Still moving

The inclusion of HD video and digital SLR functions in cameras has democratised the photographic profession, and opened up new opportunities for clients and designers. John Stones asks if we’ll ever get back to warts-and-all representations of reality

If photography is a vaguely accurate mirror of the times, it will continue to reflect some of the more troubling aspects of the moment. More and more paranoia from over-vigilant police, the colonisation of what was once seen as communal and free by intellectual property lawyers, squeezed budgets, increasingly unfair contracts and rights agreements, to name but a few.

Yet our cultural addiction to imagery seemingly knows no bounds. Wherever you look there is photography. And keeping track of the proliferating ‘prestigious’ photography competitions around the world is a pretty overwhelming task. So while the professional photographer might feel under the cosh as the moment, it is not as if they are in a dying trade. It is, however, one that is going through yet another unsettling shakedown.

Technological democratisation will remain a challenge for professional photographers. Many of the half a million or so digital SLR cameras sold in the UK in 2009 can produce quality results in the hands of knowledgeable amateurs – such as graphic designers – who are increasingly being used as a source of cheap stock images and also eating into other staples of the professional, such as weddings.

In one area – the confluence of photography and video – the game has moved on significantly. When Canon launched the 5D Mark II in 2008, the inclusion of an HD video function came as something of a surprise. While little point-and-shoot cameras tucked away in handbags had been able to record bits of video for some time, no one had thought of adding video to a stills camera that is the standard workhorse of many professionals.

Many photographers initially looked down upon its inclusion as a gimmick, a feature geared towards the wealthy amateur rather than the professional. More than a year after its launch (since when Canon has struggled to meet demand for the camera) the realisation is dawning that the 5D Mark II has quietly inaugurated a bit of a revolution. Photographers can now use their normal camera and lenses, and their own particular aesthetic, to creating stunning movies. It’s another paradigm shift, perhaps not as momentous as the shift to digital, but still significant.

Since then, arch-rival Nikon has hurriedly been adding video to its top-end cameras, and Canon has developed it further for other models. As a result, photographers now need to prepare to face up to a new added dimension to their craft and an additional expectation from clients.

The end of print, or its slow strangulation, is something that designers have had to engage with for years, and now photographers, too, are feeling the pinch. Magazines and newspapers continue to struggle with diminishing circulation and advertising revenues, and photographers are now feeling the impact of less work, lower fees and increasingly nasty fights over rights. Similar constraints will be felt by many graphic designers – those working on annual reports, particularly for banks and other businesses under the spotlight, who will want to keep things low-key, so lavish photography commissioning budgets will be rare.

While no one is suggesting that stills photography is dead, it will be video that will present a new opportunity and will allow for new ways for photographers and designers to work together.

New formats and creative approaches will have to be developed on both sides. On the one hand, designers will have to devise more sophisticated and enticing ways of integrating video into our daily lives – the clunky You Tube-style presentation of video, fine for mobile phone captures, scarcely does justice to the quality of the moving imagery that’s suddenly become so accessible. On the other hand, photographers, together with their clients, will increasingly need to start to consider what kind of moving imagery might be appropriate or creatively interesting, and integrating this with their shoots.

It could also mean that photographers end up working with designers of a different type. In the place of editorial art directors or graphic designers, it could be that interactive and Web designers step into the breach as the new potential for affordable, highquality, moving imagery begins to be exploited.

That, anyway, is one prediction of how commercial photography will pan out over the year. Alternatively, you could suggest that photography in 2010 will spearhead a return to values of simplicity, authenticity and truth; a reflection of our reality in a more material way. Rather than obsession with celebrity, we will see ordinary people going about their normal lives. Rather than Photoshopped perfection, we will see things warts and all. And rather than digital manipulation, moving or otherwise, we will see photographers return to using simple manual cameras for honest and thoughtful capture of the unpredictable and resonant material of film. And pigs might fly.

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