Within the last decade, photography has seen an enormous influx of people and expansion at a rate that is very much akin to that experienced in the early 1900’s when Kodak actively marketed the Brownie, making photography accessible to almost everyone. Digital cameras are the new Brownie, and they have quickly nudged out film cameras as the de-facto tool of the trade. This changing of the guard has fueled the growth of new industries to support the making and proliferation of digital images. Camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon have switched their focus from film to digital, while companies like Kodak and Agfa have drastically reduced or stopped their production of photographic papers and film. Others yet, as in Polaroid’s case, have found their niche eaten away to obsolescence. Where others have failed, new companies like Adobe, On1, Epson, HP, Nik software (among many others) have both emerged and stepped up to become leaders and trendsetters in the Digital arena. For all of this growth and innovation photography has taken a step backwards.
The costs associated for entry into digital photography have been steadily declining as companies continue to raise the bar of quality. The quality in this instance, however, is not the quality of the equipment, but the quality of the image produced, this is the fundamental flaw within the digital equipment market. The cost to quality ratio is disproportionately high when compared to the longevity (real or perceived) of the equipment, and its ability to retain value beyond the use of the original owner. To purchase a Nikon which would yield results that meet or exceed the quality achievable with 35mm film, I would spend at a minimum of $1,800 just for camera body. This cost jumps to more than $4,000 if I need to have a camera that has full frame sensor (same size as a 35mm frame), an investment that would in a few years be considered obsolete, and have such a diminished value perception that in some cases it wouldn’t be worth trying to sell the camera. For example, I was talking with a friend recently, and it came up that she and her sister inherited a couple of Leica’s from their father, and how they are valuable. Not necessarily just because they are old (which they are), but because Leica cameras are the epitome of quality. A brand new M7 will set you back $4,000.00, give or take a couple of fingers and toes. Sure, that’s a lot of money, but the catch it that this camera will hold value past that of its digital counterparts. You can pick up a used M7 for $2,300 or so, and that value will hold for many years. Digital cameras on the other hand depreciate faster than cars driven off the lot. Take, for example, the Nikon D 200 which debuted in 2005 for $3,000 (just the body), and it’s going rate now is somewhere between $500 and $800. With less than 4 full years, it has depreciated nearly 75%.
There are some that would say that it’s simply an evolution of photography to something more superior, or maybe just different. Naturally there are those on the extreme opposite end too, but really it leaves us somewhere in the middle.
The upside is that as photographers we are becoming exposed to more and more images and different ways of creating artwork within our chosen field. Doors are being opened that no one even thought were there before, such as HDR, panography, and even digitally created panoramas. I have seen amazing images that I would have had no way of being exposed to without new tools like Flickr, that have been made possible by the influx of digital cameras into the mainstream lifestyle of the world.
The downside is, for me, more glaring and telling of our current society. Photograph’s have a far less intrinsic vague today than they did even 6 years ago. People are able to use services like Flickr to circulate poorly executed images which would been previously relegated to ones own scrapbook – but yet now are available for the world to see, entangling images of higher quality in their mire of mediocrity. The equipment used to create these images is also falling victim to the insane upgrade cycle that we have witnessed with computer technology, rendering equipment nearly valueless within just a couple of years. Everything is basically disposable at some level, creating a, enormous excess of valueless equipment being tossed or sitting on a shelf to never be used.
This drastically changes the process in which photographs are created. Not only from the point in which an image is captured, but the process in which the photograph is created, printed onto the paper. The process of creating images using film, developing the film, printing a contact sheet, looking for the perfect image, then printing those images in a darkroom is a wonderful experience – one that many new photographers will never experience and they will be poorer for it. Not everything has to be fast, with instantaneous results. The final print quality is not the same either, and to get even in the realm of being close, again the costs climb exponentially and the average bloke is hard pressed to shell out a few thousands dollars for equipment that can get you up to a 16 x 20 print.
One could argue that this is very much like the struggle that painters went through when photography came onto the scene and started disrupting their world, and arguments were made that photography isn’t an art form since it simply records what the camera is pointed. Looking at any great photography simply, and quickly invalidates this notion. John Sexton, Bradford Washburn, Carleton Watkins, and many others created images that were far more than simple recordings of a scene. This is different because photography is under assault from itself; from within. The equipment is in charge right now more than it has been ever before in the history of photography; and unfortunately, the equipment isn’t up to the task.