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The End of Professional Photography?

Technology always ends. Like all things, it has a lifecycle, it begins, it flourishes, and then it ends. We need to be aware of that lifecycle, how we can adapt to it, and when it is time to let go.

I hated doing ads for small businesses. They always thought they knew design, constantly meddling with whatever I created till it looked like clown barf. But they paid me so it was ok. When you are in your early 20s you do whatever you can to make some money otherwise you end up working retail or worse, McDonalds. I’d had a brief stint working at a Staples so I was highly motivated to keep these customers happy so the gravy train would keep on chugging down the track. I’d jumped on the bandwagon of desktop publishing just as the market had begun to embrace it. Desktop publishing was a revolution, brought about by lower equipment costs and the invention of the desktop laser printer. If you could afford to purchase a decent setup you could make real money producing small flyers and newspaper ads for local businesses. It was huge win for the businesses as they no longer had to pay for full page layout services and expensive runs at the local printing press. Response times were also fantastic. It was not uncommon for a customer to make a request and get something back in as little as a few days. For small, local businesses this was great, for folks such as myself it was also a solid paycheck that punched well above what fast-food and retail were dishing out. So what could possibly go wrong?

By the late 1980s desktop publishing was in full swing. The market was healthy, with plenty of business for everyone. By 1994, desktop publishing was virtually gone. In retrospective, the warning signs started by 1990 and were blatantly obvious by 1992. The biggest sign that things were about to go off the rails was when prices began to fall due to more and more folks getting into the business. As more folks got in, prices on computers and printers began to fall also making it easier for more folks to get into the desktop publishing business. A viscous cycle had formed where falling prices led to glut in the supply of people willing to provide the services which then put even more pressure on prices. But desktop publishing was a creative field, supposedly contained by the numbers of people who had the right mix of creative talent. Right? As it turns out, one of the major forces at work was how people already in the field discovered that as prices began to fall from competition they could shore up their own income by teaching others how to also become adept at desktop publishing.

Over the years I have found no other indicator of a technology’s impending demise as strong as this: When it becomes more profitable to teach people how to do something than it is to do that same thing for customers then it is game over. I first witnessed this in desktop publishing, then again with the 1st generation of web development using HTML, and it is happening now in the world of professional photography.

I fear that in the near future, photography will follow this same pattern. It’s almost inevitable. Technologies arrive, early adopters benefit as demand grows, further interest is driven by demand to the point where it becomes more lucrative to teach than to practice, ultimately leading to the collapse and normalization of that technology. And that brings me to my final point. In the last phase of this technological lifecycle, we don’t see the technology completely disappear. Instead, what we do see is the formation of a Nash equilibrium with those who are left post-collapse. The bad news is that this equilibrium typically forms far below the peak so the damage is done in such a way that the majority of the key participants leave the field entirely. For photography, we are already seeing some photographers transition out to other creative work. Some are looking to the computational future of photography as the way forward, while others, such as myself, have stopped doing photography as a business and are now pursuing it solely as a hobby.

Everywhere I look I see photographers advertising photo walks, seminars, online training videos, you name it. All of it is nothing more than a mad scramble to squeeze out one last drop of value before the inevitable collapse. When the collapse occurred in desktop publishing it was horrible. People who had only a few short months before invested thousands in equipment and advertising found themselves in a sea of competition, all created thanks to a multitude of “Learn desktop publishing in one week” types of training. Training offered by others already in the field who themselves were grasping at straws to keep the dream alive. I was lucky, very lucky. By this time, I had moved on to something called “Web Design” which proved far more lucrative. Today, I fear that photography is going through the same motions. A quick look at the market shows a huge number of photographers all selling products centered around helping others become “better photographers”.

This will not end well.

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A devout technologist, I write about AI, cybersecurity, and my favorite topic, photography.

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