The Era of Diminished Expectations in Photography


Today’s photography market is flooded with functional images that wash over us without impact. They may do the “trick” for cash-crunched art directors and editors — but they have no magic.

They are “good enough” images at a time when being “good enough” seems to be all that matters.

The Economics of “Good Enough”

It’s simple economics, I suppose. When people are asked to perform the same work for less compensation, they try to crank out more product in less time to make up the difference. Volume becomes more important and quality less.

So it is for photographers today.

When amateurs entered the commercial stock market via microstock, they were lucky. There was a big, unmet need for low-cost, “good enough” images, and these amateurs were just good enough to produce them.

But if you wanted to make real money, as opposed to lunch money, microstock was all about volume. The more “good enough” images you could upload in the shortest amount of time, the better your chances of making a buck.

And so now the Web is flooded with these images. And budget-constrained image buyers seem quite satisfied with that.

This mentality isn’t confined to stock photography, however. Photojournalism, celebrity, sports, portraits, weddings — every aspect of the photography world has been affected.

Look at Time and Newsweek, for example. They once took pride in the images they published. Now, they are chock-full of photos from wire services, the supreme masters of the “good enough.”

Web sites, of course, use images by the pound. Quality is an afterthought, if it is thought of at all.

This land of the “good enough” is a comfort zone for everyone. Deadlines are met, budgets aren’t busted — and expectations are diminished.

What We Lose

So, what’s so bad about living in an era of diminished expectations?

Well, quality suffers, obviously. Since it is not rewarding anymore for photographers to spend a lot of time on images, no one really does. If someone is happy with a half-done job, then that is great.

Perfectionist photographers pay the heaviest price, as their market is quickly slipping away.

The audience for images suffers, too. Consumers simply don’t get to see great pictures anymore. They are served up illustrations that fill a need, functionality and nothing more.

For photography lovers, this is a real loss.

But for everyone else? Who knows, maybe today’s audience figures it gets what its pays for — especially online, where all the content is free. Diminished expectations all around.

We can hope that when the economy improves, we will see a resurgence of the exceptional, an opening in the market for great photography.

For now, though, it looks like we will have to settle for “good enough” and dream of a more interesting future.


7 Responses to “The Era of Diminished Expectations in Photography”

  1. Was the point of this article to suggest a way to differentiate ourselves as photographers, or just bemoan the changes of an industry?

  2. I agree that there is a lot of "good enough" buying/selling going on in the industry. There is an over-saturation of "newbie" photographers. I'm probably one of them. I strive to be great...while probably being "good enough" most of the time. As I learn and grow as a photographer, my work will improve, hopefully to greatness. The really great will be recognized as such, the horrible will be recognized as such and the middle-class or "good enough" photographers will either move up or give up. It is an evolving industry and always has been. The trend is nothing new...it's just in larger numbers. The push by camera manufacturers to sell goods and the advancements in technology make it easier for the average person to become a "photographer" and get published (even if it is only on the web). The future will include a whole new breed of photographers who have never seen a roll of film or a darkroom. It will also include the old-school greats who have adapted and embraced change and modern technology--and who have learned to use it to advance their greatness. I do not believe that expectations have been diminished...those who get it, will see greatness. Those who don't will accept "good enough".

  3. Sorry I just beg to differ. I had studios 25 years ago. While it took more training and skill and to some degree nerve in those days, there were a lot of photographers who had little talent but were good at sales and marketing. Portrait and wedding photography is so much more sophisticated now. The freedom to take chances try new stuff and be inspired by others over the web along with the ease of use of the camera's has led to fabulous photography. There is so much more media being seen with the explosion of both online webs and blogs and offline magazines that there may be more poor stuff out there, but there is so much more great work being done today.
    The demand for immediate results may decrease "perfection" but to tell you the truth few people can see the difference between perfect and good enough, and most of those of us who can, just don't have the time to worry about it!

  4. We live in the age of the iPhone shooter. We live in the age of people that normally would be shooting with P&S cameras going out with an dSLR and kit lens shooting weddings. We live in an age where jobs and money are being taken from people that cared enough about the craft to learn and hone their skills before calling themselves a professional by people that simply shoot in green box mode and run the shots through a cross-processing filter.

    Simply put, cameras and high end equipment are cheaper, easier to use, and readily available to the masses. Quantity does not equal quality nor does speed. In an age where information and news travel as fast as a text message from a phone with an 8mp camera the talent pool is being diluted.

    I will say that I don't agree with dwelling on the matter but I am also not for pretending that the problem doesn't exist. The news is always going to take the fastest pictures they can get their hands on. We have to change or we will die.

    Portrait work, weddings, etc...well we can shine there.So what sets us apart from the folks with entry level cameras shot in green box mode? It is very simple ladies and gents, understanding of light and how to manipulate it.

    Our work will speak for itself and people will have to find out the hard way that you get what you pay for.

  5. Speaking as an amateur, I just have to say, that when I manage to get a picture that I am totally satsified with (usually 1 to 5 out of 500 taken), the personal satsifaction you get is gratifying. The picture was not touched up in any way, shape or form by photoshop and fancy lenses, backdrops, etc. Trying to learn how to take a great picutre really does test your patience. When I look at professional pictures, and then see all of the alterations that have taken place . . . this feels a little bit like cheating to me. Anyway, just sharing my thoughts.

  6. But Mr. Melcher got you all thinking...Bemoaning or dwelling. Will you now try to better than average?

  7. D Wunchel,

    Are you saying that your pictures as an amateur are somehow better than the pictures taken by professionals because they retouch vs. you being happy with your pictures off camera?

    Here is the difference between the two pictures as I see it. It takes you 500 shots to get one keeper where it takes a seasoned pro 1 shot to nail it, because often that is all there is time for.

    Dumb Luck does not equal skill but you should still be proud of your shot and learn. Thinking you have it all figured out is a good way of not improving.

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