Disruptive Technology

I’ve had this concept stuck in my head lately. It’s one of those concepts that sounds a bit strange at first but once you understand it, you see it all around you. Disruptive Technology is meant to describe any new technology that changes (or disrupts) the established business practice or human behavior. Now that you know what it means, you’ll see it everywhere. Personal Computers. Cell phones. The Internet. Smartphones. Facebook. Hybrid and electric cars. Some of these are more mature in their state of development but all have or will change the way we do things. Cell phones are well on their way to replacing land lines entirely. How many people do you know that no longer have a land line? Smartphones have become an almost essential part of a modern life. I recently left my smartphone at home by accident and felt like I was missing my right arm. Hybrid and electric cars are slowly becoming mainstream and will most likely (hopefully!) replace oil in moving us around. Facebook has changed the way we interact and stay in touch with friends and family (or do business).

Okay, so you get it. Disruptive tech is all around us. But this is a photo blog. What does this have to do with photography? Everything. Digital cameras may be the ultimate disruptive technology. Everybody takes photos. We all used to use film to take photos. How many people are using film these days? Almost nobody. Maybe a handful of niche photographers and some reluctant holdouts. All the pro photographers I know are using digital. I haven’t shot a frame of film for s years. Digital is so compelling that it has completely changed the way professional and amateur photographers work. Okay, so what. What’s so disruptive about that? Tons. For starters, Kodak has gone bankrupt. Think about that. Kodak was THE establishment in the photo world. Not anymore. That business model is gone.

That’s one obvious change. Here are some not so obvious changes. Journalism has been upended by the average Joe with their camera phone. Everyone has a phone with a camera now. Tons of events were missed in the past because nobody used to carry a camera with them all the time, including me. How many times have people documented something that would have been missed in the past with a big social impact?

But digital has also made the photo learning curve much steeper. In other words, the instant feedback of digital allows budding photographers to learn from their mistakes much quicker. That instant feedback on your photos (to a degree, not completely) is an incredible learning tool. I’ve always said that photography uses both the left and right side of our brains…technical and creative. In the past, the technical part of photography has scared a lot of creative people away. Now the technology has made learning and shooting easier. People who can master the technical side still have an advantage but the bar is much lower than with film.

This has had all sorts of unintended consequences. There are now more people trying to be professional photographers. And more amateurs shooting with dSLRs trying to sell their photos, or give them away just to say they can get published. Photo rates have dropped, especially for stock photos. Enter iStockphoto, the bane of professional stock photographers. iStockphoto has driven stock rates so low, many photographers who used to make a living off of selling stock have quit the business and moved on to careers that actually pay. Some photographers are in the strange situation where they are selling photos for well below the cost of making them, subsidizing the end user. I’ve seen Rights Managed photo sales through Corbis and Getty that are in the $1 range. You can bet it costs a lot more than $1 to take an image. And then there is the time involved in getting images edited and posted for sale. How much does that cost? Too much to sell for $1.

But having more people shooting and selling has had a big net increase in the creativity of current photography compared to a few years ago. I can say personally that having new photographers nipping at my heels has kept me sharp and helped me push myself creatively. Luckily, I’ve never counted much on stock photography for income.

Another change that digital photography has made is in tonal range. Pro shooters in the past would mostly shoot slides (or transparencies as we called them). Transparencies had a tonal range of about 5 stops from dark to light. This was a limiting factor in shooting, both in how and what could be photographed. The current batch of digital cameras has a tonal range of 8 or more stops of tonal range. This is a huge increase and has opened up a lot of creative options.

In the past, any photographer who knew anything would avoid shooting higher than about 400 ISO (or ASA) film (journalists being the exception here). Film at high ISOs became so grainy as to be worthless. The best cameras now have ISOs up to 100,000, with very usable results up to 12,800. Again, this gives photographers the ability to shoot things that were just not doable with film ‘technology’. Living in the Northwest, I find myself shooting fast sports in dark rainforests a lot in the past few years. I couldn’t have done this five or six years ago because the high ISOs necessary were too noisy. Great high ISO performance is a big reason there are so many photogs out there shooting those amazing star images, another creative option that wasn’t available 6 or 7 years ago.

Probably the newest change in digital photography is the high quality HD video coming from dSLRs. Canon introduced Full HD video in the 5D Mark II for photojournalists. It’s had the unintended consequence of creating an entire new way of shooting video, and it’s been a wildfire of budding and very creative videographers ever since. All new industries are popping up to support video from dSLRs. I know videographers who are changing formats because their clients are demanding the beautiful shallow depth of field look from dSLR video. Photographers (including me) are now wading into or and becoming big players in the video market (see Vincent Laforet).

I’m a parent and have learned that with kids, the only thing that stays constant is change. We are lucky to be living in a time of constant technological change. But as creators, we need to adopt and adapt technology or be left behind.

Smartphone Apps for Photography

We’ve all seen lists of gear that photographers use when shooting. It’s a myriad of lenses, filters, camera bodies and lighting equipment that can be mind boggling. Smartphones are now an essential piece of gear for photography. And I’m not talking about using your phone to shoot photos. I’m talking about all the apps that I regularly use when I’m shooting. Many of these have replaced old hardware and put it all in one portable device. Below is a list of my favorite apps. FYI I’m using an Android phone (I managed to achieve escape velocity from planet Apple) but all of these apps are also available for iPhone.

1. Easy Release – Model Releases are important to get the most out of every photo I shoot. Easy Release has been around for a few years and is accepted by stock agencies. Forget paper model releases, this is the way to go. The model, photographer, and a witness all sign the release on the phone. It can add a photo of the model in the release then email a PDF to the photographer and the model. It’s so easy that I’ve done model releases in the tent at the end of a day of shooting in the alpine. It just makes getting a model release so much easier. Android version here.

2. DOF calculator – This app will give you precise depth of field information for the camera, focal length, and aperture you are using in a quick look up table. Android version here.

3. Smart Compass – When shooting landscape photos, I need to know where the sun will rise and set to anticipate the light. Android page here.

4. Angry Birds Star Wars – just kidding. This one is for my kids. Really.

5. Dolphin browser – I like this better than the native browser app for Android. It has tabs and I like the swipe motion to bring up favorites. As an outdoor photographer, accessing weather information when I’m shooting is essential. Android version here.

6. Avalanche Forecast – I haven’t used this one in the field yet since it just came out for Android. But this will be a very useful tool when I shoot in the backcountry…which should be very soon. The app aggregates avalanche forecast information from all avalanche centers in the US and Canada. Check it before you head into the backcountry, then it will cache the information when you lose your data service. Android and iPhone.

7. Instagram – of course. No explanation necessary. Android version here.

8. Photo Editor – I rarely will edit anything on my phone, but if I do, this is what I use. Android version here.

9. Sundroid – Great for landscape photography. It will give sunrise/set and moonrise/set information for any location in the world on any date. I use this all the time. Android version here.

10. Tide Chart – Again for shooting landscape images, it will give tide information for any number of locations and date. Android version here.

11. Swiftkey – This isn’t a photo app but will increase your productivity if you use your phone to email or text a ton. It’s a keyboard app (not available for iPhone!) that not only predicts the current word you are typing but will suggest the next word you want. It learns your typing patterns and words you use a lot and it’s an incredible time saver. It also has swipe option. Android version here.

12. Aurora Buddy – Do you want to photograph the northern lights? Then it helps to know when the Aurora Borealis will be making an appearence! This app will tell you how likely it is to appear in the Northern sky. Android page here.

13. Google Earth – A great tool for trip planning. The smartphone version isn’t the full version of a desktop but still is great to have handy. Android version here.