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Hobbyists vs. Photographers

Hobbyists invented photography.

Photography has been the world's most popular hobby from about 1900 - 1990, depending on what survey you read.

Hobbyists invented both photography itself, as well as everything significant about the techniques and equipment we use.

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, in inventor who who never had a real job, invented photography in the 1800s.

Karl Benz invented the car on his own in 1886.

Oskar Barnack invented full-frame as a goof on His own time in 1913.

The world's first practical color film, Kodachrome, was created by two musicians, UCLA grad Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, working in Mannes' apartment.

Thomas Knoll created Photoshop as a grad student in Michigan back in the 1980s.

Almost nothing fundamental has been developed by large corporations, or even by people working at their day jobs. All large organizations do is bring other people's brilliant ideas to market, but the brilliant ideas always start in the imagination of a single man.

Almost everything earth-shaking has been developed by individuals working in their garage on their own time.

Photography, as a hobby, is all about the equipment. It is a man's hobby, just like model trains, hunting, coin collecting, model rocketry and drag racing.

As a hobby, photography is rarely about the end result, which is too bad. Hunting is a good hobby, but even it now has problems with bad eggs more concerned about their guns and ammo than tracking and hitting their targets cleanly.

Men love to fool with their tools. It's the biggest part of most hobbies. It doesn't matter if they ever take them out and do anything useful with them.

When Karl Benz invented the car in 1886, all he ever did was tinker with it, always trying to improve it. The first actual road trip was made by his wife, who after being frustrated by how her husband wasted all his time tinkering, one bright Sunday morning loaded up the kids and drive the thing 60 miles to take the kids to go see grandma.

Good pictures are usually the provenance of artists, who are the ones worrying about creating better pictures, instead of making better cameras. This is why women make a disproportionately better share of good pictures than men: women aren't worrying about the gear.

Good photographers, as differentiated from hobbyists, have always been able to make great pictures, regardless of the technology at their disposal.

Bless the hobbyists, because without these tinkerers we would have no photography, but is it important to recognize when it's time to get away from the gear, or worse, chatting about it online, and take it out on the road to create some good pictures for a change.

I've covered the chronology of many of the key innovations at Photo Product of the Decade, 1820-2010.

Here now is the chronology of the hobby of photography, so hopefully I can illuminate the difference between photography itself, and the hobby that surrounds it.


1800s: In the Beginning

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented the internal combustion engine in 1807, and then the first fixed-image photograph by the 1820s.

For the next several decades, photo innovation was concerned with perfecting chemistry and creating new processes.

In these days, just about everyone had to experiment with everything to get it to work. There was no such thing as an exposure meter, you guessed, and hoped the wet plate in your camera was similar to the last one you coated.


Early to mid-1900s

In these days, photo hobbyists concerned themselves with cameras and lenses about as much as they concerned themselves with darkroom magic.

Unlike today, half their attention was spent on selecting among the staggering number of choices of film, paper and darkroom chemicals.

Today hobbyists get excited by high ISOs, and in the old days, hobbyists would always be trying out some magic developer to get finer grain or crazier high speeds. Some things never change.

Hobbyists would experiment with numerous brands of printing paper, each with a different look.

Real photographers settled on just a couple of types of film, paper and chemicals and then learned how to perfect their look using those tools. Hobbyists rarely made good photos because by the time they got close to getting good pictures with one set-up, they'd give up and try a new kind of developer.

As the 1900s progressed, more and more people sent their work out to labs for developing and printing.



By the 1980s, color print photography had become inexpensive enough that hobbyists shot color print film, and had it developed and printed by a lab.

This was too bad, because no one ever got good colors, since color printing is entirely subjective, and every film needs different printer settings.

Others shot color slides, as they had since the invention of Kodachrome in the 1930s, and got the colors they intended.

With color, only the most insane hobbyists developed or printed their own work , so it all got sent to the lab.

Thus the photography as a hobby centered entirely around the acquisition of cameras, lenses, and filters by the 1980s.



By the 1990s, photography equipment had evolved to its highest state.

We also saw the introduction of digital photography to consumers.

By the mid to late 1990s, "digital" meant scanning your film and playing with it in your computer.

Digital cameras were primitive. The first practical DSLR, the Nikon D1, didn't ship until Christmas 1999, and all the other digital cameras were Mavicas and 1.2MP wonders.

A very bad thing happened to the hobby by the late 1990s.

Men were increasingly drawn away from photography, and model trains, and everything, into computers.


It wasn't about the computers. It was because the computers started to talk to each other, as the Internet became adopted by consumers.

When computers could receive information from other computers, that meant that computers were now pornography portals to the world. Men could get their porn instantly, and even better, it evaporated instantly as soon as the wife or girlfriend or mukhabarat came around.

Pornography, and plenty of games and other distractions, now pulled men away from photography and into their computers. Even if no one admits to it, someone is spending 100 billion dollars a year on pornography alone, even before we factor in video games.

I'm dead serious: the photography hobby almost died in the late 1990s and very early 2000s.

I was a sales manager for a huge television and movie studio equipment company in Hollywood in those days. I decided it might be more fun to drive around with a half-million dollars worth of photo demo gear in my trunk instead of the post-production studio gear I sold.

I asked around at Hasselblad, Canon and Nikon, and the reply was the same. Sales were down, and dropping even more. No one was hiring. As others left, they were not rehiring. The sales forces were shrinking by attrition, hoping that things wouldn't get much worse.

Why? Simple: even with pro gear, the biggest consumers are rich hobbyists. There are a lot more rich people than there are pro photographers.

As hobbyists spent more time on the Internet instead of in the darkroom, or out shooting, no one was buying new cameras the way they had been for over 100 years.

Things were grim. I stayed in TV, and then quit to do this website full-time in 2004.


The 2000s

The photography hobby was back with a vengeance by the mid 2000s.

Digital saved the hobby.

By pure dumb luck, digital photography recaptured all the guys who went away to play with their computers.

With digital cameras, it was trivial to get your pictures into your computer, and then to play with them in your computer until you went blind.



Today the photography hobby has retreated almost entirely away from shooting, and gone back into the computer.

Just as most of the hobby was concerned with chemistry at its inception, few photo hobbyists worry about taking pictures anymore. Instead, it's all about Lightroom or Camera Raw, workflows, profiles, HDR or whatever.

Hobbyists actually believe that, armed with their computers, that they are now alchemists who can turn terds into great pictures. Artists can turn terds into art, but bad photos never get any better than when they were taken.

Hobbyists created photography. Sadly, hobbyists are usually too busy playing with the toys to create any meaningful photographs, just as Karl Benz never actually drove the car he invented.

If anyone doubts the foolishness of the current obsession with software shenanigans, have a look at an old photo magazine from the 1950s and see how much time was spent back then worrying about darkroom chemicals.

Today we look back at all that and can't fathom how using one chemical or another had any significance compared to how much more important it would have been to take pictures of something interesting.

Look at LEICA Photographie magazines from the 1950s, and it's appalling how awful are most of the featured photos. They all suck, except for the occasional ringer thrown in from someone like Eisenstaedt.

There were articles on topics like how to do color separation negatives, and when we look at the "good" and "bad" examples today, all we notice is "heck, one might be a better reproduction, but who cares, it's still an awful picture of weeds in someone's backyard!"

I see exactly the same problem today.

It's obvious looking back at old magazines that the only thing that mattered was getting to the right place at the right time to take a picture of the right thing, and the choice of developer and wash treatments, 90% of what the magazines went off about, was irrelevant.

Today, its the same thing. Magazines go off about how to "fix" your pictures in your computer, but let's face it: the only way to fix them is, as always, get to the right place at the right time and see the right picture before you press the shutter.

If you waste your time making 3,600 exposures from the same place to stitch in four dimensions, it doesn't matter how much spatial (gigapan and pan-focus) or luminous (HDR) range or resolution you have, if it's a picture of something boring.

If it sucks, who cares if it's GPS geotagged? If it's great, it's because of the lighting and timing, which has nothing to do with the location.

A photo of an important event is rarely important by itself. It is the event which was important, not the photo. Making a strong photo is much more difficult than just being there with a tripod.

Hobbyists are so distracted by wondering which raw converter to use, worried about printer and camera profiles, wasting hours doing gigapan and HDR and pan-focus captures, and then wasting even more hours in front of their screens putting these all together back into photos and then screwing them up further with more plugins, that no hobbyists have any time left to look for better pictures.

Today's hobby has perverted itself into little more than something men do on their computers between porn sessions.

Artists and photographers are still out shooting, but the hobbyist of today is crippled by wasting the majority of his potentially creative efforts dicking around on his computer.

Photographic artists often bemoan this state of affairs, not seeing the great divide between themselves and the hobbyists

Artists mourn the passing of serious photography, until I point out that the serious workers have always been the few, and that those few are still there.

What is a very bright point is that without all the hobbyists, the photo hardware and software industry would have collapsed to a tiny fraction of its current size back in the early 2000s.

As always, there would be little available for photography today if it wasn't for those nutty hobbyists buying so much gear and software. Without them, we'd still have what we had back in the 1990s, which is fine with me.



The moral of this story is that we love the hobbyists, but that no one should let himself get caught up so far into it that he never takes good pictures.

Many of the popular hobby techniques that require multiple exposures to create just one big crappy picture are actually technically incapable of making a good picture, precisely because they require multiple exposures.

Still photographs need dynamic elements to be successful. Moving and living subjects have to be caught at the peak of the action, the decisive instant that says it all. Landscapes, nature and architecture needs to be caught in the right light. The right light isn't in the middle of the day: the right light is very short-lived at the ends of the day. Clouds come and go, and the best syrupy golden light of dawn often only lasts for seconds. The strongest photos are those that capture something in transition.

Think of the best photos you can imagine. Is the subject just sitting there? Not likely. Most likely, something is happening, be interaction between people, or it's nature doing something interesting. You can't capture any of that with multiple exposures.

Ansel Adam's Clearing Winter Storm? Similar conditions have repeated, but as the clouds blow around, multiple exposures won't stitch or stack because the clouds can't match.

Ansel Adams' Moonrise over Hernandez? Ansel was driving around New Mexico, and saw something crazy happening before him. He stopped, and realized he had about 120 seconds before he lost the light on the crosses. He took 110 seconds to set up his 8x10" camera, took 5 seconds to guess his exposure from experience because he forgot his light meter in the car, and 5 seconds to get off one shot before he lost his light. He had no time for bracketing, or even for a second safety shot.

If he had brought a DSLR, he would have lost it before he even started any series of exposures intended to be stitched or stacked.

No, simply lightening the crosses later in Photoshop would not have made a picture if he had already lost his light.

Those are what people call still-lifes, shot with large-format cameras. Just think of all the iconic news shots that are even more difficult to time.

If you take more than a half-second to fire all the shots you need to stitch and stack, you cannot possibly create a photograph as powerful as can be captured in one snap of my Powershot.

Sure, some few people make good photos with whack techniques, and those same people are the sort of people who could make great photos with any technique.

The people who can pull off good stitched photos are those who already know exactly where to set their tripods for great photos. If you don't already have this knack, and few people do, then the worst way to try to get better is by handicapping yourself with a system that paralyzes you for a half an hour at a time.

Women don't have this problem, since they'd rather go shoot, which is why they create a lot less crap than we men do.

Don't let me discourage anyone from enjoying their hobby. If I had a real job, the only thing I'd be doing at work is playing with my personal photos on my office computer.

However, if your interest is to make great photographs, let me do everything I can to pull you away from the computer. Take the simplest camera you can find, and learn how to see a good picture. Vision, seeing the picture first, is everything. Snapping and printing it is the trivial part.

Don't let hobbyists' passions-of-the-month distract you from making great pictures.

Photography is all about seeing something interesting. Snapping it is the easy part.

If you bung yourself up by making the snapping difficult, you lose your ability to see in the first place.


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Thanks for reading!



Mr. & Mrs. Ken Rockwell, Ryan and Katie.


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January 2010