Is Photography Dead?

Is Photography Dead?

If what we read on the internet is to be believed (and who doesn’t believe everything they read on the Internet?) film is definitely not dead. But for a debate which has been raging for well over a decade, I can’t help but wonder whether the wrong question is being posed. Is it not photography itself, rather than film, which has been dying a slow death in front of our very eyes? 


As a professional photographer, making a living from the photographs I capture, I have a vested interest in the healthy continuation of the industry. And so, by way of a perfect procrastination tool to avoid editing the backlog of photographs I have accumulated, I decided to try and argue both sides of this (not so) hotly debate and see if I could find the answer.

Photography is absolutely dead, technology killed it.

Like a relic of the 20th Century, did photography die with the Milennium?

Photography died the moment a camera lens found it's way onto a cell phone, and overnight everyone in the entire world became a photographer. 

For over a hundred years, photography provided a creative outlet for generations of artists to capture the heights of human achievement and the depths of human depravity; the wonders of the natural world and the tragedy of global decay. Photographers were the visual story tellers of the 20th Century. But in the 21st century, photography as an art form has been diluted to the point of almost complete mediocracy. Today, visual art seems to extend no further than applying a filter to yet another “selfie”, shared on whichever social platform has achieved critical mass on the day (only to be replaced tomorrow). 

In many ways, this decline began with the onset of digital photography. The rapid advancement of technology allowed anyone, with even the most basic entry-level digital camera, to achieve results previously the exclusive preserve of the professional photographer, simply by switching their camera to automatic mode. Where before, a correctly exposed image required technical knowledge, photographic skill and creative vision in equal measure, today onboard computers have assumed responsibility for exposing 99% of all photographs captured in the digital age. 

That photography has largely been reduced to the art of point-and-shoot is evidenced by the demise of the photojournalist. Where once dedicated and skilled photographers would tell the story of world events, through the photographs they captured, today many newspapers around the world have laid off their entire team of staff photographers. Citizen Journalists (aka readers encouraged to submit their photographs for free) have taken their place. Decades of photojournalistic tradition reduced to something anyone with a cell phone can do. Henri Cartier-Bresson must be turning in his grave at the thought of what we have done to his noble art. 

Photography may have enjoyed a proud heritage throughout the 20th century, but now photography is dead, and it was technology that killed it. 

Dead? No way. If anything, the golden age of photography has only just begun.

The scenes remain the same, we just have to seek out new ways to capture them.

Of course photography isn’t dead. If anything what we are witnessing is just the start of a grand revival of the art. Technology has put a camera, of one description or another, into the hands of more people than ever. The collective output of which has seen an explosion of creativity, the likes of which we have never experienced before. Every day people from all walks of life are creating incredible images, documenting the world around them in every conceivable way. 

Of course there are millions of photographs being created, and shared online every day, which could be viewed as mundane and uninspiring. But hasn’t that always been the case? The creative elite of every generation of has always, by definition, sat ahead of the masses who followed. The difference is now the sheer number of photographers who make up those masses are driving the new elite to ever higher levels of creativity, forcing them to be better. Surely we all benefit as a result? 

Moreover, it has never been a better time to become a photographer. The Internet has proved itself the greatest learning tool ever. The wealth of video guides, tutorials, and other photography education available online is staggering, allowing people who might otherwise never had the time or opportunity to become photographers, to learn at their own pace. Any barriers to entry into the world of photography, which may previously have existed, have now all but completely been obliterated, thanks to technology. 

I can’t help but wonder whether some of the doom and gloom talk on the future of photography is actually fuelled more by the fear of change than the reality of the art form. Without question photography is changing and we are all having to adapt as a result. But not every photographer wants to adapt. Many are content to remain strictly within their comfort zone, the warm fluffy place where they feel safe and in control. That might mean never straying too far from a particular style or genre, or maintaining a narrow-minded view on what photography is, refusing to accept a camera-phone as valid for photography purposes. But as photographers, should’t we constantly be challenging ourselves to step out of our comfort zone? To try new things and extend our range? 

In my time, I have seen many completely uninspiring, repetitive images produced by photographers claiming 50 years of professional experience, and I have seen mind-blowing creativity from 15 years olds with nothing more than an Instagram account and sense of flair. As a creative art, photography has always had far more to do with the person behind the lens than the equipment they are using. This is as valid now as it has every been. 

Photography isn’t dead, the fun is only just starting, and I am pretty sure if Henri Cartier-Bresson were here today, he would be shooting with a camera-phone! 

The Jury’s Decision.

So there you have it, my thoughts on this (hypothetically) great photographic debate. In truth, I am not sure how successfully I have argued both sides of the debate, as I actually believe we have never had it so good. The ease of travel, the availability of cameras, the opportunity to reach a global audience thanks to the Internet, all of these have contributed, in my opinion, to this being one of the most exciting times in history to be a photographer. 

But those are just my thoughts. What about yours? Is photography alive and kicking, or dying on it’s feet?

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39 Comments

Adam Ottke's picture

As part of the jury, I'll chime in:

Photography is not dead. It'll never die. At the root of it, we need photography as the medium that conveys a visual message to the brain instantly. Video doesn't just take time, but it also takes technology -- a screen. A photograph can be printed on anything. But that's not exactly what you mean in this article...

Might it be harder to break through as a photographer and "make it big" than it was in Daguerre's time? Sure. In his time, being a photographer was like being an astronaut. It was an extremely expensive magic trick that no one was doing. If you could take a picture at all, you were a god.

So of course that has changed. But overall, we still need the photograph. And humanity is still capable of producing compelling, beautiful, thought-provoking images worth seeing or buying or hanging on your wall and sharing with others. Finding terrible photographs, mediocre photographs, pleasant-enough photographs, and amazing photographs is simply more and more difficult to do in that ascending order.

Thankfully, however, my ascending order crap isn't even exactly true. I'll tell you where to start your search for great imagery -- on the world stage. Start at the museums and galleries. Go to Bergamot Station. Look at the most sought-after artists for commercial work. Some of that has gotten quite mundane and cliché. But SOMEONE is always doing something new, even if many don't get it (KENZO?). And it's not THAT hard to find if you're looking. Great curators of great work exist in many forms beyond the Internet's entirely incompetent polls of public opinion.

gabe s's picture

The real magic trick was keeping your sanity while huffing all those chemicals.

Jeff Colburn's picture

No, photography isn't dead, but the career of professional photography is gasping like a fish out of water. Pro photographers used to be able to just take photos. Now they have to teach classes, write and sell ebooks, lead workshops and more. Multiple revenue streams is the norm. There will always be a few photographs who only take photos, but the majority are struggling to make ends meet. And a new breed of Part Time Pros has emerged. They have the skills of a pro photographer, but they must have a full-time or part-time job somewhere to pay the bills.

Any time an industry is digitized, it rips it apart and changes everything. Digitizing music destroyed the music industry. No more huge contracts for new bands, and bands self-fund with Kickstarter and iTunes.

Digitizing movies seriously damaged the movie industry, primarily through making it so much easier to pirate movies and distribute them illegally. In China, you can get any movie you want on DVD for $2. And they are often available before the movie is released into theaters.

The digital industry has brought about major changes everywhere, but the same old rule applies, "adapt or die."

Have Fun,
Jeff

Paul Choy's picture

Jeff, you have probably hit on a key issue in this debate.

In writing this article I did, of course, take a fairly flippant approach. Genuinely I was procrastinating from catching up on my editing and this was, in large, a playful exercise in playing the Devil's Advocate. My thoughts here were not intended to be taken too seriously.

But that aside, I am also a working photographer, making my living from the photographs I capture, and there is a serious conversation to be had, not so much about the future of photography, which I am sure will flourish, but rather the role of the professional photographer within it.

Photography, like most areas of life, is subject to change and development and we are all going to have to adapt accordingly. The days of able to put food on the table soley from capturing photographs are well and truly over. We now all need to diversify.

I teach classes. I write books. I do all the things you mention, to supplement the income derived from my photographs. That is what the market requires now.

I can't say this is better, or worse, of a situation than before. It is just different, and we are all going to have to adapt to this new reality.

Because the truth is the market has always dictated the shape of the industry, and whilst photography will never die, it will constantly change. That we can all be sure of.

Bill Larkin's picture

Great article.

Well this is certainly the hot topic debate IMO, as it's a huge thing and consumes much of my time. There are SO MANY full time professionals who have gone out of business in the past few years.... two 30+ year pro's just in my area.... and it's mostly due to the influx of all these newbies claiming to be pro's, muddying the waters and confusing customers... lowering the bar for overall quality.

And with subpar quality and not even having a business license or paying tax in may locals' case, they lower the customers price expectation for "pro" work, and deliver subpar results, all the while customers are being conditioned to this being the norm.

The local "rent-a-studio" type places have exponentially sped this process of newbies up in a big way.

Now, I don't think the industry is dead yet, but I do certainly think it's bleeding bad. And professionals need to fight for it, fight for the future of an industry that I feel is under attack.

Education is the big thing, we have locals that literally don't know the first thing about anything professional in the industry, from focusing, to posing, and especially light, skin tone etc. and they have become so cocky they use hashtags about "quality mattering" on these photos that should have been deleted in camera as a test shot.

What do we do about this? If we mention something to them, they get super offended and claim it's their "art" and it's subjective, but there most certainly IS a problem with education. And it's bleeding our industry dry...

So, I love your article, but my thoughts are, where does a professional go from here? How do we save the industry?

How do we get the amateurs who think they are professional to take the time to learn the things they need? and stop the damage to the industry, because they are sinking the boat for everyone.

Jeff Colburn's picture

While amateurs are putting a dent in the pro industry, the real damage is the buyers who settle for "good enough" photographs. And they are willing to spend their time surfing the net looking for images instead of having a few pros they can go to and get the image they want.

Today, it's more important to buyers to save every penny possible than to have great photos. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back in the other direction soon. But they must also justify the higher costs of using a pro, when the public is used to sub-par cell phone images, and happy with lesser quality images.

Have Fun,
Jeff

Chris K.'s picture

Interesting article. I don't think it's dead-it's a growing market which is evolving:
-Everyone and their uncle has a camera on their phone.
-There's many "professional" photographers who stop by a Best Buy and pick up a DSLR and screw up the market.
-There's videographers who buy a DSLR which also shoots video and figures they can do both stills and video.
-Then there's the "traditional" photographers like many of us who are well educated/versed in photography who now have to compete with the cell phones, people who think they're pros since they own a DSLR, and videographers who mostly do video but for extra $$$ market themselves as doing photography.

I think photography is "dead" for photographers who aren't adapting to the change which is sweeping the industry. And this change is bringing more competition. So photographers must distance themselves from the competition. Lighting has always been the primary focus to my photography. Luckily online tutorials can only show the more inexperienced "competition" so much. But them figuring that out for themselves with a client breathing down their neck with all the extra capital it takes to invest in lights would hopefully continue to push clients my way...

That being said I mostly do work as a cinematographer. I've been part of the RED ecosystem for years and am waiting patiently for my 8k Helium camera. Maybe the whole DSMC philosophy with RED (Digital Stills and Motion Camera) is the wave of the future for photography (or at least photojournalism)?
Currently I can take a 6k/16MP RAW .r3d file from my RED Weapon camera and edit that in Photoshop, with the 35MP Helium sensor taking up to 60fps with that same workflow is just scary and exciting. Scary that a "Video" camera has just as much resolution and way more dynamic range then my Nikon D810. Sure I love strobes and can't get that specific look with my RED but it'll be interesting to see where that leads in the next few years.

Joseph Drago's picture

Everywhere I look in life I see where the 10:90:90:10 rule applies. 10% lead while 90% follow while at the same time 90% believe that they are part of the 10%. You can take this rule and apply it to just about anything in life and it will apply. 10% will succeed and 90% will fail (any given area) but 90% believe they will be part of the 10% who succeed. 10% of photographers produce world class images while 90% [I'll be nice and just say] do not while 90% think they do. I counted no less than 60 images attached to this web page alone so photography is definitely not dead. The need and money is out there to support the industry. That doesn't mean that 90% of everyone that calls themselves a photographer won't fail at it and call the industry "dead".

Brian Magnuson's picture

Comment deleted

If you say so.......

Sergio Tello's picture

I used Betteridge's law and skipped to the comment's section.

Brian Carlson's picture

Seriously? This is an article?

Grant Watkins's picture

Dude, it's click bait. Nothing more, nothing less.

Geoffrey Badner's picture

Is photography journalism dead?

I love when articles like this come up....I work in industrial automation. I deal with people on a daily basis accusing my company of "stealing jobs!!!" newsflash!!! the world is changing and will ALWAYS be in a state of constant flux.

I don't get why there's always these headline grabbing articles (I realize it's for clicks) claiming technology is robbing something from someone...let's take this article for example...im sure this author (maybe not, definitely FStoppers) has many articles gushing over technological advances in every single camera or lens review on this website. It's such a strange dichotomy; read any online camera forum and the latest and greatest is king and anything else is obsolete...yet when a fraction of this technology is made available to the general public the end is near!!!

Furthermore, how is this situation different than any other point in the last 50 years....talent is talent. Photography has always been accessible. There have always been gear hounds who took pictures of brick walls and their have always been artists..this will never change. EVER.

It bothers me when photographers now say "oh people don't appreciate photography anymore...anyone can do it..they've seen pictures of everything, it's all saturated" I would argue that anyone who saw your generic picture of a random building in 1967 would be just as bored with it as they would be now. They just would have never seen it in the first place.

Technology isn't making MORE better photographers. More people have cameras. The percentage of people who are great at this craft is probably still the same. More people with access=more great photographers and more people with access=more horrible photographers..the difference being is that now both have the potential for a HUGE audience...and this potential has much less to do with the photos and more to do with marketing in general

Anyways, I will also end this annoying rant with the fact that my photos suck too...40 years ago 5 people would have been forced to see them in a slideshow and vomited..today I have over 8000 followers on instagram...same shitty photos...different world. I can also guarantee you that almost every single one of those photos could have been taken with an iPhone and NOBODY would have cared. In the end it makes me wonder why I still have unsatiable G.A.S. and an absurd amount of gear. Long love technology !!! F**k technology!!! (I'm 32 by the way)

Grant Watkins's picture

Click bait title...

Paul Choy's picture

Isn't that the point of a title, to encourage people to read more?

Kim Bentsen's picture

No! It is to summarize the content. Click bait it is.
In general, if there is a question mark in the title of an article, the answer is usually no. The author has no facts to present, so a question is asked.

Paul Choy's picture

And yet there is a question to be asked, and the answer is not obvious.

The industry is facing a interesting time, where it is quite possible "photography" could flourish but the role of the "photographer" within it could demise.

Entire teams of staff photographers are being laid off (fact), whilst far more photographs are now taken every day than ever before (fact). These are two facts, presented in the article, which seem to contradict each other.

So I think it is a valid question, is photography (especially professional photography) dead?

Selena Jain's picture

Photography cant be dead ever, only the way and technology of taking shot may be changed. Yes technology has brought up a huge change but the necessity is still the same for photography. Thank you for letting us know about it's importance here in detail.

(Western) music traditionally had ONLY 12 notes from the very start. Yet it is endless and very well alive !
Photography does not start with only 12 photos ... so guess where it will end ?

Paul Choy's picture

A point (very) well made.

And even funnier ... (western) alphabet has only (about) 26 letters ...

Ahmed Gadou's picture

To avoid my bad English 😂.. Apart from the development introduced by the technology, I think it is our job to keep the true essence of photography alive because the real photographers are really few.....

Jeff Colburn's picture

Ah yes, the good ol' bell curve. You can explain almost everything with it. Well done.

Have Fun,
Jeff

Photography is not dead but the profession is hanging on by it's teeth. I have/had been a professional for 30 years. I had a thriving studio for fifteen of those years and for me was the best profession in the whole world. When digital kicked in things started turning sour. Within four years prior to me closing down eight studios in my area had already closed. One photographer stared driving a taxi, another became a promoter of some sort. So what happened? Didn't people need wedding and portrait photographers any more? What was the cause of this demise? In my industry it became extremely easy and relatively inexpensive for someone with a little bit of enthusiasm and interest to get into the profession. So let's take a look at how it can be done. Buy equipment for less than $1500. Get to do some jobs for free so you can produce images. Build a web site. Undercut the competition, i.e. professionals, by a large margin and viola you're in the game. It costs nothing to shoot these days. In the days of film every shot cost you money whether it was good or bad. If you did't know what you were doing you could botch a whole event. Now a days shooting 1000, 2000 or 3000 images at an event is not uncommon. You can also check each and every image to guarantee it's there and well exposed. So where am I going with this rant? Photography is alive and well and more popular than ever. The profession on the other hand is not well. If you get into it in the hope that you will make a living out of it be aware that things change rather quickly these days. I remember hearing, as was previously mentioned, that many newspapers were laying off their photography staff. And yet the newspapers still had good photojournalistic images. Go figure.

its just those studios that closed down could not keep up with the change.. eg: after iphone came out nokia went out of business as they did not innovate.. in past photography was like a monopoly career as it was not accessible to everyone but with digital more people got hold of camera
only way to survive these days is by great marketing and social media reach by writing foolish articles which are good to read.. unknown photographers /hobbyists are taking great images and known ones are not taking great images but just great at marketing and education (obviously there are exceptions )

Rafal Wegiel's picture

Its really weird title of this article especially as every one knows that these days people take more pictures than ever...and the numbers are growing every year... I think the question should be is the professional photography dead? I think we are living in wonderful times for photography but making money out of just taking pictures its another story.... Photographers really need to step up the game to make decent living...maybe I am wrong but as You have said everyone is a photographer today....literally EVERYONE.

Yea, you're probably right that the decline started with the onset of digital photography. Before then, professional cameras had life cycles of 10 years before system upgrades. There was a cost involved with the film, developing, and prints.

With today's digital cameras, it's an arms race with Canon and Nikon trying to out megapixel the other and dazzle us with new technological features. The life cycle of pro cameras has been reduced to 2-4 years before the prior model is obsolete.

But then too, with the advanced computers, the design of lenses is aided by the boost in technology to produce better lens designs.

I frequently forget that I have a camera in my pocket, but I hate the slowness of the autofocus. I've taken to bringing with me either my DSLR or one of my two SLRs (one loaded with B&W, the other with color) to work (photography is not my profession).

I think that it pays to keep current to read photography blogs and continue to learn, like Fstoppers. Fstoppers is one of the four blogs that I try to keep up with on a daily basis.

Photography isn't dead but career as a photographer is no longer easy .we are living in a time where everyone is a photographer and to succeed as a photographer has become very tough. today it is much difficult to get a great image as there are so many images floating online and only way to be visible is by over the top marketing and reach on social media. the great photographers are hobbyists and the average ones with great marketing and social media skills are surviving. in reality photography is reviving ..i feel if Henri Cartier-Bresson was reborn today he would not be as popular as he would face tough competition as well

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