Nary a week passes without a prominent photographer, media figure, or camera company executive lamenting the impact of smartphones on photography. The latest one to do so, Former Vogue photographer David Bailey, lamented the death of the “Star Photographer”. Bailey concedes that his wife’s Instagram posts are better than his pictures. Another writer blames cellphone cameras as a direct cause of the death of photography and yet another implicates the narcissism of the social media generation as an accomplice.
I’m relatively new to cameras. I’ve owned a Canon S90 Point and Shoot since 2010 and only recently switched to a Fujifilm mirrorless camera. Since getting a Moto G3 in 2015, most of my pictures have been shot on smartphones. Indeed, my 2017 acquisition of a Galaxy Note 8, and 2018 purchase of a Pixel 3 were aimed at having the best cellphone camera in my pocket. My dissatisfaction with computational photography drove me to take the plunge with Fujifilm, and I’m now exploring the world of vintage soviet lenses.
Hanging around Facebook forums for the past few months, I’ve noticed some of the despair over the proliferation of smartphone cameras, including a highly polarised discussion over a news report of a couple that had their wedding shot exclusively on a smartphone.
It’s obvious that the rise of smartphone cameras has killed an entire class of point and shoot cameras. In 2015, when I asked a pro-photographer friend what camera under $700 I should consider to replace my Canon S90, he recommended the iPhone 6. Today, my Google Pixel 3 and my Note 8 take better video than my 2016 Sony Handycam. This turmoil in the camera industry has a precedent in a similar disruption exactly half a century ago.
On Christmas day in 1969, Seiko introduced the Astron — the world’s first quartz watch.Though the first Astrons sold at nearly USD 2,000 apiece, prices dropped and reliability rose rapidly. The subsequent crisis in the wristwatch industry destroyed many hallowed European watchmakers and the electronic watch emerged as an industry in itself. Casio’s F91W, F158, and range of Calculator watches grew into multi-million dollar products over several decades. The wristwatch itself evolved from a precious personal possession to a high-volume consumer product.
This didn’t kill mechanical watchmaking. A mechanical wristwatch is still considered an apt memento for life events such as graduation, a first job, marriage, or retirement. The mechanical watch industry evolved. Seiko, the Japanese disruptor, still sells millions of mechanical watches under its ‘5’ brand each year. Its compatriot, Citizen, also runs a profitable mechanical watch business and owns Miyota — a manufacturer of watch internals. Several struggling Swiss watchmakers merged to form Swatch Group, which grew to be a behemoth manufacturing ubiquitous quartz watches. ETA SA, a Swatch subsidiary is the world’s largest manufacturer of certifiably Swiss watch components. The Swiss watch industry continues to thrive with some models built by Rolex and Patek Philippe having year-long waiting lists.
The disruption of the camera industry is arguably more complex. While cheaper cameras had already started making their mark in the 1950s, film photography remained a challenge because of the effort and expense involved with developing film and making prints. It wasn’t until the rise of digital photography and media-capable smartphones that photography, as it was practiced during the 20th century, really began to evolve.
As we saw during the ‘quartz crisis’ in watchmaking, digital photography has claimed victims among manufacturers of film and optics. Improving sensor capabilities have pretty much killed the pocketable digital, and the “premium compact” camera has become the cornerstone of consumer digital photography. Mirrorless cameras have already taken a sizeable bite out of the DSLR market and “the DSLR is dead” articles have started to flow.
So yes, Photography is in a turbulent time, with multiple forces that will essentially change its nature. So how is it going to turn out?
First — Just like quartz watches didn’t kill mechanical watches, cellphones are not killing cameras.
No matter how good smartphone cameras get, there are people who will always want a camera. True — my Pixel 3 takes pictures that I haven’t yet learned to take on my Fuji — if I’m every stuck with backlighting and don’t have my fill flash handy, my Pixel 3 trumps my XT 3 every single time. However, an artistic or mindful approach to photography demands the control that only a proper camera can currently provide. Interchangeable lens cameras offer far greater freedom in field of view and image “character” that phones are only just beginning to mimic — and that too, poorly. With increasing numbers of people shunning smartphones as the mindfulness and “deep work” movements gain steam, I expect camera demand to remain stable as a worst case. I haven’t been able to find the numbers, but I’d hazard a guess that Canon sold more cameras in 2019 than it did in 1989.
Camera sceptics also fail to adequately acknowledge key developments within the photography community. For instance The rise of mirrorless cameras has spawned a force of “vintage lens” shooters who adapt manual lenses of the yesteryear to modern mirrorless cameras. Fujifilm offers in-camera options to simulate the colour tone of it’s highly regarded and madly popular photo films. Bringing these together with old lenses allows photographers to create the popular vintage aesthetic with just the effort that it takes to learn to manually focus a lens.
Second — film is making a slow but steady comeback.
In case the sceptics haven’t noticed — film is back. Expired film rolls are a hot commodity on the internet, and Fujifilm has found it financially viable to resurrect its Acros 100 Black & White film. Considering that a medium speed monochrome film is typically suited to a contemplative approach to an image, this, to me, is a symbol of the rise of “art” photography. Here too, at the formerly lowbrow end, shabbily constructed older cameras are making a comeback, as “lomography” — the art of shooting film in leaky cameras — gains new practitioners. Apart from film shooters, home-based Black & White film developers are a growing community. With the chemicals conventionally needed for film development rapidly coming under regulatory/environmental restrictions, these tenacious geniuses are painstakingly developing and testing new methods including one that uses instant coffee! When a bunch of artists turn home chemists to pursue their art, we’re actually at a renaissance rather than a dark age. I’m not saying that we’ll see film photography hit the volumes from say the 80s or 90s, but like the vinyl record cult, we’ll see a viable industry with financial opportunity for specialist businesses.
Third — Social Media is not killing photography.
For those who think that Social Media’s appetite for photos is eating up the art — let me ask you this — who looks at someone’s Instagram photos a second time? How many times has a photo posted on Instagram left you speechless? In the heat of my smartphone photography days, I would take perhaps thirty pictures on a night out with friends and share them on Whatsapp. We’ve never sat in a circle and looked though these photos again, reliving the memories of a wild night at a microbrewery. However, there is that one-odd memorable picture that ends up as my Facebook cover photo or desktop wallpaper. A dozen pictures of my daughter as an infant, taken on my Note 8 and printed at 8 x 12, adorn the walls of her grandparents’ home. Next year, I’ll probably add a few more — shot with a Soviet-era Helios 44 or a Pentax Takumar lens on my Fujifilm’s tad oversaturated Velvia simulation. Social Media is not taking away from what photography earlier was — the art of freezing a moment in time. The art still has its purpose, and this purpose is still best served with a camera that helps one bring light, frame, environment, and subject together in a picture that ‘works’.
My personal view is that Social Media has peaked. Facebook and Instagram are seeing a net exodus in certain geographies. I believe that as more people understand how these companies collect and use your data and engineer your consumption patterns, usage will drop. I believe that in ten years Facebook will be where Yahoo is today. At that time, people will still be taking photographs to freeze a memory. Many of these will be on a camera — digital or film.
Fourth — It is true that the market is saturated for professional photographers.
Digital photography has made things easier. You don’t need to develop film and you’re not stuck with a single ISO or white balance setting until you exhaust a roll of film. Furthermore, RAW files shot in HDR mode are generally more forgiving of errors in exposure. These factors lower the skill levels needed to take photos that “work”.
Digital photography has also made it easier to get practice. In my first month with my latest camera, I shot over 1,500 pictures — just shy of 42 rolls of film, practically for free. (I had perhaps 10 “keepers”) Also, not needing to wait for prints to come back, I could just review the pictures on my computer and check them for technical details such as sharpness of focus or rule of thirds. Another factor is that the internet has democratized knowledge. In the first few hours after I brought my camera home, I found myself overwhelmed by its controls and features. However, a couple of hours of Youtube videos got me very comfortable with the controls. Several other videos offered camera-specific style tips that I would have probably taken months to figure out by myself. I’ve also attended workshops by professional photographers who’re happy sharing their art with beginners. While I have no ambitions of shooting professionally anytime soon, I can see how inexpensive practice and easy availability of information and education can contribute to a glut of albeit mediocre professionals in an industry. If anything, this is not a sign that photography is dead, rather that the practice of photography is thriving.
With anyone who can afford the price of a nice camera able to call themselves a professional, the market is certainly challenging for experienced professionals. However, there is an opportunity in this. If you look at 500px, Instagram, and Unsplash, you’ll see that most photographs look similar. Everyone is shooting the same mountains, flowers, dogs, pretty women, and bearded men. The opportunity here is to do something that stands out — something that makes the viewer pause. This is where the true skill of a professional will come through.
Furthermore, as in any crowded market “soft” skills matter way more than technical skills. Some time ago, the photographer at a wedding I attended showed up in a black T-shirt, baggy camouflage pants, and heavy boots, and wore a scornful scowl for the entire proceedings. For those unfamiliar with Indian weddings, the daytime dress code — for ladies and gentlemen alike — tends to be bright silks and brocades. His photographs, shot through fancy zoom lenses that needed a tripod were well-composed, but failed to capture the energy and mood of the occasion. The photographer at another friend’s wedding was sociable without being familiar, came dressed as a guest, and did a great job of blending in and getting the right shots. He smilingly obliged groups and babies at the reception drinks, and produced outstanding photographs that splashed his discreet watermark all over Facebook for two weeks after the event. Now I’m not sure where these two professionals are in their careers, but it’s obvious that the latter gentleman would enjoy greater professional success — at least as a wedding photographer.
So yes, commercial photography may have a viability crisis, but cameras — whether lomography, negatives with a hint of coffee, 120 type film cameras, or indeed DSLRs aren’t going anywhere in a hurry. Photography as a social practice still has its purpose, and photography as an art still has room to grow from all the investment in technology.