Almost a year ago I wrote a piece called, "The Graying of Traditional Photography." It has been one of the most read articles I have ever written and along with lots of page views came lots of comments from photographers who insisted that nothing has changed, that big, DSLR cameras would continue to sell to "serious" photographers in record numbers and that I just didn't get the market. Well, I'll admit one thing, I underestimated just how quickly the market for traditional cameras, and the penchant for making traditional photographs, would erode.
I am convinced that the market moves like huge schools of fish. The vast majority of the market travels together in a tight pack and when the direction of the pack or school changes it does so almost instantly and dramatically. It's not like market acceptance that follows a certain curve. In embracing new products or new product categories there are early adopters who live to discover the next cool thing. Then there's the group of cool kids who start the buying process. They are followed by the bulk of the market and trailed by late adopters who are careful and good at resisting change.
But what we're seeing in photography right now is not really the adoption of a new standard or product. People are not just moving from one type of camera to another they are moving to a new mental space about personal imaging and they have just done it en masse.
The market for traditional, stand alone, cameras started to fall off a cliff last Fall and the evisceration of the market has just continually accelerated. I contend that this precipitous drop is NOT because the market for cameras as "one purpose" appliances is saturated but because it is being abandoned by an overwhelming number of the (non professional) buying public. They have met their phones and they are now in committed relationships with their phones.
It's not that new cameras aren't filled with great features it's just that they only do one thing. They just take photographs. With your Samsung or Apple smartphone you can shoot stills, switch to video, send and receive images, check the weather, call your boyfriend, get a stock quote, pay for your coffee, shoot amazing slow motion videos, call your mom, group text your friends, watch a movie or read a book. Once you take a photo you can share it instantly, post process it right on the spot and directly upload it to Instagram or another of the thousands of sharing sites spread across the internet.
Here's my anecdotal evidence supporting my contention that the bulk of people are no longer interested in buying stand alone cameras or pursuing "serious" (non-social) photography anymore: Every year the City of Austin holds a festival on east Sixth Street. It's called the Pecan Street Festival. There are blocks and blocks of tents and booths selling arts, crafts and crap. More turkey legs and gorditas and assorted fried food than you can imagine. And, of course, this section of Sixth Street is famous for it's concentration of bars and night clubs. It's the long time center of the day to day Austin music scene. It draws a huge crowd. I drop by most years to enjoy the weird crowd vibe.
In the last five or six years the photographers who descended on the festival nearly outnumbered the regular audience. Everyone had a Canon Rebel or a the equivalent Nikon. When Strobist flash craze hit its peak nearly every other photographer had at least one flash in their arsenal and a friend to hold it far off camera. Collectively the photographers worked the crowds like tuna fishermen with huge nets. It was not uncommon to meet up later at a favorite coffee shop to compare greatest (photo) hits from earlier in the day. Many times the same subject would come up over and over again. The musician wearing a fake wolf head, the dog in the guitar case, the enormous woman shoveling funnel cakes into her mouth, the guy with the big sombrero.
In the two years previous to this one the video craze hit full blast and every fourth or fifth photographer was now accompanied by a "sound man" who held a microphone on a boom and they waded through the crowd looking for people to interview and performers who would perform for the cameras. Every festival downtown looked like a media event.
That brings us to yesterday. Same festival, new year. The weather was great with temperatures in the low eighties and the humidity mild. The Austin economy continues to be robust. The festival attracted a huge audience. So what was missing? Well, the traditional cameras. And the mirror less cameras. And the high end, cult, point and shoot cameras. In the two hours that I walked through the same eight or so blocks filled with people I saw, at most, five people with cameras. Of the five four were well over fifty years old. The fifth was a father with a young family. He had the camera strapped across his chest and his focus was on his kids.
Of course I am not making any statement to the effect that all of a sudden ALL photography dried up and went away but I will contend that the vast, overwhelming majority of images taken throughout the event were selfies or groupies taken with cellphones. The "school" of casual photographers followed the pilot fish and turned on a dime. And now they've headed in a different direction.
Am I full of crap? You could get all scientific and ask for statistics from the camera industry. Thom Hogan posts numbers from CIPA and other industry sources all the time. What do they say? They clearly say that sales of single purpose cameras (traditional cameras of all kinds) are falling and have fallen over the edge of a steep cliff and they continue to decline. There may be a few bright spots in the numbers but mostly these bright spots are occurring at the high end of the market and not at the lower end or the middle. Leica sales are up! All point and shoot sales (with the exception of Leica) haven fallen so far that it's shocking. And it's not just that camera sales are down (or views on major photo sites have dropped) my day to day experience is that people are no longer carrying their conventional cameras with them as everyday tools. Non-phone cameras are drying up in the living urban landscape
My feeling is that photography in it's traditional form, when practiced as a hobby, has changed permanently. The emphasis is now (for the masses) on recording the experiential high points in everyday lives. The snap of your lunch. The snap of you and your bestie shopping. The snap of just about any event you happen to live through, from concerts to minor surgery. The difference between this kind of imaging and the work we did before is that it's the sharing that matters and not the actual form. Content? Yes. Rules of thirds and high dynamic ranges? Not so much. The vast majority of imaging is no longer even shared on computer screens it's consumed on phones. On small screens, in various locations. The photo is no longer an artifact or a historical residue it has now become, fully, an instant consumable. Each person seems to be creating their own personal, day by day advertising campaign----for themselves.
So where does that leave all of us who love the idea of creating a lasting visual artifact. A piece of art that can stand alone away from the commentary of its original creator? I'm going to say that your guess is probably as good as mine.
But I will echo something I've been hearing from people who are on the business side of photography: the market for paid assignments is starting to improve and budgets are starting to improve. The overall market for imaging content seems to be regressing to its normal state. The huge success of digital imaging in popular culture in the last decade created a boom in the industry, the likes of which we hadn't seen since the easy-to-use SLR started showing up in every college student's backpack in the early 1970's. Everyone wanted to be a National Geographic photographer until they saw the movie, "Blow Up." and once they saw the movie the real desire was to be a fashion photographer. Photo programs at colleges and high schools blossomed, no ERUPTED at the time and the professionals of the day felt the press of endless new entrants to the market. But eventually the novelty wore off and the reality of the work sunk in.
I think we have just gone through a similar period in which everyone was amazed to find that the new cameras took away a huge chunk of the technical impediments to doing sellable photography. With the ease of photography increasing at the same time the overall financial markets devastated the jobs market for a whole generation of college students many who couldn't find jobs tried to make a go of various freelance oriented professions. Since photography (on its surface) didn't seem to require a proficiency in either math or writing it was a natural for people with a low portfolio of general skills to at least try.
At the same time beleaguered companies who could have benefitted from original, branded imagery got scared and fell back on an ever cheapening collection of stock images. At one point in the not too distant past it seemed as though photography as a career would disappear, except in the most specialized niches.
But we seem to be in the middle of a course correction. Clients who need inventive product images that require good lighting understand the value. Clients who need great shots of their people have come back to request expertise in lighting, posing and getting the right expression. And a generation of people have found that they much prefer a steady paycheck to the wild gyrations of being self-employed in an arts field.
I think there is a sense of some sadness amongst those of us who liked being part of a global love affair with photography in that the core audience for our images is shrinking and changing. The love fest on Flickr and other share sites is less effusive and feverish. The loss of a massive audience also means that product introductions are slowing to a crawl from our traditional camera makers (see the recent Photokina...) and that has an effect on a nascent industry built on the breathless anticipation of the next technical breakthrough. It almost feels like someone let the air out of a balloon...
Me? I'm still just working. I'm reminding clients of how much expertise my company has in providing lighting for still and video imaging. I'm reminding decades loyal clients of how at ease we help make their people feel during portrait sessions. I am reminding agencies of the skill sets we've developed to do larger production shoots with many moving parts. And I am showing new clients who are making a first time move from "good enough" cellphone imaging providers fun things like just how much difference a tripod makes on an architectural shot. How much sharper and better an image can be when you use the right lens, etc. We're also showing them that we can give them repeatable results and that a cohesive look is critical in effective branding.
So, is the decline of popular popularity of photography a worrisome thing? No, not really. The general population now uses imaging as a kind of language. That's the nature of the kinds of working images they want and use in their personal lives. It's a living language. As professionals we do something different. We translate creative concepts into two dimensional images. In video we don't just show how things look we create visual narratives that tell a complete story.
Where does that leave me as a hobbyist? Actually, it feels nice to have a hobby, love, appreciation, desire for a field that is undergoing diminishing popularity. The flood of endless stuff seem to have slowed down. If we speak a different language than the other 99% of image makers (mass culture) then there's more signal and less noise in the marketplace for our vision.
It's a sea of constant change and I won't pretend that I understand it better than anyone else but so much of what's been done in the last decade was really about the creation of a new visual language that the man and woman in the street could speak fluently and own. It's been assimilated. But that doesn't mean that other art forms in photography can no longer exist. The cameras that people cut their digital teeth on were predicated on the last century idea that images would be printed, large. The reality is that they are shared, small. That's another reason for the shift in cameras and camera sales.
It doesn't mean there is NO market for a Nikon D810 or an OMD it's just that the people who need and want those cameras are speaking a different language from the majority of users who are happy to share on a five inch screen. Nothing wrong with that.
What happens when the "gold rush" is over? Um. We get back to living our lives and adjusting to the new realities in the market place.
An editorial note: I've discontinued my use of Facebook and Twitter. If you've used those platforms to communicate with me in the past you might just want to e-mail me. Otherwise, leave a comment. Everything changes! Thanks.