Has the rise of smartphone technology bridged the gap between amateur and professional photographers? It’s not as straightforward as that, argues Jon Bentley
Everyone’s a photographer these days!’ It’s a complaint you often hear from professionals. The implication being that thanks to the affordability and accessibility of digital photography, and the omnipresence of competent smartphone cameras, the gap between the amateur and the professional has narrowed. There are no longer so many barriers to entry that help protect pros’ esteem and earning power.
I’m not convinced the grievance is justified. In some ways I think the financial investment required to approach professional standards is higher now than 30 or 40 years ago. I bought my first decent SLR and darkroom equipment with earnings from holiday and part-time jobs while I was at school. I remember the Nikon FE cost a little over £200, and the darkroom kit tens of pounds on top of that.
I can recall thinking back then, while trying my hand at shooting black & white portraits and landscapes, that I was using kit equivalent, or close, in quality to that favoured by luminaries of the day. Photographers like Jane Bown with her Olympus, Homer Sykes and Fay Godwin with their Leicas and even Arnold Newman, in his 35mm work, with his Nikon F. There were no expensive sensors to become obsolete – whether novice or maestro, your images were recorded on similarly affordable rolls of Tri-X and HP5.
After I’d loaded some Kodachrome 25 I had the means at my disposal to shoot pictures of cars that, at least technically, were potentially good enough to grace the cover of my favourite motoring magazine Car. When I spun my cheap enlarger round 90 degrees, pointing it at the wall, I could even produce high quality 16x20in exhibition prints at very reasonable cost, partly thanks to the decent yet affordable Minolta Rokkor lens I’d chosen for it.
These days costs and, it has to be said, technical standards have increased. I’d need much deeper pockets now to feel I had professional- quality equipment. While sampling Nikon’s excellent new D850 the other week I couldn’t help thinking how expensive such top-notch cameras have become. My old, admittedly only ‘semi-professional’ FE was about £1,100 in today’s money. Today’s D850 is around £3,500. Even smartphones with the best cameras are getting more expensive, not less. Top- end iPhones and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, for example, are nearly as expensive in real terms as my 1970s FE.
Cheaper and perfectly decent camera options than the D850 are of course available, but all the rest of the kit you need for most 21st- century photographic careers has to be considered. A computer with Lightroom and Photoshop isn’t cheap; a large-format inkjet printer would add another grand or two, and then there’s the cost of a high- quality monitor, colour calibration kits and all the storage required for your huge files.
What makes everyone a photographer these days isn’t more affordable technology, it’s a more widespread enthusiasm for picture-taking and greater opportunities to share and consume pictures. I suspect the financial barriers in terms of equipment required to be a serious professional are, in many photo-taking fields, higher than ever.
‘Back then, there were no expensive sensors to become obselete’
Jon’s shot of Peter Morgan, using very similar kit to many professionals of the day