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....