The State and Future of Photography as a Vocation

What follows started off as my response to a question on a LinkedIn discussion group about the state of profession photography. In what follows I have added to this and expanded sections of my answer.

Photography has always been a technology driven profession (look at all the competition in the early days around process). So nothing changes.

The professional photography business within each specialised area, such as portrait, wedding, commercial,industrial, fine art,  has always had three levels: the top end doing often stunning work, the middle doing pretty average work and the bottom end of often semi-pros sometimes doing great work but always at a low price. The changes in technology have probably hit the middle the most by allowing the bottom end to spread upwards and squeeze them out.

Traditionally there have been two responses to increased competition in any area of business: either raise or lower your prices, in other words get out of the middle where the squeeze is. To raise prices means finding some way to add value, raise quality, etc. This requires dedication, education and some lateral thinking. It also requires that you stop reacting and start driving change by being innovative in what you do, how you do it and how it is presented. To lower prices and survive requires finding economies of scale, time-saving, streamlining, etc. Both are tough solutions. I’ve seen pros do both. Many of those who have moved down in price have done so by tapping into the semi-pro talent pool and basically organising them, hiring them, etc to allow the pro to more widely cover their chosen area, whether it is event photography, weddings, etc. These are the pros who have developed the kid photography stands as a chain in shopping centres, the glamour photography chains with studios in many major cities, etc.

I think the big change in the future for photographers is the need to move away from just thinking about the still, 2D image. The present generation of e-book readers is nothing to what will come. I suspect that within 10 years the call will be for mixes of material in both still and video, including immersive 3D material in both still and moving forms. Presentation technology will drive this. We will have phones with better quality screens and faster processors, tablets of varying sizes and wall and tabletop picture frames, all offering large storage, fast uploads, wireless connectivity and more interesting ways to interact with them.

While the only way to get a large image on the wall or out to the masses was on paper, 2D still images were the best you got. The TV generations started looking for more. The computer gaming generations want interaction and immersion. When people’s lounge rooms are dominated by a large, flat screen and shortly 3D screens, static images on paper seem less attractive.

So perhaps the future is to think of landscapes that change over time, moving portraits, images you can explore, photo essays that mix still and video to create stimulating narratives, and so on. The still image will never go away, it allows you to focus on a particular, hopefully, magic moment in time. But it will be harder to make this the entire focus of your professional life, at least for as many photographers as there are now. At the same time, as moving and 3D media become totally dominant, there will the opportunity for certain people to stack out a high-end, exclusive domain in 2D still images. And there will be periods when nostalgia brings the 2d still image back into fashion as the hot ‘new’ old thing.

I write this on the eve of the expected announcement of the Apple tablet, a device which commentators expect to do for e-book readers and tablet computing what the iPod did for MP3 portable audio and the iPhone is doing to mobile communications.

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