Is There A Future For ‘Paid-For’ Photography in the 21st Century?

Anyone remember DTP? Desk Top Publishing? Well, I do because in the late 1980s and through the 1990s I heard it proclaimed as the future. The democratisation of design. Everyone could be a graphic designer, just by purchasing a software package, just as today anyone can be a photographer by owning a smartphone. I hope you see my sense of irony here.

Today thanks to Adobe any photographer can design using InDesign, the professional and appropriate software for the job. However, a photographer is not a designer, they may be designing something for themselves, but they are not having to meet client needs and expectations. It is design but without a client.

Photography is the same. Anyone can be a photographer, but that does not make them a commissionable photographer. Meeting client needs and being paid for doing so turns the making of images into a financial proposition, but what happens when the client believes they can meet their own design and photographic needs?

This has been an option for clients for the last ten years at least and the reduced fees, budgets and opportunities are evidence this option has had on the paid for photography environment. Many photographers have lost income and clients. You know this, I have written about this repeatedly and you may be living this reality, but what is the answer?

Is it stock photography? Well, no, not if that market remains in a race to the bottom in reproduction fees making bulk deals with clients that demean the role of the photographer.

Is it editorial? Not if you want to make money and retain your copyright.

What about advertising? In a global marketplace where mega agencies control the message advertising photography is increasingly commissioned from an international perspective resulting in less work with a national flavour. This results in work being generic if commissioned and often created from stock images that remove risk and reduce outlay.

What about the art market and print sales? There are few retail markets, and it is a retail market as complex, manipulated, controlled and reliant on marketing both soft and hard as the art market. Don’t expect to make this work for you quickly, consistently, effectively or at all without knowing the right people and playing their game.

So where does that leave us? Well, the paid for photography environment has contracted. There are too many people describing themselves as photographers hoping to make a living from the medium and there is a lack of understanding of how to do that. Just as I hear people describing themselves as art directors or creative directors with no knowledge or understanding of what those roles mean and require. However, paid-for photography was always a small world. It was never big enough to support the amount of photographers we have today and it never will be. Accept that fact and a lot of unhappiness could be avoided.

I know of photographers making good money as photographers in the ways they have always done. Today they have to market themselves more effectively than they needed to previously, but their photographic practices have changed little. So where does that leave those that are not? Well, photography will always be needed in some form to promote and sell product, ideas, people and brands. That photography will need to be paid for, but the photographer will need to play by new rules.

The clients demand will be high. They will expect a lot for their money, technically and creatively. They will expect the photographer to make themselves visible to them, rather than take time to search out the photographer. They will expect the photographer to be calm, informed and experienced. They will expect the photographer to be confident in fulfilling a brief and solving problems. They will expect the photographer to be patient and a good communicator. In short they will expect the photographer to be professional. There is a future for the professional photographer, but there are just too many people presenting themselves with that label. There is a future paid for paid for photography, but in a limited capacity for the few and not the many.

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. As someone who taught photography for over 20 years and have been a photographer for rather longer I agree with your conclusion that “paid-for photography was always a small world”. But we have seen a huge expansion in photographic education which I think has almost all been in denial about this, particularly at degree level – and above. I used to tell students at the start of courses that few if any of them would make a living from photography, but that they might find the skills that they learnt useful in other areas (quite a few became designers) and that it would enrich their lives particularly through the appreciation of photography and the ability to communicate better visually. And of course that it would be a worthwhile experience, satisfying and fun.

    1. That is the same message I give my students at Oxford Brookes. Photography is a visual language that provides multiple transferrable skills for employment, studying the medium does need t and should not only lead to being a photographer

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