Let me start this off by saying, I am not a Portrait Photographer. I’m a Professional Landscape Photographer. But, 80% of my friends are Portrait Photographers. So, I got to look at it as an outsider with inside connections which may let me see things those too close to a subject may not.
Back on August 20th 2003, Canon™ introduced the EOS Digital Rebel™ (also known as the 300D internationally and the Digital Kiss in Japan) It was a Silver 6.3 Megapixel 1.6x Crop EF/EF-S mount Digital Camera with an 18-55mm F/3.5-5.6 EF-S kit lens. It was the first DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) available in America priced under $1,000. At the time a very reasonable and ground-breaking price! It was $899 for the body and $999 us for the body with the kit 18-55mm lens. Like all things electronic, over the years they have become even less expensive with base Rebel models with lens, now coming in at around $500 us, some even on special for less.
But at that time this was a BIG deal. Now available to the masses was a camera that looked like a “Real” camera or what people may have considered a “Pro” camera because of how it looked and the features it had, even if it really wasn’t a professional model. (Which at the time, cost about $6,500 without a lens. The Canon 1D was a 4.3 Megapixel Professional DSLR in 2001!).
So, you could have a full function DSLR for little more than what Point & Shoot digital cameras were at the time. And while everyone may have had a Point & Shoot digital camera. They certainly did not look the part or have the features required of a “Real” Camera;
• Interchangeable lens,
• Manual controls and operation,
• Better focusing,
• Pop-up flash,
• More megapixels,
• “Through the Lens” optical viewfinder, etc.
They, and the subsequent models, were/are wildly successful. An easy sell to everyone that wanted something more than a point and shoot. It was an instant success for Canon and truly helped Canon push past being a “Film” camera company and firmly into the digital world. (Canon just this year, 2018 ended making Film cameras)
People all over the world loved this camera. Now Nikonians, don’t despair you also had cameras in the same class and quality, The Nikon D40/50 were introduced in 2005 and as we all well know, the companies played leap-frog with new cameras and features over the next 10+ years. So yes, you were just as much a part of the digital revolution. But, there was something very special about the Digital Rebels in the marketplace. It was the Groundbreaker.
While the camera itself proved to be fantastic (for the time) there was one glaring problem…The Lens. The “Kit” 18-55mm f3.5/5.6 was well, awful. It was cheaply constructed, it was slow (3.5 max aperture), it was un-sharp. It really was nothing more than something that allowed you to take a photograph. (The latest edition of this lens by Canon are much improved…for what they are, a kit lens) It was just a cheap crummy lens. In fact, it was so bad, many claimed that their Canon Point and Shoot cameras were sharper (I was one of them, I did not own the 18-55 but did own the 55-250 which I think was worse and I gave it away immediately).
Of course Canon being Canon with a long history of building great lenses. Their L series are “L”egendry, You could have easily mounted up a great lens and cured that problem. But that would be silly since who really would think to put a $2500 lens on a $899 camera? Practically no one did. But there was a solution. A “prime” lens or fixed focal length lens and one in particular: The Canon 50mm 1.8. This was actually another “cheap” lens. It was around $100. It became known as the “Nifty Fifty” or the “Thrifty Fifty”. However, it had characteristics that the Kit lens just could never have. While it was a plastic construction, because of it being a fixed focal length it could be simple in design and VERY sharp. It was also a fast, 1.8 max aperture lens. Which helped in both light gathering but also helped to have a brighter viewfinder and aided in focusing on early Auto Focus system of the time. It was the completing…Game Changer.
While 50mm would be considered a “Normal” lens (sees as the eye sees). That would really only be on a 35mm Film Camera or a full frame digital camera (which actually came out from Canon AFTER the digital Rebel, The Canon 1Ds) Since the Digital Rebel is a “Cropped Sensor” Camera (which actually should be a cropped lens camera) It has a crop factor of 1.6x. With that crop factor the lens now has an effective focal length of 80mm. 85mm has long been considered one of the 2 great focal lengths for Portrait Photography (The other being 135mm which interestingly, if you put an 85mm 1.8 on a crop body, it equals …136mm). Ahhh, now our story is starting to come together.
Now, available to the masses, was a relatively inexpensive, pro looking camera with a sharp, fast lens that was perfect for shooting portraits.
So how did that change an industry? Let’s explore that now.
How a Camera and Lens changed an Industry
Let’s start by going back to the time right after this camera and lens were introduced; 2004.
While the internet had of course been around a while, two major things also came around in February of 2004: Facebook and Flickr. Yes, before them were MySpace and other quirky Social Media and AOL was still big. But, Facebook and Flickr would also, in the same time period, become Game changers
*OK, I’m going to take a break here and try to explain something. What I am about to put forth next may be considered by some to be sexist. I’ll try to convince you otherwise, but I know for some I won’t be able to do that. I will just say in my heart I am just trying to explain a part of history, but it is from my point of view. I will tell you that the majority of my friends are female photographers. But I even hate saying that because that’s what an Racist might say as in “Some of my best friends are Martians”. But they are, and they are very long and dear friends which I watched, and it was the basis for what I am about to say. I learned a lot from them even as I may have acted as a mentor. I didn’t mentor them because I was a “Man that would show them” but simply because I had 40+ years as a photographer and many had just picked up a camera. I saw some really amazing talents. They taught me how to teach better and also how to just see raw talent better. Honestly, I didn’t like teaching men (but I did) because men, with all their bravado, didn’t want to be open and listen. Women were far better at absorbing knowledge especially with things they felt passionate about. Anyway, it’s me trying to explain something but I know it still won’t do much good. So, I will just apologize and say it is not my intent.
OK back to our story.
So, we had at this time many things coming together simultaneously. We had a “Pro” Camera and lens and we also had the internet taking a giant leap forward in what would become known as Sharing. People would take photographs of practically everything and share that to social media or social photo sharing sites. Our photographic images were no longer relegated to a shoe box or Uncle Frank’s basement 3-hour marathon slide-shows. With Social Media, the Internet and email, we could share our photos with our friends, family and literally… the world.
It truly did…change everything.
One of the sub-sets of the sharing were of course People photos. A good majority of the photos we take involve taking photos of other people (the selfie revolution was still years off). Another sub-set of that is that people love taking pictures of their kids. We want to save those moments in time because we know how fleeting those moments are. Now, of course, this didn’t start with the internet. People with Brownies, Polaroids and Instamatics were taking photos of their kids since cameras for the masses began. I know. I have a whole trunk full of myself and brother and sister that my Mom took. Hmmm, my Mom. Which leads us to the next obvious sub-set. Most photos of kids are taking by Moms. Yes, Dads you do too but Moms just take more. Sorry, not sorry, they do.
We now have a lot of moms taking a lot of digital photographs and a lot of them are sharing them on the internet and social sites. OK…and? How does that make a Camera and Lens change any of that? Or, how on earth does it change an industry. It changed because of one word.
Well we are down to our last component of changing an industry. One Word. What is that word?
Bokeh, the most mispronounced and misunderstood word in photographic history.
Bokeh was a term coined by then editor of Photo Technique magazine (which I later would write for) Mike Johnston. It is derived from the Japanese word Boke, which meant “Blur”. An H was added so that hopefully, but unsuccessfully, would make people pronounce the E as the Japanese would, a long A and not Boke as in Broke.
Mike wanted to find a word to describe the qualities of the out of focus area of an image shot with a shallow Depth of Field and it was the term he coined for it. I kinda think he almost regrets that now as people ended up using it instead, mistakenly, as a term FOR shallow Depth of field. It is NOT, it is merely a describer for the quality of that OOF area.
But, outside of people mispronouncing or misusing the term it became quickly the “Term De Jour” of every Photography site. It was almost a chant BOKEH, BOKEH, BOKEH! “Oh, what amazing Bokeh you got”, “I really love that Bokeh”, “How can I get a LOT of Bokeh?” People often would follow that up with, “Wow, what a professional looking portrait” which will fill in the rest of this story.
Putting it all together
Now we’ve got the 3 building blocks but how does that all make an industry change?
First, let’s look at how all of a sudden this became even possible. After-all we’ve been taking pictures of our kids since the early 20th century.
Up to this time, unless people were heavily into photography and had 35mm film SLRs, Medium Format or even Large Format camera, the majority of camera for the masses had fixed lenses and fixed apertures. They were designed merely to get a photo under most conditions. They were great for snapshot but really not much more. Which, for most people, that was fine.
All of these cameras, simply because of design, would have a deep depth of field. In fact, it was pretty much impossible to have a Shallow Depth of Field, never mind Bokeh.
What is required for a shallow depth of field are: A Wide Aperture, a Telephoto lens and being close to the subject (a person). So, a Canon Digital Rebel with a 50mm 1.8 lens could easily fill two of those. Your feet would have to supply the last. The 50mm being an effective 80mm qualifies it is a short telephoto lens. The 1.8 aperture is so wide, shot wide open it could produce a shallow DOF photographing the moon (ok, that’s actually a photographer joke since the moon is so far away it would be impossible to have a shallow DOF when focused on the moon.) Anyway, the point is, photographing with a f/1.8 aperture results in a shallow DOF when photographing almost any subject, especially a person.
So why is this important to our story. Well, people relate a shallow DOF or the mis-used “Bokeh”, with “Professional” Photographs. Since before this time, only professionals or advanced amateur photographer images had a shallow DOF photographs. This, on social media sharing sites led many people to say to those shooting with a Rebel, “Wow, your images look so professional” and then many, many times that was followed by “You should start a business” or “You should do this Professionally”, “Would you photograph my kids?” … and that was really the start of the revolution.
Because many people took those words…seriously. Now of course those words were sincerely meant and with good intentions for sure. But were these really professional photographs or did they just look that way? Well we would soon find out.
What sprung from all this social media sharing and commenting was a new wave of photographers. And most of them were women. It was only natural. Mom’s take the most photographs of their children and of course they share them to other moms who would reply with the above comments. Many women thought, “why not?” Remember, this revolution was not overnight but over many years and it also extended to and through the financial upset of 2008. Many were out of corporate or real estate positions and were looking for income. Or they were simply burnt out on the treadmill of working and caring for a family. It was great opportunity. They had a camera and computer – everything they would need – they could work the hours they wanted, leaving time for family and they could do something they found they loved. It couldn’t sound any more perfect.
At this same timemany, tutorials, blogs and forums popped up that taught photography. So, it was very easy to have access to thousands of pages of information to learn photography from and later, as You Tube evolved, the amount was almost endless. Not only was the entry fee to get into business low you really could also get free training/learning right from the internet.
Also, think of the other obstacles that were present at the time and were now being put to bed. The first was how the Internet and Digital, Democratized many industries. Photography, Publishing, Writing, Graphic Design, Music. Before this time, these were very closed industries. It was very hard to get a book published or write for a magazine. It was hard to have a gallery show your photographs or a Music Exec to even hear your song. There were gatekeepers almost everywhere you had to get through. The internet changed all that. For the good…and unfortunately for the bad. It opened up the possibilities for many people that had talent but no voice. But it also gave voice to people that had no talent. I have to say, without the democratization, I don’t know if I would be a Professional Photographer now. Would I have gotten the book deal, the magazine articles or covers or the CD cover if I had to go through the old system? I don’t really have that answer.
The other thing that happened with this was that women now had an opportunity where they didn’t have to go through normal channels. Up to this point, photography, I’m sorry to say, WAS an Old Boys club. And a lot of that continues to this day in certain areas (say Photojournalism and Sports. Though both have opened up, it still exists). But the internet changed a lot of this. In the first place, there was not the corporate ladder. There was not the glass ceiling since the world of portrait photography, for the most part, was not corporate but rather entrepreneurial. Even in a small business as it existed before, you usually had to apprentice at another shop and those opportunities to become a lead photographer were not so easy to come by, especially for women. It was often met with “Well, wouldn’t you rather do some retouching, or you would be great meeting the clients and handling paperwork”. But women now were able to start on their own and have to get no one’s approval. Literally, if you had a camera, a laptop and a Facebook Page, you had a business or at least the possibility of one.
What really helped launch this in a big way was the built-in clientele: Other Moms. Other Mothers wanting and willing to pay for; photos of my kids that look as good as the photos you take of your kids. It wasn’t B2B (business to business) It was M2M… Mommy to Mommy.
This at the time was no big secret. Even a new term was coined and while a lot of time it was used disparagingly, it existed. The term MWAC or Mommy With A Camera, was used often. And yes a lot of times it was used to make fun. But it WAS the revolution. New Portrait Photography Business or Studios were Mommys With A Camera. It was the new paradigm. That’s not to say there weren’t also DWAC or Daddys With a Camera, but women led the way to how the portrait industry was changed forever.
The Good and the Bad
While this would account for a fundamental shift in how the Portrait Photography Industry operated and its physical makeup, all was not perfect in this new world.
Let me first say these problems and mistake are NOT gender specific. They were made by everybody equally. But since women were now making up a greater percentage of portrait photographers I was able to see it for myself more often in specificity to Portraits. Believe me in other fields like my own, landscape photography, which probably still has a more male balance though it’s been shifting as of late. I see so many mistakes daily that make me shake my head
The first problem was, taking photos that look professional does not make you a professional. And many learned quickly that there was a lot more knowledge that was required to fill that role. Add to that, that so many of the teaching websites and people doing the mentoring just got it wrong or were barely pros themselves and many times it was Newbies teaching Newbies. This led to things becoming a rule just by saying them over and over on the Internet. The worst was probably. “I always shoot wide open” (wide open aperture). So here you had what was making people have that professional look (wide open aperture = shallow DOF/Bokeh) being reinforced by something that professional knows is just not true or appropriate for all situations. And you had photographers used to photographing their child ‘wide open” which works fine and now they are faced with photographing an entire family and trying to use that same mantra and ONLY 3 people out of 30 are in focus. There are many other things that just must be known that weren’t and it led to problems. People needed to deliver good product to a client consistently and they simply couldn’t.
Next was, what starts out as seemingly a small amount of investment – as little as $2,000 which is nothing to start a small business – starts to skyrocket. No longer was that one $100 lens enough and they found out other lenses cost $1,000’s. Bigger and faster computers were needed. That copy of Photoshop Elements you got free with a scanner was no longer up to par and you needed over $800 in software just to edit an image. Then, you found you can’t always shoot with natural light and you needed to invest in multiple flash/strobes and all the rest of reflectors and light modifiers. That cheap hobby/business just got way expensive.
The final thing was: Taking a nice photograph and running a successful business are two different things. This really was the thing that no one was prepared for…no one. At first it was easy. Your friend saw your photos of your kid, they asked if you would photograph theirs, how about $50 bucks, fine and dandy. It’s $50 bucks more than you had yesterday and “It didn’t cost you anything” (the first lie). Then you run out of friends and find you have to have real customers and a lot of them and $50 just doesn’t even cover an hour of your time. You not only have to be a good photographer, you have to be a good business person. Actually, you have to be a business person first and a photographer second. No one…no one was prepared for that.
People simply did not know how to price photography. Not coming up through the ranks of working for someone else and also most not having any business experience led to horrible decisions when it came to pricing. It still exists to this day. When you don’t have confidence you will ALWAYS price low. No one had the formula and people constantly looked for the formula but they never worked because people never accounted for time. Your time. But this is something you see in every category of photography. Some is market led, some is/was just stupidity and lack of confidence. But this may have been the biggest failing of the revolution. I hope going forward people will learn…
And I know all of the above first hand, from the businesses I invested in, from all the tearful phone calls or emails, the actual nervous breakdowns. the confusion, the anger. I saw it all from the people I knew in this new industry –It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not from something I love! – Unfortunately, it was. Of the scores of people that I followed on this journey. Only a handful are still in business. Of those, they survive only because they have the most business acumen. While they also possess great talent. It’s not enough. I know many of them that had great talent. They just didn’t have or want to pursue, the rest. It was really, really sad for me to watch.
Does that mean that it all was a bad thing?
No, absolutely not. It opened many, many doors and for that, we all should be grateful. It was necessary. Also, whenever there is change in an industry, there needs to be shake-out period. The music industry is still shaking out and it’s change came 10 years earlier. The cream will rise and that is what we finally are seeing now some 14 years later. I’m happy to report one of the people I mentored is very successful in the wedding photography industry because she worked hard and deserves to be. And a couple others still fight the good fight every day , but lets not kid ourselves either. It is still a very tough and overcrowded space as probably all Photography genres are now. So, it was a good thing in many ways. Many got the chance they may not ever had in the way it used to be. Even look at the teaching side of it. Many that started out as “MWACs” are doing a fantastic job teaching others not only photography but more importantly… business.
Things don’t always change organically like we think they will or should. A side effect to this all was “New Eyes” looking at an old system. I know in my area, that is greatly influenced by all things outdoors, the thought of having a portrait done in a studio against a Storm Gray canvas background would be foreign. So the whole idea of “Environmental Portraiture” is something that has been a welcome change. Would that have happened anyway without the revolution? Maybe it would have, maybe the market would have changed the system. But what if it was really WAS the cart leading the horse and it was fresh eyes that brought about that change? Remember that a lot of the new portrait photographers could not afford to have a a studio. So necessity may have created new ideas.
Things have changed further over the past 14 years. Many more twists and turns and changes. This was just a summery of the genesis of it. The rest is for another post
It was good, it was necessary. Even if the industry had not changed because of a Camera, a Lens and a Word, it would have had to change simply because of how people view photography and view photographs in 2018.
PS. This post is dedicated to the “Rebel” women I have known. Even though some of them may have shot 20/40Ds to start or even Nikons and not actual Rebel Cameras. They still are Rebels since they were pioneers in a new age of portrait photography. Jodi, Jenn, Regan, Denise, Lynda, Becky, Michelle, Sara, Shelly P and Stacy. You all taught me a ton. TY