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February 20, 2009 / davebirss

I remember when being a Photographer used to be a career


When I first started out in the industry, I’d spend several days a month sitting in photographers’ studios. There was one I used so much that they used to keep a guitar for me to play when they were tinkering with the lights. I’d spend hours at castings, pre-production meetings, shoots and retouching. They were magical times and I remember them very fondly. But it feels like I haven’t done anything like that for years.

I know that it’s partly to do with moving into a senior role – but it’s also to do with a global change in attitude to photography.

It used to be thought of as a true craft performed by experts who instinctively understood what was going down on film. Thanks to the ubuquity of digital photography and the instant results it gives you, that’s no longer the case. The mystique is gone. The technical and mechanical knowledge is no longer an esoteric skill. The cost of shooting images is now zilch. And with all that – the perceived value of photography has dropped.

It’s the age of the keen amateur now. People are taking awesome shots and sharing them with the world. And their motivation isn’t money, it’s recognition. Most of these people are happier to get a thousand views on Flickr than a thousand quid in their pocket. And that’s obviously affected the photography industry massively.

Over the last few years it seems that more clients and agencies are wanting to just use stock imagery instead of doing a bespoke shoot. And thanks to the wonders of Photoshop, it’s simpler to spend a few quid on comping stock shots together than dropping a wad to get a photographer to capture the real thing in-camera. And things are moving in an even more frugal direction. The commoditisation of photography has led to agencies wanting even more affordable stock imagery. So we see developments like Getty’s tie up with Flickr and the rise of sites like iStockphoto and (the very ugly) Adography.

It all makes complete economic sense. And it’s just another part of the quiet seismic shift that’s been caused by digital over the last decade or so. However, like a classic case of Yin and Yang there are plusses and minuses. Yes, we’re getting images faster and cheaper. Yes, it’s handed a previously niche artform to the masses. Yes, it’s given us more choice. But at what cost?

Well, the problem with quantity is that you lose focus on quality. Like monkeys and typewriters, you’re bound to get something cool if you shoot enough shit. This is obvious on YouTube where there’s more video than you could view in 10 lifetimes but hardly anything worth watching. My concern is that we’re going to lose the craft skills that were so vital when I was an advertising youngster.

I’m a techy geek, as everyone knows, but I think we very often trust computers too much. I’ve seen it happen with typography – where people who’ve never had to work with a Letraset rub-down or a Pica-rule just assume that computers get the leading and kerning right first time. And I’ve seen it happen with writing where people can’t spell without the red, squiggly assistance of Microsoft Word. The basic truth is that if you use a calculator enough, you’ll forget how to do sums in your head. If we keep going down this road with photography, we’ll forget all those things that made it so great. We’ll devolve instead of evolve. And I fear for the loss of craft.

Am I alone here, people?


Leave a Comment
  1. pepe le pew / Feb 20 2009 3:55 pm

    Very well put birssy…so the web and technology has raped advertising?
    Or is it that we are shifting to something new yet more exciting. Maybe the money saved on long hours of shooting is put to something more valuable in the campaigns. Like strategy etc… Ive also been told by aging art directors that before they had months to come up with a big campaigns as opposed to now. But in most cases they didn’t need all that time so they fooled around for days.
    So has the client gotton wiser? Are they using technology to speed up the process ?

    I dont know but what i do know is that you should think about starting a traditional ad agency with real art direction, photo shoots abroad, type setting, big ideas, hand drawn scamps etc. Maybe some clients still strive for excellence and that could be your USP, purity.

    Im onboard with ya if you start this agency, so you are not alone my little bald friend.

    Pepe le Pew

  2. Rob-L / Feb 20 2009 4:16 pm

    I can remember when you needed technical expertise to create a web site or present anything on the web, now any monkey can do it.

  3. davebirss / Feb 20 2009 4:29 pm

    Hey Pepe (tell me who you are dammit!),

    You’re right about technology having speeded things up. It’s not all been bad – I do think that on the whole it balances out with both positive and negative side effects. But the loss of craft skills is something that concerns me.

    And I feel sorry for my photographer friends who are finding things harder with every passing year.

    I suppose I want the best of both worlds and want to apply true craft skills and attention-to-detail to digital, traditional and post-advertising communications.

    I don’t ask for much, do I?

  4. myphotoscout / Feb 20 2009 4:33 pm

    I think you can extrapolate that trend into other industries as well. Websites used to employ professional reporters and editors costing a fortune. Those were able to cover stories in great detail and could produce unique content.
    Today we find ourselves in an area of syndication. Nobody can afford to send out a reporter to research a topic anymore and editors do not come cheap either.
    Citizen journalism is the new buzzword. We get our news from blogs and we don’t question the source.
    As photographers we can only try to participate in the trend. Try to stick out of the masses by offering something unique and leverage your talent in other ways (like teaching photography).

  5. eric / Feb 20 2009 5:03 pm

    If your livelihood depends on maintaining a mystic around what you do then things are changing – look ahead and see the wonderful new things that are coming over the horizon. When you first learned typography or web site manufacture – did you do it because it was hard and no one else could do it or because it was interesting and useful? – well there’s still lots out there that is interesting and useful and difficult – it’s just not the same stuff it was last year – keep learning. We lose one “craft” and acquire another.

  6. Jessica / Feb 22 2009 5:34 pm

    I spent a year in art school studying film photography, developing film and making prints in a dark room. That was in 2004. I got the skill I wanted for shooting, but the school was so behind in terms of processing that it hardly seemed worth continuing. Even Kodak stopped making black and white photo paper. I feel like I’m a dinosaur at 24. And I miss my darkroom…
    You’re right, being a photographer isn’t what it used to be. But I think the ability to share images online is great for everyone. While it devalues photography as a profession, it elevates it from a hobby to a craft. And that’s not so bad.

  7. Bill Mill / Feb 22 2009 11:24 pm

    > the perceived value of photography has dropped.

    No, the *actual* value of photography has dropped by almost any measure.

    I’m not making a value judgment on that, just pointing it out.

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