1.25.2012

Some predictions about the future of photography.


I think we're just about there.  The point where photography, for the most part, becomes so ubiquitous, surrounds us so completely and, through its own total familiarity, loses all of its power to surprise and delight.  Which means, necessarily that we're ripe for re-invention.  Wholesale reinvention.

It's not that the cameras have gotten better, or easier, or more accessible that makes this inevitable, rather it's the unceasing firehose torrent of exposure to everyone's photographs, via the web, that'd sucking the life out of the medium.  Really.

Yes, yes, I know that you'd never have come as far as you have without the resources of the web but at the same time you would have worked in a state of more relative isolation and you might have developed a very, very unique vision that was transformative instead of just being a check box for a style.  HDR? Check.  Joel Grime's Style? Check.  Chase Jarvis Style (does he really have one yet?) ? Check.  Street Photography? Check.  Panos?  Check.  Hot chicks? Check.  Moody black and white? Check.

We are able to become so aware, minute by minute, of what everyone else is up to and what everyone else is posting that we've become a giant stew pot of randomly seen, homogenized images.  And I'm certainly not immune.  If I were immune I'd still be shooting roll after roll of sweet medium format tri-x in an ample sized camera with a achingly beautiful, long lens instead of dicking around with a Panasonic this or an Olympus that.

It's not the cameras anymore it's the hypnotic access to images and the funneling of tastes into some twisted Bell Curve of merit that's sucking the life out of the art while at the same time spreading it out to a larger and larger audience.  An audience of narcissists, just like me, who all want to have their time on your screen.  But why?  Why is a "nice capture" sentiment from a total stranger such a lure for so many?

I'll venture to say that most people are intent to show off their level of mastery.  "See what I can do."  "Watch me. Watch me."  They are not so much sharing the content or feelings encapsulated in the image as they are showing off the technical mastery of the wrapping. Is this basic human nature? Are we, as a species, wired for maximum distribution?

So what does all this mean for the business of photography?  You can see the effects everywhere.  There are little silos or islands left for professionals to cling to.  Knowing how to effectively use shift lenses and how to beautifully light interior spaces keeps some architectural photographers' noses above the water line.  And there will always be a need for highly technical specialities that require techniques that are demanding but not "sexy." Like macro work with microchips or food photography for advertising (as opposed to the "anything goes" food photography for editorial clients).  So, technical work is a safe island.  Being on the cutting edge of massively detail oriented PhotoShop Compositing and retouching techniques might also be a safe haven, until one company after another automates what you've spent years learning to do...

The landscape for commercial photography looks a lot like an inverse Bell Curve.  A big spike near the "cheap/free" axis and another spike in the opposite "high tech/high touch" access and a giant abyss in the middle.  Which is decimating the traditional markets as the middle of the curve is where most of the job volume came from.  No matter how good your game is "cheap/free" at 90% will always beat "really/really good at 100% if you are selling to a price sensitive market.  And that's 99% of the market.

I was reading a link on a forum today where a member was asking for technical help.  He needed to take a photograph with a huge background, cars and motorcycles and people and dogs in the foreground, all beautifully lit and perfectly done.  His issue was that so much stuff, required in the frame, killed the detail he could resolve overall.  But here's the deal.  This wasn't his real job, he was a work "volunteer." Even though he was doing the job for free he wasn't in the planning meetings for the photo nor was his input valued.  But, bless him, he was as anchored as a bulldog to a stick and ready to do a great job for the reward of doing......a great job.  For free.  Not as part of his job.

He got some suggestions which he really liked.  One of which called for shooting each part separately and combining them together in post processing.  Now, I don't know if you've done this before but he's likely looking at a couple of days to shoot everything, retouch it and composite it.  On his own time.  For the reward of showing off his chops.

This "altruism" is rampant all over the place and what it means is that it cost most companies nothing at all to give their employees a shot at doing something which might have previously cost them several thousand dollars.  Their worst case scenario would only be to reject his work and hire someone working as a professional who has experience in doing these kinds of images.  And owns the right tools to do them well.  But more often than not the rank and file managers don't have the filters to see whether the work is good or just passable.  They like the idea of getting their pizza for free as long as it's warm.

I have no doubt that the person who queried the forum will spend nights and weekends doing this project.  I also have no doubt that his employers, having paid nothing for the project, will not be in the least bit appreciative of his efforts.  And one less project will go to a kid out of photo school or a pro trying to keep his business up and running.

But this is not a problem that the clients are required to fix or even acknowledge.  This is the new normal.  Now, the number of exotic and highly technical jobs isn't increasing.  It's pretty much a fixed number.  So, if the trained specialists have those markets locked up where's the market for other photographers supposed to come from?  Maybe there is no solution and the market segment will slowly dissolve as it did for typesetters and color separators.  And color labs.  And medium format film camera makers.

So, on to the predictions:

1.  Wedding photography, baby photography and general retail photography has already become totally homogenized and every quarter the pricing, income and profit from these specialties will drop quickly.  There will always be a high end market of buyers somewhere but they'll continue to seek out fine artists whose vision coincides with the aesthetic tastes of the buyers.  A tiny 1% of the market, at best.  Already  the vast majority of child photographers are employees in national companies that inhabit the malls and provide tightly controlled and regimented photographic products for relatively low prices.  They make their money on volume and the occasional upsell to "canvas" products with higher margins.  Wedding photographers will come to grips with the fact that the new generations of clients have no real interest in a print book and want to have all the images turned over to them on a disk.  Most clients know they can design and produce their own books at a fraction of the price and with total control.  Resale?  You gotta be kidding.

2.  Advertising photography.  This was never as big a market as most people think.  And it's becoming smaller and smaller for dedicated photographers.  We have a new phenomenon at play here as well.  Give a designer or an art director a camera and some lessons, couple that with hours and hours of meticulous post processing and they will come out with something really good.  Most of the time.  Again, slicing into the inverted photo Bell Curve.  Let's face facts, these people have a really good eye to begin with, they know what they want to see in an image and they can use the little screen on the back of the camera to iteratively experiment until they get what they need as raw material.  The raw material goes into making an assemblage which becomes the ad.

But why do they do this if it's easier to hire a photographer?  Well, for one thing more and more clients are scoffing at paying any sort of mark up for outside supplier used by their ad agencies.  If the agency keeps all the work in house they can charge their clients for the photography and all the hours and hours of post processing and keep all the proceeds in their own profit stream.  Let's face it, the ad agencies have been squeezed like everyone else and they're jumping at saving where they can and profiting where it's possible.  They'll still rely on the current "A-list" of photographers for their high profile projects but the days of people making money shooting products on white are quickly coming to an end.  Unless they do it in a way that's very, very compelling.

3.  Everything else.  There will always be sports photographers....until the 4K video cameras with high shutter speeds  hit the market along with "best shot" selector programs to narrow down the streams.  As it is the vast majority of sports shooters work for Getty or Corbis, aren't paid even the same wages their counterparts in the 1970's made (real dollars! Not inflation adjusted), and don't own the rights to their own images.  Same with the "red carpet" celebrity photographers.

It's not that photographers have fallen down on their respective jobs it's just that photography is technically easier than ever before, more people have more time on their hands to practice a kind of amorphous pro/pro-lite/advanced amateur/will work for:  tickets, access, food, a pat on the back style of photography.  And the total saturation of photography supports this.  It won't get better.

The attitude I've described above is exactly why the camera markets are in flux.  The mirrorless cameras do about 90% of what the full sized, traditional DSLR's do and they are fun to play with and cheap to buy.  They'll work for most of the stuff people want to do.  With the right lenses they have certain advantages that make them perfect for portraits and pretty darn good for wide angle work.  But the buy in is in just the right spot:  Under $1,000.

I predict that the market for traditional, pro level DSLRs (the Nikon D4, the Canon 1DX) will remain strong as a status symbol for doctors, dentists, software engineers and trustfund enthusiasts.  But they've long been out of the reach of aspiring professionals building their first systems.  The rest of the DSLR market will plunge into the abyss as quickly as film did.  In ten years there will be few, if any, mid-curve or bargain DSLR's.  They will all have been replaced by smaller, cheaper but nearly as good, mirrorless cameras.

The bottom end of the market, the little Canon, Fuji, Sony, Nikon, Olympus point and shoot cameras will be entirely replaced by the very next generation of iPhones and their competitors because the "good enough" of those imaging tools and their addictive use as communications tools will be too good a value proposition.

I also predict that the sale of inkjet printers will follow the same trajectory as film.  The idea of making a print at home or in the studio will appeal to a very small niche that enjoys complete control over every step of the process but the vast majority of people will rarely have prints made, will enjoy their images on screens scattered hither and yon around their homes and, when they feel the need for a print they'll send their digital files to Walmart or Costco or some other discount provider.

So, what does this mean for the future of "enthusiast" photographers?  In previous generations we looked to the print as the gold standard.  And, printed large, every wart or imperfection of process rang through most clearly.  We worked not only on our "vision" but on our ability to translate it well to the print.  We could all view the same print in the same way and in that sense we had a promise of objectivity about its "consumption."   But the jagged rift in the the expectation of generations means that we know have an entire generation who will have grown up as "enthusiasts" who have never really seen a beautifully made prints.  Their entire experience of photography other than their own comes from looking at low res images on the web.  And that's a medium that really doesn't provide a fixed, objective viewing experience.  It also covers up a myriad of flaws and defects.  In this way it works against the acceptance of pricier camera options such as medium format digital cameras.  Afterall, if the image will only be viewed on a screen whose maximum resolution is 2500 by 1280 pixels with 8 bits of information per channel why would anyone need or want a slower operating camera whose reason to be is wrapped around providing 7,000 or 8,000 pixels on a side?  Why indeed?

Is the print even relevant to most people anymore?  Is it still part of our collective consciousness? I think not.

I think the role of the historically typical professional photographer is now relegated to that of mythology.  We want to believe that there's still space for them to exist because that reinforces our notions that when we make art we're competing with a known and revered quantity that elevates us in some way.  It's targeting.  We also harbor the inner conceit that someday we're going to "tell the boss to get screwed and launch ourselves as pros."  And we can't let go of the myth without sabotaging our "back up" strategy that, if we thought rationally about, we'd never consider.... Witness that all camera manufacturers couch their cameras as tools for professionals and showcase pros in their ads.  Especially Canon and Nikon.  When, in fact, pros are a tiny, tiny fraction of all buyers.

That's not to say that there aren't swashbuckling photographers making their way in the world scaling mountains and selling the story and pictures of their six week adventure to a magazine for a couple thousand dollars. But the clinical reality is that they either have a spouse to help support them or they leverage their exposure in low paying magazines to breathe economic life into their endless series of workshops.

My overriding prediction?  That in the next ten years photography will slide into the warm goo of modern culture and have no more relevance than the background music in the fast food restaurant in which you are having lunch.  A small number of professionals will be shooting the images of crispy tacos for Taco Bell, the burgers for McDonalds and the power tools for the online catalog of your favorite manufacturer.  The fashion magazines will be full of stock or "volunteer" photography, if the magazines still exist.  And every workplace in the world will buy a photo booth for executive and employee photographs.  Select your background and it will be seamlessly applied...

Some will say that I'm being gloomy and pessimistic but I think I have a pretty good vantage point from which to look at the market.  But, I could be totally wrong.  It's happened before.

I started this column talking about wholesale reinvention.  What do I mean by that?  I wish I knew because it's going to come from someone a lot smarter than I.  Think about what works for advertising and understand that lots and lots of cultural affectations come from there.  Keep your eye on younger and younger people because they'll lead by example.  And, while I see them snap, post and discard lots of cellphone images I rarely come across anyone in my kid's generation who has any desire to own a "pro" camera, much less the inventory of lenses.  They are the unencumbered generation.

Their only attachment seems to be for gaming.  If I were a camera maker like Nikon I would try to push the development of a Wii game that has a "camera controller" and the the player can select what kind of photographer he'd like to be and then "go" to a shooting adventure and snap images from a video loop that then gleans out the captured still frames and ranks him on style and timing.  Additions to the program could include post processing options via Hipstermatic.  Live the experience without untethering from your console.  Hmmm.  I might have a marketable idea there.

What's my strategy?  Sell stuff other people aren't.  Black and white portraits done on MF film.  Technical work for the tech clients.  Executive portraits for people who aren't yet ready to make the march of shame into the photobooth.  Shoots that require really good lighting and really good technique.  And, of course, books that talk about the same.  Or, maybe I'll chuck it all and move the family to a little fishing village on the coast of Belize.....

Don't argue with me too much.  I'm sure I'll feel much better about the whole business tomorrow....

Edit:  Do I harp on "too much free?"  I am not alone:  http://blog.allklier.com/2012/01/penny-wise-pound-foolish.html

New Addition:  More information about the LED Lighting Book....





59 comments:

Anonymous said...

All insightful stuff that I can see happening.

Do you know what Fujifilm did when it saw the end of the photo film business? It got out of photography. Today, only 10% of Fuji's revenues come from photography, including all of their digital cameras.

Kodak made the mistake of trying to "adapt to the era of digital photography." However, all the revenue from "digital photography" goes to the equipment makers, and they are ferociously competitive.

I see a similar process for the former profession of photography. Before color photography, a lot of 1950s advertising used paintings and line drawings. This must have employed a generation of commercial artists. Andy Warhol was one. Now, painting and line drawing are solely the reserve of fine art.

Gregg Mack said...

Sobering, saddening, and probably very, very real.

hbernstein said...

I despise "nearly as good", but we've been in that race to the bottom, in so many ways, for a long, long time.

Dave Jenkins said...

Sell stuff other people aren't selling has always been the best way to go -- if you can figure out what that is, and who wants to buy it. (And if there are enough of them.)

I had my first collision with the future about ten years ago when I called the creative director at an agency which had given me quite a bit of work over the years to ask why they were no longer calling me.

"It's the clients," she said. "They're coming in with with stock photo CDs in their hands and demanding we use them."

Frank Grygier said...

Your strategy will work because of your talent and vision. You could open a coffee shop in Belize with a photo booth in it. I hope the fever breaks soon!

kirk tuck said...

Thanks Frank. Fever gone now struggling to reach full reactor capacity after extended downtime. Ramping up slowly to prevent circuit breaker overload...

Shootr said...

I think I will stick to painting. Unless someone invents brushes with an i-auto button.
I think I will keep my night job also.
I went to school right before the prepress print production went digital. Anyone need color separations or B&W halftones done on a large format graphics camera? Damn.

kirk tuck said...

I just came back from lunch and re-read what I'd written this morning. It's so glum. It's like watching a Bergman movie about Kierkegaard...

grEGORy simpson said...

Kirk:

I always enjoy your articles since, more often than not, they save me the trouble of coagulating my own thoughts into the written word for publication on my ULTRAsomething site. Still, would it kill you to be less prolific? Maybe leave a little meat for us photo writers who prefer to post only every couple of weeks? ;-)

As I was reading your last entry, "Some Predictions About the Future of Photography" and nodding my head vertically in tacit agreement, I began to get excited when you wrote this sentence: "They are not so much sharing the content or feelings encapsulated in the image as they are showing off the technical mastery of the wrapping."

I have, for several years, been using my minor pulpits at ULTRAsomething ( http://photography.ultrasomething.com ) and on The Leica Camera blog ( http://blog.leica-camera.com/topics/photographers/blog-contributors/egor/ ) to try and get some segment of the flock to hear this message.

The problem for pro photographers isn't that modern hardware and software are so good that anyone can make a technically excellent photograph. The problem isn't that everyone can publish their technically excellent photos on the web. The problem is that the bottomless pit of 'pretty' images has conditioned us, as both viewers and photographers, to believe that a photograph's worth is based on what it looks like. I believe a photograph's worth should be based on what it says.

Nearly every photograph in every genre is judged on beauty and technical merit. And, because photography is a visual medium, this almost makes sense. It's also, in many instances, wrong. As I postulated in one of my ULTRAsomething articles ( http://www.ultrasomething.com/photography/2011/03/more-poe-than-van-gogh/ ), photography really has more in common with poetry than with art. Good photographs should be read, not just looked at.

For me (and for the majority of photographers I admire), photographs need to be absorbed in order to be appreciated. I judge a photo by what it says to me, not by what it looks like. But for the majority of people, photographs are completely about appearance. In order to be seen in the darkness of that bottomless pit, a photograph needs to gleam and sparkle in order to catch someone's eye. Pity the poor poetic photo.

Like you, I have no answer to the problem. My interests are rooted more in documentary photography, which is just as dead as the endeavours you mention. My only "solution" is to try and educate or enlighten -- to introduce more people to photos that "say" something, rather than look good on a wall. I've even toyed with the idea of starting a Centre for Photography here in Vancouver but, alas, have yet to find any investors who see merit in a photography gallery dedicated to content rather than beauty.

Sadly, my belief that many photographs are incorrectly identified with painting, rather than poetry, does not lend any encouragement. After all, how many working poets are there?

Wanna go halves on that little fishing lodge?

- egor

Bob Krist said...

Kirk: Excellent, cogent analysis, as usual. The one positive point I try to keep in mind is that in light of the current and future state of our business, it makes being old not such a bad thing:-). Gotta look for silver linings!

Anonymous said...

And still, I want a perfectly executed black and white portrait of my beloved wife and myself for my 60th birthday!

Frank Grygier said...

A Bell Curve went off in my head. The future is images taken with Android phones. No one is doing it and the shear novelty of it should catapult me in the photostratisphere.

B said...

"If I were a camera maker like Nikon I would try to push the development of a Wii game that has a "camera controller" and the the player can select what kind of photographer he'd like to be and then "go" to a shooting adventure and snap images from a video loop that then gleans out the captured still frames and ranks him on style and timing."

Well...

NickD said...

Just a quick comment about employees shooting amateur photos for the workplaces free / for faint praise - I think one driver of this (yes I shot ~50 headshots for my workplace already...) is that doing this as 'work' may be infinitely more interesting than doing your normal, day-to-day work. Shooting photos, nevermind the thought and extra effort that goes into it, is a hobby, and there is some satisfaction in being recognised as 'good enough to do the job' whether you get paid extra for it or not...

cfw said...

I like the idea about Belize! I think the almost tactile enjoyment I get from looking at a good photo in person will never go away - for me anyway - and since my financial future is not tied to photography I can keep on enjoying the experience of a good print and "let the great work spin" out of control if that is where it's headed.

cfw

Anonymous said...

Two of my daughters have kids. They were both previously dedicated "scrapbookers" and would spend hours cropping and pasting to create photo memory books of their children. They have now both switched over to making photo books using printers like Snapfish and Shutterfly.I'm encouraged by this because I'm totally convinced that, if photos are not printed in some fashion, they will not survive for future generations... especially if they reside on the SD cards or in the iPhones memory.

Anonymous said...

Blogging, SOPA, E-books, theft, viruses, camera of the day, good, bad, etc.

I killed my television over two years ago.

Maybe it's time to "kill your computer," shelve the cameras and find a new line of work.

Seriously, at the rapid rate of technological "progress" I'm a bit worried that we haven't thought this all through.

kirk tuck said...

Nick D, Just to be clear I'm not blaming the trend on the workers or their employers. The trend is just the trend and no one really has any obligation to change the trend. I was struck by one thing recently that put this into some sort of context for me. Of all things my son and I were discussing the evolution of design in consumer products. He'd seen a collection of old Coke bottles and old radios and has been noticing vintage cars.

We both agreed that, in times past, there was an appetite for and a willingness to spend extra for elegant design, for extra flourishes and for lots of tactile and vision reinforcers for a brands.

Over time, in every market, things have been made simpler and more coarse. Consumer products have been stripped of nuance and extras. We, as a culture, have figured out how to make everything as cheaply as possible in a relentless rush to zero cost. Four color styrofoam cups designs are now two color. Numbers are painted on to a lens instead of being engraved. Manuals for cameras have steadily gotten worse and worse (and that something that none of us would have imagined to be possible....)

The general ethos of the American culture seems to always want to sell more with less. And while this might be laudable from the point of view of stockholders it certainly sucks the aesthetic life out of our culture.

I'm not saying you didn't do good work. Or that lots of other people don't do good volunteer work. Only that the push by management to accept and engage in getting free additional work from employees is another way of trying to sell more with zero cost.

I know from having worked in an ad agency, behind a desk, writing copy, that it's a heck of a lot more fun to be on a photoshoot but it gets dicey when you get them used to a free solution and then they demand it in the future. Maybe even make it part of your job description going forward....

What's the next step? Demanding, as an employee that your provide them with images from a Leica S2 as part of your engagement agreement?

I liked the design of the old, six ounce Coke bottles. I think people will also appreciate the professional photographer who can always hit one out of the ballpark. But sadly, only after the pros are already gone and the company's camera toting employee has moved on to a better opportunity.

Chris S said...

I really tire of the "got to have a positive outlook regardless of what's actually happening" position which is so politically correct in our society today. You've simply written what you perceive to be the truth and I think you're quite correct. That it hurts doesn't change the fact it's true.
A portfolio filled with pictures that "tell the story" is, I think, the only answer that might help. It's a skill I can't lay claim to.

Carlo Santin said...

Well Kirk I always enjoy your perspective and your ability to see things for what they really are. Perhaps the professional photographer is going to go the way of the plasterer. My grandfather was a plasterer here in Canada many many decades ago. Plaster required a great deal of skill, many years of apprenticeship to do well, and in some instances you could call it art. My grandfather was good, very good, and I can still see some of his handiwork in a few of the older buildings in downtown Toronto. He loved his job, it gave him great satisfaction, and he took great pride in what he did with his hands. Then sometime in the 1960's, drywall was invented, or at least it started to appear on construction sites everywhere, and almost overnight, plasterers disappeared. Almost anyone could be trained to put up drywall, and it was much much cheaper, profit margins for construction companies increased a great deal. My grandfather left the trade shortly before I was born (1968), he was old enough to retire by then, but an entire trade, men younger than he, simply disappeared within a decade. Instead of interesting and beautiful plaster work to add to the architectural landscape of the city, we are left with plain old drywall.

I don't see this article as glum,it strikes me as very real. I hope that is not what is in store for the professional, but I think it is. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the camera itself as we know it today will no longer exist. In 20 years people will be taking images with something else, maybe something like a sensor fitted directly over your eye, allowing the user to simply click what he sees and it will be sent to a computer and turned into a "picture" by some amazing software, and people who used to use cameras will be laughed at by that generation the way today's generation laughs at the car phones on reruns of Miami Vice.

kirk tuck said...

Thanks, Chris S. I think you are right on the money.

kirk tuck said...

Carlo, I grew up in San Antonio and in the older homes most of the walls were plaster. Beautiful plaster. Now there are only a few "restorationist" plasterers around to fix the various landmark buildings and the walls of the wealthy.

I'm not dropping to my knees and yelling, "Woe is me." I am trying to communicate what it's like to live in a downward trend.

I'm sure there will always be some sort of photo industry but I'm equally sure it won't be nearly as much fun. Or profitable.

Sean Staples said...

As one of those enthusiasts you speak of, who got into photography when it was digital, you're right, there is no appreciation for the print. I never thought it was important, until I tried it a little bit. I have to say, I like sharing my images in digital, but the feedback and appreciation I get from printed images is so much more gratifying.

Your comments about your son noticing the Coke bottles really says something to me. As consumers we've become willing to wait in line with a single check out open, rather than pay a few bucks extra to have a few more clerks working. And of course, those few bucks we save go towards that shiny new digital camera...

Tofuphotography said...

I'm in northern Vietnam right now. Young Vietnamese men with full format Canons and big lenses using them as point and shoots, flaunting their wealth. Wonderful for Canon and wonderful for me, as it makes me and my camera largely invisible. In Malaysia last week I saw lots of 4/3 rds cameras but they don't seem to have made it here yet. If Asia keeps growing in prosperity there will be a big market for decent cameras for a long time to come. The other thing I saw in Malaysia that stunned me was young men using their IPADS to take photos and video clips. Saw it several times. Looked really strange and awkward but they seemed happy doing it.

BenMorgan said...

But you're lamenting the future of the business of photography not of photography as a medium.

The net - and cheap digital cameras - have meant that more people are taking more pics that are being seen by more people than has ever been possible before. Some of that output is fantastic, and some of it is perhaps less so. But that was always the case.

It's true that I don't look at as many prints as I once did (but then it was the only medium) but I now look at immeasurably more images from a far greater number of photographers than I ever did. For example, I love seeing your walk around shots from Austin. From an Australian viewpoint, it's interesting to see what the streets look like, the shops, the cars (loved that Impala), the people, the light. It may be hard for you to imagine that some of the most mundane things that you take for granted are very interesting to a foreign viewer. I also enjoy seeing what you're doing with the V1 camera. Not because I'm a gearhead, I'm not interested in buying one, but I'm very interested in the images you make with it. I would probably not have had access to your work just a few years ago - now I can see it all the time (which is your point, I know).

This is a very exciting time for photography. When in the history of photography has it been possible to see photographs taken by millions of people from all over the world on a daily basis? It is, if anything, overwhelming, but never gloomy.

Of course, if your concern is how to make money out of all this, then, yes, I take your point.

Low Budget Dave said...

I think your analysis is spot on. Here is a quick list of other careers that won't work unless you have a huge new twist:
- Travel Agent
- Encyclopedia Salesman
- Telephone Lineman
- TV Repairman

Sad to say, but the list goes on and on. Are there still travel agents? Sure.

But not as many as there used to be.

RobW said...

Kirk,

I mean this in the nicest possible way, but you're starting to sound like a curmudgeon. But I suppose that's partly why we all find you so endearing.

kirk tuck said...

Ben, I wouldn't couch it as a very exciting time for photography I would rather say it's become more accessible to many, many more people who can share much more easily. I don't think the rapid expansion has done anything to improve the art. If anything it's driving the really committed, long term documentarians out, and we lose the long term, intensive, immersive exploration of their subjects and replace it with colorful landscapes, big, bright smiles, hectares and hectares of banal landscapes and the like.

While a rising tide might lift all boats, more bacteria in the petri dish just eat more, faster. I know that people should feel free to do anything they want with their time. But part time anything lacks the vision and commitment, to my mind, of a full time anything.

Then there's always the opposite argument, that Wallace Stevens was only able to write his great poetry because he had a full time job as an insurance executive. That's a good thing. Professional poets seem less financially secure that freelance photographers.

And finally, while there is the selfish motive of wanting to continue to prosper doing what I love I'm also disparaging the homogenization of all the imagery. And since it's all so available it's almost impossible to prevent.

BenMorgan said...

Francis Ford Coppola said, about 30 years ago, that the availability of cheap video cameras would mean that all the undiscovered geniuses who were excluded from film making by the prohibitive costs of feature film production would be able to make their masterpieces. He spoke of all the "Mozarts" who would finally be able to give expression to their vision.

Funny huh? He was both right and wrong. Developments in video did enable people to make wonderful videos they could not otherwise have made. But, as you say, the availability of cheap video has not advanced cinematic art one jot. Everyone has access to pen and paper but very few can write like Tolstoy or Dickens, or draw like Ingres or Da Vinci. That has nothing to do with the pencil or paper.

That was my point about your lament over the changes in photography. You were sounding like the blacksmith being robbed of his livelihood by the motor car. But in that analogy photography is not the horse and buggy it's the motor car. Digital photography is a relatively new technology which has developed hugely in the last 10 - 15 years. So have computers. I'm looking forward to a future of vastly higher resolution displays with much better colour reproduction and dynamic range. And better cameras and images to feed those displays.

All I meant was that this is a period of expansion not decline. The technology is throwing up possibilities that will highlight why good photographers are essential. That doesn't mean they wont be underpaid, but, as you point out, at least they'll be better off than the poets.

kirk tuck said...

Ben, nice touché.

Anonymous said...

New photography career?

Watch Nova "Mystery of a Masterpiece."

Rusty said...

I'm back from a holiday on Maui, tourist central. Took a bus tour. Exactly on DSLR on the bus and not mine. Most were photographing with a cell phone. 'nuff said

Chuck Collins UK said...
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Goff said...

I plead guilty as charged.
I was never a commercial photographer, but I was a professional photographer in that I used it at a high level for my scientific research. 35mm, 70mm, 16mm movie at normal and very high speed. Lots.

But now I am retired and have time and money to indulge my photographic tastes. I do it end-to-end, including big exhibition prints on my own Epson. I am not in it for the money, but to give pleasure to family, friends and local traders and restaurant owners who like to have my big prints on their walls. No payment, but usually some kind of thank you. There is a large unsaturated demand for this kind of exhibition quality print. But the customers would never thnk of buying one at a gallery or commissioning one from a commercial photographer.

I accept that this is undermining one section of the market for commercial photographers (I prefer to use the word commercial, because I still consider myself professional).

As you rightly say, the world of commercial photography is changing. I told my son to think of something else when he expressed a desire to become a wedding and events photographer for money.

Keep up the flow of brilliant essays

Goff

Marten said...

Alas I feel I must agree with you and you have put succinctly what were, on my part, confused feelings about the future for professional photographers. I Have found that nearly all the old avenues og getting new business have now dried up! It almost feels like starting again!

NickUK said...

You're right again Kirk. You've just articulated superbly what I've been thinking for some time. Chuck's sentiments sadly are entirely Panglossian. Don't let the messenger shooters get you down Kirk!

kirk tuck said...

Chuck's post, telling me I'm just a depressing asshole looking for some security in my dotage got trashed. If you only want happy, happy, happy all the time and you can't handle a little dose of truth you'll be much happy-happier reading one of the ever-jubilant gear based blogs. I'm sure we'll have something all Pollyanna and pretty for you in no time.

No sense getting your pretty knickers in a twist.

Anonymous said...
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Andy Paterson said...

I've been a commercial photographer for over 20 years and just yesterday I had a phone call from the manageress of a real estate company. I'd never spoken to her before. "Would you be interested in training all of our staff to take better photos of the properties we sell." Then to sweeten the deal: "It's not as if you would be losing any photography work because we never use professional photographers anyway." I declined her offer.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the comment that life in the U.S. today has slid down the aesthetic scale to a level of cheap utility. This is a quirk in the American mind that is not nearly as prevalent in other cultures.

Many Americans today -- anyway, those with money to spend -- have a very crude sense of aesthetics. Even their "fine art" tends to be highly decorative in nature. I suppose you could say all those still lifes of fruit that decorated Dutch living rooms were no great thing either, although they were well done. But, some of the most popular artists today are Thomas Kinkaid for painting, and, for example, Peter Lik for photography. He makes millions per year selling rather nicely executed but to my eye very "decorative" landscapes. I think the main interest among shoppers of large landscapes today is whether the colors match the carpet and sofa. Seriously.

John said...

Not too surprising that this post ignited a fire. Kirk, you have a knack for instigating with the insecure. ;)

Although I suspect the trends of fine art related business markets differs immensely from city to city, in my own home town of Baltimore the scene has taken on a vibe very much reminiscent of bohemian France in 1899/1900. The traditional markets of photography suffer in exactly the ways you describe, with wedding photography dominated by young women who just got a D3100 kit for Christmas and advertisement, real estate and other contract photography jobs handled by the very people who run those businesses themselves. Those traditional markets effectively no longer exist. What we have in town now is the successful business of pandering to mass narcissism.

What with the advent of social media and people who are hopelessly egocentric thinking every little minute detail of their lives is worth sharing, from which lot at the mall they parked at to how long they spent on the toilet, the younger generation is alarmingly willing to spill some mighty dough on a unique and stylized portrait for no other purpose than to serve as their profile picture on Facebook. It seems sad, and if looking at it from the angle of the underlying motivator behind the business, yeah, it's tremendously sad and possibly even a mite depraved, but holy hell is it good business to prey on peoples' desires to draw attention to themselves. And since the generation of these customers tends to be of a younger one, they're just a ton of fun to work with.

It seems utterly foolish, but at least here in Charm City, we've narrowed the future of the business of photography down to the facilitation of self adoration. May not necessarily be able to live off of it exclusively, but it's a solid bankable skill and breathes some fun back into the skill's application.

kirk tuck said...

John, thanks for some clever insight. Good to know. Pandering now a marketing tool. I'm not proud, we'll use it.

Trevorb said...

I often wonder if wedding photography will be replaced by a 4K camera where someone just picks stills off the video. But I really think there is a different approach to photography then videographer. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. I pity the man that will watch an entire 12hr wedding day and pick stills off of the video.
I am that new generation you speak of. Bought my first DSLR about 4 years ago and have been shooting weddings for the last two years. I am making more than I could have imagined but still not enough to quite my day job, though I am close. I agree, my photos are very similar to other wedding photographers and they lack uniqueness in my opinion, perhaps I will find my “style” in another eight years. At first, I bombarded my mind with other wedding photographer’s images to “learn” but now I keep asking myself did I create this image or is a copy of something I saw in the past. So now I really try not to look at other wedding photographers work that often but I am sure it has changed what my “style” could have been.

Philip Ho said...

Well, I won't lie. That was depressing, but very honest.

I can, from a personal point, vouch that it is true that in some ways the expansion of photography has allowed amateurs like me to suck out the impact of the individual image.

After all, if you take a look around on Facebook, you're gonna see a lot of the same thing over and over again. People's pets, Sunsets, Food, Parties, etc. And the repetition kind of kills it.

And I know how good it feels to have friends come and say they like your photos. I've been putting up an album every day for weeks. Pumping out photo after photo.

And I don't generally do pets, or sunsets, or parties, but still.

It feels great, but now, sometimes, when I'm on the street, and I'm about to take a picture there's a small part of me that asks if any of my friends would be interested in what I'm about to photograph.

And that pisses me off.

But I'd still like to think that somewhere, somehow there are still are, and will continue to be sound and available means for professional photographers to earn a decent living. Those who have found those means have probably just been smart enough to keep it secret from the masses of amateurs who will spoil it from them.

I appreciate the honesty, no matter how gloomy it might be.

And I'm also going to take down all my photos from Facebook, first thing tomorrow morning.

Geir said...

Come on, this is just the old song sung by the disillusioned losing sight of their muse. People are enjoying photography and experiencing the joy of mattering thing. The problem is that what they experience is not unique anymore, and they are squeezing the one time masters into a corner, where they sit and grumble why everyone else is able to do what they themselves were able to.
If it's a problem, stop looking at everyone else, and concentrate on your own work.
Grumbling never did anyone good.

Anonymous said...

Geir, this is hardly a new topic for Kirk and I think it nicely balances all the super happy, super bullshit upbeat stuff we hear all the time from the rest of the industry. Bourne, Jarvis, Huff, etc. A little balance is very good for people. Might not be fun for Tuck but at least he's writing his own thoughts instead of just echoing someone else's platitudes.

Anonymous said...

It's a troublesome change for sure, and the rat race of the digital gear is a pain more than a gain...and I have used the digital stuff for nearly 20 years.

But...I am actually doing well in commercial and editorial work and even better in fine art. After the crash of 08, I knew it took 5-7 years off of our "Pro-runway" in terms of the photo world crashing, so far, that is dead on. So I quickly eliminated all forms of debt, invested in key business niche attributes such as medium format film gear, incredible darkroom equipment and tons of film, paper and chemistry. I also really thought about what I want the next 20 years of my career to look like which is both the same and yet very different than the first 22. I have two major clients that thus far, have increased the work they give me, I do not market like Chase Jarvis or act as a puppet for gear like Joe McNally, I do my thing, I keep my work OFF of the web...all word of moth man.

Yes, you have to adapt, have realistic expectations and be frugal in going forward, but if photography is your life, you HAVE to keep rolling with changes.

In 5 years, I hope to not be doing anything like the rest of the world, because after 35 years of seeing through a camera, I am just getting warmed up and have never been more positive and forward thinking about my future behind the lens.

But that's the way I think..

Bruce Bordner said...

Wait - so people aren't willing to pay for technique - you just noticed this? The 99% are interested almost exclusively in content (my family, cute cat).

Photography is evolving much like how "word processing" became such a big and then little deal in the 70s-80s. Now look - any clown can self-publish to the entire world and look Totally Professional too. Such a disaster for Typists...

The solution is the same as always - get something interesting in front of the lens. Getting the best possible version of it is mainly to satisfy yourself. If someone else appreciates it, then you've brightened their day.

Making money with it... well, some bloggers manage - but only the interesting ones. [NB - I can be optimistic because I am retired]

kirk tuck said...

Such a disaster for really good writers too.

kirk tuck said...

Can we back off the rhetoric of "close the shop and look for something else to do." ? It's getting a little pedantic. And it presumes that I know nothing about business, investing, real estate values in west Austin, publishing and market consultation. That's a whole lot of presumption.

My intention was to take a realistic view of the whole market (not MY market) and offer observations. If you read to the end you'll see a call to re-invent the market.

Who in their right minds can think I meant that we should continue to reward mediocre practitioners for using outdated practices?

It's career advice. And it ends by saying the the industry will go forward but in a different way. One that's yet to be invented.

Finally, If I wanted to be in a different business I sure would be. I like this one just fine. And by "this one" I mean photography, not bloggery.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post as Anon this time around, but I'll be thrashed for sure if I don't. I am presently mentoring some 30 yr old youngsters that want to learn to shoot commercial. You said

"Shoots that require really good lighting and really good technique. And, of course, books that talk about the same."

Well the notion that they need to do it better than anyone else out there does not seem to sink in. Not one iota. I have tried to send one of them to David Hobby's Strobist blog to learn to build a g'damn gridspot no less that a half dozen times. It's like p&ssing in the wind. I send resources weekly that go unread. I structure assignments that make you think - they want to know where to find the magic button on the camera menu.

I'm not one of the workshop hounds you mention, and I only take students by personal referral. This bunch may just send me over the edge.

So I'm going to crack open a cold one and unbox my new micro 4/3 camera that just arrived. I saw the handwriting on the wall about 3 years ago. And as far as my unread lessons, well, maybe there's a book in there somewhere. Good luck on yours. I will buy because I like your style.

Brilliant post, thanks for that.

John said...

As with a similar post a month or so ago, I am a professional photographer, 40 years old, and I just don't see these things happening!

I think the market has shifted and continues to shift, but it remains strong. I think the days of getting paid to put on a dog and pony show to justify high rates are gone for sure.

I think people need to focus on providing a value proposition, not necessarily THE BEST. Many clients don't have the time or budget for the BEST. What they might be wanting is very good with very little fuss. A more efficient process. Less production, less lighting, less artist arrogance.

Just my POV......

John

kirk tuck said...

Thanks John. Good points.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, but you're missing the real revolution in our culture.

With digital photography, everyone has become a photographer and choosing external representations of what's inside of them - their own subjectivity and uploading it all into the collective cultural psyche, choking with with noise.

There is no turning back the tide. The only alternative is to tray and give that noise articulate speech.

The value here is that with digital photography, there is a shift from passive consumption to active participation - people actively involved in constructing their own images.

People are now participating in active creation - thus vast numbers of people are becoming highly motivated to learn about the IMAGE - how it is constructed and it's impact. This presents a huge opportunity for transformation.

The society of the spectacle is changing.

A lot more is written about this here:

http://integrallife.com/member/joseph-camosy/blog/shadow-work-go-out-and-take-some-pictures?show=all

Rohan said...

An interesting post, with some well made points that are sobering, but also likely to be realistic on some levels.

In regards to your first point about wedding photographers, my mind went straight to a conversation I had with a friend last night. I'm getting married in April, and booked a photographer in October, with a base package starting at $2800.00

My friend met with her earlier this week, and in the meantime, she's gotten busy enough to be able to raise her base wedding package price by $1000.00 for this year.

Here's her website if you're interested in having a look: http://angelsmithphotography.com/

I know another shooter who regularly has wedding clients spend between $5000-$8000 on their wedding packages...and he booked 86 weddings in 2011.

While almost everybody is constantly snapping photos on their phones, in a way, this can help differentiate the talented photographers...at least sometimes.

Endless HDR Kittens, rainbows, sunsets and flowers on flickr make me sad sometimes.

That said, it's interesting to wonder what cameras will look like in 2020.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed the article and it echoes the rumblings I'm hearing in the photographic industry.

One of the biggest problems is that quality is not appreciated due to the commercial imperative of low cost and there being so much content available it becomes much harder for editors to sift through it .

A couple of years ago The Sun, the biggest selling daily in the UK changed from using the best pictures to laying out the pages and then finding similar pictures which were cheaper (but maybe not as good). Even some of the major glossy magazines seem to be unable to distinguish between good and bad pictures. This means that they are not appreciating better quality and unprepared to pay a premium for it. This in turn reduces the incentive to work harder to improve technique and get better pictures (in certain areas).

Getty has piled them high and is selling them cheap, with payments for some pictures working out under 10 pence each (13 cents). This was to build the brand value and be able to sell the company for a profit. The downside? Many photographers are getting less and less making it increasingly unattractive as a way of making a living.

This in turn leads to fewer people wanting to enter the industry so many good people will turn to some other job.

When there are many fewer with the craftsmanship to be great photographers, there will be less chance of great photographers being produced.

On the practical level it is getting harder to make a good living and with equipment getting more and more expensive, this does not help. On the other hand, how many people can offset the 'boys toys'- new cameras etc. against tax in their jobs?!

Rob Grey said...

sounds like some of the rumblings you hear in "PressPausePlay," a documentary about the impact of technology on the creative industry. have you seen it? i just finished watching it, then i read this and they're quite parallel. at least addressing the same sort of democratization through technology of the creative arts, the reduced barriers to entry, and the subsequent dilution the various markets for creative output. depressing, or exciting, depending on your point of view.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone wonder if we'll see the end of film altogether? I just recently fell in love with medium format, but am hesitant to "invest" in a decent film camera due to this somewhat sinking feeling that soon no one will make the film...

Good article - well said.

RJ said...

In the mists of time there was probably some caveman lamenting the demise of cave painting because of this new johnny-come-lately thin stuff called papyrus that everyone is banging on about these days! Enjoy it while it lasts!