Good Enough Defeats Great

It’s been fascinating as an observer watching the disruption and transformation of the camera industry. As a photographer in the middle of it, it hasn’t always been fun.

Around 2000 I bought a Canon Powershot pocket camera to take on vacation and the bug hit hard. Digital photography also took away the hassles that caused me to fade away from the hobby in the past: cost of processing and printing, and the time spent in the darkroom (of course, I had no idea at the time I’d replace that with time at the computer but at least it’s not dark and stinky).

In 2005 I made the leap and bought my first DLSR, a Canon Rebel XT. I thought I was a pretty good photographer, I saw digital photography as a way to make the leap into being a professional photographer — and out of the high tech industry where I at the time was exceptionally unhappy (since resolved) — and so here I was, figuring out how to break in to the field using these new and interesting tools.

Then I looked around me, and I realized there were 20,000 other people all with brand new DLSRs and all believing that they were good photographers and ready to turn pro. That made me realize a massive disruption was starting and I didn’t want to be in the middle of it, so I took a step back and decided to wait and see how it all sorted out and focus on my craft instead of a business.

That turned out to be a great decision, because the photography business has been massively changed and large swaths of it have effectively gone away: stock photography has been decimated with the rise of microstock, the magazine industry has been decimated by the shift of content to online venues, and none of this pays as well as the good old days.

Today, those changes aren’t finished: Apple added a good camera to the iPhone and people started taking pictures with it, causing the casual camera segment of the market to collapse, and now photography industries like wedding photographers are competing not just with each other, but with Uncle Jim with his iPhone and Aunt Jane, the mom with a Canon Rebel, for the job of shooting weddings.

It’s even gotten to the point where some photographers have called for some kind of registration and licensing to keep the rabble out of the pro ranks. Which to translate into plain English means we need “a guild” to limit the number of people who can be part of the industry so we can prop up prices so we can make a living doing photography.

The reality is this: nobody cares about your income except you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been lectured about how I shouldn’t give away images for free or for “under market” prices, whatever that is. Of course, when I ask this in return: “when will you do anything to help me get a paying job?” I usually get stoney silence, because evidently, it’s my responsibility to protect his living, but they have no responsibility in return. So much of this turns into “old man yelling get off my lawn” to the kids, and is about as effective.

Photography is more popular now than ever before with billions of new images being created each day. And that’s what’s really driving the changes in photography and the thing so many photographers have trouble understanding: the value in their images was in scarcity, not in their skill. And as imagery becomes increasingly available and the technology of cameras makes it easier and easier to take better images, which shrinks the part of photography where a professional photographer adds value.

Or more precisely, where a professional photographer adds value that a buyer cares about, because when something becomes “good enough” the buyer really doesn’t care how much better yours is. At that point, price and discoverability win.

Good Enough wins

“Good enough” wins, and it will kill great, because the number of people who care about great is too small to sustain a big industry.

It can sustain a small industry, and that’s what photography is turning into: effectively, if you shoot with a DLSR or a Mirrorless system you are now photography’s equivalent of an audiophile, arguing to someone with iTunes Music and a set of earbuds that they really ought to buy this $1200 pre-amp.

Not gonna happen. What they have is good enough.

The Good Enough of faux-bokeh

Apple just released the iPhone 7 and included a new faux-bokeh “portrait” mode feature, which has some photographers up in arms, because it doesn’t act like the real, good bokeh of a real, good camera and lens.

The people arguing about that are missing the point. The people taking pictures with their iPhone 7 and seeing the background blurs think it’s just fine. Is it as good as the Bokeh you get on a really good lens? Of course not. And as some people will argue, the iPhone portrait effect is beyond just good enough.

It doesn’t matter, because they like the result. Most people don’t pixel-peep images. Most people don’t process them, beyond maybe a snapchat filter. They look at them and they like them or they don’t. If it’s good enough, that’s all they care about.

All of us photographers have to come to grips with this reality. Stock photography isn’t coming back. Fujifilm gets it. They just announced a new Medium Format digital camera system — and what could be more audiophile than that? Yes, some professionals will love this as well, but this is really aimed at the affluent enthusiast and looks to be priced to be profitable on relatively small volume sales, just like a good audiophile receiver or turntable is.

What does matter? I think Tim Bray nails it nicely. Someone tried to compare an iPhone 7 to Medium format and that’s clearly a silly argument, but in many ways, also irrelevant. Like the reality of getting away from a charging bear, where I don’t have to outrun the bear, just you — the iPhone doesn’t need to be as good as a Leica. it just needs to be good enough to make its user happy.

And it does.

So now what?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the old days aren’t coming back. So the first thing you need to do is shut up and stop whining or trying to find ways to force us back to the Good Old Days. It’s not going to happen, and nobody is going to listen to you.

Some professional photographers shifted to other ways to make revenue, by teaching or leading workshops, which was a smart idea, but I think both of these areas depend on an influx of new enthusiasts to sustain them, and there’s been some evidence that both areas are either flattening in growth or shrinking again. And in some cases, the large number of workshops leading groups around have created a new monster that these workshop leaders are now yelling about which of course should surprise nobody that this happened. We’ve taught these new generations of enthusiasts to value these so-called trophy shots and locations more than their own vision and interests, so of course these trophy locations are now inundated with tripods and people who are mostly interested in their shot and don’t really care if it keeps you from getting yours. I honestly don’t have a lot of sympathy for the leaders who bring groups into these locations and then complain that people are bringing groups into these locations.

It’s interesting that I’m seeing more photographers attempting to create teaching material for iPhones — my guess is this will be a fairly limited market because those people aren’t enthusiasts, they simply like to take pictures (a very different thing). I’ve even seen a couple of workshops that are iPhone-oriented, and I’m going to be curious whether this kind of outing has legs (I’m guessing: not).

One of the smartest business decisions I ever made was not attempting to make photography my business, in the face of massive disruption and crashing industry revenues. While photography has gotten massively popular, selling photography has shrunk and continues to shrink. I’m very happy I realized what was going on and stepped out of the crowd and watched them all fight for a piece of an increasingly difficult industry. To those of you who did dive in and make it work — awesome, I salute you. but we won’t talk about the hundreds you beat out who didn’t and stayed in (or went back to) their day jobs.

It’s tough out there. If I were starting into the industry today, how would I do it? Being good with the camera isn’t enough, it merely gets you to the point you can register for the start of the race. You need to have solid business skills as much as, or more than, camera skills. You need the ability to market yourself and your images.

And you need a unique niche to stick yourself into, one that isn’t easily replicable by the “good enough” crowd. That’s going to be tough if (like me) you’re in nature photography — and you have to create images that not only beat out the “good enough” crowd, but the established photographers like Art Wolfe and Q.T. Luong. That’s one reason I started emphasizing the wildlife refuges in my shooting (my elevator speech: I want to be the Q.T. Luong of refuges) but even there, I’m seeing more and more photographers discovering them and a lot of really kick-ass photography out there.

But you know what? It’s pretty good here in audiophile-land. Since making the final decision to never try to turn pro, I’ve been getting my head around taking pictures that please me rather than trying to take pictures I hope will please buyers, and for a while, my photography completely fell apart, but it’s coming together again and I’m really liking the results.

Sea Otters , Morro Bay Harbor, California

Sandhill Cranes Dancing, San Luis National Wlidlife Refuge, California

Maybe the answer is to worry less about paying the bills, and worry more about taking images you enjoy hanging on your walls. It was for me.