Back in the 1830s, you had to be a highly trained craftsman to be a photographer. Whether you were shooting Daguerreotypes or using wet plates, creating a photograph was difficult and technologically demanding. The transition to dry plate technology helped to simplify the process, but photography was still an undertaking for specialists.
Then film was invented and Kodak invented the Brownie in 1900. This was a simple box camera Kodak promoted with the slogan “You push the button, we do the rest.” Originally, you sent the whole camera back to Kodak, which processed the film and gave you back the camera reloaded with new film. Eventually, this process was improved and users could buy rolls of film, load them into the camera and then send them off for processing once the film was exposed.
The age of the “snap shot” was upon us, with millions of people eventually shooting billions of pictures. As a result, people began to shoot photos themselves that in the past they would have paid a photographer for. Things like family portraits and pictures of their children. And this technology allowed them to make photos that professional photographers would rarely have done in the past. Pictures of the kids opening their Christmas presents, family barbecues, snap shots of pretty girls. There are many books and collections of snap shots taken over the years. These photos aren’t art, frequently are not very technically competent. But they do give us insight into daily life at different points in our history.
The invention of the Leica and the popularity of the 35mm format gave photographers a way to shoot more “serious” pictures with a great degree of convenience was another step in making photography more ubiquitous. Medium format cameras like the Rolleiflex combine convenience with a larger negative and continued this process. And the technology essentially stayed much the same for decades until the introduction of high-res, affordable digital cameras in the last 1990s. This technology was as much a game changer as was the original introduction of film.
In the age of film, once you had a quality camera and lens, you could rely on them for decades. The bells and whistles on a camera, such as auto exposure or auto focus, might improve – but the quality of the photos remained the same. In the digital age, while camera and lens are important, the quality of the image is highly dependent on the chip that captures the pixels, the processing in the camera and the post-processing that takes place in a computer. If you want to produce the best photos possible, camera and computer and software needs to be regularly upgraded.
Shooting digital photos is almost magic compared to working with film. Where once it was absolutely necessary to fill shadows with a flash or reflector, now you just move a slider. The ability to change color and tonal values, to add or clone out details and otherwise manipulate a photographic image is incredible. And the newest digital cameras make it possible for almost anybody to shoot very acceptable images – well exposed, in focus – and the ability to see the image on the back of your camera allows you to reshoot anything immediately that has problems. If somebody’s eyes are closed, you can find that out right away.
As a result, the same thing is happening in photography as it did when the Brownie was introduced. People are shooting millions of photos, and uploading a lot of them to the Internet. Even markets which once depended primarily on the work of pro photographers are now using mediocre but acceptable digital images created by non-professional or less experienced photographers. This is creating a difficult situation for many pro photographers, whose higher level of expertise is no longer required to the same degree it once was.
But just as was the case in the age of the snap shot, while there are so many more photographs out there, you won’t see that many more great photos. The ubiquity of so many digital snap shots is tending to create so much “noise” that anyone wanting to promote a product, service or career with images should be looking to obtain the absolutely highest quality photos to get the attention of the world. Major ad agencies do this. Magazines like Vogue or Vanity Fair do this. They are the top of the food chain. But further down the ladder, commercial users of photos are settling for lesser quality images, and they are paint the price for this – whether or not they know it.
The bottom line is some images have the power to impact the viewer, whether they are aware of it or not. Most don’t. If commercial users of photos settle for the mediocre, they are simply adding to the noise. Perhaps this will all iron itself out over time, as our culture absorbs all the implications of digital technology.
In the meantime, we are going to be seeing more and more mediocre photos that are technologically acceptable but have little effect on the viewer. The noise will just get louder.