Monday, June 8, 2009

Digital Photography: Good Or Bad?

Web sites for pro photographers brim with posts from worried business people who see their livelihoods threatened by the influx of digital cameras.

It’s possible any pros in a craft that becomes easier may be threatened if the general public realizes that Uncle Mike can actually catch the same images, or close to them, as the far more costly pro. It’s also not probable that Uncle Mike is going to do that consistently. Consistent excellence is what the pro gets paid for, creativity added to sweeten the mix.

The pro photographers problems extend across the craft, starting with wedding shooters, moving on portraitists, and from there to landscape artists and others who sell their prints to the general public. It has crept in photojournalism, too, though its presence there is nothing new: the guy with the 35mm point and shoot has long provided free or low cost photos for newspapers and TV. PJs aren’t able to be everywhere there’s a breaking story.

On a personal note, I’m a pro photographer in part—half my work is words, half is the photos that illustrate those words. The photography has certainly gotten easier, and in some ways less costly, since the onset of the digital era.

There is some impingement on my income that is not directly related to the current recession, though. Amateur photographers, some of whom are truly excellent, often supply shots and facts for articles in the magazines for which I write and shoot. That simply cannot be helped. It was always there. The bite coming out of my work, and the work of others in my field, is a bit larger, because currently editors are looking for lower cost material. I think—hope?—that bite will shrink, at least in proportion, as the recession ebbs.

The people hurting the most are the people who make their livings based on locally based photography, weddings, portraits, senior photos and what I call rites of passage shots, bar mitzvahs, graduations, and similar events.

For some of the work I do, the automatic features of even the best cameras can defeat the aims of the photographer. Shooting races, no matter what kind, is not easy, regardless of camera type, though it is definitely easier that it was in film days. Let’s face it: blasting away at 3 to 6 frames per second allows a lot of leeway, producing shots where it is more likely even the unskilled will catch a great piece of the action. That’s especially true if a camera allows 40 or 50 frames before the camera’s buffer fills and it slows down, or stops. Huge flash memory cards can hold an awful lot of images. My 14.6 megapixel sensor shooting in one type of file can store more than 2000 frames with a 16 gigabyte flash memory card. Even at the largest file size, it still holds onto more than 700 files.

Sure, it’s easier, and it is going to create some pain for all pro photographers. But this type of technological change is not new: medium format took over from large format view cameras, which themselves had taken over from glass plate negatives and so on back. Classic 35mm was a miniature format when first introduced, and wasn’t accepted as worthwhile in editorial terms until well into the ‘50s, with some magazines demanding medium format or larger negatives or transparencies right into the 1990s.

Photographers will adapt. Amateurs may pick up a few more dollars to allow them to buy another lens or better camera body, while professionals learn to change their marketing emphases, so that a larger group of customers can be reached, those who want the real, but sometimes elusive, difference that a real pro can make to a portrait or wedding series or senior shots.

All in all, digital photography seems to me a good thing, maybe even great. The appreciation of good photography of all types of photography can now reach a wider audience, at lower cost, than ever before.

***For other old people who learn slowly, do NOT attempt to write your blog in Word, for copy and paste to Blogger. I've spent over an hour trying to straighten this HTML out, with damnall for results.***


  1. I would think that the essence of photography is something other than the simple ability to take and manipulate a shot. As is the case with its parent art, photography depends on the eye and mind of the user. The good photographer is separated from the patzer by the same distance that the good painter is from the incoherent doodler. Technology is not a substitute or a short cut for or to art. It is merely another tool to be used or misused.

  2. Tom, That's true, but it's fair to remember that art is not the aim of all photographers. Recording a scene has many variations, and my choice is to provide as accurate a picture as possible.

    I am not and never have wanted to be an artist. I am a craftsman and hope to continue in that classification.

    I am not Walker Evans as a writer, nor am I Edward Weston as a photographer.