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February 19th, 2009

Transitioning from advertising to fine art photography 1

Posted by Brian Kosoff

Brian Kosoff was a top advertising photographer for 25 years, up until the beginning of the end of advertising photography’s golden age. As he watched photographers’ incomes drop and overhead costs rise, he found a way to transition to the world of fine-art landscape photography. Here he talks about the roots of the challenges advertising photographers still face. Check his second post where he explains how he dealt with rising studio costs.
"Contrails," an image by former advertising photographer Brian Kosoff. © Brian Kosoff

"Contrails," an image by former advertising photographer Brian Kosoff. © Brian Kosoff

When I began working as an advertising and editorial photographer in 1979 I joined an industry that hadn’t changed much for 50 years. People made a product, someone would have to photograph or illustrate it, and then someone else would put that image in a publication. How much could that paradigm change?

My first encounter with digital technology’s foothold in the graphic design world was in 1984. I went to see a client, a design firm, and one of the designers pulled me aside and pointed out a small computer on his desk. “This is going to revolutionize design,” he told me. I looked at the little box again, focusing on the small screen and wondering how designers accustomed to drawing on 24-inch pads with hundreds of color markers would be able to work on a 9-inch black-and-white screen using a “mouse.”

Of course, a decade later the digital revolution had arrived. The world of graphics and printing changed dramatically –- typesetters disappeared and art directors also became computer experts –- but it was the effect on photography I really felt.

I bought a Mac and Photoshop in 1991. Previously I had done a lot of special effects photography for clients. The type of thing where you have five cameras set up on five sets and take the same piece of film and multiply expose that film to precisely masked and composed scenes. The Mac changed all that. Now all I had to do was scan film at the local service bureau and then move the pieces around almost effortlessly in Photoshop. Well not that effortlessly, it would take hours sometimes for the Mac to complete a Photoshop command. I can recall holding a loupe to my screen to check if the progress bar indicated whether the Mac had frozen or was still working. Seeing the bar move a single pixel in 90 seconds meant that PS command was going to take all night. Of course it usually ended up freezing first.

For most advertising photographers of my generation these were the good times. Very little had changed for us except we had more and better tools. But the same tools that made photo composure so easy for photographers also made photo retouching easier and less expensive. Why pay for a highly skilled photographer who could produce images needing little or no retouching when you could hire a less experienced and far cheaper photographer who’s work could now be inexpensively retouched and enhanced? You could argue that the more experienced photographer brought other values to the mix, but in many cases lower cost trumped quality. Still, the old hierarchy persisted. The photographers just starting out got the lower paying assignments, the high end photographers still got substantial day rates, and the mid-level photographers got a mix of both, an agreeable situation for all.

"Powerlines." © Brian Kosoff

"Powerlines." © Brian Kosoff

Then came the next revolution: the Internet. For a long time the dissemination of information, either word or image, happened on paper. Radio and TV changed things a bit, but there were advantages and disadvantages to the old and new medias so they found a way to co-exist. The Internet, of course, has been a major blow to both. Newspapers and magazines exist through the sale of advertisements, which are now moving to the Internet. Additionally, half of newspapers’ income is derived from classified ads, which free services like Craigslist have decimated. So what we have now is a rapidly shrinking and vastly less profitable print media industry. This means less assignment work and lower fees for editorial and advertising photographers, at a time when the cost of doing business is rising dramatically.

Part of those new costs was the change from film-based photography to digital capture. I guess in the scheme of things, having to consume film in order to create an image was not the most efficient method. But for a photographer, film had a tremendous business advantage. You could bill it, and more importantly, you could add a rather substantial mark up. I cannot begin to tell you just how much profit a busy studio could make on film. As a friend of mine once told me when I asked him what light meter he used, he replied,” I don’t own a meter, you can’t bill a meter, I use Polaroid.” Well, Polaroid is gone. And a lot of the players in the light meter business are gone as well. Now if you shoot for ads or magazines, you most likely use a digital camera or a digital back. They are extremely expensive, have a rapid rate of obsolescence, and as far as I know unless you rent them, are not billable. On top of this, photographers are now also required to retouch their work. While some may be able to bill for this added time and effort, many can’t.

So in one move photographers lost a huge source of income, and replaced it with a very expensive, up-front cost. Not a good business model. To add insult to injury, studio space was also getting expensive.

Be Part of the RESOLUTION: How have photographers out there been able to recoop some of the value lost when moving from film to digital?


  1. February 19th, 2009 at 4:41 am

    Transitioning from advertising to fine art photography 1 | The Click

    […] Check it out here. […]

  2. February 19th, 2009 at 4:55 am

    Ryan Smith

    I can’t really say I know how to recoop lost value from film because I entered this business in the middle of the transition. At this point, I don’t know any other way other than to try to add value to my individual creativity.

    Thanks for this post. I’m looking forward to the next post in this series.

  3. February 19th, 2009 at 9:26 am

    JIm Russi

    This sounds like a mirror image of my life as an advertising and editorial photographer in the Surfing industry for the last 30 years… looking for a solution now.

    Jim Russi

  4. February 21st, 2009 at 5:38 pm

    Bharat Mirchandani

    I loved reading your post, it touched a nerve, I was an advertising photographer for 30 years but here in Mumbai its hard to make a living selling fine art photography, I’ve taken up a job and my day-rate as an advertising photographer is what I earn in a month now.

  5. February 23rd, 2009 at 8:32 am

    Brian Kosoff

    Thank you all for commenting on my blog. I was concerned that my experiences or perspectives on this matter might have just been unique to me. It is gratifying that others have a shared experience and that we are not alone in trying to acclimate to this new world. I am confident that the exchange of thoughts and strategies will be of benefit to us all.

  6. September 6th, 2011 at 7:35 am

    Transitioning from advertising to fine art photography 1 | The Click

    […] Check it out here. This entry was posted in Photography. Bookmark the permalink. ← Newspaper News Picture Story POYi winners are up On the Set with Mary Ellen Mark → […]

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