The Commodification of Photography – Maybe It Is the Camera…

The Commodification of Photography – Maybe It Is the Camera…

I observed a woman taking a photo with her iPhone today while walking down the street. But this wasn’t some sort of casual snap. She was backing up. Really backing up. Framing the scene even though she was a good 30 meters behind her friends who had ventured ahead of her. She wanted to capture the shot that she saw in her mind’s eye.

And I’ve been hearing and seeing amazing things about the iPhone 5 camera: 8 megapixel, f/2.4 with an incredible dynamic range and a low light mode that allegedly gives you 2-stops better performance. As VII’s John Stanmeyer pointed out, this camera is better than the $6,000 Nikon D1x that we used less than a decade ago.

We no longer have to worry about ISO, aperture, shutter speed or focus. The only things left to worry about are composition and waiting for the decisive moment – but it seems that more amateurs are willing to do both to get the shot.

Strangely, even with all this technological improvement, I still hear the following with regularity: “Wow. Your camera is awesome, I bet it takes really good photos,” when pointing at my D4 or D800 with a big, honking lens. We tell ourselves over and over again that a camera is just a tool, and the skilled photographer could make a good photo with a Hasselblad H5 or a Lomo. We murmur under our breaths that it’s not the camera, it’s us taking the photo.

Me, with my honking Nikon, taken with...Instagram?

I still shoot in manual (most of the time), and make decisions about exposure that contradict the camera’s meter. When I’m motivated, I still “work a scene” to get the shot. But I frequently observe some pretty damn good photography in my Instagram feed that would be exemplary had the photographer been using a better camera.

Sure, maybe the casual photographer can’t make manual exposure adjustments, but I bet a Sony RX1 in “P” mode shoots some pretty stellar photos. So maybe it’s not me. Maybe it is just my expensive camera and glass that gives the illusion that I’m a better photographer than the average Joe off the street.

That is some heady existential stuff.

Aphotoeditor’s Rob Haggart made some astute observations about the commodification of photography in a recent blog post , and Rob and I will be speaking at a free ASMP Symposium in NYC next week entitled “Sustainable Business Models: Issues and Trends Facing Visual Artists.” In a world where everyone can take a pretty good photo, how will professionals survive?

The answer is that they have to become more than just a person who presses a button. The top photographers have always done this instinctively. They wrangle and pull personality into portraits. They enter war zones and capture images while avoiding harm’s way. They coordinate shoots with project management skills that exceed the best management consultants. They aren’t assholes, and are even fun to work with (I hear this more often than you can imagine from photo editors). And they accept change in the industry as an inevitability. This doesn’t mean that they embrace the change, but they roll with the punches and adopt new technologies and paradigms faster than the rest of the pack.

I have the opportunity to speak at a fair number of photo conferences around the country, and there’s nothing more disheartening than seeing the attendees take time out of their day to listen to me for an hour, but then in casual conversations afterwards explain how they’re too busy to effect change. The people who are most concerned with their futures are the ones who should be finding the discipline to change the way they operate on a day-to-day basis. Because if they don’t, the next time they turn around, an iPad will have replaced them.


ASMP’s upcoming symposium, Sustainable Business Models: Issues & Trends Facing Visual Artists, will bring together thought leaders to discuss the impact of shifts in the industry, and creative approaches to compensation that will lead to sustainable business models for imaging professionals. The event is free, but you must register to ensure a seat. The symposium is Thursday, September 27, 2012 from 9 AM to 4 PM at The TimesCenter in NYC, and streamed live for those who cannot attend the event.

Details and registration can be found at:

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Allen Murabayashi is the Chairman and co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 25 comments for this article
  1. Garry Clarkson at 10:59 am

    So many assumptions in this about what photography is. OK 25 years ago (when I began) you had to have a certain amount of chemistry and technical knowledge. Now everyone is a photographer. It really has nothing to do with how big your lens is or whether you use professional gear. Certainly in my field its always been about THE SUBJECT. David Hurn said this back in 1973! This has always been what photography is about. The need for “The answer is that they have to become more than just a person who presses a button.” has always been there. So this is nothing new. The problem is so many younger photographers are still wrapped up in this mythology of the ‘gifted’ photographer. Its a myth. The camera is a machine. THe concept comes first. So whether its an iphone, polaroid, Linhof Master Technica its the message that comes first. Photography is easy.

  2. Robert Hold at 2:45 pm

    On this note, I would have to say that no matter what is used, it boils down to the photographer who is doing the work. I’ve had conversations with other photographers in my area and we see the folks who do shoots off their phone to $6-7000 worth of gear. The photographer is the one factor in the whole mess. The man/woman behind the lens is what makes the stellar shot. The ability/gift to capture the essence/emotion/thought of the subject/scene/event is key to making or breaking your work. The next, after that, is your marketability and how easy or difficult it is to keep pace with the market and the industry.

    As Gary stated above, it is also about the subject — who, what, and where you are shooting. The subject I would say fits into being the 2nd after having the skill/talent to capture the shot.

  3. Bob at 2:45 pm

    No offense, but you’re an entrepreneur within the industry, not a working photographer. It’s not like you’re thriving in the trenches.

  4. Pingback: It Could be the Camera - Commodification of Photography Technique
  5. Allen Murabayashi Author at 3:26 pm

    @Bob. No offense taken, but at the same time, you seem to be suggesting that being an entrepreneur within the photo industry is easy. We practice what we preach and we’ve outlived hundreds of photo start-ups as a result.

  6. Mike at 4:00 pm

    I think if someone is waist-deep in the industry and constantly looking at the amazing work that photographers can create, it’s easy to think that “everyone can take a pretty good photo.” The reality, though, is that not everyone can. When I unplug from the interweb and look around in my community, there are only a handful of people with any meaningful photographic abilities.

    Certainly the technology is there for everyone to use, but just because tweens can take sharp, hi-res images of themselves doing “duck faces” in their bathroom mirrors doesn’t mean that real photographers should be worried. Now I’m rambling…

  7. Holly at 7:02 pm

    Great opinion article! Clearly strikes a sore nerve (as a good journalist should). We are not the first industry to be challenged by commodification. The internet laid bare the travel industry. Who does not look at the internet to research pricing for airline fares, hotel rates, etc. I was part of that industry at that time and it was painful for the sell side, great for the buy side. But they are surviving in the new paradigm. (Of course some didn’t). When the five star hotel (or photographer) distinguishes them self from the 3 star, willingness to pay becomes the question. Next you need to touch on segmented markets, price pressure, liquidity and transparency. It is a toughie. Keep up the good work by asking hard questions and provoking thought (and emotion!)

  8. Regina Mullen at 3:33 am

    It would be an interesting experiment to have a bunch of pros “claim” to have taken a bunch of photos and instragrammed 9shudder0 them…and then, have a bunch or pro photos claimed by people without cachet…and see who can spot the difference.

  9. Haddon Davies at 5:19 am

    The point for me is that digital photography has two unique aspects, which change the game-plan for ever from the analogue days. Anybody now has cheap & simple options for creating reasonable images over which there is full control, coupled with the equally cheap means to publish them worldwide independently of any other party. Without a printer sneering at their inadequate efforts and telling them to get at least a medium-format transparency, if not 5×4 of the product, a business simply does not need a professional to get images of it’s goods out there. They will not be the best shots but they cost virtually nothing. I check out many web-sites which are completely created in-house. The results are usually pretty dreadful but short of criticising someone’s driving, try criticising their photography & web-site, if you want to alienate a prospective client.
    As one of many local working commercial photographers, I have found it pretty hard to compete with “free”and have seen many colleagues and pro-labs fold as a result. This is not about the art for a working photographer, it’s about survival and as has been said, we are not unique. In the business community, it is now common knowledge that photography as a profession is a less that certain bet. We used to be the high-rollers but must adapt to the new landscape.

  10. checkmysnaps at 6:29 am

    Photography is an art that is practiced on professional and personal levels. Offcourse , there’s a vast difference between the images clicked by a professional and an amateur but lets be happy with the idea that it gives pleasure to everyone who holds the camera and captures. New Technologies are adding to the quality of it. Happy Snapping!!

  11. Shannon McIntyre at 11:59 am

    Interesting article. It does hit a nerve, but I also have to agree with Mike’s comments, above. I also wanted to add that just because Instagrams are created on your phone, does not mean they were taken with them. Today I was looking at photooftheday and it’s obvious to me that a lot of those shots are taken with a DSLR and also photoshopped, then uploaded to Instagram. It’s just another tool. If someone is going through all that trouble and they aren’t a professional, maybe they should be.

  12. Pingback: “The Commodification of Photography – Maybe It Is the Camera…” – Well, yeah. It ain’t gonna go the other way either. | Wizwow's World
  13. Assignment 247 at 8:53 am

    Interesting read. So much content recently on the closure of the gap between amateur and professional image maker. When I went through art school I used to worry that maybe the profession would become washed out… I learned to relise over time though that photography is so much more than just a person and a camera. Being a photographer is about running a team, making decisions, planning, scouting, lighting, interacting, retouching… The experience. I mean the list goes on forever. Yeah you can get great snaps with an iphone or a point and shoot but this has been going on for decades. Perhaps you could say some photographic styles are becoming commodified… I’m think HDR and Instagram being the two main culprits.
    Great read anyway Allen! Thanks.

  14. Maurizio Riccio at 3:30 pm

    I’m not losing sleep over this. Yeah, cameras are getting better, and more people have them, but fewer and fewer people are learning the basic artistic knowledge that makes great photography and art in general: Composition and light. See, everything has a way of balancing itself out.

    On another level, this technological empowerment, coupled the advent of the web have revealed what I always suspected. Some of the amateur work out there is way truer and fresher than lots of the professional stuff I have seen from an artistic standpoint. I think a redefinition of “Professional” and “amateur” is in order.

  15. Mark at 3:58 pm

    I bought my first entry level DSLR w/kit lens two months ago and the feedback on my photos has been very positive by friends who encourage me to make prints/cards/etc. However, I know great photos when I see them and mine are not! I have no camera experience but as a web designer, I’ve scoured thousands of stock images and am comfortable with altering levels, et al. IMO, there will always be the premium art and commercial markets that can tell the difference between amateur/pro. However, like much everything in the arts (fine, performing, etc.), the mass public and lower-end markets are recession-affected, over-supplied, and “dumbed-down” in terms of lower acceptable standards. Branding and Marketing have never been more vital to photographers (and other industries) than they are now. You don’t have to be an expert – just perceived as one. Your great work isn’t enough. Evolve to embrace that vs. fighting it and creatively re-think your business model.

  16. Pingback: Commodification of Photography? | Dauber Art Photography
  17. WTW at 8:09 pm

    (1) I was at a public park at a beach recently, along with maybe a couple hundred other people. Well over 1/3 of them were taking photos at one time or another. But I noticed that they were ALL taking photos in the opposite direction than I was! It was weird: They were all pointing at things almost 180 degrees away from what my lens was pointed at, not seeing what I was seeing — not even other “pros” shooting their portraits! I had to adjust exposure manually, I eventually had to brace my camera and shoot with long exposures, and I was shooting RAW and had to use the full dynamic range of those shots to pull things into an acceptable REC709 color space and dynamic range. But I got some awesome images, images that none of those other hundred people with cameras got.

    (2) The Zacuto Great Camera Shootout this year incuded an iPhone up against $65,000 cameras like the Red, Alexa, and Sony F65. In the evaluation sessions, there were some people who got very angry that such a low-end camera was included in a shootout for pros against top-end pro gear. They saw obvious problems with the iPhone images compared to what the really good sensors can do — banding and noise in the shadows, obviously poorer range into highlights, etc. But I saw those shootout results projected on a screen in a theater (not just on the web), and I have to say that the iPhone shots stood up very well against many “middle range” cameras that many of us use professionally every day. But then, in talking with the guys who shot that video with iPhone, it turned out they had to do all sorts of things to get that level of quality out of it: lots more careful lighting in the shadow areas, much more careful exposure control (they had to use a hacked phone with a special app), and lots more post-processing for color and exposure correction than the big boys used. Even so, with the proper knowledge of how to do it (and the time to experiment until you get it right), you can get some amazing shots out of a camera costing $300 plus a 2-year service contract.

    (3) People have had cheap point-and-shoot cameras for 50+ years. Film processing has been relatively cheap and easily available. Students have been graduating from art centers and photography schools in droves, far out-stripping the demand for new professional photographers. How much has a typical day rate gone up over the last 25 years compared to inflation? (Or, rather, how far DOWN?) So, what’s new? What’s new is that the cost of doing photography has gotten to be essentially free.

    (4) Does having specialized gear make a difference? Sometimes. But if all the special equipment you have is an off-camera flash and an umbrella, why would I need to give you several hundred dollars to take my kids’ “portraits”? I can go out at sunset next to a white wall and take some great shots on my smartphone. I can snap off hundreds of shots until I get one I like. I can take my thumb drive down to the neighborhood print shop and get as large an image as I want — even without the internet. With the internet, I can send my photo anywhere I want as many times as I want and don’t need you at all. You’ll have to convince me that you can do something that I can’t (without my spending a lot of my time and effort or money) to get a really good “special” image of those kids. (Substitute “actor”, “car”, “food”, etc., for “kids” as appropriate.) You have to show me why the way you point your camera will produce noticably better images than the way I point my camera.

    Photography itself has always been comprised of three basic things:
    – ability to “see” (envision) what you are going to get when you press the shutter (e.g., with a certain exposure/aperture/focal length/framing)
    – ability to light a scene so that you get what you need onto the film/sensor
    – ability to post-process the captured image to produce the output image you want (on paper, on film, or on a digital display, or whatever medium you intend)

    Especially for commercial photographers/cinematographers, add to that the ability to envision a scene in advance and work with team(s) of people to construct the setting that will allow you to capture what you envisioned as an image on a sensor. Sometimes you’ll need that $20,000 lens on a $50,000 camera rig (and the grip and lighting gear and crew to go with it) to pull that off. Sometimes you won’t.

    There are niches (architectural/interior photography, or war/news correspondent, for example) where having a modicum of those skills can still be economically viable. It turns out that there are actually very few people who can do all four of those things well, including many who claim to be “professional photographers”. Those who can will always be in demand. Those who can’t — well, increasingly, we’ll have to go find real jobs.

  18. tumpal at 8:51 pm

    i am still curious, so which one are you Allen? a good photographer or just another guy with fancy cameras?

    there were times when painters can hold their own, but some of the guys in my town and around it are in for painful demise, nobody care about paintings anymore, they can download any high res pictures on the internet, print it with personal printers, buy some plastic frame and be done with it.

    for the painters around here, there seems to be no business model left to try, not even when they abdicate themselves under some wealthy businessmen.

    painters, and chefs comes to that, in my opinion have more integrity to show rather than photographers, it is ultimately not their tools, but their skills, there are no computer chips within those brushes and frying pans, cameras on the other hand have white balance sets and image controls controlled by some algorithms made by the people in the industry, they take some parts in any bytes of images we make. this is one of the issue that has been bothering me. and lets not talk about the lens purists among us who claim that quality pictures are just impossible to produced without those L series or golden rings lenses, any less way of taking “professional” pictures are just an abomination.

    I’m sorry but i guess professionals are only about selling stuffs for money, there are a lot of factors there, from sweet talking your prospective clients to reading the color trends, quality might be way down there among our shopping list, that is, if we have the same assumption about quality with the buyers.

  19. Allen Murabayashi Author at 8:55 pm

    @tumpal: i think i’m a better photographer because of technology for a few reasons:

    – the cost of practicing/getting reps is much cheaper. i can experiment in a way that wasn’t possible before digital existed
    – i don’t have to worry as much about things like focus because auto-focus
    – i have more latitude in exposure mistakes because of RAW
    – i don’t have to be an expert in photoshop b/c there are actions that can get me where i want
    – i can take high ISO photos that were simply impossible with film

    does the reliance on technology make me less of a photographer? no, i don’t think so. i think because i’ve had the chance to make mistakes, i’m a competent photographer who doesn’t need the technology as much now.

  20. Jon-Paul Mountford at 9:47 am

    Those of us who worked with traditional light sensitive materials learned to use them to their strengths, high ISO was completely possible.
    Focus is the most basic skill, as is Exposure, ( BTW the latitude of film was immense.)
    That aside Auto-anything will not find you a hyperfocal distance and no camera will ever be able to place a light. Technology itself, is not a skill.

    Everyone can use a pencil , can everyone can write book/create a Rembrandt .?
    This is all the change in Tech is. Paint at one time was hand ground, restricting its use to those who could afford a person to do said grinding. Then it became cheaper ( like camera’s ) The skills do not reside within the materials but with the person wielding them.

  21. James Frederick Bland at 1:33 pm

    This is very confirming to read in many ways. I’ve been working with Carolyn J Potts, a creative consultant of 30+ years in Chicago, and she published an article for ASMP in 2007 predicting , point out the same trends. The good news is that people need good images, there are more people capable of creating an image at a basic level and the best work goes to those who know how to run a business and projects. The era of the client paying to be abused by a snarky photographer with an ego is over and we have to come to the table with real world work and people skills. Two thoughts come to mind – ƒ8 and be there [be physically and mentally present] AND the most important piece of equipment is still the nut behind the camera. Thanks for posting. Best regards, James Frederick Bland, Austin TX.

  22. C.J. Sousa at 11:16 pm

    A couple of thoughts…
    First, I think photography has long had the impression of being a “closed” profession, open only to the college-certified. I think the ubiquity of digital cameras shows that “the people” have broken through those restraints. I personally have no intention of ever breathing noxious fumes in a darkroom. My camera and computer ARE my darkroom.
    Second, TV and the movies have inspired a lot of folks to venture out and discover the world out there. It’s one thing to paint a stylized version of the world with brush and canvas. It is quite another to have the patience and fortitude to search for that beauty which surrounds us.
    Third, digital photographers absolutely reject the snobbery of the “art world,” which has long disrespected this medium and are openly hostile to anything that does not fit into their rigid template of what defines “art.”
    Finally, that snobbery also extends to any photographer who reflexively rejects landscape photography as a low-rent corner of the profession. Perhaps the “gods” should come down from Mount Olympus. The world does not need another staged b&w portrait of a wrinkled, contemplative elder or rote NYC street scene.
    Beauty and inspiration are everywhere if you look for it and this New Wave of digital photography has no use for approval by the status quo.
    To each his own. Let us inspire YOU.

  23. studioMiguel at 7:02 am

    I’m a commercial illustrator and retoucher:
    An amateur can capture a great photo, it might be perfect for me, it might just be pretty.
    A Pro can capture the EXACT image that’s in MY head. For a Pro, an accidental great photo is beyond meeting my needs and exciting. But I need REPEATABLE results, which which is where I think the professional photographer finds his niche.
    Then again, this is an argument of photography as an ART versus COMMERCE. To keep my lights on, I need COMMERCE.
    Did I mention I was a commercial illustrator/retoucher? 😉

  24. studioMiguel at 7:07 am

    Further thoughts: The low-hanging-fruit is gone. There are fewer and fewer low-end jobs that a photo-assistant might pickup on the way to becoming a pro. Stock, is an option here, but I believe that there’s nothing like real client expectations to force learning. The bigger problem is how does one go from iPhone POS photographer to someone I trust with $50K in studio space rental, craft services and models for a week-long shoot? Despite the proliferation of ‘photographers’ (no disrespect to anyone), I predict a dearth of high-end commercial photographers is on the horizon.

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