Future of Photography

The golden age of digital photography likely peaked a decade ago, and since then the future of photography has been looking increasingly uncertain. At least photography the way some of us older folks experienced it… using dedicated cameras and an assortment of lenses.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge. Photographs have been added to serve as visual breaks.

Olympus OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko PRO 40-150 mm f/2.8 zoom @ 150 mm, efov 300 mm, f/2.8, 1/250, ISO-800, subject distance 1.1 metres

I can remember being in corporate life and hiring professional photographers to create images of heavy equipment operating in industrial settings. The photographers we most often hired had a beautiful custom built office. One of their photography studios was large enough that we could park a fully decked out highway truck inside, in controlled lighting.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 216mm, efov 581mm, f/5.6, 1/60, ISO-900

Their equipment storage locker housed numerous camera bodies and dozens upon dozens of lenses. Not to mention all of the camera supports and lighting gear. I can’t imagine how much it would have cost them to change all of that film camera gear over to digital as the industry began to shift a couple of decades ago.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300mm, efov 810mm, f/5.6, 1/100, ISO-3200

Back in those days a photographer could make a very good living creating images for stock photography services. Some photographers dedicated all of their time to stock photography.

OM-D D-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/2500, ISO-6400, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4184 pixels on the width, subject distance 6.8 metres

Other professionals focused on specific market niches and built their reputations on work in that photographic genre. The best pros would be booked with client work weeks, and sometimes months, in advance with daily rates well into four figures.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 24mm, efov 65mm, f/8, 1/40, ISO-800

In the late 1990’s websites dedicated to digital photography began to spring up. They provided readers with excellent editorial content focused mainly on digital camera equipment. These websites whet their readers’ appetites for new gear.

Te Anau, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 13mm, efov 34mm, f/8, 1/100, ISO-800

The digital camera market was very robust for a number of years as more people started buying dedicated digital cameras, and existing film photographers transitioned into digital gear. Affiliate sales boomed and many photography websites generated solid profits by taking a commission on ‘click through’ camera gear sales.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5, 1/1250, ISO-160

As we all know, the introduction of Smartphones with photographic capability changed the market dramatically. Digital point-and-shoot cameras were the first fatalities with unit volumes collapsing. Ongoing technological improvements with cameras in cell phones and tablets have continued to erode the sales volume of dedicated cameras, especially at the entry/beginner level of the market.

Nelson – Tahunanui Beach, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/5.6, 1/640, ISO-160

The photographic environment has changed dramatically as hordes of people tried to enter the market and make some money with their photography. Many of the stock photography services began to feel financial pressure and dropped their rates significantly. This resulted in an ever growing glut of images on the market. No photographic genre is immune. The situation has only gotten worse with time. Stock photography to a large degree has become a commodity.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 30-110mm f/3.8-5.6 @ 64mm, efov 173mm, f/5.6, 1/10, ISO-3200, Vello Deluxe Extension Tubes

Most of the professional photographers I knew back in my corporate days left the business long ago. Some, like the photographers I mentioned with the custom built office/studio, are still in business today.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/320, ISO-160

Their services have changed and expanded. They still provide commercial photography, but also commercial video. Other services include food styling/recipe development/dish preparation. Social media content development. Fine art photography and scanning. Photo retouching and restoration. And, 3D rendering and animation.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikon 10-100mm f/4-5.6 @ 10mm, efov 27mm, f/8, 1/400, ISO-160

The future of photography is moving in this direction. It won’t be enough for a photographer to create images for clients. They’ll require a suite of integrated services that go beyond just photography, so they can be more of a one-stop solution for their clients.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikon CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 201 mm, efov 543 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600, ISO-250, captured at 15 frames per second

Many professional nature photographers are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living by selling their images. It is becoming common for them to lead nature photography expeditions, with some going as far as setting up their own related travel companies. Some are being hired by tour operators to provide photo coaching during junkets.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor CX 70-300 mm f/4.5-5.6 @ 300 mm, efov 810 mm, f/5.6, 1/3200, ISO-640

A number of nature photographers have been able to generate revenues through in-person and online photography seminars. With all of the free content on platforms like YouTube this can still be a tough road to slog. I’m aware of some folks who invested quite a bit of money creating  very comprehensive photography training courses, but were unable to turn a profit for all of their effort on the project.

Olympus TG-5 @ 18 mm, efov 100 mm, f/4.9, 1/100, ISO-1000, microscopic mode

As the camera and lens markets have eroded over time, so too have the ‘click through’ sales commissions that many websites relied on in the past to prosper. Many photography websites and YouTube channels are now glutted with advertising and paid sponsorships. The theft of online content by pirate websites/channels adds further financial pressure for many legitimate photography sites. It is possible that we may see some well known photography websites leave the marketplace as their profitability wanes.

Gemstone Beach, New Zealand, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18.1 mm, f/8, 1/160, ISO-160

Photographers are concerned about the health of various camera and lens manufacturers. Fortunately many of the manufacturers have been making the tough decisions necessary to lower their fixed costs and breakeven points. This will help them survive on lower unit volumes… at least in the near to medium term.

Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 mm f/4-5.6 @ 23 mm, efov 62.1 mm, f/5.6, 1/160, ISO-3200

I haven’t done any presentations to camera clubs for a few years since COVID-19 restrictions were imposed. I do have an engagement booked for late 2022. It will be very interesting to see the composition of the audience, specifically how many people are under 40. In the past I observed that the bulk of camera club members were in the 50-80 age category. Unless more younger people come into the dedicated camera market the prognosis for the future of photography and equipment manufacturers will be negative in the medium to longer term. Some brands may fail.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-20 teleconverter @ 800 mm, efov 1600 mm, f/13, 1/1250, ISO-2000, cropped to 4443 pixels on the width, subject distance 2.9 metres

On a personal and professional basis I’ve been shifting my focus for the past few years. I’m pretty much retired from client photo/video assignments, except for a small number of long standing relationships that transcend normal business associations.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 521 mm, efov 1042 mm, f/9, -0.7 EV, 1/640, ISO-160, handheld in-camera focus stacking, out-of-camera jpeg with minor adjustments done in the Nik Collection

Over the years I’ve viewed myself to be as much of a writer as a photographer. My focus will be continuing to create new eBooks that I’ll make available on this website. Our Images of Ireland eBook is getting very close to the finish line and should be available shortly.

Glengarriff Blue Pool Walk Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 7 mm, efov 18.9 mm, f/8, 1/80, ISO-160

We’re also toying with the idea of publishing an eBook version of a fictional work that we originally produced in hard copy about 20 years ago. It is metaphysical in nature, and still has some relevance today. Readers who enjoy my philosophic meanderings from time to time may find this potential eBook of interest.

Kylemore Abbey Ireland, Nikon 1 J5 + 1 Nikkor 10-100 f/4-5.6 @ 12 mm, efov 32.4 mm, f/11, 1/80, ISO-400

It takes quite a lot of field work to create a sufficient number of photographs to produce an eBook dedicated to a particular photographic genre. COVID-19 restrictions put a damper on some of the projects that I’ve been working on during the past couple of years.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/5, 1/30, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 535 mm

These include a collection of eBooks that focus on handheld photography in such areas as bird photography, macro, and flowers. I hope to be out in the field regularly this spring and summer so I can move these three projects along.

OM-D E-M1X + M.Zuiko 100-400 mm f/5-6.3 IS with M.Zuiko MC-14 teleconverter @ 560 mm, efov 1120 mm, f/9, 1/1600, ISO-1600, Bird Detection AI Subject Tracking, cropped to 4850 pixels on the width, subject distance 36.1 metres

All is not doom and gloom in the photography market and the camera business. Success will depend on how well each of us adapts to new realities.

A few things have become reasonably clear. To a large extent photographs have become commodities with revenue potential to match. Some people are still willing to pay to acquire knowledge but that market is getting squeezed by free online content. Business-to-business photographic revenues are still available if a photographer has the expertise and the right bundle of related services.

Technical Note:

Photographs were captured handheld using camera gear as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced primarily from RAW files using my standard approach in post. Photographs were resized for web use. This is the 1,171 article published on this website since its original inception in 2015.

OM-D E-M1X with M.Zuiko 60 mm f/2.8 macro, f/4, 1/25, full frame capture, ISO-200, handheld in-camera focus stacking, subject distance 265 mm

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8 thoughts on “Future of Photography”

  1. When I bought an Olympus camera last year, a friend commented that I must be one of the few people still buying a camera rather than a smart phone. He may have exaggerated a bit, but he has a point. It’ll be a brave new photographic world.

    1. Hi Simon,

      Many people will find that their smart phones produce images that meet their needs. It really depends on our areas of photographic interest whether buying a dedicated camera makes sense, or not. I think OMDS is taking a very good approach by focusing on the nature/wildlife/birding market in terms of pursuing a niche market differentiation strategy. This is an area that isn’t impacted by smart phones.

      Tom

      1. I have a hard time imagining any professional photography, niche or not, being done with smart phones. Think about it: you hire a wedding photographer for that once-in-a-lifetime event (OK, so THAT will be obsolete, too), and he shows up with a smart phone?!!?

        1. It will be interesting to see how things change over time. It is difficult to see professionals using smart phones… but who knows how the technology will advance.

          Tom

  2. I do not own a smartphone, and will resist buying one as long as I can. I do use a basic (flip) phone for, well phoning. I have always used “real” cameras, and will continue to as long as I still pursue photography as an avocation. My current real cameras are Nikon Dfs and Nikon 1s (thanks to your blog for discovering the 1s).

    This article is certainly thought-provoking. It provoked me to remember thoughts I had years ago that someday travel itself will become obsolete. With the growing prevalence of surveilliance cameras, coupled with the burgeoning 3D virtual technology, perhaps one day you can have the experience of going anywhere in the world from your living room.

    In 1976 on a pilgrimage to Israel, with my trusted Nikkormats and lots of Kodachrome in tow, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Then in 2018, I was fortunate to take in the National Geographic 3D virtual tour of the same church, while in Washington, DC. I can tell you that the virtual tour was even better than being there. At least from a visual perspective, if not a devotional one.

    1. Hi Martin,

      I’ve also been thinking that international travel may become obsolete… but from a climate change perspective.

      I recently found some data about the amount of CO2 emissions that would occur for a return flight from Toronto to Christchurch. Basically it would be the equivalent of me driving my car for the another 12 years based on the KMs I’ve logged during 2.5 years of ownership and a fuel consumption of 1.7L/100 KM which is what we’ve done for 31,000 KMs thus far.

      Tom

      1. No worries – we’ll soon all be driving electric cars to make up for the jets (tongue in cheek). Seriously, that won’t happen until we majorly change our electric generation/distribution system.

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