The year 2007 is history by now, and so I went to the basement, undusted my crystal ball and glimpsed into the future of photography. My predictions for 2008:
1. The photo market continues to change dramatically
This may sound simple, but the changes I am seeing are indeed dramatical and will affect the majority of professional photographers sooner or later. The main reason for these changes will be advances in technology (see also prediction #2) as well as further pricedrops. Cameras continue to get cheaper -you can buy a decent 7 MP Canon camera with image stabilizer for less than US$ 150 right now-, and more good pictures will be taken.
Thus, more good pictures will be published online by amateurs, often for free, using those stupid Creative Commons licences. Some of these shots are absolutely awesome and could have been sold to newspapers and agencies in the past. However, as these amateurs are so keen on being published, they are giving away the rights just in return for attribution, which harms the value of all images by all photographers. Image prices drop to zero. It’s just a matter of time until you can get decent photos on most subjects (especially in the area of classical travel photos) for free somewhere on the Net.
In 2007 I have seen some big newspapers shifting from paid stock photos to free Flickr and Wikipedia photos for their travel sections (though this can be quite risky). It is obvious why newspapers are doing this – they have a hard time, too. They need to cut costs as their readers are moving away from printed media towards the web. The web is cheaper, it is more relevant, and it serves news and photos as they happen. This move is mirrored by advertisers who find the web to be a more effective marketing tool than newspapers. And so they shift their budgets from print to web. Newspapers react by reducing the number of pages, which again makes them less interesting for their existing readers, who stay away. A vicious circle.
Acquiring free images from Flickr and Wikipedia is one way to react; getting more images from traditional channels (e.g. GettyImages, Reuters, AP, AFP), often at flat rates, will be the other solution. Unless photographers are associated with one of these channels, they will probably get less jobs directly from newspapers. The market is tightening up.
I am convinced that licences for web use will not be a valid solution for affected photographers. The web has always been the Wild Wild West, at least when it comes to copyrights. Most web publishers will primarily look for free or cheap image sources, and often they will just steal the images from web sites without proper attribution or notification. This happened to me quite regularly in 2007 and will continue to do so in 2008. I am now looking to take serious legal steps to defend my work. Also, web publishing requires significantly smaller files, so professional equipment is often not even required anymore. The image content quality will be of essence, though (see prediction #3).
And it will get even worse in the future: the next enemy for professional photographers will be digital video. With image resolutions of HD video cameras getting better and better, it’s just a matter of time until you can replace your point-and-shoot camera by a video camera that allows you to select the “right” image from the video stream. I do not expect this to happen in 2008, though, as the technology is not quite there yet. But it’s a logical consequence of the technological development: just shoot, and worry about the stills later (probably photo stills will just be a side product from a TV crew in the future).
2. Technology advances, but not in the high end sector
Speaking of technology, I believe entry level cameras will continue to get better. They will finally achieve quality levels that can be seen in the “serious amateur” segment today, e.g. from a Canon 350D or 400D. There will be a limit, though, when it comes to the quality of the lenses involved. To get a decent quality, you will still need good glass and large sensors, and these will still be expensive in 2008.
The real challenge for manufacturers will be the separation between good point-and-shoot cameras, entry-level dSLR cameras, and semi-professional cameras. The only way to solve this dilemma is to position amateur dSLR cameras in a higher league. So, I guess the separation between amateur dSLR cameras and semi-professional dSLR cameras will continue to dissolve, with the more expensive cameras having a slightly better housing, longer shutter life, or additional features (e.g. RAW support).
As for the high-end market, I think that we will see further cosmetical improvements (e.g. sensor cleaners, faster processors, live preview) but no real break-throughs. Canon’s 1ds mk III is the perfect example for this – more pixels (but not that much more), more photos per seconds (but not that much more), plus some nice long requested features. What’s stopping them? Manufacturers have realized that they are now hitting the physical limits of their lenses. Unless you use high-end lenses that have been designed originally for medium format (e.g. those from Hartblei), you will not be able to see a better resolution from your new cameras. Photographers around the world may brag with their new status symbols, but for many customers the improvements will not materialize in the image files.
3. It’s increasingly challenging to differentiate
When photo technology is so cheap that it has lost its entry barrier function, how can professional photographers differentiate and (try to) make a living? Well, it will be very very difficult to achieve that.
I strongly believe that an unique style is essential. You need to capture images your style, whatever that means. If your images are unique compositions and reliably perfect, you probably can get into or stay in business. The other way to differentiate yourself from the competition is to get access to exclusive/semi-exclusive locations, events, and photo assignments. In the future, it will be just a question of “getting in” instead of image quality. It’s as simple as that: if you can’t get in, you won’t do the shoot even if you are the best photographer in the world (and no, nobody will take notice that you have not been there).
Unfortunately, “getting in” is getting tougher and tougher, especially when you are not working for one of the typical channels, e.g. news agencies or big publishers. Just the fact that you can shoot a professional photo is not sufficient to get in any longer – you need to have the distribution as well. I do not see a solution for this problem any time soon. It rather gets worse.
When it comes to press photography, I think the trend towards entertainment can not be ignored for much longer. Today, a press photographer takes a photo just to illustrate a headline or article, not to reveal something or make a serious journalistic statement. While there still are some “real” photo journalists around (e.g. the guys going to Iraq or Afghanistan for the big news agencies), the average photo journalist is reduced to providing content for fast and easy consumption; he serves a stream-lined entertainment industry rather than capturing hard facts.
And even those who submit to the entertainment world will have a hard time to differentiate. On a typical red carpet event, it’s quite usual to see 50 or 60 colleagues shooting the same photos of the same celebreties. Sure, most of them have their channels and probably earn some money from it, but they really do not need any additional competition [e.g., when 50 photographers take just 20 shots each of the same person in the same situation, you end up with 1,000 shots in total. If just 5% of these shots are considered "excellent", any editor will still have 50 shots to chose from].
4. Copyright infringements soar
Thanks to the Internet and digital technology, the perceived value of images is already lower than, say, ten years ago, and it is heading for ‘zero’ very fast. This has further implications, especially when looking at the copyright.
When the average Joe on the street hotlinks an image for his blog, or saves it on the hard disk to build a web site, he is usually not aware of the fact that he is breaching copyright laws, and he does not really care either. There are more than enough platforms that offer free or very cheap image hosting. Flickr, for example, is a heaven for image thieves. Some profiles on Flickr are really just collections of stolen pictures. But Flickr looks away as they are comfortably protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) which requires them to just take down infringing objects once the rightful owner has sent a Notice of Infringement (NOI). As copyright owners can’t possibly find all infringements on a site this big, they just lose out and give up. In 2008, people will continue to download and use photos for free, massively infringing copyrights.
Now, we all know that it still takes time, experience, and equipment to get a good photo done. I would not be surprised if certain Web services/platforms were targeted by photographers for distributing zillions of free, uncredited copies in order to generate revenue. Here I look very much towards industry organizations to step in. It would be great to have a lawsuit like Viacom vs. Youtube, but chances are low. Photography has a too low priority in the eyes of the public.
Thus, individual professional photographers will increasingly defend against copyright infringements with the help of specialized lawyers. They will use the power of the law to get payments for the damages they experience (may the payments come directly from the infringers, or the platforms supporting them). After all, photographers need to earn some money somehow. These photographers will probably supported by cheap services that look for copyright infringers and report the infrigements back to the owners of the protected works. There are already some services in place, but these are still too expensive and too awkward to use. A simple, affordable solution is urgently needed, and I think that in 2008 we will see such services launched. One of my favorites is Attributor.
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Ah, I think it will be an interesting year 2008 for photographers. Good luck for all of us!