Tracking the State of the Photography Industry

May 17th, 2021
state of the photography industry 2021

Last year’s State of the Photography Industry Survey unmasked the resilience and optimism within the industry during the pandemic. This ongoing study was last conducted in May 2021 by Zenfolio, a leading provider of online portfolios, digital marketing, and e-commerce solutions for photographers.

Clear positive trends were revealed in the weeks following a February preliminary COVID-impact survey that indicated heavy losses and a slow start to 2021. In May, the Zenfolio team noticed a marked increase in e-commerce activity on their platform and quickly deployed what will become a recurring survey exploring the current state of the photography industry.

The May 2021 survey provided even deeper insights into how photographers adapted to the overall effects of the pandemic and what they expect in the months ahead. While the business environment remains dynamic, vaccine distribution, the emergence of new variants, and ever-changing guidelines on restrictions is keeping everyone on their toes. Zenfolio plans to use this survey as a periodic temperature check on the industry as a whole.

state of the photography industry 2021 with barchart

Looking through the lens is looking up.

Echoing the rise in e-commerce activity on the Zenfolio platform, survey respondents reported business is picking up, with 38% indicating they were as busy or busier than expected so far in 2021, up from 29% in the February survey. School & Sports photographers and Wedding photographers (two of the most adversely affected genres in 2020) saw the most significant increases between February and May, coinciding with COVID restrictions being lifted and the return of in-person events.

Along with this already realized increase in photo sales, photographers indicated a brighter outlook for the months ahead, with 49% expecting their businesses to gain strength, versus just 37% expressing hope in February. Another trend changing direction between the February and May surveys is that fewer photographers reported business slower than expected with more photographers reporting business busier than expected.

This positive trend indicates a reversal from the negative impact on business in 2020, as nearly three-quarters of photographers reported revenue decreases of at least 20% to greater than 40% in the previous year. Photographers in the Real Estate and Commercial/Product fields were among the least negatively impacted during the pandemic. A quarter of Real Estate photographers even reported an increase in revenue due to heavier reliance on photography to remotely show and market properties during the era of remote showings and social distancing. Additionally, pre-order data from Zenfolio school and sports photographers reveals a later-than-typical spring 2021 season is rebounding to be more profitable than pre-pandemic spring seasons.

state of the photography industry 2021 bright outlook

Vaccines: don’t ask, do tell.

As with other professions, much of the recovery depends upon vaccine distribution. Zenfolio queried photographers about their vaccine status along with their interest in their clients’ vaccine status. Photographers appear keen to get vaccinated, with 78% stating they have or intend to get vaccinated. Despite relative eagerness to get vaccinated themselves, only 19% of photographers plan to ask their clients about their vaccine status.

However, the lack of desire to ask clients about their vaccine status does not reflect apathy among the industry. 75% of respondents see the current coronavirus situation as somewhat to very serious. And 75% also see the situation in the US as improving, while only half of those surveyed see the global threat as being contained. This global sense of caution appears to be reflected in vaccine availability in areas outside of the US, Canada, and the UK.

state of the photography industry 2021 vaccination status

Resilience. Reinvention. Refocus.

The resilience of photographers was apparent throughout the pandemic, and they made it clear that adapting was vital to weathering the pandemic. Two-thirds of photographers made adaptations to their photography business in three main areas: adding increased safety protocols, providing new products and services, and learning new skills.

As you might expect, photographers are a creative bunch and certainly demonstrated these skills during 2020 to survive and even thrive. To bolster their safety protocols, some photographers moved all photo shoots outdoors, used long lenses to maintain their distance from their subjects, and wore masks whenever possible.

state of the photography industry 2021 adapting

Some photographers changed their products and service offerings, pivoting to genres and products that resonated with clients during the pandemic, such as Real Estate and Product photography. Adding yard signs and promotions to sell additional images from past photoshoots was a common theme among photographers, while some started offering classes online.

To keep their business moving, photographers leveraged online services such as online photo ordering, contactless booking services such as BookMe, and video-conferencing for client consultations prior to a session.

A significant portion of photographers took advantage of the downtime by investing in themselves to learn new business, marketing, or photography skills. 

How Zenfolio supported their clients during COVID.

Zenfolio took active steps to assist photographers during the pandemic by increasing training opportunities on their e-commerce and marketing platform with special focus on website customization.

We opened up additional classes to help photographers learn more about selling their photos online to prime them for the eventual return to business. 

Zenfolio promoted gallery showcase tools encouraging photographers to sell from their archives in lieu of creating new content for their clients. We also ran client campaigns on behalf of their photographers promoting product sales around holidays driving passive income.

The company also provided a completely contactless online booking tool – the aforementioned BookMe resource – that became a valuable part of photo business operations in the COVID era.

state of the photography industry 2021 quotes

Should I stay or should I go?

With well over half of photographers reporting a more than 40% reduction in business in 2020, some would expect a mass exodus from the industry. Yet, photographers revealed a more subtle shift in their behavior as a result of the pandemic. In both 2021 surveys, the overall percentage of respondents who relied on photography for their main or second source of income varied only slightly, hovering around 90%. Merely 10.5% of former full-time photographers either exited the business or got a second job during COVID.

Approximately 10% of photographers who relied on photography as their pre-pandemic primary source of income shifted to rely less on photography. Among the open-field responses, some said they started another small business, explored other photo-related income streams such as starting a photo prop business and, “started farming.”

Among semi-pro and amateur photographers, 11.8% of hobbyists and 8.2% of part-time photographers took this time as an opportunity to enter or increase their presence in the photography industry. One response submitted said, “I turned my business around! Covid made me stop and focus!!” Another stated, “I took time to rest and reflect on the direction I want my business to go.”

Stay tuned for more trends.

The Zenfolio survey audience was comprised of roughly 60% in the 35-54 age range and almost evenly split with 49.1% female and 48% male. The main genres represented were Portraits 35%; Weddings/Events 29.1%; and School & Sports 19.2%. The remainder identified as specialists in Landscape/Fine Art, Commercial and Real Estate.

Zenfolio will continue to monitor the industry’s recovery, deploying a new survey each quarter. We look forward to reporting on photographers’ success stories and shining the light on industry trends as people start making their return to live events and milestone celebrations.

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