Thursday, April 22, 2010

Photography Retrospective 1999-2009 — A Decade of Change

There are few mature vertical markets that have undergone such significant change in a single decade as that of photography. This, of course, is a result of the impact of the digital revolution. Despite the fact that the Charged Coupled Device, or CCD was invented in 1969 (for which Canadian inventor Willard Boyle was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics), and is responsible for digital photography’s birth, it wasn’t until this past decade that widespread consumer adoption of the digital platform fuelled so radical a reformation in the industry.

1999 marked the serious entry of Nikon into the digital realm, having produced the D1, their first professional digital camera. Until then Kodak had essentially owned the consumer digital imaging space, offering several models including the 2.1 megapixel DC280 which I personally purchased that year. I remember taking it along on a trip to Thailand and seeing the astonished and delighted expressions of all – Thais and tourists alike – when they were able to immediately view a snapshot on the LCD display... and delete the unwanted with no cost beyond battery life. I remember thinking at the time that this, like its Polaroid predecessor, was going to change photography – I just didn’t realize how all-encompassing that transformation was going to be. Once Nikon and Canon entered the digital fray however, it was pretty much game over for Kodak who now sees their market share diminish annually; its stock price, nearing $80 at the start of the decade now hovers around the $5 mark.

Once completely dominant in the world of photography, Kodak has been an unlucky casualty of the digital shift. On July 22 this year, it announced it would discontinue its heretofore wildly popular Kodachrome colour film, which enjoyed a 74 year production run. It’s fairly safe to say, that film, for the consumer at least, is dead. While still in use by some professionals in medium and large format cameras, even these are under serious pressure from digital competition and will soon face the inevitable.

It’s not just film manufacturers that have faced extinction in this dynamic climate; processing labs, once ubiquitous, have undergone a steady decline and forced consolidation in favour of big-box, high volume retailers or large internet based concerns. Even these are under pressure from home-based printing solutions that are both relatively inexpensive, and of a quality rivalling professional output.

Further gloom is being experienced by professional photographers who have seen their incomes dramatically decline and profiles diminish as a flood of new ‘pros’ enter a field now awash in hacks and fly-by-night enthusiasts. The problem is similar to the impact rap and digital sampling had on the music industry: lowering the barrier to entry to such a degree that anyone could participate; and success became less based on talent than luck and marketing. The digital photography revolution has ushered in an era where the barrier to entry is so low that anyone who can click a shutter seems to feel they should go pro. For most, this means selling images on microstock sites for pennies and polluting the market with so-so product, sold at such a low cost as to make the thought of earning a full-time income from photography a laughable proposition, and the title ‘Photographer’ virtually meaningless. The end result is an environment of “good enough” photography, and the gradual decline of the art form toward the current embrace of the adequate.

Of course, there’s also lots of good news associated with the advent of digital – photography has never been as popular as it is today, and the big winners are consumers and camera manufacturers. The former enjoy decent quality, immediate photographic results without having to learn the fundamentals of the craft, or having to apply situational formulae to in order to obtain a good exposure. The latter giddily release new models on an extremely aggressive production cycle in an attempt to satisfy a seemingly insatiable demand – keeping their shareholders extremely happy. As an example, Canon’s stock (aside from the sharp dip it took along with the rest of the market at the end of last year) has soared over the past decade and has more than doubled in price over the last 52 weeks.

It’s never been easier to share images with friends and family and free online storage options abound. Given this, and the snap-happy, instant messaging environment in which we live, you’d think historians would be certain our legacy would be well preserved for future generations. In fact, the opposite may be closer to the truth.

Historically, scholars have gained much of what we know about what it was to actually live in times past from the documented personal interactions and imagery preserved from the period. In the digital age, all this information is locked up inside computers which are susceptible to hardware failures, user error, upgrades, missed backups, viruses, malware, lost passwords and general neglect. Photos and email aren’t often printed, and less thought is given to their preservation should they be – ‘hey, I can just print another copy if necessary’. Aside from this, when a loved one passes on, is care generally taken to preserve their digital assets? Do family members even know where these assets reside? Unlikely. Until our society begins to globally adopt responsible data retention methods we may find that from an intimate historical perspective, our generation will have become a bit of a black hole.

On the other hand, this past decade has ushered in so many innovations as applies to photography it would be difficult to enumerate them all. Many of these are simply gimmicks designed to sell cameras rather than improve photography; however, some have been extremely beneficial to the craft. Counted among these would be high ISO, low noise sensors that allow you to capture clear images in low-light conditions; super-accurate auto white balance, giving consumers one less variable to have to consider when taking a shot; RAW digital negative format, which provides greater latitude in exposure handling after the fact; and even face recognition software, permitting the novice to nail focus on the desired subject matter despite a potential higher contrast object being in the frame which might otherwise draw the camera’s attention.

These innovations merely graze the surface of what is being developed at present. Will our future hold higher dynamic range sensors? High-def video capture as a standard feature on DSLRs? Built-in cellular uplink of images to online services via Bluetooth integration with your smartphone? Stay tuned – you know whatever it turns out to be, we’ll be covering it here.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you once again for your love and willingness to share your feelings..
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