Photography has been around for almost 200 years, believe it or not, and with every generation the art form evolves and changes. Everything from styles and fads to technology and world events have affected how photography has advanced over the decades, but what's going on today in 2019?
What we are seeing in the modern day world of photography (at least as of April 2019) is what I am brazenly going to dub "The Third Digital Generation". More specifically, the third iteration of digital photographers using digital cameras to create every genre of photography you know, and showcasing their work on platforms never before seen. This current era of digital photography is no longer dominated by the idea that digital is somehow a cool new novelty, not at all, and those just now entering the field are not impressed in any way at all that digital cameras exist; it's a given.
Keep in mind, everything in this analysis is my own research, and/or my own hard-headed opinions based on my observations.
We All Start Somewhere
As a child, photography was always just "there" because of my father. From 1970 to around 1998, he was a professional portrait photographer. (Currently he shoots luxury real estate, and has for the past 20 years.) So in my world as a child and teen, everything from lighting gear, to lenses, to rolls of film, to the smell of the darkroom were things that were always around. His Mamiyas, Bronicas and Canons, always strewn about the house.
Honestly, at the time, photography looked way too complicated to my child brain. I definitely thought it was super cool, but more complex than I wanted to mess with as a young human, so I didn't become interested in it until I was over 30 years old. That said, growing up around it gave me a decent insight into how the industry worked, so when I did jump in, I wasn't flying entirely blind.
There was something magical about images produced on film, but that impassioned soliloquy is for another article. I want to talk about what the last 20 years of this industry has evolved into because it's been a hell of a couple decades.
Film Is Timeless, But First Generation Digital Was Literally for Everybody (Only It Sucked)
Going back to my father, one thing that was pretty great is that he was a reasonably early adopter of digital cameras, at least when the consumer market started to carry them in the 90s. He had several, but the one I remember the clearest was his Canon Pro70. It was a clunky thing, a built-in lens that was, at best, marginally adequate, it boasted maximum resolution of 1536x1024, the dynamic range of a sheet of paper, and basically no other actual options a usable professional camera should actually have. He still managed to leverage the Pro70 in the regional real estate market, knocking out basic, decidedly average images of properties outrageously fast (for the time) because the images were, of course, digital. His clients loved the turnaround time, and business was booming for him.
At the same time, the fledgling mainstream internet was exploding, and now everyone was demanding digital images for their new websites, so business for Dad continued to spike. Mind you, this was despite the Pro70 delivering images that were unquestionably garbage compared to anything he could do with his film rigs. Speed and efficiency won, and he chased that business angle full tilt.
Digital cameras flooded the consumer market by the turn of the millennia, and as we still lament in modern times, everyone became a photographer overnight. The difference, however, was that even a pricey consumer digital camera in, say, 1998, was still fairly crappy in terms of pure image quality. Everyone was buying them up in droves, but no one really believed they were able to produce the work they saw in magazines with those units because, frankly, it was obvious you couldn't.
At the same time, the internet also kind of sucked in the 1990s. Sure, it was a revolution in the spread of endless information, but let's face it, this new technology still had many years before it would become truly useful for photographers. The biggest factor for photographers (never mind poor videographers) was content delivery, because of the molasses-on-a-cold-day download speeds back then.
If you jumped on digital photography, like my dad did, and also embraced the mainstream internet in the 90s, you had no choice but to play to your platform. Which basically meant compromise of quality in favor of efficiency. The dot-com bubble notwithstanding, there was demand for all that digital photography could exploit in the mid to late 90s, and for a professional, work was work, so you chased it.
Second Generation Digital Makes Things Kind of Legit (Uh oh)
Eventually, my old man upgraded a few times and ultimately found solace in 2003 with his new Canon 10D, the first digital camera he owned that he deemed "Not total crap". The rest of the market was teeming with DSLRs at the time that were light years ahead of anything the late 90s digital consumer photography sphere pushed out. Now, more than ever, not only was everyone a photographer, but now everyone had reasonably decent gear.
But one thing about my father was that he was older than me. He still is, actually. And with age, with time, everyone eventually has to contend with their own knowledge base and skills set starting to become outdated when compared to latest trends and technological developments. For every 50 year old artist, there is a teenager doing the same art, but of course brand new to the field. The difference is, the younger artists tend to embrace the current methods and technology of an art form with almost zero hesitation, simply because they know they need to overcome this barrier of entry if they want to enter that field. Younger artists also get excited about new trends, and have something to prove to the world. They are often clumsy in their efforts, but for the most part they are decidedly hungry and eager to learn.
Older artists have far more experience, and can leverage that experience in dozens of ways a younger artist has yet to learn about or even imagine. Nothing replaces experience, and even pure talent needs to gain experience to truly blossom. But older artists also tend to be set in their ways, even if they believe they are not. My father, as an example, was a progressive artist in the field as he embraced digital early on (even when it was junk on the consumer market) all while still using his professional film equipment for bigger, more important jobs.
But for all my father's forward looking ways, time still caught up to him. For example, as recently as 2017, my father tipped me off to the fact that he still never used raw files. He had gone through numerous digital cameras, and is currently rocking a reasonably new 5D. The thing was though, he had not been utilizing the raw format this entire time. For many in the earlier consumer digital market, raw was, at best, misunderstood. Dad went right to work almost immediately after purchasing his Pro70 in 1998, and having done graphic design for years, the JPG format didn't phase him for a second. While I had long since moved out of the house, my dad kept shooting digital and purchasing new DSLRs, all while shooting JPG simply because it worked for him all those years.
Please keep in mind, my father is not some adorable-but-clueless septuagenarian here in 2019, as his background is computer programming, systems analysis, graphic design, and photography. But even he didn't realize the merits of raw early on, and eventually found himself invested in a workflow for about 20 years involving JPG files. When I sat down with him, explained raw, showed him how it was different, he immediately took to it but felt frustrated. He said he had made a mistake never trying to learn about raw, and didn't even know why he actually never bothered. So after I gave him some lessons on raw processing, he understood all the concepts, but now was having to redo his entire workflow and also learn new software tools. He looked at me dead in the eye and said, "Nino, today I feel old."
Third Generation Digital is Kid Stuff and You Might Be Old
My father was feeling the pressure of learning raw processing for the first time at 70 years old, realizing he had to essentially unlearn so much he had been utilizing for 20 odd years. Never mind his prior transition to digital in general, requiring him to unlearn some tried and true film photography methodologies because many no longer applied. For all his intensive experience, embracing every new trend and tech that came down the pipeline eventually just became uninspiring, and even boring. Everything seemed like just another fad, just another cool techy thing that camera and lens manufacturers wanted to sell us. The next version of Lightroom and Photoshop that will allegedly change the game, and the usual controversies around those updates. All the gear, just all of it. If it's new it's good, and you need it. Now. When you're a newbie, all of it seems exciting. When you've been at it a good while, it all tends to blur into noise in the background with only the occasional new tech announcement popping up on your radar that you actually might give a damn about.
But the thing is, everyone tends to feel that way after spending a decent amount of time in an industry, and an art form. When you first start, you are clamoring for anything and everything that you can learn about. You read all the blogs, all the reviews, go to all the conferences perhaps, and you want all the gear. Consequently, for better or worse, you end up potentially learning a lot about the current technological trends in photography when you're new, because you are eager to gain as much knowledge as you can.
After a couple years or so, you probably have the start of a set routine and workflow going that gets the results you like. You still try to learn, advance, try new things out, and you're always eyeing all the new tech every year, even if your eye is moderately less obsessed with it all. You know you're perhaps not an expert, but you're pretty clear on how to go about making images.
If you continue, you'll find yourself perhaps 10 or more years in, and hopefully have kept busy in the field for that decade or more. But, despite your continued interest in the field, you're likely going to be fairly wrapped up in your established process of photographing and editing. That's not to say you will absolutely be utilizing 10 year old technology or dated techniques, but you most certainly will be involved in your own creative production process and trust it to get you the results you enjoy. Why wouldn't you keep doing processes that worked for you? And when you're at this stage, you may even start to scoff and turn your nose up at brand new technology in photography because, frankly, the last three DSLRs you bought didn't quite live up to the hype, and Photoshop just seems the same for the last five years. You're smarter now, and know smoke and mirrors in gear advertising when you see it.
But also, new stylistic trends in what the newer photographers are producing are perhaps starting to just seem like silly fads to you. Hell, some of the new trends aren't new at all; you've seen them come and go before.
These are the classic symptoms of "getting old". Whether it's music, art, literature, entertainment or, yes, even photography, as soon as you start to think that what you learned early on is best, and that newer trends are just fleeting, you're "getting old". Never mind the social media platforms that dominate almost all aspects of the industry today. You either accept this, or find yourself with the massive challenge of getting your work seen without social media, which is more or less impossible in the 2019 world.
Trying Not To Get Old
It's just bad news when you stick to your stubborn guns about photography, simply because you're highly experienced. But before I explain my reasoning as to why it's a bad thing for you, make no mistake, there really are fads, and most truly are, sadly, fleeting. That said, art is an ever evolving thing, and a fad can sometimes blossom into a more refined style that becomes a new standard of sorts. If you dismiss every new stylistic trend as "these kids just being copycats of cookie-cutter shit they see on Instagram," then you may never discover the potential inspiration from new art approaches in the field. Who knows what you could do with new, fresh inspiration when you apply your expansive experience and vision to it.
And also, while your last few gear purchases left you underwhelmed, maybe, the next big leap in zoom lenses could be emerging this year, and could change the work you do depending on how you adapt to it. Yes, some gear is timeless, such as high grade prime lenses, and those could be in service for you for literally decades. Everyone knows photography isn't just about gear, but sorting through the latest marketing from any manufacturer can lead you to believe "Nothing's new, they just want to sell the same old stuff to newbies", and you'd be partially true. No camera or lens maker can stay in business if they don't continue to sell units, year after year.
But keep in mind, let's say you started photography in the 1970s, so of course you had to embrace the industry technology at the time in order to become a photographer. Back then, a veteran photographer with 30 years of experience could have, and likely did, scoff at you and your "new 1970s technology" that the photo industry was hyping up at the time. After all, marketing is marketing. Basically, this cycle is endless and has always been, but when you yourself start to sound like "that guy" who downplays anything new in the field, it may be time to check yourself.
You Close Your Mind to New Styles More Than New Tech
You do. It's time to admit that. While you may feel that all the new technology splattered all over the expo floor at the latest photography conference are things you could potentially utilize in your work (if you could be bothered to buy any of it) you are not so open to new artistic styles in the field. Why do I say this?
You tend to really only love discovering a new photographer:
- When they do work similar to yours.
- When they do work similar to another photographer you admire, past or present.
- When they do work you wish you could do.
You might loathe discovering a new photographer:
- When they do work that is rather different than yours.
- When they do work that seems aligns exactly with the latest visual trends you feel are "everywhere".
- When they do work you wish you could do.
Keep in mind, I am omitting the obviously "bad" photography you run into. That is, photography that is technically flawed in numerous ways, but almost always because the photographer producing the work is so brand new to the technology that they don't know how to leverage any of it.
No, instead I challenge you to look deeper, and to really get your head around the idea that you tend to dismiss well produced work way too often simply because it isn't something you do yourself or have seen before. You know, like we all do with music, for example, popular and otherwise.
Yes, I know, you like what you like. But did it occur to you that the style you gravitated towards in your early photography exploration carries much more foundational weight, if you will, than new styles do because in your mind's eye, it was what you first fell in love with photographically speaking?
As a child learns language for the first time as a toddler, the child will generally learn to speak it perfectly well, or at least suitably well enough to communicate fluidly with others who speak the same idiom. That same child, now as an adult, has the capability of learning other, new languages if they chose to. However, it is likely that this adult will speak the new languages with a strong accent, reflecting their introductory, foundational understanding of language that stems from the initial language they learned. Even with an open mind, an adult who grew up with English, who is now learning Japanese, will almost certainly always speak Japanese with an English accent. For them, the mental and physical aspects of language stem from English, and everything about another language they add to their brain will almost always be affected by the first manner in which they learned language in general. That's just being human.
Acknowledging this helps you in your exploration of art, as you may be more apt to embrace new visual styles when you know you may very well be biased because of what you first started with. When you're blind to this fact, you tend to see anything that deviates from what you "cut your teeth on" as being just plain bad. A mistake if there ever was one.
And on the tech side, I know you've heard veteran photographers lament, perhaps, the "clinical" vibe that digital brings when compared to the "warm" or "organic" aesthetic of film. I'm guessing many of you reading this have said exactly that, many times. However, the same issue exists here: You believe what you started with (film) is better because it's, well, how you started. (note that I believe film and digital are simply different, not better or worse).
I know this article was kind of all over the place, but my main point is about balance. If you are new to the industry, welcome in and do enjoy. Your fresh outlook is just what the industry needs to grow and evolve, but know that you have a lot to learn about still, and stay humble.
If you're an experienced veteran photographer, know that your knowledge is appreciated and necessary for the industry to remain at a high caliber, but admit when you are being close-minded to new ideas, concepts, aesthetics, or even equipment. There was a time when you embraced all the latest stuff, too (remember the confusion of getting starting on Instagram?)
What do you think? Are you a newbie trying to shake up the scene? Are you an old pro set in your ways? Something in between?