Thinking about gear made me think about gear.

Amy.  Brought to you by Phase One.

I got some interesting mail when after I wrote my last two columns.  Those screeds were essentially essays to myself, telling me to stop wasting time and money and get out and work on the work instead of working on the toys.  One person wrote to tell me that I was a dilettante who just played with cheap cameras and didn't "get" the allure and the technical virtuosity of cameras like the Nikon D3x or any of the other full frame cameras.  I certainly can't argue about being a dilettante;  I'm not nearly as committed to the real craft of photography as I should be.  If I were I'd be rushing into the darkroom to use the last of the real technology before the art of photography dissolves completely into a totally subjective romp through the imaginary Disney Land of digital where anything from a snap made on a phone to still frame from a video camera counts as big art... (that should get us some mail...).

But I did take umbrage from the assertion that I didn't know "shit" about bigger, better cameras than the micro four thirds, "baby" cameras I'm "always going on and on about."  I did have another life before I started this blog and in that particular life (three years ago)  I spent some quality time playing around (all dilettante-style) with three different, at the time, state of the art, medium format digital cameras.  Leaf, Phase One and Mamiya all sent me their cameras and asked me, "pretty please!!!" to use them for a few months and then, maybe, write a review for one of the photo magazines I haphazardly wrote for back then.  The Leaf AFi7 was a bit unwieldy, but workable.  They sent it along with a 180mm f2.8 Schneider lens that made me almost cry when it came time to box up and send it back.  In the days when 12 megapixels was about the max for my then Nikon System the 40 megapixels on the Leaf sensor was a technical revelation.  

But the camera I liked playing with the most, and the one I held onto the longest, was the Phase One with the 40+ back and two really fun lenses.  The lens I liked best (naturally) was the 75-150mm zoom. What a treat for a portrait photographer.  

I spent many happy days blowing up the files really big.  But when it came right down to it I just couldn't justify the price tags.  Had they come during a different point in our economic timeline I confess that I would have tried to rationalize the Phase One.  It just flat out worked.  Well,  if I'm going to be totally honest, the two different batteries (which died in opposite cycles from each other) drove me a bit crazy but I guess that's a "first world" complaint.

I made big prints.  I looked at every pixel.  I shot the cameras with flash, daylight, tungsten, florescent and even some early LED fixtures.  And I could see a difference.  Not a $45,000 difference but a difference.  But I'm getting off track.  My real point was that I have played with bigger cameras and that, in fact, helps energize my enthusiasm for the smaller cameras.  Being able to do 90%  (with the pixie cameras) of what I was able to do with ultimate cameras is a profound thing.  An amazing thing.  And I appreciate the engineering we can buy these days for so much less money.

Amy with coffee.  All is right with the Universe.

But this was my "take away" from the year of shooting big:  If I do my technique really well, and I'm not making a print very big, then most people, myself included, really won't see the difference between a $1,000 camera and a $30,000 camera with a $8,000 lens.  Under perfect circumstances?  Printed really large?  Best Technique.  Yes, the big camera files will technically look better every time.  But in real life?  Naw.  Having a camera with a stout battery, menus you know forward and backward and enough pixels to make a nice 12 by 18 inch print is really a very sweet spot on the whole continuum.  

Big bucks.  Little screen. 

Would I snap up one of the Phase One systems if it cost less than an old 2003 Honda Element?  I'd probably do that trade.  But it's like every other camera system.  No matter how good it is today someone will come out with a system to trump it in a year.  Learning to use any camera well never gets obsoleted.  People have warned me several different ways:  "Never drive a car that's faster than the one you have."  "Never work on a computer that's faster than one you can afford."  

And it's like every other camera system in the world in that, if you have nothing particularly interesting to say, the images don't look particularly interesting.  And while high quality is nice, it's not art.

Even those who loudly proclaim to care nothing about gear (sneer implied) stopped to ask me about the bad boy hanging off the front of the Mamiya camera. Tech Chick Magnet (TCM).

Finally,  I was reading through a forum post  in which an insane person wrote about the need for there to be a mirror-less full frame camera from the micro four thirds companies.  Huh?  That's like Tesla cranking out a diesel Hummer.  But the argument was soon joined and, at one point a "professional" photographer stepped in to say that having the full frame was "crucial" in order to maintain "credibility" with clients and stock agencies.  I think that instead of eviscerating his logic I'll just let that whole concept hang in the air...

Hope you're having a great week.  Let us know if you decided to run out and pick up a medium format digital camera system.  The whiskers on a cat will never be sharper.

erratic bonus:  Great video by someone I don't know:  http://vimeo.com/34813864

How to shoot far more interesting photographs...

(consumer camera.  consumer lens.  continuous light.)

The only way to shoot more interesting photographs is to become a more interesting person.

And, how do you do that?

Listen more, talk less.

Travel more.

Eat stuff you never tried before.

Go some place scary.

Make friends with people who are smarter than you.

Make friends with people who are actors, artist and musicians.

Change your habits.

Read more novels.

Read more poems.  (Try Billy Collins...or Wallace Stevens.)

Go to museums. Look at the art.

Go to  art galleries.

Go to a mosque.  Go to a church or go to a synagog.  Go to a house of worship that's not your current brand.  

Learn new stuff from your kids.

Pick a place that's one tank of gas away and go there.

Go on a life threatening adventure.

Spend a month on a cargo ship.  Or a fishing boat.

Take naps in the middle of the day and stay up all night.

Try your hand at abstract painting.

Date your wife.  Or husband.

Change political parties for a while.

Put down your cameras until you really learn how to tell interesting stories.

Become a more interesting person and you'll take more interesting photographs.  Really.


Irrational purchases versus marketing strength.

(postcard mailer)


(new camera of the moment)

Or this....

A piazza in Rome.
Street shooting in Rome.

I love cameras as much as the next guy. Maybe even more. But, at some point the mania of researching, buying, testing, trading and selling off cameras, and then wading through the next generation of offerings seems...over the top.  This isn't really me talking, it's my book on Commercial Photography.  I re-read it last night after having coffee with a pragmatic gentleman yesterday who mentioned the book.  

I get that it took a number of years and a number of tries for camera makers to get digital cameras back to the same level of working transparency that they'd achieved decades ago in film cameras.  Up until the time of the Canon 5D2 and the Nikon D3 we could easily rationalize that we "needed" to upgrade our camera to take advantage of the curve that was still grasping for true "holistic" usability in our professional tools.  But boy did we sacrifice some hard earned money, time and mental rigor.

Around 2009 all of the pieces were firmly in place.  Any of the top cameras on the market that year are totally satisfactory for the function of creating great images and mastering the needs of the mainstream commercial marketplace.  My Olympus EP2 was a perfect camera for the leisurely hobby of shooting fun stuff while on a walk or road trip.  And it still is.

My Canon 5Dmk2 is a perfected working tool for what I need to do to keep my clients happy.  In fact, the 1DS mk2 from 2004 was just about there as well.  When you think about it, just about every camera with delusions of professional competency made since 2008 or 2009 is probably better, overall, than us operators.  And in point of hard fact most professional assignments are usually done either on a stout tripod (at a reasonably low ISO) or in complicity with electronic flash or other supplemental lighting (also at a reasonably low ISO) and can be handled with a wide range of cameras and lenses.  Including (when stopped down) most recent zoom lenses.

What's fueling the race to make every camera full frame?  What's the cattle prod that keeps the herd begging for higher and higher pixel counts?  And what's the new fascination with the new "rangefinder" styled cameras.....that are anything but?  Desire and marketing?

It's fun to buy new cameras but even I have limits.  I was drooling over the Fuji X pro camera shown on Michael Johnston's blog and all over the web when my inner business guy (deeply repressed during most camera buying escapades) emerged, beating me about the head and shoulders with a rolled up copy of my own business book.  

He had a couple of questions.  But first he looked around the studio and started counting cameras and lenses and lights and gadgets.  He was still counting an hour later when I came back from lunch.... and then he turned on me like a spreadsheet badger and demanded to know what the hell I was thinking.

"I see enough cameras to re-brick a wall." He shouted. "But I don't see any new promotional mailers.  I don't see a revised contact list.  I don't see any work being done on adding to the e-mail lists.  Where the hell is the new portfolio of people we've been talking about, ad nauseum?  And why am I stepping over three or four different camera systems here?  Are you fucking nuts?  Or did you just win the lottery?"

(My inner business guy can really get in my face...)

But he had a point.  And I could see it pretty clearly.  And so can my bank account.  

"Hey, Photo-Punk."  My inner business guy taunted.  "Let me give you a quick lesson on asset allocation."  I slunk down in my chair and got ready for the lecture I knew I deserved...

He began:  "I see you have the Canon 1DX on order already.  Pretty sweet.  But dude (he calls me that when he's really pissed...) we're talking seven large  ($7,000) for that one camera body.  And how often, when making one of your executive photos or your product shots of electronic toys do you actually need like, 10 frames per second?  Or more throughput? (said with a vicious sneer...)  What you really need are more new clients and more return visits from old clients and, guess what?  They like the gear  you're shooting with right now just fine."

I reached for my cup of coffee and he slapped my hand with a ruler, hard.  Then he looked at the Starbucks label and just shook his head.  "We'll deal with that money leak in another conversation..."

Back to business:  "For the same $7,000 you could finance a coherent, effective direct mail campaign to every art buyer and worthwhile art director in Texas.  One thousand postcards, printed, would run you around $200.  One thousand stamps for said will run you another $430.  A little more elbow grease and a little less time haunting the Photo Equipment Porno sites and you'd have your mailing list in good shape.  Throw some cash at a good graphic designer and for less than $1,000 you can reach a pretty well defined list of potential, check writing clients.  And you could do that seven times in one year for the price of that one camera body!!!!!"   He was screaming and foaming at the mouth by this point...

"If you get a handful of new clients from just that advertising it would return a zillion times more cash to your pocket than a camera that you'll be convinced is obsolete by the time the next big photo trade show rolls around."  (Then he muttered something unflattering under his breath.  Very much a hard nosed business guy....not a marketing guy.  A marketing guy can insult you and smile at the same time.)

I decided to stand up for my inner artist.  I said that I needed the tools that would make my inner artist happy.  That was the argument I trotted out.  Bad move.

"Your inner-f-ing artist????  You gotta be kidding me.  That guy was happy shooting on the streets with an old Hasselblad, a used lens and a pocket full of slow film.  I haven't seen anything from these profit vampire digital cameras that looks any better.  And do you know why?  Because you keep spending all your money on toys.  Back when a camera would last you longer than indigestion you could put money aside for travel and adventure.  Remember travel and adventure?  A hell of a lot more fun to do, and write about, than the buttons on the lastest f-ing point and shoot cameras.  Wouldn't you agree?"

I looked back down at my shoes and tried to remember the last time I got on an airplane and left town to shoot art for myself.....

"Let's take that same $7,000 and see what you could do if you were smart enough to use if for a trip.  Shall we?"  

"Hey look!   Here on Expedia.  You could get a round trip ticket and ten nights at a decent hotel in Tokyo for less than $2,800 bucks.  But wait, don't you have a friend with an extra room in Paris?  And a couple million frequent flier miles?  So all you'd have to pay for is.....film?  No, not even that?  Just food?  And you're standing around your office, getting older and slower and looking at dinky ass digital cameras?  Just grab one out of the drawer, throw a couple of lenses in a bag and get your sad butt in gear.  What the hell are you waiting for?  Or take the $7,000 and go to Rome for a month.  Maybe you could even write a book about it.  Where's your old penchant for blue sky?  Have you turned into a photo pussy?"

He was right.  Where was my inner business guy as we got all wrapped up in the digital marketplace?  Now that we've got cameras that are more or less as transparent as the film cameras they replaced what was my excuse to buy more?  Was it the habit we got into as we feverishly tried to master early digital?  Or was it just resistance and the thinly disguised belief that we "techie" photographers have that the newest camera is like a magic talisman that will give us power over our competitors?  According to my inner business guy the only real magic is the work you do on your marketing to clients.

Everything else is just addiction to the "new car smell."

1DX order cancelled. Passport renewed.  Cards in process. How's that for a kick in the ass for the New Year?


My positive and upbeat assessment of the potential for every creative business.

So here we are in the second week of the new year and I'm finally ready to write something upbeat and happy.  2012 will be the year we have resurgent fun with photography.  I can feel it in my bones.  It's the Photographer Spring. But here's the deal:  Success, markets and everything tied to them will be different than ever before and they will be exactly the same.

Hunh?  Yep. All the "hype" surrounding social marketing, SEO and magic beans 3.0 will deflate like a tired little balloon and the marketing will once again mean, "I met him.  I know him.  I like him.  I trust him. I like his work."  I'm not saying that all the little digital add-ons don't have their place.  All of them work in some way to drive people to our websites but real, face to face, social interaction is the spark in the spark plugs.  It's the juice that makes the creative process work.  Every photographer who wants to work in 2012 needs to do two things:  Get your portfolio in shape.  And,  Get out the door and meet people.

I have some suggestions for people made "homebound" by the recession.  Get out of the house.  Get out of the studio. Head to your favorite coffee shop.  Take a small, easy to handle portfolio and show it to anyone who is interested.  Invite your favorite creatives out for a happy hour.  Pick up a round.  Call one new person a week.  You'll meet 52 potential clients in a year.  Call five people a week and you'll meet 250 new contacts this year.  If you're not busy working then the calling is the work and the meeting is the pay off.

Next up.  Prove it. If your work is more creative than everyone in your market you're halfway there. The proof is in the sale.  If you can't sell the work it may be the most creative thing around but far less valuable to clients than good, solid work that fills a niche or a need.  This is a business and we constantly have to find out what our potential clients need.  It's not enough to shoot stuff just cause you like it. You also have to sell it.

If you live in a second tier market filled with industrial manufacturers the web will misguide you.  What resonates on the web are beautiful images of young women like the one above.  And you may sell one or two usages to the local dermatologists but if your market is all about manufacturing and not about fashion and leisure you might want to think about going after the ripe, still hanging fruit:  Industrial images.  Make that the most creative stuff around and you'll likely have a fuller calendar. And a contact file of people who constantly need new, high quality work.

The web seduces us with the idea that everything happens on the web.  But my recent clients repudiate a lot of that.  Even in the tech space lots of time and money goes into the creation of large point of purchase posters, tradeshow banners, capabilities and sales brochures, annual reports and yes, print ads.  The trend in web-o-graphy might be iPhones and smaller mirrorless cameras but what that new sensibility means is that traditional, large sensor cameras become elevated into a different space.  The bottom of the market may be in full retreat but the high to top of the market seems to be recovering and looking to make up for lost time.

Three or four of my most recent jobs are along the lines of what I would call "emergency re-do's."  Either the original photography was attempted in-house or it was jobbed out to a freelancer based on low price.  In each case the client needed images that could be printed very large and maintain very high quality.  Large operations centers needed lighting and perspective control.  Products needed exacting lighting and edge to edge sharpness at high resolution.  And, finally, all three projects' images had to be be capable of working in large print sizes.  None of these parameters had been met.  

In a very real sense,  the skills and mastery of tools that propelled our businesses, pre-web mania, are the same ones that clients seem to be re-visiting now, in an age where so many tools and techniques have been downsized.

An interesting and related success story.  I have a friend who shoots architecture.  He is the busiest working photographer I know, locally.  In the last two years his competitors pushed the market.  Their prices dropped and they stopped doing interesting lighting. Budget was the critical metric.  They jumped into the whole "HDR-chitecture" style of washing interiors with flat light from umbrella-ed flash and then working the images over in HDR to minimize both shadows and highlight burnout.  It's a quick way to bounce through an architecture job but it quickly tends to make work that all looks alike.  And it's almost impossible to create a personal style or make an artful and individual interpretation of a designer's work.

Nearly everyone in the market (including my friend) used either Canon 5Dmk2's or Canon 1Ds mk3's with the 17mm and 24mm shift lenses as their "go to" optics.  My friend decided to go in a different direction and bought a Hasselblad H4D camera, a shift assemble and a raft of Hasselblad and Schneider lenses.  Coupled with cases of Dedolights (small, highly controllable spot lights) the camera and his style make an incredibly powerful statement, not only about his work, but also about his success in the market.  The camera brings his vision to market in a way that no one (clients or competitors) can easily match.  Architects can readily see a quality difference in the work and are drawn to it in spite of his higher fees.  In essence, he's recreated his market.  And in doing so he'll recreate the statewide market because he extended the relative curve up instead of down.  He's booked solidly all over the country, two months out.

This will be the year that we go back and prove to clients just how good we can be.  And just how good we are.  And that means heading out the door and proving it.  Not just talking about it on the web.
My friend can walk into a prospective client's office and unroll a 30x40 inch print with detail and tone that goes on forever and forever.  He can't do that on his website.  There you can get a whiff, a hint of what's on the menu.  But when the entrĂ©e is right in front of you then you can taste the difference.  

I'm excited about marketing this year.  I've stuffed my Kindle Fire with photo galleries of my best work.  It's a great platform to share over breakfasts and lunches.  I'm biting the bullet for an iPad because it's probably the right tool for quick multi-person meetings and agency presentations.  And I'm upgrading the work in my 12 by 18 inch print portfolio because it's a great closer in meetings when I'm in the running for a fun project.  But each of these marketing tools requires direct client contact.

The "low hanging fruit" in the photography business may be gone but the people who bring their own stepladders will always have an advantage over the people who are content to stand on the ground and wait for the winds of change to knock something out of the trees for them.  


An embarrassment of riches. So much, so soon.

Kirk's predictions from last week: 

"Canon will see the writing on the wall and come at the mirrorless market in two directions.  First they'll pump up their G family and add cameras in the $600+ market that are akin to the Fuji X10.  Bigger and quieter sensors, more in cameras processing and an ability to go toe to toe, in good light, with everyone's entry level APS-C cameras and m4:3rds cameras."

What I like about the new camera:  The big, fat sensor.

The two things that will kill the appeal of the G1x for me:  f5.8 at the long end of the zoom.  The same crappy style .80X optical viewfinder.  With an EVF it would have had a chance....
And from Fuji....

"8.  The current year will become known as the amazing year of prime lenses!  The m4:3rds market got off to a rough start when the only option for lenses was a handful of tame, mid-focal length zooms with apertures that started at 3.5 and quickly rushed to 5.6.  Couple a smaller sensor, increased depth of field and increased high ISO noise with a crippled optic and it's hard to make the whole package an easy sell.  Then one lens turned around the whole space.  Panasonic launched the brilliant 20mm 1.7 pancake lens for the format and sales started soaring.  The best implementation of this lens is on the Pen EP-3.  The camera provides really good image stabilization while the lens gives back high sharpness at an aperture almost guaranteed to ameliorate the need to go to nose bleed ISO's to capture everyday images.  And, did I mention the high sharpness wide open?

It didn't take the manufacturers long to learn the lesson and now, Alpha-Blogger, Michael Johnston, has named the recently launched 45mm f1.8 Olympus Pen
 lens as his "lens of the year."  It's fast.  It's sharp.  It's cute and cuddly.  And it works on more than one camera system.  If Olympus have fatally shot themselves in their own foot the lens will work just as well on the Panasonic m4:3 camera offerings.  (See points 5 and 6 above.  These cameras may be all you need).  Hurray for open systems.  This time....

The 45mm was followed by an amazing 12mm (24mm equivalent) and, in the Panasonic camp, a Leica branded 25mm f1.4 that's gotten the kinds of lens reviews usually offered only for the most elite and expensive of optics.  In fact, the one review I recently read was extremely boring.  It basically said:  "Sharp and perfect across the frame, wide open and stopped down.  No weaknesses that we could see."

How popular is the use of prime lenses on the mirrorless cameras (including Sony's, Olympus and Panasonic)???? Leica is currently in an extreme backorder situation with nearly all of their "M" optics, and since M9 camera sales haven't followed the same curve it only stands to reason that those lenses are ending up on something.  That something seems to be inexpensive mirrorless cameras.  Great sensors coupled with exhilarating optics in small packages.  Isn't that what the great documentary photographers always wanted?"

My take on the Fuji? :  The new Leica.  The Leica for this generation.  All primes all the time.  This camera is then next step from film cameras like the Contax G2.  If they fixed the little gotcha's from the X100 operation controls this camera is destined to be the "go to" camera for pro's who don't do sports. (PWDDS).  Can you say "fast maximum apertures."?  That with a great sensor might just be the holy grail of the street shooting, take anywhere, walk about (not "photowalk") camera.  It would also make a great travel camera.


So, after seeing all the new stuff, and after having a GH2 for a week, which one am I going to run out and buy?  None of the above.  I'm liking this 4:3rds stuff and my next purchase will probably be one of these.  

Small, nice EVF, nice form factor, great price, great sensor, really good higher ISO performance.  And did I mention "great price."?  If I buy anything at all it's bound to be more lenses.  But for which system...?

Just a quick update as I looked around the web today.  

By the way, since we're all way too focused on the smaller cameras lately, has anyone checked out what uber-flash master, David Hobby, is up to lately? Camera-wise?  Yep.  He plunked down for a medium format digital machine.  Mamiya with a Phase One back and a light smattering of lenses.   I look forward to hearing more:  http://strobist.blogspot.com/2012/01/bailing-on-nikon-d4.html  Check out how good he is at rationalizing stuff...


Take Bodhi Bike Downtown. Take Pictures. Drink Coffee. Eat Pizza. Come Home.

Nikon V1 with 30-110mm lens.   Loved the lipstick on the Nissan Leaf Demo person.  She was happy to pose for a close up.
Nikon V1 with 30-110mm.  Face Detection AF.  A face to go with the lips.

Same Camera information.  Context.

Same Camera Info.  The weather was mild today.  2nd Street was busier than I've ever seen it during a Sunday afternoon.

Every side walk table was filled and the crowd was buzzing.

What's not to like about Eggs Benedict and mimosas?

The Barrista at Caffe Medici was very patient and very busy.

It was the Congress Ave. location.  The cappuccino was perfect.
The in-lense IS was doing a great job at 1/15th of a second.

Caffe Medici patron catches me snapping a candid.  Auto everything.

I think the Nikon V1 does really nice skin tones.  Right out of the camera.  And I think the 30-110mm lens is sweet.  

Cups at the ready.  Nice focus on the second cup.  Right where I wanted it.

Yes.  The Nikon V1 with the 30-110mm will do nice close up photos.  This is one of those grills on the front of a ticket booth.  I photograph it when I walk by.  I'm waiting for it to change into something else.

I like urban art and I like hot dogs.  This is on the side of "Frank's."  It's a downtown restaurant that specializes in hot dogs.  And it's really good.

V1 does signage.

It was a short trip downtown.  I liked seeing a lot of other people riding their bikes around in the middle of the winter.

I didn't have much in the way of photographic intentions when I hoped on my ultra-hip Bodhi Bike (electric and human powered, two wheeled transportation) and blazed through the steep hills west of the city and down through the park.  I was coming up to the railroad tracks that run perpendicular to Lamar Blvd. between Cesar Chavez and Second Street when I ran into my photographer friend, Andy.  He was out walking with his small cameras and we decided to walk through downtown together.  

I parked the bike in the parking garage at Whole Foods and we headed out.   Five minutes later we ran into another mutual photographer friend, Frank, and altogether we wandered into downtown.  Frank was using his Olympus EP3 and alternating between his 12mm lens and the 45mm 1.8.  Andy was using two EPL1 cameras outfitted with a 20mm Panasonic 1.7 and the 45mm 1.8 Pen lens.  I was the odd man out with my Nikon V1 and the 30-110mm lens.  

We ended up at my favorite coffee bar, Caffe Medici, and renewed our caffeine dosages.  We ventured over to the traveling, Nissan Leaf, demonstration near Frank's Hot Dog restaurant and then wound our way back to Sixth and Lamar.  It was a cool, grey day with a really nice energy to it.  We split up and I made my way back to Whole Foods for a slice of pizza and a glass of water.  Then the bike ride back through the hills.

Didn't get much done today but it was so much fun to get out, see friends and relax.  I'll try to do something constructive tomorrow.  But fun counts just fine in my book.

An aside:  I wrote column for TOP yesterday.  It got comments.  One comment was from a person writing from India who, essentially, took me to task for not making a definiitive choice between the Nikon V1, the Olympus Pen EP3 and the Panasonic GH2.  He could not see why a professional photographer would ever need to own more than two cameras, total.  He suggested that even one camera would be a month's worth of wages.  I forget sometimes how privileged we are and how culturally contextual writing can be.  

I'll fix it in post.

1000 bulb LED light at a good price.

I bought one of these for $400 from Amazon over a year ago when I started writing my book on LED Lighting for Photographers.  I use it all the time for still life and beautiful black and white portraits in the studio.  I was amazed to find them today, on Amazon, for a bit over $200.  I ordered another one for myself.  I'm not saying this light is for everyone.  It's big and heavy (all metal).  But if you wanted to stick a toe into the LED "waters" it sure wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Update:  Ordered the light on Sunday.  Eligible for "super saver" shipping.  Shipped today.  Will be here on Weds.  Just in time for a corporate shoot on Thurs.  Way to go, big "A".


Is the age of "professional photographer" over?

More people are taking more photos than ever before and it's a wonderful time to be a photographer.  It may even be a wonderful time to sell pictures occasionally and to make a little side money but I think we're seeing the passing of the "Professional Photographer" (in caps) as a profession in the same way typesetters vanished from the face of the earth within ten years of desktop publishing hitting the marketplace.  Same with traditional labs.  In the old days typesetting required skill and taste and equipment.  But it cost money to do it right.  We paid the money (in the ad agency days) because that was the way it was done and that was the cost of doing business.

But when Pagemaker and QuarkExpress hit the market it became possible (mandatory, from a cost point of view...) for art directors and graphic designers to do their own typesetting.  While early versions of the desktop graphic design programs lacked the ultra fine control, and the massive number of fonts traditional typesetters offered, the programs offered something that accountants couldn't resist:  The Idea of Free,  and they offered something a generation becoming fascinated with computers couldn't resist:  The Idea of Personal Control over the whole process.  While there are tiny exceptions the vast majority of professional typesetters and typesetting services are gone.  Not transformed, just gone.  We don't have a group who "upped their game" and made a viable argument for the value proposition of the very best typesetting in the world we just don't have any typesetters.

While more and more photos are being taken, as a percentage, far fewer are being taken by professional photographers than ever before.  And that includes images being used in ad campaigns and in  the general course of commerce.  Wedding photographers have seen a radical decline just in the last two years in total sales and revenue.  And it's not a question of not seeing the future.  Professional photographers don't know how to make money doing what they have done in the past in the future they do see.  Everyone who needs a photo for one use or another is stepping up with their own camera (or phone) and taking their best shot.  PhotoShop and it's lite cousins are the Pagemakers and Quarkexpresses that are driving the total market adaptation.  Time and budget are relentlessly driving the market for images.

Why did I start thinking about this?  It was the news that Kodak might be filing bankruptcy that started me down this tortured thought trail.  If the company that invented digital photography can't figure out how to survive in the age of digital photography what hope can there be for the professional photographers?  Yes, we're more agile and able to change quickly, but we're doing what all the devolving industries have done when confronted with their decline,  we move into other related fields, each of which is probably also in decline.  A great example is video production.  

When the 5D mk2 hit the market, and Vincent Laforet did his video Reverie, it struck a match of hope in the hearts of photographers looking for a secondary income stream.  How simple.  We would all become video artists.  But in the last two years so much programming has moved to YouTube and the numbers in the professional side of that industry are, if anything, worse than those confronting the majority of working photographers.  Some photographers have starting offering web design but that market is flooded as well.  

I've heard the chorus before.  It goes like this:  "Up your game and the world is your oyster."  But the reality is that, for most, even the perfect game isn't going to compete against free, or almost free. And it's not enough to compete against the concept of "good enough."  With tens of billions of images available at the fingertips of people who used to have to assign work, and pay real money for it, the odds are that perfect isn't going to be in the budget again for a long, long time.

Kodak was, for me, the symbol of photography as I knew it.  And the guys at Kodak weren't and aren't dumb.  They are/were some of the best and brightest.  They just didn't plan on the market shifting at the speed of light.  They didn't anticipate that disruption would occur faster than T-Max 3200.  And we, as professional photographers, are now standing where Kodak stood before the Toons dropped the safe or the grand piano on their heads  (Who Killed Rodger Rabbit reference).  Will we be able to do a better job of creating an alternative universe for ourselves?  It remains to be seen. 

I think the markets will continue as they progressively wind their way away from traditional assignment work.  Photographers will transition as designers have.  In order to stay in the middle class they'll need to diversify into video, digital presentation, writing, web publishing and more stuff that we haven't even invented yet. We'll likely become "content providers" working in concert with designers and agencies. Designers work with type, work with graphic elements, shoot their own source materials when necessary, design for the web and print and outdoor and for mobile apps.  Would they prefer to concentrate on pure design?  Sure.  But they also like to eat, pay the rent and buy stuff.  

Our industry will make a similar transition.  We just haven't figured out the whole roadmap yet.  And the people who don't want to learn to swim (all four strokes)  will be left behind, clinging to a fragment of the battered haul from a ship that's sinking quickly into the deep, cold waters of incessant progress.

Ian Summers summed it all up best with his motto:  "Grow or Die."

The only reality check I can offer is that Professional Photography is a much, much bigger and more diverse industry than Typesetting ever was.  And there are, of course, segments that will keep holding on even as most of the formerly profitable market is destroyed.  To make an analogy to video, while people are shooting their own webcasts with small digital cameras, or the cameras in their laptops, they don't want to give up the quality of professional camera and video work they see on broadcast NFL football games.  That level of work still takes a lot of skill and experience.  But a quick training video or "how to" video for in-house use?  Forget it.  Parts of the industry will go on.  But large swaths of what we always considered "the bread and butter" will not.  Not in the same way.  And without foundational work there's no real chance the majority will make it being photographers, exclusively.

Do I write this because I am angry or cranky?  No, I write this as an honest opinion.  It's as inevitable as the waves on the beach.  How can we battle  it?  We can't.  We can sort through our options and figure out our futures but we have to recognize that things changed quicker than anyone thought and, that old models are breaking down.  My business used to be completely devoted to assignment photography.  Last year a large percentage of our income was from publishing royalties.  Another segment came from several video projects.   Another part of the pie came from web marketing.  And some money even flew into the coffers as a result of teaching at workshops and seminars.  I may be a curmudgeon but I'm embracing change as quickly as I can.  Wanna buy a Visual Science Lab T-shirt?  

I hope Kodak makes it. Not because I believe they must for nostalgic reasons but because it would validate my thoughts that we can, as an industry,  retool and we can re-engage our markets (and new markets) in different ways.  

This essay is aimed solely at the people in the audience who make a living from taking photographs.  If you don't fall in this category you are either luckier or less lucky than we are.  If you get beyond the idea that the people at Kodak are not intelligent and you can understand that they were at the mercy of the data they had at hand you'll likely do a better job with your re-invention.  It starts now.