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.