When Jean Loo picked up her camera five years ago to shoot full time for a living, she knew she was taking a big gamble on the road less travelled.
"The beginning is tough, because no one knows who you are," said the documentary photographer. When she started out shortly after graduating from university, she spurred herself on by giving herself a deadline of three years to explore the career of her passion, relying on e-mail and face-to-face meetings to make herself known.
"I realised that every project, no matter how small, led to something else," she said. Today, she attributes discipline and motivation to her achievements as a professional photographer.
Success stories like Ms Loo's may soon become rare, as the photography services industry here becomes increasingly saturated. Amateurs, especially students and hobbyists, are becoming increasingly commonplace, and pose a risk to the businesses of professionals, particularly in events photography and photojournalism.
Willy Foo, chief executive and founding photographer of the 14-member event photography firm LiveStudios, explained: "Singapore is small. There are not enough shoots to go around and a plentiful supply of photographers. The barriers to entry are very low."
Some of these amateurs are even willing to shoot for free just to have their photo appear on the cover of a magazine, while others charge reduced rates to cover events such as weddings. "These days, you don't even have to be a full-time photographer to do photography jobs. When people do it on the sidelines at cheap rates, how can you charge people $180 an hour to shoot an event when there's someone to do it for just $40?" asked Ms Loo.
The gradual rise of amateurs venturing into fields once exclusive to professionals is exemplified by the proliferation of professional photography equipment. From 2008 to 2012, annual sales volumes of digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras here have risen by more than 50 per cent, according to consumer research firm GfK.
"There has been a gradual uptrend in demand for DSLR cameras, indicating rising interest towards professional photography," said Gerard Tan, account director of digital technology at GfK Asia. "DSLRs which used to cost much more previously has become much more affordable of late, contributing to the growing interest in such cameras." He expects this trend to hold or continue in the near future.
It also does not help professional photographers that price is a big determinant for consumers here. "Clients in Singapore are just extremely sensitive to price points, even big listed companies," said Stefen Chow, a professional photographer of six years who started out here.
"Singapore is unique in this case," added the Beijing-based professional who has worked with clients from more than 30 different countries. "Clients elsewhere look more at quality than price."
Professional firms and freelancers are certainly feeling the pinch. LiveStudios, which specialises in event photography, has suffered a 20 per cent fall in business volume over the last five years, which Mr Foo attributes to "market dynamics". Ms Loo has seen other freelance photographers venture into other businesses just to sustain themselves.
But despite tough competition, some professional firms and freelancers have risen to the challenge and are still holding their own.
Since it first started out in 2004, LiveStudios has thrived on its niche concept of "live photography", where digital photos taken during an event are instantly projected on a screen and printed out for guests as gifts. "People spend a lot of money on corporate events and weddings, but what's more important is for guests to take away something from the event and remember it better . . . We realised the biggest push was the marketing value of having brands on these photo cards which go into the wallets of the guests," said Mr Foo, who believes this niche has propelled the firm to its success today.
He believes in marketing the niche rather than competing in terms of price, even if the latter may be sustainable in the short run. "From a business standpoint, when you move your prices down, and if the economy does bounce back up and you restore your prices, you actually lose your regular clients."
Professionals are also increasingly turning to social media as a form of marketing. Said Ms Loo: "With social media, it's much easier to get your word out. If you have a project, who says you have to exhibit it at a museum? Times have changed!"
Given the subjective nature of photography services, it is important for professional photographers to gain the trust of clients. "It's up to the professional to differentiate himself or herself," said Ms Loo. "The professional needs to show responsibility through the craft (of photography), and build up a relationship with your client that goes beyond a business transaction."
Not just passion
For professional photographers, what ultimately matters most is not just passion for the craft, but acumen for business as well. "Passion will attract people to hire the photographer, but business savvy - how you control your finances and marketing - will keep the business afloat," said Mr Foo. "You can't eat or drink passion."
"Professional photographers starting out need to understand how they want to approach business. Being creative is one thing, but you must know your threshold when you run a business," said Sebastian Tan, emeritus president of the Professional Photographers' Association of Singapore, which aims to support and improve the professionalism of professional photographers here. In addition to holding seminars and forums among professionals to share business practices, it also encourages members to buy equipment in bulk to cut costs.
Still, despite the rising challenges placed on professional photographers today, they can take comfort in the fact that demand for professional photography services will always exist.
"It's a visual world. Photography is very much ingrained in people's lives, and there will definitely be room for it," said Ms Loo.