I’ve been interested in photography since I was small, progressing through a simple fixed-focal-length compact camera to a basic 35mm SLR, playing with many cameras, including SLRs and compacts, and now back just to a digital compact camera I quite like. I’ve found digital sufficiently liberating that it has re-invigorated my interest in photography: primarily because it makes everything easier and cheaper. (Maybe one day I’ll invest in a 35mm digital SLR but I still want something smaller). Even my new phone has a camera that’s worth a second look.
Flickr, of course, has been a great success story of recent years, providing a simple and cheap way for anyone to upload and share photos. They have got the balance just right between the man-in-the-street and the enthusiastic amateur, so much so that many professionals now inhabit Flickr (don’t be fooled by the ‘pro’ logo, though; it means nothing more than that a subscriber is paying for more space - which is what I do). They’ve also spent a considerable amount of time getting the social aspects right, so much so that it’s easy to spend hours browsing Flickr for funky photos and talking with other keen photographers. Many of my friends are also into photography and most of them have Flickr accounts.
At the same time, Flickr makes it trivial to access mountains of excellent content that most photographers would be rightly jealous of. I’m proud of some of my best photos, but it doesn’t take long on Flickr to find stuff that’s miles ahead.
Despite the legal, moral, and practical issues involved in copying a photo (see the Creative Commons page for an indication of how unnecessarily complicated it can be to understand), I can’t help but think that all of this will reduce the average cost of a saleable photo for a professional photographer - whether they choose to participate online or not. In fact, it’s easy to see that this is true, simply by observing the rush of online stock photography websites selling stuff for pennies. Put in other terms, it makes it easier to become a professional photographer, whilst making it harder to make money from it. It’s a good substitution argument - if I don’t like the price you’re charging for your pretty picture, I’ll find another one (and Flickr and the web makes it easy). It’s no coincidence that the consequences of this digital enablement roughly mirror the struggles and increased opportunity that many music artists are going through with the rise of online music, file-sharing, etc.
None of this is designed to discourage anyone. It’s got to be more satisfying to beat the world than just those lucky few who can afford a camera. But like much of economic progress, the commoditisation of good photography is going to be easier for the consumer (viewer) than the producer (photographer).