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The Future

One of the more alarming predictions made at last year's Photokina was the suggestion that by 1998, half of us freelance photograpers would be out of work as a result of digital technology. With 1998 also being designated "The Year of Photography and the Electronic Image", will it unofficially become known as "The Year of Digital Technology and the Unemployed Photographer?" Mark Middlebrook of Silicon Imaging (who we interviewed for the CD ROM) thinks a more realistic prediction would be 35% fewer freelance photographers in two to five years time, but is at pains to point out that he does not believe this necessarily means fewer photographs will be used. Freelance photographic businesses will diminish unless photographers are prepared to adjust to the future trends in the commissioning and purchasing of images. Our industry is certainly facing a major shake-up as a consequence of digital technology, but one can forsee this creating new opportunities which will enable photographers to diversify and carve out new careers for themselves rather than become redundant.

Contents

The production process is no longer a linear chain of events - starting with a photographer producing the photograph, designer making a positional scan, laying out the page and finally sending the artwork on disc and original images to be re-scanned and assembled at the printers. If the photographer shoots digitally or supplies a digital file, this can speed up the whole production process enormously. In the past, services to the publishing / advertising industries were clearly defined. Everyone is now capable of using digital technology in some form or other and each is eager to defend their corner of the market. These days, no single business is able to maintain a monopoly on the type of service they provide, because a consequence of the technology is that we all have the means to do someone elses job. Repro houses, still smarting from the loss of their typesetting business to Mac-literate designers are not keen to see their scanning business disappear too. Photographer and Association member Carl Lyttle, experienced this stubbornness when recently supplying digital files (with print proofs) ready to go to press. He had endless problems thrown back at him by the printers, who were clearly unwilling to communicate the necessary information that would have enabled Carl to get the files to them correctly first time round. Much of the "I know what I'm talking about more than you do" posturing is a nervous reaction to an uncertain future. Smart businesses will rise above all this by adapting to change and working together with us to produce the best work at the most economical price. Although it is inevitable we rub up against each other, we must deal with this in a constructive not destructive way. Alternatively, the designer may utilise a high quality in house scanner suitable for repro scanning and may wish to use the electronic tools to create original artwork themselves.

Creative control

This is a thorny issue for photographers who are concerned about losing creative control. Fran Evelegh used to rely heavily on intricate darkroom and hand colouring skills to produce her images. Then one year she experienced a 50% drop in commissions and noticed art directors requesting she supply unfinished prints, so they could colour them in on the computer themselves. Fran's response was to learn Live Picture, and run it on the fastest Mac she could lay her hands on. Her first major project was a success - the story of how it comprised over 900 separate layers still does the rounds today, but the point is she recouped her investment within 6 months and more importantly, regained creative control of her images. Not only that, but Fran now provides a corporate brochure design service of her own which she is able to do using her computer system. Business is not only booming, but the approach she takes to her work is more integrated and image led, which her clients love.

In the future, it may become harder to define the difference between a photographer and an illustrator. We will see a greater diffusion between the boundaries of photography, illustration and graphic design. A few Association members like Iain McKinnell, now describe themselves as photo-illustrators. British graphic design is the best in the world and many designers incorporate their own photographs or flat bed scan art techniques within their typographic design. The pictures chosen to illustrate this issue of Image demonstrate the wide variety of ways that digital technology can be applied to the image making business: 3-D computer rendered images, digital capture, photographers teaming up with computer designers and people like Fran, who are clearly au fait with the computer post-editing process.

Investment
Photographers will out of necessity have to invest in digital equipment: Digital capture, modem/ISDN connections, video conferencing facilities and so on. As with all digital things, performance goes up and prices are coming down. But to keep ahead of the competition, the very latest new technology will always come at a premium price and studios will need to re-equip every two years. The investment is going to be beyond the means of most individual photographers - the answer could be for photography businesses to amalgamate and share the financial cost. Pressure to do so will come from clients. Bates Dorland advertising agency has invested in digital technology. They are very aware of the increased efficiency this offers and similarly hope that the photographers they work with, will equip themselves for the future and participate at some, if not complete, digital level. In Germany there is a catalogue company that penalises photographers who are not able to supply digital files as final artwork. Paul Webster, who is Art Director of Sainsbury's "The Magazine" is also gearing up his magazine to require the same of the photographers he commissions, because "it is going to make my life a lot easier."

Photographers as a whole do not respond well to such arm twisting tactics unless they can see a logical reason to comply. People selling Digital kit have often underestimated the cynicism of photographers. Those who proudly claiming "film is dead" probably once informed you fibre base would die too with the advent of resin coated paper. Of the limited number of digital repro camera sales made in the UK so far, few have gone to photographic studios. Most sales have been to repro businesses, who are aiming to provide an integrated service that will include copying flat artwork and some product photography. Companies such as these have established links supplying repro services to large organisations and are now seeking to expand their range of services by offering digital photography as an alternative to commisioning a photographer shooting film. They are well able to afford the high investment cost of digital cameras and provide a faster and cheaper photographic service to the client. But what about the quality? That1s for the end client to decide and it seems that some are happy to accept lower standards at a cheaper price. Fusion (based in Primrose Hill) provide an integrated design service. Founded by Brian McMahon, a photographer, all the production work at every stage is carried out by a specialist in that field: Photographers produce the photographs, and designers take care of the production. Vincent Flynn of Colour Solutions is also of the opinion that companies adopting the Jack of all trades approach will not survive. In the long run, there will be a trend towards employing skilled photographers to shoot digitally on a permanent or freelance basis.

One obvious change that most of our members will be aware of, is the growth of stock photography usage, including royalty free CD libraries. The Internet has proven a useful marketing tool of stock images. In the United States over 50% of screen based image purchases are made on the Net. So we are seeing more photographers selling their work through picture libraries and consequently the standards required of submissions are much higher than say a few years ago. The Internet may further this trend for screen based image buying if the bandwidth can be increased to make the process faster. ie: we all want free ISDN connections (or anything else that will speed up the transfer of data). Though the more popular the net becomes, the slower it gets. But, in theory if you could access a preview of any image anywhere in the world with a powerful search engine, quickly, just think of the implications!

Implications for the future
Does any of this really affect us? The low to middle range of the market should be most concerned - especially product shot photographers . Those who work at the top end, may continue to choose to use whatever means they like to achieve the results seen in the portfolio. If your style of work can only be achieved by soaking prints in a bath of strong Darjeeling, then carry on doing so. Good art directors will be guided by the photographer and allow them to decide which techniques they need to employ and clients will have to accept the photographers judgement on these matters as to whether film or digital is best. At the very least, it will soon be imperative for every photographer to install a computer with a colour flatbed scanner hooked up to the Internet via a modem connection, just as we all need to have a fax to communicate with our clients.

Film is here to stay for a long time especially for fashion and portraiture, until digital technology can match what we have now in terms of speed and portability. As Chris Jackson of Metro says, "if all the world knew was digital and suddenly film was invented, we'd all think it was amazing - 2 gigabytes of storage in a 4.00 box! Trying to make direct comparisons between the two mediums is daft". Nevertheless, Metro and all the other major lab bureaux (as we should now refer to them) are well prepared for the future and ready to cater for the changes required to adopt digital. Mark Middlebrook points out that photographers are actually in a very good position to gain - An awful lot of business still stems from the photography process, the labs, the bureaux and scanning services. the key is for photographers to grasp hold of their true strengths as producers and creative image makers. They have the potential to maintain their share of the business and more by adapting to new techniques and leading the way rather than playing wait and see.

Endnote
Wandering down Regents Canal the other day, I spotted the derelict Gainsborough Studios, where many classic fifties British movies such as "The Lady killers" were once made. The decline of Gainsborough and other British film studios came about with the advent of television broadcasting. I think one can draw an interesting parallel here with what is happening today. The cinema industry shrank due to the success of TV, but it survived with fewer people working exclusively in film, whilst television took over as the medium for documentary and mass entertainment. I don't suppose anyone then could have foreseen exactly how far the television market would expand, nor do I suppose they would have believed that one day documentaries could be made by a lone amateur using a DVC broadcast quality camcorder! More films (TV and cinema) are made today globally than ever before. New media have expanded the accessibility of the tools with which to communicate and everyone has had to adapt to new working practices.

Digital technology has the potential to speed up the production process, time and money can be saved by taking full advantage of electronic communications. As with the cinema industry, it is not going to be the photographers who decide whether digital technology has a future or not - it will be the people buying our services.

Martin Evening 1996
martin@evening.demon.co.uk

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