Is Photography as We Know It Dying?

Every couple months or so, I find myself in a conversation about the state of photography. There is no doubt technology is pushing our field farther and faster than ever before, but is this technology actually killing photography?

Okay, okay, I know this topic is talked about a ton among photographers, and much of it is like Chicken Little yelling that the sky is falling. However, it is very hard to ignore some of the massive trends that are happening in the world of photography. To discuss these movements in the photography industry, I sat down with my good friend and talented photographer, Pye Jirsa, to talk about some of the trends we have both seen happening in the industry.

The interview above is a long-format, open conversation that I think is worth watching, but I've pulled a few of the underlying themes and written them below to open up the dialog even more. Feel free to leave your own opinions below and tell us if these concerns are real and warranted or if these changes in photography do not matter at all.

The Role of the Photographer

Perhaps the biggest change in photography, like it or not, is the actual role of the photographer. In the past, photography used to be an artistic passion with little time to worry about marketing, criticism, social reach, and connecting directly with your audience. Yes, photographers always had to be skilled at marketing their own work to potential clients and advertising agencies, but something has changed dramatically in the wake of the social media tsunami. Gone are the days where a photographer was simply one piece of a creative team who operated the camera, while the creative director and advertising agency worked hard to nail the artistic vision of the end client.

Photographers spend more time behind a computer than ever

More and more often, photographers are hired for their vision, for the camera operation, for their own social reach and audience, and for their ability to manage a massive team like a circus master. It's becoming increasingly harder and harder for a photographer to say, "I just want to create photos" without also juggling all the other responsibilities that were often passed onto other creative professionals. It seems more now than ever, for one to be a successful photographer, they will need their own massive social media reach.

This could be necessary in the commercial world, where media buyers want to cater towards a rebuilt channel (the photographer's audience), or it could mean that a wedding photographer needs a huge following in order to be seen over the increased number of professional photographers in his or her local market. Whatever field of photography you are perusing, there is no doubt that the name of the game has changed and the stakes are much higher than ever. The big question that we need to ask ourselves is: "is this change any different than the changes photographers' faced 30 years ago?"

The Technical Skill Set of a Photographer

Are photographers becoming less technically sound in the field of photography? This is the question that I find myself asking more and more often. There is no doubt that in the golden age of photography, the technical skills photographers had to master were enormous, from loading film, to understanding precisely how aperture, shutter, and film speed worked together to form exposure, to developing film, mastering flash photography without seeing the image, perfecting manual focus, and knowing which film stock to shoot on. Heaven forbid we even move into the darkroom or start considering compositing multiple frames of film together pre-Photoshop! From the earliest stages, photography was always a very technical art form even for those who wanted to not be very technical.

Digital photography has changed all of that. Yes, of course you can still be as technical as you want to be, but from my anecdotal experiences being deep in the industry for 15-plus years now, I feel like more photographers are less versed in the actual mechanics of photography than ever. More and more images are created solely in post-production, as in, the photo straight out of the camera isn't that great to begin with at all. I'm a huge fan of post-production and using all the tools that Photoshop has to offer, but it feels like we've gotten to a point where the scales between photographer and digital artist have tipped, causing most of the imagery we see to actually be more digital art than true photography.

I need to be careful how I express this, because it's not necessarily a bad thing; it is just a difference of approach. For me, photography was about problem-solving, How can you balance the light in this scene? Given the current situation, how can I overcome these limitations of my camera? In the past, these questions were answered by using flash, using the correct light modifier to create the perfect amount of highlights and shadows, scrimming off the natural ambient light, building a set, or waiting for the right time of day to attempt a particular shot. Today, almost all of these issues can be solved in some form or another after the fact in post-production.

Do less photographers know how to master photography?

It wasn't long ago that a very famous photography blog owner complained to me about how another photographer approached photography completely incorrectly. Keep in mind, both of these photographers, whose names I won't mention, have both inspired millions and are legends in their own right. Let's call one a "flash" traditionalist and the other a "natural light" manipulator. The flash photographer was super upset that Fstoppers kept featuring educational articles by this natural light photographer that were technically wrong. Instead of filling the shadow side of a portrait with a reflector or a pop of flash, the natural light photographer would greatly underexpose their entire image and then dodge all the details back later in post-production. I understood the frustration of the flash photographer and the argument he was trying to make, but I also personally liked the work of the natural light photographer more than the flash photographer. Is one way better or worse? Dodging shadows by two to three stops in order to correct an exposure value is certainly a more noisy way to solve the problem, but using strobes to introduce artificial light is equally less authentic even if it produces a more "technically sound" photograph.

I tell this story only to highlight the difference approaches we as photographers can take to solve the same problem. Is one more true to the craft of photography? Does anything other than the final product matter? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Will Technology Adversely Affect the Gear We Use?

The final thing to think about in all of this involves the gear so many of us love and cherish. In all creative fields, as technology evolves, the tools we use to create our art changes. Very few people are still building businesses around the dark room. Sync cables have been replaced by radio waves. Hot incandescent lights are all but replaced by LED lights. Mirrors in our DSLRs seem to be on the way out, and I'm sure our camera's shutter is the next element to fall to the wayside. And while all of this is happening to our physical tools of the trade, the technology processing our images is getting better and better.

Which brands will survive photography's evolution?

Every quarter, we read articles about how Canon, Nikon, and even Sony are selling less and less DSLR cameras. Some might argue this is because mirrorless cameras are eating into the ancient technology of single lens reflex cameras, but I think something bigger is even happening. I think camera sales in general are at risk as more and more of the general population simply moves over to cell phone cameras. Of course, it will be a long time before cell phone cameras can completely replace the professional cameras we use on a daily basis, but can these camera and lens manufacturers sustain business when so many customers are "happy enough" with their cell phones? Could Nikon or Fujifilm stop making the cameras we have grown to love? What about the flash world? Could Profoto and Broncolor become the next Dynalite or Vivitar? As I mentioned in the video above, could we a see a day when software like Photoshop or Luminar allow us to create the lighting we desire directly in post-production? At what point would the needle that straddles photographer versus digital artist completely move to the side of digital artist?  Could technology actually kill photography in the truest form of the word?

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

I find these conversations super interesting, and I love talking with people like Pye Jirsa about it, because there is always a silver lining to be found. For both Pye and me, we aren't 100% traditionalists who think photography should only be this technical approach to capturing light, but at the same time, we do both respect the role of a photographer to get as much of the process done in camera. I loved hearing how Pye's views on this topic related to increasing efficiency as a photographer as well as increasing the overall customer experience for his clients. It's easy as a photographer to get into heated debates about what true photography is, but at the end of the day, most of the general public, including your clients, does not care at all about these things. If we can find ways to enjoy life more by spending less time behind a computer while also giving our customers a better product, we should all be in favor of that evolution in photography.

Modern photography has lead to all of these amazing images

Perhaps the biggest silver lining in all of this is that more people are able to enjoy the world of photography today than in the past. More people are able to make money and build careers out of photography than ever before. The imagery posted online and printed through traditional advertising avenues are better and more innovative than ever before. It's crazy to look at the top-rated photographs in the Fstoppers community and think how many of those images would not have been created if we all had to stick to the traditional rules of photography. Rules are always meant to be broken, and waves of innovation always disrupt the status quo generation after generation. Maybe there is room to hold the virtues of traditional photography in one hand while embracing the new and innovative creativeness in the other.

What do you think? Do photographers of today need a massive following in order to get hired for the same jobs photographers before us were hired to do? Is the technical art of "getting it right in camera" a fading skill set, and if so, does it even matter? Are photography companies that produce traditional cameras, lenses, and lighting equipment facing new challenges as portable phones and software make creating amazing images easier and easier?

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26 Comments

Fontaine Lewis's picture

I think it's a matter of adaptation. Photography over the decades has gone through many transitions in how business is done and what techniques are used.

We can sit around and be all doom and gloom about the whole ordeal. But, if creating captivating and/or profitable imagery is our focus as photographers, we will adapt and embrace new ways to achieve our goals. Film shooters incorporated a digital workflow or got left behind, stills shooters embraced video or didn't feel the need to expand, and all of us have felt the pressure to use social media more and more.

It's a matter of how willing we are to adapt to changing technology and societal values. Change is inevitable. It's up to us to decide whether we want to ride the wave or not.

Tim Shoebridge's picture

You talk about a lot of things but not about talent. I mean real artistic talent. The world is flooded with garbage images, billions and billions of them, social media and our selfie addiction is the biggest influence on the photographic industry today. As a result of this image saturation, we as a society have dumbed down our appreciation of what is actually a good photograph. Talented, artistic photographers are no longer valued. In fact I would go as far as to say corporate clients actively want images for their marketing and adverts that look like typical social media images. Apparently the public will relate to them better than slick, professional looking images. So what is now valued is the mundane, and of course there is an endless supply of people able to produce it who are not bothered about charging much if anything for the privilege. This is the real death of photography, or rather, the death of what has defined photography for the last 100 years. The brave new world!

Correct, more or less. So either adapt, if you can, or raise your fisted hand at that good night and rail!

It's evolving into something different, from a 'profession' standpoint. The segment of the video regarding influencers was spot on. The transition from a photographer being someone with a specific skillset isn't changing, but the skillset is. The older model involved knowledge of camera settings and their pros and cons, lighting scenarios, how to balance color, light, etc. The new model is centered much more on having creative concepts, and an audience (social following) for commercial work, and people skills for weddings/portraiture.

There are certain types of people who will certainly get left behind in this, but many of them already have left the industry. For example, I don't know many introvert wedding photographers from the film days who are still making a living from photography, because the wedding photography business has become such a 'people skills' driven area.

The overall evolution is driving more towards the automation of image editing and social skills/influence.

Regarding image editing, we are only in its infancy, but that automation is going to happen ridiculously fast over the next 2-3 years. How long do you think it will take Adobe to build AI that will determine which photo is a headshot, and automatically correct flyaway hairs, blemishes, clean up the background, make the eyes 'pop', etc.? How long will it take Adobe to build AI that will import a thousand photos from a wedding, and automatically clean them all up? That day is coming quickly. And no matter how much people think their editing style is unique, it all comes down to 0's and 1's that Adobe (or insert other company here) can get 'close enough'.

Social skills as the major role has already been taking over wedding/portraiture for the past 5-7 years and continues at a rapid pace. Most consumers can't tell the difference between an A+ quality or C+ quality with a photo, so it's the personality and branding that are really gaining customers. Like mentioned in the video, the 'experience' is key, and image quality has dropped down the list as a differentiator, as so much photograph gets homogenized (pick the top 10 senior photographers in your city, and the work will look ridiculously similar). It's not that the photographers aren't excellent, but it's just that the average photographer is better than they used to be years ago, and that has created the perception that for the MOST part, they are interchangeable in terms of quality. That leads families, grooms, husbands, etc to look for the intangible differences (personality, attitude, experience, etc.) and gear and the like take more of a backseat every year.

Totally agree. The skillset if frequently not the same and not something you can learn. It's inherent. But Canute is at the edge of the tide with this. The old guard are already dead or dying. I don't know many successful photographers with growing businesses that aren't in the personality business as much as the shutter business.

The answer is simple: yes.

Hi Michael. The simple answer to what? The death of photography as per the title?

Scott Hussey's picture

Photography "as we know it" has always been dying. It's called "evolution," and it isn't to be feared.

I'm sure glass plate photographers were wringing their hands with worry about this new fangled film once upon a time.

Egads! One-hour Photomat Booths?!?!? Surely, the end is nigh.

C Fisher's picture

Those Calotypes really killed the industry 😉

Well, of course, it is to be feared if you're a part of the old guard. If you have made a living driving a horse and buggy the automobile industry is to be feared. If you are a coal miner a politician saying they will put coal mines out of business is to be feared Saying that you can simply retrain yourself to learn the new industry standard isn't a real choice for most people because by the time you realize your skillset has been phased out there are already boatloads of other people cornering the new market for a few years. You will never maintain the status quo.

Rk K's picture

Professional photography is done - or a large part of it anyway, the high end is doing fine. Photography as a hobby though, which I've always thought is the far more valuable aspect, is on the rise.

“ Perhaps the biggest silver lining in all of this is that more people are able to enjoy the world of photography today than in the past“ - well said 😊.

Chase Wilson's picture

It’s actually pretty simple to explain. Brands used to tell their stories with 3 or 4 really iconic, really compelling images per season. Now they’re telling the same stories using 100’s or 1000’s of them.

It’s two different skill sets – telling a strong story in one image, versus 100. When you have just one image to tell a story, you need to be able to leverage every element in the frame to bolster the concept. Lighting, color, composition, set production, wardrobe, hair, makeup etc. But if you’re telling the same story over 100 images, all those elements becomes less important. And it’s the library of images that becomes stronger as a whole.

There’s still the one image jobs. But the 100 image jobs are growing, while the single image jobs are shrinking.

Hmmmm. Great comment Chase. You've really made me think.

Another thing that's changing it the huge availability of stock photos. A while back I commented to my wife about a photo on a kiosk in a shopping mall. Her comment was 'yes we used that photo too' (she prepares brochures and websites for a university). They have a Getty account, and just like the advertiser in the mall, went to Getty to license a photo to suit the purpose. In many cases there is no longer a need to hire a photographer for promotions etc.

[Personal sidepoint: as a guy who started taking pictures in the 60s, I tend to separate photography from illustration. A little minor cleanup is one thing, but wholesale changing the picture to something that never was, is not, to me photography. It's illustration. It's art (and that's good), but if it doesn't closely represent the reality of the moment it was taken, I cant see it as a photograph]

The biggest change in photography is if you want to make living, you have to stop thinking like a photographer and start thinking like a content creator.

A creative professional is a creative professional. If you're hired to produce an image... Produce what the client wants... Otherwise you're a hobbiest.

Increasingly companies are turning to content creators to produce images/videos.

This is true. More and more I am asked not to take images, but to provide a host of photography and video services. There are young, talented creators out there with a crew that can provide everything. The days of the solo shooter are fading to the west with the elves and Frodo.

C Fisher's picture

"It's becoming increasingly harder and harder for a photographer to say, "I just want to create photos" without also juggling all the other responsibilities that were often passed onto other creative professionals."

It's not just photography, seems like every employer around these days wants you to do the work of 4 people for the pay of one, and then they get mad when you can't do it all 🤣

I think this is true, but it's because they are willing to accept a lower quality image as long as you do everything for them, and there's a millennial with a Sony that is actually willing and able to fill that bill. :)

Dying is a very alarmist view. It's just changing. I know photographers fear change and push back against progress at every turn... But change happens, like it or not.

I suspect it's something like music. The marketplace has its limits so a relatively few will make a very good living. There are a lot of talented musicians who rely on day jobs. But they still can enjoy their craft.

Mu Tru's picture

"Perhaps the biggest change in photography, like it or not, is the actual role of the photographer."

That right there has been changing since photography was invented. The only thing missing from this article is actual perspective of the art's history.

4 or 5 years ago I was doing a Google+ live show with Trey Ratcliff and I asked the panelists if they thought we were fast approaching the time where apps and i-phones would replace, to a certain extent, the photographer when it comes to post work. No one agreed with that opinion. I think that times is upon us.

Really enjoyed this video and I appreciated the honest opinions.

Gino