The Consumerization of Photography

The best photographs tell a story.

I’ve been working with digital imaging since the early 1980’s. Before digital photography began, newspapers and magazines were the pioneers in the move away from analog (film.) The advancement of radio transmission opened new doors for newspapers. Microwave radio and satellite communications were at the leading edge of this move to new imaging techniques. Newspapers that wished to publish nation wide or world wide found that it was cheaper to transmit their images via radio frequency than it was to produce mass quantities of film and fly or truck that film to their printing operations.

During the early days of digital imaging, there was no mass consumer attraction to gigabytes and megapixels. Photography for the average Joe out there was either amateurs who found the combination of art and technical enticing, a dedicated art form practiced in niches and commercial advertising work or photojournalism for promoting products. By the late 1990’s, digital cameras began appearing on the market as mass produced consumer products and with that came the proliferation of the Internet photography related web sites.

Here we are now in 2018 and photography has moved into the future. Film is still used in many commercial settings but digital image files are the predominant product format. The technology that was in use at the start of digital imaging still exists, but commercial use of satellite and the older microwave links has morphed to the internet over TCP-IP high speed data links. It’s still a matter of costs for those producing photography filled product.

As the Internet grew in popularity, so did the number of websites devoted to the new technology. Today the primary medium for displaying photography is the computer and most of the photographs we see are on the internet. Photography as become a major consumer market and the art aspect has been drowned in a sea of mediocre photographs of common popular scenes and subjects and post processing techniques.

The other side of the coin is the morphing of Internet websites devoted to consumer reviews of equipment and accessories, splattered with fun filled experts cavorting around waving their expensive equipment at us to convince us they are somehow important to the art and article.

So what’s wrong with that? Nothing, if that’s what the masses want to see and what today’s photographer wants to get from their photography. Sharing the experience. It all really boils down to drawing the attention of consumers to sell something.

Where this approach is lacking, in my opinion, is that everything has morphed into consumerism and the attainment of new toys. Consumerism in photography has driven the serious photographers away. It’s driven the story tellers to find something different.

Photography as always been a magnet for the technically inclined. That’s how I got in to the business. I was an engineer and learning the technical aspects of digital imaging was paramount to my doing my job. Cameras and lenses and darkroom equipment were the tools of the craft and have always been attractive to the technical hobbyist.

Now that our thinking has been embedded into the internet photography age, consumerism has taken over. The days of the paying gig are becoming farther and fewer between. So much so, the running joke is “what’s the difference between a photographer and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.” There is more truth to that joke than you may imagine.

Newspapers, once a staple profession for photographers, are cutting or have cut their photography staff to the bone. Some have eliminated photojournalists from their ranks completely, preferring to simply have their journalists use their iPhone camera. Television news is a wasteland for professional photographers. Everything is crowd sourced now. Turn on the local news and you’ll see lots of mediocre photographs sent in from viewers substituting for what the photojournalist used to do.

Where does this leave someone who wants to pursue photography as a profession? Disappointment I’m afraid is the most likely destination. It goes back to the old theory of supply and demand. When the supply of photographers goes up, the demand goes down for any one individual photographer. The market is booming for photographic equipment, but the market for good photographs is decreasing. The most skilled photographers have to compete with everyone who owns a camera. The potential client is going to think economics for their wedding or event or art and look for the best bang for the buck. Talented amateurs can compete with professionals by giving their work away. A professional has to charge for their service. The amateur working for free can always find a welcome clientele when the product is given for free. When I hear of a photographer working for “exposure” it’s all I can do to not break out laughing. Getting a lot of “likes” on Facebook isn’t really going to earn you much money. That exposure is roughly the equivalent of being a plastic bottle floating around in a large blob of plastic debris in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. For a working professional, finding a source of income in photography is becoming more and more problematic.

Serious photographers have taken to the Internet to promote themselves. I’ve been doing this for years myself. I’ve written technical and interest stories and published them. Some have been widely successful, other articles have not fared so well.  I have enough material for a couple of books. But who needs another book saying the same thing that’s been said again and again?

The meaningful content hasn’t much changed, just the person writing about it. Today’s Internet photography website has drifted away from the art form and towards consumerism to make money. Photographers looking for income on the Internet have consumerized their websites with advertisements for the consumer photography industry to the point that they really don’t have much of interest to say about the art, it’s more about buying your next camera or lens from their link so they can get a cut of the sale.

Many a photographer has had to change their business model to find a vein of income and that reality has changed the content character of photography related websites. Dwindling are the days of informative articles on technique and subject. Instead, consumerism has taken over as the driving force.

The staple websites on the Internet now feel more like sub-contractors for gear sales. In a manner similar to the heyday of audiophile, appreciation of photography as an art form isn’t what it’s about now. It’s about megapixels, dynamic range, lens sharpness, sensor technology, glazed over technical facts that substitute for information devoted to the creation of compelling art and how to market that art, in much the same way that music reproduction became a consumer study in total harmonic distortion, wow and flutter, noise reduction and high fidelity. People were convinced to spend thousands of dollars on obtaining the ultimate in audio reproduction quality. Never mind the art, it’s about the equipment and selling it. Today’s audiophile is now stuck with digitized mp3 or low quality audio streaming on equipment that has the technical performance of an abandoned car. I would even argue that the quality of music as an art form has suffered as a result of technical burnout. The industry arced and cheap plastic junk is now used to reproduce the same music that the consumer wants to hear over and over again. The innovation peaked and the interest waned until the consumer aspect became what it was all about.

The photography related situation on the internet has almost become comical. I’ll give you a few examples. Now, I don’t know these people and I’m sure they are just trying to make a buck like everyone else, but consider the thought.

Over the years, one of my favorite “online” photography website hosts was Thom Hogan. His primary fixation, was for a long time confined primarily to  Nikon users. Okay, great. If you wanted to know about Nikon gear, he was and still is an expert. As a photographer, he’s above average, but as a source of information concerning photography as it related to Nikon equipment he was informative and accurate. But what happened to Thom? For the past few years he seems to be mailing it in. He’s gone off into the world of camera manufacturing economics and business commentary. I used to work for The Wall Street Journal, so I understand business news and the people targeted by that content. For the last few years, he’s had to change his business model to find better ways to make money. It’s been a subtle change, keeping the same general look and feel but his content is now focused on financial reports and speculations on how one camera manufacturer is competing in a market. He’s broadened his scope to increase his content, now including business speculations on Canon, Sony and other camera brands. What he’s not writing about to any great extent is photography. It’s mostly writing to support marketing and consumerism. Sorry Thom, but that’s my view of the road. I’ve yet to find anything useful in understanding Nikon or Canon’s quarterly results when I’m in the field looking for moose. The man needs to write, that much is certain, but what’s the point? Is this his path or his destination?

Another well known Internet expert is Ken Rockwell. He may be the king of marketing camera equipment, but his published technical and art related subject matter is now hard to find in his current string of published articles. His technical reviews have fallen into a cookie cutter approach, using what looks like form letter reviews where a few facts and images are inserted into some kind of default review article. His articles now are little more than sales pitches and raving about things he’d like you to buy from a link on his website. As a source of knowledge, he looks like he’s “jumped the shark” from my view of the road.

We have the bigger, heavily consumerized websites too. DPReview being the elephant in the room. What began as a nice informational website has now become a marketing blitz and the content is now focused on consumerism. They’ve attempted to keep up with the technical and gear issues, which has a place, but it all feels like they are pointing you towards a purchase. This to me is the reincarnation of consumer audiophile world based on technical specifications of the gear with a spattering of “look at me” stories from their staff and around the web. When you dig deeper, what you’ll find is a very limited set of actual technical reports and reviews on lenses and cameras that seldom identify functional flaws or problems. Heck, they didn’t even publish an in depth review of the Nikon D810 until shortly before the camera was replaced by the Nikon D850. I’m sorry, but technical reviews of obsolete equipment that are aimed at consumers are not that interesting to me.

There are examples of websites that seem to have stuck to their original theme of presenting interesting and informative information on the art of photography. The Luminous Landscape comes to mind and there are still many others. Founded by the now deceased Michael Reichman, his colleagues have continued to present photography articles that are strongly related to the art of photography. They too have to make a buck, so you’ll find advertisements there as well, but they’ve never come across as trying to talk you into making your next purchase based on a veiled product placement in content designed for the consumer. If you want the good stuff though, you’ll have to pay a modest subscription fee. That’s okay, they need to cover their costs. But it’s not obnoxious and doesn’t come across as perfunctory like many of the big sites do.

As for me, I’m content with keeping my photography web sites about photography as it relates to my world. I share my experiences, I share my photos and I’ve found a way to make money doing it without selling out to Amazon or B&H Photo. I don’t have the following that the large consumer websites enjoy and I don’t have to feel like a car salesman when I post something. I’m quite happy telling a story. It doesn’t matter who is listening so long as someone does.

Your mileage may vary.

Trending on Monday

Another week begins.

Targets of opportunity.  This bald eagle gave us a few photos at close distance yesterday morning when it landed on a telephone pole directly in front of us as we were passing by.

We sat and watched for a few minutes, hoping to see that tell-tale sign that he was about to take off. It never happened. It sat there and watched us without budging for a while. Thus, no flight shot of this guy.

On another note…

For over 10 years I’ve been doing this thing where I try to post a different original photograph every day on Facebook. It doesn’t always happen, some days I’m just not around or I’m on a trip or something. But, I’ve been fairly successful at this.

I’m moving the photo posting to this blog and with the best intentions, I’ll attempt to keep fresh photos flowing here for your viewing pleasure as well. I’m aware it will cut down on the interaction compared to Facebook but there are trade-offs. For you the viewer, it really is no more work to read or see what I’m publishing and actually the visual experience with the blog should be much better, cleaner, better refined, less cluttered, all that happy horse hockey.

So, interaction. That’s what will change about my internet presence moving forward; but, you can interact on any post,  it’s just a matter of motivation to do so. That I suppose is out of my control. I urge you to leave comments on any post. I need to play with that feature to learn how to best utilize it.

On the other side of the coin, I have a lot of statistical information available to me regarding internet visits to each of my web sites. I can say that I get more page hits via internet readers every day than any of my Facebook pages ever saw. In essence, despite Facebook being a world wide platform, it’s actually putting you in a box about the size of your friend list unless you manage to hit a viral situation, which doesn’t happen to most folks.

I’m disappointed with Facebook as a configurable program. I can’t in all good consciousness continue to use it as a photography presentation platform. These days, I see Facebook as nothing but a messaging and advertising delivery product that allows you to scribble in the margins.

Wish me luck and check back here often to see more of my original Nature, Wildlife and Landscape photography, along with whatever else manages to find its way from my camera.