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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sufficiently advanced technology 2


I am impressed with the advances in relatively cheap cameras, the software to use and manipulate images and the ease with which a total noob like me can make pictures that are really quite pleasing.

I asked someone recently, "What is left for the professional photographer to do?"

The story goes like this: when I was young (about 100 years ago) most families owned cameras and would take "snaps". There was then the process of taking the sealed film container to the "chemist's" for processing and printing (for some reason, many pharmacists seemed to do photographic processing, probably to do with inhaling dangerous chemicals.) Then one waited, singing: "Someday my prints will come!"* The pictures were good quality although expensive. There were also camera shops where you could get more expensive processing and better film, if you were interested. When colour film and processing came along, the price increase was so large that many people resisted the change for a surprisingly long time.

There were many professional photographers. From the guys who would stand around at seaside resorts taking quick shots of passing holidaymakers, to the wedding album specialists, all the way to the professional photographic artists. There must have been many, many corner store-type processing labs and darkrooms. Mostly this was because the equipment was expensive and the training to use it properly was not that easy. If you were a serious enthusiast (like my forgettable first husband), you could buy the tanks, solutions, washing lines, enlargers etc. and do a reasonable job, but it took a long time to get good at it and it was tedious. Not for people like me who are into instant gratification.

When I was a teenager there came the mail-order photo "lab" - you sent your film away, and in 2-3 weeks colour prints came back and, they gave you a free replacement film! This impressed so many people so much that they didn't notice that the processing quality was low, the printing was poor and the results pretty awful. What mattered was that it was cheap, half the price of the alternative. 35 years later the pictures have turned a funny orangey colour, when 60 year-old black and white shots are unchanged. The processing and printing was largely automatic and centralized - the equipment was hugely expensive.

The corner store labs died. Some photographic stores went upscale, most closed down. When automatic processing machines became cheaper, some stores bought them and continued working, however the hyper-march├ęs (big box stores) now built photo labs in their premises. There was still residual send-away processing from small shops in small towns, but the war of technology had reached the clipper-ship of film: I take my film to a person who inserts it in a machine and a few minutes later out come the prints. My prints will come a lot faster these days...ahem.*

The professional photographers were now the wedding and portrait guys, news photographers, and the artists. Considerable training was still required to guarantee results - you had to capture the shot right there and know that it would work.

Then came digital cameras. Film has largely died. Most people have moved to using lightweight, forgiving and cheap cameras, putting the pictures on a computer and printing them only if really needed. The machines are doing the work now. It takes next to no knowledge or training to understand how to use one, especially in the context where many people have some computer access. And you see the results immediately. If it doesn't work, you do it again. A gifted amateur can do a very decent job of taking wedding photos or portraits. A professional will do better, but not so much that one is actually needed. The barrier to entry in this field is much lower. I suspect that most of this kind of photographer had better have a second source of income.

News photographers are probably the next to feel the pinch. When the camera-phone becomes ubiquitous, the price paid for that unique shot is going to be lower, especially when the shot can be cleaned up using software. Completely apart from the threat that comes from decline of print media.

Most artists have probably always struggled. The technology may lower the bar to the actual making of images and software manipulation does make it a lot easier to implement a vision, but the vision is still unique. We will get many more gifted photographic artists as a result. Competition will make it harder for anyone to become a full-time artist, but the ones that make it will probably be better.

Update - Some interesting photographic artists (no particular order):
* Stolen joke alert!

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