I am not a professional photographer. I’m not even an amateur photographer. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I own a working camera. But give me a fortnight – and a couple of grand – and I’ll be up and running in the brave new digital world of commercial stock photography. I point and shoot: my camera does half the job, and iStockphoto does the rest. I am now a photographer.
What does this mean exactly for professional photographers? The scrapheap. What does it mean for buyers of photography? Heaven.
A cornucopia of choice from a global community of photographers. Stock footage for those bored of the static image. Usable pictures for £1. Every job under budget. Microstock rules, okay?
Bunkum. Professional creative photography is as important now as it has ever been. Like designers, professional photographers are motivated by the desire to create a work of admired permanence, and nurture the hope that some small piece of what they create will secure a place in the heart of the viewer. That photography remains so popular is testament to this natural desire to immortalise our vision.
To present your work for critique takes courage. To present it for sale anonymously is easy by comparison, and that’s why we are witness to the ever-increasing commercialisation of the medium. The ease of photography’s dissemination often also leads us (wrongly) to assume that the work itself can be just as easily created or recreated – modern distribution methods belie the photographer’s effort and commitment in bringing the image into being. Our job as an agency is to convince our clients that good photography, like good design, is worth paying for, not least because there’s been a creative process involved in the creation of the images. Precious few of the greatest photographs are lucky accidents: good photography is no more a mechanical process than good design is.
The latest buzz in our industry is stock footage, and we see more short movies embedded in digital media of all kinds. Nonetheless, the most successful photographs demand viewer participation and a special sort of appreciation in a way that footage does not: we draw our own conclusions from the photographs we look at, whereas footage often leads us unthinking to someone else’s preconceived conclusion. Moving images flash and flicker in their clamour for attention, but often pass straight overhead, tuned out as irrelevant background noise.
The best stills photography stays quietly at the periphery of our vision: unassuming, biding its time, seemingly confident in the knowledge that it can grab your attention. And hold it for a moment, in which it may be remembered forever. We live in a visual world. Photography adds value, and has the potential to drive people powerfully to immediate conclusions in a way that movies and text alone cannot.
Treatment is all
The best photographers develop ‘premagination’, a sense developed by questioning their motives during the picture’s creation, asking constant questions while they work. Why this picture? What makes this one special? Who will be the audience for this picture? What preconceptions should be challenged (or reinforced)?
As an agency, we try to remain true to the objectives in mind at the time the image was made when we’re editing. Often, it’s not the subject that’s as important as the way in which the photographer has treated it. The marvel of photography lies in the image’s ability to evoke an emotional response, and the availability of digital tools and new techniques create endless possibilities to reveal something new.
Technology has made photography more accessible than ever. The equipment in our hands makes potential photographers of us all, but the right to call ourselves photographers is not granted by virtue of the badge around our necks, nor is great photography guaranteed by the best kit. The best photographers invest time and skill into developing the style that distinguishes their work and helps it stand out.
And that’s what you want at the end of the day, isn’t it? Photography that stands out, that is going to make people sit up and take notice. Photography that draws people in. As microstock fills the digital world to saturation, the value of professional creative photography goes up, not down.
The misconception is that we’re all competing in the same market. Microstock has filled an important gap. Footage will find its niche as well. But rather than invading the space where creative photography used to flourish, it has freed it up, taken it out of the hands of those who would sell quality work for a pittance. The rise of microstock has brought the value of professional creative photography into focus and may ultimately prove to be its salvation.