I have shot a lot of different cameras, different brands, different sizes, different formats but the one question I get from professionals lately is why they should change to medium format. To be fair almost all current APS-C and full frame cameras will deliver amazing images. Our technology is mature enough and our quality good enough too safely say that whatever you choose now will deliver great pictures however that is the problem. Full disclosure here before I go on- I do not pay for my cameras, I work for the local distributor so that major barrier of cost is not so much an issue but I will attempt to explain the core reason why medium format digital is important.
Lets think for a minute about a customer looking for some photography. They see a thousand portfolios online of similar pictures shot with similar cameras using similar lenses- what differentiates any of these photographers? Any photographer with any sort of experience should be able to bang out a decent enough portrait or product shot but what this does is put them in a pool of thousands competing for an ever decreasing amount of work. The ability to change the look of your work, which medium format does enables you to rise above the pack and stand out.
How does it do this you may ask. Medium format by its nature, larger sensor and wider tonal range gives you the ability to deliver images with a shallower depth of field and more flexibility with recovering shadows and highlights. The sensors can shoot excellent pictures at higher sensitivities than smaller cameras giving the photographer wider lighting choices. The main reason I find is that when you turn up on set a client never questions why they are paying the rate they are- nothing says professional like a medium format camera.
As an older photographer I started in the days of film and prints. I wont go on about how these were “the good old days” or that we “valued photography more because not everyone could do it” but there is a grain of truth to these arguments. The printing and exhibiting of photographs in the home, office or gallery has never been easier in terms of the printing technology and paper available. Ink and paper is now as archival in most circumstances as film and silver halide and its a hell of a lot cheaper, just think what a one meter square black and white print would have cost back in the day and compare it to the same ink jet print now. When I actually had a darkroom the biggest practical print size would have been about sixty centimeters on the long side but now I can print that in my office with no chemistry and in comfortable daylight.
So if the print is easy and accessible and photography is more available than ever before why are we not seeing a flood of amazing imagery decorating of walls wherever we may be and why don’t we see a string of photographic galleries advertising exhibitions? The answer is in two parts and the first part is that we don’t value what we perceive as easy to do. When everyone is a photographer and we are bombarded by pictures there is no mystery left for the creator. Its interesting to see on set when clients comment on your equipment saying “I have a Nikon just like that” and you know they are questioning why they are paying for this when they could just go out and shoot it themselves. Shooting film used to be a skill and and a technically complex process best left to the professionals and so had an inherent value.
The other side of this is the snobbery we have here in Australia regarding photography as art. This question has been largely answered almost everywhere else in the world but here we are still obsessed with the medium and not the result. I can’t imagine Brett Whitley’s brand of paint was ever queried or which brushes he used or Margret Ollie was ever criticized because she used a certain brand of canvas but as photographers we are forever justifying our method of creation rather than the creation itself. While we are seen as “less than” painters, sculptors and other artists so will our work be relegated to the arts and crafts category.
I have spent the last two weeks talking with photographers, studio owners and retailers and the common thread is that the industry has changed or is changing and possibly not for the better. As a rule the photography business has not seen any growth in day rates or volume of work for many years, in fact the uptake of digital, it could be argued heralded the devaluation of the photography industry and its been a downhill slide since then. Anecdotal information and my personal conversations lead me to believe that most photographers are still charging a similar day rate to those they charged in the mid nineties.
Where is the future going to lead us? There are opportunities out there in the new reality but most of these are going to revolve around online and the delivery of goods and services via the web. What COVID-19 is teaching us is that the end of retail is having a domino effect for those industries that fed of it. Catalogues are now online, magazines are closing down or rapidly moving online and the demand for content to engage audiences is increasing so why are we not seeing the demand for professional content creators increasing? For the Australian content creator our major problem is that big brands are creating their world wide content in their home countries. I see the same imagery when I shop at Nike Australia’s website as an American would see, the consolidation of creation.
How do we survive? The answer here is that there is still a demand for local identity. It takes a lot of work to identify where this is and then tap into any sort of budget, its not that we create an inferior product its just we are swamped by a global market that also does it well and has the budget to “go big”. My take on the current situation is that those photographers who were on the fringe and marginal but drove the pricing down in a desperate attempt to get work will have now exited the business allowing both the quality of the work and the average hourly rate to increase- not by much but enough to ensure a viable industry remains.