At one point, not long ago, having a camera was a thing. If you had a camera, it was generally just used for one of two different things: documentation and creative photography. Documentation is the term I’m using for the general kinds of family photos and whatnot that filled scores of albums in everyone’s attic, and creative photography to refer to photography in any kind of artistic or commercial sense.
Of course, most people had some kind of run-of-the-mill point-and-shoot that took 35mm film, or later on was a low-end digital camera. Some just always bought disposable cameras. Either way, there wasn’t much of a drive (or even much possibility) for the average person to go out with that kind of gear and start to develop their photography skills. Film was expensive, and early digital cameras were a huge hassle and terrible quality.
Mobile phone cameras started a revolution of this all. Of course, early examples (actually up until fairly recently) were laughably bad in terms of image quality. Nevertheless, everyone had a camera in their pocket. And as the saying goes, the best camera is the one that you have with you.
Once smartphones exploded in popularity after the iPhone’s introduction in 2007, the ways that photos can be utilized and shared expanded dramatically. Social networks were responsible for a lot of this. Mobile editing apps allowed the everyday person to cheaply learn things like contrast, color temperature, highlights, and so on, and how they affected each individual photo. Filters, such as those on Instagram, made the entire process brainless. For many, they understood that a photo looked “better” with a certain filter, but they weren’t totally clear as to why.
So everyone is kind of better at photography now
Of course, not everyone who takes photos is trying to do so in a creative or artistic sense. For many, they are just trying to record the moment. And for this group, I think the mass proliferation of high-quality smartphone cameras is the most beneficial.
Consider all of the terrible photos that generations old and new take when trying to make memories. Since many of us casually end up learning something about lighting, composition, and other photographic basics, even these vacation snapshots or pictures from lunch end up being much better.
But for the artistic and creative end of photography, I think this phenomenon is a double-edged sword. As the average skill level of everyone increases, so does the over-saturation of halfway-decent photographers on Instagram. It’s not rocket science to take more-or-less okay photos, and when standards are not high, those will do the trick. Unfortunately, this does mean that such saturation causes actually good work to oftentimes be lost in the flood of content. Does that, however, mean that only the truly good work can persevere? Or does it mean that it’s just a game of chance, and that popularity is less and less based on skill?
As they say, when everyone is good, no one is good.
Instagram and the general ease of sharing
And much of this ties back to Instagram. More than any other platform, Instagram has been the choice for photographers across the entire skill spectrum.
The ability to share is unprecedented. Within minutes, everyone that you’ve ever met can theoretically see your content. This all makes the world a much smaller place, as you feel like you’re on top of the lives of friends and family all over the world — even if you haven’t had a real interaction with them in years
Does striving for popularity undermine true creativity?
Here we have the modern version of the age-old question. Is the draw of likes and engagement causing creatives to only make things that they think will give them more attention? And if this is the case (and it’s easy to think that it is), is that causing the overall quality of true creative output to diminish in lieu of just trending towards the mainstream and looking to get as much engagement as you can?
Of course, everyone thinks that they are immune to this. But in reality, we’re wired to want to be liked. That’s why social media is so addictive — it gives actual and instant feedback on that matter.
It’s all a bit like selling out, except most of the time there is no money to be made. The likes and the popularity that you can get on a photo-by-photo basis can cause creatives to move away from what they truly are looking to put out, and create more of what they think their audience wants.
When you’re a business and marketing something, it’s logical (and important) to cater to your audience. But as a creative, shouldn’t it be sort of reversed? The audience should come to you based on them liking what you’re making?
How it all applies to the more general notion of creative output
It would be simply wrong to imply that photography is the only form of creative output that matters — nothing could be further from the truth. A tremendous amount of variety exists in how one can be creative, and that’s the inherent beauty of it. Nevertheless, many of these mediums are visual mediums, and the proliferation of social media means that a lot of this work is shared and subject to the same issues of popularity vs. true creativity.
And while the average person has a level of (potential) reach that is unlike any other time in history, it only serves to increase the level of competition and saturation of everything that’s out there.
Do you think it’s a net positive, or no?