Pro photographers' loss, but amateurs' gain

Sure, the digital revolution has undermined the professional photography business--but it's also empowered a whole lot of others.

In a Guardian column earlier this year, Andrew Brown lamented the hard times that have befallen professional photographers. What caused the "death of an honorable profession," he argues, is an army of mostly mediocre shooters posting millions of shots at Flickr and selling to advertising agencies via "microstock" sites. Few make a living at the latter, but their gravy is "bread taken from the mouths of professionals," Brown said.

I think he has a point. But I think he misses another, less gloom-and-doom aspect of the digital photography revolution: the innumerable amateurs who are discovering, rediscovering or reinventing photography.

Sure, a pro photographer may be unhappy that the businesspeople-gathered-around-a-laptop photo she used to license for $300 now can be had for $3. But on the flip side, any number of folks with some talent and spare time now have a side business selling photos on microstock sites such as Fotolia, iStockphoto and SnapVillage. It sure beats stuffing envelopes.

Although the Internet has made microstocks feasible, it's also meant that pros can reach much broader markets on their own. That probably helps landscape photographers whose work has broader appeal than, say, a news or portrait photographer who relies on a local market, but it's a silver lining that shouldn't be overlooked.

But what I find most intriguing about the digital revolution is how it's helped amateur photography. One friend of mine is delighted to have rediscovered in digital photography the artistic opportunities of the darkroom that he'd largely abandoned after college. Adobe Systems' Photoshop Lightroom, Apple's Aperture, and a raft of high-performance but affordable digital SLRs are powerful tools. Sites such as Flickr provide shooters with communities to like-minded folks interested in everything from throwing cameras in the air to black-and-white pictures taken with a Holga camera. Technology also is opening new frontiers in panoramas, high dynamic range imagery, and "geotagging" photos with location data.

Granted, a lot of this is in the fine-art or hobbyist arena rather than photojournalism. But I strongly suspect that in the long run, creating an army of active, interested amateurs will ultimately help the photography profession more than it will hurt it.

(Via Photoshop Senior Product Manager John Nack.)