Photography and Commerce

The eyePhotography has been an integral part of successful marketing for more than a hundred years. Images provide a direct route to our emotion driven selves. Our brains are wired to interpret images as triggers for responses such as fear, sex, aggression, flight and desire. Words are interpreted and filtered but images have instant impact on our mammalian brains. Marketers use this fact to great advantage. They are advocates and make no bones about that. Publishing subtly biased images is a basic technique of mass persuasion and propaganda.

Consider the following images.

These images all have an emotional impact of some kind on the viewer. Our brain determines at a glance whether to trigger survival mode or some emotional response without conscious thought. It is simple, image perceived and emotional response triggered. This is the basis for much of the mass marketing that we see every day. As our attention spans shrink, marketing via high impact imagery becomes ever more important.

With the exception of straight documentary vernacular work, photographers should always strive to create images that bring forth emotional responses. We craft images using content and arrangements of elements to make a visual statement. In effect we are marketing our work. In my mind much of the difference between a technically competent image and a great photograph is emotional content. An attractive image that does not make an emotional connection will be easily forgotten in a world saturated with images.

HDR How We See

The eyeSeveral years ago there was a lively debate going on about HDR still photography. At the core of the debate were people saying that HDR would never be ‘real’ photography because it was crude, garish and cartoon like. The back and forth was predictable and uninformative because no attention was given to two essential points. First, the raw cartoon appearance of HDR images was largely the result of inadequate software used in ways that were far from subtle. Second, HDR is about digital technology. More than a century of black and white and nearly a century of color still photography taught us to see images in very specific ways. HDR was well outside our normal understanding of what photographs look like.

It is important to remember that HDR is not a film photography technique. Sure you could bracket and scan several frames to get some sort of increased dynamic range out of film but that seems a ridiculous notion. Photographic film is a legacy medium that should be used to make the best possible chemical based analog images. It should not be used to imitate something else.

The imitation game also applies to digital technology. I happen to enjoy making black and white images using my digital camera. For years I’ve listened to people tell me that digital black and white could never be truly correct because it did not work by exposing light sensitive chemicals smeared on plastic film. Right, I can’t imitate analog silver, platinum or any other oxidized metal salt on paper. Nor do I wish to spend my time imitating analog photography. My goal is to make the best possible black and white images using the digital technology at my disposal. Sometimes that means using HDR to get the best possible images.

Photojournalism feels the pinch

So what happens when photojournalism, which huffs and puffs about standards and integrity, confronts standardized HDR image capture? More to the point, what happens when photojournalists find themselves producing images for display on HDR output technology? Well, then it’s time for a rethink of standards.

If you display images as facsimiles using ink on paper you are fine with the current standards. On the other hand, if your images are used on 4K televisions, you have to compete with 4K HDR video. HDR, unless captured using discreet data streams and created in post process, bakes a certain level of digital manipulation into the output. HDR output requires a reevaluation of what constitutes ‘clean’ source information. Not to mention that as imaging technology evolves so must the standards.

Legacy is fine but technology marches on

The still photography I practice will soon be as much a legacy activity as making images on film. My digital camera is essentially a video camera that is adapted to capture high quality single frames. Once you can get continuous high resolution capture, at whatever frame rate is appropriate, still cameras will be legacy technology. In addition, high resolution wide gamut output screens will pretty much mandate HDR content. It seems likely that HDR will be how we will see the world presented on our entertainment devices. Otherwise it will appear dull and lifeless to modern consumers.

Time to become a fine art photographer

If I want to stay involved with photography in the future as a non-professional then the audience for my work is likely to change. One-off hand crafted images may be thought of more as art in the future. There will always be a place for finely crafted works made by highly skilled individuals. Whether they are made with traditional artist materials, legacy photographic processes or some more modern technology makes little difference. Art is about communicating ideas. The practice of art may be closely tied to a particular medium but ideas are the free currency of creative expression. The opportunity for self expression is always present but the audience must value your work. Otherwise you must be satisfied to make work only for yourself.

See My Work – See Me

Press CameraPeople get into photography for many reasons. I suspect that most of us who reach the point of competency with cameras have a strong desire to show work in public. I certainly do. So as a non-professional, how do you gain an audience for your photography? The simple answer is that I don’t know and I’ve never met anyone who could answer that question adequately. In many ways it comes down whether your ultimate goal is to market your photographic skills and of course, ego.

It seems to me that most photographers participating in online forums fall into two broad and overlapping categories. My experience is that 80-90% of all serious amateurs aspire to be professionals. That is a mighty bold ambition when the market for paying professional photo gigs is small and probably getting smaller. Broadly speaking, the remaining 10-20% is made up of family, nature and wildlife photographers of one stripe or another.

These groups of photographers are very different but share the problem of organizing and presenting work to their intended audiences. Just to be clear I’m not talking about posting pictures online in photography forums. An audience of nit-picking fellow photographers is probably the least effective way to get your work in front of the public. My goal, which I think is broadly shared, is to present work to non-photographers, regular people.

Over the years I’ve tried many different ways to gain an audience. None have been entirely successful or for that matter completely unsuccessful. Here is a short list of my attempts to reach an audience.

  • I currently have two websites, one active and another static for years
  • Photographing at historical reenactments over several seasons and donating a book of portraits to the living history organization
  • Creating small portfolios of work that are donated for display or sale
  • Attempting to submit work to the National Park Service
  • Making and distributing portraits of friends and family
  • Creating PDF calendars featuring my work distributed free of charge (see sidebar)

Here are some things that I intend to try.

  • Creating small collections of short essays and images in PDF format for solicited or unsolicited distribution
  • Creating small collections of loose prints packaged in presentation boxes with artist statement and a short essay for distribution to local arts venues
  • Building a Texas regional travel website featuring my work
  • Producing matted prints for local art sales
  • Producing matted and framed prints of Texas themed content for consignment to western furniture stores

I’m sure there are many other options that I’ve not considered. When you are a non-professional, budget and time are limiting factors. None of the things I’ve mentioned will help me reach a mass audience. I simply want to get my work into the hands of people who would enjoy seeing it if they knew it existed. To that end I’ll keep plugging away. Patience and perseverance are virtues, right?