The Digital Photography Revolution
The Democratization of Photography (Alternative Title)
A digital photography revolution has taken place. In this post I want to take a step back and look at some of the huge changes that have occurred over the past few years.
The Digital Photography Revolution
Serious photography has gone from being the preserve of the reasonably well off to something that just about anyone can take up with minimal expense. This has come about very recently and very quickly. A little over a decade ago it was not possible to shoot anything more than a holiday snap without a considerable investment. Today, photographs can be shot with cameras that cost $100 or even less and be a lot more than just OK.
Nikon’s D1 was the first DSLR that performed at all well and was in anyway affordable. It was priced at around $5,500 (over $7k if inflation adjusted). Believe it or not, this was incredibly cheap compared to the competition. The D1 was released in 1999, a mere 12 years ago.
Of course film cameras were much cheaper than this to buy but once the cost of film and developing is factored in any saving is soon lost. Bear in mind that anyone who is serious about photography will have to shoot lots of pictures as part of their education. If I recall correctly, the cost of film used to average around 25c a shot multiply this by say 1,000 shots a month which is actually a fairly conservative number and we end up with a figure of around $3,000 a year and that is before developing costs are even considered.
Obviously the $7,000 initial outlay for the digital or the overall cost of film photography restricted serious photography to only those with a high disposable income well past the turn of the 21st century. The ability to take an infinite number of reasonable quality photographs for an outlay of less than say, $200 didn’t happen until around 2005 as best as I can tell. I would put the $200 price point and the 5 megapixel sensor as the turning point in this whole process. This was only six years ago. Think about that for a second, it has only been six years since buying a camera was not a major budgetary decision and beyond the reach of a large percentage of people.
The New Infrastructure
Fast forward to the present and cost is really no longer an issue. Not only are cameras very cheap in relative terms but the processing is now done on machines that most people have in their homes regardless of whether or not they were into photography. Just about anyone can now take a good photograph very cheaply. This has changes not only the quantity of photographs out there but what gets photographed. With just about everyone owning at least one camera and zero image cost there is now no downside to taking a photograph – so everything gets photographed.
Add to this the storage and distribution ease due to the web and suddenly time is condensed. There are probably more images shot and, more importantly, made available publicly in one minute today than in a whole year a couple of decades ago. Cellphones and websites like Flickr make storage and distribution a completely painless matter. If I wanted to I could shoot a thousand images, slap the cameras memory card into a slot in my computer and have those same images on Flickr within the hour. Twentyfive years ago , to get 1,000 images published would have been impossible on any timescale. The ability to move pictures electronically, pixel by pixel has changed the world and that is not hyperbole. It is no coincidence that the newspaper industry went digital a couple of years before the consumer boom.
The newspaper industry was the first to adopt the new digital technology as it was a perfect fit for their needs. Quality was not an issue as the output was only capable of low quality reproductions and the ability to send images over any link without the need for special technology was capable of and did revolutionize the industry. Nikons D1 mentioned earlier became the standard tool for the newspaper photographer. This early adoption took the whole idea and its possibilities out of the realm of the abstract and planted it firmly in the concrete.
It was discovered that people really like to not only take photographs but to share them and show them as much as possible. Not only to friends but also to complete strangers. It was also discovered that people like to alter photographs, whether for a laugh or to make more serious artistic or philosophical statements. This spawned photsharing and photoediting as an industry. Suddenly the world was awash with images of both the extraordinary and the very ordinary.
The Photography Industry
This changed the roles of the professional photographer and photo editor who, up until this point had more or less carte blanche in deciding what constituted a good image and what constituted a bad one. They were the experts and if you needed an image for anything more sophisticated than a family snapshot album you would have to go through these gatekeepers. This was no longer the case, the proffession could now be bypassed in the image distribution game.
Professional and semi professional photographers reacted broadly in one of two ways. One group dug in and used just about every tactic to try to protect their turf. Among the tactics they employed were:
Medium snobbery – anyone who worked with digital and not film was a hack wannabee – initially at least.
Financial snobbery – deriding anyone who claimed to be serious who didn’t have thousands of dollars worth of equipment.
Technical snobbery – e.g. a miniscule amount of noise, a tiny blown highlight would render an image worthless regardless of artistic or any other consideration.
mysogeny- coining terms such as ‘Mommie Photographers’ for any woman who started charging for photographic services. The term was certainly not intended as a compliment to the person’s ability to multi-task.
…and other rearguard actions aimed at keeping the bar for entry to the world of professional photography as high and out of reach of most as possible. I think that this group was in the minority and consisted mainly of artistically challenged gadget nerds and people who had entered photography purely as a business move and investment i.e. niche filling.
The New Wave
Fortunately their was another group who, even if they didn’t welcome the changes initially, accepted that the photographic world was about to overtake them and adapted to survive. At the vanguard of this group were those who not only changed strategy but who were positively energized by new future that was opening up. Photographers could now experiment endlessly, alter and adapt work, dabble in design and layout work giving them control of context and deal with a potential customer base that had suddenly increased exponentially. They could also now bypass the traditional gatekeepers and go direct to the market. This was the group that really changed the world. They set up the photo sharing sites on the web, drove the direction of the image editing software market and are largely responsible for making the photography landscape what it is today.
This second group both laid the foundation for the next wave and were themselves a big part of that wave – the real democratization of photography. This is the world of the cellphone, Facebook, Flickr, the $100 point and shoot camera, free online photo editing, unlimited bandwidth, one click upload to multiple social networks and the rest. The majority of this wave are in it for fun, they do not regard themselves as photographers, they regard the photo as an alternative to the word, a means of conveying information. These users are the social network adopters and the exact medium, image or word, is not as important as the social network thing itself. A very sizeable minority though are artistically inclined and do use these tools as both a means of expression and a way to get their talent out there, to attract buyers and clients. These are the people who are now pushing the envelope.
Nothing happens in isolation, at least not in the creative realm. The fine arts world is now beginning to reflect the massive changes wrought by the democratization of photography. The most prestigious white wall galleries are now not only showing photography but are showing photography done with very ordinary technology. There has already been a major solo show of photographs taken with an Iphone – a gadget where the camera isn’t even the primary function fo the device. The photographer came from the world of ‘real’ cameras but has chosen the Iphone as his weapon of choice. This show was both a cause and a result of the removal of photography equipment fettishism as the deciding factor when evaluating photography. Now a good photograph shot with a cameraphone is considered legitimate, not only by the general public but also by the art world and the majority (I guess) of the photography world.
Conclusion – the Digital Photography Revolution Will Change Everything
The Democratization of photography was always about more than just making photography affordable. It was about having a great distribution network in place, relegating the roles of the gatekeepers and gaining legitimacy from acceptance by the fine arts establishment, media and it must be said, by many photographers themselves. There are still photographers who obstinately cling to the old models, the desire for a high bar of entry, the photographer/editor as gatekeeper and a tightly controlled and entrenched distribution mechanism. I doubt if this reactionary mentality will be able to survive in the new landscape and forecast it’s demise with this generation of photographers.
It is worth noting that a huge majority of photographers who’s names are still known did not start out poor. My heroes, the likes of Stieglitz, Strand and Weston were all supported by reasonably well to do families. In the early years of the 20th century photography was not an option for someone from a working class background. Six days a week in a factory to put enough food on the table was about where economic reality was at. For the first time we are now in a situation where a budding photographer will not require access to a small family fortune to develop their photography beyond the adequate.
Not only will this result in a massively larger quantity of good work being produced but, I suspect, a huge difference in the type of work produced. The idea that photography could finally enter the same century as painting in terms of philosophical outlook rather than lagging a hundred years behind excites me greatly. The influx of trained visual artists into photography can only be a good thing.
The timeline isn’t quite as cut and dried as I’ve indicated. The minor simplifications don’t change anything significant but there was greater overlap than I’ve implied. This was done to keep the post readable.
I suspect that the digital photography revolution is far from over – watch this space.