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Photojournalism in the age of digital reproduction
March 31, 2010 7:02 AM   Subscribe

“The quality of licensed imagery is virtually indistinguishable now from the quality of images they might commission,” Mr. Klein said. Yet “the price point that the client, or customer, is charged is a fraction of the price point which they would pay for a professional image.” The NYT on the demise of news photography in the age of the long tail.
posted by sagwalla (38 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
See also this Salon blog piece from last year about the guy who sold his stock photo of a jar with change in it to Time for their cover--making himself $30, instead of the usual going rate of $10,000 or so.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:20 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm one of those people who's made a hundred bucks here and a hundred bucks there over the past couple of years from photos I've posted to Flickr. Sorry to any professional photographers out there who see me as part of the problem. But, hey, I'm a musician by trade, and talk about getting hit hard by the new freeconomy... we all just gotta do what we can and soldier on.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:25 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


(From the Salon article) What happened with Lam's photo is simply the way the industry works. Time paid what it paid for that image because that's about what it was worth.

This. As long as amateur/semipro photography is competent enough to be indistinguishable from professional photography to the layperson (I'm not saying there isn't a difference, just that it will not be obvious to the target audience), it is impossible that this won't happen routinely.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:28 AM on March 31, 2010 [5 favorites]


Cue my post-BFA-depression
posted by Juicy Avenger at 7:41 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Clicked to Flickr just now: "5,351 uploads in the last minute." I don't know what the upload volume was were when Getty made the deal with Flickr in 2008, but that number will just grow and grow.
posted by The Mouthchew at 7:41 AM on March 31, 2010


This is why Peter Parker gets fired, isn't it?
posted by adipocere at 7:43 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


As a professional photographer of 34 years, I've never felt more like a buggy whip manufacturer.

The NYT article may have been eye opening to some people, but it was essentially old news to people like me.
posted by imjustsaying at 7:44 AM on March 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Amateur photographers are not part of the problem at all. In fact, they're probably the best part of the revolution of digital imagery. Can you imagine the pure awe that long-dead photographers might feel if they saw Flickr? Camera phones? Getty Images?

Professional photographers may be grumbling but the truth of the matter is that if they're exposed to being undercut, they have 2 choices. Continue to swim upstream against an unstoppable force, or focus on making images that amateurs can't capture.

Stephen Alvarez is a photographer who shoots for National Geographic. He takes his camera into the most hostile and unexplored environments. Caves, for example. No light, nothing but mud, water, and stone. He is able to capture beautiful images, and do it under severe conditions. There is no amateur photographer on earth who could do what he does.

Go check out Art Partner - they represent the best fashion photographers. Those photographers work with large teams of stylists, producers, assistants, and models. Under intense pressure from clients who have a fortune on the line. And the photographer is forced to produce even if the shit hits the fan. None of those guys are in any danger from amateur photographers.

A few years ago all the major publishers built out their own in-house digital studios. All of a sudden, still life photographers, the people who shot on seamless, were scrambling to reinvent themselves. They were exposed to losing work to junior guys who just copped their light setup and clicked a button. One photographer I know went to work for a large client and was feeling suspicious about this person who was watching over their back taking notes, turns out it was an in-house photographer who was copying everything so they would never have to hire that photographer again. He was exposed to losing work, through no fault of his own. But he still had to reinvent himself.

It isn't easy right now, tons of agents I know are really hurting. They're even talking about how much they're hurting, which is a big taboo in the industry, since it looks bad. Call it the great digital cull. But there are professional photographers who are insulated from this because they make pictures that can't be made on demand by amateurs.

But to the pro shooters - could they honestly trade the pure utility, joy, and importance of digital photography, all the good is has brought to billions of lives, could they trade all that for the 'good ol days?' No way.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:53 AM on March 31, 2010 [8 favorites]


See also this Salon blog piece from last year about the guy who sold his stock photo of a jar with change in it to Time for their cover--making himself $30, instead of the usual going rate of $10,000 or so.
From the article:
In April, Time magazine used a stock photo of coins in a jar on its cover to illustrate a story about "the new frugality."
Heh.

I think the biggest change with digital cameras isn't the quality of the images, but rather the fact that you can take so many pictures with them. And you get instant feedback on how good they are. Anyone with a good aesthetic sense can learn to take good pictures. And there's a whole host of difficult to learn techniques and technical skills that are irrelevant now. Not only do you get instant feedback on your composition, you don't even really need to know how use a light meter, or adjust ISO or shutter speed or whatever. You just do a test shot and if it's wrong you can tweak the settings. And of course you can just put the camera on Auto and let it make those choices for you if you want.

And the other thing, of course, is that since so many people are taking pictures, and posting them online anyone has a huge number of options for already taken photos. Whereas in the past, you'd be looking at maybe choosing between a few photographers to commission a shot, or spending hours looking through stock photos by hand.

But the bottom line is that the skill to compose a shot isn't worth all that much, whereas the real cost driver was the equipment, the technical skills, and of course plain old information inefficiency.

---

Also, is it just me or does flickr kind of suck now? What's with those tiny nav thumbnails. Their design made sense in the modem era, but now it's just so. damn. slow.
posted by delmoi at 7:53 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


It gets even worse.

Lower down the rung is people like me - or rather better photographers who do what I do: I put most of my photos out with a Creative Commons license. I even drop the non-commercial restriction. That means newspapers, like recently the French newspaper Liberation, publish my photos for free.
posted by vacapinta at 7:54 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh and I was going to add, one thing that pro photographers still have a leg up on amateurs is lighting and studios for editorial photography. Only super-dedicated amateurs have that kind of stuff.
posted by delmoi at 7:55 AM on March 31, 2010


So what's the future? If these industries are dying out (and it's not just photography, it's writing, maybe programming, etc.

How does the economy cope with tens of thousands of new people without jobs?

And what's the backlash going to be as consumers become oversaturated with free or cheap content?
posted by ruthsarian at 7:58 AM on March 31, 2010


So what's the future? If these industries are dying out (and it's not just photography, it's writing, maybe programming, etc.

How does the economy cope with tens of thousands of new people without jobs?

And what's the backlash going to be as consumers become oversaturated with free or cheap content?


Welcome to creative destruction -- it's the cornerstone of any market-based economy. Tens of thousands of new people without jobs is a mere drop in the bucket. The economy will cope in the same way that it coped with the death or reduction in importance of other industries (as one pro photog noted upthread, they feel like the new "buggy-whip manufacturers"). Those who can adapt and find new skills will do so, those who don't, will suffer. My own politics on this matter is that creative destruction is a great thing on a macro-level, and the solution is not to 'protect' certain industries (be they cotton picking, car manufacturing, or photo taking), but for the government to have an adequate social safety net in place to allow those who lose their jobs to have the opportunity for retraining, employment insurance and welfare while they are out of work, etc.

As for the backlash? Can't see it happening! Why would consumers revolt against saturation of cheap content? THey are still free to pay for higher quality stuff, as noted in other examples of successful pro photogs given upthread.
posted by modernnomad at 8:06 AM on March 31, 2010


“The important thing that a photojournalist does is they know how to tell the story — they know they’re not there to skew, interpret or bias,” said Katrin Eismann, chairwoman of the Masters in Digital Photography program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “A photographer can go to a rally or demonstration, and they can make it look as though 10 people showed up, or 1,000 people showed up, and that’s a big difference. I’m not sure I’m going to trust an amateur to understand how important that visual communication is.”

For someone who teaches at an art school, Ms. Eismann's implication that it is possible to make an image without interpretation seems rather naive to me. Quite apart from her somewhat patronising description of 'amateurs.' It seems from the article though that the main casualties of stock photos are magazine editorial photographers rather than news photographers, in which case her complaints about bias are even more off base.
posted by Jakob at 8:09 AM on March 31, 2010


Yeah; the thing that makes amateurish photos amateurish is that they're less biased, less tuned to our idealizations of what things ought to look like. Arguably the least biased photographer would be a roomba with a camera mounted to it, blindly wandering around and taking photographs at random. But those photographs would be, by aesthetic standards, terrible.
posted by Pyry at 8:22 AM on March 31, 2010


I feel very lucky to be the exception to all this - my photo business has never been better. It could all change in a minute though...
posted by blaneyphoto at 8:48 AM on March 31, 2010


It's stories like this that reinforce my desire not to be a commercial photographer in any capacity. I shoot a lot, but I never shoot with the intention to make money. I don't dare call what I do "fine art" photography - I think those words call to mind the words "pretentious asshole" in too many minds, including my own.

Like vacapinta, I put my stuff up on Flickr more or less free to all. I use the Creative Commons attribution/non-commercial/no-derivatives license, and I'm happy with that. It leaves me feeling truly liberated to shoot what I want, share with whoever likes it, and damn the rest.

Of course part of that revolves around my fear that if I try to make a living at photography then I'll ruin my love for this amazing hobby. I've heard too many horror stories about people that get stuck in that situation (not just in photography of course: automotive repair, painting, interior decorating, etc.).

So to all those amateurs who are scrabbling for part of the pie, I say, "Good luck and go to it! I'll be over here shooting for fun."
posted by komara at 8:49 AM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


I also feel like I should specify that I did commercial work for a local business but they paid in barter (at my request) so that let me continue to feel like I was working for fun, with the nice side effect of a large bar tab waiting for me when the shoot was done.
posted by komara at 8:57 AM on March 31, 2010


About once a week I feel a wave of relief that I became a writer, not a photographer.

Thank god technology still hasn't made writing well any easier. Yet.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:09 AM on March 31, 2010


Gottabefunky, that's funny. Once a week, before being enlightened this article, I was feeling the opposite about being a writer. I didn't realize the Internet's content mills were hurting photogs as well.

That's good news that you can still make money writing, though.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 10:41 AM on March 31, 2010


Good riddance. The majority of my experiences as a customer of pro photographers have been nightmares. I'll take a decent pro-am over a "real" pro any day.

I shoot CC as well.
posted by msittig at 10:42 AM on March 31, 2010


you don't even really need to know how use a light meter, or adjust ISO or shutter speed or whatever

Not true; digital sensors suffer from nearly the same lack of dynamic range as film. If it's a bright day and you're taking a picture in the shade, either your skies will be blown or your subject will be a giant shadow. You still need to understand the same old techniques for manipulating light that have been with us for 150 years (or don't, and get crap photos… lots of them).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:51 AM on March 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


FTFA “No self-respecting art director or creative director would use a preshot image, because it wasn’t original, it hadn’t been commissioned by them, it wasn’t their creativity.”

More of an indictment on 'creative directors' than the photogs.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:26 AM on March 31, 2010


The majority of my experiences as a customer of pro photographers have been nightmares.

With that attitude I'm sure the photographers that you've worked with are happy to not have you as a client.
posted by photoslob at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


The skills that some professional photographers have may ultimately lead to them being editors of photos, manipulators of photos, and curators of photos rather than actually taking (all of or most of) the pictures. Professional photographers are highly skilled, creative people, who may need to find a different position in the food chain given the realities of amateur photographers, flickr, etc.
posted by cell divide at 12:21 PM on March 31, 2010


> Not true; digital sensors suffer from nearly the same lack of dynamic range as film.

But they're an irresistably effective starting point. They'll get you in the right ballpark faster and in more different light regimes than f8 at a 60th will.
posted by jfuller at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2010


This makes me sad. I've often thought it would be nice to supplement my income with photography. (I do pretty well for having only an old dSLR with a few lenses and a Speedlight)

What I find the worst about it is the exploitative nature of the relationship between big media and their new photography sources. Thirty bucks for a Time cover? Seriously? The person who took that deal is an idiot and Time gave him/her a good no-lube job.
posted by wierdo at 1:26 PM on March 31, 2010


Not true; digital sensors suffer from nearly the same lack of dynamic range as film. If it's a bright day and you're taking a picture in the shade, either your skies will be blown or your subject will be a giant shadow. You still need to understand the same old techniques for manipulating light that have been with us for 150 years (or don't, and get crap photos… lots of them).

Right, but you just have to look at the screen to see if the photo turned out or not. If not, just tweak some dials and try again. With a film camera, you won't know if the photo turned out correctly until you develop it.
posted by delmoi at 3:24 PM on March 31, 2010


delmoi wrote: "Right, but you just have to look at the screen to see if the photo turned out or not. If not, just tweak some dials and try again. With a film camera, you won't know if the photo turned out correctly until you develop it."

If you just tweak the dials randomly, you're not going to get a good photo of a high dynamic range scene. Believe me, I've tried. ;)
posted by wierdo at 3:32 PM on March 31, 2010


"With a film camera, you won't know if the photo turned out correctly until you develop it."

Polaroid backs help with this problem.
posted by blaneyphoto at 3:41 PM on March 31, 2010


If not, just tweak some dials and try again.

Sorry, that's not how cameras work. Not even fancy digital cameras.

Dynamic range is exactly that: a range. A fixed range. All you're doing by "tweaking some dials" is moving the upper and lower bounds. But the distance between them stays the same.

For the shade + bright sunny day problem? You can take a few shots and instantly see your skies are all blown out. Tweak some dials! Now the skies look good, but the foreground subject in the shade is completely black. Tweak some dials again? Back to where you started.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:58 PM on March 31, 2010


For the shade + bright sunny day problem? You can take a few shots and instantly see your skies are all blown out. Tweak some dials! Now the skies look good, but the foreground subject in the shade is completely black. Tweak some dials again? Back to where you started.

You can also tweak the "Turn on Flash" dial. In daylight it does wonders for the shady area + sky problem. More of a trick, I know.
posted by vacapinta at 5:05 PM on March 31, 2010


vacapinta wrote: "You can also tweak the "Turn on Flash" dial. In daylight it does wonders for the shady area + sky problem. More of a trick, I know."

And for anything but a close-in shot of a couple of people the dinky built in flash will fail miserably to correct the problem. That's one of the big reasons I had to buy an SB-600. :(

The point is that to take a good picture in other-than-ideal conditions takes some amount of knowledge, even if it's only the knowledge that you need to buy some extra hardware to deal with the problem. After all, if I compose a shot right and have the SB-600 in the hotshoe, even my ancient D70s will get the light right, although not ideally. (direct flash looks like crap 99% of the time)

Unless it's snowy, in which case almost every camera out there will underexpose.
posted by wierdo at 5:13 PM on March 31, 2010


>Dynamic range is exactly that: a range. A fixed range.
It's a range, yes, and it has a fixed maximum value for a given sensor, but that's not the whole story. Modern ISO100 film negatives have a log(10) dynamic range of about 3. Modern DSLR sensors typically offer full-bucket electron numbers of around 100k, and 16-bit read-out so, at low 'ISO' where dynamic range is limited by ADC precision rather than sensor noise, they have a log10 dynamic range of about 4.2 - quite a bit better than film.
Pushing to higher 'ISO' (ie data number/electron ratio) starts to reveal various noise sources (root-n noise in the photodiode, noise in the analog preamp, et cetera), and this noise of course reduces effective dynamic range in return for better sensitivity. Eventually the analog gain is high enough that the the data number/electron ratio is >=1, and further increases in gain result only in increased noise, since you can't have half an electron. In the above example, there are only about 3 stops of useful ISO adjustment from ~1/10th DN/e- to 1 DN/e-: any further adjustment is purely for convenience, and actually reduces that amount of information in the image.
There are also tricks you can do to try to reconstruct blown channels using information from the same region in other channels, possibly increasing the effective dynamic range, but this is purely artificial based on assumptions about the relative importance of chroma vs luma accuracy.
I don't see any reason why both electron-capacity and ADC precision can't be improved in the future to yield even more dynamic range. What is nearly at its theoretical limit, however, is sensitivity - whole-system quantum efficiencies of 0.3 are now quite achievable, and noise levels are approaching the single electron range, so you can forget about getting large improvements in low-light performance for a given sensor size.
posted by overyield at 6:01 PM on March 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


There's a lot of hostility toward pro photographers in this thread I don't really understand. So slightly less amateurish photography is becoming increasingly available to the masses thanks to miraculous advances in technology. Cool.

Were people all like "Fuck you, you art school painter assholes! I can do this shit by myself now!" when paint by numbers was introduced?

Fancier cameras that take the guesswork out of shit are like the autotune of the photography world. It's amazing tech, but if you're correcting your mistakes with technology, you're still a mediocre singer/photographer/whatever. At best.
posted by TheGoldenOne at 6:09 PM on March 31, 2010


...you're still a mediocre singer/photographer/whatever...

i put some autotune on my photograph
and some photoshop on my song
and now they look and sound real good
so how can that be wrong?
these days, you see, even folks like me
who actually have no skills
can churn out masterpieces
and pay a coupla bills!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:47 PM on March 31, 2010


Welcome to creative destruction -- it's the cornerstone of any market-based economy. Tens of thousands of new people without jobs is a mere drop in the bucket. The economy will cope in the same way that it coped with the death or reduction in importance of other industries (as one pro photog noted upthread, they feel like the new "buggy-whip manufacturers").

This is completely backwards. The photography industry is not like "buggy-whip manufacturers". The problem isn't obsolescence, the problem is that technology has made it cheaper to produce and easier to learn how to make high quality photographs. So recently the growth in the supply of photographers hasn't been met with a growth in the demand for their work, so this will bring down the average wage. But no one needs to worry about the "death" of photography as an industry.

That being said, I'm not even sure if my supply and demand story is true. It's a shitty economy so you can find stories in any industry about people who are having trouble finding work. Plus, I don't think it has ever been true that photography was an easy field to get into.
posted by afu at 12:22 AM on April 1, 2010


High Dynamic Range Imaging, Faster Glass, more RAM... All I need to be a successful pro is a H4D, A select Broncolor travel kit, a couple of new lenses, 150k for expenses & what not... and a spherocam just in case. Who can afford to shoot cutting edge at the rate of technology. I should have been a trust fund baby :)
posted by justinimages at 7:06 PM on April 18, 2010


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