The flip side of digital photography

Should you be old enough, you’ll remember how different photography was before the arrival of digital cameras. Not only was it difficult to get great photos, the kind that were good enough for publication, but it was difficult to develop them and reproduce them. There were real barriers to entry and to success in the field. They weren’t insurmountable, but they were there.

Nowadays, digital cameras make it so easy for us. Even a novice can occasionally get a great photo simply by clicking the shutter button, because modern cameras can pretty much handle all situations. They don’t do everything, you still need to know what you’re doing in some scenarios, but they’ll get you pretty close to your desired result by themselves, most of the time. So not only is it easy to take photos, but it’s also easy to “develop” them using your computer, and you can reproduce them endlessly. The barriers to entry and success in the field are now almost gone.

However, one thing we all learn as we age is that everything comes with pluses and minuses. Just like film photography had certain minuses, digital photography comes with plenty of unpleasantries on its flip side.

Publications that used to hire photographers and pay them good wages are dwindling. How many do you know of that still have on-staff photographers, or hire photographers for their stories? And how do their salaries compare with those of photographers in the past if they’re adjusted for inflation?

Stock agencies are decreasing the payouts to photographers. There is a lot of competition in that market, paired with a real glut of photographs. And when the supply always outnumbers the demand, prices will fall. There are but a few stock agencies left. There are a ton of microstock agencies which sell photos for piddly sums and pay cents on the dollar to photographers, and they’re also getting bought out and merging with each other in order to survive. If it wasn’t clear a few years ago, it’s becoming painfully clear now that a photographer cannot make a living selling microstock. There are a few who manage to do it, but it’s clear that on average, microstock yields a non-livable income.

There are so many photographs being made that people don’t truly appreciate them anymore. Do you remember how we used to admire photographs in the past? We’d stare at them for 5-10 minutes at a time, taking in each detail. We’d cut them out of magazines and paste them in scrapbooks. We’d look at them and look at them and look at them… Now we’re lucky if a photo gets 5 seconds of someone’s time. There are so many of them that people just gloss right over a photo that took days or hundreds of tries to make. Perhaps you’ll understand this better if I compare it to a periodical cicada emergence. In just a few days, animals that would eagerly consume them as they came out, would become so glutted that they’d simply lay on the ground and watch them crawl around and over them, unable to eat a single morsel. That’s what’s going on with photographs now. Each of us has a rhythm, a rate of “ingesting” digital content and we’ve all reached our max, but the photographs just keep coming. They keep coming and their rate of production is actually increasing. We cannot keep up.

Digital photography gear is made to become obsolete, causing you to spend more money every few years. Remember how you could use the same film camera for 10-20 years, even a lifetime, if you took care of it? That’s not the case with digital cameras, which typically last about 4-5 years before something goes bad. Even if you’re willing to pay a repair shop to have it fixed, camera manufacturers stop stocking parts for older cameras after a certain number of years, because they want to force you to buy a new model. I wanted to send my Canon 5D in for repairs last year, but I couldn’t. The repair shop said I shouldn’t bother, because Canon actually doesn’t allow them to work on the 1st gen 5D anymore and they’ve stopped stocking parts. Not that Canon repair experiences were so great to begin with, but at least they got the job done. I also sent in my Olympus PEN E-P2 in for repairs last year, but it didn’t get repaired. It came back just as I sent it, with a message that offered apologies for the inconvenience and explained that they’d stopped stocking parts for that model just a few months back; support had been discontinued by Olympus. I don’t understand it: there’s money to be made with service and repairs, so why stop supporting a model? Why not keep servicing it for as long as the customer is willing to use it? That business model has been proven to work a long time ago by the car industry.

Cameras, lenses and flashes are getting more expensive each year. Manufacturers can call them inflation adjustments all they want, but price hikes still feel very much like price hikes. And when they’re coupled with no real way to make money from your photos anymore, what are you left with? Doing weddings? Yuck. I don’t know how photographers are coping with all of this. I have a nagging feeling that wedding photographers are pretty much the only ones making money from photography these days. They’re certainly the bulk of the paying customers for camera manufacturers. It’s them and the online “experts” that have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, offering “advice” about which camera model to buy on YouTube and other video sites. It’s a new model/brand each week of course, unless they’re getting paid by a manufacturer to promote a certain brand.

There are real costs associated with processing, storing and archiving digital photographs. We’re told that digital photographs are pretty much free and there’s never been a better time to take many, many photos in order to learn the craft, but there are significant costs that come into play when you add the price of a good computer and good software and the storage and backup solutions that you will absolutely need unless you want your photos and your hard work to go up in a puff of virtual smoke. I’d like to challenge you to add up the costs of your camera gear (camera, lenses, flashes, adapters, tripods, etc.) and computer equipment (laptop/desktop, external hard drives, backup equipment/services) and once you have a total, divide it by the number of photographs you’ve taken with your camera so far. That’ll give you a pretty good idea of the cost per image, and you’ll see that digital photographs are not free. Granted, that cost per image will go down the longer you keep your current equipment and the more photos you take with it, although the cost of storage and backup will still be there for your larger collection of photographs. Do you realize you’ll likely need to pay for a backup subscription for the rest of your life? It’s no wonder that more and more people choose to take photos with their smartphones and edit them directly on those devices, forgoing the cost of computer equipment. And when smartphone manufacturers also offer direct and almost instantaneous cloud backup of the images and videos taken with the phones (at somewhat reasonable prices) it becomes a very attractive offer.

It’s so easy to reproduce digital photographs that it’s actually a problem, because anyone can steal and plagiarize them. Theft of online photographs is rampant. It’s one thing for a fan to repost your photos on another site — I’d go so far as to say that’s fine… but it’s quite another thing for someone to download your photos, enlarge them in Photoshop and repost them on a stock site or use them in ad campaigns, and this is happening quite a lot.

There is no consistent way to attribute photographs online, which means a photographer’s name is likely to get lost in the shuffle. Sure, you can use a caption that lists the photographer’s name, but that only works if you’re the primary publication and you’ve worked with the photographer. Most software used to export and compress images for online publication generally strips EXIF and IPTC copyright information. And most online platforms also have no consistent way of keeping that information inside the photographs, instead offering excuses about file size and compression algorithms which sound very empty given how far we’ve come with computer technology. Have you ever tried to find a photographer’s name for a photo reposted on social media? Good luck… Unless they’ve got a tasteful watermark somewhere on the photo, the metadata’s been wiped clean by these sites. Even Flickr still does not keep a photographer’s name in the metadata of a photo. Should you be able to download a photo from a Flickr contact, you’ll get a link to the page where it was found and maybe a caption, but you will not get something as basic as the photographer’s name, much less the rest of the copyright information.

I’m not saying we should go back to film and analog equipment. I love digital cameras and their ease of use. And I love the various advances being made in digital camera gear. Some of the minuses listed above can even be fixed. I’m just not enthusiastic about their flip side. When photographs were harder to make, we appreciated them more and good photographers stood a good chance of making good money with them. Now that photographs are easy to make, we don’t appreciate them and income from photographs has gone down to pennies on the dollar, if at all. Thank goodness I take photographs for the sake of it, as a creative endeavour that relaxes me after working on my various projects, but I wonder how others are coping with these changes. And it’s also not to say that I wouldn’t mind making money from my photographs on my own terms.


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