On the State of Photography

The Players

Birmingham Street Scene Processed with Silver Efex Pro

This is an image I shot this weekend in Birmingham which has been processed using Silver Efex Pro, part of the Nik Collection of photo editing tools.

A few years ago, the Nik Collection would have cost $500. Now Google’s giving it all away. Google bought Nik, a German software developer, in 2012 (for an undisclosed sum) and within 6 months reduced the price to $149. In the giveaway announcement on 24th March Google said it was continuing to “focus our long-term investments in building incredible photo editing tools for mobile.” Although Google doesn’t say this outright, it sounds like the desktop Nik Collection is no longer in development. So, good news if you want a powerful photo editing package for free but not so good if you expect any further updates or bug fixes. So is this another case of a large company, whose key business is not photography, swamping the market with something cheap/free and making it hard for those companies who have legitimate and quality products to compete? Where does leave the state of photography in 2016 and beyond?

The photographer and blogger Ming Thein recently posted on his blog this entry questioning the business of photography today by looking at all participants in the field including the manufactures, photographers, bloggers and software vendors. Thein’s concern is that apart from a few notable exceptions nearly all parts of the sector are facing tough competition as well as nose diving prices and having to rely on other means of income to make a living (e.g. photographers doing workshops, bloggers taking on advertising etc). He concludes by saying “photography as a whole needs a massive systemic change in innovation and education to value content at a wider level”.

If all you want out of your photography is ever decreasing prices and the ability to acquire new bits of kit and sundry supporting software and hardware gadgets then announcements like that from Google would seem to be driving, if not a systemic change then certainly a lot of disruption. However where is the end game going to be in this and what actually matters here, the acquisition of more ‘gear’ or the creation of images?

I would argue that photography is actually going through a systemic change (or more precisely disruption) and that innovation (in technology) and education are sadly not going to help people value content. The vast majority of people do not care whether a photograph is good or not. They are just skim viewing whether it be in a magazine or, far more likely, on the web. Some images will catch their eye and they may pause a little longer but most just disappear from their consciousness in milliseconds. There is a far smaller community (e.g. photographers, art-lovers, curators etc) who do value quality however they are not enough to sustain the industry as a whole.

Looking at photographers themselves the only ones who seem to actually make money out of photography are those who shoot weddings or those experimenting with new approaches (e.g. drones, hybrid video/stills photography etc). The new status quo is an age of plenty where 99.99% of images are probably rubbish but who cares because 0.01% or 0.001% or even 0.0001% actually still amounts to a very large number. As of the time of writing this sentence for example 40, 987,121 images had been uploaded to Instagram today.

In the pre-digital and internet age we had fewer photographers in greater demand who were able to invest their time in learning how to create great shots. Now we have lots of people who, even though inexperienced/untalented etc, will occasionally create a great image. Does that matter? Clearly it does if you are trying to earn a living from being a photographer but maybe the new norm is the more democratised model we are moving towards? The challenge of course if how to sort the wheat from the chaff and find the 0.01%. Here is where some innovation could be used. Better artificial intelligence algorithms that recognise a “good” image are surely not far off which means we will no longer need to rely on the useless tagging of images. Also, the adoption of a good micro-payments system (possibly using the blockchain model) so that people do get compensation, not enough to make a living from but enough to at least motivate them to invest in improving their images.

So, not very rosy if you want to make a living out of this game but not entirely bleak for photography as a whole.

Oh and by the way, that’s 42,586,321 images uploaded today on Instagram!

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