I said at the start of 2016 that the overall market for photographic services (commissioned work, art, education) was getting lumpier and smaller: I don’t think that’s changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse. I suspect this is an underlying societal change more than anything: people are simply getting bored. So where does that leave us in 2017?
The serious are going to go further down the rabbit hole: there’s never been a better or easier time to travel to exotic locations in search of new material; if anything, it might be too easy judging from the proliferation of images I see out of Iceland, Svalbard, the Antarctic and the like – when your 60-year old aunt comes back with images from that cone shaped mountain shot with her phone, you know it’s no longer off the beaten path. That means those who’ve relied on unusual destinations to make unusual images (i.e. stuff people have not seen before) are going to have to keep going further and further afield to play that game. Eventually, we’ll run out of place we haven’t seen – it’s back to either finding the unusual in the quotidian, or relying on one’s imagination. Or both.
Similarly, on the hardware side, high quality has never been more accessible: 2016 was the year of digital medium format for the masses (or at least the serious amateurs). We now have no less than four options in the ‘somewhat feasibly affordable’ space – the Pentax 645Z, the Hasselblad X1D and CFV-50C (and for a while, H5D-50Cs on closeout), and the Fuji GFX50S. All use variants on the same sensor, and deliver really top notch image quality (if in a slightly different format and flavour). No more excuses about the hardware, then – but since when has it been entirely about hardware?
Personally, I found my endgame hardware with the H system in 2016. I don’t envision any major changes to this; frankly, I’m not even sure I want the 100MP option because it’s going to make a mess of my existing focal length selections (44x33mm vs 54x40mm makes a significant difference in angle of view for a given lens). And I’ve not had the need for more either from the client side, the print side, or even personally being able to repeatedly squeeze everything out of the 50MP sensors under all conditions – I think it may not be humanly possible to consistently handhold for critical sharpness below 1/2x. Sure, size could be smaller, but I’ve got the V system for that – with the same sensor, too. The hardware journey is pretty much at an end; there’s one last project I’m looking into, which is a thin camera body with a leaf shutter to allow me to mount Otuses onto the V or H digital back – but it fundamentally isn’t any new (or, for that matter, commercially available) hardware.
Commercially, I’m expecting 2017 to be even tougher and leaner than 2016, which in turn was leaner than 2015. The previous model of extreme specialisation no longer works; everybody is back to shooting everything. The only problem with this is we still have to defend rates: you can’t suddenly cut day rates by 50% and expect an increase in clients. You might get it, but it won’t offset the reduction in absolute revenue. I think there are quite a few of us stuck at holding rates but doing fewer and lumpier jobs. In some ways, this reflects the binary nature of consumer photography in general: it’s either disposable, inconsequential and value-less or extremely serious; most of the hobby photographers I’ve spoken to are either pulling back or doubling down: camera phones or medium format upgrades. Given that it’s the same general group of people who are making corporate purchasing/hiring decisions, it’s not surprising that the same attitude is also seen in photography-for-hire.
It’s also being reflected in attitudes towards education: there’s far fewer people who are interested enough to invest the effort and money, and few of those who do stick around long enough to see the results. As ever, it’s the human that’s the limiting factor to output, and that limitation will only get more acute as our collective attention span continues to wane and the expectation for instant gratification becomes more cemented. The rewards are probably greater than ever – given subject access and image quality potential – but they will only be known and appreciated by those who are dedicated enough to go the distance.
These days, I find myself shooting more around single themes and focusing on expanding ideas – it’s as though the visual diarrhoea has finally passed and I am left with much better focus. I will need to make the jump from mostly documenter to mostly creator at some point in the near future to survive both professionally and creatively, I think. I don’t see myself playing the art game anymore – that’s for people with the right circle of connections, money, and living in the right part of the world. I’ve got none of those things, and Malaysia is little better than a photographic desert: lots of equipment and equipment buyers, but few doing anything with it, and even fewer with an appreciation for the output.
This probably means a big shift in the near future: either we move country to somewhere that doesn’t require flying for almost every job (which becomes harder with a young family), or the game has to change to something remote and scalable (which I don’t see as really possible in commercial photography; art perhaps, but that’s not really an option). All in all: I think 2017 is going to be a tough year for anybody making a living from the industry; manufacturers, pros, educators etc. We just have to keep on shooting. Market maturity has to be there somewhere, right? MT
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