Don’t Look Down: Climb to the Top

(commentary)

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Here’s what my brain told me after I gave it a rest from the daily grind of the Internet: climb to the top. 

Sometimes people mistake my tough talk about products, services, design, business, and photography as pessimism. No, it’s not. I don’t believe that products have to get worse, services have to get worse, design has to get worse, business has to get worse, or that photography is dying. What I’m usually writing about when I’m being critical are decisions people and businesses are making that reflect a race to the bottom instead of a climb to the top. 

I want the products I buy and use to be perfect and well supported. I want the services I use to be fast, efficient, and excellent. I want the designs of the products I use to be compelling and useful, without cognitive dissonance. I want businesses to thrive and be able to continue to produce great products, services, and design. I want photographers to make great images.

When anyone steps away from that—typically to keep short term company results from temporarily tanking their stock—I get critical. When anyone doesn’t do their best work, I get critical. I want and believe I deserve the best products, services, design, and images. I believe you should, too. 

I’m a one man band, and have been for 15 years now. I’ve bitten off a lot, and thus I don’t always manage to be error-free myself. I’m essentially a one-to-many broadcast system, and sometimes the demands of the many get the better of me. But I try to fix any mistakes I make and attempt to do better. While the rocks falling from above sometimes push me down, I’m still trying to climb to the top. Sometimes you make good progress on that climb, sometimes you don’t. 

One thing that stuck in my head during my break was this: how many of us in the photography business—producers and customers—are still climbing to the top? When things are going well, it’s tempting to put things into cruise control and just relax. It’s human nature. But that’s not climbing to the top, that’s trying to take a rest. Is it truly your role on the planet to take a break? Was that why you were born and educated and socialized? To take a break?

Or worse: to start a race to the bottom after having achieved something. Were you really put on this planet to take quality out of your work, to take costs out of the things you produce, to charge less and less for them, and to make them less and less valuable to others? That doesn’t sound right to me. Indeed, if all our ancestors had only done that, we wouldn’t have progressed at all. 

We’re where we’re at today because our ancestors tried to climb to the top. The next generation started by standing on the shoulders of their elders and trying to climb some more. 

We see some of this happening in the photography industry, but not enough. Camera makers do look at what each other has done, and try to top that. It’s why our sensors are better, our lenses are better, we have more features and options. But then they turn around and almost immediately try to take costs out, simplify, and race the resultant products to the bottom. Many makers don’t see the compromises they’re making. Sony seems insistent that 11-bit compressed raw with high contrast edge artifacts is the best they can do. It isn’t, and the decision to do things this way was not a climb to the top, it was a race to the bottom (makes file sizes look smaller and the buffer look bigger, for instance, at the expense of image quality). [Sony has indicated they’re going to provide an uncompressed option with the shipment of the A7sII and then for some other models, but it took far too long to get their attention on this.]

I’ve written extensively about how the photography industry is contracting. Yet there’s still plenty of buzz that happens every time we get something new we haven’t had before. It’s just that fewer and fewer people care about that buzz because the industry has been racing to the bottom (e.g. compact cameras) only to find something competitive climbing past them to the top (smartphone cameras). 

What I don’t see from anyone in the photography industry these days is a lot of confidence. Everyone from parts suppliers to photographers seems to think that photography is declining and will continue to decline. Images aren’t worth as much, fewer stand-alone cameras will be sold, and much more. 

I should point out that climbing to the top isn’t easy. It’s actually pretty darned difficult. Moreover, if you don’t actually set your goal at the top, you probably won’t move closer to the summit. More and more folk in the photography business are actually looking the other way: “what if I reduced costs, took content or quality out, sold my product for less and attempted to make some of that back with volume, how long could I survive?” 

So here’s my promise to you: I’m not going to race to the bottom. I might have to narrow my goals and not attempt to climb every mountain, but I’m dedicated to climbing to the top. I want my writing tomorrow to be better than it is today. I want my Web site to be better for you tomorrow than it is today. I want my photographs to be better tomorrow than the ones I took today. 

And here’s my message to you: don’t race to the bottom. Identify the mountain you want to climb and start climbing it. If you somehow get to the top, find a taller mountain to climb. Encourage those around you to climb their mountains. Buy products from companies that are climbing mountains and not from ones racing to the bottom. Help others identify their mountains and encourage them as they climb. 

Bottom line: photography doesn’t have to die by racing so fast to the bottom that it drowns in the river at the mountain’s base. But we all have to turn our attitude around. 

Face uphill and start moving.  

text and images © 2017 Thom Hogan
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