Akhil B's passion for photography began at an early age. The Alappuzha native used to assist his father, a seasoned photographer, at their digital studio near Paravoor. But for the last few months, the microbiology student has been working at a medical lab to support his family and has hardly gone to the studio. With the lockdown in place, it was rather pointless. Even the one-day relaxation every week for studios, when it arrived, proved to be of little help.
"People need a reason to take photographs. Job interviews, government applications, banks and the like demand passport-size photos on a regular basis. But that demand has dried up almost totally," said Akhil.
The expensive cameras and high-end computers used in his father's studio are now in need of repairs due to the lack of daily use. These include lenses worth several lakhs bought availing loans repaid through EMI schemes. The imported raw materials and spare parts have become expensive as well.
"There was no work for a long time when we reopened in August last year. Cameras need lubrication oil, chances of fungal spread have increased. We have had to spend a bomb to fix our system's motherboard, hard disk. Everything is getting damaged," Akhil said.
"When the price of ink used in printers also increased, we started charging Rs 120 for passport photos instead of Rs 80 and Rs 20 for each extra copy. That couldn't sustain our household and we decided to try out wedding photography," Akhil said.
But little did he and photographers like him know back then that things were shaky there as well. Like most wedding-associated industries, the photo and videography business too was hit by the restrictions on social gatherings.
Travelling wedding parties opt to hire local teams from these destinations rather than taking someone with them to reduce the contingent size. This meant the money earned by Akhil and his like fell drastically.
"There is a significant fall in the number of works and for the worst, people have started to believe it is alright to conduct ceremonies without videography. For photographers, reduced attendees means lesser pages or leaves in the album which is not good for business," said Shalu Abraham of Pathanamthitta-based Pinnacle event planners.
Photographers are paid per leaf of the wedding album, explained Shalu. "If 20 people are present, there won't be more than six or seven group photos. Even if we enlarge a few, there will be no more than 30 leaves in the album in place of 60 or 70 earlier," he explained.
That said, photographers find themselves in a decent spot compared to videographers and editors.
"When 500-1000 people used to attend weddings, it required three or four videographers to cover it thoroughly. The families of both bride and groom used to hire videographers separately. But now, one person is hired which means at least three people are missing out on a chance to work," Shalu said.
"We used to take 9 or 10 cameras to cover major events earlier. Now, there is no need to use more than two anywhere. People think the number of participants has something to do with our effort. They ask why can't we lower our fee as there are not many faces to shoot. They aren't bothered about the equipment rent and processing charge at labs which remain unchanged," said Kochi-based freelancer Arjun.
Freelance editors, a vital part of the industry, are also struggling to pull through. Earlier there was no dearth of work as studios hired them to save time in photo retouch works and video editing.
"Now, we are desperate for work. Some amateurs are willing to work for a few thousand rupees and this has taken out our bargaining power," said Anu P who has been working as an independent video editor for over seven years.
While contacts in top event management firms and his experience have helped him stay afloat, Anu said there has been a steady decline in his income since the lockdown.
"Be it marriage, baptism or anything else, rituals remain the same even with fewer people in attendence. Now, with a smaller crowd to cover, the cameraman will be bringing total footage close to 50 GB mostly -- which means more work for editors.
"Full-length works have come down and people now demand 10-minute long highlights from the whole event. To make a good 10-minute highlight, we need to see the entire footage and identify all the salient shots. Even with the extra effort, our income has come down and we can't argue as there is always someone ready to take up the offer at the lower rate," Anu said.
"We used to reject projects earlier as it was easy to reach our target during the wedding season. Now, we commit to them all, mostly at very low rates and makes just enough to make ends meet," he said.
Live streaming and 'Save the Date' as saviours for many
There have been a few bright spots thankfully.
Live streaming marriage reception and the rituals became the new normal following the pandemic. With extended families and friends missing out, people are happy to have an alternate arrangement in place for them.
"We use soundtracks except for when the rituals are going on. It is more of a necessity than a new trend for many families," said Arjun, who has been live-streaming corporate meetings and sports events for over three years now.
Such streaming has brought some relief to the struggling videographers. "You are either hired for an entire day or a four-hour package and payment differs depending on the team and place. Rs 12,000 - Rs 18,000 is the industry standard now," Arjun added.
Another trend that couples have been experimenting with is the Save The Date photo shoots where they pose for dramatic stills to declare their big day. Started by fun-loving amateurs, it has now been adopted by professionals and has helped them in a big way.
"Many couples will come up with a theme of their own. For others, we will set up something depending upon the locality and existing travel rules. The restrictions meant outdoor shoots were restricted but innovation helped us to make some money," said Arjun who charges Rs 10,000 or above for 'Save the Date' shoots.