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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