Thoughts for the New Year

Welcome to 2009! It’s a brand new year, albeit one that looks like it’s not going to be the most pleasant one in recent memory, but an opportunity nonetheless to reflect upon recent events and think about what the coming months hold in store.

Over the past week or so, I’ve been contemplating (among other things) the direction that the world of underwater photography is taking, specifically the trends affecting the photography world in general, and what those trends mean for marine photographers, both professionals and enthusiasts.

I thought it worth sharing some thoughts on this topic for my first blog post of the year.

Before proceeding, please note that the following is intended primarily for my underwater photography peers and aspiring underwater photographers. If you don’t fall into this (limited) universe of people, feel free to read on, but if you get bored, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

David Bowie
If there’s one particular theme that’s dominated the underwater photography community (and the world) in recent years, it’s “Changes”. I’m reminded of David Bowie’s 1971 hit by the same name (if you’re too young to know who Bowie is, never mind), not so much for the exact lyrics or Bowie’s weirdness, but more for the overall message that try as you might, there’s no way to prevent change.

Along these lines, there are still some holdouts, i.e., people who refuse to accept that digital technology has overtaken analogue ways of doing things, but for me at least, it seems like 2008 was a turning point.

Subjectively, it seemed as if I was getting considerably fewer requests for snail mail, slides, CD-roms, forms in triplicate, etc. (though I still received too many for my liking), and more people started to understand concepts and services like blogs, Flickr, and FTP (though amazingly, FTP still poses a significant challenge for many major publications).

Understanding that change is taking place is fine, but that in itself isn’t the point. Digital technology isn’t just change for the sake of change, and the shift from analogue to digital isn’t simply a cosmetic one.

There are significant implications, some of which are obvious, others which are just starting to become clear.

Speed and Efficiency
One of the immediate effects of going digital is the impact on speed and efficiency.

Let’s take an exaggerated example. Say Photographer A uses film, prefers to print-out typed text and proofread hard copies from a desktop computer at home, and sends in slides and articles via snail mail (yes, these people still exist, more than you’d imagine).

Then there’s Photographer B who processes digital files on location, drafts text and emails a completed article either from location or at the first available internet connection.

It should be obvious that Photographer B is going to be a lot more productive than Photographer A, and that any half-competent editor will have an easier working relationship with Photographer B than A (all other considerations, like personality, being equal of course).

But that’s not all. By virtue of the fact that Photographer B is essentially a stand-alone office, he’s able to minimise wasted time, make use of other tools such as Skype, IM and the like to keep in constant communication with important people, use other services like Facebook, Twitter, etc. to stay in touch with friends, and so forth.

In other words, Photographer B can be a helluva lot more productive than Photographer A. Greater productivity = more work = greater chance for revenue.

Of course, the downside of this is that there’s much more upfront work involved for photographers these days, and you’ve got to spend a lot more time and effort understanding new software and changes in technology. Personally, I find all this fascinating, but the pace and volume is such that it can easily become overwhelming.

Quality of Content
Ok, that’s a no-brainer implication of the switch from analogue to digital. Here’s one that might not be so obvious.

With the changes in technology, the old days of being edited and censored are disappearing. What does this mean?

With traditional print media, many of the people whose names you might immediately recognise in dive magazines and such have had their text significantly edited, if not completely rewritten, by the time you see the finished product. In other words, what you see in magazines may not be the words of the person whose name appears with the article.

Why does this matter? If you only look at photographs and don’t read text, or you don’t really care about the quality of the stuff you see in print, I guess this doesn’t make much of difference. If, however, you’re concerned about whether what’s written is genuine and meaningful, then it matters a lot.

You see, the way old media works, good photographers who might not be such terrific writers get published because magazines need to look pretty. It’s the poor, suffering editors who have to polish, and (more often than you think) re-write text, sometimes even writing from scratch.

In practical terms, this means that when you read an article, you’re often not really hearing from the person you thought you were, which, by extension, makes it difficult to assess how reliable what you read is.

Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say this applies to all magazine articles, but it’s no stretch to say that it applies to a significant proportion of the articles you read in dive magazines.

So, how is this changing?

Compared to print, new forms of media that are electronically based tend to be unedited or relatively untouched. My blog and many others, for instance, are completely unedited.

On the positive side, it means I can relate what I observe and experience without concern about being edited or censored.

On the potentially negative side, any screw-ups are my own, and I alone take responsibility for what I write. If I hit the "publish" button before thinking something through's my problem, not the editor's.

There are certainly many other pros and cons associated with this paradigm shift, but the primary take-away point is that as media becomes more electronic-based and less paper-reliant, the dichotomy between edited, pre-packaged material vs unedited, raw material will continue to grow.

This is really important, so let me say it once more another way: Real-life, real-time (or near real-time) information sources are overtaking massaged-for-content, slow forms of information. A global economic slump will accelerate this process because old media is cost-intensive.

Personally, I prefer reading unadulterated/ unedited views that I know were written by the relevant person over sanitised versions of text.

Communication Skills
Which brings me to the next implication.

Effective communication skills have always been important, but in this era of unedited, virtually real-time communication, this core capability is indispensable.

If you’re a professional underwater photographer, or aspiring to be one, you’re much better off being able to create, manage and distribute your own content on your own terms than to rely on other people to write emails, articles, books, etc. for you.

I’m not just talking about writing. With the media tools available to us today, you can create slideshows, videos, multimedia essays and much more. The addition of high-quality video capability with SLRs will no doubt engender even more possibilities.

Of course, it’s much more difficult with such open media to rely on editors and ghost writers to handle all the details, so the better your communication skills are, the more you’ll shine.

Keep in mind though that anything you post/ write on the net is public, for all the world to see, and you have to assume that it’ll last forever. If you’re thoughtful and constructive, that’s what’ll come through. If you’re petty and you snipe, or you attempt to hide behind pseudonyms, then that’ll become your digital signature for as long as the internet exists.

So...communication skills + good judgement = prerequisites for churning out quality content.

And this, of course, leads into the last major category, which is creativity, both in your photography and in how you present your work.

By comparison to our land-based brethren, most underwater photographers are uncreative. Sorry, but it’s true. Take an SLR, use one of a few standard lenses, throw a strobe on the right and one on the left, point straight ahead and press the shutter. Somewhat of a caricature, but largely accurate as a description of underwater photography as practiced by too many people.

Digital photography allows us to try new tool and techniques, to develop new looks and better, more original results...but only if you use your head and try. There are quite a few young photographers I’m fortunate enough to count among my friends who are really good about experimenting. But we all need to try new things and push the envelope. This has always been true, but it’s even more so now.

And of course, in the presentation of our’s no longer sufficient to take a few photos, append some uninspiring/ unoriginal text and send them to magazines. Fewer and fewer people are reading print publications each day, while more and more are getting their news and information from the internet.

Many people still stick their heads in the dirt and refuse to acknowledge this, but a simple Google search will reveal reams of statistics to back this assertion up.

What this means for you as an underwater photographer is that it pays to be more creative with how you show your work. Displaying your work on photo-sharing sites is a start, but adding value by writing your own blog, putting together slideshows, etc., will help set you apart from the crowd.

The longer you put this off, the steeper the curve will be to catch up.

Finally, expressing thoughtful ideas rather than just churning out “I went here, it’s nice, I saw lots of neat fish, you should go too” type of text is a good thing. Whenever I see a typical “I went here” article, I groan (think Chewbacca) and tune out. I imagine many people do the same.

Practical Implications
Of course, all this observing and theorising is fine, but what really counts are the practical implications, above and beyond those I’ve already alluded to in the preceding text.

From where I stand, here’s what it boils down to:

If you’re a professional or semi-professional underwater photographer, 2009 is a year in which you’re going to really have to step up your game. This means being creative, pioneering and mastering new techniques and tools, improving your communication skills, maximising efficiency, and just finding ways to make yourself unique.

You’ll find that there will be fewer and fewer print-based revenue streams. The entire print-based hierarchy is imploding, a process that will be accelerated by the global economic slump. There’s no reason to believe that dive media will be immune to plummeting ad revenues and readership numbers, so it’ll be paramount to stretch your creative muscles and generate revenue opportunities that don’t exist today.

Keep in mind that nearly every diver is a photographer these days; of course, not every diver is a good photographer, but all you have to do is check some of the many photo-sharing sites to see examples of excellent photography from the global dive community. Bottom line...just taking nice photos is not enough.

The challenge, of course, is figuring out how to monetise your ideas. Whereas it’s relatively straightforward to sell a stock photo or pitch a magazine story then ask for payment, it’s not so easy to come up with unique ideas, convince people that your ideas will work, and then implement and monetise those ideas.

Of course, nearly every industry in the world is going through similar changes, so again...we either adapt, or face the inevitable consequences. Look at GM and Chrysler to see an example of what happens when you ignore the obvious. One thing’s for certain...there won’t be any taxpayer-funded boondoggle bailouts for starving underwater photographers.

If you’re an aspiring photographer, or just want to see your stuff “in print” so to speak, the good news is that digital technology and the internet are big democratisers. The playing field is more level now than it’s ever been.

Most digital cameras available today are good enough to take printable images. Moreover, you can share your images, thoughts, ideas on the internet, and make contact with media outlets from around the world in a fraction of the time and cost it would’ve taken just a few years ago.

As I see it, the more talented people there are contributing images and ideas, the better the global underwater photographic community will be. So by all means, I’d encourage you to make your work and ideas known. There’s no reason that you can’t match or even beat the quality of what the pros are doing. But at the same time...don’t get cocky just because you happen to take a couple of photos you think are out-of-this-world awesome.

And one last the old days of editors patiently re-writing bad text, it wasn’t such an obvious advantage to be able to express yourself well in unedited form (or conversely, it wasn’t as much of a handicap to be unable to write complete, coherent sentences). Now, it’s a totally different story.

People who write and speak well, who are able to create and tells stories with whatever forms of media are available...will prosper. Those who can’t...will find life more difficult.

Just some food for thought to start the year. Let me know what you think.

Happy new year, and happy diving!