When I was young I remember looking at old National Geographic magazines and being fascinated by the pictures. There I saw images of unique places; people with strange clothes and customs, ancient temples and exotic animals. There was no internet or web, so the only way I could glimpse these images was through the eye of the professional photographers that took them, in magazines. As society has evolved this model has changed significantly, arguably to the detriment of the “Professional” Travel Photographer. They no longer have the monopoly in the market; the barriers to entry for the “common man” (that’s me) are so low that many people can now take a stab at creating their own images. I’m a strong believer in open markets, and while I appreciate change can be difficult for those that made their living taking pictures of places that others’ couldn’t see or get to, the world of photography overall will be richer in the long run by having more people contribute.
In my view there are several fundamental changes that have occurred over the last 10 – 20 years that have created the current model and shifted the definition of travel photography into something more ubiquitous.
Digital Photography – This is obvious but cannot be overstated. Many moons ago, in the days of Kodachrome photography was a different beast indeed. Professionals often had their own darkrooms and access to equipment that allowed them to set their images apart from the masses. They could manipulate color, dodge and burn, crop and sharpen their images; all things that generally weren’t done if you were taking your film to the local drug store to get developed and picked up next week. With today’s digital photography and the use of software to adjust images, this unique capability for professional photographers has largely been mitigated.
In addition, with digital photography we can take a virtually unlimited number of photos. Snap away, check out the LCD and delete if you’re not happy. It allows people to learn from their mistakes and take numerous pictures at different settings at the same location. This is very significant; now aspiring photographers no longer have to cross their fingers on the way home from their holiday. They know exactly what their pictures look like and aren’t concerned with being disappointed after the film is developed.
Arguably the most significant change with the advancement of digital photography is the removal of cost as a barrier to entry. Don’t get me wrong – a DSLR, especially a professional one, costs a significant amount of money and in many ways a collection of quality lenses is even more expensive. These are what I refer to as capital expenditures; once you have them, you generally have them forever. The big benefit in the digital world is with respect to the operational expenditures. This is film, and the development of that film. These are expenses that don’t just occur once; every time you take a trip with a film camera you have to buy new film and pay to have that film developed when you return. This is no longer the case with digital; you have a memory card, you fill it with pictures, you return and download those photos to your computer, all free of charge.
The increased capability and competition from amateurs, the ability to obtain immediate feedback from an LCD screen and the lower cost to take pictures all make digital photography one of the primary changes that is leading the evolution of what travel photography is all about.
Globalization – I’ll tread lightly here because I appreciate to many this is a bad word. Whether you’re happy or sad about the way things are changing on our planet, we must accept that things are indeed changing. McDonalds and Starbucks are everywhere. The internet is largely ubiquitous, bar a few countries and regimes. Local languages and dialects are decreasing at an astonishing rate, and with them the cultures and social mores associated with them. While many steps are being taken to maintain cultural relics and the beautiful places of the world (for example UNESCO and National Park systems) it’s become a bit more difficult to “get lost.” Low cost airlines are another significant development that has changed the game with travel. Living in London I can now take cheap flights to almost any destination in Europe. This is another example of how the destinations of the world have become more accessible. Combine this with the ability to take pictures easily and cheaply at those locations, and we can see again how the definition of travel photography is changing.
Social Media – Last but not least, and probably first on many people’s lists, has to be the rapid ascent of Social Media in the day to day lives of millions. The human ability to share information through blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ is unprecdented. And the ability to share photos through those sites as well as Flickr, 500px, SmugMug, Picasa, and others has created an environment where we have daily access to incredible images from all around the world. Using Flickr as an example that many will be familiar with, we can join a virtually unlimited number of groups relating to travel, countries, cultures and varying degrees of specificity on those broad topics. There’s no longer a requirement to subscribe to National Geographic to see images from around the world, because social media has allowed everyone with a camera to share and publish their own personal views of the world.
While they could arguably be filed under their own topic, I would put smartphones under the category of social media as well. They have all of the benefits of digital cameras but more importantly they also have the ability to connect immediately to the web and share their images on social networking sites. Instagram in particular is an excellent example of an application that has benefited from this social shift around photography that’s taking place.
Closing – I only seriously got into photography in the last 3 or 4 years; my first SLR was digital and I’ve never spent a second of my life in a dark room. So I’ve never known anything but digital photography. As a result many of the “changes” that professional travel photographers are going through aren’t changes to me for the simple reason I have never known anything different. I don’t view travel photography as a profession or a way to make money, but rather as a way to share my perspectives on the world. Personally I think it’s wonderful that many people, all around the globe, can now have access to cameras, the ability to get to locations outside of where they were born, and to share their images and experiences with the rest of us.
The other posts under this page will contain general thoughts and (dare I say) advice that I’ve garnered over the last few years of traveling. These are not necessarily technical topics (those are covered under Tutorials) but rather my take on the big picture (pardon the pun) while traveling.