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Tuesday, 12 September 2017


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I’ve never tried to make money from photography. And I’ve never made a ‟great” photograph, for that matter, although I’ve produced a few good ones. But for me, at least, and I suspect for many other hobbyists, the satisfaction comes from the practice of the craft, the sense that I’m getting better at it over time—and, as lagniappe, seeing the world a little more acutely whether or not I have a camera in my hand.

Harder when you push the wrong button (which might have been the right button) and your digital camera launches one of the seemingly billion changes to shooting, viewing, exposing, focusing, etc, and you have to spend an hour getting the darn thing back to "normal." Why I love analog cameras.

All creative endeavors are more difficult than their casual equivalents. We can all cook to a degree, but can you make proper sushi or French cuisine without working harder at it?

Smartphones are simply the latest camera for the everyman who's needs are more towards recording personal events and note-taking. Smartphones "can" be used in more creative ways, but the user has to make the conscious decision to do so. Better photographs are never automatic, even with a good smartphone.

Now, as to how to get people to pay for creative works ... no clue.

Photography may not be getting easier, but man are you right that certain aspects of operating a camera are a lot easier.

I was recently possessed by (another) bout of insanity and bought a Mamiya Universal press camera (a giant rangefinder, typically equipped with a 6x9 film back). It takes four — count 'em four — separate controls to make your next picture. You: activate the film advance release catch; wind the film advance lever twice; cock the shutter with the cocking lever; trip the shutter with the shutter release. Crazy. But fun! For now.

What may turn out to be the most pleasurable thing about buying this camera was that it led me to discover a Youtube phenomenon named Peter Elgar. He's just great fun to listen to; a living embodiment of an era now long past, yet 100X cooler than any of the young ranters trying to make a career on social media. Here's his rundown of the sister camera to mine, the Super 23:


I don't remember what teacher said this to me, but I've regurgitated it many times..."The hard part is not HOW to make the picture, but WHAT picture to make".

A Rebuttal
I agree 100% that the act of creating/capturing a “good” image remains challenging despite technological advancements that have largely eliminated the crafty, and largely irrelevant, aspects of the process. But then the deeper qualities that make for truly noteworthy, memorable images never really relied heavily of tech did they?

Separately, is it really harder to make a living in photography? Although I’ve never tried, I have my doubts about that popular belief. Yes, there’s more noise than ever. But there’s also more activity and awareness of photography than ever. Yes, traditional 20th century models for the photography vocation are melting. But new models with far more possibilities have emerged. To my eyes it seems as though it’s never been easier for someone with the right personality and a smidgen of talent to get into the pro photo world.

Look, the pinions of success in both the trade and the art of photography have not really changed with technology. If anything they’ve merely been amplified. Long-term and deep vocational success with a camera is, first and foremost, an extrovert’s game. Putting yourself in front of people, being outgoing, being the type of person people want to work with, all critical success factors. In the art world these days it’s fundamental to attend a collegiate program with well-connected faculty that can endorse and introduce you to gallerists, art directors, etc. It’s never really been about “making" a better picture. It’s always been about “presenting” an attractive package, about conceptual salesmanship.

Vivian Maier was a very talented street photographer who left behind a treasure of fabulous images. But she was an ubër nerd who would have had no more opportunity to be successful in photography in her day than she would today.

Nice analogy at the end, except I kinda feel that rather than panning in some creek in California, the ease and instancy of digital photography today is akin to panning for those same golden flecks at the widest part of the Mississippi river. It can be overwhelming and exhausting...

The innocent times of a snapshot carrying the magic of a moment almost forgotten disappeared decades ago after I embarked on the [so far]lifelong project of analyzing what makes a good photograph. Paralysis through analysis? Hardly. I can see and dismiss the junk faster and more decisively than ever.

Photography's problem is that is a medium of many uses, and none of them are 'artistic'.

There is very little functional purpose to painting, music or sculpture, but photography has many uses which can be monetised, from reportage to client services (fashion, advertising, weddings etc.).

I don't see the market for high end commercial photography dropping, but with the decline of magazines, it is more video than stills. The rest does not really require much investment any more, so it is driven down by semi-pro competition.

Art is a very small part of photography, and artists have died in poverty for centuries. You can't monetise art easily. You either need to be very lucky, or sell out to populism.

I have been to quite a few exhibitions in the last 12 months, but to be honest, there wasn't much new work to be seen. Apparently, nothing is any good if it was taken after 1960, or looks like it was taken with a Holga. It's a shame, because the new work I did see was very impressive. Curators need educating, it seems.

I think I agree with David Dyer-Bennet on this one. There is a whole lot of quite excellent photography going on today. The bar has been raised, but every technological advance has made it easier to at least surmount the technological hurdles, some that were previously very daunting.

I would like to say that in my mind "making pictures that wow the masses has never been easier or more accessible". I mean take pretty much any DSLR made in the past ten years, make an HDR in any free program (or just crank up the saturation and all the other dials), and get a 20"x30" print made online for $20. The average person will be blown away by even the most mediocre photograph if you do this. I have recently been to several small town art fairs, and like Geoff, saw tons of the gaudy HDR stuff (and this is said by somebody who likes tasteful HDR) but unfortunately no quality B&W prints. There seem to be tons of art show photographers who think that taking a blah picture and printing it huge will turn said picture into a masterpiece.

I am curious about your opinion though, Mike (and everybody else). Do you feel like these photographers are creating the art they want to create, or just selling what they think people want to buy?

Hi Mike,
I'm really enjoying the conversation around this topic. (Thanks, esp. to Ken Tanaka.)

I like this bit:
"Maybe more so, because you could argue that great photographs are beside the point for most happy snappers today—they're doing something fundamentally different. Like texting, but with pictures. Those kinds of pictures don't have to be "great" to be just fine."

I had a lot of fun taking pictures during the eclipse because I knew that there were a million happy snappers, as well as a few hundred thousand ambitious photographers busily taking pictures of it. So I didn't have to. Instead, I set up a technically very very flawed system* so my kids could safely see what a partial eclipse looked like. The best photo was technically the worst. It was taken by my daughter with an ipad, of me showing my other daughter what the sun looked like on my camera's LCD screen. But is was clear as any snapshot would hope to be, showing the expressions and gestures of myself and my family, with the eclipse clearly visible on the screen.

Thanks to modern era photography, I can have my technically crappy, artistically unambitious photographs, and I'm really, really, happy with them.

*a 28-300 Sears brand push-pull zoom on a Nikon 2x teleconverter, stopped down to f/22, which with the teleconverter, was an effective f/45, attached to a tilt-adapter (because it was the only one with a tripod mount), on a Gx7, so an effective 1200mm, when I was holding it in place while taking the picture. It clearly resolved the dirt on the back of the teleconverter and the sensor. A fun bonus was the tiny, dim, but very sharp images of the partial eclipse in each of the flare reflections produced by the many many air-glass surfaces.

I agree Ken Tanaka makes his point very well. To build on that, the technology change that has impacted professional photography the most has been the way the internet has removed all friction from distribution.

Strong individuals who can draw and engage and audience can reach global set of customers, and target deep niches that would never have supported a print distribution.

Build the audience, edit the story, produce the sequence, promote the work, establish distribution: it's easier than ever to do it all and less viable than ever for traditional institutions to do it for you. The same removal of friction and ease of production also means that the arbiters of 'good enough' are now the customers themselves (this came up in your post on professional portraiture Mike), and not the professionals they hire.

Being better is irrelevant if the customer doesn't see value in the higher quality product.

What's much easier is non-photographers getting consistently good technical results. I don't think most serious photographers appreciate how much the masses outright hated film and were simply overjoyed when it was replaced. Nobody misses that sinking feeling when opening the print envelope and realizing that your pictures "didn't come out." Although the final generation of 35mm point and shoot cameras were really pretty amazing, digital just stomped them for casual users, over a much shorter timeline than I thought possible. Just knowing that your shot "looks OK" in real time is an overwhelming advantage for anybody who doesn't think of making pictures as a vital part of their life. Add to that the insanely powerful DSP tricks of smartphone cameras and instant networking of images and you've got Snapshooter Heaven™.

One thing to remember about really good cell-phone photographers is that they don't really exist -- although really good cell phone shots do. The reason for that is simple: millions of photos are taken every day, the Internet acts as an editor, and a few of those photos float to the top. They often are superb, and are taken by people who will never again take a superb photo. They are the product of number, rather than intention. Like the old saw sez, If you have an infinite number of chimps banging on an infinite number of typewriters, one of them will eventually produce the works of Shakespeare...But that's not what serious photographers, professional or amateur, do at all. They are people of intention, who are looking for superb shots. They may get a dozen in a lifetime, or three dozen, but those are not accidents.

The more things change, the more they become the same, or same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was, ...

I don't see much difference between a 1950s film Nikon F and a digital Canon 5D3, when the 5D3 is set on Manual. For me, my paying work was always shot on manual, with a hand-held light-meter. YMMV.

Thirty years ago my son shot for his high school newspaper. He used a Canon Rebel film camera. It worked great with everything from a kit-zoom to a f/2.8 300mm with a 2x extender. Set it to P (for professional) and you got the same quality as you'd get from a present-day digital Rebel, but on wet prints instead of inkjet prints.

What technology has done is to leave hobbyist photographers using older, but still impressive, technology on their latest whiz-bang DSLR/ILC. With the lions-share of R&D money going into camera phones, the technology-gap will widen in the future.

I agree with DDB, that non-technical artists are now more likely to stick around. I mean, we've all met some talented artist who's just not a techhead, haven't we?

In the same vein, I'm impatiently waiting for the day when the same thing happens to music. The day will come that anyone can hook up a machine to their head and have the machine "read" the music being created in people's minds, with no need to know actual music writing or play an instrument. That will be an exciting day, and I can't wait to hear the terrible and beautiful music that gets created.

I'll also make some popcorn and sit down to read the endtimes complaints and curses from musicians and music critics. Technology has democratised writing and photography, and with 3D printing, maybe sculpture to a small degree; music is next. I just hope it happens in my lifetime.

I also think the bar has been raised and lowered at the same time.
Lowered because creating a technically "correct" photo is now possible for anyone with a smartphone. Raised because the "art" in photography has become a commodity causing it to be difficult for others to present their work as a great just because it has good bokeh, or sharpness, or even content and composition.
Perhaps we will need to move from documentary photography to art to make a difference.
This will need a lot of ingenuity and software to be developed to move us from where we are today, but will open up new vistas. (Excuse the pun)

For years I was amused by the old joke "the difference between painters and photographers is that painters never talk about brushes." Then one day I was sitting around at an SF convention with a number of the artists, and realized they were talking about brushes.

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