Here's a bit of insight that should not be too surprising...
“If your business model relies on charging for services that others are willing and able to do for free, it's probably time to find a new line of work.”
It's not uncommon for professional photographers to have a policy, on principle, to never work for free, so a recent post by Strobist's David Hobby suggesting that occasionally working for free has benefits has stirred things up. The one-sentence summary of David's post is:
Use some of the down time this economy has created in your photography business to seek opportunities to do the kind of photography you actually want to do, dangling the “I'll do it for free” stick to create a learning/experience opportunity for yourself that otherwise would not have knocked on your door.
David knew that this would create a firestorm because the word “free” makes the hair stand up on the back of a pro photographer's neck, although the kind of “free” he's talking about is different than the “free” that commonly vexes pros. The latter is that friends/relatives/“enthusiasts” increasingly take pictures for free, just because they like it. For example, a pro sports photographer bellyaches about his business disappearing because hobby photographers are providing the pictures that he used to be paid for. The funny thing is that he blames the hobbyists as if they are unmoral thieves, rather than blaming his own inability to adapt his business, or even to recognize the need.
The tide of technological advance brings many game changers: Henry Ford decimated the carriage industry. Refrigerators put milk deliverymen out of business. “Video killed the radio star.” The Internet is making printed newspapers irrelevant. I guess you can add to this list the business model of a lot of photographers.
In this digital age, it's easier than ever for non-professionals to create “okay” pictures, and so those whose needs are satisfied by “okay” are opting for the abundant free / low-cost choices offered by friends or hobbyists. Those choices weren't available even 5 years ago, so 5 years ago the market for a pro photographer serving those needs was much bigger than it is now. Now the market is smaller, and those not realizing the situation and adapting are hurting. And blaming.
I can understand being disappointed that a business model that has been profitable in the past is no longer so, but bellyaching and finger-pointing are as silly in this case as trying to hold back the tide. Deal with it and move on.
What David suggested in the post I paraphrased above is a different “free” than this, but it seems that some lump them all together and have the same deer-in-the-headlights reaction. For example, Vincent Laforet, a great photojournalist that I've mentioned before, wrote a scathing reply to David, including:
IF YOU ARE WORKING FOR FREE - simply to get “a” job - you risk destroying the entire business for everyone. In fact - your dream job - that you do for free - will be a job that some qualified person will no longer be getting paid for. And you'll hurt that person's chance of feeding their family in accepting to do that job for free. It's quite that simple.
Come on, Vincent... destroying the entire business for everyone... that's pathetic. Does this mean that you will go back to shooting film so that those who manufacture and develop film can feed their families? I could insert a thousand similar analogies here, but the point is that technology has already changed the entire business. The only “destroy” part is what those who refuse to recognize and adapt end up doing to themselves.
I'm not a professional photographer; I'm a professional computer programmer. I started at a time when computers and programmers were rare, but now both are wildly plentiful, and there are millions of low-cost programmers available all around the world, instantly at your fingertips via the Internet. Yet, I'm still doing well; I never seek work, and turn down 20 jobs for every one that I take. How on earth can I be so successful in the face of such a glut? Because I'm a really, really good programmer.
Photographers that bemoan the plague of “free” should spend their energy being a better photographer. Often, that doesn't mean “taking better pictures”, but rather, convincing potential clients how much better than “okay” the pro can do, and that the client actually needs better than “okay”. This is probably most clear in the wedding business, where a lot of couples shopping for a photographer simply have no concept of what a good job actually is, and how much skill it requires. It takes work to combat the “Wow, Nice Picture! You must have a great camera!” attitude.
But you'd be crazy to risk someone like me shooting a wedding for real. Yes, it won't be just luck that I get a few good shots — I'm sort of handy with a camera — but it will be luck if I get more than a few. Unless you plan on getting married often, I suggest putting your wedding-photography eggs in a basket that has a proven track record of getting great shots consistently time and time again. It'll be expensive, but so worth it.
A wedding/event photographer like Ryan Brenizer isn't in demand because others refrain from shooting their friends' weddings, he's in demand because he's good. In the same way, I suspect that Vincent Laforet will always be in demand, no matter how many people do what for free. But those who used to make a living providing snapshot-like pictures for family Christmas cards will find that people like me (who can shoot an okay picture for their friends' cards) are making their business evaporate.
If changing technology and the resulting business shift scares you, then either up your game, or get out. Just please, stop bellyaching about it.