The New Golden Age of Photography

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    The good news for all of us is that we’re in a new golden age of photography. The bad news for photographers (the professional kind) is that we’re in this new golden age.

    Suddenly it seems that everyone with the eye and the desire has a digital camera, and more than a few are publishing scads of amazing photos online. The sheer volume of quality photography on the web is staggering. What was the domain of the elite is now open to everyone; photography has been democratized. The result has been more super photographers than ever.

    And when everyone’s super… no one will be.

    Rewind… in the film days only those with a good eye and the dedication to apprentice could become highly skilled photographers. The film photography business was cost intensive, and those starting off tended not to be rich, and so apprenticing became a time honored way to master the craft. You might not make much if any money doing so; however, paying clients footed the bill for your photo education. Practice made perfect since the exposure/developing cycle took time, therefore learning was incremental and slow. The master photographer shared secrets with the apprentice — things you could learn in no book.

    Of course, apprenticeship has never been required to become a professional photographer; there were and are many paths to become a pro. But in general, the path to becoming a pro required one to “spend time paying your dues,” and this barrier to entry kept the circle of accomplished photographers quite limited. The happy consequence for photographers was that limited availability of talent kept prices high; a skilled photographer could do quite well!

    Now, anyone with the eye for photography can become as good as a pro, if they apply themselves. Budding photographers with talent (you still need talent) can buy a reasonably priced digital SLR and start taking tens of thousands of photos, learning and reacting with each exposure. The learning curve that used to be slow and expensive is now fast and free! Experimentation that would have been an expensive waste of time and film now yields interesting creative exposures – the digital serendipity factor. Add inexpensive photo editing software and the playing field has been more than leveled.

    Most importantly, add the internet.

    Firstly, the internet provides the collective wisdom of the crowd, replacing the singular wisdom of the photo master. The internet is a treasure trove of tips and techniques. It allows for connections and interactions between people brought together by a shared passion for photography.

    Secondly and perhaps most importantly, everyone’s great digital photos (and their lousy photos) are being permanently indexed, tagged and duplicated (sometimes without permission). You can go to the web for inspiration on a photo topic; it can also serve as a constant reminder that with every exposure you take, here is what you’re up against. Go on, top this. The global collection is quite humbling.

    It’s said that everyone has one great photo in them; perhaps through talent and skill; perhaps through luck and serendipity. Historically this has been irrelevant since those great photos were in shoe boxes scattered across the globe, more or less inaccessible. Now, with Flickr etc., our photos are out of their shoe boxes and piped to every corner of the internet. With billions of people on earth, and each one of us having one great photo… all those great photos start to add up! Collectively it’s stunning.

    And the supply of great photos will only increase over time; they won’t fade away or become lost. Yet as the supply of great photos approaches infinity, the value of each great photo has to approach zero. It’s not a judgment of the quality of the work, but is simply capitalism at work.

    The impact of this simple truism is already having a major impact on the photography business; what is going on in the stock and microstock business is a canary in the coal mine. Once 100,000 fantastic photos of any given subject exist, how much will art buyers pay for another great one (bringing the total greats for that subject to 100,001). The answer has to be… not much.

    In the future, photos that retain the ability to command a premium will be of people and events and things which won’t repeat. Weddings. New product glam shots. Sporting events. Fashion. Celebrities. Historical moments.

    But even the wedding photographer will face competition from talented aunt Zoe (not to mention a gaggle of less talented camera wielding friends and family). And the photo journalist will too often arrive on on the scene to find the story scooped by a camera phone. And so on.

    The photographers that thrive in this new environment will be those with exceptional talent and the ability to adapt. A fair number will make a good living at it.

    In this new golden age of photography, there will still be successful professional photographers. There will just be a lot less of them.

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