The rise and decline of popular photography

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I don’t normally write counterpoint articles, because honestly, you’re not going to change people’s minds most of the time; nor do I write ones in agreement because most of what can be said has been by the original author. However, Paul Perton’s post on DearSusan about the world hitting ‘peak photo’ – in much the same sense as ‘peak oil’ – struck a chord for a few reasons. First and foremost – I think it’s true, but not necessarily for the reasons stated in the original article. Secondly, I have to correct some inaccurate assertions made about myself. I’m also selecting my post title very carefully here, too: decline, not fall, because we’re in a period where interest in pictures, picture-making, picture-showing and the photographic ecosystem for the vast majority of people* seems to have dropped off; it’s not a case of decreased growth; everybody I speak to at all points of the value chain says the market** is actively contracting, has been for some time, and will continue to do so in future. What I’m interested in understanding is why, and what this means for the rest of us who instead doubled down and got more serious.

*Audience, creators, consumers. **Pros, manufacturers, retailers, studios etc.

Let’s start with the inaccurate stuff, because that’s the easiest. I have and never will pay a single cent for third party advertising for this site; the site and its content is itself advertising. There is no point to pay for advertising the advertising; if that is necessary, then the advertising isn’t working. All that (considerable) effort and time spent on producing content would be in vain, and this is true for most photographers that operate their public personas on a content-driven model: if we have to pay outright we might as well skip the middleman and go straight to the end service. Furthermore, the monetization only happened much later when readers asked me for it. I admit to not being very business savvy in the early days and not seeing any of the potential; the site was purely a vehicle for me to write, show images, and develop some public visibility for my professional business. The majority of my photographic income has and always will be from paid client work that involves the commission, creation and licensing of images. The rest – is a bonus. I still post just as frequently as I used to, though after 1,500+ posts, I’m honestly running out of things to write about and there’s not really a lot of point in reviewing another consumer camera that’s going to have the same conclusions as every other one: technically ticks all the boxes, not quite there in the UI/haptic experience, but way past sufficiency for most – move on. I don’t even think there’s anybody left who wants to read it – much less anybody who isn’t going to email me constantly later for tech support (unfortunately, that happens more than you might think).

It’s for this reason that I suspect that a lot of the ‘real’ pros are cutting back on the other stuff: firstly, it’s a lot of effort for just frustration in return, and more importantly, bread and butter remains making and selling of images. On one hand, that’s requiring a lot more work to get the same total turnover that was easier previously thanks to proliferation of ‘pros’ and a race to the bottom in pricing; on the other hand, I suspect we may be starting to see a renaissance in the high end pro market – it’s barely halfway through January and I don’t recall having this volume of serious enquiry in, well – ever.

Photography is not alone in profiting from both the massive technical and exposure-gains wrought by the high tech era: but it is unique in that few other pursuits have gained both as much visibility and served as visibility enablers. Photography became a) cheaper; b) better; c) arguably, easier for somebody of average skill to achieve a certain minimum standard; d) delivering higher social bang for the buck, and e) because of d – also trendy. Proof of this is that vintage or vintage looking cameras are still popular today with luddites, hipsters, wannabes, and those who actually know what they’re doing and realise they don’t need more.

In reality, the underlying driver of the recent resurgence in popularity of photography hasn’t been technology or price: in reality, I believe it’s been the intangible psychological returns, kudos, recognition (or whatever you wish to call it) bestowed on subjects and creators. All of this of course goes hand in hand with social media: affirmation from your immediate social circle and something slightly beyond – ‘the friends of friends’ – forms a self-reinforcing drug that just makes you want to keep shooting and sharing because you feel good about it. We are intractably social creatures: if there’s no positive emotional return from sharing some information (in whatever form, with photography of course being visible) then we just don’t do it because it’s extra work for nothing.

Of course, it doesn’t help that for the last ten years or so – the next generation model camera has been getting both cheaper and better. Plus, who wants to admit to being behind the curve? Of course, sufficiency was passed a long time ago – but I think most consumers have not really noticed until fairly recently. This of course results in a decrease in hardware sales, which combined with the increased development costs necessary to make The Next Big Jump in technology happen contribute to an overall increase in camera selling prices. After all, the cost of those investments have to be distributed in such a way that the manufacturer’s shareholders see a positive return. I think this probably marks a return to much longer generational cycles, similar to the ‘steady state’ of mature film technology rather than the exponential gains in early digital in the mid-2000s.

Taking one step forwards, any visible gains in the image must now come from improvement of operator skill; this requires effort and investment in time – the higher you want to go, the steeper the ladder of diminishing returns. There’s no free lunch here – you cannot buy your way to the top. Simple statistics and demands of modern life dictate that most people will opt out at this point because the required investment in time and effort is simply too high to justify the relatively small gains.

Switching back to the demand portion of the equation – in this case, mass audiences – photography’s exponential increase in content produced and supplied to an audience that hasn’t really changed much in size simply means that there is much less time allotted per image. We’ve talked about this in the past; only the sensational gets noticed, and thanks to network effects, rises in notoriety far beyond where it should. Such images are not easy to produce because by definition what makes them popular is that they defy any attempts to quantise and formularise their creation. For the same reason, I have to laugh at marketing people when they refer to an ‘intentional viral campaign’ – such popularity happens unpredictably under a perfect storm of ideal conditions; much like a disease pandemic; not through intentional seeding***.

***Interestingly, you’ll notice that in the last year or so, new product leaks have become far, far fewer: this method of disseminating information is no longer effective because it’s been overdone and has lost the sensation of juicy forbidden gossip that made it popular to begin with. When there are formal structures in place to collate and disseminate rumours that also carry advertising – you know something is starting to smell odd.

There’s one final piece to the puzzle: the ‘craftsman’ professional photographer who was a hired gun of sorts has mostly gone extinct; you’re now either a rockstar or weekender with a day job struggling to make the break (but never will, because rates are either stratospheric and inaccessible, or so rock-bottom low as to be unsustainable). Standards are no longer standard: being a ‘professional’ is no longer any guarantee of professionalism. The medium format market is a good example of this: whereas the vast majority of gear was sold to working pros ten years ago, it’s now flipped to the serious amateur. Why? Because professional economics no longer justify the investment, and because the manufacturers have to stay in business somehow.

We now have the opposite set of conditions, which are at best going to call a halt to the popularity of photography, and at worst, push us back in the opposite direction. Market access has become both easy and cheap: you can meet the spec on paper with just about anything you can buy. Sufficiency is long past. The internet is a free platform for all an sundry to make their views and interpretations and images known. Visual saturation is close. There are more images being made than ever, which means it’s difficult to make an individual image stand out and justify the time and effort (and cost) invested in its creation. In turn, simple economics means that the business model of the pro isn’t what it used to be. The incentive to invest in skill is lower.

And we’re seeing this now: lower sales; previously popular picture sharing sites like flickr and smugmug becoming less and less active, and ever more crap posted to instagram and Facebook – most of which is being used to promote something else, and the volume of images made purely for the sake of photography seems to be on the decline of late, too. Even in Japan, former bastion of photographing everything, I’m seeing fewer and fewer people carry cameras or do anything other than social media documentary on their smartphones. Basically: the last ten to fifteen years has probably been the peak and golden era of photography until there’s another major seismic shift.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though: we’ve got better tools than ever, and the ability to do things we couldn’t even imagine ten years ago. The creative limit is much, much higher than it’s ever been. And the ‘dropping out of the unserious’ is not necessarily a bad thing from a professional standpoint: the fewer men left standing in five years, the less competition remains for the really interesting work. But if the number of studios here going out of business and pros switching to doing other (non photographic) things entirely is anything to go by, it might be a tough ride in the meantime. MT


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  1. Very well said and on-point. I read first Paul Perton’s, then your counterpoint.

  2. Great article. And I agree that we are oversaturated with images these days. Will we overload? I dunno. There is still something arresting about a truly magnificent image. Perhaps the psychology of image observation hasn’t actually changed that much in the past 40 years, but rather, with the greatly increased volume has merely elevated the bar upwards; what we consider to be a truly stunning image — one worthy of spending more than 5 seconds looking at — must contain more meaning, be it aesthetic, social, cultural, narrative…whatever. I’m still as struck by a great image today as I ever was. Nick Brandt’s work, for example, stands head and shoulders above his peers. And there are others, too. Individuals like that will always find an audience, and near certainly will always find work.

    And speaking of Nick Brandt, the real elephant in the room is this: with “sufficiency” having been largely reached; with smartphones slowly reaching the quality of dedicated cameras; with computational photography on the near horizon—how long can the camera as an instrument (and by extension the camera manufacturers themselves) survive? Are we witnessing the death of an entire industry within a decade or two?

    • I’m just going to add an addendum to what I said above: Ironically, even though a decline may be occuring along some photographic metrics, the fascination with the “camera as an instrument” seems to be as high as ever. Moreover, the arrival of our digital world and the various ways it has allowed for the dissemination and sharing of information has only increased the awareness/interest of the camera as a standalone device—both in digital and analogue.

      A distant corollary to this is music. I was recently shocked at how many stores have begun to carry vinyl albums and turntables once again; a comeback of sorts after two decades of being relegated to the purview of high end audiophile specialist stores.

      Yes, the masses will use smartphones — in much the same way as they used Instamatic cameras back in the analogue days (just with more ubiquity today) — but those who become passionately inspired by the craft of photography, or by photography as a career, may still gravitate towards a fully dedicated tool both now and in the future. Of course, it’ll be up to the camera manufacturers to figure out how to keep their future products relevant…or they will, indeed, die.

      • Simple: people like gadgets, the tangible, things they can consume now as opposed to learn to use and slowly grow with. But – this meteoric rise can also result in a big fall once people get bored and move on to the Next Big Thing. Food trends are a good example of this: 99.99% consumption, a few learn to cook/ prepare themselves, and then suddenly donuts or burgers or whatever aren’t hot, and the circus moves on.

    • I don’t think the psychology of observation has changed at all – fundamental human physiology is somewhat hardwired anyway. What qualifies as ‘interesting’ probably has changed, though – the bar has gotten higher simply because there’s more access to a wider range of visuals. The successful ones are using the new tools – both hardware and social media – in ways others hadn’t thought of previously. I don’t think a photographer/ writer has ever taken a senior post at a camera company, for example.

      As for the industry: it’s up to the manufacturers to innovate or die. There is only so much individuals like I can do because the decision makers (i.e. the owners) still have the final say – and I can say that whilst I doubt most of the crazy stuff I suggest will make it through, if even some of it sees the light of day – we’ve still got life in us yet*. 🙂

      *I can’t honestly say where this is going to go, because I don’t make the final decisions, unfortunately.

  3. Martin Fritter says:

    I recently picked up two Steidel reprints – Eggleston’s ‘Election Eve’ and Goldin’s ‘The Beautiful Smile.’ Both superb and both around $50. I can’t afford to buy prints and besides, who has wall space? Apparently, tickets to the Gursky show at the Hayward in NY are hard to come by.

    Would that there were data on attendance at museums and galleries and the sales of photo books. I have a nice and modest collection but it covers much of the history of the medium from its inception to the present. For me, an old man, my photographic efforts are just a form of communion.

    There certainly was a golden – and remunerated – age of commercial and editorial photography but that passed long ago with the demise of the big photo magazines leaving pretty much only fashion and perhaps sports still standing.

    While somewhat off topic, we certainly seem to be in a golden age of cinematography (‘The Phantom Thread’ and, streaming, ‘Mindhunters’).

    So while photography as a trade may be in decline (along with much else owing to the digital revolution), I think it over-hasty to assume to visual culture is as well.

    Someone once told me that the last farrier in town an always earn a living, but I live in the American West – or what’s left of it.

    • I imagine it would be very difficult to collate: there are probably a lot more books being printed as an absolute total, but that’s due to print on demand. I’m not sure how one would count this: any publication at all is a good thing, but if it’s not really in circulation I don’t think you can really call it a meaningful title.

      Cinematography is evolving: it’s hard to tell these days where camerawork ends and CG begins. The more sophisticated both get, the harder it will become – not a bad thing, because there are some angles and moves that are simply physically impossible, but visually and storytelling-wise highly impactful.

      Visual culture: that’s precisely my point: it isn’t in decline at all, though photography may be. This may simply mean the whole pattern of media consumption and creation is shifting to fit both attention spans and technology…

      The last man standing always does very well: it’s because when you need him, you have no choice but to pay what he asks 🙂

      • Martin Fritter says:

        You might pick up the Met Irving Penn catalog for his centenary exhibit. His active career went from 1935 to 2009 (think of that). The reproductions are excellent and the text informative – including semi-technical discussions of his printing techniques.

  4. Thank you Ming! One of the best articles on photography I’ve read in a long time. Something on the state of the industry was well overdue and so welcome over yet more discussions on gear.

  5. I’m not convinced popular (proper) Photography is in decline as such. When I’m out and about, I don’t see less people carrying cameras. I do think amateur photographers use the equipment they have, for longer. This makes sense given the rate of development has slowed down. On the sensor side of things, Sony made a breakthrough that led to higher dynamic range and decent high ISO, starting with a 16MP APS-C sensors, and 24/36MP full frame sensors. If you’re still using one of the early bodies with one of those sensors, then you’ll likely be finding that more than sufficient enough. Everything since has been fairly incremental.

    • The incremental improvement you mention is precisely why there’s a decline in interest in the hobbyists (ignoring the social snapshooters, they are pretty much what the disposable instant camera crowd used to be). I see far fewer people shooting seriously now – it’s just not interesting since ‘new’ requires time and effort to improve or learn or travel rather than just buying something. That group has either moved on to other hobbies or gotten even more serious (but that’s fairly rare).

  6. This issue has a much wider context to me: it is the inevitable result of technological revolution, globalisation and liberation of knowledge. This tide has changed the life of human being forever. In the old days, university was for the elites. Pace of life was much slower, and people had the time to enjoy life. The tide allows everyone to raise his/her own bar, technology improvement means that we get better tools at lower cost to do better. As a result, we see competitions in the market breaking the ranks of once closed professions such as lawyers, accountants and photographers, lifting the basic skill of everyone to a higher level but at the same time pulling down the skill levels of the elite groups. What this means is that the second or third tier elites in the old days can no longer survive because of competition, and the real top elites are left to serve a small niche market at the very top. Overall, we have a higher average standard compared to the past, but we are left with an overall mediocre industry. We have seen this in many many trades now. Everyone has to do more just to keep the same turn over, leaving less time for other things …

    • If everybody has something, that something is no longer exclusive: it’s almost seen as a right. Education, healthcare, now social media and internet. The concept of ‘elite’ or ‘best’ or anything of that nature has always been by definition of a certain higher standard than average: this shifts, but starts to compress once access and tools exceed ability. This is what we’re seeing now…

    • “In the old days, university was for the elites.”

      I believe the opposite is true. In the old days — from the Great Depression through to the evolution of the middle class — it was not uncommon for working class parents to save money to send their children to university. Nowadays no-one but the rich elites can afford to send their children to university, because the tuition is so ridiculously high. So prospective students either come from wealthy, elite families, or they choose to go into crippling debt to get a higher education. At least that’s the situation in North America now.

      • Ironically though – the really successful ones mostly didn’t go to university; you can’t expect a different outcome with the same process/ path, and it’s easier to take that different path if you don’t already have expectations conditioned. From personal experience, it requires a hell of a lot of deprogramming to forget what you were taught/ is expected by society and learn to take risks or do the unexpected…

  7. I don’t really have a comment on this topic, but again, I’m really impressed with the intelligent and well thought out comments of your followers. This whole discussion has been an interesting read. I may not always agree with what someone has written, but appreciate the fact that it was written well, and with courtesy. This has become very rare in the internet world, unfortunately.

  8. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    To a large degree, the shifts you describe are taking place because of the changes in social behaviour.

    Before cellphones started to include a “camera”, the main question was simply whether you wanted a serious camera or a cheap one. Something like the choice between a DSLR or a point-and-shoot. It’s been like that for most of my life – the man differences along the way being a progression from Kodak’s Box Brownie (and other similar cheap models), to Instamatics, Polaroids and – more recently – cellphones.

    Another factor that hit, along the way, was the move away from analogue cameras to digital.

    Throughout the “analogue era”, colour photography was growing in popularity. Although during that period I never met a photographer who was processing & printing his own colour photos – it was all being done by colour labs, with the volume to justify the large set up and operating costs involved.

    What has happened with the switch to digital is two fold.

    It’s happened at a time when having a home computer is normal, so people can – for the first time – process and print their own colour photos. And even if they don’t want to print the photos themselves, the old colour labs have gone, and been replaced by far cheaper and more readily accessible printing establishments. This revolution almost put an end to Eastman Kodak, one of the great giants of the analogue film era – you never hear of AGFA or FujiFilm these days – Ilford is mainly involved with sales of paper, printers and printing inks. That’s not entirely fair, some companies from yesteryear are still producing for analogue photography enthusiasts, but the market is much much smaller.

    It’s also happened at a time when lower end cameras have been virtually wiped out by improvements in the cameras installed in smart phones. And if you go anywhere near a tourist icon, you’re likely to be surrounded by – swamped by! – hordes of people waving cellphones around on selfie sticks – not photographers with conventional cameras and tripods.

    While all that has been happening, another social revolution has taken place. The same home computers that enabled the masses to do their own processing, if they wished, have also enabled them to circulate their photos from one end of the world to the other, at the press of a button. As a result, figures as high as “over 99% of all photos currently taken” are quoted as being the percentage of photos that never make it outside the wonderful world of computers, tablets (like iPADs) and smart phones.

    And as if that’s not bad enough, there’s been a paradigm shift in shopping habits. Gone or going are the shopping malls of the past few decades – temples of commerce and social intercourse, which attracted people of all ages because they catered for all our shopping needs and provided forums for social intercourse. Instead, people turned to the internet – it was so much more convenient than actually driving to a mall – you could hunt down what you want from a chair in front of your computer, in less time than it takes to walk out of the house and start the car. We still have large malls where I live, but in America they have been closing down, all over the place – some converted to other uses (like a massive church complex, or a museum, or a school) – others just razed to the ground.

    All of these things have impacted on photography. Only a relatively small percentage of the population has any serious interest in photography as I know it. Say what you like about cellphones, but I suspect they will never impress me personally as “cameras” and likely I and others will send the whole of the rest of out lives using more conventional camera gear. But against the background that we provide, the world has made other decisions, and we are now the minority. Unquestionably. Most of those “99% of all photos currently taken” are taken on cellphones, and circulate by SMS to other friends or relatives, or to social media sites, or sites like Flickr.

    Sadly, those chances impact on what marketing people want, to sell their product. And that of course has a major impact on professional photography. As a serious amateur, I don’t have to care about it – those changes have no direct impact on my photography. But if you have to market your services as a photographer, they must be having a serious impact on the available business – things have shifted an awful long way in the market place, and that must be taking its toll by now. Retail shopping up till now has been conducted in stores all over the world. But outfits like AliBaba in China, Amazon or E-Bay in America (and now spreading out around the world) are replacing that. And their demand for photos is minimal, in terms of the business of a conventional photographer.

    I have choices. I can choose to photograph whatever I like. I don’t have to please anyone, to do it. And if I want to, I can choose NOT to distribute my photos electronically – but instead, to print them – and I do. I have three major reasons for printing my work:
    1 – I’ve lived through several generations of these wonderful, marvellous, life-changing computers. I’ve watched one technology after another become so obsolete that data retrieval from yesterday’s systems became impossible. I’ve seen outfits spruke for customers to store their photos online, on their “Cloud” – only to find some of them went broke, the “Cloud” vanished in cyberspace and took all their treasured photos with it. And we’ve all heard stories of disc crashes, wiping out all the data. I’d rather contend with silver fish, and print my photos.
    2 – I cannot fully evaluate my photography without printing it. The printing process completes the process of taking a “photograph”. Digital images do not. They are back lit, the colour gamut is different, the clarity of the images is heathen – on and on. I learn so much more about my photos and my photography from printing the shots I take. And if I wasn’t still trying to improve my photography – to continue the learning process – then I doubt whether I would be able to sustain my current level of interest in photography anyway.
    3 – And for the love of God (if you’re not an atheist) or whatever else you treasure (if you are an atheist) – what the hell is the point of having a camera with a sensor that has 40 or 50 MP, when there isn’t a computer screen you can buy that has anything like that clarity? Breaking news this month – the largest home computer now has a truly gigantic screen – it has 33 MP – go figure! – nowhere NEAR the pixel count on my main camera! And the damn screen is about 7 feet (or over 2 metres) wide, so it won’t fit on my desk. Nor will it be portable, so I can’t carry it around to a friend’s place, to share my photos on it. But even if I can live with those issues, it has nothing like the visual clarity I can produce from my photos. What is the point of paying 5 or 10 grand for a camera, and the – on top of that – paying another 5 or 10 or maybe even 15 grand for a lens, to get a sensor with a high mega pixel count and glass that produces images our grandparents could never have imagined would ever be possible, and then only view those images on a pathetic, stunted computer screen, tablet or smart phone? This kind of behaviour by supposedly intelligent human beings simply makes my head hurt. Don’t even bother trying to explain it to me – I might hear or read the words, but they will never make sense to me.

    Why doesn’t that matter to the people who used to buy photos from commercial photographers? Because life is a constant process of the inconstant – of change – and the world has changed. Those people still exist – but their needs have changed. Some of them still buy photos – mostly, they don’t buy as many – or as large – because they are pushing product on line, and THEY can see how lousy on line images are. All they want or need is enough to stimulate online shoppers to push that button at the checkout on their website – even the sales of high end lavishly illustrated magazines has tapered off to a large degree, and newsagents are complaining about falling sales because nobody reads anything any more – newspapers around the world are reporting “declining sales”.

    It’s a tough market. There are of course still opportunities for commercial photographers, even under these conditions. They may not be quite the same. They may or may not support the same number of photographers. But they are out there, somewhere.

    And with the pros who survive this paradigm shift in the market place, and the serious amateurs like me who are out there using high end gear to take serious photos alongside them, we will hopefully combine to maintain a sufficient demand for such gear, to keep the major manufacturers in business and continuing to produce improvements in their products. I don’t see as many “point-and-shoots” as I used to (cellphones have largely taken out that sector of the market), but I am encouraged by the numbers I see taking photos with conventional cameras – DSLRs or mirrorless – a lot of it costing a lot less than my gear, but still producing remarkably good photos with it. I’ve seen the work produced by a number of these amateurs, and I think it’s fair to say that ANYONE would be impressed by their photography. Total amateurs, much less sophisticated gear, and no background like doing a tech college course on photography – but still producing great photos, and not just the odd one or two, either! So I am hopeful things will stay pretty much as is, for the time being. And maybe some of those cellphone junkies might be persuaded to join the rest of us, with “real” cameras?

    • “And as if that’s not bad enough, there’s been a paradigm shift in shopping habits.”
      This is a good point, and perhaps an underrated one: it’s not just the choices of the marketing people hiring photographers, but also the buyers: without the underlying consumerism, we wouldn’t have this massive social media narcissism, either: why would you care what some pop starlet is wearing otherwise (and subsequently make some crappy images to show everybody else your taste and fashionability by wearing the same?)

      I’m not going to attempt explaining the input-output disconnect to you – because I fully agree, and I print, too. (And tried to find a way to print all of that information at a small size in the Ultraprint). Though having said that, not all qualities are independent: if you want more dynamic range, usually it comes with larger sensors and more resolution.

      As for the pro market – I’ve said before, it’s being squeezed to either end. The really high end sophisticated stuff is perhaps expanding a little, and out of that comes assignments like the one I did for Koenigsegg or the ongoing construction documentary I do in Hong Kong. But there’s also a lot of stuff that used to be workman/craftsman-like images for catalogs and the like that have now turned into hipstagram-over-bokeh’d crap.

      Some of the cellphone junkies have moved up a camera size, and will continue to do so – but it’s far fewer than the basic camera enthusiasts who’ve gone down a size as adequacy of cellphones has improved. Hell, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s replaced the compact for me – and objectively, the shooting envelope and quality is probably better than whatever you’d get up to quite a serious investment (as far as compacts go) thanks to the computing power behind it. Even the basic plastic kit DSLRs these days far outperform the top end pro tools of not that long ago, CCD medium format included (I don’t care what the diehards say, I’ve owned and used both – and I know where my money would go if I was buying in afresh). What’s really happened is this: average equipment performance has far, far exceeded average photographer capability, at all points of the market. And there are so few people for whom more really is better – you really need means, ability and opportunity – which is rare. There is little incentive to keep investing if you see little return…

      • Egmont Bonomi says:

        I guess I will have to take the stand for all the “diehards” out there.

        As an owner of both a Hasselblad 39MS CCD digital back and a Phase One P45+ Achromatic CCD, I would never replace these with a “plastic kit DSLR” as you so graciously put it… hahahahaha

        Yes, they are slow to use and ill-equipped for many types of photography (photography requiring snappy live view, high ISO sensitivity or copious amounts of dynamic range in a single image). However, when operated properly in a suitable scenario, I would argue that they not only wipe the floor with a “plastic kit DSLR”, they also offer us photographers a different look that quite honestly would be very hard to imitate through digital editing in Photoshop. Personally I prefer to get the shot as close as possible to the desired result in camera, post processing as little as possible to make up for the shortcomings the camera system might have. I am not the type of photographer that does a ton of dodging and burning to “enhance” a bland image. (not that there is anything wrong with that, just not my cup of tea)

        I don’t see these CCD systems as competition for modern CMOS systems, such as the H6D100c I have grown so fond of, instead they are there to complement these. Much like photographers shooting film use different film stock for the particular rendering they provide.

        Those are my 2 cents… Just thought it was my moral obligation to stand up for the “diehard” minority 😉

        • If there were more like you…we would have so many more medium format companies surviving into the digital age. Alas, history proves that simply isn’t the case. I still firmly believe the new sensors have simply so much more latitude you can make them look like whatever you want – it’s merely a question of processing technique. I’ve probably shot with them enough and output enough different end product to be able to say that with more confidence than most…

          • Egmont Bonomi says:

            Yes, you can make them look like whatever you want, the key word here is “make”. Like I said earlier, I am a purist, so if I can get it closer to what I see in camera, then I do whatever I can to do so.
            However, I have to agree with you, 99.99% of photographers (especially professionals) are driven by the bottom line. So if they can “make” the image look like that, then why would they be willing to cover the amortization costs of extra equipment sitting around the studio. That’s why I believe these last few years have really become a golden age for us “diehards”. For no other reason than we being able to buy these specialty cameras off professionals for chump change compared to what they cost new just 5-10 years ago!

            • There’s a huge psychological issue here too – both for the photographer and client. We all tend to want the latest and greatest even if there’s nothing wrong with what we were using previously. Arguably there’s a ‘time is money’ rationale behind this for working pros; the less you have to invest in money and workflow time increases the productive time fraction remaining. This, as you say makes it a golden age for choice if you’re *not* subject to that pressure. All that said, every time I get dissatisfied with some aspect of the current hardware and revisit a camera I recall really enjoying in the past – I tend to be very disappointed…

  9. Photography has changed, yes. But as the dust settles the core of it remains the same.

    Photographers are hired for their ideas, their ability to communicate those ideas and manifest their creations into the material from their mind to the photographic image.

    The future is extremely bright and full of potential. Far more than what was on offer when I started many years ago.

    • “Photographers are hired for their ideas, their ability to communicate those ideas and manifest their creations into the material from their mind to the photographic image.”

      That’s the ideal, yes. But increasingly I’m seeing this not be the case at all. Or maybe it’s just here in developing markets that never really matured – e.g. having an art director on a shoot is a rare exception rather than the norm. Clients are almost so used to mediocrity that few recognise actual ideas and creativity…

      • Perhaps your just outgrowing your local market then?

        • I already do most of my work overseas…

          • OK, sorry – I’m not sure what you mean by “here in developing markets” then.

            I would agree that the market has somewhat contracted, especially in certain sectors, but I think it appears worse by the fact that it’s so oversaturated to begin with. The bottom end well and truly died, long ago and the middle end is now being hit. I also note that photographers are not safe from the AI invasion in the not so distant future. I would also argue that any good work has a far shorter self life than it used to because life is moving at a pace where it can pick up and devour something else new in a short time.

            At least where I am in London I don’t see the effect you are talking about. i.e. clients being so used to mediocrity that few recognise ideas. In my own experience I would say the reverse is very true, that the competition is so high that there is no room for mediocrity. That also rings true client side. Never before have brands, agencies and all manner of clients felt more pressure to be more creative and create more.

            I don’t believe visual saturation is close either, I would even argue that it’s not possible so long as there is a need to communicate an idea. I do believe there are stale periods (we are in one now) where nothing new has room to breathe, long gaps while the whole discovers something new and engaging. Leonardo DaVinci, way back in his time said, and I paraphrase – that in a time so advanced he didn’t think he could ever invent anything special and he would just try to improve what was already invented. He obviously later went on to invent the Helicopter, submarine, and all manner of things. The world is constantly hungry for new.

  10. Brilliant! Insightful! Brutal! Honest! Everything your readers have come to expect (and receive) from you.

  11. Dear Ming,
    trying to be diligent and following your link to DearSusan (so as to be able to read your counterpoint in a proper manner) I am surprised you took the time to write that counterpoint. Inaccurate? The article at DearSusan is utter crap, let’s not mince our words. It is badly written, in the new style of million paragraphs, it’s incoherent, as the author didn’t take the time to edit the flow of his own thoughts, and it barely makes a point. And I am not sure what was the point of the photos. I don’t know who the guy is, so unlike him, I won’t indulge in analyzing the personal background which led him to write that waste of time.

    Back to the actual topic. What happens was expected. I doubt anyone is surprised, companies simply milked it as long as they could. Photography became accessible (both in terms of price and ease of use) and combined with the vanity you described, resulted in an outlet worth exploring. Of course, at some point people would start realizing that there is no value in sifting through thousands of unorganized images. Such saturation certainly won’t result in everybody becoming an artist, but it most definitely suffices to educate people that there is such a thing as artistry. In a sense, it does elevate everyone. Well, except the manufacturers. Big deal if some blogs are disappearing, nothing lasts forever. Some were not meant for it, some were having expectations for easy money, some are simply busy. People gave it a try, they blogged, they took photos. Some will continue, some not. I personally enjoy the fact that we are moving from this exploration phase, to the next level where artistry is back in focus. As to the more personal photography, that will also slowly move away from the public scene, if only because of the increased awareness of privacy issues.

    • I wouldn’t go that far to say it was that bad; the guy makes a good point, and one which resonated here (even if it might have been expressed more coherently). As for the continued survival/ proliferation of photographers/ writers and quality – I don’t know that what’s left is better than before; there’s still really a lot of crap out there putting out half baked mediocre ‘reviews’ with terrible snapshots and a huge amount of advertising. I don’t see the really thought out expression of ideas; maybe it tends to sink in the noise.

      “As to the more personal photography, that will also slowly move away from the public scene, if only because of the increased awareness of privacy issues.”
      Actually, I always thought this was one of the more interesting aspects of the proliferation of photography in the current era: we documented more, we saw more, we were at least somewhat better conscious observers. Does it produce more interesting images? Not always, but at least it encouraged the production of images where there might otherwise have been nothing…and I’ve always had this feeling that this principle has underpinned a lot of the evolution of modern photography in a way. It would be a shame to lose that…

  12. I think I have a slightly different take on the rise and decline of photography in popular culture … The analogy I always think of is writing: we all write, some professionally (ie. for pay) and most of us not. And after reading comment sections on many sites and various forums, it’s pretty clear the quality of writing and the thinking behind most of it isn’t very high, like most photos posted. We are saturated with pretty bad writing, but that doesn’t prevent people from writing good stuff, and even some people from making a living from it.

    But it doesn’t mean that those mediocre photos (or words) have no purpose: it’s just that they aren’t meant to be high art or judged by the standards of commercial photographers or classically trained photographers. Similarly, not much writing is judged against the greatest written works humans have produced, nor do they aspire to such heights.

    I think we’re in a phase now where the traditional practice of photography is clashing with popular culture discovering how to express themselves with a visual medium, and we’re trying to figure it out. The masses were visually mute before social media and digital cameras, and they’re finding their voice now. We’re all getting more visually intelligent and sophisticated as we play with our new voices, and I think the right order will be restored soon as people come to recognize social media for what it is and we get a handle on this new medium. People won’t mistake social media photos with the kind of stuff a traditional photographer produces, and people are going to value the latter again soon, just like we recognize and prize a good writer today.

    • I really hope that’s going to be the case, but the main thing preventing your writing analogy from coming true is this: reading a passage of text requires a lot more effort/ mental investment than viewing an image; no matter how complex the image, it’s almost instantaneous and disposable. But with a chunk of text, you have to commit to reading the whole thing to begin with – and if you’re going to do that, you’re likely to be much more disposed towards trying to understand it (as opposed to simply glancing and moving on).

      • Ming, to me the words of Andre definitely ring true. As to your point, some people will never make a mental effort to read serious works and by the same token they may be the same people who will not pause at a quality photograph. They are the same people who see no point in visiting a picture gallery. And that’s fine. Art has never been for everyone.

        Ming, I do appreciate your work (and recently Robin’s) on this site. Thank you.

  13. Hi Ming interesting analysis as usual.

    The rise and decline of popular photography is also linked to the decline of the previous media status, influence and reach. A publication or broadcaster depended on editors to maintain status/quality and curate both content and advertising, and they are accountable to all sorts of social and legal standards. The decline of the previously competitive and diverse set of voices has been annihilated by the somewhat feudal world of the on line.

    The questions around the future for the popularity of photography probably depend on whether the bubble bursts or deflates slowly to a sustainable state. My hope for the future is for more accountability and editorial responsibility at all levels media and publishing, and that should give a better foundation for photography as well as writing and video. If something like Instagram imploded then we will not be better off either unless there is something better to replace it, and if that existed then it should have overtaken by now. The structures for good media to set the standard, and support more and better content producers is still shrinking, and the more it shrinks the greater the chance of the decline becoming a demise for both photography and writing.
    Regards Noel

    • Excellent points on all counts. Social media has basically now distributed that influence around, and sometimes to unlikely recipients. Feudal it may be in the size of the ‘attention holdings’, but most don’t know how to be kings – they act like gangsters. I’ve always felt that the more visible you get, the more responsibility you have to not perpetrate untruths and abuse that power – but now fifteen minutes of fame has been devalued to fifteen seconds, people seem to just want to cash in as much as they can. Where do we go from here? Sometimes I do feel like I’m fighting a losing and uphill battle…

  14. Kirk Tuck (Visual Science Lab) has a post today that says virtually the opposite: That professionals who maintain good contacts with good clients, who learn to do video, and who keep budgets under control, can still make a good living.

    • Kirk has gone on record on other sites in the past publicly disagreeing with me in a rather unflattering way, so I’m not surprised 😉

      But in this case: I agree with him – that’s the very small sliver of established pros sitting at the top of the tree. And no, you don’t need to do video, but it can help the bottom line.

  15. You’re such a brilliant guy, Ming. Always so many layers of thought. Hey, wanted to say that – and also just comment that (unless I read you wrong) Paul didn’t seem to note or allude that you advertised your way into the top but that, if anything, you’re a “clever guy” who has a boatload of work and demands like any human being. I read nothing but respect toward you in what he wrote.

    • Can’t remember exactly who said it, but basically: the simpler/more distilled an idea, the more thought is required behind it. When there’s so much potential ambiguity in any message (image?) – you really have to do a lot of thinking, distillation and understanding of your audience to ensure there are no losses in translation. Good advertising is really the same, except it costs a lot of money to pay for positioning visibility. I actually don’t think it’s possible as an individual to advertise your way to the top of this business today – there are simply too many people out there buying the relevant ad space to the point that what you’d have to spend on advertising to build critical mass would never be paid back by what you could earn. But, judging from my FB feed, there are still quite a lot who try, I think…

  16. Jean-Christoph Hasel says:

    Like others, photographers navigate a relationship between excess and lack.
    For example, P. Lindberg says he took 37,000 photos for the Pirelli catalog. 70 were selected, it seems.
    Too much, not enough, enough?
    Who goes to a gallery or museum to contemplate a monumental print? The surfer, the blogger stays at home, in his bubble, in his comfort zone. Can he capture and be grasped by the wealth of detail behind his screen?
    Rather than buying a print, we buy a lot of boxes, lenses, and so on. It is a legitimate choice.
    Rather than buying a fish, we buy rods, reels, etc. It is a legitimate choice too.
    Others, when they do their shopping, photograph the local fishmonger with their smartphone and publish the photo on social networks. The “street-photography” of the past has become “like-photography”, and the impersonal relationship becomes self-centred on the restricted area of pleasure-displeasure. By the way and with the Internet the broadcaster takes precedence over the author.
    In your photo the blue reflections of the escalator, like the double slash after https, perfectly illustrates that point!

    • 37,000…! I find I shoot quite differently depending on the hardware: H6D-100c, HTS and tripod: I might take 20-30 for a job where the contract is 10, and the client is happy. With one of the normal DSLRs or faster mirrorless things, 100:1 discard rate is normal…

      I prefer to think of day to day photography as ‘reporting on life’ – you might not be saying anything deeply fundamental, but at least it’s honest. And certainly not shot to get likes, but rather to preserve that transient snippet of time and space.

      • Jean-Christoph Hasel says:

        Some jobs need certainly specific drop rate. And why not?
        Glamour magazines of the 90’s paid 3 developed and framed Ektachrome 135-36x for a published photo (108: 1). Beyond it was for photographer.
        The precision that digital has brought is a lure for many, overwhelmed by the work involved in tonal transition, value setting and preview. We have to do as much with more and take care of transitions according to the outputs. A depth of shades we had only in 4×5 inch and above.
        Your approach offers an encouraging and controlled reading of the nuances game played day by day.
        It’s still doable!
        Back to the rise and decline of popular photography, there is indeed a shift from AGFA to GAFA, namely the printed output. What about the drop rate between shooted, deleted, selected and printed pix?
        Social networks emphasise what is up to date, corresponding to the accuracy of the timeline, good or bad taste. But the gaps, the trash, what was rejected?
        It’s not about making people’s garbage like some paparazzi did.
        Nowadays could we store lost and found photos in a lost photo office? No name, no title, only the print. And nobody who claims anything.
        Popular photography is as much here as it is on social networks, perhaps more. But unless you have the chance to explore an unknown hard drive, it is no longer given to us. In 2006 the book “image found” put this in focus and perspective (Michel Frizot and Cédric de Veigy, Phaïdon).

        • The volume is still there – and if anything, growing massively. But the quality is astoundingly poor for the most part, and I don’t see that changing in an environment where media consumption is both extremely transient and increasingly fleeing as the sheer volume of media bombardment increases. Why ‘invest’ in something that will only last a short period of time? This includes printing, too – perhaps the ultimate commitment to an image. If you asked the photographers what they’d have printed – those most emotionally attached to the images – you’d still probably find a direly small portion that would pass. Very little thought is given to preservation because the current state of affairs rewards quantity over quality.

  17. Ming, an interesting essay. Whilst I hope your diagnosis is not so pessimistic, I must hasten to add rational analysis has to agree you are right. The time frames are always guesstimates as to how this will pan out. Today’s toddler is tomorrow’s teenager, who will make and consume digital imagery. This will maintain sales and perhaps change the trends. Travelling will increase and this invariably entails recording memories. So, Yes, it’s hard to see how the growth in total on-line content will ever decline. Innovative applications of technology (including drones etc) will also expand what’s photographed from where. This could even forge a new genre or two. But the share of the pro niche in high quality imagery can only decline.

  18. Alex Carnes says:

    I’m not sure the past decade or so has been a golden era, not from the standpoint of artistic photography anyway. It’s a golden era in terms of the performance and affordability of digital cameras I’ll grant you, but as far as I can tell, this has simply led to an astonishing preponderance of crap photos, and they are everywhere! If there was a golden era, I would say it was back in the days of Group f/64, when making a photograph was hard work and you wouldn’t bother unless you really knew what you were doing and had some kind of artistic vision.

    Now of course it’s all too easy to take a photo, and it costs nothing. The general public therefore doesn’t appreciate photography or photographers anymore, and doesn’t value the skill. In terms of the camera market, I admit to being something of a pixel peeper and I obsess about image quality; but there’s no hiding from the fact that you need very large prints and/or unrealistic viewing distances to see the difference between consumer gear and the likes of the D850 and Zeiss Otus lenses, or medium format cameras. Or you need to view at 100 % on a computer screen. How many applications – whether artistic or commercial – actually require the performance of a 50 or 100 MP medium format camera? A highly paid commercial photographer told me recently that he only uses a Hasselblad because it makes the right impression: he’d be laughed at if he turned up with a 35mm DSLR, even though they’re more than good enough.

    Certainly it would be a good thing if the sheer volume of images was reduced; I keep the vast majority of my photos to myself. I know this sounds mean-spirited, but I find myself wishing more people would do something else!

    • “…this has simply led to an astonishing preponderance of crap photos”
      I see it like this, relatively: 100x more volume, 2x more good stuff (but more good stuff on an absolute level) and some really outstanding stuff that couldn’t have been done otherwise – but then it’s much harder to find in the morass if the photographer hasn’t mastered the art of shouting loudly about themselves.

      Ironically, the kind of images every consumer wants to take and imagines the best gear will give them are the ones where skill and vision matter far, far more…

  19. pascaljappy says:

    Very interesting, Ming. What the Internet has done to photography (and many other aspects of our lives) is to fluidify the feedback mechanism. Which, in turn, has concentrated attention around a smaller number of sources that rise higher and flattened the rest. Where we used to have a bell curve of fame in an analog world, we now have a high thin peak, a Dirac, almost 😉 I’m really happy, given the great amount of dedication and helping others you have been displaying over the years, to see the tide lift you to the peak, professionally. Cheers.

    • We try, but I think no matter how strong the influencers are – there are some types of photography that will never become commonplace simply due to the effort required and lack of accessibility…in reality, I think the reason behind popularity is because it allows many people to live vicariously – which in turn fits in nicely with the whole reason social media is popular to begin with. 😉

  20. I see less people carrying cameras but I see more people than ever taking pictures –with their phones. And they are in general better pictures than the ones they used to take with their cameras. Popular photography has shifted technically but it’s still there, stronger than ever.

    • I see more good ones, but more overall – I don’t think the proportion of ‘good’ has improved; far from it. Social media and the obligation to produce visual diarrhoea of everything you eat/ drink/ wear/ buy etc. has a lot to answer for…

      • The thing is that the old populars photos were unseen. People had them at home in albums or in slides. There was no facebook to show them around. Most of them are burned by now. Photography remains more or less the same, but popular photographers are better than before. Nothing is in decline, except the old aura surrounding good photographers since now you can see thousands of them in click.

        • Agreed! The best have to get better to stay the best, but the era of ‘great photographers’ has passed: there are simply too many photographs being taken now; the fact that a photograph was made at all is no longer enough…

          • In the eastern U.S. there is a park that attracts or recently attracted 9 Million visitors each year. If suppose only 4 Million of them carry a camera-phone or camera in and they average 15 grab-shots while moving through the park (an arbitrary number, I really don’t know what an average would be) we’re collectively generating and accumulating 60 million images within the park *per* *year*. A few miles from the entrance there has been a professional photographer’s retail print store that he set up to offer landscape and wildlife prints of his images from the park and other outdoor locations … probably the culmination of his life’s work as a professional photographer. (Suppose by appearances the store looks like it was conceived and started 20 years ago, or more.) It’s painful to think about.

  21. Refreshing to read. It was less than a week ago that I read a comment from a prominent photography writer, who suggested that lack of composition skills could be amended by adding resolution. He made the comment after critiquing a set of images made with a several years old small camera. Fortunately, I think the gear advocates are becoming a declining group, though of course that makes it tougher for camera manufacturers to sell new gear.

    There is a shift. It’s tough to tell where it all lands. I keep in mind the thoughts, years ago, of Alex Bogusky, when he was still a principal of Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The trend was moving towards image screens, and lower resolution, away from print. While that discussion was about the ad industry, that segment is a large part of commercial photography. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need very capable gear. Instead, the focus needs to be where our images are viewed, which is increasingly towards internet/electronic delivery.

    • Rationally, we should have more flexibility than ever. Commercially, the high dollar clients still want the best of the best, even if they’re not going to use it and we need to process and supply a separate smaller set for digital use so the punch remains and downsizing is done properly. Or they may want to crop the living daylights out of the single 100MP image for maximum flexibility: shoot one, use it five or six ways (and the cost is lower). This has to be played off against increasing visual saturation, a shorter average lifespan for a given image and higher throughput demand – translating to less time and money spent in the creation but more disposability. Quantity over quality, sadly.

      I personally sit in the middle of a crossing of fences (like a metaphorical + sign when viewed from above), which is somewhat stable but uncomfortable: in one quadrant lies Hasselblad and the technology push; in another lies the commercial clients who do ask for more and more; in yet another there’s those who are after the end result only, and don’t care about the enablers to get there. I suppose that somewhat crosses over into the last and personal corner: I care about the images, I want the right hardware enablers, but I don’t want to be carrying a H6D-100c on vacation (if I ever took that mythical vacation, as my wife points out).

      No question predominant viewing media and output has changed: we now need to make an image that instantly attracts attention at a glance and a small size; one that holds up and rewards the close inspection that follows, and one that’s qualitatively flexible enough to be deployed anywhere – but probably shot under edge conditions requiring some fairly unconventional or limited hardware.

      I keep asking myself ‘how and what would I shoot if I was shooting for creative experimentation and fun?’ – and realise I’ve got two problems: firstly, I don’t do that kind of shooting enough to know what I’d want, and secondly, there isn’t an automatic go-to. Maybe it’s a reflection of the industry, maybe it’s a reflection of my own creative state – or both.

      • Dear Ming:

        “I keep asking myself ‘how and what would I shoot if I was shooting for creative experimentation and fun?’ – and realise I’ve got two problems: firstly, I don’t do that kind of shooting enough to know what I’d want, and secondly, there isn’t an automatic go-to. Maybe it’s a reflection of the industry, maybe it’s a reflection of my own creative state – or both.”

        To me, this line holds the answer to all your questions and thoughts, to be able to incorporate your work and creativity into photography demands a subject very close to your own deepest interests/needs/soul. I see to many photographers lose energy in covering too many different subjects. All my apprentices want to become a photographer they state, i only ask them WHAT do YOU want to photograph…and as simple as it may seem, all answers/decisions come from that question.
        Once found YOUR subject, choices regarding equipment, clients, income, even the place on earth where to live then become clear.
        Finding is an introspective process, taking the decision to stick with it and explore it to the bottom, dealing with the consequences one’s choice may have is hard work.
        The rest is noise.

        Great article, as always!

        Marco Borggreve

        • Agreed. I’ve actually done this twice already – firstly with watches, then construction/architecture – it’s now time to find the next thing…

          • Jean-Christoph Hasel says:

            A simple suggestion.
            With yachts, sailing, naval architecture, shipyards, the marine industry (e.g. ropes), the sea and its infinite nuances, you will have plenty to exalt, between reportage and stil-life.
            You will find the love of precision that you have developed with watches and their details, with the reflections of the varnish, the deck hardware. With the immensity of the ships you will follow the game of lines with buildings now afloat.
            You have the know-how, the talent and the notoriety. What about being curious of that next thing?

  22. entre argentique et numérique, le professionnalisme est différent, mais fait avec conscience, la photographie restera toujours intéressante.
    Bravo pour votre article.
    Merci du partage.


  1. […] have been reading Ming Thein’s post  on The Rise and Decline of Popular Photography  and connecting it to my recent  urban documentary style of […]

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