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Are Out-of-Camera Photos Endangered?

We do a lot of commercial photography and headshots here at Spectacle Photo, and a few weeks ago I realized that we haven’t produced a single photo in years to a paying customer that hasn’t been touched up in some way. I’ve really been thinking about why, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s because we can’t. If we turned out a photo that didn’t have that altered commercial look to it, we won’t get hired again, and people would think we suck at photo editing. Because of the tools that exist today, the photography industry is much different than it used to be. Altering photos has always been a thing, but since it used to be a more time consuming and involved process it wasn’t the norm, so creating original photos that looked great was very important. Now, this is not the case, due to home computers and photo-software readily available at affordable rates.

This is an early example of an altered photo. An iconic photo of Abraham Lincoln is actually a composite of his head on John Calhoun's body, circa 1860.
This is an early example of an altered photo. An iconic photo of Abraham Lincoln is actually a composite of his head on John Calhoun’s body, circa 1860.

Since photo-manipulation wasn’t the norm before current tech, photographers were frequently able to sell unaltered photos. They sold them for magazines, ads, brand assets, and anything else involving photos. There’s no way we could do that now. If we were to hand an advertising agency an amazing unaltered photo, we’d still lose out on being hired if our competitors give them high-end composites or altered images. Composites/altered pics just have that look that screams “money”, and all businesses prefer that over realism. This shift is somewhat recent as well, more recent than you’d think.  Here’s a side by side comparison of two international promos featuring Will Smith.  One’s from the 90’s, and one’s from now. Let’s see if you can spot the difference:  

That happened in just a twenty year time span.  Right now you’re probably thinking something like, “Well one is from a tv show and one is from a big budget movie.”.  True.  But just look at the promos that we have for television shows today.  Another huge difference from 90’s promos: 

At this point I think I need to make it clear that I’m NOT against promos or whatever else looking like this, and I don’t see photo manipulation as some black mark on the current generations. The promos above are great. As far as all the people who complain about how vain and superficial our society has become, I’ve got news for you: It’s always been that way!  Know what they used to do back before photoshop? They wouldn’t use photos at all. The studios and advertising agencies would hire an illustrator to draw something they thought would catch the eye of a moviegoer, stylize it through graphics work, and make a 100% manufactured promo. They started doing this in the early 1920’s to get away from the only other option available at the time, which was to simply take a raw still from the movie, slap a title on it, and mass produce it through lithography. But even back then they thought using original photos to promote movies was boring. Check out these posters and promos from the 1930’s using illustrations and/or photo manipulation techniques available at the time: 

As you can see, the entertainment and branding industries were never fans of using original photos in a final product. That being said, original photographs were used much more often then they are now, especially in the business world.  Big department stores, manufacturing companies, small businesses of any kind, etc. all used original photos in their marketing efforts.

The point of this article is that I wish there were more opportunities today for us along those lines, as photographers, to go in a different direction like they used to. It would be so refreshing if a company came to us and said they didn’t want altered photos; that they were going to take a real and down-to-earth approach. This would make it so photographers would be able to focus on being truly great at taking high-quality originals. Sadly, current trends don’t allow for this. Even the smallest businesses want a high end, altered look, and they feel entitled to it just as much as a movie studio worth millions. With each passing year I’ve seen less and less original work in promos, and we’ve never even had the chance to do it at all.  The original photo is truly going the way of the Dodo.

Aaaaand then there's this hilarious work of art.
Aaaaand then there’s this hilarious work of art.