Standing Out In a Commodity World

Standing Out In A Crowd

Happy New Year everybody. Welcome to another year of staggering advancements and changes in photography - an industry that has literally re-shaped our world, for better or worse. Even cell phones today capture some pretty incredible images that mesmerize many users who are seen walking around in a near zombie state, wandering into traffic and off cliffs - literally.

This image captured by Louis Daguerre is regarded as the first photograph that included humans. The exposure lasted around seven minutes and was aimed at capturing the Boulevard du Temple, in Paris, France. Ironically, the long exposure failed to capture the moving crowds, leaving the shoe shine man and his customer truly standing out in a crowd.


This image captured by Louis Daguerre is regarded as the first photograph that included humans. The exposure lasted around seven minutes and was aimed at capturing the Boulevard du Temple, in Paris, France. Ironically, the long exposure failed to capture the moving crowds, leaving the shoe shine man and his customer truly standing out in a crowd.

In the time it took you to read just the first paragraph, an estimated 25,000 photos were uploaded to Instagram - a service used by only 20% of internet users. This number is dwarfed by the umber of Facebook uploads in the same time - an estimated 125,000. These are all big numbers but what about the total number of photographs captured in this same time. Wait for it… a staggering 2,000,000 photographs. 

Just this year alone it’s estimated that close to 1.2 Trillion (yes, that’s trillion with a “T”) photos will be taken - almost 80% of them taken with a mobile phone. 

So, who cares? What’s this all mean to you?

As a photographer it means a lot. Especially, if you are a professional photographer.

In 1826, the very first photograph was captured by Joseph Niépce from the second floor of his estate in Burgundy, France. His “camera” was aimed out the window and the image captured, by todays standards, was less than stellar. Today it is on display at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin.

The image has a tremendous value and people from all over the world visit the museum in order to view it. It’s value comes from the fact that it’s the first photograph that was relatively stable and permanent. But it also tells a significant story about photography. Many “first” images also gain their value for the same reasons. 

John Quincy Adams was the first President to have his photograph taken. The image was shot in 1843 - and for the keen historians, yes, that was several years after he left office in 1829.  

Throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s, photography was still unique. Few people had the resources to engage in this new art form. If you had a photograph of yourself, it was highly prized like a fine piece of artwork. As photography entered the realm of the average consumer, the volume of photographs dramatically increased and general photographs became commodity products - some with very little value. Many of these prints relegated to shoe boxes that hid in a closet. But to capture artistic and high quality images, you still needed to hire a professional photographer.

Look back on the statistics today. With a society that pumps out over a trillion images a year, it’s hard to argue that they all have value. Not just economic value - that’s not the point. What is the emotional value of your images?  If you’re a professional, this economic value translates into dollars - for the hobbyist, adding value to your images makes them stand out in a crowded field. You’ll win contests and get the recognition you deserve.

So now the big question: How to you add value to your images in a commodity world?

1. Understand that it’s not the camera that creates the image. Ansel Adams eloquently sums it up simply by saying “The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” You have to stop looking at the equipment as the solution. The equipment is just that - inanimate tools. It’s amazing to watch students after an inspirational workshop as they run out and buy the same lens, flash, camera or software thinking that “now I can create images like the instructor”.  It doesn’t work that way. 

Does this mean that the tools presented won’t help? No. But, as Peter Adams says, “Photography is not about cameras, gadgets and gismos. Photography is about photographers. A camera didn't make a great picture any more than a typewriter wrote a great novel.”

2. So now you understand that the gadgets and gismos are just tools, it’s time to learn how best to use them. Instruction manuals are wonderful but don’t expect to absorb everything in one sitting. Learning is a process that happens over time. Spend time learning how to use your tools. There is a lot you can learn on your own but take advantage of topic experts too. Find people you respect and value in your clubs or associations and solicit their assistance.

Invest in your own development. Find a workshop or class on topics that you want to better understand and enroll yourself. After the program be sure to spend time practicing what you learned. A huge mistake people often make is that they go to a program and then never practice afterwards. You’re trying to develop skills and that takes time and dogged repetition. Practice, practice, practice.

3. Learn to listen to and absorb criticism that you get. In an article in Inc. Magazine, Peter Economy outlined six habits of super successful people. One of his keys to success is to “Welcome Criticism”. Economy says “Hateful and negative criticism should be heard, assessed, and then let go, while constructive criticism should be evaluated and acted upon.” He goes on to say that you should “solicit feedback from people whose opinions you value. Remember to be gracious when receiving feedback; when you are, your coworkers and friends will be more likely to give you their support and ideas in the future.”

In future blog posts we’ll discuss specific things you can do to make your photography stand out from the crowd and add value to what you produce. If you’re not already a subscriber, be sure to visit our website and subscribe to our blog.