David Hobby

A Baltimore Sun photographer who took a buyout, started a blog, and changed the photography business forever.

At first glance, David Hobby looks like just another casualty of the decline of print media: A longtime staff photographer for the Baltimore Sun, he was one of many employees who accepted a buyout in 2008 as part of broad staff reductions at the distressed newspaper.

Yet last month he embarked on a nearly sold-out, cross-country  tour that will visit 29 cities. * Approximately $1 million in tickets have been sold for the privilege of hearing Hobby and famed magazine photographer Joe McNally speak about their craft. Hobby’s blog, Strobist, on which he teaches amateurs the lighting techniques used by professionals, welcomed 2 million unique visitors last year. (The largest professional photography association has a membership 1 percent of that size.) Manufacturers have named lines of equipment after him, an unheard-of honor.

How Hobby went from being a workaday newspaper photographer to an internationally recognized guru is a story tied up with seismic changes in the photography profession. By teaching a horde of novices the skills necessary to shoot photographs of a quality that was until very recently only within the grasp of an elite few, Hobby has played a significant role in the transformation of the profession. In the last few years, the market rate for many types of professional photographs has dropped by as much as 99 percent.

Photographer David Hobby turns the camera on himself

Hobby educates tens of thousands of photographers every year with the free Lighting 101 course he’s posted on his blog; hundreds of thousands read his blog posts on lighting each month. He’s also lowered the barrier to entry for aspiring photographers by recommending low-cost equipment. Rather than telling amateurs to spend $2,200 before even thinking of getting started, Hobby believes that photographers can get all the lighting they need from portable and cheap flashes. (Though, often the equipment he recommends as a good, cheap purchase ends up multiplying in price on eBay.) Sometimes Hobby’s techniques are hilariously DIY, incorporating cereal boxes and ball bungees. But that’s the point: Lighting, he’s saying, is about what you do with it, not what you spend on it.

Unlike many other technologies, lighting equipment hasn’t become much more affordable over the past few decades. But combining Hobby’s lessons and an investment in a couple hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, an amateur can start producing the kinds of shots that used to generate thousands of dollars in fees for professionals.

The results have been drastic changes in the industry. Undercutting professionals by arming hordes of well-trained amateurs, just as the media companies have slashed photography budgets across the board, Hobby has helped changed the face of the photography business. 

To get a sense of just how bad things are for professional photographers right now, the story of Robert Lam is instructive. When Time needed a photo to illustrate its “New Frugality” cover story in late 2009, it purchased Lam’s image of a jar of change from stock-photo agency iStockphoto. The going rate for a Time cover had typically been $3,000 to $10,000. Lam was paid $31.50. Nevertheless, Lam declared, “I am happy”—the payment was more than he’d expected the photo to generate, and he was delighted to have a Time cover in his portfolio. Veteran professional photographers were livid, calling Lam an “IDIOT,” among other unkind words.

Lam told me by phone that he’s only a part-time photographer—he makes most of his income through a furniture store he owns. Last year, he earned $4,000 from stock photography. Since it’s his passion and hobby, not his job, that sum is fine by him. Most of what Lam has learned about lighting has come from reading online, on Strobist and similar blogs. Typical of the DIY approach of this set, Lam’s Time cover was shot using materials Lam found at a local sign store.

Professionals, naturally, are upset with amateurs like Lam for diluting the market for their work. IStockphoto is littered with high-quality photographs, the kinds of shots that used to come out of studio shoots that cost four or five figures to produce. You can buy the rights to iStockphoto images for a few bucks if you want to hang them on your wall; for a few bucks more, you can run them in your widely-read publication. When the photo agency Getty Images bought iStockphoto for $50 million in 2006, Getty probably didn’t foresee the change that would be wrought by this new era of cheap photographs. A photo that sells for $10 on the iStockphoto site goes for $340 on the Getty site. (Getty’s main site relies on a kind of high-class client the agency seems to hope would never visit iStockphoto.)

But professionals who are outraged at photographers like Lam or at sites like iStockphoto miss the point. Neither Lam nor iStock would have had such an impact if their photography didn’t meet the market’s demand for quality. What’s diluting the market for elite photography is the transfer of professional skill to amateurs—the work David Hobby is doing. Though his blog is entirely about how to light photographs at a professional level, his reader surveys reveal that 86 percent of his readers are amateurs.

The effect of amateur work can be felt even at the high end of the photography market. Hobby’s touring partner, Joe McNally, is a veteran of many six-figure photo shoots. He told me that today, “there’s a ridiculous number of requests for photography for free.” These days, even portraits for heads of state are being contracted to semipro Strobist readers.

Hobby notes that while amateurs have certainly taken business away from professionals, “if you look at them the other way, they’re also a really big market” for further instruction.

Others have taken notice. Since Strobist’s launch in 2006, various photographers have taken up the task of bringing knowledge to amateurs, most prominently on the blog DIY Photography, now a full-time position for the site’s proprietor, who quit his job as an engineer. Dozens of other photographers maintain smaller-scale blogs or post tutorials for DIY projects on Instructables.

McNally, one of photography’s premier names, agrees. The longtime photographer for Life and National Geographic is now a blogger and the author of several books about lighting with small flashes. That a true star of the photography world is now sharing lessons learned at Gil Bensimon’s feet on a blog and is sharing billing on a tour with Hobby is indicative of how flattened the hierarchy of photography has become.

McNally doesn’t see anything demeaning in sharing his insights with thousands of amateurs; rather, he says he’s come to enjoy teaching. “If you encounter passion, you have to counter it with your own passion,” he says. “Even if, at the end of the day, you feel they’re not going to go out the next day and climb the Empire State Building.

That sentiment is alien to the old guard in the professional photography world, where, Hobby says, “there’s a lot of information-hoarding, and [a sense that] if I teach this person how to do this, he’ll become my competition.” Once the dust settles from all the change he’s helped bring about, Hobby thinks there will still be legitimate careers for professional photographers. “You’ll have fewer rock stars, and a much larger middle class,” he says, a group of photographers who will find ways to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

Click here to launch a slide show of David Hobby’s photos.

Correction, April 27, 2011: This article originally stated that David Hobby’s cross-country tour was sold out. It was not. (Return to the corrected sentence.)