The Race To The Bottom

It certainly feels like that to me at the moment, a race to the bottom.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve used this blog to speak on anything photographically, I think this might be through a general apathy of what I’ve observed over a period of time, or just becoming numb to the way of things across the board. I don’t take any joy in negativity, however, and I must stress this is only my opinion, lately it feels like I’ve not been as puzzled/baffled/concerned about landscape photography since I started 4 years ago as I am now. You could argue that isn’t very long at all to be making such a statement, but even in that timespan it feels like things have radically changed. I’ll precursor this entry by saying that a lot of what I’ve written here is aimed at the professional/serious enthusiast end of the spectrum.

Useful, constructive critique/discussion is virtually non-existent

I don’t think this is hard to quantify. In the relatively short time I’ve been posting images on social media it feels like constructive criticism has all but vanished across all formats. When I started, I used to post in the critique section on one of the lesser visited photography forums at Amateur Photographer Magazine, and found it immensely helpful to a beginner. I found it one of the few places on the internet where advice appeared to be given both without ego and with the best interests of the photographer at heart. Compare this with one of the big photography forums like ‘Talk Photography’ which I used to be quite active in, the critique section there has turned into nothing more than a glorified peacocking event, where posters regularly shutdown anyone who dares to offer an alternative view simply because it goes against their style or personal photographic preferences. Images often are defended by the topic poster no matter how many technical flaws are present under the catch all phrase ‘well it’s subjective’.

To be clear, there are times when the technical can be overlooked, and almost be irrelevant if the image makes that connection with the viewer, but there’s also many times when things can be very much objective, but people rarely want to listen. I wouldn’t regard myself as a ‘technical’ photographer in the slightest, and rely very much on instinct and gut feeling before composing and pulling the trigger, but it’s as if at times even the most basic fundamentals are being completely disregarded, in the worst instances by people touting themselves as ‘experts’ and full-time pro’s. As time has gone on the culture has shifted, even within the evirons of a dedicated critique forum meant for discussion and analysis, people are either frightened of giving an opinion or simply can’t be bothered because they know the posting photographer is seeking praise or validation. The net result is that particular forum is now devoid of any experienced photographers who could really add value as many have turned their back on it, and is instead filled with people back slapping each other and not learning anything or improving.

Brands promoting average work

Companies have to make money, and the quickest and easiest method to do this is by maximising the number of eyes you can get on the product you’re trying to flog. Simple, I get it - in laymans terms it’s hard to argue with that rationale, and is something that’ll always be true across all types of business to an extent. But again, lately this seems to be everywhere - previously companies struck a decent balance between promoting people who’ve built up a following who could also produce competent work, to what frequently happens now where it seems every other day an image will be shared by a large brand that either has wonky horizons / halos / overcooked processing etc. simply because the individual is some sort of Instagram or YouTube demi-god, despite that photographer’s seeming inability to correct things you would teach to a complete novice. The tipping point for me to post this blog rather than hold it back was a post a few nights ago on Facebook, where a prominent Tripod company (shall remain nameless) shared an image and the brand’s ‘Pro’ was thusly lauded for such outstanding work, despite the image having a ski-slope horizon, a massive distraction on the bottom frame edge and a blown sky. The irony that said company is selling the very thing that is meant to help you correct the problem of sloping horizons was priceless. I'm not even sure why this particular post provoked such a reaction in me as it's almost the norm now. You could say I’m being over the top, but it’s this kind of insidious marketing and championing of below-par work which ultimately is what the majority of beginners are now seeing as the standard to aim for. I sometimes wonder if the people responsible for marketing products related to landscape photography know anything about the genre at all. This tripod post last night being the tip of a very large Iceberg.

Brands are in an extremely influencial position, the ‘influencer’ culture that has spawned mainly on Instagram is more prevalent than ever, infiltrating all platforms, where it seems it’s many photographer's singular goal to extract freebies from those companies in return for ‘exposure’, often before they've begun to even learn the craft itself. Other photographers see this, and are only too happy to follow this path, and shoot soulless identikit imagery because it's a sure route to ‘success’. It seems we've all been conditioned to either tag brands (often mindlessly) in our image uploads for nothing in return or in some vague hope that we too will get a small slice of that ‘exposure’. What we’re actually doing is all the legwork for those brands without them having to do anything. It might seem like something small but when you multiply it by how many images are being shared daily and it adds up to something far more significant. The knock on effect further down the line is companies in a lot of cases expect work from creatives for free, I see it all the time and now as a working professional experience it too. I get it folks, it's tougher than ever as competition is fierce, but often when you innocently tag that brand in your next Twitter or Facebook post, have a good think about who is benefitting. The reality is they need you a lot more than you need them.

YouTube

YouTube is a funny one, as in principle I absolutely love the concept of being able to reach a vast audience for (relatively) little cost, and have total control over output. Who wouldn't, right? The elephant in the room however, which no-one ever seems to discuss, is that the format itself is diametrically opposed to all the classic traits found in most landscape photographers. This might be a sweeping statement (feel free to disagree) but most landscape photographers I’ve encountered on the whole are either shy/introverted/insular or a mix of all of them, and enjoy the solitutde and peace which landscape photography often brings. All things which for the most part aren’t conducive to sticking your mug infront of a camera and talking. This conundrum for me is probably the single reason why you don’t see the best landscape photographers ever surface on YouTube - it goes against a lot of the natural instincts as a photographer and is also a real hindrance to the process of creating compelling work. To be clear, I’ve the utmost respect for anyone who can put together a well-crafted vlog with lots of smooth transitions, interesting B-Roll or some epic drone footage, all the while being comfortable talking to a camera. It's a very time consuming process which done to a high level of detail takes an awful lot of time. But lets be very clear, good videography and good landscape photography are two different things entirely. If on the rare occasion the two come together, fantastic. On the evidence of what I’ve seen so far especially among those touted as top pro’s, it’s pretty rare. But this is where the lines are getting increasingly blurred, especially to those just starting out who are easily impressed by slick footage and well-rehearsed pieces to camera seen in many vlogs. They then equate this with great photography without critically looking at the quality of the images produced. This is especially true if their only method for consuming landscape photography is restricted to YouTube which appears to be far more common than I thought. I always find it a shame/alarming that some people only experience landscape photography through vlogs.

What I do see however, is a lot of stamp-collecting, with many creators compiling a quite random collection of so-so images from easy to shoot places in an attempt to chase views and impress a largely novice viewership. Foolproof method I guess, right? Of course there’s exceptions to the rule of which I’m well aware, but on the whole they’re few and far between. Also, when did photographers become so self-congratulatory? I’ve lost count the number of vlogs (and posts on other platforms) where as the viewer I’m told ‘this image is AWESOME’ (or some other superlative) - for christ sake let the viewer decide if it’s any good. It’s a fine line between a bit of self-promotion and coming across as plain arrogant.

Of course, you may argue that’s only my definition of great image, in which case we’re back to square one of everything being subjective. I’m quite comfortable with what I think is a good image and what is a crap image, and for the most part (with a few exceptions) in my opinion the quality of the photography by proclaimed pro’s on YouTube on the whole is pretty average. There’s many self-appointed experts with precious little evidence of a compelling portfolio of images to back any of what they’re saying up, especially when you’ve seen the 500th “10 tips to improve your…..” then the next day I’ll see the same expert posting a wonky horizon image on Twitter. But then is it going to be anything else when the platform actively encourages creators to produce content which for the most part is completely derivative? Gear reviews / 10 tips to improve this or that / the endless list of vlogs from honeypot locations where a beginner could get a shot - this is now becoming the accepted level of landscape photography simply because it’s the biggest platform for beginners to access.

  • Want to learn how to put up a shelf? YouTube.

  • Need to fix some basic electrics? YouTube.

  • Need to know your ISO from Exposure Comp? YouTube.

Great resource, no doubt, and you could argue “well if you don’t like it Stuart do something about it and change it” - there’s probably some merit in that and I’ve no doubt in time I’ll probably find myself on YouTube, though I think that argument is rather simplistic. What I think is going to be happen now is a flood of pro/serious enthusiast landscape photographers who initially didn't wish to get involved in vlogs now entering this platform in a likely futile attempt to grab a piece of the pie. Diversify or die? I think that ship has well and truly sailed. That might sound blunt but I honestly don’t see it any other way. Fair play to those ahead of the curve, I’ll applaud anyone with the drive to make it a success, it doesn’t mean however I have to be party to the idea that the photography is very good as so many people and brands want you to believe. For the most part in my view, it isn't.

Twitter

This is something I came to a fair while after starting my photography, and I really enjoyed the community element to it (and still do) but for me, again in only a short space of time, any kind of debate or discussion on images or styles has completely vanished. Why is this?

Competitions?

It’s long been debated the merits of the ‘weeklies’, and their good points (sense of community, motivating people to get out with the camera when they might not) aren’t in question - that’s all great and only positive. But for me it feels lately it's swung too far the other way. What I see now is Twitter becoming a bit of a ghost town on any other day but Monday, the weekly comps brainwashing people into believing that they must get out and shoot SOMETHING so they have something to enter. I’m aware that might seem a little hypocritcal given a few lines ago I’ve stated they encourage people to get outside more, but honestly people, if you’re not happy with the image you’ve taken or feel completely indifferent towards it, you don't have to enter it into a comp for the sake of it. I hear so many times……”Oh this will have to do as I only shot this image this week” or many similar. Strike a balance. You've got to like what you're looking at otherwise how will anyone else? Or if you're unsure if it works, don't be frightened to ask for someone's opinion or help. It’s ok to take an image and just be OK with the fact that it doesn’t need to go in a competition for the sake of it, or even be shared in the first place. Also, share images on other days but Mondays! I really enjoyed seeing the work of many photographers who I both admire and respect but it seems that less and less of those images are being shared (probably out of total apathy) because there’s so little engagement and discussion outside of a Monday. It's a shame, as I think Twitter above the other platforms really works for photographers in terms of genuine interaction with other photographers and is probably the one I get the most from.

Instagram

Similar to YouTube, success (if you define this by follower count, the accepted norm) appears to largely be driven by one’s ability to churn out ‘content’ (I hate that word) on a regular basis which again appeals to the masses - nothing new there that’s always been the case, though the sheer volume of images being shared currently makes it harder and harder for the good stuff to get through. Because of the nature of the platform (small screen, limited crops etc) users are forced down a rabbit hole of shooting (and then processing) more and more ‘eye catching’ or ‘epic’ imagery in order to attract a following, or making every image conform to a signature ‘style’ so their feed looks uniform. Content thus becomes more and more derivative, brands continue to promote accounts with large followings, and round we go again, the cycle is repeated ad nauseum.

Yes, there are exceptions, but the chances now for anyone to just go out and shoot decent images in any particular order and reach a large audience are dwindling all the time. The importance of huge ‘hub’ accounts to share work and individuals gaming the system by being part of ‘pods’ (I see this is now happening on YouTube as well though the creators would never admit it, yes i see you) for me has made Instagram an entirely unpalatable experience. Just add a share button? At least Facebook has that right for all its faults, this would take away the power and influence of a lot of the huge hub accounts. Though I suspect Instagram itself is probably happy with the status quo and probably has a monetry motive behind allowing the platform to continue in this manner.

I appreciate everyone who takes the time to comment and interact with any of the stuff I post on there, or any other platform for that matter, and I’ll always respond and actively share other people’s work myself, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Instagram at times appears to be some sort of giant game. More and more people I speak to are becoming completely disillusioned with it.

What’s the solution?

Honestly, I’ve no idea. Perhaps I’m being too idealistic, wanting the quality to shine through (and it sometimes does) but that’s seemingly becoming harder and harder and not because the quality is rising, quite the opposite, it feels like it’s getting worse as the various platforms become more and more saturated and creators find new methods to game the system.

If you’ve stuck with me this far and I’ve not killed you with my negativity, my feeling currently is that we may be approaching something of a tipping point, whereby the constant promotion of average quality landscape photography on social media by positions of influence might be on the wane. Already I’ve observed on YouTube some fairly prominent vloggers moaning about how their creativity is being stifled by the platform itself and its algorithm (oh the irony) and also the way camera technology is heading, as cameras move towards more mobile based systems where more and more of the thinking is done for you. All those ‘How To’ Vlogs may become somewhat obsolete as technology becomes more premium and user friendly - companies risk losing credibility in the long run if they continue to value popularity over quality especially if technology becomes more about higher margins than volume. Behind the scenes as well I’ve lost count the conversations I’ve had both offline and also out in the field with other photographers who are completely disillusioned with the general state of things these days.

I’d certainly like to see more open and frank discussion where people felt more at ease with voicing an opinion at the very least - of course we all come in many forms and not everyone is perhaps comfortable with hearing constructive criticism, but there must surely be a middle ground from what we have now which in my eyes is a back-slapping culture. I honestly can’t remember the last time anyone commented on any of my images with something that might constructively help me. I’d welcome it, happily - we can all learn. The next time you find yourself commenting ‘great shot’ for the 20th time that day, just ask yourself, is it really? Because if you’ve done that 20 times that day, the chances are it isn’t a great image. If you see something in an image which genuinely might be improved with a nudge in the right direction - (especially if it’s one of mine) by all means speak up. I think we’re all guilty of becoming a bit passive and indifferent to these sorts of things and it’s too easy over time to just end up commenting for the sake of being nice or keeping up appearances. If social media is to be truly social then active discussion and debate should always have a place.

I honestly can’t give a solution, maybe it’s wrong to be even looking for one? Maybe this is the way of things and the natural evolution of photography on social media as we know it, who knows, but I know I’m not finding it that great as its prompted me to write this (for longer than I wanted to as well!). If you think this blog has been one long elitist rant, I’m also perfectly OK with that - but from the many conversations I’ve had in private with many other photographers I don’t think I’m alone in having this outlook.

I hope my next entry is more positive and I hope if nothing else this blog has made you pause for thought. I'd like to make the point in closing that above all else, do whatever makes you happy.

Stu