By Bill Dobbins
GOODBY AGE OF FILM
The age of film as the primary medium of photography is over. Some photographers may still shoot photos on film – there are those who still make Daguerreotypes – but capturing images using some kind of electronic processing will be with us for the foreseeable future.
Digital photos have caused a huge disruption in the business of professional photography. It used to be a certain minimal amount of craft was necessary in order to produce useable photos even of subjects that were not very challenging. Need some shots to publicize your local hardware store? Best to hire a photographer to guarantee adequate results. Publishing a magazine? Make use of staff or reliable freelance photographers. That’s the way if was for decades.
But no more. Anybody can shoot promotional photos of a hardware store using an automatic digital camera or even an iPhone. Besides which, the photos probably will be used online so don’t have to be print quality. Put the camera on automatic, create a jpeg and then upload the file. Easy, quick and simple.
THE HIGH END REMAINS
The high end jobs are still there. If you are Versace and have a five million dollar ad buy scheduled for the major fashion magazines you are going to spend big bucks on getting the best and most professional images possible. And you will likely choose a very established, big name photographer because if anything goes wrong nobody can point the finger of blame at you.
So the low end of the business never amounted to much, the high end is still there (although very difficult for a photographer to break in to) while the financial problems photographers are facing is largely do to jobs in that middle area going away. Of course, while the business of photography is threatened there is more photography taking place every day than ever before. By a very long shot. Popular Photography reports there are 200,000 images uploaded to Facebook every minute! It is just that most of these photos are not what we could call serious images created by photography pros.
Not only are these photos not serious, most are not very good – judged by the standards of quality photos. Instead they are quick snapshots created by a general computer algorithm. They are almost all jpegs, which is a compressed format that saves space by throwing away information. They are shot by people with little no training or experience as visual artists. This is bad news for professional photographers, but it is not the first time something like this has happened.
ENTER THE BROWNIE
Photography at the end of the 19th century was generally done using plates coated with a dry emulsion, unlike earlier technology in which the plate was coated with a web emulsion and an exposure had to be made before the chemicals dried. After dry plates came celluloid film coated with light-sensitive silver halide crystals.
Photographers generally used large format studio cameras and even the more portable type cameras were pretty big and awkward to use. So if you need photos shot, if you wanted a family portrait, you went to a professional photographer, paid for a photo session and then ordered prints. But this state of affairs was totally disrupted when Kodak announced the Brownie at the beginning of the 20th century. The change that followed was much like what is happening today.
The Brownie used roll film, not plates. Originally, you sent the whole camera to the lab, they developed the film and returned prints with a new roll of film loaded in the camera. Later you bought film and loaded the camera yourself. Meanwhile, if you wanted photos of your family, kids, pets or anything else you just pulled out your Brownie.
“You push the button, we do the rest.”
PRINT NEEDED PRO PHOTOS
The age of the snapshot did not destroy the business of professional photography but it did change the playing field. Early in the century pros were still relying on large view cameras and equipment like the bulky Graphlex, but that also changed when Leica introduced quality 35mm cameras and lenses and medium format cameras like the Rolleiflex took the place or larger formats like 4X5. But this was also the golden age of print. Magazines and newspapers that were hungry for images bought a plethora of photos from all sorts of photographers. Businesses published ads in those magazines and newspapers and they needed pictures, too. So what was lost to Brownie snapshots was replaced by editorial and commercial print work
Unfortunately, print is now going away, too. Magazines and newspapers are cutting back or going out of business. Except for the high-end ads being produced by big time ad agencies, the demand for both editorial and commercial photos is much, much less – and the payments for those photos that are bought are hugely diminished. None of this bodes very well for the future of professional photography.
DO WE NEED PRO PHOTOGRAPHERS TODAY?
So the question is this: Why do we need professional photographers at all? There are two immediate answers to this:
(1) Quality photos are more effective than mediocre ones when it comes to grabbing the eye, sticking in the mind and selling and promoting products, services and careers.
(2) Visual data captured on a card in a camera is not finished photos. This ia only the raw material for finished images, in the same way a BW negative or a quick proof are not the same as a carefully made print.
In many circumstances, digital images can capture a lot more information more easily than possible with film. But that information need to be manipulated and interpreted to create the best possible final image. Ansel Adams made a career out of figuring out how to manipulate film type, exposure and development chemistry and time to produce the negative he wanted. And then proceeded to use a myriad of techniques, including a lot of dodging and burning, to produce a master print. In the digital age he would totally understand why photographers spend so much effort on using software like Photoshop and Lightroom to produce images with just the right amount of brightness, darkness, contrast, saturation, sharpness as well as extensive dodging and burning using electronic means.
Cameras don’t shoot quality images. Talented and experienced photographers do. Those millions of images uploaded on line largely go unnoticed and get lost in the “noise.” People can’t be relied to react to most of them emotionally or to remember then for any length of time. As the saying goes, a monkey with a motor drive will create at leas some effective photos but that is something you should hardly rely on if quality photos are a necessary part of your business plan.
Snapshots are just about capturing a moment in time without any attempt to produce a really effective and memorable image. They are great for what they are. Ansel Adams used to shoot snapshots of his family. He knew the difference between his art and just making a record of the moment.
The problem is too many people don’t know the difference – and many of them are publishers, art directors and others in charge of acquiring and selecting images that their business depends on for its success. If they are under 30, that is even more likely. They have grown up with digital and often don’t know the difference.
To me, that is more of a threat to the business of photography than almost anything else.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
BILL DOBBINS ART
THE FEMALE PHYSIQUE WEBZINE/GALLERY