Every time I think about how much 2020 has fundamentally changed my life and my profession, I am reminded that, while dramatic, this is hardly the only period of change I’ve experienced in the business. So today, I thought I’d have a look back at just some of the changes that have impacted my own career since I first started making money as a professional photographer.
Like all changes in life, there can be a lot of downsides to any transition. But there are usually one or two good aspects as well. So for each of the changes discussed below, I want to look at both how they have helped and how they have hurt the industry we all love.
Film to Digital
The transition from film photography to digital photography was really the thing that kicked off my career. While my early days and learning of the basics occurred on celluloid, it was when I bought my first digital camera that my love for photography really emerged. Suddenly, I could shoot hundreds of frames without worrying about the costs of processing. Sure, the cost of the camera body went way up, but, in the long run, I would no longer have to do the calculation in my head of how much each frame would cost me to develop and print. This led to an obsessive level of practice which ultimately provided me with the foundation from which I work today.
So, personally, the number one benefit of the switch from film to digital was that it allowed me to learn through trial and error. I was shooting thousands of frames a week in the beginning. Sure, they weren’t exactly all keepers. But, as the saying goes, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. And shooting digitally gave me the opportunity to try on a lot of different types of photography and improve my skills.
As a professional photographer, the shift to digital also had a large impact on my workflow. I wasn’t the only one benefiting from that instant feedback. Now, my clients could have immediate access to everything I was shooting and provide valuable feedback right on the spot. This improvement in collaboration creates a happier client and lessens the chance for miscommunication.
Of course, this also takes some of the autonomy of being a photographer away. Depending on your personality, this could be a pro or a con. Because everyone from the hairstylist to the client’s VP of accounting can see every shot you take in real-time, it can often lead to there being one too many cooks in the kitchen. While it is good to get client feedback, at some point the photographer needs to find the freedom to let their creativity flow. There are ways to do this while simultaneously incorporating client feedback, but it is a skill that needs to be learned.
The move to digital also went some ways towards reducing what I call the “magic factor” of photography. A friend and I always have the same reaction when looking at old vintage family photos from the first half of the 20th century. Not necessarily the famous ones by professional photographers, but the ones that would be the equivalent of an iPhone snapshot today.
Aside from fashion choices, the main difference between a hobbyist photographer then and now is that we live in a world now where the camera is capable of doing almost everything for us, from calculating exposure, to focusing perfectly on eyes, to finding the right white balance. But if you were taking a snapshot in the 1940s or 1950s, you still needed to have at least some basic knowledge of photography. You needed to be able to calculate exposure, adjust your settings accordingly, and do it all without the benefit of immediate confirmation on a rear LCD. Not that these things are impossible. This is how I started as well. But still, the skills required weren’t immediately accessible to just anyone at birth. They needed to be learned. So there existed a certain layer of magic to the work of the photographer. The combination of light, chemicals, and emulsion magically produced an image at the end. Of course, as photographers, we can all explain how. But to the layman, the whole process felt like some strange alchemy. Nowadays, a person who has never seen a camera in their life is capable of producing a perfect image, at least technically speaking, just by leaving everything on “A” and pressing a button.
The democratization of photography is good, but it also has some effects on the perceived value of a photographer which will come into play in our next few changes.
Rise of the Internet and Social Media
The birth of the internet was the most significant societal change in the last 100 years. We now live in The Technology Age, and many aspects of our lives today are driven by technological gains created in the last quarter-century.
Overnight, the images we created could now be seen by a global audience. Whereas previously, we might have had to twist our friends' arms to get them to sit through a slideshow of our trip to Vermont, now, we simply post those images online 30 seconds after they are created, and 60 seconds after that, find ourselves with a “like” from someone in Bangladesh. We live in a constant feedback loop of validation. Of course, this also means that we can often confuse “likes” for artistic validation and spend too much time wondering if an image will be popular online and too little time considering its artistic merit. But that’s a con, and I’d like to finish the pros before I get to the downsides.
On the upside, professional photographers now have access to clients they might never have been able to reach before. Not everyone has the money to fly to New York for meetings or access to meet decision-makers. But just about everyone can access the internet long enough to upload their work. And because those decision-makers are just as many slaves to social media as the rest of us, it is not at all impossible to get your work in front of the right people without ever leaving your living room. This is a huge benefit if you have limited financial resources to market yourself.
Of course, this access comes with a downside as well. Sure, you can now get greater access to potential clients with the click of a mouse. But so can every other photographer on Earth. So, even for clients in your local area, you are no longer only competing with other local photographers. You are now competing with the globe.
Also, while the growth of social media means that you have more outlets than ever to show your work, it has also led to an absolute glut of content available. There is some great content out there. But there is just so darn much of it. And the amount of content available only increases exponentially by the hour. This means that getting your work to stand out amongst an ever-growing crowd is an increasingly high hurdle.
This endless stream of imagery has also led to a feeling of disposability when it comes to the art we create. The vast majority of our images are literally only going to be viewed for a split second as the viewer scrolls past them on their phone. Obviously, I’m not referring to large ad campaigns that will be printed on a billboard, or fine art, or the many other images that aren’t made for Instagram. But the majority of work being made these days is consumed online which increasingly means through social media. With a world conditioned to continuously swipe to the next thing, social media diminishes the value of content while simultaneously demanding we provide more of it.
And, because we live in a world where almost everything we see is right-clickable, we have allowed a misconception that everything online is free. For an artist who makes a large part of their living through the licensing of intellectual property rights, the egregious and unfettered pirating of our art online serves to further devalue our creations. Art’s value is derived from its scarcity. Imagine if everyone could have a Mona Lisa on their wall without having to pay for it. If that were the case, it would be really hard to try and sell a collector on the value of the original.
This shift from the physical to the digital has also led to massive changes in potential outlets for our work. Even the most prominent magazine publications that, for many of us, were the reasons why we got interested in photography in the first place, are now struggling to stay alive. Think of when the last time was that you went to a newsstand and bought a physical copy of a magazine. It’s probably been a while. Yet those outlets have always been the place to see and exhibit some of the best photography in the business. They had the budget and prestige to affect the narrative and highlight to top work in our field. But, with the digital shift, subscription numbers have fallen at the same time advertisers have shifted their dollars to social media. So, publications have gotten hit from both sides. But, aside from being tastemakers, the editorial market has also always been a prime source of revenue for photographers. So, their erosion not only removes an avenue for career advancement but also another option for financial sustainability.
Rise of the Cameraphone
Lost among the constant reports of dropping camera sales is the most simple of explanations. It’s not that people no longer buy cameras. The casual shutterbug still takes thousands of photos to fill up the growing social media beast. It’s just that he or she takes those photos with the same device they use to talk to Grandma.
After the rise of the internet, the invention of the iPhone is probably the second most important innovation in the last century. While it wasn’t the first smartphone, it was the one that changed the world as we know it. Now, most of us walk around with some kind of phone on us at all times. And, as a result, we are also walking around with a camera on us at all times as well. Sure, it might not be a full frame workhouse with all the bells and whistles. But for many people, it will do the trick. The simplicity of a camera phone completely obliterates the magic factor I discussed earlier for the majority of people who just want a quick shot but aren’t interested in learning the craft. And while a phone is still miles away from being able to compete with a camera for quality, most smartphones are more than capable of getting some really great shots.
Of course, in a world where Instagram filters are often confused for photographic skill, we now exist in a world where everyone thinks they are a photographer. And to some extent, this is technically true, depending on how you define the term. And while there is a massive difference between an iPhone snapshot and a carefully lit, carefully composed, carefully planned shot with an SLR, it’s not a difference that Joe Public is always going to appreciate. Not that you can’t be equally meticulous when shooting with a cellphone. This is indeed a growing market, and companies from Adobe to Profoto have been trying to create products to cash in on the cellphone’s growing role within consumer photography.
But as a professional photographer, this does add another layer of complexity to our value proposition. If, for instance, you are working with a client who thinks themselves capable of doing what you do because they own an iPhone and are really good with filters, then it will be up to you to explain the value of your services. This challenge is further heightened by the presence of influencers creating content with their own camera phones which might or might not be of a professional level, but, in a world where their images will only be scrolled by in a split second on Instagram, might be perfectly acceptable in exchange for their follower base.
Merging of Still and Video and the Growth of Mirrorless Cameras
I was a filmmaker before I was a photographer. In fact, my still photography career was really just an accidental result of me looking for a hobby to escape from the roller coaster of Hollywood. So, imagine my surprise nearly two decades later when my two worlds have again begun to collide, with the majority of my commercial clients now hiring me to do both stills and motion on the same job.
Most of this is actually driven by the same market shifts in social media I discussed earlier. Because of the rise of importance in social media, companies are now in constant need of content. Because of how social media algorithms are created and altered at the whim of their creators, video often takes precedence over stills these days. Also, because so much varied content is needed, the budgets for individual projects have all been slashed in order to spread companies marketing budgets across as many platforms as possible. So, whereas I would previously have been hired by a company to perform a very specific task of producing X number of still images while they hired an entirely different team to produce the video, I am now tasked with doing both. And often within a reduced timeframe.
This need to wear multiple hats has led to new creative outlets for professional photographers. There are a million and one different ways to tell our stories. And camera manufacturers have responded by giving us new tools with which to tell those stories. Whereas the initial benefit of mirrorless cameras was their smaller form factor and lighter weight, over time, the biggest advantage to mirrorless cameras has become their ability to shift between still and video seamlessly. The video capabilities of even entry-level still cameras continue to increase so rapidly that creating moving content alongside stills is simply a no-brainer. This cross-functionality allows us to compete for more work and be more productive at an affordable price point.
Of course, while we are now being asked to do more than ever, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being paid any more to do so. Much like the great recession when companies laid-off workers, assigned more tasks to those who remained, and never ended up hiring the laid-off workers back when numbers rebounded, photographers are now being asked to deliver more and more while rates are simultaneously being reduced. So, while on one side, this shift has allowed us more opportunities to express ourselves through art. The practical effect has been that we have all seen our rates effectively reduced whether we realize it or not.
True, your rate may technically be the same. It was $10,000/day before and it is still $10,000/day, for example. But before you were making $10,000 to deliver 5 hero images for a print and OOH campaign. Now, you’re getting paid $10,000 to deliver an endless gallery of stills for extended usage, video content, and social media content all for the same money and in the same amount of time. Giving more for the same amount of money means each asset you deliver is valued less individually.
Global Pandemic and the Birth of Virtual Shoots, Virtual Sets, and Travel Restrictions
Yeah, I’ll keep this section as short as possible as it could be an essay by itself. We’ll just say that the global pandemic which we all now find ourselves in is likely to be one of the defining moments of the 21st century and greatly shape the world going forward.
No matter how bad a turn life might take, we can always try to look at the bright side. So, let's first have a look at some potentially positive outcomes of the new world order. We’ve all been forced to reinvent the way we do business. But that’s not always a bad thing. Just like restrictions imposed by the Production code in the 1930s through the 1960s forced filmmakers to be more creative in telling stories without always being able to spell things out, forcing changes in production can make us be more innovative in how we deliver our product. From experience, I can say that I’ve rather enjoyed some of the back to basics changes I’ve had to make in my own productions to ensure the same product with fewer resources.
There have also been some practical benefits like being able to take meetings with my clients via Zoom. True, I would much rather meet with people in person. But, I had nine meetings last week with photo editors in New York from my house in Los Angeles and I didn’t have to buy a plane ticket or book an AirBnB. No complaints here.
Of course, taking note of the sunshine doesn’t mean we can ignore the rain. The reduction of client revenue in 2020 due to store closures will lead to a reduction in advertising budgets in 2020 and beyond. This coming at a time when budgets were already being slashed due to shifting marketing dollars towards social media.
Travel restrictions on the clients have had a two-pronged effect. Because they no longer necessarily get to travel to set, you might find yourself with fewer cooks physically in the kitchen, but they still need to be there. So, you now have the new challenge of setting up remote zoom links and various relays so they can still digitally be “on set” at all times. Also, because they can’t travel, they are also less inclined to fly you to them as well, meaning increased importance of local clients and fewer opportunities to snag out of town jobs.
An overall reduction in the market also means that every photographer’s rainy day fund will need to grow exponentially. As outbreaks continue to ebb and flow, we need to be ready for dips in global production, last-minute pandemic related cancellations (even those that may result from getting sick ourselves), and less predictable revenue sources. And when we are working, those budgets that have already been shrinking will now need to find even more room among the scant resources for things like compliance officers, pre-shoot testing, and personal protective equipment. Don’t even get me started on how one is supposed to focus a camera through a viewfinder while wearing a face shield.
I’ve intentionally kept this last section short as the changes to our workflow brought about by the pandemic are still evolving as I speak. But just like many of the other major changes in the industry and in the world since I first began my career, the changes imposed on us are both inevitable and within our power to overcome. Those unintended alterations in life may come with darkness, but they also come with light. It’s up to us to roll with the punches and stay in the fight.