Photography is easier than ever. I truly believe that. It's always been a very technical craft, but there was always something mysterious and magical about the process back when a much smaller portion of the world's population could claim any type of fluency in it.
Am I saying that photography no longer requires a mastery of critical, relevant skills? Not at all. Let me be clear: I am not saying being a good photographer is easy. You still have to understand light, subject, composition, posing, color theory etc. And of course, none of that matters anyway if you don't develop the imagination to conceptualize an original image.
But it is easier than ever to learn how to take awesome photos, and it's cheaper than ever to make mistakes along the way.
In fact, the whole world is drifting into a new frontier where technical competency will cease to be a barrier in a variety of skills and disciplines. Everything from websites to game design can come to life in these drag and drop formats that take the "the boring" stuff out of the equation. Yes there are still those nuances and customizable variables that separate the masters, but how much longer until they too become easier to play with for the masses?
I don't say that lightly. It's a hard pill to swallow, especially for someone like me who fights every day to justify his rates as a professional. But it's the truth.
Youtube university has obliterated the need for any type of formal photography education. The internet is full of free and paid content (though still cheaper than traditional classes) that can teach you all the technical skills you'll need about any genre. In a matter of months, you can master the essentials, and with minimal (relatively speaking) financial investment, you can be on your way. All that's left is practice.
Today's entry-level and "prosumer" cameras (Fuji XT-20, Sony A6300, Panasonic G7, Sony A7iiii Etc.) often have the same sensors and features as their more expensive premium options. Heck, Sony's eye-tracking makes it so I can literally shoot with my eyes closed and get my subject in focus every-time.
Today's raw files retain so much data that I often feel like I am "cheating" When I shoot with my A7riii. You can screw up your exposures and compositions pretty badly and still be forgiven (saved) in Photoshop.
And let's not forget the fact that the cameras in our phones are getting better by the generation (A topic that warrants further elaboration for another day). That is no joke. I mean for chrissake the Samsung Galaxy S9 has dual-pixel autofocus! Even the tech we might currently find gimmicky and flawed ( such as the portrait modes in iPhones) will eventually become legitimate, competent tools for producing pro results in the palm of your hand. I used to think the "machines" couldn't emulate the nuances of studio lighting but foolishly hadn't considered that the algorithms would.
People are already shooting feature films and magazine covers with their phones. And you may whine about how " it's still not as good as a real camera," but clearly the people commissioning the work (writing the checks) feel differently.
And of course at the rate that camera tech is accelerating, who knows what'll be out there 5 years from now? Forget TTL, we now have flashes that can decide where to bounce light for you. And just wait until this and this becomes mass produced at the consumer level, and their respective software becomes better and more accessible. Just wait until you can select your focus point in post.
The other day I witnessed an Instagram story from Dani Diamond where he shared a final photo that looked like the typical end result of his beautiful retouching workflow. Except he used one of Instagram's random filters. That's right, once the maligned poster-child for everything that was wrong with photography, even filters are now starting to become more sophisticated.
Photography's Drop in Perceived Value:
So why go through such detailed trouble to state the obvious?
It's to drill in the point that "making a good photo" has ceased to be special. The bar for what makes a great photo today is much higher than it was when, say, Ansel Adams was revolutionizing landscape photography with his large-format prints. In fact, and at the risk of sounding like a "hot take," I'd argue that by today's standards, his images wouldn't really stand out because there would be (there are) tens of thousands of black and white, high-resolution images of American landscapes taken by photographers who own 40 megapixel cameras, use Google Earth, and understand dodging and burning in Photoshop.
I don't write this to be disrespectful in any way to the legacy of a man whose accomplishments can swallow me whole. I was only using him as one of many examples of this natural progression.
It's the same story in a variety of disciplines. For example, we don't think twice about it when comparing eras in professional sports. Jerry West is long considered a top 5 shooting guard in basketball history. He is literally the NBA's "logo."
But that recognition is within the context of his time. He would probably struggle in today's game. Advancements in training, player development, practice, and nutrition have produced bigger, faster, stronger, more athletic and better-skilled players than his era ever had. There are guys riding the bench right now who would probably be all-stars if they played in the 60s. Does that mean his accomplishments mean less? No, because he was still great among his peers.
The same is true with photography. I am in constant awe at the sheer volume of super-talented photographers currently posting great work. And every day more "professional" photographers are releasing more workshops and more educational content that teaches and encourages more people to pick up and learn the craft. Good photographers are multiplying like rabbits.
Of course, taking great pictures is only a fraction of what it takes to make a living as a photographer. You have to have a knack for business development and sales. And you need to be able to cultivate and maintain relationships with the right people (clients, agencies, make-up artists etc.). Even if humanity keeps populating the planet with good photographers, it doesn't necessarily mean they're making a living at it. In fact, I can promise you that many "Instafamous" photographers have probably never sent an invoice for their work.
But just because they're not working pros, doesn't mean this evolution isn't relevant to your business. When something is a commodity, how much can you expect to earn? How much is someone willing to pay for photos they feel don't look much different than what they or their nephew can take themselves with an entry-level DSLR that they bought at Costco....or an iPhone?
This very scenario has been a rich source of laughter in the past for photographers. I myself have told people straight up "I can't wait to see the results," on the occasions that my clients have tried pulling that crap on me. I get it. It's insulting when you work so hard at developing your skills as a professional and some guy with a camera feels it's easy enough for him to do. You'd never tell Gordon Ramsay you can outcook him just because you own his same brand of kitchen knives and took his Master Class.
However, as the general public continues to develop their photography skills and overall visual literacy, it is definitely possible that certain types of photography might become so accessible that people might consider it worth doing themselves in much the same way I use Squarespace to design my own website despite having no coding skills whatsoever. Yes, I understand that paying a great web-designer can yield a much better site, but at the end of the day, I just need something polished, pretty, and functional, and the same goes for many patrons of photography as well.
Of course, this scenario will impact some genres more than others. Commercial photography that requires massive efforts in compositing will probably still always be done by real pros... at least until someone develops an algorithm. And there will always be those who desire the type of nuances that only specialists can offer. But as I said before, how long before those "nuances" become general and accessible? That interior designer or pastry chef who might currently hire a professional photographer to create images for his/her branding might one day realize that it is entirely possible to do it themselves and achieve pretty damn good results.
As photographers, we're often hired to solve problems. The client is thinking " I need an image that looks like X. This is way beyond my skill. I need to hire a professional." But what happens when that problem evolves into something the client is capable of doing but would rather not do themselves." When the client asks him/herself " I can probably do it myself. I know how. But how much is it worth it for me to not have to do it?" In other words, when it is an issue of saving time versus a lack of skill. That type of shift can/will transform the way photography is valued, and not for the better. It's the difference between changing my own oil (something I can do but would rather not deal with) versus, replacing a transmission. Which one demands more value?
Or even worse, what happens when the technology is so streamlined and efficient, that someone just needs to come up with an idea, and send it down to their in-house tech who can modify an algorithm to get it done or make it entirely in some new, affordable, CGI software with world-class features (by our current standards)? Admittedly, this doomsday scenario is further down the line, but Moore's law might think differently. And as someone who shoots architecture for a living, don't think I haven't noticed just how realistic renderings are these days.
How to fight back...
I won't embarrass myself by claiming to have all the answers, or that even the ones I have are the right ones. But it is a question that keeps my mind occupied during moments of reflection.
I believe that if you want to be recognized for your work, you're going to have to constantly raise the bar. If everyone's photos are great, yours have to be captivating. They have to compel people to pump the brakes on their fingers as they're scrolling and swiping through a timeline or newsfeed.
How do you do that? I believe the answer to that question can be found in the basics: Subject. What/who are you shooting and why? It has to be about more than the photography.
I believe there are two elements to a captivating, "engagement friendly "photo these days
- Something unique: This is pretty simple. Shoot something/someone that nobody else or very few people have and shoot it well. Or shoot something old from a different perspective, and shoot it well. This step doesn't work if your execution isn't up to snuff.
- Shoot something that represents a greater theme or idea. It should be an image that says something, whether it's political, emotional or thought-provoking in some way. If you want the perfect example, then look no further than Benjamin "Von" Wong, who frequently combines multi-disciplined mastery of photography and engineering to create the perfect recipe for viral images. His shoots are spectacles more than anything, and often the process of taking the photo is just as interesting as the photo itself. But they always have a higher educational, introspective purpose. In his case, environmental issues are close to his heart, so they frequently highlight some facet of humanity that's harming the environment such as his very recent work involving recycled electronics.
With that in mind, I think it'll be more important than ever for photographers to invest in personal work. Shooting for yourself will force you to consider the above-mentioned elements. It will give you all the creative flexibility you can ask for. And it will provide the foundation to create something that will plant the seeds for a very valuable resource in today's world: a second look.
Beautiful lighting isn't enough when anyone can sandwich a model between a beauty dish and a reflector and make a clamshell. Any dumb-dumb can take underexposed- backlit photos of pretty girls in glasses at golden-hour, and then beat the pulp out of the raws in Lightroom until it looks like every other piece of muted-tone, "vintage" hipster porn currently on Instagram. Just add a dash of VSCO and a pinch of artificial grain. Heck, you can pay to take the same "majestic" shot of Antelope Canyon that Peter Lik managed to sell (swindle) for six million dollars. They'll even throw the sand in the air for your to get those light leaks. How many burning sunsets at Horseshoe Bend have you seen on Instagram/Flickr/ 500px? I bet if you lined them up in a grid, their own photographers would struggle to discern one from the other.
Your vision, cause, passion or purpose should be the motivation behind your photography. Technically great photos are diluted in a marketplace inflated with outstanding work. This transition of philosophy will prevent you from posting images that look similar enough to everyone else's that they get ignored just as much.
That doesn't mean every shot you take has to be "groundbreaking." If you're making money as a portrait, wedding, headshot or real estate photographer, for example, you likely have an established style that gets you repeat business. When your business relies on volume work from clients who are paying you with their own money, consistency is important. And if it's keeping the phone ringing, I am definitely not here to shit on that. Nobody is expecting a headshot to come with a sermon on what it means to be human.
But there will soon come a time when the process of making the sausage will cease to be special. Only the creative will matter. There will be a day in photography when some $10/hr employee (or $0/hr robot-algorithm) can read a manual and complete tasks that used to take years to master.
If we as photographers are going to survive this drag and drop world, we need to inject a sense of wonder back into the craft. In a world of technicians, we have to be magicians once again.