I was thinking about how things have changed significantly in photography over the last 20 years. I have been doing this picture-taking thing for 20 years, beginning when I enrolled in Photography 101 in college. I remember that it started because, in the summer of 1998, I took a trip to New England, and brought along my dad’s Sears 35mm SLR and a bunch of film. I didn’t really know how to use the camera, but how hard could it be? When I returned and had the film developed, the pictures were extraordinarily awful! There were only a few frames that were correctly exposed, and the ones that were exposed alright had other issues, such as improper focus or were poorly composed. My desire to learn photography came out of the frustration of not understanding how to capture a descent picture. That fall I enrolled in college and signed up for a photography class, and soon fell in love with the art of creating pictures.
While it’s easy to say that the biggest change in photography over the last 20 years is technology, I don’t know if that’s completely true. Gear has changed a whole lot. When I started, it was all about film and darkrooms. Now it’s about sensors and software. However, there’s some carryover between the two methods. Technology has made things easier for the most part. I think it’s possible nowadays to throw a camera into auto and get good results, and one-click software has made editing much simpler. The prerequisite knowledge of how stuff works and why is no longer required, although it can still be very useful. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the learning curve for digital isn’t necessarily less–it’s definitely different–but there are technologies that will allow you to appear to know what you’re doing even when you don’t. Because the camera and software will take care of many things for you, you don’t have to know what you’re doing to capture a decent picture. Today’s cellphone cameras are more capable than many DSLRs were 15 years ago, and are one-click wonders. Advancements in photography technology has opened up photographic possibilities that weren’t conceivable before. It’s incredible what the modern camera can do! Another aspect of all this gear change is that cameras have become throw-away. People often “upgrade” their gear every year or two, and many don’t keep a camera more than five years. A ten year old camera is ancient. It used to be, in the old film days, that people kept their gear much, much longer, and typically only replaced their camera if it broke.
Another big change is the number of photos being created. Over a trillion pictures are captured worldwide each year now. When I started out the number was around 85 billion, so that’s a pretty big increase–about 12 times, in fact! Not only are there a ton more pictures being captured, but the ability to share those pictures with an audience worldwide is much, much easier (that’s a gross understatement). Everyday, each of us are bombarded with pictures. It’s become overwhelming! It’s to the point that it is difficult to get noticed among all the noise. You have to be extraordinarily great, do something especially unusual, have great marketing skills, or have amazingly good luck to get noticed. Or cheat. A lot of people buy their way to success nowadays, using questionable or downright unethical methods. Despite the fact that it’s more difficult to get noticed or create an iconic image, the number of great pictures being captured now is significantly higher than it used to be. Since there’s a heck-of-a-lot of quality pictures available, it’s a great time to be a photography consumer.
While way more photographs are being captured now than ever before, the number of pictures being printed is way down. Most photographs are only seen digitally via a computer monitor or cellphone or tablet. The physical print is significantly less common than 20 years ago. While the number of digital pictures is high, the number of physical pictures is low. However, with print-on-demand services, it’s very easy to obtain a print of almost any subject, if you should ever need a photographic print of something.
I bring this up because, in my opinion, the biggest change in photography over the last twenty years is the photographic market. It’s much harder to make good money as a photographer now than it used to be. Everybody with a camera–and everyone has a camera–is a photographer. It’s incredibly easy to start a photography business nowadays. Buy a camera, which will take decent pictures in full-auto mode, take a few snaps of family and friends, create a (free) website to look professional, then post a portrait or wedding photography business ad on Facebook Marketplace. I have seen a lot of people do this. And they make money, but not a lot. The photographers who are actually talented, which is a minority group, can do well for themselves, but many earn much less than they should for their efforts. The stock photo business is pretty much dead, replaced by micro-stock, which sells images for cheap and gives photographers peanuts at best for their work. They get away with this because a huge number of “photographers” willingly participate, trying to earn something from their pictures. The photojournalist has been replaced by onlookers with cellphones. The travel photographer has been replaced by the “influencer” who probably cheated his or her way to success. A lot of photography jobs that were good jobs have been replaced by things that don’t pay much, if anything at all.
I’m not saying this because I’m bitter. I’m just pointing out how the photographic industry in many genres has changed a whole bunch, which has made it more difficult for the photographer to make a decent living. There are still plenty of people who are making good money at photography. There are new opportunities that didn’t exist before. If you really want to become a successful photographer, I believe that if you keep trying really hard and are determined to do so, you’ll likely see your dream fulfilled. It won’t be easy and won’t likely happen overnight, but it can certainly happen. If you are doing photography for the love of the art and have no interest in the financial side of picture making, you’re doing it at an extraordinarily great time.
It’s an interesting era in photography. Gear has changed, becoming more impressive with each year. People across the globe are capturing pictures at an unprecedented rate. If you like viewing photographs or creating photographs, there’s never been a better time. If you want to earn money from making pictures, competition is extremely fierce, and you might find it as tough as it’s ever been to be successful. There are opportunities, so it’s far from impossible, but making good money from photography is not an easy task. It never was easy, but it’s more true today. You have to discover your niche and market the heck out of it. Those who don’t need to earn money from photography, but can create simply because they love to, are the lucky ones. They have it good. In fact, they’ve never had it better.