Photography’s myriad costs produce a conflicted picture

Too many parts of an entire industry remain out of focus.
A variety of photography equipment is set on a desk and shot from above. A laptop is open to Photoshop's main page in the middle of the image. On the right side of the image, the desk holds a Canon 5D Mark III, two Ultimax lenses, a Canon 50mm f/1.8 lens, two battery chargers and one battery charger adapter, front and rear caps for the lens being used to take the image, a front cover for the camera being used to take the image, a lens hood, and a stack of graded color filters for the various lenses. Beneath the laptop towards the bottom of the desk is a protective slip case for more color-graded lens filters and a microfiber cloth still in its bag. To the left of the laptop are a Maxim MF-IX film camera, two smart multicolor LED floodlights, and Tone Madison's 2022 MAMA Award Trophy. The desk is wooden and the entire image is bathed in a soft brown light. Just off to the right side of the disk, a sliver of a Neewer ring light is shown illuminating the desk and all of the camera equipment.
A display setup of the author’s photography equipment.

Too many parts of an entire industry remain out of focus.

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In August, I paid $600 for a barely-used Canon 5D Mark III, a DSLR camera that was released at a retail price of $3,500 in 2013. A discount of three grand for a camera that was, for all intents and purposes, the same as it was upon release. But in photography—like most any industry that relies on bleeding-edge technology—10 years is a span that houses generations of advancements. At present, DSLRs are on the way out as the professional photography landscape embraces a decisive pivot to mirrorless camera bodies and their accompanying lenses. As a result, the resale market is in a state of flux, once again bringing about questions related to the valuation of not just photography equipment, but photography itself.

For decades, prices of high-end photography equipment have hinged on groundbreaking research and development advances and the resulting patents. Of course, camera pricing is also dependent on materials used and—like any industry—the upscaling in price as a result of those is going to be significant. But at a certain point, equipment with slight improvements will compete with its direct predecessors in a bizarre evolution of price positioning. Take the differences between one of the most prominent professional lenses in the industry: the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 model with Canon’s patented Image Stabilization system. While there’s a very apparent difference in the abilities between the original version of the lens and the IS II (“IS” standing for image stabilization), many photographers say there’s minimal difference between the IS II and its successor, the IS III.

Something feels increasingly off about how we collectively gauge value within photography. Hell, the laws of scarcity have priced a good deal of photographers out of participating in traditional film photography. This extends beyond gear prices to the work itself and the status of the people doing it—and, of course, to the convoluted workings of access.

Photography is one of the only professions where there doesn’t seem to be a clearly delineated definition of what constitutes “professional” work and what doesn’t. I have seen photographers who consider themselves hobbyists produce better work than photographers who market themselves as professionals. I have seen professionals who have clearly earned their title and consistently produce jaw-dropping work (National Geographic‘s Shaaz Jung comes to mind). I have seen amateur photographers produce work that I found to be more visually arresting than hobbyists or professionals. And I have seen many, many photographers suffer imposter syndrome despite the quality of their images, thanks to arbitrary distinctions like “professional.”

I have, for years, struggled over how to define my own position within photography’s landscape. I’ve had professional credits as a contractor—Rolling Stone, Consequence, Etsy, NPR, etc.—but the equipment I used to gain those credits wouldn’t be enough to land me most photography jobs in Madison that require shooters to have their own camera bodies and lenses. I did work at a local studio in Madison—Empire Photos—for years before a string of severe illnesses forced me to the sidelines. Even then, there seemed to be a degree of separation between “worker” and “professional.” (Though I have nothing bad to say about the studio itself, and the quality of work they produced through adhering to their house style was incredibly clean and, yes, professional.)

Steven Spoerl is shown holding his Canon Rebel t5i in a white band shirt and green baseball cap. A Canon strap dangles from the lens, which is being held with both hands. He is looking directly into the mirror, and his full face is visible, as the camera only blocks out his neck.
Steven Spoerl takes a mirror selfie with his Canon Rebel t5i.

A lot of times, the separation itself—between “amateur,” “hobbyist,” and “professional”—isn’t meaningful or apparent. Expectations for what is and what is not professional can change on a dime, and are typically determined by an individual perception of “healthy expectations.” Ironically, adhering to that type of worldview to shape an industry doesn’t seem healthy at all. It can also lead to incredibly skewed practices that create unnecessary frustration. For instance: I have been approved to shoot multiple shows across town as a photographer for Tone Madison. Until recently, I’ve had zero issues with timeliness. The past two shows I gained approval for, I was not notified of that approval until a few hours before doors opened. In both cases, I was asked to print, scan, and send back a completed waiver form (again, hours before doors opened) that effectively reiterated information that had already been relayed to the corresponding PR teams. In each case, I declined. If people want photographers to respect their time or the time of their clients, then they need to respect photographers’ time in return.

At the last show I was approved to shoot, I hit a new snag that I had previously never encountered in over a decade of shooting shows. At Big Thief’s July 27 stop at The Sylvee, photographers who had been approved for the show—myself and one other individual whose name I did not get—were instructed with the standard rule set for shows at venues that large: access to the photo pit in front of the stage for the first three songs. No flash. But we were also instructed to immediately return to the venue’s entrance after the third song finished to check our equipment and leave it with venue staff until we left. As a result, we both left the pit after the band’s third song, filmed a bit of the fourth on our phones from the back of the audience, and left the show. Where the customary three-song rule makes sense—no photographer is entitled to disrupt the experience of paying fans, or to hog the space up front—the gear-check was unnecessary. A photographer who warrants access to the pit can probably be trusted to hang onto their gear for the rest of the show, after all. It’s unclear as to who implemented that rule, or why. Either way, it only served to provide an extra obstacle for photographers and the show lost two of them early as a result.

At least the folks at The Sylvee gave me the rules upfront and set an expectation. In my time shooting Madison shows, I’ve (thankfully) not had many dispiriting experiences with venue personnel. The only venue that’s presented me with an interrogation on more than one occasion has been the Majestic (which, like The Sylvee, is part of FPC Live, Madison’s Live Nation subsidiary). At one specific show, years ago, a security guard repeatedly harangued me for “hiding” my photo pass, even though I had it displayed visibly on my person (per the venue’s instructions) and repeatedly showed them where it was located. It was a jarring experience and kept me from shooting at the venue for a time. After eventually returning, the only times I’ve been asked to show proof of credentials have been one-and-done, and the people interjecting have been respectful and apologetic. But it’s still the only venue where I get asked. And that might come down to control over access.

Big Thief front-person Adrienne Lenker performs at The Sylvee. There is a blue-lit backdrop and some lens flare effects towards the bottom of the image. Lenker's depicted from roughly the waist up and is wearing a long-sleeve plaid shirt and orange beanie. Lenker's face is scrunched while singing and playing a black Les Paul.
Big Thief front-person Adrienne Lenker performs at The Sylvee.

Access, especially in live performance spaces, remains tricky to navigate. Some artists openly invite photographers to participate as a means of preservation, while others are much more specific and guarded in their demands. More often than not, there is a middle ground. Artists, managers, promoters, and venues shape industry practices around photo access. So do more novel entities like Sofar Sounds, a multimillion-dollar company that attempts to capture the “magic” of house concerts in tech-startup packaging. After a pandemic-induced delay, Sofar finally held its first official Madison show in August at Lake City Books. While Sofar’s business practices have prompted justified criticism and even a fine from the New York State Department of Labor, it has been gradually shamed into improving its compensation for artists and other workers. But only so much: In a now-expired Madison Craigslist ad, the series invited amateur photographers to come document shows for a rate of $75 per show. The series’ official onboarding spiel for photographers tells a slightly different story, stipulating that the first show a photographer shoots will be an unpaid trail run that earns prospective photographers the right to “sign up for paid opportunities.” In either case, all of the image rights can be controlled by Sofar after those photographers’ images enter the company’s internal photography portal. When the opening promise is one of unpaid labor, there’s not much of a compromise, especially when a company reserves the right to profit off of that labor.

The most tightly controlled waiver agreements for photographers tend to come from bigger artists. One of the most severe I remember encountering came via a 2013 Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds show at The Chicago Theatre that defaulted all image rights to Cave and company. Another notable one came from The National ahead of the band’s recent August stop at The Sylvee. Language in the waiver made it clear that a photographer who so much as added one of their shots of the performance to their portfolio without obtaining written permission from the band would “cause [The National] irreparable damage.” For The Head And The Heart’s August stop at The Sylvee, the terms were the same. I did not sign either waiver. In both cases, the level of control the artists were seeking to guard the perception of their images felt like an overreach. It presented yet another round of unnecessary hoops for photographers to jump through.

It’s perfectly reasonable for artists to prevent third parties from profiting unscrupulously off of their likenesses. It’s a step too far to prohibit photographers from adding their own work to their portfolios without obtaining written consent from an artist or their representatives. At a certain point, artists need to accept the fact that they fundamentally do not have complete control over their image as public-facing entities, playing shows for crowds of people who all have smartphones anyway—and I say this as someone who is actively playing shows. I can’t fault an artist for trying to maintain agency over how they’re perceived, but I can also plead for a more realistic baseline when it comes to documentation.

Photography is invaluable. I’ve had to learn this the hard way. The way we value it is incredibly fluid. Wedding photographers are expensive because they’re expected to have the highest-quality equipment, the most experience, and a deep personal investment in preserving one of the most important days of their subjects’ lives. They’re tasked with producing something unforgettable because “unforgettable” is the baseline expectation for most weddings. Product photographers—a group that includes the real estate market—have a product to sell, and need that product’s desirability to come across. They’re pivotal in advertisement and are often paid accordingly. Other photographers look to capture everyday moments, subtly infusing them with their own sense of vision and personality. That has utility and value as well, though pricing it may be more of a negotiation.

Inconsistency is, seemingly, the only consistent when it comes to the photography landscape. Equipment, expectations, and differentiation points can change rapidly, especially in an age when phone camera advancements are making rapid progress in closing the gap between phones and “pro” camera bodies. And yes, equipment matters. Yes, expectations matter. But we cannot lose sight of the fact that what matters the most is the person behind the camera and their control over their craft. Photographers have the power to shape how people perceive not just an individual shot, but the craft and profession as a whole. At the very least, in a landscape rife with confusion, photographers have a path to determining their own value. When there is so much uncertainty surrounding pricing (for both equipment and hiring purposes), equipment requirements, and what makes a “professional,” that level of control is worth something.

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