This Trend Crept Up On Us

Once again, photographers and especially photography teachers, have been caught napping as the world has shrugged and turned over underneath them.

Not all that long ago, as the century turned so did the photo world as the (to some) promise of digital technology started to come into its own.  Academia often seems, in so many disciplines, to be the last to understand that they have awakened into a new world with new paradigms and the old cliché about “grow or die” is now having an impact on their tidy and snug little domains. It is so much easier to teach with certainty what WAS than to risk dealing with a changing world and reality of what IS, and worse, what IS COMING.  And so it was with digital photography.

Analog, i.e. film and darkroom based photography, had, after all, remained relatively constant for 100 years.  The workflow was unchanged: 1. Developer, 2. Stop/Rinse, 3. Fix, had remained stable with changes only in brands, options for granularity and acutance, sometimes tone, but essentially a teacher in the early 1900s would have no trouble adjusting to the few new options in 2000.  In fact there were fewer in terms of common approaches.  Silver-based emulsions were it except for a few artists who worked in “historic” technologies, many of which were still common in 1900.  So it was not surprising that the very different digital world caught most of them napping.  And they still were napping even when most of the professional world, realizing the expanded artistic options embraced it out from under them.

They were also not prepared for the speed of technological progress.  They were artists not computer geeks and had never heard, for the most part, of a man named Gordon Moore, much less his famous “law” about the growth of computer power that turned out to actually be understated.  And they really didn’t understand that digital photography is ALL about computers.  The so-called camera, the body of which is simply a bone to photographers who could not deal with a keyboard ala the original Foveon Studio Camera – a Compac laptop with a Canon Lens hung on a yoke – is, in fact, a camera-shaped computer with a lens mounted on it.  Computer image files are processed on a computer.  Output is by computer or even a computer-driven printer.  What they all saw as a toy in 2000 totally surprised them when, following Moore’s Law, it morphed rapidly into an image-making tool ready to compete with their traditional gear and eventually surpass it on virtually every measurable characteristic less than 10 years later.  The pro shooters “got it” because competition demanded it, but, alas, the artists and educators were slower to loosen their grasps on older technology.  When Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a pioneer photo artist and educator from the Bauhaus said it seemed “…indispensable that modern artists go to work with up-to-date tools” they thought it meant up to HIS date and no later.

Let me be clear here: we teach darkroom/film based photography at City because when taught as a foundation, the imposed deliberation involved in that process seems to consistently produce better photographers.  But we are an “applied” (meaning vocational though that term is in disfavor) program and to produce viable commercial photographers at the advanced or even intermediate levels, the world is digital.

So it should, I suppose be no surprise that other aspects of the computer age also slipped under their radar.  The incredibly expanding and ever more powerful internet – the world-wide web – has been a factor of immense power in the development of photography and its dissemination.  And it has been a major contributor to the next trend already underway and being equally ignored throughout photo academia.  That trend is motion capture and presentation.

Let me give you an example of the “then” versus “now” world that has underwritten this trend.  I started producing video, as an adjunct to my still work, in 1983 when a client agency told me (not “asked” me) that I was going to fly to Oklahoma from Denver in two weeks and produce a video for an engineering company for whom I had shot a brochure a few months prior.  I confess it was, looking back, terrible; it was a “slideshow on tape” because I did not understand motion.  But it hooked me as offering the chance to incorporate new and untried elements of motion, sound, time, etc. that are isolated out of a still shot.  I loved its storytelling power.  But there were major obstacles.

First of all it was stunningly expensive to get geared up.  In 1988 I swapped my ¾” U-Matic gear for a Sony Beta-SP camera.  The camera BODY listed for over $36,000.  The lens was a Fujinon 18:1 servo zoom with a build in 2x doubler and listed for about $8,750.00 and that was not, by far, the most expensive of available lenses!  Then there was audio gear equaling another few $Thousand, grip and rigging gear, lighting… on and on.  Pretty quickly we were talking real money.  I had rented gear until I had contracts in hand for jobs where the rental fee equaled the purchase price.  For its day that Beta-SP camera produced beautiful NTSC formatted video. In fact it was still a very useable piece of video kit when I “retired” in 2000 to come to San Diego to teach.

To add to the production costs even a simple corporate video was shot with a crew of usually 3-5 people (not counting on-screen talent) each of whom was an expert in their particular jobs.  On a shoestring budget you might – MIGHT – try to pull it off with two people but you always regretted it and under no circumstances would you try to be a one-man-band; an approach doomed to failure.

Editing your original footage required some serious equipment (some editing houses had over a Million dollars (in 1980s dollars) invested in their edit bays) so usually you used an editing service that itself was quite expensive, often over $300.00 PER HOUR, and you typically budgeted an hour of editing time per finished running minute of programming.  Do the math…

But what could you DO with that video once you created it?  Unless, like me, you were producing for a client who would then disseminate copies to staff or clients or customers or whomever as needed, or unless you had the funding to produce a piece for a film festival (and then it needed to be ON FILM) all you could do is shoot something fun and invite people over to watch it.  If you were not shooting for pay the economics were tough especially when figured per viewer return where there WAS NO return.

Consequently, that field of work remained fairly exclusive unto itself and only a few of us worked in both stills and motion.  Boy has that changed and it is sweeping the world of professional photography along with it.  Formatting made possible by new TV technology has left standard NTSC 4:3 “academy” video in the dust with newer 16:9 wide screen in 1080p (Full High Definition or FHD) and even 4K (Ultra High Definition or UHD) and now even higher resolutions on special digital cinema cameras.  And to really stir the pot, with some limitations, video with that amazing resolution, can be captured on a medium to high-end DSLR costing around (and under) $2,000.00.  Even serious cinema capable video cameras can be purchased for under $10,000.00 and truthfully, you can match the best broadcast and cable TV production for around $5,000.00 for a camera while still using your high quality DSLR lenses.

High quality audio gear is equally less expensive.  And what was once the domain of extremely expensive editing houses with multiple tape format drives, duplication machines (working in real time), and very expensive DVE (Digital Video Effects) machines, can now ALL be done on a desktop for a few hundred dollars for the software.

And what can you do with it?  Why you can let the world see it for very low cost or even FREE over such web sites as Vimeo and YouTube.  Imbedding a video presentation into a web site or even a social media site, in the current world of common broadband internet, is easy.

And all of that has subtly but drastically changed the world of professional photography in ways that schools especially are not yet waking up to address.  What is a problem is that the clients of professional photographers across a wide spectrum of genres from weddings to events to serious commercial advertising HAVE taken notice.  Increasingly often clients, who seem to know that there is a video switch on the camera body, are asking the primary photographer to include a video component to a job, or worse yet, want to add it to an otherwise agreed to job “While you’re here…”

Statistics taken after Christmas of 2016 showed that nearly 60% of all online customer interaction was due to video, a number expected to jump to nearly 80% in as little as two years.  A survey of major company CEOS showed that over 75% of them now understood the value of video in customer marketing and service AND INTENDED TO IMPLEMENT IT and that number too was on the rise.

So what is the problem?  The problem is that we, the photo educators, are not addressing this new world and neither are the educators in fields like RTV or Mass Communication.  Those fields may be teaching students how to operate the gear but it is for ENG (electronic news gathering) approaches like news, events and even some wedding productions or their EFP (Electronic Field Production) is designed for experimental or short entertainment films or documentary projects.  They leave them with no knowledge of shooting and editing for the primary purpose of selling someone ELSE’S products or services.

If we do not quickly address this new world in the programs ostensibly dedicated to vocational photography, we are cheating our students and they will be left in the dust to competitors who have figured it out and learned how to operate in this new world.

At City we frankly, and to my dismay, failed in our first attempt to convince administration that the RTV program, good as it may be at teaching budding news shooters and film makers, did not address the needs of our graduating vocational photographers whose jobs were to produce content to help market a client’s goods or services or processes.  It is a situation we simply cannot allow to stand… more on it later as we continue to try to convince admin of this growing need.

But in the meantime, I will be giving a day long presentation through George’s Camera in San Diego specifically on “Video for Still Shooters” on January 28th.   And I’ve been asked to give presentations at the SD Fair and at a Fall Film Festival on the same topic.  If you want to explore this changing new world, sign up for the presentation at George’s on the 28th (its on EventBrite).  Their room is small so sign up now while there is still some room.


Shooting good video takes more than a switch on a camera.  It takes a new mindset that incorporates the potentials of the motion world.  These presentations will at least aim you down the right paths to entering this new visual world.  There is a link at the top of the page with more information on the workshop. Here is the direct link to Eventbrite’s listing.



About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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