Every couple months or so, I find myself in a conversation about the state of photography. There is no doubt technology is pushing our field farther and faster than ever before, but is this technology actually killing photography?
Okay, okay, I know this topic is talked about a ton among photographers, and much of it is like Chicken Little yelling that the sky is falling. However, it is very hard to ignore some of the massive trends that are happening in the world of photography. To discuss these movements in the photography industry, I sat down with my good friend and talented photographer, Pye Jirsa, to talk about some of the trends we have both seen happening in the industry.
The interview above is a long-format, open conversation that I think is worth watching, but I’ve pulled a few of the underlying themes and written them below to open up the dialog even more. Feel free to leave your own opinions below and tell us if these concerns are real and warranted or if these changes in photography do not matter at all.
The Role of the Photographer
Perhaps the biggest change in photography, like it or not, is the actual role of the photographer. In the past, photography used to be an artistic passion with little time to worry about marketing, criticism, social reach, and connecting directly with your audience. Yes, photographers always had to be skilled at marketing their own work to potential clients and advertising agencies, but something has changed dramatically in the wake of the social media tsunami. Gone are the days where a photographer was simply one piece of a creative team who operated the camera, while the creative director and advertising agency worked hard to nail the artistic vision of the end client.
More and more often, photographers are hired for their vision, for the camera operation, for their own social reach and audience, and for their ability to manage a massive team like a circus master. It’s becoming increasingly harder and harder for a photographer to say, “I just want to create photos” without also juggling all the other responsibilities that were often passed onto other creative professionals. It seems more now than ever, for one to be a successful photographer, they will need their own massive social media reach.
This could be necessary in the commercial world, where media buyers want to cater towards a rebuilt channel (the photographer’s audience), or it could mean that a wedding photographer needs a huge following in order to be seen over the increased number of professional photographers in his or her local market. Whatever field of photography you are perusing, there is no doubt that the name of the game has changed and the stakes are much higher than ever. The big question that we need to ask ourselves is: “is this change any different than the changes photographers’ faced 30 years ago?”
The Technical Skill Set of a Photographer
Are photographers becoming less technically sound in the field of photography? This is the question that I find myself asking more and more often. There is no doubt that in the golden age of photography, the technical skills photographers had to master were enormous, from loading film, to understanding precisely how aperture, shutter, and film speed worked together to form exposure, to developing film, mastering flash photography without seeing the image, perfecting manual focus, and knowing which film stock to shoot on. Heaven forbid we even move into the darkroom or start considering compositing multiple frames of film together pre-Photoshop! From the earliest stages, photography was always a very technical art form even for those who wanted to not be very technical.
Digital photography has changed all of that. Yes, of course you can still be as technical as you want to be, but from my anecdotal experiences being deep in the industry for 15-plus years now, I feel like more photographers are less versed in the actual mechanics of photography than ever. More and more images are created solely in post-production, as in, the photo straight out of the camera isn’t that great to begin with at all. I’m a huge fan of post-production and using all the tools that Photoshop has to offer, but it feels like we’ve gotten to a point where the scales between photographer and digital artist have tipped, causing most of the imagery we see to actually be more digital art than true photography.
I need to be careful how I express this, because it’s not necessarily a bad thing; it is just a difference of approach. For me, photography was about problem-solving, How can you balance the light in this scene? Given the current situation, how can I overcome these limitations of my camera? In the past, these questions were answered by using flash, using the correct light modifier to create the perfect amount of highlights and shadows, scrimming off the natural ambient light, building a set, or waiting for the right time of day to attempt a particular shot. Today, almost all of these issues can be solved in some form or another after the fact in post-production.
It wasn’t long ago that a very famous photography blog owner complained to me about how another photographer approached photography completely incorrectly. Keep in mind, both of these photographers, whose names I won’t mention, have both inspired millions and are legends in their own right. Let’s call one a “flash” traditionalist and the other a “natural light” manipulator. The flash photographer was super upset that Fstoppers kept featuring educational articles by this natural light photographer that were technically wrong. Instead of filling the shadow side of a portrait with a reflector or a pop of flash, the natural light photographer would greatly underexpose their entire image and then dodge all the details back later in post-production. I understood the frustration of the flash photographer and the argument he was trying to make, but I also personally liked the work of the natural light photographer more than the flash photographer. Is one way better or worse? Dodging shadows by two to three stops in order to correct an exposure value is certainly a more noisy way to solve the problem, but using strobes to introduce artificial light is equally less authentic even if it produces a more “technically sound” photograph.
I tell this story only to highlight the difference approaches we as photographers can take to solve the same problem. Is one more true to the craft of photography? Does anything other than the final product matter? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Will Technology Adversely Affect the Gear We Use?
The final thing to think about in all of this involves the gear so many of us love and cherish. In all creative fields, as technology evolves, the tools we use to create our art changes. Very few people are still building businesses around the dark room. Sync cables have been replaced by radio waves. Hot incandescent lights are all but replaced by LED lights. Mirrors in our DSLRs seem to be on the way out, and I’m sure our camera’s shutter is the next element to fall to the wayside. And while all of this is happening to our physical tools of the trade, the technology processing our images is getting better and better.
Every quarter, we read articles about how Canon, Nikon, and even Sony are selling less and less DSLR cameras. Some might argue this is because mirrorless cameras are eating into the ancient technology of single lens reflex cameras, but I think something bigger is even happening. I think camera sales in general are at risk as more and more of the general population simply moves over to cell phone cameras. Of course, it will be a long time before cell phone cameras can completely replace the professional cameras we use on a daily basis, but can these camera and lens manufacturers sustain business when so many customers are “happy enough” with their cell phones? Could Nikon or Fujifilm stop making the cameras we have grown to love? What about the flash world? Could Profoto and Broncolor become the next Dynalite or Vivitar? As I mentioned in the video above, could we a see a day when software like Photoshop or Luminar allow us to create the lighting we desire directly in post-production? At what point would the needle that straddles photographer versus digital artist completely move to the side of digital artist? Could technology actually kill photography in the truest form of the word?
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I find these conversations super interesting, and I love talking with people like Pye Jirsa about it, because there is always a silver lining to be found. For both Pye and me, we aren’t 100% traditionalists who think photography should only be this technical approach to capturing light, but at the same time, we do both respect the role of a photographer to get as much of the process done in camera. I loved hearing how Pye’s views on this topic related to increasing efficiency as a photographer as well as increasing the overall customer experience for his clients. It’s easy as a photographer to get into heated debates about what true photography is, but at the end of the day, most of the general public, including your clients, does not care at all about these things. If we can find ways to enjoy life more by spending less time behind a computer while also giving our customers a better product, we should all be in favor of that evolution in photography.
Perhaps the biggest silver lining in all of this is that more people are able to enjoy the world of photography today than in the past. More people are able to make money and build careers out of photography than ever before. The imagery posted online and printed through traditional advertising avenues are better and more innovative than ever before. It’s crazy to look at the top-rated photographs in the Fstoppers community and think how many of those images would not have been created if we all had to stick to the traditional rules of photography. Rules are always meant to be broken, and waves of innovation always disrupt the status quo generation after generation. Maybe there is room to hold the virtues of traditional photography in one hand while embracing the new and innovative creativeness in the other.
What do you think? Do photographers of today need a massive following in order to get hired for the same jobs photographers before us were hired to do? Is the technical art of “getting it right in camera” a fading skill set, and if so, does it even matter? Are photography companies that produce traditional cameras, lenses, and lighting equipment facing new challenges as portable phones and software make creating amazing images easier and easier?