Our Photo Bandwidth Is Declining

There’s a thread right now over at DPReview: “how do you accept that nobody cares about your photography?” I can’t answer that, but it got me thinking about a different one: how will we get anyone to even see our photography, when we’re losing photo bandwidth?

Back at the dawn of time, if you wanted someone to see your photos, you called them – by dialing their number on a landline – then drove to their place with your paper prints… ok, I’ll skip the prehistory. But for photographers, it was a low-bandwidth world.

At about the same time that digital photography got rolling, the public internet became a reality and we all thought wow, this will be da bomb. Everyone will be connected, everything will be available. Anyone can become a photographer without needing an agent in New York.

We created web sites, told our friends, and the next time we saw them they said we saw your photos on the computer! But then the web pages just sat there, forgotten; it was too much work to update them.

Blogs were the next big thing. But you soon realized that unless you told people about it, and updated it every day, it was just another boat in the basement. How do you promote a blog, anyway – by blogging about it? (And yet here I am today, writing a blog; the irony is not missed).

My blog: a virtual boat in a basement.

And then, Facebook arrived. This had to be it. Everyone would be on it, anyone could find you and your photos. A Facebook page wouldn’t be a lonely island like your web site; you’d post a photo, your friends would see it instantly, and their friends too, and after a few days the the whole world would be looking at it. Even better: a Facebook Artist Page. Now we’re really in the Big City, with an online identity as a photographer, and a gallery; people sign up to see everything you post. And for a while, it all worked! Photographers built big followings, got likes, even sold prints.

Up to this point, the internet had improved our connection to the world. Even if we had crappy DSL, our photo bandwidth to that world had increased. Photographers were better off than before. But before long, Facebook would start taking it all back.

The organic reach of an Artist page fell off a cliff and today, your followers probably don’t see your posts unless you pay to boost them. ( I have another post about that. )

Interaction with friends declined too. As Facebook stuffed ever more paid junk into news feeds, people lost interest. Today your friends post a photo of the kids, react to some political clickbait, watch a funny video or two, and move on. And everyone is now sharing those same “awesome”, “jaw-dropping” photos of impossibly colorful birds in Borneo and auroras in Iceland; we’re up against National Geographic’s ad budget.

Smartphones made it all soooo much worse. They were supposed to be great, because now people could see your photos anytime, not just when they were sitting at the computer in the den. But everything became hideously compromised to fit those tiny screens and shorter attention spans. To get even more ads in front of eyeballs, something had to go – like, your posts. (And also, image quality and aspect ratio.) Even your subject matter gets warped, because a photo has to somehow grab attention at a very small size.

So now, even as our physical bandwidth is increasing (fiber and 5G) our photo bandwidth is declining. Photographers are actually less connected to other people, and the world, than we were just a couple of years ago. The signal-to-noise ratio is worse. Web shopping is still rocketing up but meaningful online activity is dropping, at least among people I know.

Oh yeah: Instagram, Twitter, SnapChat, TikTok: they’re all going pay-to-play, one way or another. Or they’re aimed at kids. MeWe – a phone company that only connects to itself; everyone’s heard of it, no one uses it.

What’s the future? I don’t see Facebook ever going back to being as useful and exciting as it once was; and maybe that’s true of the whole web. Something new will come along, as it always has. But right now I think we’re at a bit of a low-bandwidth point.

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4 Replies to “Our Photo Bandwidth Is Declining”

  1. You bring up some great points, Jim. But I think you missed one. We’re bombarded with imagery these days. Every mobile phone has a camera. A remarkably capable one at that! Now artificial intelligence has entered the realm of post processing images. It is simply so easy to change the sky, remove distracting objects, add things that weren’t present when the image was made. The “trust” aspect of photography is somewhat damaged. This all contributes to the loss of bandwidth that you mention.

    1. Yes. Along with the loss of bandwidth is perhaps a loss of interest. As Yogi Berra is supposed to have said: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

  2. Actually, the boat in the basement is a good metaphor. One day someone might find it, and wonder wtf? It’s my sole reason for taking pictures. As to photo bandwidth, it’s really pretty damned good actually. Your images here are viewed around the world, how cool is that? Remember the film era? (I do, I’m old) Nobody at all viewed my images then, unless one or two people saw a print. Or I had an image published commercially and then nobody knew it was mine anyway. So yeah, in relative terms it’s fantastic bandwidth today.

    Photography has changed beyond anything I dreamed. People with only a few months experience are making images that are frankly terrific, all the time now. Therein lies the problem.

    It’s become a fashion thing. For the majority, it’s not really a craft with much perceived value anymore. And fashion, as with attention span, is transitory. So maybe MASS bandwidth is shrinking, but quality bandwidth, (by that I mean reaching people who actually care about photography) is increasing.

    There used to be a saying the garment industry: “Never mind the quality, feel the width” and as photographers, perhaps we should reverse that sentiment. Concentrate on the quality and forget about the (band)width.

    1. I’m also old enough to have shot film, although I knew next to nothing about photography in those days.
      Photography today is a paradoxical combination of factors, some of which are motivating, some discouraging. I’ll probably be posting more on that subject.

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