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What makes a photograph great?
There has been a change in photography, one which has been nothing short of cataclysmic. It happened in the seeming blink of an eye. When did the ‘weekend warrior’ photographer become so good that he could compete and even outcompete professional wildlife photographers? When I first started photographing I shot on film and I sat in a waterhole for 3 months just to get a shot of a lion drinking. I kid you not, here is the link. Then came the digital revolution and the word revolution is an understatement. Gigs of data rapidly replaced rolls of film. The power to instantly review and tweak settings as well as the enormous power of sophisticated post processing software literally was a game changer. Remote cameras hidden in buggies and GoPro cameras strapped to any and everything imaginable are now the preferred modus operandi. The current Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s winning image was taken on a GoPro. These days even National Geographic photographers are no not behind the camera, they set up infrared beams and let the subject take its own photo. These ‘peek-a-boo’ shots of animals looking like stuffed teddy bears in a museum exhibit, seem to be the only answer that the world’s top professional photographers have to try and take fresh images. I can ramble on as much as I like about how digital photography has not only shifted the goal posts but more accurately, obliterated them. But, when my ramblings are done, I am still left with questions...
Does a photograph still hold value? Or put differently, is a photograph still something special? If the world is full of them, do they still remain attractive and valuable or powerful? Think about this, if the world were knee-deep in diamonds, would they still be a precious stone? Well, the world is knee-deep in photographs! If I were to try and answer my own question I would say that good photographs have indeed lost some of their value. Think about it, every single time you go onto social media, and especially photographic platforms, you see good photographs but are these photographs memorable? Can you remember what photos you saw on Instagram yesterday? What about last week? What about last year? In film days, I used to aim for 12 good photographs per year and if I actually achieved this goal, it was a great year. Wait, it was a phenomenal year. Of those 12, perhaps 6 would maybe be photographs that I would consider ‘signature shots’ to place in a book or portfolio. Fast forward to the year 2017 and if you are a wildlife photographer who does not place at least one photo on social media per day, well then, you simply are not keeping up with the Joneses and your amount of followers will reflect this. It seems that the world has a vast appetite for good photographs and this in and of itself, tells me that good photographs do still hold at least some value, but that this value has certainly diminished on the basis that good photographs abound everywhere everyday. It is basic economics, the supply outstrips the demand and the value decreases, even on an emotional or psychological level.
One might argue that the vast improvement in equipment has made it easy to capture even a great photograph. For example, birds in flight are widely regarded by amateur photographers and many pro’s alike, as the most difficult photographs to get as birds are small and fast. The new digital cameras offer you 12 frames per second and incredible autofocus, combined with large memory cards offering gigs worth of ‘spraying and praying’, making it possible to take images of birds in flight. As a result, birds in flight have now become commonplace. This then translates to mean that, if you agree with my above sentiments, birds in flight are no longer great photographs as by default, anything that is commonplace can surely not be considered great? Or can it? I am just thinking out aloud now but let me suggest at least that yesterday’s great is today's good.
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