On visual economics and scarcity

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No longer special if you see it every day, but stands out precisely because you don’t.

Alternative title: why exceptional photographs will always be rare

Economics 101: value, regardless of how it’s measured (price, time, social media kudos, etc) is proportional to demand. Demand is regulated by intrinsic attractiveness to a given market, the size of that market, and the supply available. Regardless of how few of something there are, if nobody likes or wants it, then it has no value. Similarly, something that may be intrinsically cheap but in short supply with a huge demand might see its price rise out of proportion with the the actual cost, utility or materials of the goods in question. But it’s not just physical goods that obey this rule; intellectual property and even more nebulous intangibles that do not have a limited supply (e.g. there is no theoretical limit to the number of people who can view a photograph) do, too. Even the compositional elements of a photograph. If you’re ready for another one of my strange philosophies, read on.

Let’s examine premise 101 as a case study. In the early days of this site, the content had no value because there was no demand and no publicity. I put out many reviews and articles at a frantic pace to build a catalog and establish bona fides, and then hoped people would come if I wrote about the right things – which mostly worked. Now, every time a camera is released I get an avalanche of emails asking me to review it; it’s up to me (the supplier) to decide if there’s value in me doing so (inevitably, there isn’t, since there’s no way to get back the cost of the camera, the time spent testing and writing, and then replying comments and emails). The upshot is that the few reviews I do write see disproportionate traffic spikes: ergo, demand rises with scarcity, rule 101 obeyed. We now touch on the unlimited supply topic, too: even though I review few cameras, there’s no limit to how many people can read the reviews, nor how many times and individual can read them. That increase in supply does not affect the intrinsic value of the thing in question (the review); if anything, the opposite: internet pages with more traffic have higher perceived credibility (value) than ones that don’t.

However, value can tip in the opposite direction, too: the more content I output, the more it’s expected or taken for granted that the supply continues. Every time I’ve changed post frequency in the past (daily, to alternate days, to now once every three days) I’ve had again a flurry of emails asking me why I’m not writing, and where are the articles? Yet if I’d charged a toll to read – I think the audience would probably disappear. This puts digital content in the strange no-mans-land of having demand, but no value. I don’t think I need to explain why this makes for poor business economics, and the race to the bottom of the content-generating internet in general: if this is your primary business, you have to monetise through advertising, sponsorships, referral fees, and whatever else you can, which inevitably compromises the content, which in turn loses the audience. A precarious balance, this one.

Case study number two: in my watch business, if we label something as a ‘limited edition’, seemingly regardless of how many are produced, there’s an irrational rush and desire to own one – even though the reality is that as a small brand, our total production can simply never be that high; even less than the ‘very limited’ models of much larger brands. Yet even within our own brand, at the same price points, limited editions sell much better than non-limited, even if there are fewer of the non-limited. And once again: if you make everything limited, then nothing is really limited and the whole concept loses value. I think it’s fundamental psychology: we want what we can’t have; the harder it is to get, the more we want it, and the greater the extents we are willing to go to get it.

But here’s another nature of demand and human psychology: it’s like quantum mechanics. Try to measure/ capitalise on it, and the actual quantisation changes. Theoretical demand for something at $100 isn’t the same as the actual number of sales for an identical real product at $100: it’s perhaps 10%, if that. Theoretical commitment has no impact cost and is easy to acclimatise to; the more expensive, the more unpredictable the reaction – in other words, the further we get to the edge of the curve*, the more irrational people get. Extreme example: if you base a business around selling a single, specialised $2bn camera, you’ll likely go bankrupt; or, if your client is NASA, they might buy two, and you’ll retire a rich man. I’ve seen and experienced this personally both ways – often success or failure of a venture can be traced down to a single event that happened, or didn’t happen. Business is every bit as much as a risk as gambling.

*Or, unpredictable region/ non-linear regime/ illogical behaviour; take your pick.

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Push-pull tension of price and demand…

I mentioned acclimating to an idea before: no matter how extreme, we eventually get used to it and move on as if normal and taken for granted. Take the internet, for example, or even smartphones. Hell, digital cameras and electric cars. There are countless examples of crazy things becoming accepted and commonplace; to get attention the bar has moved and the ‘next best thing’ must be even more extreme. This is also true of compositions and photography: here we switch gears to the intangible. In a presentation of uniformly exceptional photographs – each of which on its own would stand head and shoulders above its average peers of similar subject matter – the one that stands out is going to be the one that breaks pattern, and is in itself relatively exceptional: the crappy mediocre one. You’re going to remember the one that is different. In this way, the bar is continually moving: what passed for an exceptional photograph in the 1960s or 1970s is no longer exceptional today, and would be forgotten without historical provenance and context. What passes as exceptional today won’t be tomorrow, and so on: it’s the difference in perspective and viewpoint that we need to find and present in order to stand out visually.

If everything was made of gold, gold would have no value. If you ate nothing but caviar at every meal, instant noodles would suddenly start to be rather appealing. I think you see the point.

This is one of the reasons curation is so critical for overall impact: images in a series must be different enough from each other and presented in such a way that these differences help each individual image to stand out. Anything that’s repetitive should be excluded, because it not only reduces impact for itself but also other similar images; one must have more impact than the other; one must be a better fit for the rest of the presentation than the other. There is no point showing a bunch of images so similar they get lost amongst themselves.

Even within a single image or composition, too many elements mean that single elements don’t stand out. Too many of the same element turn that into a single visual element in and of itself, drawing attention to anything that is not the same. Even if we’re talking about exceptional subjects – for argument’s sake, let’s say a single person in an otherwise massively empty desert – the moment you add a handful of random people all over the landscape, the human element ceases to be the focal point of the composition. We are back at curation again: this time, consciously excluding the bits that you don’t want to be visible and interpreted. Scarcity and economics apply in visual composition – who’d have known?

I said before that intellectual property like photographs, web articles and the like have value independent of quantity in the market; that’s not quite true. Though there is no degradation of value of a single instance of viewing if more people see an image – if anything, social network effects that actually increase value (“yeah, I saw it too! I’m part of the in crowd!”; more views of advertising = higher expected sales conversions) – it’s the very difficulty in linking value with quantity that limits the perception of photography’s value as an art form. An oil painting exists in a single instance; assuming it does not get damaged in the process, hundreds of millions of people can see the Mona Lisa without diminishing its value. But if there was more than one identical copy, value would be far lower than half. It’s the possibility for making identical copies that photography has to get over; there’s no easy way to do this beyond trusting the integrity of the artist and their promise to limit editions. And then there’s the separation of print (physical object, can be made unique) to digital file (intangible object, infinite perfect copies can be made) – I’d rather not get started on the whole blockchain thing, thank you. Instead, I’m going to come full circle by saying less, and only presenting two images in this essay: value in photography (and intellectual property) is proportional to personal relevance, credibility and integrity: fortunately, those things are all priceless and without price at the same time. MT

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Comments

  1. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Of course there are different ways of looking at “value”. Economic values are measured in economic units called “money”, and the rest follows as the night the day – the “true value” simply becomes the monetary price at the intersect of the supply and demand curves.
    But some amongst us – me, for example – don’t share the same ideologies of “value”. And cherish something of greater “value”. Art, for instance. Or in this case, the altruistic sharing by a photographer with an extraordinary wealth bank of knowledge and an extraordinary intellectual capacity.
    Something I love doing from time to time is plunging into the archives of “blog.mingthein”. It’s a mind blowing place to explore!

    • Actually sometimes I think the archive is a bit scary as it’s a series of very candid snapshots of the contents of my mind which I might not even remember in the present…! 🙂

  2. SilverFox says:

    Interesting thoughts and theories Ming and got me thinking which I think says that your post was a success 🙂 As a small-time blogger myself who is not anywhere close to the league you are in here (in this tenuous sports analogy I am not even in the Sunday morning amateur league) I have little worry about monetizing any of the words I put down onto paper – err I mean pixels. But with many of the blogs I read I do see that whether it be in the sense of education, entertainment or news there is a lot of ‘value’ being offered for free and it is difficult to see how this is sustainable. In most cases it is limited by the amount of ‘free’ time the authors are willing/able to put up with losing to supply the demand and many turn to some form of payment or the quantity/quality drops off. Perhaps this is a question of hobby over living and whether you are doing this for yourself or for the demands of others. Of course for many it is a staging to get recognition and a launch pad for other things.
    In many ways blogging can be likened to busking on the street, the performance is free for those not willing to pay and if a hat is not put on the ground then it’s free even for those willing to pay

    • Doing it as a hobby of course provides the greatest flexibility of opinion (you don’t have to say nice things to camera brands to get loan units/ support/ sponsorship etc., but you do have to buy your own) but limitations in scope due to time and budget (unless you re extremely fortunate). There are no expectations except your own, and one stops when it’s no longer enjoyable – for whatever reason, be it other priorities/interests or too many trolls. There are the ‘pros’ and I suspect this is where the quality really tanks: the money sources do not pay for truth or education because both of these run counter to the core business of selling more cameras. The third option is a much rarer bird, and one I find myself in now: I continue because I like to write and because somebody who’s seen inside the palace should probably point out the emperor’s clothes are at best questionable, if outright absent. I have both nothing to lose and nothing to gain, and the luxury of having nobody to curry favour from and no need to reply those too lazy to use the search function (or miss the point that minute hardware differences make no difference in comparison to ability). It’s strangely motivating…

  3. Excellent thoughts, thank you.

  4. Ming, any plans to expand your tutorial series? 🙂

    • Not at the moment. I think we’ve pretty much covered everything excep lighting, and I’ve always believed that needs to be demonstrated in person as small changes to source and subject position can make a huge difference in result.

  5. Well, thank you for providing what is consistently the most *for me* valuable photography link on the internet. The value for me is on both the product and cost ‘sides’.
    1. The product is first rate, in it’s (your) balance of some technical evaluation, some technical explanation, and a lot of ‘image’ stuff that is balanced between image understanding, instruction, and just plain pleasure. Of course people’s artistic tastes differ, and it helps that your tastes lead you to vision and interpretive choices that resonate with me, and therefore are more valuable to me.
    2. The price is free…in all ways; no fees, no demand for personal information, no banner ads, no sniveling for ‘likes’ or ‘subscribe’, …etc.
    I realize that you may or may not continue forever with giving and no reward, so the least I can do is offer a kernel of positive reinforcement.

    • Here’s a weird question: does being free diminish perceived value somehow? We see it a lot in other industries…something which is given is not afforded the same respect as something purchased.

      ‘Likes’ are not useful currency for anybody other than narcissists 🙂

      • Well free obviously doesn’t decrease value for me; thus my comment. i think that’s one of those issues the defy logic, like evaluating “this statement is false”, or heisenburg uncertainty, etc.
        It can be said that beyond survival necessities, any and all currencies are useful only for narcissists, but that’s a black hole of discussion with a dangerous event horizon.
        ps omitted in my original comment the value of coherence, in both your pics and words.

  6. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Like this :
    http://www.andersen.sdu.dk/vaerk/hersholt/WhatTheOldManDoesIsAlways.html
    ? 🙂 .
    ( A translation from H. C. Andersen.)

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      EDIT:
      Sorry, ended up in the wrong place.
      Feel free to delete!
      ( REPLY to
      jean pierre (pete) guaron says:
      April 20, 2019 at 11:07 PM )

  7. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    A disturbing facet of western society is that value is measured in some unit of monetary currency.
    I’ve often thought that if I had had free choice, instead of “automatically” being brought up as a christian (because of the society in which I lived, as a child), I would probably have chosen to be a buddhist or a hindu.
    The dilemma your post describes, Ming, is similar. But if “appreciation” is a more appropriate measure of “value” in relation to your posts, then I think there would be all but unanimous support for the suggestion that the “value” of your posts is enormous!
    Wandering off topic, this dilemma reminds me of another one – measuring “intelligence” or intellectual ability. This is normally done in the “currency” of an IQ test – monetary currency would clearly be irrelevant here! Unfortunately IQ tests all suffer from the same problem – they only measure one (or perhaps several, but few) facet[s] of “intelligence”. They do not and can not measure everything. So they really produce a false or misleading result – which is a bit of a conundrum, considering it is “intelligence” that they are supposed to be measuring. In my travels in life, I’ve met heaps of people who are gifted in some way that no IQ test I’ve ever heard of could possible appraise correctly and/or accurately. It doesn’t mean they are “dumber” than someone who might have a higher result on an IQ test – merely that they are more whatever-it-is-that-REALLY-matters, measured on a different scale.
    BTW, Ming – since you are one of the people I have in mind in rabbiting on like that – did you ever study philosophy? I received an accidental course in philosophy while I was supposed to be taking roman law – because our lecturer stood there in front of us, week after week, raving on in latin (which nobody understood), with his eyes shut (so he could never answer any questions), and to relieve my boredom, I used to read what had been scribbled on the blackboard behind him, during the lecture which had preceded ours – and twice a week, in that room, I received a free philosophy course from those notes.

    • ‘Appreciation’ unfortunately does not allow us to continue creating; it’s too intangible and non-committal. Bills still have to be paid (a consequence of living in any society).

      IQ tests are somewhat self-selecting because you can only test for what’s been asked within the limits of the assessment: I think true intelligence goes beyond something scripted or predictable in a way that is by nature impossible to measure…how would you quantify innovation, for instance?

      I did study philosophy but not formally – initially to understand why certain things make people feel a certain way in images, then later on to understand consumer motivations and buying habits…

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        I’ve always thought that some of the stuff taught at schools is simply “traditional” and rather pointless. Since society ultimately bears the cost of schooling children, society ought to have some say in what’s taught, instead of leaving it up to teachers to decide on the curriculum.
        Example – economics. To understand the markets we live in – whether it’s our job market, our housing market, or the market for our labour, or something else – we ALL need some basic comprehension of economics.
        Example – philosophy. Mine was less targeted than yours Ming – mine was a broad brush introduction to the basics of philosophy. Over half a century later, I couldn’t even begin to tabulate all the ways that has helped me in my travels through life
        Example – accounting. Practically everyone will open and operate a bank account – yet many people have absolutely no idea how to reconcile their bank statements. Further – budgeting is essential unless you’re uber rich and money drips off trees, landing on your lap. It would be easy enough to teach these things at school – perhaps even use them as “applied mathematics”, to avoid drifting too far off curriculum. But from trade union members to millionaires, from housewives to grocers, everyone needs these “life skills”.
        And people who have a broader knowledge base – a broader range of experience – also have a far more developed ability to solve problems and get on with their lives.
        Some of the dumbest remarks I’ve ever heard in my life came out of the mouths of people with university degrees, or claims to some other imprimatur of “superiority”. And some of the rarest displays of sheer genius I have ever witnessed were performed by – in one instance – a handicapped teenager, who could never hope to get a “normal” job but had a rare talent nevertheless – and, in another, tradesmen.
        And in case anyone thinks this is of no particular relevance here, one of those “dumb”, “Ignorant” guys was a keen amateur photographer – whose work was nothing short of miraculous.

        • I fully agree with you. The modern education system is a holdover from th days when there were still marked divisions between the working and other classes; while this arguably still exists today, as you say everybody has to deal with some things like managing finances. I for one didn’t find the content of my education anywhere near as valuable as the process of it (and learning how to learn). The most incompetent colleague I’ve had the misfortune to work with held no fewer than three masters degrees…

  8. Egmont Bonomi says:

    This brief examination delves deep into most photographer’s greatest insecurity, are my photographs actually worth anything? My favorite piece so far Ming, well done!

  9. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “Contract:
    ‘I give you stones instead of bread, said the sculptor. …’
    ‘I give you pictures instead of bread, said the painter. Beauty itself in colours, …’
    ‘I give you books instead of bread, said the author. …’
    ‘Excellent, you three, said the people. We’ll give you fame instead of bread.’ ”

    Approximately from memory from:
    Olle Holmberg, “286 sätt att tänka”
    (~”286 ways of thinking”)

  10. Evgeny Zveniatsky says:

    As usual – you’re right to the very last word. Hope you success in your watch business, as I see some pessimism in this essay. Your last B&W series reflect your current mood, but like all in this world, things change constantly, and next period will be more colorful.

  11. Joaquim Mota says:

    Awesome!!

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