as the price others pay for your product or services). Other definitions came about as a result of this independence. Because professionals weren't paid employees and depended upon getting customers, they had to be good. They also had to have decent client-relationship skills, so being "professional" means treating the customer with a certain courtesy, and making sure they get what they pay for. The banding together to form practices may have contributed to this misunderstanding. When someone who is an employee looks at their job, then looks at what it's like to work in a medical or law office, they don't see a lot of difference, except that maybe the professional makes more money. One result of this is that in some cases we're legislating away professions.
An example. Teaching used to be a profession, and is still talked about as one. But teachers have not had the ability to set the time and place of their practice for quite awhile, and now with the standards movement and No Child Left Behind, they are being robbed of the last leg of professionalism, control over the means of their work. As a result, they cannot really be called professionals any longer.
So while there are definitely advantages to forming larger associations, there are losses as well. In any event, the internet seems perfectly suited to the small and individual. Certainly there are large companies and organisations who effectively use the internet, but the internet community has traditionally been philosophically more in tune with the individual, the small, the sole practitioner. In a way, it turns us all into sole practitioners. I actually like that, and would hate to lose it. That doesn't mean there isn't room to try different things. Variation and experimentation is right at home on the internet, even encouraged by it (I think John Stuart Mill would like the internet). So go for it. However, I think I disagree with the implication that to go back toward practices and associations is better than sole practitionerships.
Maybe this has to do with personal history. Having been an editor, and a long time magazine contributor, you are aware of the advantages of such organisation, and can easily see the defects where it's lacking. I have spent much of my adult life trying to gain more control over how I spend my time, and so definitely am more sensitive to those associated losses.

Michael Seltzer

5:03 PM  
Blogger jim_h said...

Photography web sites are being overwhelmed with DSLR newbies, and the idea of doing something interesting or original with photography - or maybe just subtle and unpretentious - no longer registers. This site is different. If it stays that way, and could offer more such content, I'd contribute a few bucks. But it can't be much, because several web sites I enjoy seem to be having this same idea right about now...

5:34 PM  
Blogger Robin P said...

Please don't go there Mike!

I recently paid up for the first time to subscribe to a one camera make forum and very soon discovered that it lost most of its members (and therefore any new content) after introducing a charge.

Except for very specialised or hard to find magazines I will never subscribe, always prefer browsing in the newsagents to see if the content merits purchase.

If you really, really must go subscription then make it VERY cheap, monthly and via Paypal.

Cheers, Robin

6:14 PM  
Blogger Alex Wilson said...

I dunno... I'm wary of trying to shoe-horn current web content into the old media mindset -- While consolidation makes sense in the real world, there are also many advantages to small, independent content creation.

Pay sites only work when there are no or few comparable free alternatives, and I think that there are enough free/ad-supported/donation-supported sites in the genre to make it a difficult buy-in for an audience who can already similar content for free.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Hans-Georg Daun said...

I agree with those who like TOP as it is. Significantly more content would be too much to digest and I do like the personal feel of the site.
As for subscriptions, I don't think I would have been willing to pay without seeing what's being offered.
On the other hand, if Mike asked for my money now, I would gladly give it to him...

8:18 PM  
Blogger nvonstaden said...

remember when Prodigy started charging for emails? right down the tubes...that why "personal" bolgs are so good one man thoughts....no editors.. just whats on your mind and I like that about you and yout blog

8:55 PM  
Blogger Jon Anderson said...

an interesting idea and probably inevitable, for certain types of sites, but I also think that the quirky loners like Soth, Conscientious or Jim Johnson's site on politics and photography provide the most interesting content and compel me to return regularly to read them. So much so, that i launched a site of my own, The Spark of Accident (http://sparkofaccident.blogspot.com) because I wanted to the opportunity to "publish" essays of critical thought about photography, just as would an academic critic, say, but by blogging it I potentially can reach a broader, more diverse audience. Indeed that appears to be happening because after a week or so of operation i have gotten almost a thousand hits. I think blogging is immature still but the potential is there to provide real content. Course, there is no reason why a model such as you suggest couldnt serve as a kind of umbrella that would embrace such sites as I espouse. Basically what does a webzine like Slate do? same thing really.

10:23 PM  
Blogger dk said...

There are such sites. The probably biggest Swedish site for amateur photography has subscriptions where you pay for benefits and to support the site. The site is of course in Swedish but can be found at www.fotosidan.se. In many respects the site has similarities to photo.net.

The benefits consists in simple things like access to some of the larger articles, the option of getting pictures in the online ads and more space for your uploaded pictures. There are also membership versions where you can store your public portfolio at the site.

// David

3:04 AM  
Blogger JohnL said...

One thing I can say is you are going to get a lot of feed-back on this topic!
Having just read your post and without much in-depth consideration my knee-jerk reaction is one that says I am not sure a commercial blog-site would work.
TOP works very well for me on a daily basis and is top of my blogroll list. All I need is another click to link to other sites which fill my needs.

However drawing numerous column providers to one site could be ok if the mix, substance and content to the viewer remains historically acceptable ie substance, content and style but its going to be difficult to get providers ie writers to keep to their standards when money is involved. The emphasis of style/thought could be seriously compromised by the deadline theory.
I am also not clear whether this post is about commercial interests or bonding like minded people into one unit - maybe both.
An online magazine with multiple content providers would be a great draw but surely that could only be done on a 2 or 4 weekly basis. What would happen to the daily input via blogs of those writers? would they have the time to keep up their personal blog? what would happen to the integrity of the content and if this was compromised would their blog fold or would they leave the 'fold'.
The more I think the more I feel a combination of blogs under a common heading could work but would it be possible to turn that into something commercial? or is the question ' to make it work would it have to be a commercial venture' ?

4:38 AM  
Blogger scotth said...

I use an RSS feed aggregator, and I think that does what you describe and lets me tailor the content.

I think there is always a risk that money will become the reason for the existence of the site. The content might get watered down so it has a broader appeal, and so it is more palatable for the advertisers. At that point I would cancel my subscription.

I think the great thing about the internet is that anyone can post whatever they want. A lot of it might not have much appeal for me, but there is a lot of really good stuff out there Stuff I would never get read otherwise. When I do stumble across something that seems interesting I add the feed to my aggregator.

4:59 AM  
Blogger David Emerick said...

HMMMMMM..... and they took the name!



d

7:54 AM  
Blogger Dave Jenkins said...

Mike, I followed the LUG controversy closely at the time, and what I remember is that you were not made persona non grata because you refused to bow before the mighty Leica, but because you refused to bow down to almighty Erwin the putz.

8:01 AM  
Blogger David Emerick said...

Why are my comments screwed up all the time!



was the link I refer to earlier


d

8:21 AM  
Blogger Robert Roaldi said...

Tough call. We have created a monster and it is us.

Software developers write programs and give the work away for free. Now no one really expects to pay much for programming.

The microstocks make some nice photos available for next to nothing.

WalMart sells shirts and pants for so little that I actually know someone who doesn't launder her kids clothes but throws them away every 2-3 weeks and buys more. (I am not kidding.)

We expect to have lots of websites at our disposal 24/7 that give us free advice on camera gear and other aspects of photography. But doing that takes time and effort. Do the ads provide enough income?

Trouble is, nobody wants to work for free, do they? Something has to give, it seems to me. You have to spend years acquiring expertise to do what you do. Sharing some of it makes sense. Giving it all away for nothing will cease to make at some point.

The model you propose is basically a magazine, isn't it? People used to subscribe to magazines but I get the impression that they are reluctant to subscribe to websites? Why is that? These are weird times.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Justin Lane said...

I would consider subscribing to such an online magazine like you describe. BUT I would like to see TOP stay as is. I suppose what I'm saying is if TOP was part of a larger entity, where more of my browsing habits were catered for I would be interested.

On the other hand, if it ain't broke...

2:31 AM  

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