An Overview of the Photography Industry Chapter 1: Past, Present and Future

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Photography has existed as a medium for less than 200 years but in that time has moved on from the crude process of using chemicals to the much simpler means we have to take photos today. 

A brief history of key developments in photography

It was in 1814 when French physicist Joseph Niepce achieved the first photographic image using the camera obscura – a darkened chamber where images were projected by letting light enter through a small hole. However, this technology was first used by early Greek and Chinese philosophers back in the 5th – 4th Centuries B.C!

Here’s a brief timeline of developments since then:

Brief Timeline of Photography Developments
Click to enlarge

Fast forward to today and the traditional photography jobs and equipment have faded, including photo processing workers, film lab technicians and photography equipment repairers, to be replaced by newer and more accessible digital technologies. 

 

Definitions of photography

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines Photography as “the activity or job of taking photographs or filming”.

 

Structure of the Photography Industry

Companies within the photographic industry commonly provide still photography, digital photography and videography, including commercial, industrial, portrait, wedding and special events photography to name a few. 

 

Snapshot of key industry stats

The photography industry is worth billions both in the UK and US and is among the most profitable of industries. Here’s a snapshot of key stats for these markets:

 

UK US
Profitability (as % of industry revenue) 11.2% 12.1%
Revenue £1.7bn $6.5bn
No. of businesses 8,119 12,458
Annual growth 2.2% 2.5%
Forecast growth (19-24) 1.8% 1.8%

 

Profitability

Within the UK industry, profitability varies greatly and this is dependent on the size of the photographic operator and the scale of their operations. An overall improvement in profitability is expected to register during the five years through 2018-19, reaching 11.2% of industry revenue.

Within the US market, photography ranks in the top 40% of the most profitable industries. 70.6% of businesses operating in the industry are profitable, with the average net income being 12.1% of revenues.

Revenue

Revenue in the UK is greatly impacted by two major areas – marriage rate and advertising activity levels. Similarly, in the US it is impacted by consumer income and commercial spending.

Increased business activity for advertising agencies tends to boost demand for industry services in both the UK and US markets.

Number of businesses

Unsurprisingly the highest concentration of photography businesses is in the capitals of both markets. In the UK, London is the most concentrated region as it is home to approximately 34.3% of industry establishments. In the US, New York is the largest market in terms of sales per establishment by state.

Since 2012, the number of photography businesses has grown steadily in both the US and UK markets, with the US seeing a much bigger increase in the number of larger firms (100+ employees). The UK market remains dominated by a larger number of small firms.

Annual growth

Between 2014-19, the industry grew at a rate of around 2.2% in the UK, boosted by increased advertising activity and a higher marriage rate. In the US, the industry grew at a slightly faster rate of 2.5%.

Forecast growth

It is expected that revenue will increase at a relatively slow pace of 1.8% in 2018-19 as demand is hindered by economic pressures and inflation. However, the marriage rate is forecast to rise marginally and this will contribute positively to the demand for photography.

The rising popularity of online photograph databases amongst businesses is expected to hinder growth.

 

Overview of competitive landscape

Barriers to Entry

With relatively low barriers to entry, the majority of photography businesses are small businesses and owner-operators. A small home office will usually suffice for most but for those wanting to have their own studio, operating expenses will be more of a consideration. Additionally, the high cost of professional equipment may have previously been enough to put some off from entering the market, although with technological advances and reducing costs, this is set to change.

Competition

Despite the low barriers to entry for the industry, there is a high level of competition and this is expected to increase. Technological developments and the falling cost of equipment threatens industry performance by making it easier for consumers to take their own photographs instead of having to rely on industry operators, so establishing a good reputation and building a loyal customer base is critical for those wanting to succeed. 

Technology

Owing to the continual and rapid improvements in technology, there are many more people who want to be (and claim to be) photographers. However, photography is about much more than ‘point and shoot’ – professionals spend hours learning the technical aspects of their craft including shutter speed, lenses, lighting, composition and more. Digital photographers have also had to develop skills to digitally enhance and retouch photos to bring them to life using software like Adobe Photoshop.

Industry Regulation

In both the US and UK, there is very little regulation of the photographic industry. In the UK, professional photographers do not need a licence to film or photograph in public places. The most major change to legislation affecting the industry was the introduction of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) across the EU in May 2018, which governs how a firm must deal with personal data of clients and aims to protect individuals within the European Union.

In the US, photo processing labs are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because they use hazardous chemicals.

 

Overall demand for photography and particularly those with digital photography, editing and retouching skills has grown steadily over recent years. However one of the areas seeing a decline in demand is news photography, as social media and crowdsourcing give newspapers and publishers the opportunity to source images from the public rather than assigning the work to professionals. 

 

Overview of product lines and markets

UK US
Portraits 6% 51.7%
Weddings 38.3% 8.6%
Commercial & Industrial 12.1% 23.8%
Other photography 32.4% 14.1%
Photographic processing 11.2% 1.8%

Portrait photography

Portrait photography was effectively the first type of commercial photography. Portrait photographers must be highly skilled to be able to find ways to capture the client’s personality and illuminate their character through an image. 

Wedding photography

Wedding photography is highly competitive but big business and photographers in this area should be highly skilled in being able to capture and tell a story with their photographs. They are also expected to be able to edit and retouch the photos, with a fast turnaround time. Customers expect the highest quality images from their special day to keep for a lifetime. 

Commercial and Industrial photography

Requiring a high level of technical skill, commercial and industrial photographers need to be able to shoot the highest quality images, which could be featured anywhere from websites and social media right through to billboards and magazines. Those in the commercial field may choose to specialise in areas such as food, architecture, fashion, products or similar and may employ photo stylists to help arrange props and prepare sets. 

Other types of photography

Photojournalism: Photojournalists create pictures that contribute to the news media. This is a distinguished form of journalism that complies with a rigid ethical framework, demanding honest and impartial that tells the story in strictly journalistic terms.

Specialist photography: Photography that falls out of the above categories may include nature photography or art photography which again require that photographers have specific sets of skills to be able to capture images in the best light for their particular niche.

Photographic processing

Previously this would have included activities like film processing but these days refers to digital editing and retouching of photographs.

 

Industry lifecycle 

With both markets in the mature stage, technological changes have impacted the demand for traditional photography services such as film processing, allowing more innovative businesses to take advantage of the new opportunities created which in turn has stopped the industry entering decline. 

Seasonal demand also has an impact with a much higher demand during the summer months, particularly for those specialising in weddings and outdoor events. There is less seasonal impact on commercial photography, particularly in fashion where campaigns change each season and there is a requirement for ongoing photography services.

 

Industry forecast

The industry in the UK is expected to grow by 1.9% year on year for at least the next five years. By contrast and having grown 1% on average since 2012 in the US, the long-term trend for the photography industry is a decline of 1.9% on average over the next five years. 

In both markets, it’s expected that demand for wedding and portrait photography will remain strong. 

Technological advances will continue to impact the industry, providing new changes that allow customers to improve their own skills and perhaps helping to limit growth. Although this will also afford opportunities for new and existing photography firms to innovate.

Other opportunities within the industry include:

  • Online portfolios
  • Speed of service
  • Video services
  • Social media
  • Studio and set rentals

Additionally, demand for commercial photography is expected to remain strong due to the need for businesses to have high-quality images and videos to promote their products and services.


Resources:
IBISWorld Industry Report M74.200 – Photographic Activities in the UK, September 2018
Kentley Insights – 2019 Market Research Report: Photographic Services, June 2019
A Timeline of Photography – ThoughtCo
The Brownie Camera