By Daryl Lang
For ten years, John Harte had a streak going. Every Friday during football season, he had at least one client for his business, Shooting Star Sports Photography, which shoots pictures of high school athletes in action.
But the streak ended last week when Harte, a retired newspaper photographer in Bakersfield, California, had a Friday with no jobs. He’s watched his client list of football clients plunge to just 5 players this season, from an average of 15 to 20.
The reason? Harte says fans with DSLR cameras are offering photos for a much lower price than he can charge, or giving them away. “People in this age are just used to having pictures handed to them for free,” he says.
Youth action sports photography is a niche business, but it’s a source of extra income for many beginning, part-time and retired sports shooters. In some markets, photographers like Harte have made a full-time business out of it.
These photographers’ main products are prints, posters and CDs or DVDs of images of specific players, whose parents are willing to pay a pro to shoot their kids in a photojournalistic style.
But as in all sorts of professional photography segments, amateurs are disrupting the market. Harte says a teacher at one of his schools recently bought some good camera gear and is selling disks of game images for $395 each, undercutting the $500 Harte charges for the labor-intensive product. “I have no idea how he’s going to do it,” Harte says.
Pro photographers grumble that amateurs don’t know how to use their gear, crowd the sidelines, and have equipment ill-suited for challenging environments like night games.
“We call it the GWC, guy with camera, or the MWC, mom with camera,” says Haim Ariav, owner of Glossy Finish, a sports photo business based near Jacksonville, Florida.
Ariav says one parent at a local high school recently got a Canon Mark III and is posting sports images on Smugmug, where everyone on the team can access the photos for free. “I’ve got to give her credit. Her stuff looks good,” Ariav says. “I can’t compete with that.”
But Ariav doesn’t sound worried, since he has an edge. A former web developer and stock photo agency manager, Ariav started his sports business in 2006 by outfitting a trailer with computer stations. Parents who put down a deposit can enter the Glossy Finish trailer after the games and buy professional prints on the spot.
This unique service is a hit. At large tournaments, Glossy Finish may send nine or 10 photographers to cover games. Ariav’s advice is, “You’ve got to be able to adapt to survive.”
Other photographers say there’s still plenty of business out there, but they’ve had to adjust their marketing to get it.
Harte, for his part, is trying to broaden his business by reaching out to other schools in the Los Angeles area.
Rush has taken to promoting his pictures on Facebook and community message boards, inviting parents to visit his site for photos of their team. He’s also being choosy about which teams he covers. Select baseball—a league that students have to pay to be part of—tends to be good for business, since it attracts families willing to spend money on sports. Rush, who’s been doing this for about three years, says his business is still growing.
In Texas, the situation is similar. Jason Jump runs the Lone Star Christian Sports Network, a Web site that covers private school athletics. The site dispatches photographers to games around the state and parts of Oklahoma, and offers prints and other products for sale online.
Jump, who has been in the business about seven years, says the number of people on the sidelines has increased at many schools. One high school has even started issuing sideline passes, which is unusual.
Jump’s photographers can cover as many as 15 games on a Friday night, but they’ve stopped staffing some schools that are aggressively photographed by parents.
“If we have a parent or a fan… that is out there taking photos, and we know they’re burning a disk and giving it away to everyone on the team, those are the schools we’re really struggling with,” Jump says. At one school where that happened, he says, sales went from “decent” to “absolutely zero.”
Despite the competition, Jump says he and his photographers are cordial with the parents working the sidelines—who sometimes ask for camera advice. “We get a lot of parents coming up to us and asking how to operate their machinery,” he says.