This may seem like a negative article, heralding the apocalypse, but really, it isn't. It's an exploration of how our beloved craft has changed over the decades, its direction, and if there are comparable crafts that can help predict the trajectory.
Perhaps this will be difficult without naming names, but recently, a photography campaign met some derision. The images were to this photographer's style, but they were seen as dreadful for a professional campaign. The style is highly simplistic, and most of the insults flung at it were along the lines of anyone with a smartphone being able to replicate that standard. There was one comment which was as bitter as it was unoriginal, but it plunged me into deep thought, far deeper than the commenter would have ever considered their own words, I'm sure. The remark was: "I guess anyone can be a photographer these days."
We've all seen variations of this observation over the years, and as photographers, we have knee-jerk reactions to it. We can't help but defend the intricacies and nuances of our craft, with mastery eluding most. Nevertheless, there's becoming an increasing urge to set our photography apart from a smartphone camera, with real depth of field, for instance. With a background in philosophy, I can't help but turn the problem on all sides and see if my bias is clouding the truth. Let's play devil's advocate.
Does Photography Require More Skill, the Same Amount of Skill, or Less Skill than 50 Years Ago?
I feel the need to reiterate the caveat here: I'm a full-time professional photographer. If you feel under assault, believe me, so do I. But a question being difficult isn't a good reason to not ask it. How has photography evolved in terms of necessary photographer skill in order to create pleasing images? I have a gut reaction to this, but I'll explore each answer equally.
The Case for More Skill
With the rapid and constant growth of technology, the complexity of cameras has undoubtedly increased. The move to digital provided a lot of solutions, but there was also a steep ascent in how complicated the cameras have become. You don't necessarily need to understand every option on every menu and submenu, but to claim mastery of your little all-seeing box, you probably ought to. Gone are the days of a roll of film and a dial.
Then there is the vast landscape of post-production. While not strictly "photography;" it is part and parcel of the craft. As many of us are aware, post-production of photographs is far from exclusive to digital photography; there were photographers doing all manner of wizardry in the darkroom for well over a hundred years. Nevertheless, what can be achieved now is much more diverse and arguably more complicated. Furthermore, with the raising of the ceiling of what's possible in post, comes the raising of what is expected of an image too. What is seen as a good image now usually requires more post-production than what was needed 50 years ago, for instance.
Finally, there is all the periphery equipment. I didn't use studio lights or flashguns back in the 1970s on the grounds of nonexistence, but from what I've seen and read, the depth and control we have now over everything from modifiers to Kelvin is tougher to master.
The Case for the Same Skill
The same, but different: that's the general summary of my defense of the fence. As I mentioned, digital photography solved a lot of problems but created new ones. Furthermore, it simplified a lot of the photographic process and complicated it again. I don't believe there's any sound way of quantifying the skill required to be a good photographer 50 years ago or now to any meaningful level of accuracy, so arguing they are the same — or even more or less the same is tricky. You could certainly make the case that it isn't easier now or harder then, but just different.
The Case for Less Skill
This section requires some boundaries to be added to keep the discussion focused. Firstly, I can say with complete confidence the following claim: both taking a photograph and taking an average photograph are significantly easier than 50 years ago. I have no doubts that somebody will disagree with that — this is the internet after all — but I just can't imagine how anyone could disagree. The advent of smartphones and their ever-improving cameras universalized photography, making it part of everyday life, but the A.I. and algorithms ensuring the taker gets things in focus and properly exposed is what solidified its prevalence. In the past, taking an average picture — one just in focus and properly exposed — required some skill at operating a camera and some understanding of film and light. Now, an infant can take an in-focus, properly exposed shot. That isn't hyperbole either. A one-year-old can manage to open the camera app, point it, and press the big red circle; I've seen it!
So, what about a good photograph and better? So much of creating a good or even great image isn't involving the camera; composition, light, colors, and so on all play a fundamental role. That was true 50 years ago, and it's true now. The key difference is that when a beautiful moment presents itself: you're far more likely to nail the shot with a Canon R5 than you were with a Canon A-1. You have autofocus and Eye-AF, built-in light meters, histograms, guided settings, and so on. You may be able to argue that in-studio settings you go through more or less the same process, but I'd be suspicious of anyone who said they don't think it's easier now.
When Does a Skill Stop Being a Skill?
It's easy to presume that a skill is always a skill, but you would be surprised at just how many times that hasn't been the case. The advancement of technology makes skills obsolete with startling regularity, whether by accident or by design. You can more or less throw a dart in the air and hit a profession that has roles that have been made obsolete; this is known as "technological unemployment." In 2014, a study by Bruegel claimed that in 28 of the European Union's member countries, 54% of jobs were at risk of automation. This isn't exactly what we're looking at in this article, but it's certainly related. Once a task moves from being something that someone with experience had learned to do, and over to something that anyone can do, it's difficult to still call it a "skill."
Let's not forget we have seen parts of our own industry fall to technology already. The development of film was once seen as a skill, with brick and mortar stores offering that service. Now, few exist and most of the images taken do not require development or even film. Now you might argue that this doesn't indicate that photography itself will cease being a skill and I'd agree with you, but the takeaway ought to be that nothing is impervious.
My Answer To the Question and My Cautious Optimism
I don't think photography is at any immediate risk of not being seen as a skill. Even if the act of taking a properly exposed, the in-focus picture became guaranteed by the camera, composition and other artistic considerations would differentiate those images in quality. As for the question of how much territory we can cede to technology and automation before photography isn't seen as a skill anymore, I'd say there's a fair way to go. What concerns me particularly — and I think it's inevitable — is the introduction of A.I. similar to that which we see in smartphones make their way into dedicated cameras. We've seen this to a lesser degree already, but that A.I. will eventually include computer learning and suggested compositions, and that's when photography, save for a fundamental shift in the craft, will be on the ropes.
If you'll allow me to go full Orwellian for a moment, can you honestly say it's unthinkable that a drone could fly around a city using A.I. to detect pleasing compositions and automatically post those images to social media? The first robot street photographer doesn't seem far away to me. The worst part is, I'd probably follow it on Instagram. The risk to any skill comes when technology can do it quicker, easier, cheaper, or better.
What do you make of the question? Is photography less of a skill today than 50 years ago? What would need to be added to cameras to be the difference-maker? Am I totally off base in my analysis? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.