2017 crystal-ball gazing

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Sorry, didn’t have a crystal ball handy…

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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  1. Thank you, Ming Thein, for another thoughtful, if worrying, post; worrying at least to this photographer (“Indonesians”) turned entrepreneur (WiReD Magazine) and recently returned photographer (www.instagram.com/icspix). I guess I am hoping, like many, that the flood of internet borne visuals tunes more people into appreciation of good images, meaningful images. But I am not holding my breath.

    Perhaps surprised by your comment that you might move though. Would you really move from a place you clearly love (lovely H1D promo video on Penang, BTW), and where you are growing a family, to somewhere else because you might find more photography work (and probably more competition)?

    • The political climate here is unpleasant; the economy is sinking, and I’d rather have competition (which indicates clients value competency) as opposed to a race for who can pay the biggest kickbacks or charge the least…

  2. Hi Ming, speaking of crystal ball gazing, I think a CFV-50c may be in my life some day soon. I’m wondering if you had tried out the 110 f2 with it at all on a 2000 series body?

  3. John Wilson says:

    Interesting and thoughtful article, as ever.
    Can we relate the desire to get angles and locations your auntie couldn’t on her iPhone to the rise in drone photography? Another photographic site now believes that the majority shareholder in Hasselblad is DJI, the biggest consumer drone company and perhaps the Apple of drones, or so they would like to be…

    • I’m not aware of any aunts who own drones, but I’ve got a lot of aunts…so there may well be one somewhere!

      Hasselblad-DJI: Chinese/Asian businesses do not invest in things they don’t believe will make money. Culturally, being of that ethnicity and that part of the world, I can tell you motivations are 100% financial…this is not necessarily a bad thing for Hasselblad.

      • Agreed, this can only be good for Hasselblad and hopefully gives them the ability to double down on success of their X1D system. That said when you say the ‘motivations are 100% financial’ is there no element of cachet for the Asian/Chinese investors here? After all Hasselblad have one helluva pedigree!

        Just personally feel that relationships between investors and their assets run smoother when there is some pride and understanding between the two so curious to know how mercantile you feel this investment is.

        • Cachet is a bad reason to invest or buy from a business standpoint. If you can monetise that, it’s something else, which brings us back to point one…

          All investments are mercantile. They have to be, otherwise it’s really in nobody’s interests in the long run…

  4. Richard J Bach says:

    I think the biggest problem in 2017 is that we are in the endgame of the democratization of photography: the not-so-educated masses (bloggers, gearheads, anyone on social media) have transitioned into tastemakers.

    It blows my mind the amount of HDR-blasted landscapes and boring, over-processed images of wrinkly people that win contests or I see in galleries for $$$. The audience wants eye-catching, not soul-stirring images, These are easy make and easy to get accolades for. The blogosphere only makes things worse, where people talking confuse electronics reviewers with photographers and don’t seem to notice the distinction.

    But, on the flipside, the now almost nonexistent barriers to entry and easy distribution, have resulted in some really interesting work that may not have been made otherwise (an article I saw recently on the youth fashion culture in the Moscow suburbs comes to mind). It seems to be giving the photographic “elite” a bit of a kick in the pants. When an amateur with c cellphone can make a technically decent image, it puts the burden on everyone to think a bit more than just making technically pretty things.

    Theres still great work out there, perhaps being made at the highest rate ever. We have more access the world than ever before. While this has produced a glut of pointless images, it still has raised the bar for the art & industry The optimist in me hopes that the current state of affairs will inevitably weed out the worst offenders in imaging trends, and only the interesting work will remain. But I am pretty optimistic…

    • “I think the biggest problem in 2017 is that we are in the endgame of the democratization of photography: the not-so-educated masses (bloggers, gearheads, anyone on social media) have transitioned into tastemakers.”
      Yes, but this I think has always been what underlies pop art to a degree: it isn’t about education or taste; it’s simply about what hits the audience emotionally at any given time. If it happens to be duck face selfies and cats, well, I guess that’s just as valid a comment on society as the proliferation of religious art would have been in the 15th and 16th centuries 🙂 However: the fact that people are paying for this kind of work means somebody sees value in it. And who are we – biased as we are – to question what other people value if it differs from our own preferences and biases?

      “The blogosphere only makes things worse, where people talking confuse electronics reviewers with photographers and don’t seem to notice the distinction.”

      “But, on the flipside, the now almost nonexistent barriers to entry and easy distribution, have resulted in some really interesting work that may not have been made otherwise”
      And yes again, which brings me back to the first point: now that such work has been given an outlet and seen some success, it means that somebody, somewhere, must be finding the value in it. This is not necessarily a bad thing at all.

      I think we’re on the same page overall: the more tools available to a wider range of people and the easier they are to use, the harder all of us are going to have to try collectively to make something exceptional. This, as you point out, is not a bad thing at all. But I think the real uncertainty here is: what do ‘we’ define as exceptional? And is there enough space left for anything beyond pop to meaningfully survive in the long run? Ease of communication and transfer of opinion/knowledge has also mean that more than ever, there’s this homogeneity throughout society and geography that makes it difficult to be original or different for very long: you’ll either be copied or ignored.

  5. Below my attempt to answer your question: whats left after my aunt has successfully IPhoned the last exotic location on this globe?

    • Interesting. I think our main restriction is not one of material or will: but social paranoia. Try to take photos of anybody’s children other than your own, and you’ll find yourself locked up and accused of being a paedophile faster than you can imagine. A sad, paranoid state of affairs…

      More interesting, and in reverse: what kind of images will today’s generation produce, having grown up with imaging, mobile devices and a type of photography thats a lot more emotional/instant and less technical than we’ve been doing to date? I’m certainly curious what kind of photos my daughter might make with a little a) encouragement; b) lack of preconceived ideas of what images can or cannot be; c) the ability to shoot as she sees rather than have to find technical workarounds. 🙂

  6. Excellent feature, as always, they are few and far between within this photonet world, they’re usually super upbeat and trying to pretend everything is fine and dandy, as their income depends on their audience wanting more.
    Photography in my experience is almost no longer a profession as we knew it. I’ve made a modest living from it for the last 35 years, and I have seen the decline in the business, since around 2008/9. I would discourage anyone wanting to be a photographer, it’s impossible to live here in London on a freeelancers income. it’s not just the only profession, journalism has gone down the same rocky road. Twenty years ago, one could make a decent living from being either a photographer or a journalist, but it’s not possible anymore.
    I’m enjoying treating photography as more of a creative outlet rather than expecting consistent and increasing income (my rates are the same as 1990) I’ve recently read a great deal of David Hockney, he has some enlightening ideas on photography and art.
    I wish you well Ming for 2017, one hopes that skill and knowledge will overcome but as one poster here suggested, “they” have all dumbed down.

    • The other reason it’s not possible is because of the business model of the sites using the content has become predominantly advertising-driven, which means eyeballs and clicks are all that’s required for revenue – there is no real way of measuring the ‘quality’ of an audience. Content stuffers in turn because the proprietors want to spend as little as possible upfront. The other bulk of users in the commercial space want to exploit audience-influence, which means trading the dreaded ‘exposure’ on social media for free content. And perceived ‘authenticity’ of this kind of snapshot is far higher than it should be…

      • That’s very true: So many reviewers are not really photographers, at least from their work they can’t be serious. It’s actually pretty easy to review equipment, noise levels, DR,colour (subjective anyway) are just visual measurements and simple to conclude. You know more about the relationship between sites and manufacturers. A few sites, and I include yours here, are a very useful source of information as firstly, you can take pictures and secondly you’re not wedded to the paymaster. I can safely say, all of the commissioners I work for wouldn’t know a Sony from a Leica, or RAW from TIFF, the role of the person who commissions photography has been relegated to an admin role. “Can you send me the RAW files”? they ask. “sure, how are you going to process them”? ……..”er what?
        what do you mean?” It’s typical of an exchange between the photographer and the person asking me to shoot pictures.
        Gone are the days of the visually trained editor pawing over the lightbox with a loupe. What I’m getting at here is that frankly, it doesn’t really matter what camera one uses, so long as it can record images, it’s only for my own benefit, I consider what equipment I use.
        My first digital was the Canon 1DS; 11 million pxl chip and £7000. I can get the same image quality now on a camera 10 times less expensive. Billboards are now going all digital, they can use pictures from an iphone. Photography is now regarded as democratic, much in the same way as the UK choose to leave Europe and America elected Trump……just sayin”.

        • Don’t get me wrong; we need somebody to do the quantitative measurement stuff to confirm if our instinct is correct or not, but at the same time it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that ultimately, whatever we’re using is merely a tool – nothing more, and nothing less.

          10x for the 1Ds? Maybe even 20 or 30x 🙂 The iPhone isn’t the problem; it’s the fact that the nephew of the guy who might have hired you also has a 1DxII and is willing to take some pictures ‘for the exposure’ 😉

      • Ming, what about the rather detailed audience analytics of “clicks and eyeballs” that exist today?…..

        That is to say, I’ve encountered some digital marketers who seem very intent on attracting clicks of the right (e.g.high-ticket) buyers, A/B testing, studying every last thousandth percentage point of performance metrics, and so forth. It seems to be a results-oriented testing / demographics / numbers game attempting to reach the right audience with enough qualitative accuracy to enjoy a profit rather than lose money to Google with every PPC campaign.

        But when it comes to demand generation for quality images, you wrote of a landscape in which “eyeballs and clicks are all that’s required for revenue – there is no real way of measuring the ‘quality’ of an audience,”

        What are your thoughts about reasons for the seeming disconnect between these ‘worlds’?

        • For starters, there’s a reason why sites like DPR and Imaging Resource etc. now split their reviews into multiple pages – typically as many as possible – because their hit count becomes higher, and advertisers pay more for more hits; never mind the fact that most of the visitors won’t buy anything, and revenue per click is actually pretty low. And there’s no quantitative measure of trolls vs big spenders vs silent majority vs serious contributors…

  7. Junaid Rahim says:

    In business we all have to adapt and try and grow with what the market dictates. I think your inability to scale due to location as well as not really being something you can expand by hiring people makes things tougher.

    You’ll be fine 😉 Happy New Year!

    • It does; just means it’s time to rethink the business model (again) – wouldn’t be the first time 🙂

      Happy new year to you too!

  8. A thought-provoking and interesting analaysis of your circumstances and the external forces. I too, needed to consult a dictionary for quotidian! A marvelous word in print or on the tongue. I have made a note of it for future reference.

    The following is more of a wish, or a dream, rather than a guess as to what will happen, but I ask for your indulgence …

    I await a camera manufacturer (or 3rd party in combination with a manufacturer) radically improving the interface to the camera. An overhaul of the physical aspects along with a re-work of the user interface. So many photographers would like to better enjoy their experience when making photographs. Frankly, they “put up” with many parts of the experience.

    The majority of cameras (all of them?) have failed to benefit from the integration of their mechanical roots with digital technology. And when asked about the digital interface, it is amusing to hear so many photographers rank the current offerings in terms of being “not as bad as XYZ”. Never in terms of being good.

    A smart phone has a far more complex tool, and the interfaces are far, far better. They are not showing and signs of slowing up in improvements, either. In many ways, using native and 3rd party camera apps on my iPhone is a far more pleasant experience than the experience with many cameras. My iPhone has location and communication capabilities far beyond any camera. It also has computational capacity far beyond any camera.

    I can imagine a camera line being a runaway success because of its physical and digital interface. With so little differentiation in the output when given to competent photographers, effort need be made in other aspects such as the interface.

    Steppng down from my soapbox now, I would like to wish you a fabulous 2017. I look foward eagerly to the visual and written material that you will be sharing with us all in the coming year.

    🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

    • Agreed. In my experience with Canon, Nikon, Sony and Leica it’s only the latter who are experimenting in the interface department.

      Leica’s camera menus are clean and simple (admittedly the cameras tend to be simple compared to the feature fest of a Nikon). Leica also seem to be unafraid to experiment with button layout as their S and SL system evidences.

      Their T was a pretty brave step too, even if it might not have been as successful as Leica might have hoped. Their cameras are limited and expensive however, but very much worth a try if you can afford them.

      • I thought the T was the first attempt at making something sensible for the digital era (and said as much), but it really needed a bit more work and always felt like a beta product. The X1D is better, but needs the rest of the features fleshing out. We’ll get there eventually, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the usual suspects who manage it…

        • In the short time that I have had with an X1D, I have cerainly apprciated the “look” of the design and the feeling of it in my hands.

          I have noted that Hasselblad has not taken the “standard” approach to shaping and styling the camera body.

          The menu system is not perfect, but it is simple compared to the majority of systems in other cameras that I have used. I even liked the use of large fonts on the screen.

          🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

      • I have not had the pleasure of experiencing the any Leica cameras. Based on your comment, @leonroy, I shall ensure that I change this situation at the very first opportunity !

        Being an amateur, I have the luxury of placing a good percentage of my preferred photographic process on the experience of making photograhs, at the possible expense of the output. The “look” of the camera, the manual process of acquiring the image, and the selection of camera options are important. I want the process to put a smile on my face.

        I am achieving the above with both of my cameras …
        * Hasselblad 501C/M with CFV-50c digital back.
        * iPhone 7 Plus.

        🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

        • Let us know how you get on, I am sure your Hasselblad however will be hard to beat but yes Leica is definitely enjoyable to use as far as haptics go.

          If you do decide to pull the trigger on any Leica gear be warned there is some sample variation on their lenses so do be fussy when buying – especially with the M series which can be a pain to keep calibrated.

    • “I await a camera manufacturer (or 3rd party in combination with a manufacturer) radically improving the interface to the camera. An overhaul of the physical aspects along with a re-work of the user interface. So many photographers would like to better enjoy their experience when making photographs. Frankly, they “put up” with many parts of the experience.”
      Actually, I think that ‘camera maker’ was Apple: they’re the only ones who’ve really managed to a) simplify and b) popularise photo taking for the masses to take advantage of technology. I’ve never felt the need to know my exact exposure parameters with an iPhone, yet I also have the least problems getting the shot I want – just tap to focus, slide up and down for brighter or darker. We used to need control because automation wasn’t possible; that’s no longer necessarily the case.

      The better interface hasn’t directly resulted in better images, but it has resulted in more people shooting more images, and some of those people going on to take photography seriously (and in turn make consciously better images). I suspect the same would probably be true on a smaller scale – simply due to volume – if we were to also apply it to standalone cameras…

      • Hi there Ming.

        I will admit to thinking of Apple when I contemplated what could be done with the interface. The iPhone is a good camera becasue of several factors …
        – The hardware, taking into acount the constraints of the device.
        – The native “Camera” app is straight-forward.
        – The management of the acquired images.
        – The app environment that brings in so, so many creative ideas.

        The open door to 3rd parties in the last item of the list above has proved to be a stoke of genius. Evolution options have been broadened immensely, and over time, Apple has incorporated many of the better aspects of the 3rd party apps into their own software.

        🙂 … MomentsForZen (Richard)

  9. Gary Morris says:

    A couple of thoughts…
    First, I think we’re still feeling the reverberations of the global financial meltdown of 2008-2009. That much real and in some cases imagined turmoil does not abate quickly. I did work for a non-profit before, during and after the melt down, and I can say we never did recover. The reduction in members turned out to be permanent.
    Second, I think the reference to attention span is maybe a little harsh. Here in the US, I find people are very busy. Either with work, families, activities, etc. Being “retired” I observe friends that still work as well as my kids (and their families) and at the end of the day, they’re exhausted just running in place to keep up. It’s not a lack of attention; they’re running on empty.
    Finally, we’re in an era of rapid democratization of “things” that used to be considered luxury items. Once upon a time a camera that was more than a Kodak moment camera (the old Open Me First point and shoot) was more or less a luxury item reserved for the well to do and/or the very serious hobbyist. The advent of the digital point and shoot in the late-1990s and early-2000s, followed by the all-in-one gadget smart phone supplanted the digital point and shoot and empowered anyone who could swing the monthly payment for the smart phone to become a “photographer”.
    One of the side affects of democratization is a dumbing down of expectations (and skill and talent) in regards to the finished output. In the case of my field of work, computer programming, we used to have a zero tolerance for errors. That seems to no longer hold sway (are you listening, Apple, Adobe and others). Ditto for creative pursuits… a good enough is good enough attitude seems to permeate all sorts of creative endeavors.
    Mix in disruptive political, economic, and social changes this past year (the US election, Brexit, massive forced migration) and 2017 will probably be more of the same as the last 8 years.
    We are living in interesting times.

    • “Here in the US, I find people are very busy.”
      Here’s my question though – what are they actually doing? The requirements of life are not really different to 40, 50 years ago – yet we have less free time than ever. Something doesn’t quite add up.

      “Finally, we’re in an era of rapid democratization of “things” that used to be considered luxury items.”
      Agreed, and this is largely also the impact of social media: both because people are using it to show off their ‘best side’ and because the marketers are using it to convince us our lives are incomplete without their latest gizmo. Never mind consumer debt going through the roof to keep up with the vicious cycle of having to produce more, consume more, climb the ladder…indeed, we live in interesting times. What really makes it interesting is I wonder how many people know why they’re doing what they’re actually doing.

      • The truth of the matter is that this question boils down to the percentage of the population who is in the middle class, so to speak. That has severely dropped, so has the availability of full-time jobs that pay reasonably well. Simply put, people are having to work more and harder and in shittier jobs and more often than not, in several part-time ones, just to stay afloat, when that in the past was not as much of a necessity.

        This is essentially down to how capitalism works in the long term, especially if its downsides are not regulated effectively on a governmental level, especially if you take into account the job loss that stems from automation (which is, in itself a *far* bigger issue than people seem to realise, and the jobs moving overseas thing is *far* less of an issue than people make it out to be, and I’m willing to bet this is at least partly down to delibirate propaganda, why people think this, just to distract people from the actual issues), and who owns and benefits from the means of production.

        Some people *can* sort of find alternative ways of living that is viable, however that is inherently limited due to how the economy itself works – essentially, we can’t all be top freelance engineers or something along those lines, and being a single person contractor is not necessarily a good thing, in that if you are not particularly successful, and you only more or less make enough to stay afloat as one person, then it essentially results in you being a wage-slave that just has fewer securities than a wage-slave of the past would have had (healthcare, depending on the country and the like).

        In other words, it’s not really fair to blame the average person for this issue, but rather, forces far beyond the control of any one person.

        The actual issues regarding this vary by country, of course, the US is one of the worst in the western world, whilst parts of Europe are somewhat better off, though it’s starting to creep up everywhere to one extent or another.

        Of course, this matter is *far* more complex than I’ve made it out to be here, however this is more or less what it boils down to.

        • In short: we continue to do what we have to, with less cushion than ever. Isn’t it odd that capitalism eventually becomes feudalism… 🙂

          • Come for the articles, stay for the comments 🙂

            Some excellent insights here on the current state of things. I agree, it does feel like people have less time than ever. In families both parents working has compressed the time available to either parent for free time activities and it really does feel like we’re on a treadmill of credit, debt and spending.

            I agree with Erko – I don’t think we can blame the average person for this but it certainly feels like as a society we have failed each other somewhat. Governments and businesses have failed to ensure workers are treated well, the financial industry and its regulators have failed to put long term interests over short term interests and on the back of cheap credit given themselves short term bonuses despite the unlikely long term prospects of seeing any of their cheap loans repaid to the bank. Finally we as citizens have failed to hold our governments and employers to account and let a lot of hard won rights and protections fall by the wayside.

            Trump and Brexit are definitely a backlash against those issues which have disproportionately affected the less well off. Ironically both will make things worst for those who voted for them but at least more people are waking up to the problems. I recall after the 2008 recession a lot of folk in London were saying ‘what recession?’ It’s clear now that the pain was being felt in the less affluent parts of the country. Who knows, these warnings might have come in time for us to take corrective steps.

            • I’m still scratching my head asking why we’re doing this: surely there must be some gain somewhere, right? But the really scary part is the number of people I talk to who’d all rather be doing something else. It seems we are spending ever increasing amounts of time trying to distract ourselves from life, which of course makes no sense whatsoever.

              As for Trump: I suspected (and still suspect) he simply said whatever he had to say to get as many votes as possible to put him in power. Thereafter, he’ll continue status quo: there’s simply no incentive for I’m to do anything otherwise, since he’d also be on the losing end from a profitability standpoint.

      • Gary Morris says:

        Busy lives… Based on observation and a little of doing similar things when my kids were younger, in general people seem to take on more peripheral activities than a generation or two ago. Specifically, when I was a child 60 years ago, my sister and I would have one after-school activity. Maybe little league baseball (at which I was terrible) or a piano lesson (again, terrible). Not two activities during the school year; just one, depending on the season. Ditto for my sister. And, we often got to these activities on our own. Now, however, kids in the US have soccer, Irish Dancing, after school tutoring, etc. Often 2-4 activities simultaneously during the school year. And, one or more parent will schlep the kids around to these activities in a V8-powered shipping container. Throw in food preparation (or time eating out), homework after school, doctor appointments, hair and nail appointments, etc., and at the end of the day, people are exhausted. I’m not judging any of this (maybe the V8-powered shipping container, since our family got by swimmingly in a 1960 Ford Falcon for a decade), just relating what’s going on. Arguably this picture is of a middle- or upper-middle family, but even at the lower end, people are busy (at the lower end, one or both parents will have multiple jobs so the kids are left mostly to fend for themselves unless there’s a grandparent who participates in raising the children).

        I don’t know specifically how all this relates to photography except to say that while all this is going on, the parents, children, friends, etc. will be happily snapping shots on their iPhones (or similar devices), sharing with friends via text messaging, maybe uploading a photo to Facebook or similar social sharing structure. If you attend one of these events or restaurants during the school year (about 9 months in the US but with far fewer hours than most of the rest of the world) you won’t see anyone doing any photo sharing via a Sony A6500 or Sony RX-type camera, Leica T(L) or any other maker (Canon or Nikon or Pentax, etc.)… it’s all via the “smart” phone.

        So how does this relate to your original observation that professional photography is suffering reduced prosperity, probably along the same downward trajectory as professional and semi-professional camera sales? My best guess would be that the individuals tasked with hiring a professional such as yourself are the very parents snapping photos of their offspring on the sidelines of the big game or Irish Dance finals. If their iPhone 6+ or 7+ is good enough to capture their little Tiffany in the throws of Irish Dance rapture, then by extension, that same iPhone 6+ must be good enough to capture… fill in the blank.

        • We’re not even at that point here (fortunately, my wife and I are pretty low-maintenance on the personal beautification scale – she, because she doesn’t need it, and I, because nothing will help) and there’s still precious few spare hours in the week, let alone the day. I’ve had to cut back hugely on teaching, experimentation and other activities just to leave enough time to run the site and be a responsible parent.

          Curiously though, all of the ‘active’ parents I see are ether using late model iPhones or full bore ‘serious’ camera gear that would be in the pro realm not that many years ago – it appears to be binary. Or, being Asia, more likely to be a status symbol than anything. At least in this part of the world it’s the mentality of ‘I can now buy the same camera, so my pictures must be the same’ more than a change in low end hiring behaviour – I think that market never really matured business-wise anyway, and certainly wasn’t a threat to the high end pro. But the attitude pervaded by the ‘serious’ gear toting parents (and no doubt carrying through to their professional behaviour) probably hasn’t helped.

          As for the V8 shipping container: exponential road tax and import duties here mean that even your big luxury sedans and SUVs come with 1.8 or 2L engines. 🙂

        • Gary – spot on. Today’s humans simply have so many distractions. Rewind back to ’95 for me and I didn’t have a mobile (let alone smartphone), and the internet didn’t exist. Now I’m on facebook and other websites all the time at work, at home, and on my phone. The youth of today have so many hobbies/sports they can and want to do, plus pushy parents who outsource their parenting to those activities or force their kids to do them because it looks good on their CV. Add to that the punishing property prices in some locations which force both parents to work – where I live the average house price is more than 10x average wages. Add to that the ‘requirement’ to have both winter and summer holidays. Add to that relationships between partners from different countries or continents requiring visiting family. Add to that the rise of commuting to work for hours because you can’t afford to live where the work is, or you’ve been made redundant and had to find work elsewhere.

          • 10x is affordable: in a lot of Asia, it’s 20-30x. We’re facing the very real problem of my generation not being able to afford housing or retirement without inheritance.

  10. Bruce Hansen says:

    If you want to change location, I’ll rent you my home in Costa Rica. Happy new year to you and your lovely family.

  11. Quotidian? This is why I love your website! Not only spot-on commentary about things photographic, but also the most erudite commentator on the Internet. Thanks for raising the bar for all of us.

  12. Happy New Year to you and yours, Ming! This is such an insightful post that really brings home the point that the only constant in life is … change! While the industry is undoubtedly changing (for the worse,) the opportunity to create new and previously unknown kinds of work with great commercial potential still exists. What needs to be considered now, however, is the shortened product life cycle. Rather than focusing on a long term vision, we’re going to be challenged to come up with quick hits that can be hugely profitable over a course of months, while looking for the “next big thing” to implement within six months or so. This is a heck of a way to do business, but I think it’s what’s coming.

    • I agree with you: it’s no longer about a long term sustainable business model in any industry because the consumer’s attention span simply isn’t there, or technological disruptors mean that you can’t make meaningful plans anyway. Planning on six month spurts that must break even and deliver ROI on the first outing is crazy – but we are very much in a make or break environment at the moment.

  13. Happy New Year Ming, hope 2017 is a good one for you. Less of the lean I hope!

    I wish there was a new Horseman Digflex with a 44×33 V mount back. Those were very useful cameras back in the day, Nikon F Mount too.

  14. MIng —

    First our best wishes for 2017 to you and your family for a year of good health, happiness and professional success.

    A very interesting post. In the case of the camera companies, it’s pretty clearly a manifestation of the “innovator’s dilemma,” having made their product more and more feature rich when all the market really wanted was simpler to use pervasively with “good enough quality.”

    In the case of the image producers, the situation seems much more muddied. I do think you touch on some of the reasons: image overload, “good enough” here too, and so on. I believe the economy worldwide is still very spotty. In locales where the economy is hot, you do see evidence of commercial photographers with a reasonably steady stream of clients. But, those locales surely seem limited with many areas in the U.S. still creeping along and many countries worldwide seeing growth rates so low that it’s hard to discern any growth at all. Some of this seems to be continuing after-effects of the 2008 melt-down; other parts more driven by demographics which are all but impossible to overcome.

    With many uncertainties ahead in 2017, we again wish you the very best for the New Year.

    • Thanks Frank, happy new year to you too.

      Innovators’ dilemma: if the result is newness for the sake of newness, it isn’t really innovation – it’s more like feature overload for the sake of it, or because marketing said so. The only real addressing of ‘simpler with good enough quality’ has been made by the smartphone market, and the results speak for themselves: where are all the compacts now? The camera makers have largely missed the boat, and they’re paying for it now.

      I think 2008 recalibrated normal for a lot of industries: why spend on intangibles when the results aren’t obviously different? (Never mind of course that you can’t make this comparison, since there’s no way to redo things with the same conditions.) Because in most cases the sales results also passed ‘good enough’, no further risks/exposure was taken, because most senior management are incentivised on three year rolling contracts and couldn’t give a damn beyond that. Once again: short sighted planning by consortium doesn’t work. Without this mentality, Apple, for example, is unquestionably weaker in the post-Jobs era, but it’s still stronger than most of the competition.

      • Ming — By “innovators dilemma,” I was referencing the fine work from the late 1990s of Clayton Christensen from HBS. Here we’ve seen the DSLR and compact purveyors lead by Canon and Nikon continuing to heap feature after feature on the entry level DSLR and comopacts only to see the mass of the market walk away to smartphones: much simpler and clearly good enough. I certainly agree with the sentiment of your reply: what is labeled innovation is hardly such. (I truly believe the lack of fundamental innovation that leads to real breakthroughs is an under-appreciated threat to the economy.) While Steve Jobs had his pluses and minus as a leader, Apple certainly did not suffer the fate of design by committee while Steve was in the CEO chair. Again, always good to read your insights and all the best for 2017. Frank

  15. Bill Walter says:

    Your story about an aunt taking pictures in Iceland is a good one. It just means that for photographers to come up with creative original content, they’ll just have to dig a little deeper. You mentioned the possibility of relocating. If you ever decide to move to the states, you’ll always be welcome in Chicago. As you know, it’s one of the better towns for photography. I hope you and your family have a great new year.

    • Absolutely – uniqueness has always been necessary, though it’s now getting to the point where we are forced to create ‘more’ at the higher end – I think this is a good thing for the industry in the long run, because you can’t fake this or take shortcuts to get there.

      Chicago: a great city, but I don’t think your new government is going to give me a visa 🙂

  16. Does your crystal ball reveal that Nikon’s D810 replacement will finally incorporate some, if not all of the key features found on mirrorless bodies and that many photographers revere? Focus peaking (preferably in the viewfinder) and IBIS being my two favorites. Because, I’d like to get back to shooting with a DSLR again.

    • “I’d like to get back to shooting with a DSLR again.”
      That’s an interesting comment…why? Responsiveness? Optical finder? Nobody really makes a mirrorless that feels DSLR-confident yet?

      My crystal ball says nothing about hardware…for what I know about, I’m under NDA. For what I don’t, I’m persona non grata. 🙂

      • Haptics … I wouldn’t be shooting mirrorless if not for the EVF, focus peaking and IBIS especially now that Oly has incorporated sync IS for my 300MM PRO. The E-M1 MKII’s speed is compelling but then again so is the A99 MKII for its DSLR-like haptics.

        • I’d say those are pretty good reasons to be mirrorless. Can’t say I’m in any hurry to experience Sony menus, support or reliability again though.

  17. An excellent summary Ming. I agree year on year it gets tougher for photographers especially those who work outside the studio. Do you ever wonder what the future holds for your back catalogue of images? It’s a question I ask myself and to be honest the answer I come up with is not encouraging. In 2016 I shot maybe a tenth of my normal annual shoot rate partly because I had other commitments but also because I have less incentive. I now tend to shoot only when I’m travelling away from home (landscapes,nature and street photography). But I’m still working on the solution as to what to do with my library of images.

    • My own back catalog was always produced either for a) clients; b) content for the site; or c) me. I’ve never shot with the primary intention of stock, so this has never really been a consideration. If there’s suitable material, then it’s always been a bonus.

  18. Happy new year to you and yours, Ming!
    Hmmm, “camera body with a leaf shutter” – how should that work? I thought leaf shutters are in the lenses? Tho I can imagine a body with a leaf shutter, I’ve never seen one, nor do I remember any maker of these.
    As to emigrating: I would advise to stay where you are, exactly for business purposes – first, we’re living in an ever more connected world, so where you are doesn’t really matter anymore. Second, we need people like you and Robin Wong because *we* can’t fly to Malaysia each second week. Make it an advantage that you can report about your country.

    • You just need a very big (Copal 3-style) shutter, in the mount. Nobody makes one; it’d have to be a custom job.

      I disagree about emigrating: it still matters where you live. I can say this for sure because I’ve lost work simply because I had to travel in, even though the total cost would have been the same or cheaper.

      As for reporting on the state of Malaysia: not if we want to stay out of prison…

      • I saw one years ago. I don’t recall who made it, but it did have a Copal 3 with an insert to allow mounting Nikon F mount lenses. No electrical contacts on the mounting. The insert was threaded into the Copal 3, and held in place with a tiny allen bolt. Rear mounting was Hasselblad V mount, which was a common early digital back mount. It was so long ago, it had a Kodak DCS digital back on it. No idea where you could find one, though I think a competent machinist, and a few parts, would make it fairly simple to duplicate. The other way to approach this would be a custom ALPA mounting, though obviously would be super expensive.

        • I think I know the one you mean – one popped up on Ebay not long ago – but it didn’t appear robust enough to carry the weight of an Otus, so I was a bit hesitant.

          Alpa: Let’s not go there 🙂

  19. Philip Brindle says:

    Hello Ming,

    Thanks so much for your post. I was somewhat surprised you never mentioned Phase One with regards to MF, but considering their prices maybe they are not an option. I do use their Capture One software, but I doubt if I could ever afford their hardware.

    Things are tough everywhere, not just in the professional photography game, which I’m sure you know. I work in the Oil and Gas Industry, and yes, dropping day rates does not help much either. When times are good we have be diligent and save, although it is not that easy at times.

    Anyway Ming, best wishes, I hope 2017 will be a good year for you…

    • P1: Wasn’t the prices so much as lack of local support; I considered all options when I was looking at switching but it simply wasn’t viable. I’ve also never had a single email sent to them answered, either.

      To your second paragraph: I actually wonder when times have been good – it seems we are just collectively bouncing from one economic crisis to another these days. Belt-tightening all round…

  20. Urs Haeny says:

    Excellent analysis (as always). I think we can draw this analysis even further to our whole life. It’s like an eutrophication: We have too much from most things. Unfortunately the quality behaves reverse proportional to the quantity. Look at nutrition: We blow up cows to deliver more meet in shorter time. Quality? The answer to that could be an opposite way: Reduce quantity and enhance quality.

    I wish You a prosperous new year.

  21. Alex Carnes says:

    I keep thinking I ought to try to make money out of my photography but the right moment never seems to present itself; and you’re very good at putting me off trying…! 😉 😀

    In all seriousness, I don’t think I could ever see myself working exclusively as a photographer, especially since I don’t have a particularly commercial style. I suppose if it became at least a part of what I do for a living then I’d be able to justify devoting more time and energy to it, and perhaps make some hardware upgrades; not so much cameras – I’ve got a D810 and a D750, and a selection of Sigma Arts and Nikkor 1.8Gs that cover most applications – but perhaps a better printer and monitor etc., plus some more advanced lighting.

    I dunno. I’d like to do more with photography but it’s hard to see how to go about it and the prospects do not look great. Anyway, thanks as usual for sharing your thoughts and photos, your site is one of the few I read regularly. I hope 2017 brings you success.

    Happy new year! 🙂

    • I don’t think there is a right moment – you just have to jump and take the risk, and hope you’ve got enough grit to make it work and enough reserves to stick it out if it doesn’t.

      There’s always more that can be done, but I think the payoff question is as much an emotional one as a financial one (more so since the financials aren’t exactly a good reason to go pro 🙂 )

      Happy new year!

  22. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this topic…

    Though my exposure to photography is limited and hardly anything with respect to professional photography, your views are really interesting.

    It makes even a hobby photographer like me, thinking about how to be different, innovative and come up with something interesting.

    Thanks a gain and wish you a great year ahead 🙂

  23. Excellent analysis as usual. What do you see for stock photography? Also I recall you trying your hand behind the video camera. With the growth of YouTube content creators and content creators for Amazon/Netflix do you see yourself going down the path of say documentary or commercials?

    • Good question – I suspect we’ll see those who can make quantity still do okay, but that’s about it. Short attention spans and wanting something new are going to make libraries date faster than we expect.

      Video: probably not; it’s still a massive coordination/logistic effort that’s beyond what makes sense from an economic risk standpoint especially in my country.


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