In this essay I want to talk about the difference between cameramen and photographers. I want to do this because I’ve realized that in many ways I’ve my entire career in photography which started in 1997 has been watching a radical technological shifts that has changed the meaning of what it is to be a photographer and shown the separation between Camera Man and Photographers. To illustrate this difference I will discuss the difference between writers and typists.
I will begin with a very brief history of typing because I think there are parallels to the changes that have happened in photography in the past 20 years. Typing used to be a very difficult thing to do so much so that a person would go to school to learn how to be a typist. It was a thing people were given degrees in and then they would go off and work in typing pools or be assigned to an executive etc. to do all of his typing for them. If you ever used a manual type writer you can see how even typing at the right rate so the little arms don’t get jammed is something of a skill not to mention being able to type a 500 word letter with no typos aka mistakes. I hear that when my grandmother who worked as a typist started the job she actually lost weight the act typing on a manual typewriter was so aerobic. This is how things operated for a very long time. Then came electric typewriters the job of typing a lot easier but still difficult and labor intensive enough that most business and maintained large “typing pools” to accomplish this work.
Then the typing earth shook with them and the development word processors like WordPerfect and Microsoft Word. Now all of a sudden you could make all sorts of mistakes in your typing and easily correct them. It became easy enough to type that businessmen/women could type their own memos. The ritual of the secretary coming in listing to the boss dictate his message taking it down in short hand and then typing it up bring it back to the boss to review and sign all but disappeared. The boss wrote his own memos on his IBM PC with WordPerfect. Typing pools while they didn’t disappear over night quickly began to shrink to the point were they no longer existed. Have you even heard the phrase “Typing Pool” in the past in two decades?
So thousands and thousands of typist lost there job. This is what economist would call creative destruction. It is painful but would you say we should have passed laws outlawing word processers. That would have been ridiculous.
Photography has been going through a similar transition and it is all but eliminating the job of the cameraman as a profession. I’m only going to talk briefly about the technological advance in the past two decades that has drastically changed the profession of camera man. Skipping over wet plate, roll film, high speed lenses and other advance that happened earlier that made photography more accessible.
When I started in 1997 the great debate was over autofocus cameras. How could a machine take the place the skilled hand of the Camera Man. Half of the camera men I worked with and half of them wouldn’t. I who had a Nikon FE-2 would practice focusing quickly while I watched TV. Picking three points in the room and switching the focus between them as quickly as I could. Then with the Nikon N90s and the Nikon F5 autofocus became indisputably better then the cameraman’s hand so everyone started using it.
But more importantly it made the photographs of the most casual photographer in focus. It just got a lot easier to photograph. Then of course with the launch of cameras like the Canon 5D digital went mainstream in professional camera men. The quality was close enough to film and it was a lot easier and cheaper to use. But the real advance in photography happened when Canon Rebels and that class of camera got as good as any professional camera in many ways. An 18 megapixel camera, quick autofocus and image quality that is comparable to cameras costing ten times as much. This was the great deciding typing point for the cameraman.
Now every company could give a secretary a $600 camera and have her take grip an grins even company portraits and they would be in focus, properly exposed and color balanced. Now every entry level graphic designer could pickup a $600 and do product photography. Now anyone with a causal interest in photography could pick up a $600 camera and shoot iStock. Now every person with an interest in weddings could pick up a $600 camera and be a wedding photographer. And if anyone of them makes a mistake the problem can most likely be easily corrected in a software program like iPhoto or Picasa which are in many ways as powerful as Photoshop of the 90’s and much easier to use.
As I hear this I can already here the complaints “but they are missing something,” “they don’t do it as well” and all of that may be true but for all clearly for many purposes they are doing a good enough job. I personally would challenge the assertion that they aren’t doing as good a job as cameraman of the past. Have you looked on iStock. There’s a lot of good photography there. Also I’ve been surprised at the quality of many a 20 year old wedding photographer with a $600 Canon rebel. I would even go so far as to say that if you looked at yearbooks today the quality of the photography in them is much better then in the pre-digital photography age.
I feel this is the case because not only has digital photography made it easier to take a photograph it has made it easier to learn photography. The instant feedback of the LCD screen letting you know about your exposure, color balance etc lets people learn photography quickly. So has the cameraman gone the way of the typist. I most defiantly say yes. While I think their maybe more people actually taking photographs they way the word processors certainly made it so more people learned to type. The job of cameraman taking photograph is gone. Weddings, shooting stock, product, business men portraits, senior portraits will all be taken by someone. But the time when a person can pay their mortgage, health insurance, family, and car with their knowledge of operating a camera in order to make an image has passed. It’s gone the way of the typist. The job of cameraman has been taken over by legion of amateur part-time cameraman who don’t have the over head of others because they my have a spouse or a parent who covers the mortgage, health insurance etc and the income the make off of iStock, wedding is a little bonus for gas or clothing money. The new part time beard of cameraman operates with much less over head then the traditional cameraman of the past.
That all being said I don’t think the job of the Photographer has been threated at all. If you were to take a typist from the 1920’s and bring them to 2012 she wouldn’t have a job. But if you were to being F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austin to 2012 he/she would have nothing to fear.
The difference between a Camera Man and Photograph is as different as a typist and a writer. Both my type but both make their living because of very different skills. The photographer makes his living, as does the writer, through his ability to think of and organize, and express ideas. This is the same thing the writer does but the photographer does it through images. As a typist made their living through there ability to operate a typewriter a cameraman made his living through his ability to operate a camera. Bellow I’ve made a list of the qualities of a cameraman and that of a photographer.
- Generates original ideas
- Can communicate those ideas
- Can persuade others to those ideas
- Has a unique style
- Has the skills to collaborate with stylists, editors, art directors, graphic designers, accountants, agents etc.
- Skills are useful no matter the project or the technique is being used for
- See change in technology as a new ways to execute his ideas more effectively.
- Doesn’t generate original ideas
- Doesn’t know how to communicate ideas
- Can not execute ideas
- Has no unique style.
- Doesn’t collaborate
- Skill set is dependent on a particular from of camera, software etc.
- Sees change in technology as a constant threat and complains about it.
The Photographers I know have all transition into doing to one degree or another video work. This has been a very easy adjustment for them because in many ways they are doing the exact something they were before. Generating ideas, organizing those ideas, communicating those ideas, and executing those ideas. But more then that there skill set is valuable to no matter what they do. This versatility of work is this why it is valuable to educate and to be educated as a photographer as apposed to as a cameraman. The education of a photographer is very different then the education of a cameraman. Since the photographers job is centered around ideas looking at work, talking about ideas, thinking about ideas, coming up with ideas at the center of everything he does. The camera is just an extension. In my work as a photographer I’ve found that spend most of my time thinking of ideas, organizing ideas, communicating ideas and very little time actually operating a camera. This is something I have found true of most all photographers. This is probably why many photographs don’t even own the camera equipment they need and instead they rely on rental equipment. It’s not worth increasing their overhead dealing with storage and maintenance of something that they use so rarely. Of course the tools such as a cell phone, a word processor, email are indispensable. I personally really felt that I had arrived as a photographer when I needed an unlimited text, voice, and data cell phone plan in order to do my job.
A photography class should be full of ideas, theatrical, other photographers work, students should have to think of new ideas, students should be required communicate there ideas, collaborate with other so they have to communicate and persuade others of there ideas every step of the way should be idea motivated the creation and production of there work. It is their ideas that will insure they have a place in the artistic, and commercial world because if camera operation and exaction is as easier as it is now then I can not image how much easier it will be in another 10 years.
The education of a camera man generally focuses on giving the photographer the skill of operation and is not focused on ideas. The cameraman isn’t expected to come up with original ideas, communicate ideas or execute ideas. He is simply expected to operate a particular piece of equipment, camera or software. It operates on skills that change so quickly and really are simplified by improving technology that they are rendered unnecessary.
What more educating people to be photographers rather then cameraman has benefits beyond simply the fact that the job of cameraman has gone the way of the typist. Photography is a small field. Point in case Getty Images the company I work for is valued around 2.4 billion dollars. That’s is much less then the 3.2 billion value of NuSkin (a small cosmetics company) or a very small fraction of the 74 billion Disney is worth. That’s fine in many ways it’s not something to complain about. It’s much more difficult to be a lawyer then people think and getting a law degree is by no means a guarantee that you will get a job and if you do get a job it will be very different in practice and in pay then what people think lawyers do. In fact people concept of “lawyer” high paying etc job is really only what full partners in law firms get and a very small fraction of people who graduate with JD’s get to be partners.
So it’s hard to get a job as a photographer. That’s fine. It’s hard to get a job in a lot of things. But if someone is trained as a cameraman they will find it very difficult to get a job when they are no longer a cameraman. But if someone is trained as a photographer and has experience in collaboration, thinking of ideas, communicating those ideas, executing those ideas, persuading others ideas they will never have a hard time getting job. The world will be their oyster. I think a good example of the fact that this ability to navigate the world of ideas is illustrated by the United State Bureau of Labor Statistics employment projections in correlation to pay. It found that people with PhD’s in 2010 made $1,550 a week and had a rate of unemployment of 1.9% much lower then the national average of 8.2% and made 30% more then people with just a bachelors degree and only made $60 a week less then those with JD’s, MD’s, MBA, MPA, DD, etc. Now that statistic includes people who go PhD’s in history, liberal arts, or many other position that are only employable as a university professor and you can bet they many of them didn’t get a job as a history professor. If they all did I don’t think there average income would be as high as $80,000 a year. Despite this they were able to get very good paying jobs because they knew how to navigate the world of ideas. Their education paid off even though it wasn’t in the way people would naturally expect.
You can say the same thing about people who are trained to be photographers. That they would have thinking and collaboration skills that will help them through out their lives rather then a set of technical skills that will go out of date almost as soon as they are taught and are indeed skill for what is now a non-existent job of a cameraman. Much the way it would be better to train someone today to be a writer rather then to be a typist.
Some concrete ways this can be incorporated into the curriculum of a photographer is by showing and talking about lots of prominent photographers work. The other way is to work closely with graphic design and advertising programs having the student’s work with them. Student should have to present their work and talk about it.
I hope its apparent how changes in technology have made it so the job of the cameraman is no longer a career. That in many ways this is the same transition that writing underwent in the 80’s with word processors when the job of a typist no longer became necessary. With this state in photography it is much better to be training photographers who skill focus around, creating ideas, communicating ideas, collaborating with their ideas, and executing those ideas. Because the job of a photographer still exists and more then that these are skills that are valuable to anyone no matter what discipline they find themselves during the course of there lives.