Ben, at a swim meet a long time ago.
We're living through a period of enormous flux and change. Everything we thought to be stable and routine has been more or less turned upside down. And while photographers moan about being sidelined by progress and innovations that allow most casual users to make really good photographs with convenient tools, like iPhones, the same convenience, coupled with machine competence, changes the very nature of our business, our personal business models, and our larger culture's engagement with our craft. And, generally, not in a way that we enjoy; either financially, or from our ingrained craft perspective.
The latest news from the camera organization, CIPA, is that camera sales have once again declined, year over year. Sales of cameras slid nearly 20% in 2019 and that follows several years of nearly as dramatic contraction. It's a huge chunk of the market. To put it into clearer perspective, there are now more people around the globe living middle class existences than ever before and the population (and potential market for cameras) is growing at an ever accelerating rate.
The problem is that the cameras nearly everyone chooses today are the ones in their phones. Most people just don't see the need to step outside that product for their imaging needs and most aren't interested in becoming more knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of photography. I don't blame them, most of their uses are social sharing and family memories and the phones have provided such a frictionless and fluid way of achieving those aims. But what it means for us, inevitably, is fewer choices of new photography products in the future as well as declining production which will raise prices on the products that do sell.
In a more existential consideration, the move to the phones and to photography as a consumable (not collectible) undertaking means that we've flattened and democratized the process of photography in pretty much the same way that technology made typesetting available to everyone. Or the way the web gave everyone the opportunity to become a publisher of written content via blogs while, on the other hand, decimating traditional researched and fact checked journalism --- to the actual detriment of our entire societies. Feelings replace fact. A quick Instagram photo replaces an archival print.
I walked Studio Dog through the neighborhood with my wife this morning. We chatted about our work. She works in the art department of a large advertising agency that has, as a primary client, one of the large, international computer and cloud services company. Work for the agency is constantly moving away from print and traditional, broadcast TV, and is constantly increasing its reach into the social media realm, both in messaging and in visual content.
Some of the staff at the agency spend their days mining through online stock photo sites looking for images that align with their client's messaging and brand standards. The average purchase price for the images they find is miniscule. The reason and rationale for paying low sums of money for large numbers of photographs (and video snippets) is that the images no longer need to have any "legs" at all. No need for staying power. No long term use. The images are the equivalent of an order of French fries or a diet Coke. Or a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The images are used, placed for a few hours of prominence on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, and then they fall back into the abyss and newer, fresher ones are inserted to take their place.
What this means for commercial photographers (if we extrapolate from the business model of this one ad agency with 100+ people in Austin and thousands of people in offices around the world) is that commissioned, original photo assignments are now enough of a rarity to cause a palpable buzz through the agency offices for the days leading up to a shoot. Some of the newer, younger graphic designers have been in the business now for several years and have yet to be invited to attend a shoot. Lost to a generation is any experience with art direction in real time, or actual, commissioned art buying.
As more and more work moves from technically demanding media (broadcast TV, four color printing, printed magazines and brochures) the rationale for using big, high resolution cameras declines, and probably at the same percentage rate as we're seeing in the decline of camera sales. If an image is an anchor for an Instagram post will it really make a difference if it started life as a 100 megapixel, medium format image? Not much.
I understand that the majority of my audience here are enthusiasts and a good portion of you are retired from jobs outside the creative content industry and are pursuing photography with no risk to your income, your livelihood or your sense of self. I feel lucky to have survived and thrived through thick and thin but even I am rational enough to understand that we're heading deep into a fundamental change to the way photography works as a business, and a complete restructuring of how the next generation will get paid for creating new work.
I feel like I've done my part to buoy up the camera markets (I've bought more than my share of new, expensive cameras and lenses) even as I see the number of "real" photography assignments slowly collapsing. I could chalk it up to my age or my tenure in the market but I hear the same from photographers who are half my (venerable and wise) age. It's a real seismic shift. Intentionally or unintentionally progress has sucked much of the marrow out of the bones of the business and redeposited it into a different construct.
There is no remedy to discuss here; no prescription to "weather" this trend. If you were wise you saw this coming and marshaled your resources to either retire or transition into something else.
There is still work out there and there are still clients paying for it. But I think it would be legitimate to suggest that the traditional work that we hung out hats on is declining at about the same rate as the decline of camera sales, worldwide.
Thank goodness it's such a fun hobby, because I'd do it even if I never got paid to do it.
My suggestions? I actually have none. Except that everything we think of, negative or positive, tends to become a self fulfilling prophecy so perhaps you and I should ignore everything I've just written and forge ahead with optimism and a gleam in our collective eyes. You go first, I'll watch and make sure it's safe......