I saw a heated debate on Reddit the other day about the nature of photography and how it applies to the Instagram generation. There was of course much to-and-fro on either side of the argument, but the general consensus seemed to be that if you took photos then you were a photographer. End of.
During the course of the debate, there was much pointing out of dictionary definitions by various people. Indeed if you look in pretty much any dictionary you’ll see this:
photographer: (noun) a person who takes photographs, especially one who practices photography professionally.
There were also further examples given, such as – anyone who drives is a driver and anyone who plays golf is a golfer. So sure, if we boil it down to simple etymological definitions – everyone is a photographer. But, dictionary definitions aside, I fundamentally disagree with the statement that anyone who takes photographs is a photographer – pro or otherwise. I’m not even sure that I qualify for the title of photographer.
Before I go on I would like to point out that I am not a photo snob. Not by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t care what camera you use, who made it, what lens it has and how much it cost or if it’s a smartphone, a compact point-and-shoot or a high-end DSLR that cost the same as a small family car. Photographers can and do use all of the above. But! Not everyone who uses a smartphone, compact point-and-shoot or a high-end DSLR is a photographer.
The smartphone has made it possible for anyone anywhere to take a photograph of anything at all. Moreover the arrival of applications like Hipstamatic and Instagram encouraged a new kind of photo-taking in which nothing was too dull to capture. My opinion is that the overwhelming majority of users of Instagram are not in any way, shape or form, photographers – they are snappers. I don’t mean to denigrate anyone by calling them a snapper – I enjoy snapping too – I just strongly believe that there is a world of difference between your average Instagram-style shot and a proper photograph.
What’s the difference, you ask? I think it’s actually pretty simple – a snapper is someone who only really thinks about a photo after it has been taken.
Snappers are, of course, not a new phenomenon; they’ve been around since Eastman Kodak introduced the box Brownie camera. Back in the days of film however, the number of photos you took was limited by the exposures on the roll of film you’d bought and by the financial cost of getting that film developed and printed. So even though people took snapshots they still exercised some restraint because it wasn’t a cheap past-time and unless you knew your arse from your elbow all those shots of your family at the seaside would be a blurred mess.
The commercial arrival of digital cameras in the 1980s heralded the beginning of the end for film. As happens with all technology, the price of digital cameras came down and down and before long most retailers had stopped stocking film cameras entirely.
Then two things happened. Firstly everyone got mobile phones which they started taking everywhere. Secondly the cameras in mobile phones got really good – good enough in fact to almost completely replace an entire sector of the camera market – the faithful point-and-shoot. In fact about the only time I ever see a point-and-shoot out in the wild these days is at weddings. Granny Hodgkins and Uncle Bill seem to be the only ones keeping the point-and-click market alive – their children and grandchildren have long-since abandoned actual cameras for smartphones.
So when you have a ubiquitous device which costs virtually nothing to run and which enables you to take photos all day long for no cost, what’s going to happen? Hmmm?
However the last part of this photographic jigsaw was the arrival of the photo apps. Hipstamatic was the first and it introduced the idea of retro-fitting lo-fi filters to images to make ’em look like they were taken on old analog cameras. However they failed to recognise the importance of sharing in the whole photographic equation and one morning the Hipstamatic team woke up and discovered that Instagram had stolen their revolution. Bad Instagram. Sad Hipstamatic.
Instagram blew up. Before you knew it, there were people on Instagram with over 50,000 followers! Right now there are celebrity Instagrammers out there with over 100,000 followers. It’s madness I tell you, madness.
Unfortunately, Instagram also represents a low water-mark in photography. It has become a parody of itself, a humungous cliché, a repository for photos of bare feet on sandy beaches, breakfast dishes, cats, weathered doors and, of course, pouting self-shots. The perception amongst Instagram users is that adding some hokey film-era filter to a photo of a straw hat changes that photo – it is no longer documentary evidence of a piece of headwear – it’s art!
Instagram is all about instant gratification. Spotted a colourful flower in a chintzy red flower pot? Snap away, stick a suitably funky filter on it and 10 seconds later it’s online for all the world to see. Facebook didn’t buy Instagram because they thought it was a good idea, they bought it because it is the only real threat to its entire service because, as we’ve all come to realise, Facebook is not a social media site – it’s the world’s biggest photo sharing service.
Think Before You Click
So while a snapper is someone who only thinks about a photo after they’ve taken it, a photographer by contrast, is someone who looks carefully at a scene, analyses its composition, weighs up its lighting, thinks about its colours and who then applies a lot of technical knowledge to that scene to create an aesthetically pleasing rendition of it. It is a measured and precise act – it is generally not an impulsive one.
That doesn’t mean that a photographer cannot react quickly. Experience over many years and intimate knowledge of every function of his or her camera enables a photographer to quickly set up and take a photo. After many years of taking photographs in all conditions, a good photographer can just look at a scene and have a specific aperture, exposure and ISO setting in mind. More importantly, they also know how to tweak those settings to produce a different and/or more artistic outcome.
The problem with smartphone cameras is that most of the technical decisions are made by the phone – not the user. Of course it’s entirely likely that smartphone cameras will soon enable users to change exposure and aperture, rather than relying on filters to artificially simulate the results of changes to exposure and aperture. Maybe one day soon we’ll even have (decent) interchangeable lenses for them. How long will it be until we get the first DSLR smartphone? Or maybe it’ll go the other way and DSLRs will get phone capabilities.
I digress. Photographers treat their photography like a good restaurant meal – something to be savoured and worth spending the extra money on. Snappers treat photography like fast food – instant gratification and cheap, but ultimately unsatisfying. One can be an art form, the other is nearly always instantly forgettable.
So I say that I aspire to be a photographer. I want to bring experience and craft to the process of taking photographs. I want to use my camera to create a specific outcome in the photo and I want to achieve as much of that outcome in the camera (rather than in Photoshop) as I can. I’ve got nothing against Instagram or its planet-sized user-base, but I prefer to take the road less travelled.