What Is Going On With Photography?!

February 02, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

A bit of an unusual blog post from me since it doesn't cover technical aspects in photography. But I felt the urge to write about a social matter which has increased related to photography. But let me start from the beginning when I started off in photography as teenager in the mid 80s. This was a time long before internet, and if looking for information, we relied on books, journals, and the library to find out more. During this time in the 80s, photography was still a profitable business for professional photographers - in any kind of field. I remember when going on vacation with my parents, that often my Dad and I were the only ones with cameras surrounded by beautiful landscapes - National Parks were much less crowded with visitors, and it actually was no issue at all photographing the scenery without getting people in the frame. 

This situation remained about the same even up to 2001, when I last time visited Yosemite National Park with friends of mine (see photos below taken with my SLR at the time in 04/2001). There were more amateur photographers with SLRs and film P&S cameras around, but well dispersed throughout the park. You could enjoy the silence when hiking and taking your time to snap photos. The change started slowly around 2002, when the first digital cameras became available for the amateur - I also got my first digital P&S, the Sony DSC-P5 with at the time unbeatable 3 MP in this category! When going outside on hikes and to take photos, I suddenly saw a few more other amateurs shooting with digital cameras, but it was still sporadic. 

I came to the US permanently in 2005, and this was also the year when I upgraded to my first DSLR, the Canon Rebel XT with decent 8 MP APS-C sensor. Before I had stopped taking regular photos with my analog SLR since film development cost and uncertainty in the lab development took the fun away for me. My Sony DSC-P5 did not allow me to use manual modes, it was all P&S only. It worked well, but I was quickly bored by just pressing the shutter release button with this camera or making a quick low res video sequence with it. The Rebel XT brought back the fun for me even I had compared to my current situation a minimal technical photography knowledge since I was never taught in it nor did I read books about it - I just learned from my Dad and shot film with try&error. I remember that I thought in 2005 that I only need one lens for all (why the heck bothering with primes?!) and bought this camera with a Sigma 28-300 super zoom lens. Quickly I had to realize that this lens was not as I expected it to perform especially at the wide and long ends (in fact it turned out to be the worst lens image-quality wise which I ever bought!). I used this lens still for a year - but decided then to make more use of the modernized internet at the time with photo forums and the first photo reviews streaming in. I self-taught myself about lens characteristics, lens speeds, optical properties, etc etc. I bought my first higher quality Canon EF lenses and suddenly even had a lot more fun! GAS (Gear Aquisition Syndrome) was kicking in, and soon I had a nice collection of EF lenses at hand. I really enjoyed digital at this point and remember that I never wanted to go back to film. Year by year starting around 2005, I saw more and more people with digital cameras in the field. I lived in PA at the time, and tried to connect to other amateur photographers in the area. But there was not even one meetup photography group in the whole Philly area nor a photo club to share ideas and do photo shooting in a group. For years I photographed by myself all the time until I joined flickr and found a few photographers in my area to meet up with. Flickr also became the first website to share my photos with others. 2009 was another milestone for me when I was able to afford a full frame (35 mm based) DSLR, the Canon 5D MkII. This camera brought me again to a higher level in my skills using this camera with better viewfinder and finally avoiding the often disliked crop factor since I preferred mostly shooting wide. At the time I was shooting often at Valley Forge National Historic Park, and I could tell from year by year I was shooting there that more amateur photographers started taking photos around me, but it still wasn't too bad regarding crowds. In 2010 I got the opportunity to do my first photo exhibit inside the YMCA in Berwyn/PA - not really knowing how to do this professionally well, I used cheaper glass clip-frames instead of wooden frames. The exhibit was still well received, but this was the time I learned that the location and audience is important when anticipating sales. Most people simply wanted to go to the gym and exercise or bring their kids to classes and were not at all into photography or even considering buying photos (later I learned that the same applies for exhibits in libraries where people might look at the photos but most have no intention at all to make a purchase at this location). 

2010 brought big professional changes for me when I changed my workplace and moved from PA to NJ. I would have never thought at the time that this would change my photography severely! In PA I loved going to parks to take scenery, flower, and especially all kind of insect macro shots - I could do this there for hours undisturbed. But NJ was a totally different game - parks there are always crowded in spring to fall, I found it very hard to do macro shots undisturbed by people walking by. But my move had its benefits - people became interested exponentially in digital photography since gear was now a lot more affordable than just 5 years earlier. Photo meetup and photo clubs formed all over the place, and getting to know others with similar interests was easy. I started getting out more, shooting sunrises and all kind of locations in a group of 10-15 people. Everybody knew each other, it was a mixed age range from the 30s to 70s. 

But nothing remains the same, change is imminent! What was formerly a nice group of single-minded people became an overcrowded and less personal group only 2 years after I joined. I remember a sunrise shoot where more than 40 people came, and it was tough to have somebody not walking into my frame (or not standing myself in the frame of somebody else). Also the age distribution in the group changed - the younger people disappeared, and suddenly the median was easily over 55 at the time. Nothing against retirees (hey, we all don't get younger), but this is the group from which camera manufacturers must have made a lot of money selling gear! It is caused by a great combination of available time and opportunity to use a technology at its highest for an affordable price. Younger people often are professionally busy, have family commitments, and often less money available to purchase photo gear, too. Also since mid 2007, smartphones were on the rise which came with increasingly better camera technology. Cameras also had quite short innovation cycles  - every two years a new camera with new sensor or image improving technology hit the market. Marketing created a hype to upgrade to the best quickly, vest in more modern lenses etc. And people followed - both with smartphones and digital cameras. 

And now things turned really crowded. Forget about being contacted by a well known publishing company which saw one of my photos on flickr and asked to purchase it for a book. The values of photos hit the bottom, photo stock markets skyrocketed in profitability by paying the photographer only the absolute minimum and cashing in the rest. After I started using my own photo website and deserting flickr, I was contacted a few times to hand over a few photos for free and just receiving the acknowledgment with my name. When I refused to do this, I got once the response that "everyone can do this photo with the cell anyway". Well, best of luck buddy! But this clearly was a sign of a shift in attitude towards photography which had much more supply than demand. Professional photographers had to close down their business because of amateurs disrupting the prices and profits with often mediocre quality of work done. I remember an article where a professional landscape photographer was asked how he avoids that somebody else takes the same shot. His answer was to use special lens gear which most amateurs can't afford - even this is no longer an obstacle now for most lenses which all got cheaper. Competition between amateurs was also on the rise - facebook became very popular and people posting their taken photos. One way to kick out potential competition was (and still is) to hide the location where the photo was taken. In one example a few years back one amateur photographer even purposely assigned the wrong location to his photo to mislead potential copycats. This all ignores that the value of any kind of photo isn't there anymore monetary-wise in the first place. 

What's next? Mirrorless technology is certainly on the rise, but the photo market itself is saturated since all interested ones already upgraded from film to digital camera technology from about 2005 to 2015. Smartphone cameras are so good now that nobody can tell the difference between cell and semi-professional camera from a photo posted on the web. Art galleries ask interested photographers for a hefty fee just to present photo prints for a few weeks in a small gallery section. Rarely anyone actually still buys photos - companies have contracts with photo stock distributors for an annual fee to use any kind of photo they need from the site. Potential customers rather grab their own digital camera (or cell phone) to try to take a similar photo which they see and like in an exhibit than actually paying $$ for it. It has gotten so bad that many started post processing well taken photos into painting look-alikes since this stands out from the mass and actually attracted customers to purchase the modified photo. Others went a step further and sold all their photo gear to do painting rather than photography since this is still seen as form of art. 

Especially youngsters who never grew up with analog photography have come back since 2016 to film. Film is again a slowly increasing market after it was considered dead in 2010. Several companies are now revamping their activity to manufacture films which isn't all that easy after equipment was shut down or given to the junkyard about 10 years ago. Analog well maintained camera gear of known brands like Leica, Zeiss, Hasselblad etc easily doubled in the past three years due to high demand. Film will never even get close to the digital photo market in the future - it will remain a niche, but it is again a growing one. Many find themselves more connected with the "real" photography when using film, and I have to agree with this from my experience after I started shooting film again 4 years ago. 

It is the best time ever regarding the choices we all have to use photo gear, but it has also become an overcrowded field leading to environmental issues, for example in National Parks where herds of amateur photographers enter every year stumbling on the same location to take similar shots as already seen on facebook or IG. Iceland already took measures and closed districts to photographers for exactly this reason. More often we all see signs with "No Photography Allowed" because it has become just too much. I sometimes ask myself these days if it is really worthwhile going out and shooting instead of doing something else. I most often still answer it with "yes" since I use it as creative outlet, but my expectation has severely changed what I want to do with my photos compared to 10 years ago. Other than for the benefit of social interaction, I don't see any value for me in participating in photo exhibits anymore or trying to sell my photos online. 

I am curious what I might write in 10 years from now on this subject. Please leave your comments below! Happy shooting!


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