There are no absolutes: erosion and hope in the photographic industry

Is an image good? Bad? Ugly? Beautiful? Art? Everybody has an opinion, and those are based on the expectations formed by the biases created as a result of one’s own existence and experiences. What is considered beautiful in one culture may be hideous in another, or unremarkable. Art is in the eye of the beholder (or more importantly, the person signing the cheques). For anything that is subjective, there can be no absolutes. Take taste, or ambient temperature, for instance. There are preferences, nothing more. It is therefore perplexing that the whole industry is so hung up on both comparisons and seeking the lowest common denominator.

Advance warning: this post may be considered a rant by some.

The most obvious example of this is in hardware: everything must be boiled down to some quantitative measurement, and the larger or smaller one must always be better. There is no end to this measurebating on forums and other blogs; why on earth it matters is probably only because the people involved in the debate don’t actually have any other way to support their (critically important) opinions, i.e. by actually using the things to take pictures with. If you do actually use your hardware in the intended way, then the result is the most important thing. If it has a zillion megapixels but you are a run and gun photojournalist who has to get crisp images on the wire within minutes of an event happening, then large files and a tripod-based workflow aren’t exactly going to be ideal. Clearly then, everything is relative. The nature of the review monster has been debated ad nauseam and I have no intention of opening it up again here. Let’s move on.

Assume then that you actually use your camera to take pictures. For most people, you do have some sense of excitement when a ‘good’ image is produced, and a converse sense of disappointment with a bad one. Think about this for a moment: ‘good’ is generally when the outcome meets or exceeds your expectations (or those of your audience) and bad is when they don’t. Very bad is when they fall dramatically short. On that basis, the vast majority of people taking a photograph (notice I didn’t say ‘photographers’, there is a difference) are usually indifferent to the outcome, or surprised when it’s good. Most photographers fall somewhere in the middle; sometimes expectations are met, and sometimes there are major WTF moments. Those with experience will probably be usually satisfied but rarely excited: it takes more and more to get over that hump as expectations increase. It’s a bit like the idea of going to a 5 if you can consistently make images that are 4s.

This has a couple of knock on effects: if somebody is going to hire a photographer, then the effort and cost required leads to the expectation that what is produced has to be significantly better than what they can produce on their own; this expectation increases if the hirer has some photographic experience to begin with. Clearly, this is simultaneously a very weak and impossible target. Weak because standards of the average person are so low since they are an indirect mirror of their own ability; impossible because if you’re hired by somebody who thinks they know a lot, they expect the impossible to be possible (some positions/perspectives just physically aren’t*) and then you are on the receiving end of a broom. In both situations, the end result is not a good outcome for the industry as a whole. Low standards lead to corner cutting and widespread mediocrity; sometimes so mediocre that even those with low standards are disappointed. Then being unable to meet unrealistic expectations has the same net effect: the perception that ‘professional photographers’ are useless and a waste of money.

*Especially if the unrealistic budgets don’t give you enough room to execute what the clients want

The challenge is almost certainly one of education. But you can’t force somebody to learn something if they have no interest in doing so, and the kind of people who need education the most are also the kind that are always going to take the easy way out: why bother putting in the effort or expense if you can get away with it? Why bother studying to improve myself if I can just slander and spread rumours about all the competition? Sadly, both attitudes appear to be pervasive in my local market. In other photography markets, there were several years – decades, in developed countries – of maturity and professionalism and standards. Rate erosion is happening in all places as barriers to entry reduce – I make no secret that I was a beneficiary of that – but it’s slower in countries where clients and providers are educated.

I feel as though we never really saw maturity in Malaysia – at the point which was perhaps the zenith of professionalism here, digital became accessible and suddenly everybody who could afford a DLSR was a wedding or event or some other sort of pro. They had no clue what was expected or how to charge for it; uneducated clients picked solely on price, not knowing any better (or being able to tell the difference) and rates free-fell. They are still falling now. The little work that is left is either given away to cronies or fought over bitterly by the real few remaining pros. Eventually, it gets to the ‘we’ll give you exposure in return for your work’ argument: that’s utter BS, and the worst situation of all. If you give work away for free, it means that you don’t value it. If you don’t, then somebody else will, and it’s not so much the competitor exposure that’s damaging, but the reinforcement of the fact that ‘clients’ can get away with it. I learned early on that a) there is no worthwhile exposure that can come out of such an arrangement; b) clients that respect your work and can give you the exposure also are usually willing to pay for it, and c) you are the only one who can set as value on your own work. Worse still, there’s the risk that if the client sees no value in your work, it might be displayed or used in a way that means you’re going to have some substandard stuff associated with your name – which is the precise opposite of good exposure. We are back to relativity again: the price of a job or image or day of work is determined solely by the value ascribed to it by buyer and seller.

All of us land up losing in the end: the client saves money but gets poor, uncreative images that do an arguably worse job of selling products or services than good images would; the loss of potential revenue isn’t offset by the small upfront savings. The consumer either misses out on something they might have actually found useful or wanted and at the same time is bombarded by mediocre visuals which subliminally enforce that these poor standards are ‘professional’. And there’s no need to say that the photographic industry takes a hit square-on: the people who got the jobs at low prices find themselves competing solely on price for future work because clients have been conditioned to assess the merit of suppliers that way, even if they manage to find the time and resources to educate themselves to a higher standard of work. The pros who would previously have done the jobs have gone out of business and are probably selling insurance or MLM schemes because maintaining that level of overhead has become uneconomical in the face of drastically reduced rates. And then the camera companies can’t sell anything because they’ve paid unethical media for years to say that their entry level models can take ‘professional pictures’ – why does anybody need anything else?

We haven’t even started talking about the related ecosystem yet – online or otherwise. When I read stories about various photographers either not being able to make a living or barely scratching one, some of whose work is really quite excellent – I feel sad. When I see popular bloggers post photos of their new cars and luxury holidays and trips and then look at the mediocre images and meaningless contradictory drivel that’s written out of ignorance or because a camera company paid for it, I feel sadder still. And then when you consider that rumours sites have the most traffic of all, that’s the saddest thing of all. We haven’t even talked about the petty individuals here to spread rumours about others to make themselves look good instead of attempting to improve themselves. What has happened to integrity? Apparently that virtue has now become worthless.

It’s a sorry picture, but not an impossible one. I am lucky enough to still have core clients who value quality and professionalism (read: consistency and dependability) over price; I am not cheap but I deliver value: that’s because I invest the time and effort to deliver over and beyond. I would still like to believe that eventually, it will become clear that what is being produced is so bad that it is a foolish exercise to save pennies when it’s costing you pounds. I would like to believe that the number of clients who are looking for something different and not mediocre and can tell the difference will eventually increase, and more important than that, the number of clients who are willing to ceed some creative control to their creative partners – notice I didn’t say photographers – to do some experimentation and hopefully derive a result that is better for everybody. It’ll probably happen one day, but I just don’t know how long this scenario is going to take. In the meantime, the photographers that survive and eventually prosper again will not be the cheapest, or those with the loudest mouths, or those who demean their competition, but those who take the opportunity of this lull to figure out what else they can bring to the table. I’m not talking about video or drones: we are now creative partners, which means that we have to bring ideas. And not just random ideas for the sake of being creative or different, but ideas that actually help the client to sell more product or reach a new audience or engage their existing one. Specialisation is going to be the key – anything that requires experience to master is going to have value because it cannot easily be replicated. Of course, it isn’t easy, and has never been – but if we’d wanted that, we wouldn’t be in this business. MT


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  1. Hello Ming, it is a great news that “the book project” you wrote a column about is in some state of pre production.
    As to the current topic, I would and I am labelling the present state of the photographic industry as hugely ironic! First, it is the actual technology. As we gained access to high quality photographic equipment, (digital) in a twisted proportion, we lost our ability to use that equipment. We are no longer granted the benefit that we use our equipment with respect and due consideration in all possible environments. Not only to express ourselves, but to promote the beauty and the value inherent in the chosen subject.
    A short visit to Europe a couple of years ago shocked me with the though that I might as well leave my aging D2xs at home, during my upcoming trip. I experienced a high level of restriction and unreasonable discomfort to enjoy the act of using my camera. Sure, I can buy somebody else’s images as a postcards, but that is not what I see or feel! Also, the wheel of photography had to be re -invented as the chip replaced the rolls or sheets of film. As the consequence, the buy- in to this profession, or personal passion had increased tenfold. I mention this specific concern because of my own experience. I lost all possible avenues to realise my photography, due to the nature of the current available printing options. I lost a number of printers due to clogged printing heads. So, I print no more, and photograph no more! And process images no more! Great! I had to step off the wagon, getting back to my passion, just have a too high of a price tag to consider seriously.
    I share your philosophy, that education is the key to turn things around, but as the actual labor force is replaced with precision machinery, and this displaced labor force is re- educated, re-trained, they will do WHAT? The present society, governmental structure has no long term plan in place. Especially in a so called developed country!
    In reference to education, I do believe that we must state and not shy away from setting standards of what is good and what is junk as a finished photograph. I was introduced to photography as nothing more than a language of abstracts. It has its own words, phrases and sentence structures that aids in expressing the intentions of the photographer… On my iPhone I can compose letters and text messages in Hungarian with flawless spelling, yet without the native understanding of that languages, I can turn them into a “perfect” gibberish in seconds… So it is with photographs.
    How is it possible to teach this language, to set specific quality standards?, well, through MENTORING! Mentoring through Trust, where the master and the pupil share the same goal. As a major ingredient, with time and hard criticism. I feel that in the so called information age, the digital age, there is no time to learn, and there is no means of hard criticism without very negative and unintended side effects.
    It was commonly phrased, that a studio in my town would not engage in any serious mentoring, as they were looking at the process as training their competition. Funny thing happened, they did!, by this level of disrespect of the process, they encouraged the mom and pop outfits to take over. And they were instrumental in stepping on this very slippery slope of declining quality… The race to the bottom! If one is not taught the craft of filling a blank page with a meaningful story, the uber this or that DSLR will get them only so far.

    There needs to be a general realisation, that we need Time, Education and Mentoring to be able to turn “this thing” around. To realise the value of experience and craftsmanship that one earns over time.

    I my “previous life”, I had a lot of time, from the very rich photographic heritage we share, I learned a lot about this language and how to use it. As I aspired to grow and actively engage in the industry of photography, I found a mentor. I was lucky that I had even for a relatively short time, this opportunity to be a professional photographer! I was lucky, film was king still. I was lucky, I was able to afford a MF system, I was lucky, I had the time and I had a Mentor! Printing, well, that was a non issue. C- prints, Cibachromes, B&W fiber. Two images or twenty, daily or once a year!- non issue.
    Wish you success with your book project and the upcoming exhibition.

    • Mentoring, education: I am trying. But there are only so many people I can mentor, and the internet will be full of detractors who only want reviews and cats and aren’t the slightest bit concerned about the race to the bottom because on the immediate horizon, it does not appear to affect them. The problem is, it really does: if there are no more buyers or proper photographers, creativity suffers, there’s no more gear, and an art form form goes into decline. That is an extreme view, but I really do not see how quick and disposable is ever going to replace conscious craft and learning. You can put all you know out there – I’m in the process of doing that with this site – and answer every question asked (ditto) – but the horse has to want to drink even if you put it in front of the water. 🙂

      • Sorry for the long rant of my own. The ironies of the digital age just gets me going. Thinking about the possibilities that the endless roll provides for the dialogue to start up between the subject and the photographer’s subconscious, yet it becomes a distraction. Rather than a tool for focus. The technology is misleading in providing opportunities, because it robs us of the most important element of learning. Time!
        Education to me is the preparation well before the actual photography session is even considered. And, most of all, for after the fact editing.
        Mentoring to me is the necessary time spent side by side with the teacher hitting the pavement in different situations. Like, how to carry on once the shot list has been blown to bits! The lessons learned during that exchange is what missing or was diluted in recent years by replacing hard criticism with polite disclaimers of opinions.

        After admitting the sad fact that I am an outsider, it is realistic to ask why am I still reading your excellent site. Well, because you are also an excellent teacher. You write about important issues that are the building foundations of a professional. A creative mind, seeking the knowledge and tools to express. Yes, your voice is very important in this fading twilight. You are also able to mentor during your workshops. Even reading about it can motivate one to strive for growth.
        Reviews? It is a necessary Evil, as we are bombarded with endless marketing, can I mention Sony? In a few days, all and every word ever printed in favour of the FF ML system could go up in smoke. So much for legacy lenses, so much for a compact system… ha, ha!
        Detractors, there are two groups, those who do not care, they do not matter! and those who are just not there yet, but you or I will never know when will they wake up with the desire to create on a blank page a story like your Venice Cinematic essay with that mysterious light and Red umbrella!
        I still enjoy renting some incredible lenses for my Nikon DX, like the 35/1.4 which has the mojo or draw that I see with. And I have my fateful iPhone 4. I have only presence on the hated Instagram as @anthonyjk56.
        If you are ever inclined to write about the Nikon TS lenses and stitching with them, specially the 45mm, you would have at least one happy reader.
        Have a great week!

  2. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Thankfully, I don’t do photography for pay, so I don’t have to worry about a lot of this.

    • Actually, that depends if you ever do ‘work for free’, also – if you only ever shoot for yourself, I agree – don’t worry. If you’re doing favors for people, well, you may be doing them, yourself, and us a disservice ultimately.

  3. “…anything that requires experience to master is going to have value because it cannot easily be replicated.”

    Bingo. And what’s interesting about that statement is that it’s really always been the case.

    The entire industry is undergoing a seismic shift right now; all brought about by the digital world. When the shaking stops — perhaps “sifting” would actually be more apropos — what will be left are the photographers who possess the attributes you discuss here … along, I suspect, with fewer camera manufacturers, of smaller size, who have similarly been forced to adjust to the new normal (which, ironically, folks simply called “normal” 40 years ago).

    • You’re right. But what I find doesn’t make sense is that ‘the new normal’ requires a lot more visual output than before – but it seems there won’t be any more people to produce it. What I am noticing is an increasing trend for ‘just one more’ and ‘can you do this for us too?’ sort of images getting inserted on the tail end of agreed shot lists – this wasn’t the case even three years ago, let alone 40. The perceived zero cost of digital isn’t really zero: clients are expecting ‘just one more’ that requires the same amount of retouching etc. as the primary angles (which is usually the case, or you run the risk of them asking why it looks odd and all sorts of other reputational risk issues). Is this the sieve at work or something else? I’m not sure. But I do know there are clients that my peers here won’t shoot for precisely because of this reason – and continually changing briefs etc.

      • Well, obviously the public perception has been remolded by digital, too. Clients need to be educated on what’s reasonable. Asking for more stuff, or conversely assuming you’re all done after a half-dozen shots during a portrait session (“It’s digital, so you got it already, right?), etc, etc, is par for the course right now. I think clients have to have this stuff properly explained to them.

  4. Patric Gordon says:

    Ming, Please, Rant on!! What you are experiencing is happening in many professions. The Walmart, Amazonization of the world.
    Cheap is King, Quality is a word used by the few than can afford it and they only will pay Walmart prices for it. This happens when the price is the only consideration and wealth is only a word for monetization, not necessarily value.
    Continue to continue….

    • Whilst it’s the case for the mass portion of the market, it isn’t at the very extreme – and penetrating that is the only way an individual craftsperson can survive in the long run because what we do simply is not at all scalable. There is no way one photographer can become a factory, but the economics for an entire support team don’t exist anymore, either. The only way to survive is go up and leave mass to serve mass…

    • Yep, globalization has been great … for multinationals. Unfortunately, it’s been a disaster for the 1st world middle class.

      • Is there still a middle class? It seems like you either have to be living on credit or independently wealthy these days. I actually know very few people – at least in this part of the world – that need to work for a living but are still comfortable and own property etc.

        • Yes, there is still a middle class, but it’s listed on the endangered species roster. And you’re right, it’s getting squeezed into more and more debt, where more and more families are hanging on by their fingernails. Here in Canada, the household debt-to-disposable income ratio sits at 163.3. It was nowhere near that high 30 years ago.

          When the dominoes start to fall, it’ll make the 2008 global downturn look like a blip, I fear.

          If you REALLY want to see something eyeopening [and shameful], have a look at The Citigroup Plutonomy Memos.

          Many economics experts hold that the United States has already become an oligarchy. There’s no room for a middle class in an oligarchy; only rich and poor.

          Unfortunately, we’re seeing similar trends across the globe right now.

          • Capitalism…has become feudalism, and will probably have to turn into communism in some ways to prevent the ‘ruling class’ from losing it all in revolt…

  5. Have been following your blog for a long time and I can’t remember another blog entry without a single picture. From reading the text and the tone, maybe you forgot to attach the picture of a particular photographer who is cheap, has a loud mouth and demeans the competition?

    • I understand your reaction. But contrasting this way, may provoke forced emotions, not leading to recognition and acceptance. It might be more effective using f/2.8 instead of f/11, ignoring background. Reading the other comments I really feel sorry for all these “various photographers either not being able to make a living or barely scratching one, some of whose work is really quite excellent”. I would suggest to Ming, start a society on an invitational basis, set your standards, discuss in an open and encouraging way each others ideas of photography and show your work to the public. United you will have more power than alone. And even in bad economic circumstances, there will alway be people who will appreciate quality and are wiling to pay for that. Word will spread.

      • I wasn’t referring to myself with that comment – I have enough clients to keep me busy, even if none of them are in the same country I live in. The catch 22 of course is that if one does start something like that, you’re promoting your competition. I’m all for meritocratic competition, but I’m not going to create it – life as a photographer is already challenging enough as it is!

    • No, because that would be more than one picture 🙂

  6. Ming, I can sympathize with your rant, having been a professional advertising photographer for 30 years with a large studio, shooting 4×5 sheet film and then switching over to high end (view camera-based) digital. The turning point in my career was in the early 21st century, when digital got good enough to be taken seriously. As soon as a client could see the final result at the time of shooting, the standards started to drop, and “good enough” became the mantra. Before that, in a film workflow, the client was too frightened to do anything save for relying on the judgement of the photographer, who quite naturally imposed his own quality standards on the image.

    What we see lately is a hollowing out of the middle; low end dslr amateurs masquerading as professionals, and high end as before, shooting for national level accounts that are spending so much on advertising space that the shoot cost is unimportant. I was in the middle, and eventually had to leave the business as a result.

    I think digital photography is the immediate cause of the decline you mention, for reasons given above. But there is a deeper problem, related to the lack of credentialing in the commercial and advertising realms. The client has no ability to discern because there is no barrier to entering the profession based on a quantifiable achievement level. Or put another way, anyone can call himself a photographer. It’s a bit like my late father, who always fell for the deals on cheap wrenches that he saw in the discount bins (“39-piece socket set for $9.95”), and which always broke apart at first use because the metal was so poor. To him, all wrenches looked the same, so why pay more? There is really no way now that a client can actually know an answer to the simple question: “Do you know what you’re doing?”

    I see no real change occurring because photographers themselves are so reluctant to credential themselves in any way. They see that as leading to a chain on their creativity, their “art” or whatever. As a result, the craft side of the business has been degraded to a “hack” side of the business, and the whims and fads of the moment elevated to the only thing on which a client can base a purchase decision. It might be said realistically that we have left the client to fend for himself, without any acquired knowledge of what distinguishes a fine photograph from junk; or worse, that junk is OK, it’s all rock and roll, so who cares?

    I only know this: I did fine food photography, in both film and digital domains. When I took a picture of food, any food, it always looked tasty, delectable, to the eyes of both the client and myself. The food photography I see now may or may not make the food look just as nice. Often, there is so much out of focus in the image that you can’t see much of the food in the first place. If the client could see a direct comparison, he would want the work I did, not the work being done today. But that choice is denied him, and he goes along, perhaps pleased that it costs so little. This is the situation we find ourselves in today.

    • Reps (photographers representatives) are a bit like credentials. The trick is that you need to almost have too much work first, then a Rep will take interest in you. Some of these were nothing beyond people with some ad agency connections, though some are quite impressive at promoting the photographers they represent. Even in the world of Reps, some of the better known Reps have been shutting down their offices. One issue in this aspect of the market is that many large ad agencies will only search for photographers through Reps.

      Agencies try to fill some of the gaps, though the ones more focused on photojournalists (news and sports mostly) are not doing much better. A bit similar to agencies are professional organizations, though there is a limited amount of work that funnels through them. Some clients do find photographers this way, though that is the exception. Most photographers need to do their own promotions, and even then the ad spend and targeting are not guaranteed to generate business. Being a professional photographer today involves lots of risk taking, and a bit of luck.

      • I’d almost argue that it requires a huge amount of luck more than anything else. And at least in this part of the world, agents and reps are nonexistent: the client just wants the cheapest deal possible, and the cut taken by these people is significant.

        • Reps and agencies are much more common in Europe and US, though some South American and Australian projects run through them too. Basically, the places where large ad agencies have offices will be more likely to use these methods. Where the disconnect happened recently was ad agency cost cutting, meaning that the quickest solution was in-house creatives doing the work. We are barely seeing a recovery in ad spends, more than six years past the global financial crisis.

          When I have spoken with other photographers, many tried to flood social media, for the simple reason that everyone else was doing it. A handful of photographers made that work for them. Now the focus is shifting back a bit away from social media as a promotional tool. There are some good aspects to it, though the time spent is not considerably less. Image pool portals are becoming a better targeted approach, though as many of us know, a bit of luck goes a long way.

  7. Have you thought about moving away from Malaysia, given your marketplace there is so rubbish?

  8. Charles says:

    Your photo’s, your knowledge, your opinions, they all cry out: quality and artistry. But you face the problem that many people don’t want or can’t recognize that. It’s the same in other domains, as in mine, anesthesiology. Politicians and insurance companies say they go for quality, but they mean quantity (money and numbers). In the Netherlands we recently invited the association of nurse anesthetists to join our association. We allow them to take over many tasks which where formerly exclusively doctors terrain. There work is indispensable (and in fact existing since the 1950’s, but more tasks now). And we respect each others qualities. In the US, nurse practitioners have taken over nearly the whole field of anesthesiology , although in the mean time they have a many-years training and in fact cost as much. Specialization is one answer, but probably more than that is needed. Is there an association of professional photographers in Malaysia? Do you have standards of knowledge? I think you shouldn’t built castle walls to enter, because you will be circumvented or hungered out, as in medieval times. But teaching and expressing your ideas and setting standards in an open-mind way (as you are doing already) is the best way to be recognized and valued.

    • Malaysia: there are no standards, frankly. There are associations but they’re used like old-boy clubs to spread rumours and vitriol about other people. They are lead by one of the big photo magazine publishers here and reinforced by the manufacturers. They are petty clubs of small minded bickerers who only care about bringing other people down and masturbating their equipment. If you get the sense I’m disgusted, I am. It’s probably the most unprofessional thing I’ve seen, and having been on the receiving end of several of their smear campaigns out of jealousy that one of their members didn’t get a job – I want no part of it.

      I realise the same thing as you: making it clear what value one adds is really the best way to go, and that was always the purpose of this site first and foremost. It’s worked for me in meritocratic and open markets, but it’s sad that it doesn’t even include my own country. Given the general mentality of the place and the current political climate – prime minister replaces cabinet after an inquiry finds 2bn goes missing into his pocket – I sad, but not really surprised.

      • i would give this reply 10000 likes. love the words used and the inferred subjects and boldness.

      • “They are petty clubs of small minded bickerers who only care about bringing other people down…”

        Sounds like an average week in the United States Congress. I guess sh*t really does flow downhill. 😉

        [Semi]-seriously, though, I think we’re witnessing an erosion of human civility and emotional intelligence on a global level … and thus in all industries. Greed and the politicization of everything, is everywhere.

        No escaping it, so might as well choose to do something one enjoys and has some talent for, assuming they can make a reasonable living at it. This will at least make the whole process more bearable.

        • Agreed on the last statement. I think the problem is society seems to ‘reward’ unpleasantness more than civility – so long as people value money and power, and so long as this remains the case, things will only get worse.

          • Sadly, I must agree with you; it’s only going to get worse … at least from all the behaviour I see everyday, on both a local and global basis.

            And don’t even get me started on the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. If human beings don’t make some massive changes in the next 10-20 years, humanity will be extinct within 200 years.

  9. Well, all I will say is thank god for you and this site that you’ve created, Ming. Your work and ideas are a refreshing change to the industry that seems to be caught up in a blender.

    • I’m on the rim of the blender but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some backsplatter, or that I might not get pulled in…it’s a tricky balance.

  10. Dear ming
    Even in my ongoing professional education in Tuscany,Italy I check regularly your blog. I can’t stand the thought, that one of the best photographers, btw just entering the responsibility of family life, has such a dire view of his professional future!
    Reading your rather sad post I just wanted to ask if some contacts to Swiss Watch Companies could help?
    Or anything else?
    Best wishes!
    Lorenz Flückiger

  11. There is a planted axiom in this piece, which is that Skilled Photographers in general (and the author in particular) have Secret Knowledge of what good is and what works and so on. This piece gets written by different people from time to time, and it’s always the same.

    If nobody but you recognizes ‘good photography’ then perhaps it is you that’s wrong. Photography and Art are social constructs.

    More concretely, styles and fads change. The selfie look, and the on-camera-flash/snapshot look are legitimate trends in fashion and marketing photography now. Failure to realize that society as a whole sets the direction is going to be a problem in the long term for the working professional. The idea that it’s not a proper portrait without five lights, the idea that it’s not a proper wedding without the correct shot list, etc, these are social norms that are subject to change without notice.

    Guys like Kirk Tuck seem to be doing fine and manage to get through the day without worrying much about the low rent Rebel Warriors.

    • Martin Fritter says:

      Thanks for the heads up (heads’ up?) on Kirk Tuck. OTOH, I think you’re being a little unkind. It’s the man’s blog and if he needs to vent, vent he must. Who can deny the stresses of the Digital Apocalypse ™? I gave up trying to make money from my art, or craft, years ago.

    • You appear to be misinterpreting me again. I didn’t say “nobody but me recognises good photography” – nor did I ever say the concept of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are anything but subjective and determined by the client, whether that’s you or somebody else.

      What isn’t said publicly does’t not exist. And there’s a fine line between ‘worrying about low rent rebel warriors’ affecting our business and the direction of photography in general. And your example of Kirk Tuck was an unfortunate one, because I happen to know him quite well and can tell you again: what isn’t said publicly doesn’t not exist. I’m a lot more open than most in the hope that somebody else might learn something, but judging from responses of people like you perhaps I shouldn’t be.

      • You state, as I read it, that “good” should be purely in the eyes of the photograph-taker. And then you claim that most non-photographers who take pictures are surprised when something comes out “good” which is, in my experience, quite wrong. People hold up their phone, click, and they’re happy as clams. No, they’re not overwhelmed with the awesomeness of the shot, but they’re perfectly pleased with it. It serves their purpose adequately, and that’s as far as they care to think about it. So, surely that’s “good”?

        The only other interpretation is that you’re slipping to another definition of “good”, one in which Photographers (which you’re careful to distinguish from non-Photographers, for reasons that are utterly mysterious to me) are actually the judges.

        As for Tuck, well, he’s at some pains to take ownership of his own success or failure. He’s quite clear that it’s down to him, and has nothing to do with the Facebook Moms With Cameras and so on. I have not observed him to lowering himself to writing about non-Photographers and how they’re ruining everything.

        • Come on, that’s an ungenerous and obtuse reading of what Ming’s written: “Think about this for a moment: ‘good’ is generally when the outcome meets or exceeds your expectations (or those of your audience) and bad is when they don’t.”

          Note: “exceeds your expectations (or those of your audience).” I’ve seen many instances on Facebook or Instagram where someone will comment positively on the quality of a photo that’s beyond the normal “Nice shot!” And sometimes even the original poster of the photo will express surprise at how well a photo turned out. It’s clear when people like a photo for the subject (“Nice sushi!”) vs. when they like the photo because it’s a good photo in the photography sense, and you can generally tell that from their comments.

          • I suspect that what Ming is trying for here is that most people who take photographs are indifferent to the aspects of the picture that you or I might care about. Vernacular photography isn’t about the photograph at all, it’s about whatever the camera is pointed at. Virtually all photographs taken are “just fine” with the photographer because they provide a reasonable rendering of whatever was in front of the camera. I think you can argue that “good” and “bad” are meaningless in this context, and that is perhaps what Ming is trying to say.

            • Not quite. It’s really a question of subjectivity and taste/preference. Nothing more or less. We have no right to pass judgement but we do have a right to an opinion and a rationale for that opinion and why we might go one way or another with it.

        • It has to be in the eyes of the photographer. Why would you want to keep and show an image you know is bad?

          • Michiel953 says:

            You don’t “know” it’s bad, you “think” it’s bad. There is a difference, there is no absolute truth.

            In other words, we can all complain, or have our thoughts, about the changing environment and the changing demands of that environment. In the end, we can’t just complain, we have to deal with it.

        • In each example of a photographer doing well, you’ll find ten or more struggling, and maybe one of those ten commenting at all about it. I see this often amongst APA professionals. There are indeed some great projects and commissions out there. We can even find some interesting niche markets that bring in quite fair commissions. I think it is disingenuous to deny that there are problems in our profession, from new photographers not knowing what to charge, to rates going down on certain types of projects. When I hear from a long term professional that business is good, but then see his studio for rent more often, the stated words don’t match the reality. Putting on a smile, talking your book, telling everyone you meet that business is booming, is barely marketing, and at worst denial. I’ve been lucky to meet a few high end professionals who were honest about how tough it has been since 2008. None of them are whining about it publicly, and indeed they all put their head down and charge ahead. Anyone can summon the courage to be brave in the face of challenges, but when you look at many of the numbers, and hear so many stories about challenges, it paints a very different picture. Rare are the photographers who are completely honest about the current market, because they worry about those types of comments being taken as a sign of weakness. That attitude is not helping change things, and unfortunately it is true of many creative professionals.

          I’ve challenged ASMP and APA veterans to come up with more transparent pricing. Some don’t want to do this because it may increase competition, while others worry about lawsuits from big ad agencies against anti-trust type of behaviour. In some parts of the world, photographers simply do not want to cooperate, nor act together, making coordinated action difficult. While there are a few places giving examples of projects and bidding, like A Photo Editor, these are the exceptions. When most other professions in the world charge similar rates in each region, photographers need to join that realm, instead of guessing and being all over the place. The moms and dads of the world, and small business owners, will keep trying to do it themselves, but there are still plenty of opportunities elsewhere. We need to be fair to those businesses, while also being fair to ourselves to ensure we stay in business.

          • Completely agree. The challenge is – as always – going to be education, on both sides of the table: the photographers are going to need to start delivering a service commensurate of the prices they expect, and the client is going to both need to know what they want and what to expect at a certain price point. It is unlikely that there will be any uniformly and fairly implemented professional standards in the near future, which means it’s really down to the individuals to pull their own weight. So long as the mentality on both sides is shortsighted – ‘the client doesn’t know any better’ ‘it costs me money to improve’ ‘I just want it cheaper’ – then this will not change. The fundamental reality is that a lot of clients AND photographers do not even understand the meaning of ‘professionalism’. And I doubt many of them are going to submit themselves to the time and effort (and possibly costs) of learning – especially not when we’re already in the mentality of nickel and dining and not really caring about quality.

            • This is a common refrain. The clients need to be educated.

              Maybe they are educated already, and they know that they can sell just as many sno-cones with stock photos as with expensive bespoke photos.

              Here’s the thing that the very real problems in the commercial and retail photography businesses to the sea changes that have occurred in vernacular photography. Many people see more casual iPhone snapshots than they do anything else. If you want to sell, the complicated lighting setups and loving attention to detail are, at least in some contexts, actually harmful. People barely recognize that stuff. What they recognize is vernacular. On camera flash and a pretty girl throwing a V-sign? They see that one every day, it’s familiar, they relate to that girl, they want to wear her clothes.

              The 5 light setup and the sour-looking model? They dunno who she is, the lighting feels weird and wrong. They don’t wanna buy those clothes, not one bit.

              The people who are buying photography are not always dunderheads.

              If you want to sell your high end pictures to a client, you better have some concrete metrics that show why they’re gonna make more money if they spend more, why spending more gives more actual value to the customer. Simply trotting it out as an axiom isn’t gonna cut it. And the fact is, cheap stock photography, or cheap facebook moms with a camera are sometimes the right answer.

              • Sno cones aren’t the same as product costing tens or hundreds of thousands. And that includes real estate, amongst other things. These companies have the marketing budget to support the image they want to sell to the client. ‘Casual iPhone snapshots’ don’t sell more units in that case because they just don’t fit the brief. I definitely have clients who continue to use me because I make their product look desirable. They even tried cheaper options and found the results weren’t the same, nor were the sales.

                • As it should be. Compare Forever 21’s advertising with Saks 5th Avenue. Both are probably using very expensive photographers, in truth, but one of them looks cheap. Different products, different markets.

                  I just don’t believe that there’s a huge number of clients for whom both of these things are true: high end photography is the right answer, and they don’t know it. Those few clients seem to do pretty well educating themselves: they tried cheaper alternatives, and dropped them pretty fast.

                  Your clients know that, to meet their needs, they need quality. Kirk Tuck’s clients likewise. The people selling sno-cones (or whatever, that’s a stand-in for an idea, obviously) don’t need quality, they know it, and they don’t pay for it. Where are the clients who need to be educated?

                  It’s disappointing, to be sure, that in many cases the right answer is stock or some low-rent Rebel carrier. It sucks, it’s terrible for the business. But to leap from that to the conclusion that the clients are simply uneducated (dumb) seems a large, unsupported leap.

                  • (actually now that I check, F21 seems to be using a vanilla model-shoot look these days, oops. They did a Terry Richardson style thing for a while)

                  • ‘Uneducated’ and ‘dumb’ aren’t the same thing. Sometimes it’s the case of a single piece of information that can make a difference – realising that it’s better to have one good image rather than a number of bad ones, as in Gordon’s example of the breakfasts, for instance. That might not necessarily cost more but would yield tangibly better results. And a good businessperson – one has to be to survive in the photography game – is one who can figure out how to find a new market. As you correctly point out, there aren’t that many large clients, and even fewer who don’t know what they need (but it does happen especially in developing countries where perhaps growth has happened faster than maturity of communications; I’ve had several). But there are a huge number of medium sized ones that might potentially be convinced.

                  • Commercial photography is not just about selling products to the public. Some of the work I have done for financial firms is not obvious, and generally not in the public eye. Niche markets often want niche solutions. The more money involved in what a company does (usually services), the more they want to put forward a high quality appearance. Many of these companies do not have art departments, and they don’t go through ad agencies. They also don’t want a look someone else may use (like stock photography). Every so many years those companies decide they need new images for new brochures, electronic and/or printed.

                    Photography is not just about fads, trends, and clichés. Definitely Instagram and Tumblr have impacts on product sales, though in many instances the bigger companies hire professionals. What may appear as a very simple image, can actually involve lots of production and planning. Just because something looks simple, does not mean it was simple to produce that image. That’s also one of the main aspects of professional commercial photography, that many times we are not simply capturing a moment or scene; more often we are carefully crafting a scene, including storyboards, written ideas, creative briefs, and many planning meetings. If we can make it look simple, then that’s part of the magic. Photography is way beyond simply knowing how to use gear.

                    • Agreed. And a lot of the mood or feel we contribute is intangible – but from experience of providing similar solutions to other clients, or your own experimentation. Nobody innovative wants the same look or solution as everybody else because that doesn’t create a unique visual identity – and thus instant identifiability – for the product or service.

      • All I can add, especially in this thread of comments is to bring up Howard Roark. Do what you do well Ming, and hopefully there are enough Austin Heller’s and Roger Enright’s in the world to ensure that you and people like you continue to put out the work you do.

        Also, if I understand this currently from this article and our conversations on this, it is not change that you are against, but the decline in overall quality. If anything, you (and I) believe that with technology, the bar should be moving upwards, not downwards.

    • I think Andrew has a great point. Society changes with the collective viewpoints.

      Technology changes, careers change. In my role, it has changed drastically in the last 15 years due to the internet, so much so, that I am now studying to graduate in a new profession by the time I turn 40 LOL! Actually, perhaps this is a blessing.

      My impression is that yes, this is a rant of an article, I agree with that, but I don’t accept the judgments of what is good, bad or not a photographer or not a good image. Notwithstanding it’s somewhat different when dealing with expectations from a client.

      I’m no professional photographer, but have a passionate artistic interest. I refuse to badged or earmarked by anyone telling the world the state of affairs of what is good, or not good.

      Ming, things change buddy. We are all adapting to how things were before the internet, and the reality of the present. Perhaps this always the ways it been in the world and new innovative thinking and technology, and photography, develops.

      Incidentally, I love KL – been many times, love Malaysian people and food!

      Mate, I think having comments that don’t both agree and disagree with you is healthier than a bunch of people supporting you, there is no growth for anyone.

      • There’s nothing wrong with disagreement and reasoned argument. I welcome that too. I never state any of my viewpoints as being absolute, and this entire thing is subjective anyway. But if I can’t even state observations without others assuming I’m passing universal judgement and arguing semantics – then perhaps I should be flattered that I’ve suddenly been appointed global arbiter.

        Try doing business in Malaysia as a local and you might change your mind.

        • I think the style of your writing sometimes implies you think ‘it’s the way’ mate, and if we are polarising things in any direction, it, is, judgemental. If you welcome other points of view, great.

          Just a general comment; not directed at anyone, people are criticising other ‘people’ as well as their style, for, criticising ‘people’ and others’ ‘style’, it seems like this vicious circle of crap. Pretty funny really.

          In the end people are shooting because they want to.

          Not sure about the arbiter comment.

          Asia, luckily I’ve been over 20 times, Saigon is my second home, so appreciate things there.

          I just bought two rolls of film for some aprés midi Paris shooting………. I wonder what the light ….. will be like 😏

    • Martin Fritter says:

      Well, I think there is considerable virtue in arguing about the what makes good art and while there are no absolutes (in anything) the articulation of cannons of taste, both by practitioners and critics, is essential to artistic development. The whole “de gustibus…” thing is a ruse to stop discussions with philistines. If you think “Star Wars: a New Hope” is better than “Mulholland Drive” then I will decline to discuss movies with you.

      Then there’s the effect of digital on the various sub-categories of professional photography, most of which have little to do with art for its own sake, and which broadly involves the elimination of most barriers to entry: baleful to whose who invested mightily in their skills and capital stock.

      I suspect it’s easier to make a living as any kind of photographer in Austin then in KL, btw.

      • Given the current state of our economy, I suspect that it’s easier to make a living doing anything anywhere than in KL. We are the worst performing currency this year – something like 20% depreciation in the last 12 months relative to both GBP and USD – and top the corruption rankings. When even small jobs of a few hundred USD come attached with strings and expectations of kickbacks, you know you really should be working elsewhere.

    • “…the on-camera-flash/snapshot look are legitimate trends in fashion […] photography now.”

      Not in the fashion “industry”, they’re not.

      • Terry Richardson was still getting paid pretty well. And he’s not the only guy putting that look out there.

        • It could be argued he was the one who started it. I also haven’t seen him shoot anything else, either.

        • There will always be “fads”, and the few who briefly benefit from it. Fads are different from trends, however.

          • Please explain how a “fad” is different from a “trend”, with a particular emphasis on the fashion industry.

            • I would imagine short term temporary vs long term permanent shift? But then again the fashion industry is an anomaly because it’s both short term and cyclical, because there are only so many things you can do with clothes to still cover the body in a certain way when the body or climate doesn’t change…

              • Exactly so. There *is* a difference generally, but in the fashion industry, the difference between a fad and a trend is, at best, indistinct. It’s a largely irrelevant side point, or perhaps a minor example of a larger theme, but Mr. Falconer seems to feel it’s an issue.

            • Quite simply a “trend” has more staying power, and is more likely to see a revival at some point in the future.

              One of the simplest ways to see trends was to get the annual colour report for the fashion industry. This was also useful in architecture, automotive, interior design, and product trend forecasting. I only get the short summary report now, but in the past the larger outlook report could help in setting up certain projects. There is also an aspect of “talking the talk”, meaning that it’s important to be aware of trends.

              There are more to trends than I can easily type into a reply. In comparison, fads tend to be very short lived, and can often be ignored.

            • “Please explain how a ‘fad’ is different from a ‘trend’, with a particular emphasis on the fashion industry.”

              Sure. Typically the trends in the fashion industry are distinguished and influenced by regional styles that impact the clothing designers. New York style, for example, is distinctly different from Los Angeles style, and those differences are heavily influenced by traceable sociocultural and environmental factors. Those trends heavily dictate the photographic style choices. When the photographer decides to break from this and do “selfie fashion” shoots, it’s a fad … or perhaps more accurately, the tail wagging the dog. Might get some short term juice, but won’t influence the industry trendline as a whole very significantly or for very long.

              • You’re talking about styles here, and then, apparently, making the claim that styles lead to trends? Or are trends? Even accounting for typos, I can’t quite make out which. And that.. somehow makes them different from fads?

                The point that a “trend” is basically a longer-termed “fad” is precisely my point. Fashion is notorious for being short-term on all fronts, and thus had not trends as-such. It’s fads all the way down.

                • Cynical people would tend to take the same viewpoint. “Trend” can often be used positively to describe things people like, while the term “fad” is often used to describe things people do not like. It’s easier to be dismissive when using the term “fad”. While I’m sure there are differences in other parts of the world where English is spoken, this has been quite common in the United States. Also, it seems that as many people get older they become more dismissive of change. This is yet another characteristic that makes it tougher for some creative professionals to continue getting newer projects in some segments.

                  • Well, yes. And that is precisely what is going on here. “I don’t like Terry Richardson, therefore what he’s doing is a fad, not a trend”

                  • And anyways, if it’s longevity that matters, the idea of borrowing tropes from vernacular photography isn’t exactly young. Richardson’s been doing it for 20 years now. American Apparel was doing it, I dunno, fifteen years back? It overlaps stylistically with a paparazzi look that’s been coming and going for ages (I think I saw Ralph Lauren using it in a recent campaign). So, it’s an arrow in the quiver, and it gets pulled out and used now and then.

                    And, as vernacular changes, we can expect the shape of that particular arrow to change.

                • Sophistry. You’re intentionally trying to entangle the discussion in semantic weeds. Nice try, though.

                  Typos? Please … point them out.

                  • Well, I don’t know if they are typos or not:

                    “New York style, for example, is distinctly different from Los Angeles style, and those differences are heavily influenced by traceable sociocultural and environmental factors. Those trends heavily …”

                    is a confusing construct in which you appear to be conflating “style” with “trend” which would be silly. But perhaps the referent of “Those trends” is the ‘sociocultural and environmental factors’? Although that doesn’t make sense. My best guess is that you meant something coherent and sensible about “style” and “trend”, and had unconsciously used one word when you meant the other. I was still unable to make sense of what you were driving at, even trying out various replacements.

                    • Ok. Let me try to more elegantly [simply?] unpack the point I was trying to make for you…

                      Trend: “a general direction in which something is developing or changing”

                      Fad: “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something”

                      Ergo, what I’m saying is that regional styles — in so far as they are influenced by traceable historical, sociocultural, and environmental factors — influence trends, whereas fads, conversely, are dictated by the popular but more momentary “vogue du jour” [e.g. fascination with selfies, personal “deconstructive” techniques, etc, etc.].

                      Do trends come and go? Sure. But they’re far less whimsical. They also form the basis of aphorisms such as “what goes around comes around”, or “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again”, or “revival of the fittest”.

                      That doesn’t happen with fads.

                    • Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time to rephrase it. I do not, however, think that we’re going any place productive, so I will end with this.

                  • And regardless of what the referents of the various pronouns actually are, your reply doesn’t have a single word on the difference between a “trend” and a “fad” beyond “well, that thing I said before was merely a fad? It’s a fad” which isn’t really a lot of progress toward clarifying what you mean.

  12. Guy Incognito says:

    A rare type of post: one with NO photos!

    Unfortunately your experience is shared across many occupations. Globally there is a ‘race to the bottom’. Technology is accelerating this.

    I share the same view as you – the only way to remain competitive is specialisation. You can only acquire this through education, experience and hard work. Once attained, you have a rarer skill set and are able to negotiate better working conditions.

    What scares me is the amount of effort you need to invest in skills/qualifications just to tread water. What makes me mad is the inequity. Increasingly the world appears to be run by few people doing relatively little work and getting paid a fortune, while the majority do all the work and get paid relatively little. Society has lost its ability to reward value.

    But now you have me on my own rant…

    In general, I don’t see things ‘normalising’. By and large this environment *is* the new norm. Perhaps photography conditions will change for the better but I doubt it. Again this comes back to specialisation – the only way out is to offer something very few can provide.

    • Yes, no images are rare for me: aside from me not being able to find one that was representative, it felt as though it might take away from the crux of the message. I suppose even then it’s going largely unheard: review some gear and get hundreds of comments and tens of thousands of views in a day. Call out the emperor’s new clothes, and nobody notices – they’re too busy looking for something to buy.

      It’s true: you have to put a serious amount of work into treading water, and if you want to have a shot at doing better than average, then things get punishing. I don’t remember when I last had a day off – there’s always something that has to be done, even if it’s a few hours of email (that’s about as low-burn as it gets for me).

      Ironically, the capitalist system is starting to look both decidedly feudal (the many working for the few who own and control everything) and communist (social welfare keeping the many from revolting against the few). It’s as though the sharp end of the pencil is lengthening, or the curve is thinning out, or whatever – and yes, it’s not just photography. I just see it happening with acute clarity from my current position and wish there was something I could do about it: this new norm is not sustainable for anybody; not because of the race to the bottom but also because expectations at the other end get crazier year on year. Personally, I’d much rather be facing that than the race to the bottom.

      • Guy Incognito says:

        True… I find it hard not to be cynical when thinking about the modern world. Unchecked consumerism. Wild capitalism. Corruption. Unsustainable exploitation of the environment.

        There is a lot of ‘junk food’ out there. It is engineered to be what the masses want; it is quick; it is not challenging; it is profitable. Depending on who you are, it gets boring quickly. Call out the emperor’s new clothes when you see them! I have no doubt a large audience finds healthy nourishment in your online, professional and artistic work.

        I am sad to hear your last day off is a distant memory. I hope that doesn’t include weekends!? Down time is crucial for family, mental health and productivity. Be sure to take care of yourself!

      • And some time in the not too distant future robotic automation is going to take over lots of professions, like mail and package delivery, taxi and truck driving, and even planting and pulling weeds on the farm. This will displace lots of workers, while requiring only a few jobs for those who design and maintain the machines. There is no planning going on for this post-manual-labor economy, which will still have a need for creative people, scientists, and thinkers, but not much opportunity for unskilled people. This could lead to a flowering of artistic culture, or a dystopia of boredom and poverty for the many with luxury and leisure mainly for the rich.

        • Guy Incognito says:

          Fortunately for photography, the humanities are going to be one of the last domains (if ever) to be automated.

          Steven, you are right though. No consideration has been given to the human dignity of work. Does society ultimately benefit from mass automation? Certainly not if it leads to mass unemployment and poverty – dystopia.

          If society decides to restructure it could lead to an age of science, philosophy and art. I have expressed my cynicism – it is not too distant from my pessimism! Supposing society does find its way into a technology run utopia, at the very least, I still think there will be a generation or two (maybe several) of inequity. Look at the currently shrinking middle class. As a part of the race to the bottom, local industry has been replaced by cheap foreign labour. Nothing has been done to grow the middle class in many countries. Better technology will be no different.

          Again, the best advice I could give to a young person right now is to skill up.

          • An unrelated question, but I’ve always wondered where the cheap labor goes when we run out of ‘cheap’ developing countries – eventually they too will want to be ‘high value’, even if it takes centuries. The irony will be critical core activities like food production may well land up turning premium again…

            • Guy Incognito says:

              In the context of where these comments have meandered, it is definitely a related question!

              Labour intensive industries tend to establish manufacturing in countries with cheap labour. They relocate to other countries as wages rise. During wage equalisation the country has an opportunity to industrialise. If we look at the last century, Japan was the first Asian country to industrialise. I believe there was broadly a counter clockwise spread of industrialisation across Asia from Japan to South Korea, Taiwan and China.

              In recent times China has become a victim of its own success. Industrial land and skilled employees are in such demand, costs have gone up. As a result industrialisation has spread further south to countries like Thailand and Vietnam. There aren’t too many untapped resources left in that region.

              What happens when all the cheap labour dries up? I am not sure either. If someone else knows I’d like to hear it.

              I’d love to believe that manufacturing might become more distributed across the globe as the cost of local manufacturing becomes more viable. I’d also love to believe that consumers might have to pay more for ‘stuff’ and be happy that global living standards are higher. I’m not sure we’ll get there. I can imagine many countries getting caught in the ‘middle income trap’.

              I think developing countries are in a race against technology. My worry for developing countries is that progress in automation will make cheap labour irrelevant. Before they have had an opportunity to increase productivity and develop innovation. What happens to these nations? Will they ever reach ‘high value’ states?

              Resources, be they mineral or agricultural, have always had the ability to build and sustain nations. As you say, they are core activities. With more mouths to feed and increasing environmental stress, I think food production and security will become more important. You can see it now. Asian and Middle Eastern countries are buying farmlands all over the world.

              • The other possibility is of course things just becoming more automated – we don’t really need as many workers to produce processed food as before, for instance – this should theoretically free up people to do other, higher value/ more creative endeavours. In theory.

                It’s interesting because from my country’s standpoint, we used to be a manufacturing hub because we were both cheap and relatively educated and English-speaking – now we are no longer cheap, the neighbouring ASEAN countries are increasing in overall skill level and being a lot more aggressive towards attracting new business, but we’re not really skilled enough to make the next leap into a knowledge economy – it’s an odd place to be in. I suspect this is the ‘middle income trap’ – not exactly below the poverty line, but not affluent either.

                There are some things which cannot be automated though – tea picking, for instance. My guess is these commodities will increase in value/cost and eventually move away towards being luxuries instead of staples; remember that at one point caviar and oysters were peasant food – now they are delicacies of the rich. ‘

                Most resources are finite. Natural/renewable ones cannot completely replace inorganic ones – no matter how well you manage your forests, you cannot solve the problem of running out of iron ore. But I suppose if those resources sustain your innovation/ education economy long enough, somebody may eventually figure out a way to create some natural fibre composite that might well be a workable substitute. I suppose in this way them technology race isn’t so much about rendering cheap labor irrelevant, but your latter observation about developing innovation.

                Were the current ‘developed’ nations ever really undeveloped relative to everybody else? With the case of Europe, I don’t think so. America and Australia are both anomalies but benefitted heavily from the European diaspora. It’s certainly possible to go the other way – Egypt and China were once relative innovation leaders, and only recently has China asserted its strength again. What is interesting though is the outsourcing of production or cheap labor to impoverished countries – I’m thinking also Germany and Japan after the war – has helped them to where they are today. ‘Made in Japan’ or ‘Made in Eastern Germany’ were probably worse than ‘Made in China’ was in the early 90s – now ‘Made in China’ has given way to ‘Made in Vietnam’ and ‘Made in Myanmar’. I’ve not seen ‘Made in Singapore’ on anything for a long time, and Taiwanese products have almost as much premium as Japanese ones. It’s probably just a matter of time before we see ‘Made in Zimbabwe’…

                I suppose the bottom line is that at any scale – whether individual photographers or the agro-industrial complex – if one party isn’t willing to do it at a given cost, somebody else will almost certainly be. And my guess is there will almost always be ‘somebody else’ who does it because they have no choice. Them survival instinct is perhaps the strongest human one; even creativity is born out of necessity.

                • Guy Incognito says:

                  If automation spreads as quickly and widely as some have predicted, society is going to have to re-skill correspondingly to avoid pain. Its not just jobs like manufacturing. Many white-collar professions are also going to be threatened by automation. When both skilled and unskilled occupations are replaced by automation, society is going to have to raise its education standards very high to keep up.

                  Technological change is on its way and I don’t see education reform happening. On the contrary, it seems like we live in a dark-age where science has never been better, yet politicians ignore or abuse its conclusions to suit their own ideologies. Government funding for education seems to be dwindling. The cost of private tuition is rising faster than wages. How are we going to develop this age of creative thinkers? If wide spread automation is truly less than a generation away, large sections of society are in for a rude shock.

                  If you speak to baby-boomers, they might tell you they remember ‘made in Japan’ was much like ‘made in China’. Now Japan is practically the Germany of Asia! It is interesting how cheap labour has moved around Asia. Asia is generally politically stable – something that has prevented the same investment in Africa. Corruption and lack of investment in productivity and innovation stifle progress.

                  You’re right though at any scale there will always be a low cost option. ‘Interesting’ times…

                  • I actually look at it two ways: shouldn’t automatic mean that more of us are freed up to do intellectual/development/creative work? Surely it doesn’t mean all the farmers now have to become programmers.

                    There’s definitely a huge gap between education and technology: in Malaysia, the government changes the language of instruction every few years – the conspiracy theorists think it’s to keep the population stupider than the leadership and under control, but the reality is it’s just so they can award new textbook printing contracts to their cronies. There can be no advancement this way.

                    That said, I have yet to see an education in *any* country that actively teaches problem solving and actual life skills – being able to get twelve perfect scores in an examination of fact regurgitation is very different to knowing what to do if you miss a flight or have to manage your household cashflow, for instance. No education now really prepares you for real life.

  13. Hi Ming,
    Rest assured that through all of your efforts on this site, through your Flickr pool and especially your teaching, you have created a community of steadfast supporters that share the same values that you’ve discussed here. You have added enormously to the body of knowledge within photography through your unique style, technical innovations in Ultra Prints and vision. Most importantly, you are willing and able to share your knowledge freely in the best spirit of community. I will continue to support your efforts through tuition and purchases of videos and prints. Just know that you are greatly appreciated for what you add to the study and art of photography.

    • Thanks Dave – I try, and will continue to do so as long as it’s feasible. I’m secretly hoping there’s a magic formula that takes you to the next level…but more likely it’s a lucky break and being in the right place at the right time. Who knows?

  14. Excellent post that covers the issues facing us very well. I’m hearing about these patterns more often, amongst many who work on their own outside of a larger company, and not just in photography. There are too many people who think that individuals who work on their own do not deserve to get paid the same as those who work for a larger company. Luckily there are some ethical companies who value people, though the struggle there is to get lined up with more of them.

    I’m briefly reminded of a local restaurant trying to build a weekend breakfast clientele. They did the photos of the food themselves, and then had them printed large to hang in their window. I passed by the location about once a week. Recently, the breakfast photos (with dull looking omelettes) were no longer in the window. So I asked the girl at the door whether they served breakfast, and she stated that they tried it for a couple weeks, but then decided not to offer weekend breakfast. I don’t definitely know that bad images hurt the potential of their breakfast business, but I am left convinced that more appealing images may have enticed some new customers to try their breakfast. I see many examples similar to this. The lesson for any company is that bad images will not help advertise your business, but compelling images will at least give you a chance at attracting more business.

    • Ironically the larger companies are, the less value they add because there’s so much extra overhead that has to be carried and covered. You can forget about pretty much 24/7 service and a single point of contact, for starters.

      You and I know that bad images are worse than no images – but convincing people of this is quite something else. And even if you convince them, getting creative freedom to showcase their product in its best possible light is another thing entirely – there are a lot of expectations set by existing advertising for other aspirational goods that might not necessarily be suitable for their offerings.

  15. Unfortunately, I imagine that your comments could be applied to many fields, not just photography (one reason why I never seriously considered it as a career). I’m a teacher, and I’ve seen jobs in this field advertised which pay peanuts and which will accept pretty much anyone as long as they are able to even get close to the minimum required standard. In photographic terms it would be the person who just bought a DSLR and who knows how to attach the strap 🙂

    On the flip side, the fact that you still have good clients who value you should act as a strong motivation to keep them; plus, if most other photographers are clueless amateurs, it improves your chances of keeping the good clients, surely?

    Eventually I find that it helps to let the wannabes get on with their hundred dollar weddings, while you do your own thing for your appreciative clients. There’s a great quote from Jay Maisel about how he once presented his portfolio to an editor, who flipped through it “as if she was leafing through a phonebook”. He got annoyed, but then she shut the portfolio and said “how would you like a spread in the magazine?”. The point being, those who know quality don’t have to make a big deal about it, and once you’ve proved your worth with them, you are set (until they start cutting costs, but that’s a slightly different issue). Those who skimp on quality will pay for it in the end, and they might even come hat in hand to a real photographer next time…

    • You’d be surprised how many people put the strap on without much care and have just a little bit separating them from an expensive crashing noise 🙂

      But yes – we make the most of what we have, but I’m sad for the industry as a whole: there’s more potential and more accessible potential out there than ever – both creative and technical – yet a lot of that is never going to see the light of day. And that’s bad news for everybody, even if it means competition. Genuine competition on merit is a very good thing, because it’s inspiration and a kick in the pants to raise my game.

  16. Sorry that that’s the current state! Your work is beautiful, your skill suburb and your knowledge vast! A diamond being further polished. Not everyone will look only for glass.

    • Thanks for the encouragement, Caleb. I’m not worried about myself so much as the whole state of affairs – one can always find somewhere to go if you’re willing to fight hard enough, and as I said in my post, I’m extremely thankful and fortunate that I’m somewhat outside this. I just feel bad for the talented people I see trying to break in and landed up being discouraged by the somewhat sneaky operators.

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