Image Saturation

Some mind-boggling statistics for you: In a single minute 216,000 photos are shared on Instagram. 8 Billion images have been uploaded to Flickr in the last 8 years, and Flickr’s only one (although arguably the best) of the photo sharing websites.

Are we close to Image Saturation point on the Web? The mainstream Digital Era is now about ten years old. Think ahead another ten years. On second thoughts – Don’t! You’ll give yourself a headache.

Instead, let’s go back a century and a half to the birth of Photography. Lady Eastlake, writing in 1857, described photography as  ‘Specimens of a new mysterious Art’. She and others, particularly painters, sneered at it criticizing the new media for being a mechanical process for reproducing images and of no artistic value. But as we all know, over time, Photography did become accepted and respected.

It was the medium through which the population was able to view and explore the world for the first time as it truly was, and not as painters elected to show it with varying degrees of artistic licence. 160 years or so later there’s precious little in the world that hasn’t been captured on camera. In our life times the camera has been to the moon, we have seen our planet from space, and we have seen extraordinary images of the solar system and deep outer space from the Hubble telescope.

Almost everything has been photographed, and much of it millions of times over. There was a time when our holiday images were special, possibly in some instances unique. But if you go on holiday anywhere in the world today, you can walk into a bookshop or souvenir kiosk and buy a beautifully illustrated guide to your holiday resort, with page after page of ‘chocolate box’ photography where the sun always shines, (and when you look it’s the same on the Web). Maybe you look outside and it’s raining or the sky is grey, and you might justifiably think: ‘Why am I bothering to take pictures? I can’t improve on these. It’s all been done before, and better.’ Now that’s a very jaundiced view, I admit, and it’s a rhetorical question.

But behind any rhetoric there lies an essential truth. The Internet is becoming saturated with images from all over the world. Some stunning, some very competent, some mediocre and an awful lot that are simply banal. That’s what happens when a process becomes so easy and free. Anyone can upload an image. It’s a simple press of a button. If you tag your image, then search engines will find it. Google any significant resort, place or city and add the word ‘image’ and you will be presented with a huge gallery of images culled from the far corners of the Net.

Have you ever tried Googling your own images and Posts, out of curiosity?

Let me give you two personal examples to try out:

_DSC0833_wpFirst – Google ‘New Monte Rosa Hut’ and add the word ‘Image’ to your search criteria and on the first page of a huge gallery of images presented to you, you will find at least one of my images. Yesterday I ran the query again and found four. That’s possibly how my Post  – The Monte Rosa Hut Trail – has recently been found and referenced in an article on Sartor _DSC0839_wpResartus (an up-market designer of men’s attire for aesthetic expeditions). Click here to view the article, or click on the Post’s link above to see my original set of images. At left are two un-published images of the New Monte Rosa Hut, click on either image to see a higher quality enlargement.

Second – I noticed about a year ago that there were a hugely disproportionate number of hits on my Post ‘Switzerland’s Highest Mountain’. So, out of curiosity, I typed the search term ‘Switzerland’s highest mountain’ into Google and discovered that my post of that name was the top webpage entry after the Wikipedia entries. Such is the power of the Internet.

So – we can get noticed, but most of the time we probably don’t. It’s a tough world out there. How do we distinguish our photography from the huge vat of undistinguished but perfectly competent photography on the Web? There’s no doubt in my mind that our photography has to take some cognizance of the level of image saturation that there is out there on the Web?

We have to work harder to create images that command attention. We have to learn to stand out from the crowd. Just being competent is no longer good enough.

Jim Nix expressed this very well when he wrote: ‘we need to rise above the noise’. That’s a great way of putting it. If you haven’t yet discovered Jim’s work, you are missing some superbly shot and processed work from Jim’s travels around the world. Do visit his Blog – Nomadic Pursuits – you won’t be disappointed. Click the link.

If we love Photography and want it to survive as a Visual Art Form then we have to preach the gospel that it is an Art form and show, through our work, that it is a craft. And that has to bring us back to the concept of Learning to See. When we Learn to See we create images that can rise above the noise. If we don’t do that, then we will simply join the ranks of the Mediocre – and over time there is the risk that Photography will become dumbed down by the sheer weight of the mediocre or worse.

What’s your opinion? Join the debate and make a comment.

Nest week I’ll be posting an article exploring the concept of Personal Creativity.

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16 thoughts on “Image Saturation

  1. “We need to rise above the noise”… Wouldn’t it be good if the internet had a reduce noise filter like photoshop! I generally feel overwhelmed by the amount of photography available on the internet and have opted to find my own quiet corner where people can find me if they wish. I avoid all the social media and photosites like Flickr. I know that simply hiding from them doesn’t make them go away but I think the noise they generate is damaging peoples natural creative growth and learning. So many people see an idea on the internet and then simply try to emulate an idea that someone else has worked hard to achieve or who has creatively arrived at. Like taking a short cut in a marathon! It’s not what it’s about – well at least not for me. I probably won’t explain what I mean terribly well but I’ll try…
    Getting the photograph is just part of the experience of being a photographer. For me being out with my camera and exploring my world is an equal part of being a photographer. Learning to see the world, slowing down, understanding light and seasons. Finding a photographic path that is rewarding along the way and not just arriving at the destination. Making mistakes is part of learning too. Photography can be about discovering the world we live in but it can also be part a more reflective personal learning. All of the above and more go into making great images. Many of the great photographers had limited access to other photographers work and I wonder if as a result that is why so many developed distinctive styles? The internet serves everything up like an eat as much as you want buffet and so many aspects of peoples lives are saturated with clutter and noise that their free thinking and urge to be creative is dampened. The noise of the internet is accelerating peoples lives to a point where they are no longer interested in seeing or even thinking about what they see. I’m starting to lose my thread a bit…
    Perhaps a good example is my interest in street art. For years I have enjoyed walking the city with my camera and I find great joy in stumbling over a wonderful piece of artwork in some derelict building or backstreet. While out with my camera I am exploring the city and seeing places and things I would never otherwise have come across. Finding great artwork can feel like a highlight to the day or maybe just another hidden treasure. I am often contacted by people asking where certain pieces of artwork are located. I suspect many of these people are caught up in the noise of the internet and simply want to head off and grab a photo similar to the one that I took somehow believing that the photo is what it is all about! They appear to be ignoring the other wonders and great things I photographed and saw on that day or the people I met enroute or the fact that I realised the sun would be in the right place at a certain time because I knew the area and all the other things that are rewarding as a photographer. By taking the shortcut of asking me where the artwork is located seems to be missing the point and cuts out the learning. Being inquisitive as a photographer is about wanting to explore and see the world around you. Perhaps it is also about learning and curiosity. I think that these things feed our creative instincts. The noise of the internet and peoples virtual exploration of their worlds through over saturation of images is an unhealthy way to approach photography. Yes I know there will be a thousand people all screaming that the internet is a place of great inspiration and that can also be true. However I think a lot of people have set their ISO too high in their consumption of internet clutter and then fail to apply the reduce noise filter!
    What a long winded ramble this is and I’m not even sure I’ve been very clear with what I am trying to say.
    OK how about this:

    Slow is the new fast and is the quickest way to improving your images.

    I’m not sure anyone will be quoting that in 20 years time but perhaps someone will see it and think there was a time when people thought we don’t have to listen to the noise and we don’t have to run everywhere.
    I’ve said more than enough so I’ll head back to my quiet corner of the internet.
    Thanks Andy for getting me going again….!
    Best wishes PC 🙂

    • A wonderful comment straight from the heart, PC. The Internet can be a very intimidating environment (in many ways), and one of the ways we can feel intimidated is by feelings of inadequacy. Seeing work that we can never match – for a variety of reasons – can make us think ‘Why am I bothering’. Others try to copy that style or idea as you rightly state. Others of us feel inspired. And If I am honest, I suspect my reactions to images I see on the Internet have encompassed all three of those options. We are too well connected these days – and again that can be a blessing or a curse. One of the joys of blogging is the exposure to other people’s work and that is something I find inspiring.
      What I have written in today’s post may be preaching to the converted as most of the potential readership of this blog will be embarked on that path to raise our game, rise above the noise, and find that different image. But I would hope too that in our own small ways we may be able to persuade other photographers to realize the need to Learn to See and promote our Hobby as Art. If we don’t work hard at that, then we may end up as an increasingly small minority and in situations like that the majority can then start to dictate public opinion – and the end result of that process would be a dumbing down of Photography generally. That may be an extreme opinion and I sincerely hope it will never happen.

  2. What a dilemma that the modern day pro photographer must deal with to become successful. There are so many talented photographers out their trying to make a mark and eke out a living. In the earlier days of photography, one could stand out from the crowd with a different style that people would gravitate to. Now, people are bombarded by images, photoshop creations, composites and the rest. Software presets are now used heavily used to process images causing many photographers to rely too much on them and not develop true editing skills. We live in a world today where technology has transformed our hobby, mostly for good but, like everything else, there are downsides to it. One thing is for sure. I am glad that I am an enthusiast rather than a pro photographer. I would probably starve…

    • Very true, Len. Technology has transformed processing. And I am guilty of using pre-sets in Topaz increasingly. I think they risk de-skilling us, actually. They make life too easy. And I agree too with the dilemmas and difficulties facing Pro Photographers that you rightly refer too. As enthusiasts we have the luxury of having all the time in the world to capture images, with no pressure. Our income does not depend on us finding the next image. I would hate to be repeatedly under that pressure. Many thanks for your comment.

  3. Andy, great post and thank you for the mention, I really appreciate that. It is hard to rise above the noise but the fun is in the effort, I think!

  4. Rising above the noise, such a good way of expressing the challenge we face as photographers when everyone and their dog is a ‘photographer’.
    Making your way as a pro photographer is becoming a real challenge and where there used to be ‘bread and butter’ work, photographing properties for estate agents for example, the images are being taken with a phone in some cases. People ask friends to do their weddings and when it comes to trying to sell landscape pictures Andy, as you say, everything has been photographed before and to an exceptionally high standard so how do you make your mark.
    I’ve been approached by several companies wanting to use my images in sales brochures or in the case of the Cornish Tourist board, on their website ‘Visit Cornwall’ but nobody expects to pay it seems. The kudos of having your photograph published is supposed to be enough but kudos doesn’t pay the bills. For a lot of hobby photographers out there, this probably is enough, something to tell their mates. But, it’s killing the profession and leading to a lot of mediocre photographs getting published.
    I uploaded a couple of images to Shutterstock when I first started taking pictures again a couple of years back. I was chuffed to bits to have my images accepted. When someone bought one of the pictures and I got ‘paid’, I found I only received a couple of quid. At that point I read the small print and realised I’d lost all rights to my image. Shutterstock and other similar sites allow companies to buy a bunch of images in a package for £50, use the ones they want and throw away the rest, why not, they’re so cheap. the only people making money is Shutterstock and their ilk, not the photographers doing all the work.
    This of course is where the mediocrity is creeping in.
    Photography is very much becoming like acting or singing, if you’re ‘discovered’ or well connected, you can make a living otherwise, and your work may be just as good as those making the magazine covers, you’re going to seriously struggle. If you’re prepared to do a wedding every weekend for the 52 weeks of the year, you can perhaps get by but even then, you’re not going to be wealthy.
    I don’t need to make money with my photography. If I do it’s a bonus. I take pictures because I love to take pictures and when I post them to my blog and find that people have enjoyed them, that’s great. This is where your focus has to be I think. Enjoy what you do, throw yourself into the process of creating art and then, perhaps, you may get lucky but you have to take pictures for yourself, first and foremost, if you are going to create anything that might stand a chance of getting noticed amongst all that noise.
    I recently helped a young lady with her portfolio. She wanted to do a degree in photography and had interviews coming up at several institutions. Her lecturer at the FE college had been less than helpful so she came to me. Her parents are friends of a friend and had heard I did a bit of photography. With a tweek here and a tweek there, some advice on what to include and what to leave out, she set off with a portfolio I thought showed promise. The colleges agreed and she won several places at various institutions with very limited numbers of places available. She was over the moon and I was very pleased for her but I was left wondering if photography really was a wise career choice. My nephew in law did a degree in photography and now works in an Apple store selling iPhones and iPads that allow everyone and anyone to take a passable pictures wherever and whenever. Quite ironic really.
    Photography is a creative pursuit and the starving artist living in a wretched garret is nothing new I guess.
    Thanks for another excellent and very thought provoking post Andy.

  5. This is an excellent post, Andy . I agree with you and the comments, to a point. My reasons for being a photographer are purely selfish. I want to be the best that I can be but I don’t necessarily want to be better than any one else. I look at photos everyday that are better than many that are being preserved and stored in museums and archives and I think that photography can be a valuable historical record. It’s easy to describe all the crap photos that are posted each day, the poor composition, exposure badly in need of correction or other technical inefficiencies as noise. It doesn’t bother me that a billion photo are uploaded to Flicker every day. I don’t view photography as a competition, though it is for many, especially pros, but they are mostly competing with themselves for business, not the guy who posts selfies on Facebook.

    • Another illuminating comment to add to the debate, Ken, and many thanks for it. We are both in the lucky position of being Photographers because we love it, don’t need to earn from it, and are serious about our images. I’m going to return to this same topic, although tangentially, in a couple of weeks. That may well spark some interesting debate too – stay tuned.

  6. Just the other day, I was talking to my friend Brett Erickson (http://brettlerickson.wordpress.com), and told him that I considered myself lucky because I don’t have to make a living with photography, so I am free to follow the muse where ever it leads me. That means I don’t have to worry about what sells or doesn’t sell or any of that. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve sold the occasional image, and have been happy to do so. But mostly I am in it to challenge myself to be the best photographer I can be…

    The thing about the internet is that, however much parts of it are full of really bad photographs, it has been the internet that’s helped me find my voice (or, maybe, vision) as a photographer. I’ve got the blogs, and have connected with some other photographers as a result, gotten to be friends with some of them, and have learned a lot by looking around at other blogs, reading articles that interest me, and so forth. It’s helped me more than I probably can even understand.

    So, while there is a lot of “noise” out there, I think I’ve been able to filter out the parts of it that don’t interest me, and can concentrate on the things that do. And I am grateful for that.

    • Thanks for writing, Melinda. And what you write is a familiar sounding story, and one that rings very true for me too – especially your second paragraph. I’ll be returning to a related topic in another ten days, and it will be interesting to see how the debate shapes up then.

      • When I started blogging I didn’t have the slightest idea that it would give me the ability to make connections with people around the world. “Unintended consequences” usually has a bad connotation, but in this case, the unintended consequence of all of this has been positive. I’ve got more to say on this – it’s something I think about quite a bit – but maybe I’ll wait to respond to your ten-days-away-post…..

        • I often think we are privileged to have found such a great community of like-minded people. I had never considered how much benefit would flow from writing a Blog (or two). It takes up time but it’s time well spent in my opinion.

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