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Hansen: Photographs are telling a sad story

March 13, 2014|By David Hansen | By David Hansen
  • Photographer Cliff Wassmann of Laguna Beach took this photo of Divers Cove. Wassmann says the proliferation of inexpensive equipment has forced him to be creative with his photography.
Photographer Cliff Wassmann of Laguna Beach took this… (Cliff Wassmann )

The person who said a picture is worth a thousand words obviously did not try to sell the photo.

Modern professional photographers are struggling, reeling from the onslaught of cheap digital equipment, ubiquitous camera phones and unrealistic consumer expectations.

Everyone is a "photographer," which means the real photographers are fighting for their lives and rethinking how they do business.

"Now you have moms down on the beach taking baby pictures and basically putting us out of business," said Katie Clark, who has had her Laguna Canyon studio since 1992. "I have put the lower half of my studio up for lease and it breaks my heart. I can no longer support myself with my overhead. I've had to cut my prices in half because of the saturation of the industry."

Clark is not alone.

Laguna Beach photographer Cliff Wassmann has a small studio downtown and has had to be creative to survive. He does a variety of photography jobs, such as commercial work and Web design, plus he paints.

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"The business is even worse for my paintings than it is for photography," he said. "There's a lot of competition out there now, and the equipment has gotten so good that it's not as difficult for people to get good shots. I used to do large-format film photography, and that was very specialized. It took a lot of work to get a really good image."

Now high-end digital cameras can perform even better — even when operated by novices.

"Even without any training or skill or anything, they just go out and buy top-of-the-line equipment and look at other people's work and start shooting the same thing," he said.

In addition to the equipment advances, there is a cultural shift over what constitutes "free."

For example, in a controversial move, Getty Images announced last week that it will make its vast library of more than 35 million images available free of charge for non-commercial use.

Photographic trade groups around the world are saying the move will significantly harm photographers, especially independent freelancers and smaller agencies.

"What is troubling to me as a professional is the accessibility to imagery that is out there," Clark said. "Everything is free. You can pull it off the Internet. The clients are expecting that. No longer do they value a print."

Clark said the traditional studio is basically gone, replaced by trendy software that can easily create a hodgepodge of photo effects like flames, clouds or borders with cats.

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