If your nonsense-clickbait detection sensors are blinking red, they’re only partially correct! While gear has no mind of its own, it does shape us as photographers, and calls to us in subtle ways.
Get out today, and grab a lens, camera, or lens+camera combo you’ve not used in a long time. Will your photos be the same as what you typically make? I don’t think so.
The ideas in this post came to me while reading an article on the fragmentation of the web. It’s a very interesting discussion about how the very platforms who rose to multi-billion stardom by uniting the “social” planet under very few roofs, are today crumbling away because of their inability to cater to the desires of theme-centric or protocol-centric communities. Their feature set and protocols are now too generic for the more and more numerous specialty communities.
We’re well past Peak Facebook, and unless Elon Musk has genre-defining ideas (he often does) for Twitter, the erosion will spread fast to his 40 billion pet project as well.
It’s hard not to see an analogy with the photo camera market. The success of the mirrorless camera, and Sony’s apparent rocketing up the relative-share podium, was built on the intense promotion of the “do it all” camera. Shooting envelope became the dominant dogma, and content creation, rather than photography, became the promised land. Whatever you want to do, the camera can do it.
This enabled tremendous experimentation, and led to the publication of types of photographs that would previously not have been possible without expensive dedicated gear. In other words, the strategy worked and conquered new territories of expression. Much like Faceter and Twitbook.
But, at the same time, the whole pie shrunk by alarming proportions (-90% in 5 years, more or less) because those pesky outliers who enjoy something different ran off to phones and film. Or, in lesser numbers, to more exotic brands such as Ricoh, Sigma, Leica, Hasselblad … All in search of a different experience.
Of the two types of communities – theme centric and protocol centric – I find the latter far more interesting and pertinent to the analogy with photography.
In truth, though, the two concepts are probably strongly correlated. The type of theme you are interested in dictates a kind of communication protocol. And – more importantly for this post – vice-versa. Extremist anti-democratic keyboard-warriors just need a shout box, while citizen scientists working on collaborative research projects, will require far more elaborate sharing and mapping tools. And photographers, something else again. The article that spawned mine made the interesting point that Twitter’s impending downfall was due to the fact that it used to alienate only the former (extreme-right democracy haters), but the repulsion factor has now spread to far more areas of online discussion.
That might be downplaying Musk’s first-principles ability to reinvent more or less anything, but it seems certain that Twitter in its current form can only go South. And, similarly, the future of the do-it-all camera is severely compromised by it’s makers’ constant refusal to acknowledge that a large proportion of the photographic community has other priorities than “getting the shot”. Unbelievably, said makers are also refusing to acknowledge the voice of the market-share. Innovator’s dilemma?
The most interesting proposition made to save big platforms, that I have read about, it giving users multiple algorithm choices for their feeds. I’d venture that goes for Google, too. Instead of one centralised algorithm reflecting the worldview and business model of the company owners to define the contents of your feed, you’d get to choose between multiple user-defined ones. The challenge would be to couple that with good profitability, but it doesn’t seem impossible to achieve, although it wouldn’t be as optimized.
Likewise, I think it’s protocol (or process) that separates photographers, more than theme or genre. I annoy readers every time I write this but some photographers love (and thrive on) the limitations of film and the surprise of receiving developed images days (or more) later. It’s not for everyone, it’s just one corner of the photo world. Others enjoy haptics, build quality, luxury, quirkiness, novelty, retro, nimble …
Intense quantitative marketing for a decade, relayed by ad-dependent media, has sadly made it almost impossible to survive as a camera manufacturer without following most of the do-it-all protocol precepts (resolution, speed, ISO, you name it). And we’ve seen delightful brands close down because of that. But it hurt its inceptors as well, as communities who couldn’t find solace in niche brands fled to the most generic value of all: simplicity. Hence the rise of the phone camera. This is one downfall the social platforms have at least managed to avoid.
Things get interesting when you realise that same people communicate differently on different networks. The network’s protocol shapes the user, to some extent. Which brings me back to the original idea that we do not produce the same photographs with different gear.
The usual trope goes “gear doesn’t matter, it’s the photographer that counts”. Yet the (good) photographer has created a process in which gear plays an integral part, and gear does matter, a lot. Gear takes us places. I’m not just referring to using a fish-eye lens compared to a 90mm. But the existence of zooms in the range, the speed of the camera, its menu system, its weather sealing, its viewfinder, the lens rendering, the colour science, and more, all condition the sort of photographs we end up making.
And our inner desires, whether conscious or not, attract us to the type of gear that (we think) will enable the sort of photographs we aspire to make. It’s in this sense that I believe that gear – as it is marketed – draws us or repulses us like opposite ends of a magnet.
To summarise. The promise of a greater shooting envelope that created the mirrorless boom may well be crumbling in the same way that all-in-one ‘social’ platforms are. As more and more photographers discover their calling and – more important and more difficult – begin to trust their gut, they might gravitate to more special tools, just like online discussions are shifting to discord and other specialized places.
For those who do not find solace in the mainstream do-it-all lane and do not feel a calling for some clearly defined experience, simplicity (hence the smartphone) has become the default refuge, draining the traditional digital photography market of its blood.
For those who do pine for some special type of shooting or experience, I hope there is still energy and bravery enough in the market to create new, and original cameras. Not only do those draw photographers to them like magnets tuned to their specific dreams and aspirations but, more interestingly, the ‘protocol’ and experience they offer (like film, but in new ways) can also shape the photographers and create new ideas, much like mirrorless encouraged new experimentation.
It’s easier said than done. I’m currently very interested in the Leica SL2-S, but years of pummeling by quantitative marketing have made me insecure about that choice. Simply put, would 24Mp be enough, whatever that means?
But new entrants to the market may feel differently. I do believe that new gear, different gear, can choose its photographers and inspire new ideas in them. Maybe the niche brands that got swept away were not different enough?? Here’s to hoping 🙂
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