The Shooter > Did Digital kill the Photo-Star?

And to beat the aberration of the Buggles ’79 hit right away with one breath to death: No, definitely not! Digital didn’t kill the Photo-Star! So if you’re one of them, don’t bother reading further, your status quo is secured! Take a break and enjoy the park!

I have had several talks recently during which I was told that the time of the high rollers were over particularly taking into consideration the omnipresence of the internet and the economic realities. I don’t believe it. There are always going to be shooting stars. We want them, we need them, and they are the lighthouses of our industry.

It is intriguing that the guys on the top are almost always the first in line who adapt new technology into the field. This doesn’t just happen because the high-rollers have better means or that they are favored in their exposure to the latest. At the end it is simply intelligence and vision, motivated by whatever brought them up-front in the race!

So what is the rest of the crowd doing? How did working-life for photographers change in general since the color-pixels kicked the silver-grains butt and how can we live positively with these changes?

Changes have side effects; the dinosaurs could play a great tune on that theme.
What also happened to the profession of the photographer during and with the digital revolution is that it has indeed lost its power (assuming that it ever had some).
Nowadays a lot of people who love photography (and I am the first to admit this) have a nostalgic look back. In the past more money was spent on actual photo-production; in today’s world budgets tend to shift into post-production. Common knowledge dictates that if you want to control your “look” and your “end-product”, you better control the post.
A lot of shooters have to bargain for this control with “free” retouching and to make a long story short – often our profession replaces the work that was executed by photo-labs back in the good old celluloid times.
Also, the “oh, we fix it later”-mentality is not just encouraging a drop of the involved crafts-levels such as lighting, make-up etc.
It degraded the photographer’s position. If the person at the camera doesn’t know how to rule the digital technology the art-director might as well direct the talent while watching closely the computer-screen. We all have seen it: Entitled or not, suddenly everybody who can grasp a look on the screen comes up with a judgmental opinion which doesn’t necessarily always have a positive, constructive effect on the work-flow and focus on set.
It might be a little bit too rough to say that our profession is in danger to degenerate to an armada of botton-pushing space-monkeys whose raison d’être is limited to the production of page-filling content. But it is more obvious than ever before that more and more “content over quality” can be found in all media-outlets.

In his teaching on Samurai Philosophy Miyamoto Musashi explains very diligently that they are TWO ways to look at every situation and that the same correct principle is valuable for both “Small Scale” and “Big Scale”. Neglect of these principles will be punished with defeat; it is that simple!
As an example for “Small Scale” the ever-so popular look for reassurance on the screen of the digital backs comes to my mind. It has already changed the instinctive “shooting-with-the-guts” approach. The number of “magical mistakes” is reduced.
Plus – with digital a lot of photographers really mutated to machine gun shooters and tend to produce higher quantities of images. Why? Obviously because the first superficial thought is that pixels cost less money and naturally everybody, young or old, grace to the boost of inexpensive photo-Viagra loves to keep the finger on the trigger while the model is doing her job! More and longer is better! Well, at least the probability to catch one good frame is bigger!
Maybe I am getting hold of the wrong end of our stick. So let’s swing over to the “Big Scale”.

First, let’s be honest the popularization of photography to the masses through digital didn’t help us to conserve our “special” status.
Secondly on broadband the smaller quality requirements of the Internet combined with the fast development and pushing of ISO numbers over ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND still appeals utopist but in reality it represents a threat to artificial quality lighting. Why spend money on lighting equipment rental if we can shoot available light and anyway the photographs are so small on the internet-page, who cares?
The next photographer who intends to light beautifully with Strobe, HMI, Tungsten or Flourescent must be a master-hustler or has to own his own equipment which sets us back to the cave-days before rental.
Beside this I believe firmly that we will see a stronger polarization of photography in the future; the writing is on the wall! Much more fast food for the majority of photographers and just a smaller number of us will have the opportunities to dine in wonderful French Restaurants and enjoy the exquisite privileges of great productions.
On a side-note: Will printed paper/magazines as THE most important outlet die and disappear?
I am not convinced that this is the case but before its total extinction paper will certainly take more and more hits – the closing of magazine titles of the leading publishing-houses during the last month is the best witness.
The newspaper industry, as we knew it, is certainly dead – tomorrow’s paper with today’s news has no chance to compete with the instant gratification of the electronic media.
It might be right that very specialized magazines on paper will still continue to exists and sell well but I myself know for a fact that my fashion-shots will be used for the ecommerce-business of on-line-magazines.

The deadly sin that we creative people commit, is that we see ourselves as far too important in the general commercial view! Bitter truth is that at the end of the day it comes down to business. Numbers talk and decide our faith!

Are your feelings hurt? Harsh words? Too hard? I don’t think so! A taste of sarcasm and exaggeration could help for once, no? Absolutely!
Please, show some self-irony and gallows humor, nobody else than a handful of other shooters are reading this blog anyway, so it stays between us.
Recently I was confronted with a situation where I had to give away all my photo-files right at wrap-time on an editorial shoot. Total loss of my editing/postproduction/“director’s cut” privileges.
All I can say is that it all worked out to my advantage. There are always ways to turn a bad situation into a good. Read Doctor Wayne Dyer.

It does not help at all to digress into some “in the old days everything was better” talk – if you want to do this on an exhibition opening night with a glass of champagne in your hand, be my guest and know that this will only gain you some false compassion from your competitors.
If you want to survive in the jungle of the competitive New York photo-industry you have to be part of the evolution.

Let’s face it – the way that we photographers were sold on digital was a big mind-blow. Our life didn’t become easier; it became more complicate and complex, even more expensive! If you want it or not – we are slaves to the machine!
That’s why it is imperative to find the right balance with all the other side shows and to stay in the loop BUT it has to happen intelligently, efficiently – knowing where the state of the arts is, how to adapt it to your personal needs and not taking every technical progress as a “Do or Die”, that’s amateur.

Last November I assisted a great Seminar featuring the Canon 7D presented by Jeff Fuller of Canon at Fotocare on West 22nd Street. I was particularly curious about the video-capacities of the new body.
It is amazing how fast the developments run but what I find more relevant regarding the new video-capable camera-systems is the question what affect the overwhelming hype around video for photographers, particularly for the Internet, has on our work.
Is it really true that photographers must provide video in the future or is this just another way to sell me a feature in a camera that I don’t really need? As a war correspondent in a conflict-zone it becomes handy not having to carry around both a stills and a video camera, but how about the advertising-battle-field of Manhattan?!
What makes us believe that video is the savior of our hurting profession?
What makes photographers believe that they could save their skin with video after the inflationary appearance of images has devaluated the stock-image market for example (there exist also other reasons for this development but that’s a different story)?

One day when I picked up some gear at T.R.E.C. Rental, I discussed the issue briefly with Ken Kobayashi, a great guy and one of the best veterans of the Rental-Industry here in New York City. He showed me some little video on the website of a big retail fashion-brand where jeans were featured with a model’s 360º-turn.
Ken’s point made sense! Why hire a separate video-crew if it is more cost-effective to let the still-photographer shoot both?!

The moral of the tale is that Video most definitely has to be part in the package of any successful commercial photographer in the future. Why not – who knows what’s waiting down the road!

Which finally allows me to close the circle:
Even though with digital our photo-life has become more complex we have no choice, we need to stay in the process of development, creatively and technically!
Plus there are so many strategies and tricks to regain control and make you important as the leading man/woman on the “Small and Big Scale”.

If you are getting tired of spending so much time in editing because you over-shot just let it be a lesson and fall back again on your shooting-instincts. Shoot less but better!

If the focus of your team is sabotaged by its own curiosity, choose to shoot into card or hide your digital technician and computer in a corner or behind a V-Flat (if the situation and your client allows it).

If the photography-market will polarize more and more between fast food and fine dining and you don’t like to eat at McDonalds you better develop a distinguished photography-style that makes you out-standing and recognizable. This will make the negotiations around post-production much easier. You will have much more clout to place your editing and your preferred retoucher on the job!

And to summarize > Let’s not cry about past glory! Like a prize-fighter we are only as good as our last fight. In commercial photography, whoever wants to be successful has to be part of the technical and creative evolution. And if you don’t want to make the extra effort, somebody else will do it and fill the gap you left. Rule the technique so your creativity can unfold!
Because that’s what the big boys are always doing . . . and at the end, remember – that is why Digital won’t kill the Photo-Star . . . and that’s what you are . . . 😉

Thorsten Roth’s website:

Photos: Editorial “Bare Essentials” for WhatsWear © 2009 All rights reserved by Thorsten Roth