Competition breeds creativity

Before the digital storm swept through the world of photography, shooting film was an error-prone process for the uninitiated. It took patience and overcoming a steep learning curve to succeed as a professional photographer. If you didn’t learn lessons from past mistakes and quickly correct them, you were soon out of a job. As a result, only those who could consistently produce salable images succeeded, and the number of top-tier professionals was small.

Thanks to the digital photography revolution, the number of photographers that can produce fantastic images has exploded. There are two reasons for this. First, the ability to adjust camera settings on the fly while reviewing the results on the camera’s LCD, coupled with the fact that so many more images are salvageable in post processing has created a more forgiving environment in which to achieve great images. The photographer no longer has to pre-visualize in the same way, and pre-calculate the perfect exposure. Simply reviewing the LCD in the field can help correct and shape the next photograph. Second, the instant feedback of digital makes the learning curve of photography easier to overcome. The learning process becomes more interactive and immediate than when the photographer had to take notes in the field about his camera settings, and then wait until the film was developed before conducting a comprehensive review of his work. This instant feedback has helped to catapult more part time and hobbyists into the professional photography scene.

When I first started dabbling in digital photography, the community was small. Digital photographers were either gadget or photography fanatics (most of us were both). However, as digital photo technology developed quickly, picture quality started to improve, and the results began to be taken more seriously. More photographers converted from film to digital, and even more new photographers entered the fray. So what does mean for professional photographers trying to eke a living in this brave new world?

With advances in hardware and software within cameras themselves, the overall quality of photographs is improving. Cameras are “smarter”, and even snapshots have never looked so good. For photographers, it means that in order to differentiate ourselves, we have to push our creativity to the limit, and execute with technical perfection. No more “almost got it” shots will be acceptable – current camera technology is just too good. Also, the ability to make a living solely on selling stock is now in the past. With the advent of micro-stock (royalty free), and the ease at which digital files can be sent around the world, stock photography consumers are more likely to settle for a lesser photo at MUCH cheaper prices than a well-polished rights-managed image.

However, it is not all bad news for professionals trying to make a living from photography – there is a silver lining. Photography has never been more popular. With prices coming down and product quality going up, people are snatching up the latest cameras in record numbers. The good news is that because of increased demand, camera manufacturers will continue to invest in research and development of even better technology. That means being able to achieve shots we only dreamed of a decade ago. This provides us more time for creativity, and less emphasis on the technical precision required to operate the camera. Don’t get me wrong – we still need to know our camera gear backwards and forwards. But since many camera operations are now automated, we can spend more time on the creative and artistic aspects of photography to produce the shots that separate us from the pack.

A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.
A man raises his arms to the setting sun, Mission Peak, SF Bay Area, CA.

I took the photo above in 1999 with one of my first digital cameras – the Olympus 500L. With a resolution of 1024×768 pixels (ALMOST a 1 megapixel camera), and the fact it could take external media cards (maximum card size was 8 MB), it was revolutionary at the time.