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Advanced Shooter — Looking Back at the Last 25 Years in Photography (full story)

©Darwin Wiggett Photo: Twenty years ago being an outdoor photographer was a rare job, so you had to dress the part to convince people you met that your job was real!

©Darwin Wiggett
Photo: Twenty years ago being an outdoor photographer was a rare job, so you had to dress the part to convince people you met that your job was real!

Story and photography by Darwin Wiggett

I’m not usually one for looking back. It’s not that I’m such a forward-looking guy; it’s mostly because I barely remember yesterday, let alone what happened 25 or more years ago. But several years ago I reached the 50-year old milestone and I thought maybe I should sit back in my rocking chair with my prune juice and recall the glory days. I even went so far as to write my memories down, with the help of my partner Samantha, in an ebook called 50 at 50 published on our website, oopoomoo.com. In that ebook I tell the stories behind the making of my 50 favourite images by the time I was 50 years old (pretty clever for an old fart, eh?). Anyway, the exercise reminded me of all the crazy changes that happened in photography over the quarter century.


Back in 1986 when I first got into photography there was a lot of craft needed to make a decent picture. Auto focus was just released the year before by Minolta, but the feature was in its infancy (and was really slow) so you actually had to focus your lenses manually (heaven forbid!). A bigger hurdle than focus was exposure, especially if you used slide film, which didn’t have a wide latitude for errors. I remember I spent most of my time just trying to get my photos precisely exposed. We had all sorts of formulas and tools from the sunny 16 rule: the zone system, the colour tone system, grey cards, hand-held spot meters, incident light meters, the inverse square law, reciprocity charts and a whole lot of math. Cheaters bracketed exposures to cover their butts. Wimps!

And what you got in the camera was what you got. No fixing stuff after the fact. So we all worked very carefully to get it right in the camera. And when the film came back and you saw that telephone pole emerging from Uncle Authur’s head, you knew better for next time. We really were photographers back then, using cameras and lenses as our tools and not computers.

The business of photography, and especially landscape photography as a profession, was far less crowded, with fewer photographers vying for money than today. The bar for the pro was technically perfect photos first and then meaning and appeal second. To succeed you needed to be a great craftsman with compelling images, and then a decent business person. But even the latter was easier because most landscape photographers sold their photos through stock photo agencies so that the business part (marketing) was taken care of for the photographer.

Fast forward to today. Digital cameras are technical marvels; making a technically perfect photo has never been easier. The cameras focus (using face recognition and other fancy algorithms), set proper exposure (using multi-segmented, 3D metering) and have GPS image tracking, WiFi capabilities, touch screens, video and so much more! Pocket cameras even make phone calls now! It’s all moving so fast!

And if you don’t like what you did with your “camera,” then simply run the photos through software and add, subtract, alter and massage the image into something completely different from what you captured. In fact, it’s rare that image capture ends in the camera. We are now all digital media artists.

So with everyone making images, the world has a glut of photos. Millions of photos are uploaded to the Internet daily! If photography is your business, chances are you actually don’t sell photos anymore. You sell ‘how-to.” Or you sell the dream of being a photographer. Or you sell someone else’s dream.

©Darwin Wiggett Photo: And now, 20 years later, bad fashion is still a staple of outdoor photography!

©Darwin Wiggett
Photo: And now, 20 years later, bad fashion is still a staple of outdoor photography!

With so much content available, photographers need more than just a pretty picture to stand out. Today it’s actually less about the actual photos and more about the photographer. To be successful in photography you need to be a personality! When you look at who is “successful” in photography today, it’s not necessarily those with the most innovative work, but rather those with the biggest celebrity factor. Today, marketing (being a celebrity) is first, and the actual photography is second. To succeed photographers need to be communicative, creative and share with their audience.

These changes are not bad. I don’t long for the good old days. It does mean you adapt (or take up checkers). Photography is in an exciting industry. Anyone can be a photographer now and the world is your market through the Internet. You don’t need a big audience for your work, but you need to engage, talk with and be creative in your interactions with your audience. You need to be known and trusted by your audience. Photography is now so much more than just pressing a button! I have to admit that I would have never guessed this 25 years ago.

To read more great how-to articles from Outdoor Photography Canada magazine pick up the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of OPC today, or subscribe!

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