In terms of photography, we live in a highly disruptive age. Electronic imagery began replacing film at the end of the 1990s and we began to see all sorts of devices that can replace traditional cameras.
These disruptions have been accelerated by the fact that the vast majority of photos nowadays are shared online rather than with physical prints or publication in magazines. In addition to that, thanks to the Internet, print magazines themselves are going out of business or are facing the loss of circulation and advertising revenue.
All of this is great news for the majority of people who enjoy shooting and sharing photos. Their ability to capture images and share them nowadays is virtually limitless. But this new world of photography is a problem for professional photographers who have spend years learning their craft, investing in equipment and trying to earn a living from their craft. For them, it is as if they were living on a peaceful island when suddenly a volcano started erupting leaving no place to run or hide.
But this is just the latest disruption in photography since its beginning in the 1830s and 1840s. In fact, this kind of fundamental change hasbeen a fact of life for photographers on a regular basis over the past 180 years or so. Photography is based on technology and technology is always changing and evolving. And this is true in the 21st century at an ever increasing rate.
WET PLATE COLLODIAN PROCESS
The first widespread photographic process was the daguerreotype introduced by Los Daguerre in 1839. This involved a complex process in which “a daguerreotypist would polish a sheet of silver-plated copper to a mirror finish, treat it with fumes that made its surface light sensitive, expose it in a camera for as long as was judged to be necessary, which could be as little as a few seconds for brightly sunlit subjects or much longer with less intense lighting; make the resulting latent image on it visible by fuming it with mercury vapor; remove its sensitivity to light by liquid chemical treatment, rinse and dry it, then seal the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure.” (Wikipedia).
But this type of photography was essentially supplanted by 1860 by a simpler and more practical process called wet plate collodian. This involved coating a glass plate with a photo sensitive emulsion, exposing it in a camera and then using chemicals to develop a negative image. A daguerreotype is a one-off photograph which can’t be duplicated. The wet plate colloidal process resulted in a negative which could be used to make as many prints as required.
Photographers who specialized in daguerreotypes for 20 years found their business and craft disrupted by this new technology and either had to adapt or find another profession.
DRY PLATE GELATIN PROCESS
The wet plate process had lots of advantages over the daguerreotype but it involved some complex procedures. The plates had to be coated with an emulsion immediately before making an exposure and developed soon after. This meant a photographer needed easy access to some kind of darkroom. When shooting on location this necessitated the use of some kind of portable darkroom such as in a wagon.
But technology soon provided an improvement to this technology in the form of the dry plate gelatin process. A dry plate could be coated with this new type of emulsion that did not require immediate exposure or development. Plates could be coated and stored and then kept for some time after being used before development in the darkroom.
So starting in 1871 photographers found the technology much easier to use and the plates were also much more sensitive to light than the dry plates had been. There was a certain learning curve necessary to switch from dry to wet plate technology but this was much easier than what the daguerrotype photographers had been faced with.
The first flexible film was sold by George Eastman in 1885. This was originally an emulsion coated on a paper base but then replaced by transparent plastic in 1889. Rolls of film allowed for multiple photos to be shot one after another. But sheets of film could be used by photographers in view cameras, sometimes in very large sizes, rather than having to rely on individually coated glass plates as before.
The technology of film continued to evolve for more than 100 years but the process remained basically the same. But the invention of film on a roll also made possible a democratization of shooting images where individuals no longer had to go to a professional photographer to get photos made.
With the invention of the snapshot box camera they could shoot them themselves.
THE KODAK BROWNIE
In 1900 Kodak introduced a roll film camera for the masses called the Brownie. Customers purchased a small snapshot camera with a roll of film already installed. This was a simple device with a fixed lens, no focusing necessary. With the first cameras the customer would send the entire camera to Kodak, which would develop the film and return the camera newly loaded and a set of prints. Later on the customers only had to send in the film and could load in a new roll of film themselves.
The development of a snapshot camera was highly disruptive to professional photography. For the first time, individuals could shoot photos themselves and did not need to rely on the services of a pro photographer. So photographers whose business depending on such things as individuals and families coming to their studios to book photo sessions and order prints found a lot less demand for their services.
Of course, the Brownie and other snapshot cameras had very low quality lenses that did not produce very high quality images. Over time technology produced film equipment other than large-format view cameras that allowed for much easier mobile yet still high quality photography. The Graflex company produced a number of reflex and press cameras that dominated the field for decades. Look at old movies in which there are press photographers and you’ll see cameras like the Speed Graphic and other similar cameras.
LEICA AND ROLLEIFLEX
High quality mobile photography was made a lot easier in the 1930s with the introduction of the 35MM Leica in a form that is still recognizable today. The Ernst Leitz Optische Werke first created a form of this very small camera in 1907. The modern Leica was introduced in 1932 and featured interchangeable and very high quality Leitz lenses and 35MM roll film that allowed for 36 exposures before reloading.
This camera was a game changer. News and documentary photographers no longer had rely on larger cameras like the Speed Graphic and other traditional press cameras. Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson roamed the world capturing “decisive moments,” the Leica went into combat in WWII and magazines began featuring photos shot by smaller cameras instead of the more traditional larger format equipment.
A high quality camera that shot 120, medium format film rather than 35MM was the twin lens reflex Rolleiflex. This was a favorite of photographers who wanted mobility and the multi-exposure capability of film but also a large size negative than provided by 35MM.
Up until the 1930s most photographs were in black and white. There had been numerous experiments in shooting color images for a long time, but in 1935 Kodak introduced Kodachrome, a three color process in which there are no color dyes in the film itself but the with the color added later to a matrix created by the photographic exposure. This process created a rich and archival image of a quality unmatched by none other except for Technicolor, which essentially used the same color process.
Once photographers had Kodachrome and other types of color film to work with the market for their work changed dramatically. As with movies, color became the standard with BW relegated to occasional use and special purposes such as fine art. Shooting color requires a different sensibility than BW so most photographers had to develop this kind of eye if they wanted to stay in business.
We all know about the age of digital photography because we are in it. Digital cameras and technology are in a constant state of evolution. My first digital camera was 6 megapixels. Today DSLRs are commonly 20 megapixels or more and some digital cameras can create files of more than 100 megapixels.
But the real impact of digital is not limited to the availability of high end professional equipment. Often change and innovation is by the software even more than the hardware. A program like Photoshop is a technological marvel and so sophisticated that even experienced users often have no idea of what the program is capable of. Plus there are many other programs for RAW conversion and digital processing, many of which provide plug-ins to allow for integration with Photoshop. This means that photographers have to increasingly work on continuing their education in processing and post production in order to keep up.
BTW, a great resource for learning all things digital is lynda.com, a website which provides tutorials on almost everything digital you can imagine and which can be joined on a monthly or yearly basis.
But a continuing source of disruption remains the camera equipment itself. When it comes to pro level cameras, during the film days you could keep working with the same Leica or Nikon F for decades, only upgrading if you wanted additional automatic bells and whistles. The camera and the lens did not become obsolete.
Nowadays pro equipment changes so rapidly that you need to upgrade every few years if you want state of the art. Plus there are innovations in terms of the types of cameras available. There are medium format cameras available for the highest level of photography but at huge expense. But the dominant type of pro camera for some years as been the DSLR. Currently there is a shift in the direction of mirrorless cameras, which are much smaller, using smaller lenses and yet produce extremely high quality files.
These days smart phone cameras have improved so much they are even being used to shoot feature films. And this improvement in smart phone technology will certainly continue.
But for a lot of online uses nowadays the highest quality files are not necessary. Who cares about the technical quality of an Instagram photo? Do Facebook users react to photos on the basis of their photographic excellence? As things are going the vast majority of “middle use” photos do not need to be shot by trained photographers. It’s true that big budget photo shoots for ad agencies and other commercial clients still need the services of highly qualified photographers, but these jobs are few and far between and not available to most photographers.
So digital photography has resulted in a huge disruption to photography in general and to the business of professional photography most specially.
THE FUTURE: PHOTO AND VIDEO CONVERGENCE
We’ve seen digital supplement film photography and are watching DSLRs being challenged by mirrorless cameras – and in my cases smart phone cameras. But there has been a parallel evolution when it comes to shooting videos. The old studio cameras like those from Panavision have been replaced by digital equipment that is hugely cheaper and doesn’t require the added cost of film and processing.
The jump in video has been made from 2K resolution to 8K and who knows what the future holds? There is nothing yet to match the quality of 70MM film but no doubt this will be achieved in time. So what has this to do with still photographers?
Until recently, the individual frames created by a video camera were not the equivalent of high-megapixel still cameras. With as really high resolution video cameras continue to be developed and introduced, each frame of the video can be outputted as high resolution still images. So this can well change the way photographers work. They wil be able to shoot a series of images of a subject as a video file and just pick an individual frame or frames to use as still images. “Decisive moments” will no longer be the objective. You can shoot a lot of moments and just pick the ones you decide are the most decisive.
One technological obstacle to this has been processing speed and the requirement for huge amounts of digital storage. But processing speeds are increasing and digital storage is getting cheaper and cheaper. Shooting, storing and processing RAW video is becoming increasingly affordable and practical.
This technology will probably not be available in smart phones for some time. So the new convergent photography will likely be undertaken by professional photographers who can afford the necessary cameras and computers.
At least for a while.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: