The digital camera revolution, in conjunction with the explosive growth of the internet has had profound changes on photography. Some changes have been dramatic, while others have been more subtle. In times of revolutionary technological changes, it is important to adjust your perspective to the new realities and contemplate just how far we have come. I will put the second part of this article online shortly.
1) Printing & Pioneers – A Little Perspective
If you asked to see someone’s family photos years ago, they would often reach for their wallet or purse, and proudly show you 2X3 photos stored in plastic coverings. Today when you ask the same question, people will almost always reach for their smartphones, and either pull up pictures stored on their mini SD cards or quickly navigate to a website such as flickr. Low cost digital picture frames have also become quite popular, enabling people with little in the way of technical know-how to store hundreds or thousands of photos on an LCD in an attractive picture frame, which cycle through every few seconds.
Todays’ kids are growing up dependent (overly?) upon smartphone technologies and when they think of photos, they think in purely digital terms. From their smartphones, to their iPads, to their computers, the younger generation’s photos never seem to make it onto paper. Printed photos are, for the most part, what their parents and grandparents relied on. High end quality photographic art and the obligatory high school portrait, family group photo, or wedding scene will undoubtedly continue to grace people’s walls, but printed photos are quickly losing their relevance. Those companies in the ink, photographic printing machines, paper, and retail printing businesses will have to continue to adjust to this rapidly changing trend.
Who would ever have imagined that the once mighty Kodak, a pioneering juggernaut whose very name was synonymous with the term “photography,” would exit the film business and declare bankruptcy earlier this year? George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, started the enterprise in 1880. Kodak’s intellectual property assets were recently estimated to be worth $2-$2.5 billion dollars, but the company needed a loan just shy of $1 billion to continue its operations. In 1980, Kodak employed over 128,000 around the globe, with approximately 60,000 of those employees based in the Rochester, NY area. Today, Kodak’s global workforce is closer to 17,000, with approximately 7,000 based in Rochester.
Contrast this development with the recent news for Instagram, a smartphone software company less than 2 years old with 13 employees (Yes – 13!). Instagram’s claim to fame? Software that enables users to make their smartphone pictures mimic the effect of Kodak’s 1950s/1960s era TRL (twin reflex lens) cameras and other similar looks, and share their creations with others around the globe. Facebook purchased Instagram for $1 billion dollars just a few months after Kodak’s bankruptcy announcement. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction…
2) Putting Off The Ritz
As Ritz Camera enters its second bout with bankruptcy (June 22, 2012), we are reminded once again that the traditional photography stores on the corner are nearly gone, and even larger camera store chains seem to be fighting a losing battle. Jessops, a large UK camera retailer founded in 1935, has also fallen on hard times over the last few years and its future seems far from certain. Factors such as low cost digital cameras with smaller profit margins, reduced need for printing services, fewer people relying on film, an increasingly wider array of camera models and more sophisticated technology, and cameras so cheap that it made little sense to repair them, combined to doom the traditional small camera shops that used to dot every city landscape.
In the popular movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” an interesting dynamic played out between Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), head of the book megastore, “Fox Books”, and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), owner of “The Little Shop Around The Corner.” It involves the struggle between the small book store operator and the big box book store and discussions of folksy nostalgia and the hard-nosed facts associated with volume, profit margins, and changing consumer preferences and buying habits. Their discussions, although related to the book business, closely mirror many of debates and sentiments associated with those comparing traditional camera shops with the big box stores and mega online retailers such as B&H, Adorama, and Amazon.
People sometimes wistfully describe the demise of the full service camera shop, but the simple truth is that people didn’t support such stores because other retail establishments better met their evolving needs. Many of the services provided by these camera shops were simply obsoleted. Who was going to spend $100 to repair a $200 camera, which was likely replaced by a new model with more features and costing $175? And this assumes the camera shop could even maintain the expertise necessary to deal with the slew of models available. Rapidly falling camera prices also required significantly higher sales volumes in order for the stores to make a decent profit. There are still some top-notch camera shops that have carved out a unique niche by catering to the professional market place, but their numbers are dwindling and they face increasing pressures. And the wealth of product information available on the internet has supplanted much of the expertise that once was the domain of the camera store staff.
2) The Vanishing Big Box Store?
With the demise of the local camera shop, and the larger camera store retail chains on the ropes, one might think the traditional big box stores are safe, but even they face a rocky future. Circuit City? Gone. Best Buy? Not doing so well financially. More people are flocking to the internet for purchases of common electronics as well as higher end items. A few years ago, Amazon was all about books. Now, when people think of purchasing anything, Amazon is almost always on the list of first places to check.
The big box stores have massive overhead costs associated with physical stores, inventories, and personnel costs. Not necessarily bad if having them translates into some competitive advantage, but unfortunately, that is simply not the case. While I have bumped into some extremely sharp, knowledgeable staff at big box stores, more often than not, most sale personnel simply don’t have the in-depth product knowledge that would distinguish the buying experience at a big box store from any other potential retailer.
Given the big box wage scales, staff turnover, increasingly sophisticated high tech products, the tremendous rate of change of product models, and narrowing profit margins, it is exceedingly difficult for them to keep pace with all these changes. It is a rare big box sales representative that can assist customers distinguish the slew of camera models and their feature and make an informed decision. All too often, the discussion will quickly move toward the number of megapixels, since that is something easy to quantify and distinguish. And more megapixels are always better, right? ;)
Supported by massive sales volumes, B&H and Adorama can provide a degree of customer service not found at the big box stores or Ritz Camera. B&H has what I consider the state-of-the-art internet site when it comes to product selection, organization, friendly user interface, and ease of buying. Long before I began writing for Mansurovs, I was a huge fan of B&H, since I believe it was the model for how to run a successful, customer oriented, internet retail establishment. Amazon’s “recommended products” and statistics showing what other people purchased after looking at a given product, can also be helpful, although perhaps are not quite as relevant for DSLRs and lenses as they are for books.
3) The Tax Man Cometh
Many state governments in the USA don’t tax internet purchases. There is good reason to believe, however, that some of the previous opposition to taxation of internet sales by state governments is falling by the wayside, primarily due to the states facing tremendous budget shortfalls. Brick and mortar camera shops and big box outlets are happy with this potential change however, as they have long-blamed the tax free status of internet retailers as the main reason why people are abandoning their showrooms.
Some politicians claim that this is an issue of “fairness” and that it levels the so-called playing field between internet retailers and local brick and mortar stores. I believe this is a bogus argument. If you really want to put that to a test, walk into a big box retailer and stop by the camera section. Engage the sales person in a discussion regarding camera features and determine how much they know about the various models. Then ask yourself why you wouldn’t order one from the comfort of your living room from a website like B&H and save the gas money associated with driving to the store.
Sadly, the only thing that will be accomplished by taxing the internet will be to diminish people’s purchasing power. It will do little to change the fundamental shift of sales from local camera shops and big box retailers to the leading internet retailers. And it will do even less to curb the wasteful spending habits of our state and local governments. It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. You can bet none of the politicians will go back after the tax laws change and measure how well the law delivered on the alleged benefits it was meant to provide. And good luck attempting to find anyone that will attest to the negative effects of the law.
4) Consumer, Educate Thyself
One of the driving forces behind many of the changes associated with the internet is the proliferation of vast amounts of detailed information and ability to share it with others around the globe nearly instantaneously. It seems simple enough, but this fact alone accounts for more of the changes taking place than most of us can comprehend. In years past, photographers would have to rely on a handful of photography magazines for product reviews. Due to the cost and time associated with assembling and distributing a magazine, it was a bit hit or miss with respect to finding a review of something you were interested in buying. And if the review of that item was in a previous magazine? You might be lucky to find that one if your fellow photographers happened to save that particular copy. If not, you would likely be buying a back copy from the magazine company – not exactly the fastest route to understanding how a given lens or SLR fared. Due to the fact that much of the magazine companies’ revenues were linked to advertising from the very companies’ whose products were being reviewed, one might reasonably question how objective the reviews were.
The other way to uncover product review information was word of mouth. If you belonged to a local photography club or attended some photography seminars, chances were that some of the discussions were centered on comparing notes regarding equipment. This worked out fairly well for relatively simple camera models with longer product life cycles, but such discussions were almost always limited to your particular geographic area, and chances for widespread collection of and dissemination of such information was nonexistent.
Fast forward to today. The digital camera era has ushered in a seemingly endless array of new camera models, with increasingly shorter product cycles. And each new model is more complicated and sophisticated than the previous generation. Camera companies are valiantly trying to make the devices easier to use, but the array of menu items associated with new features continues to grow. It is no surprise to find that staff members of big box stores and Ritz have a difficult time keeping up with the technologies and the myriad of models, features, and relative comparisons between them.
Thankfully, we witnessed an explosion of photography information available on the internet, to coincide with the rapid technological advances in digital cameras, photo processing software, and shorter product life cycles. There are probably a few dozen popular photography forums where people can find industry news, detailed product reviews, photography software tutorials, and general photography how-to information. A few sites even focus primarily on gossip and rumors. Beyond the more well-known forums, there are countless blogs put out by very talented individuals covering just about every aspect of photography you can imagine. Social media sites such as Facebook and twitter also enable people and the product companies to interact in real time. People can now exchange information with others from nearly every nation almost instantaneously, and review information dating back nearly a decade.
This is a real game changer relative to the industry. Why? Within the time that it might take for you to drive to Ritz or Best Buy, you can read a few dozen product reviews by reputable sources, watch videos, search the photography forums for comments related to the product you are considering buying. This significantly changes the nature of the relationship between you and the retailer. No longer do you have to rely on the knowledge of a store employee, which may or may not be as extensive as your own, or have to consider whether that advice is influenced by either what he/she is comfortable with or is incented to sell. When you can quickly and easily educate yourself on the various product offerings, the “value add” traditionally offered by the retailer diminishes significantly. At that point, selection, price, and service become the drivers. That is precisely why companies such as Amazon, B&H, and Adorama have been growing significantly while companies such as Jessops, Ritz, and Best Buy continue to struggle, and Circuit City closed its doors.
5) Out With The Old And In With The… Old!
I find it amusing to observe that long after a technology has been declared dead, it will magically reappear after nostalgic longing causes some to reintroduce it in some form. When I first got back into photography in 2007, I came across a fellow Pittsburgher who had concocted an interesting homemade device consisting of a heavy duty cardboard tube attached to an old, beat up Kodak Duaflex TLR (twin lens reflex) camera, which was quite popular in the 50s and 60s. He attached it to one of Canon’s top DSLR and lens combos. The resulting images were grainy, heavily vignetted, filled with a variety of textures produced by the old scratched lenses, and sported a rough black border. Of course, my first thought was, “So… you bought a high end Canon DSLR and some of the best lenses in order to take pictures while focusing through a 50 year old camera bought at a yard sale for $12?” Just when we thought all those yard sale Kodak TLRs were headed for the scrap heap, thousands of photographers brought them back to life by putting them in front of some of the best DSLRs and lenses of the world. All this to take retro looking photos, which they describe as “edgy.”
When it comes to styling, what goes around comes around again. Fuji’s X100 has been a huge hit, in part because of the classic rangefinder camera look, with sleek styling and a retro image. Olympus attempted to appeal to those same consumer urges with its new OM-D. While it is a modern DSLR under the covers, the OM-D has much sharper lines and an appearance similar to a traditional SLR, rather than the current crop of somewhat bulbous DSLR bodies that, apart from the manufacturers’ labels, are virtually indistinguishable.
As I mentioned earlier, Instagram has been a hit, in part because it enables people to quickly transform modern day photos into retro lookalikes and share them with others. I suspect we will continue to see designs from the past reappear in photography gear styling and software from time-to-time, as companies seek to differentiate their products from the competition and occasionally appeal to people’s sense of nostalgia.
6) Inspiration On Steroids
Before widespread access to the internet and the availability of sites such as Flickr, SmugMug, Pbase, Red Bubble, 500px, 1x, and the plethora of personal websites, how could you find and view the photos of others? Magazine publications were a major source. Of course, not everyone was fortunate enough to have their work published in popular magazines. Art galleries were another method. But again, many artists did not have their own galleries or opportunities to have their work featured in them. That left you with some books dedicated to photography, which you might purchase or perhaps borrow from the library. You had virtually no access to the work of the thousands of talented photographers around the globe. Today, you have it all at your fingertips.
We take it for granted that we can log onto the internet and immediately access the work of those that can inspire, guide, and teach us how to improve our photography in ways that would have previously been impossible. And we can often interact via email with many people we would never have had the opportunity to meet as well. I have been pleasantly surprised at how accessible some leading photographers are if you will simply send them a thoughtful, concise email. Thus the internet has greatly expanded our horizons and enabled us to explore the work of literally millions of artists from virtually every nation. And although impossible to measure, the enhanced opportunity to view the work of so many others has undoubtedly improved our collective creativity.
7) Build Your Own Photography Website? Nope…
In 2007, some photographers I knew were attempting to build their own websites or paying others do it for them – not the best way for a photographer to spend his/her time or money. Within a few years, however, we would see SmugMug and Pbase would expand their capabilities and customer base. Zenfolio, Red Bubble, and other template-based services would eventually come along and make it even easier to create customized websites and allowing photographers to focus on what they do best and get paid for – take photos. All that was necessary for you to be in business on the web was to pay a relatively low annual fee and select some easy-to-use templates. And Google Analytics can now provide you with a wealth of information regarding your site’s access and demographic information associated with your website visitors.
More recently, 500px.com and 1x.com have attracted more of the talented photographers seeking to escape the clutter that populates Flickr’s site. Flickr is seeking to revamp its site, however. It is offering more capabilities and changing its look and feel. Flickr has some amazing photos from very talented photographers, but unfortunately, it has also become a veritable “dumping ground” for just about anyone with any form of camera. The move by many from Flickr to 500px.com and 1x.com represents what I call, “the flight to quality.” Both sites seem to be growing quite rapidly.
WordPress, Blogger, and other blogging tools also have facilitated the development of custom photography sites, combining both photography and journalist commentary, and providing options for readers to leave feedback. We use WordPress for the Mansurov site. It is quite easy to use once you get the hang of some of the nuances associated with formatting posts. Improvements in blogging software now enable virtually anyone to create their own photography forum and compete with some of the more established photography sites.
With Adobe’s new Creative Cloud offering, we are seeing an expansion of the move to put more collaboration and file management capabilities onto industrial strength sites that have been customized specifically for such purposes. The reason is simple – Adobe wants to make it easier to focus on your profession, and less on the associated technology. Adobe recognizes that technology issues will continue to be an impediment to its growth and a threat to its revenue base. For now, it appears that Photoshop and other applications need to be downloaded to your PC or Mac, but I suspect with time, these applications will be fully accessible in the cloud as well. Adobe already provides some basic capabilities via www.photoshop.com. One might imagine someday having access to the full suite of Adobe products running in the cloud from a low cost tablet, and virtually no associated Adobe software footprint. I am just beginning to explore Adobe’s cloud offering and will cover it in more detail in future articles.
8) I Snark, Therefore I Am – It’s Not All Sunshine And Light Out There
I have had email since 1981 (shortly after I stopped using stone tablets and a crude iron chisel to communicate with others) and internet access since 1993. On the positive side, email and chat capabilities have provided so many opportunities to communicate in real time with others in ways previous generations could never have imagined. Many of these communications capabilities have improved the world (and photography) for good. Unfortunately, I have witnessed a seemingly endless number of ways for messages to be misinterpreted, communication problems to be exacerbated, and people to exhibit passive-aggressive behavior that they would never consider if they were sitting within 3 feet of the person they were communicating with. I refer to the way in which some use the internet to act out such behavioral problems as “Snarkism.”
Photography forums are certainly not immune from such behavior. On some forums (which shall remain nameless), many conversations often start out innocently enough, but quickly escalate into a series of biting commentary, name calling, and just plain rude, ignorant behavior. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good debate and a bit of controversy as much as anyone. But I am not simply talking about some strong opinions, mild sarcasm or good-natured ribbing, but rather downright nasty personal attacks that make me wonder if some people may have skipped their daily medicine.
With the luxury (and safety) of relative anonymity and distance, some people naturally feel emboldened to stick out their chest and assert their superiority (at least what they perceive to be) on a variety of “life and death” topics such as: high ISO comparisons between Camera X and Camera Y, the value and usefulness of some the super zoom lenses, or whether Tripod ABC is really worth the 3X premium over its lower priced competitor. And woe unto him who posts a photo of anything shy of magazine cover quality – he/she might would likely fair better if cover themselves in blood and go swimming in shark infested waters! Rarely is a topic too insignificant to avoid a rapid descent into a series of insults covering other’s photography skills, lampooning the person for their “lack of posts,” boring photos, or perhaps suggesting that the person ate too many lead paint chips as a child. As entertaining as it can be to read some of these posts on occasion, it doesn’t take long to get your fill and wonder why you bothered logging onto the site. Sadly, this type of behavior certainly isn’t unique to photography forums, but rather endemic of the times we live in.
Despite the Snarkism that runs rampant on some sites, I have been very impressed by many people across numerous forums that have been very generous with their keen insights and helpful advice. I have learned quite a bit from them and have kept in touch with many people throughout the years. But to the extent Snarkism becomes characteristic of a given photography forum, it detracts from the otherwise useful aspects of it and likely dissuades people from participating and making it as valuable as it otherwise might be.
Not to worry though, as I have an answer for Snarkism. I am currently floating a reality TV program idea by some major networks. “Camera Wars” will feature 2 photography combatants who claim that their DSLR/lens combo is superior to that of the other. They will have a “shoot out” in the streets followed by a detailed comparison of their photos. If that doesn’t settle the argument, they will have the option to enter a sealed cage, and armed with nothing but 70-200mm f/2.8 lenses, settle their disagreement once and for all – so the rest of us never again have to wade through 8 pages of personal insults on a photography forum, when all we were searching for were a few well-reasoned opinions regarding the various lens models! Think of the concept as, “Two photographers enter, one photographer leaves.”
In 1995, if I had an issue with my Nikon SLR, chances are that my concern stayed relatively quiet. I might have written to a photography magazine if it had some type of “Ask The Pro” section. It might take some time for my question or comment to be published – if it was ever published. Since photography magazines were hardly incented to publish product defect information that reflected poorly on the very companies supplying their advertising revenues, there was little in the way of widespread, timely, or independent information related to potential product issues. And although I might have mentioned the issue to some of my fellow photographers in a casual setting or a photography club setting, the circle of people that I was able to share information with and influence was extremely limited. The implication for the camera manufacturers? They had quite a bit of leeway relative to sharing any details associated with a given defect, more time to consider their response, more flexibility regarding their response, and the opportunity to handle each defect on an individual basis.
Today? It’s a brave new world. Anyone with rudimentary typing skills can communicate with people around the globe on any of the internet forums or blogs within minutes to began better understanding the symptoms and nature of the alleged defect. This is huge change from the past.
What are the implications of the new reality?
Problem Identification – Customers can ascertain the level and extent of a product defect – perhaps better than the manufacturer can do on its own. Consider that hundreds, if not thousands, of people can collaborate regarding the process of identifying and isolating the details of a product defect, and gather voluminous amounts of information that can be used by the camera manufacturer to help resolve the issue. They can plot DSLR serial numbers, refine testing strategies, share detailed photos highlighting the effect of the defect, create polls, etc. That is a tremendous benefit to the camera manufacturers, as they could never afford to have thousands of field agents detailing the results of individual DSLR owners.
Speed – Such communications between those on photography forums can spread like wildfire. This can cut both ways. Legitimate issues can be identified and tested within minutes, hours, or weeks. Faster resolution of a product defect is clearly beneficial for both customers and the camera manufacturers. Of course, misinformation and false rumors can spread just as quickly.
Improved Products – Increased amount of information associated with a product defect coming from so many sources can help camera manufacturers make better and timelier decisions regarding the manufacturing process and quality assurance testing.
Transparency – Across the various photography forums, blogs and social media sites, it is literally impossible for an issue to be kept secret for any appreciable time. If one person knows – everyone knows. And of course, when the proverbial cat is out of the bag, a camera manufacturer’s silence may be deafening.
Are the camera manufacturers embracing the new reality?
I am not so sure – at least not to the extent they might. Historically, camera manufacturers have been a bit less than upfront in sharing information regarding product defects. When the world moved at a slower pace before the mid-late 90s, this strategy might have made sense. Why make waves, cause customers to have concerns, and give your competitors a sword on which to impale you? I am not justifying the mentality, but I understand that unless the situation involved a clear safety risk, a given product defect would be unlikely to warrant a recall or some form of press release by the camera manufacturer.
In 2012 however, in light of the new realities camera manufacturers face, perhaps this philosophy needs to change. Suppose by way of purely hypothetical example (any similarity between my example and any past, current, or future specific camera manufacturing defect situation is purely coincidental…), in a month or two after the initial wave of shipments of a new ground-breaking, high resolution DSLR arrive in the field, hundreds if not thousands of these units experience a serious issue associated with autofocus accuracy that negatively impact image sharpness. Innovators and Early Adopters of the new DSLR begin communicating, sharing notes, showcasing images, producing videos, etc. – all in an attempt to help one another and isolate the issue. Their collective efforts clearly identify that this issue is affecting quite a few DSLRs.
In light of the preponderance of evidence accumulated by it customers, how can the camera manufacturer justify remaining silent, particularly when the company is actively engaging in social media sites and attempting to solicit information, commentary, and ideas? When you call the manufacturer’s customer support line and ask if there is a way you can determine if your new DSLR is affected by this issue, and you essentially hear a rather robotic reply along the lines of, “Issue? We don’t know of any specific issue?” – well… that is pretty hard to rationalize.
I think it is safe to say that some of the camera manufacturers’ policies of the past simply haven’t kept pace with the realities of today’s online world. No one expects camera manufacturers to respond to every nonsensical rumor or treat an issue affecting a handful of DSLRs as a reason to issue a recall or hold a press conference. But when there is a serious defect affecting a significant volume of units, and it has been very well-documented by knowledgeable customers around the globe, it is inconceivable that the camera manufacturer can fail to acknowledge it. “See No Defect, Hear No Defect, Speak No Defect” isn’t exactly a winning strategy in such a case. Unfortunately, it may take a serious public relations debacle and a customer backlash to change this approach to dealing with issues.
I have highlighted but a few of the ways the internet has and continues to change the field of photography. While the basics of photography remain the same, the technology, business, and ability to interact with others have forever changed the profession. And the rate of change will only increase over time.
What do you think?