"To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its “New Frugality” cover story in late 2009, it bought Lam’s image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, “I am happy” — the payment was more than he’d expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio. Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an idiot, among other unkind words.Lam told me that he’s only a part-time photographer — he makes most of his income through a furniture store he owns. Last year, he earned $4,000 from stock photography. Because it’s his passion and hobby, not his job, that’s fine by him. Most of what Lam has learned about lighting has come from reading online, on Strobist and similar blogs. Typical of the DIY approach of this set, Lam’s Time cover was shot using materials Lam found at a local sign store.
Professionals, naturally, are upset with amateurs like Lam for diluting the market for their work. IStockphoto is littered with high-quality photographs, the type of shots that used to come out of studio shoots that cost four or five figures to produce. You can buy the rights to iStockphoto images for a few bucks if you want to hang them on your wall; for a few bucks more, you can run them in your widely read publication. When the photo agency Getty Images bought iStockphoto for $50 million in 2006, Getty probably didn’t predict the change that would be wrought by this new era of cheap photographs. A photo that sells for $10 on the iStockphoto site goes for $340 on the Getty site. (Getty’s main site relies on a kind of high-class client the agency seems to hope would never visit iStockphoto.)
But professionals who are outraged at photographers like Lam or at sites like iStockphoto miss the point. Neither Lam nor iStock would have had such an impact if their photography didn’t meet the market’s demand for quality. What’s diluting the market for elite photography is the transfer of professional skill to amateurs — the work Hobby is doing. Although his blog is entirely about how to light photographs at a professional level, his reader surveys reveal that 86 percent of his readers are amateurs."