Better RED Than Dead

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Stu Nettle (stunet)

"Surf photography is starvation on the road to madness" - Jeff Divine

It's a bleak statement by one of the masters of surf photography, yet it's one that all young photographers should consider. Because photographers, as a rule, do not enjoy the remuneration or respect they are owed. After all, it is on the back of their art and their toil that the whole fantasy world of surfing and the associated industry rests. As surf journalist, Tim Baker, once said: "The real stars of surf magazines are, or ought to be, the photographers."

Yet they aren't, nor have they ever been, and in recent times the plight of the surf photographer has only gotten worse. Photographers have been the victims of a multi-pronged attack as changes in technology increase their competition and erode their earning capacity.

For one, the digital revolution, now ten years in, has opened up the game to anyone, not just those with a well-honed skill set and a bucketload of money. With good units selling for under $1000 and no need for film, school kids who've never heard the term 'pull focus' can afford their own kit and produce passable images. The user-friendly quality of said cameras mean tertiary training can be bypassed in exchange for time spent on the beach or in the water.

The result is a supply vs. demand ratio that weighs heavily against photographers. Take a look at Facebook, filled as it is with so many kids posing for their profile pic with camera in hand and advertising themselves as head of their own photographic company. Online they exchange images and ideas for free.

Speaking of online...

One of the other prongs is the emergence of online media. With internet activity increasing and monitors only displaying at 72 dpi a market for lesser quality shots has sprung up. Some websites have even been known to pay for grainy frame grabs. Their existence is proof that viewers have lower expectations of online photo viewing, which creates an environment where lesser quality images get rewarded. And that, in turn, skews the pricing structure.

Add these elements together - a market saturated with cheap, user-friendly cameras and online media that rewards rubbish - and you can see the surf photography industry has never been more cut-throat.

So has Jeff Divine starved yet? Been certified insane? If he's survived this far perhaps it's the next threat, the RED threat, that will spell the end.

The RED Digital Cinema Camera Company was created and funded by Oakley founder Jim Jannard. Jannard's aim was to 'reinvent the camera industry.' To that end he hasn't achieved his goal...yet. What he and his cameras have done, however, is shake up an already volatile industry.

The RED One was launched in 2007 and was immediately popular with the film industry. The first version had many bugs and the company had to make a number of firmwear upgrades to get it working to specification. The downtime allowed their rivals to counterattack producing their own models that, while not using the same technology, rendered similar results.

Lee Kelly is a surf photographer with a film industry background. He still picks up regular work in that field and he often sees RED cameras in use. More often than not these days. According to Kelly, when RED first came along everyone in the film industry "lost their minds and jumped on the bandwagon" only to realise the many flaws of the first-gen versions. Despite this, RED's effect on the workplace was immediate and lasting. "Straight away we were sold on the idea that we didn't need film to make motion picture films."

One of the big advantages of RED technology is there is no need for film processing and digital conversion. Images can go straight to edit. What is lost in labour, however, is gained in necessary hardware - the digital media needed to store feature length films was huge. As were the costs.

With a start up price around $30 000, it's only those with serious money that can currently operate or hire RED cameras. Hence, their prevalence in the film industry. This is where the Canon 5D, the Japanese answer to RED, has the upper hand. Upon release it quickly found a niche in the film industry. Says Kelly, "All of a sudden you had a super affordable small lightweight video camera which showed qualities we were only used to seeing with 35mm film."

The reinvention of the camera industry was beginning, but due to early flaws and a prohibitive price tag it wasn't happening on Jim Jannard's terms. Those flaws are being fixed, however, and following the trend of all new technologies, the price tag of RED technology is sure to drop.

The Holy Grail of surf photography - or at least one of the Holy Grails - is to shoot video at a high enough rate to extract high quality stills from the frames. Shooting at up to 30 frames per second (at full resolution) the RED camera can, in theory, achieve this. And it's here that the implications to the surf industry become less technical and more tangible.

Using RED cameras the still photographer and the videographer can become the same thing, which is an attractive proposition to surf companies funding trips and photos shoots - shoot with RED and you need one less person. That's one less ticket, plus less baggage and more space. The appeal is obvious.

Shane Smith is a photographer from Port Lincoln, South Australia. He's been shooting the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula for twenty years and is the 'go to' guy for parties heading for some desert therapy, SA style. Smith is of the opinion that the advent of RED will favour the existing video guys at the expense of stills guys.

He paints a hypothetical picture to make his point. "Let's stand Ted Grambeau and Taylor Steele side-by-side; both at the top of their game in their respective fields of expertise. They are both pointing their equipment in the same direction when Julian Wilson takes off and explodes. Taylor is going to come out with the money shot and a lot more to show for it also. He not only has a great video sequence for his next film project but he's also just sold a still image to one of Julian's sponsors for a tidy sum."

It doesn't take much imagination to see the result would be less demand for certain photographers. Lee Kelly is not so sure about this doubling up of stills and video, at least not at the moment, "I won't comment until I see results." However, it's not quality but cost that he sees as the limiting factor. With whole sessions filmed at 30 fps storage becomes an issue for small time photographers. "The digital media needed to capture that data would send us poor photographers broke fast!"

Jamie O'Brien isn't going broke however. He and his main sponsor, Red Bull, have the necessary coin and, in a precedent for the surf world, filmed a movie using RED. This was followed by Taylor Steele who shot his latest film, Castles in the Sky, on RED. Quiksilver also filmed a short movie in Mexico which employed many of the features RED is making famous (such as high fps rate for ultra slow motion) although it wasn't done using RED technology.

The pattern looks set to continue. With video demand outstripping print the use of RED will only increase, though whether it becomes industry standard remains to be seen. However, due to the aforementioned advantages it seems highly likely. If it does, both stills photographers and videographers will need to retrain if they are to use RED technology. If stills and video are shot together, then they will have the same viewpoint and, as Phil Gallagher, editor of le Boogie magazine and Fluidzone website says, "What makes a good still image is not always the best motion image and vice versa."

He goes on, "Each art form requires particular skills and I doubt whether there are many photographers out there who are a master of all forms of photography." Yet multiskilling may soon be the demand placed upon photographers - stills and video - if the industry evolves toward RED technology. If RED is to be fully utilised, "they will need to learn new skills." Which means more time and more money.

The picture thus far seems to be one of gloom but there's at least one reason for the budding young photographer to take heart. Jeff Divine, who supplied the quote that began this article, has neither starved, nor gone insane. With constant retraining and expensive upgrading Divine has stayed in the industry. So take heart, and ignore the hunger pains.


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herp Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 10:45am

derp motion blur at 1/60 is too much for stills anyway so it's either jerky footage and clean stills or smooth footage and blurry stills... or hours and hours of rendering motion blur afterwards.

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jasone Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 12:21pm

I've been a photographer for 25 years and what has been described here is replicated in every field of photography and all over the world. Photographers have always been exploited. When you do what you love the chances of that occurring are greatly increased, however the death of photography began when soulless editors both in print and online, used digital photography to break the back of an industry built on creativity.

Unfortunately most photographers have decided to supply images for a few dollars or for free in the hope they will create a name and career for themselves. This rarely is ever happens, what other industry gives away it's product for free? And now young photographers complain they cannot make a living. No surprises there! Most photographers do a little pro bono work in the beginning but it should stop there.

Value your creativity and show some pride in what you produce, every photographer should be paid and credited when their work is used after-all it is being used to sell a product. Look at Swellnet, the imagery is part of what draws people to the site, which in turn draws advertisers who pay for banner ads. Swellnet makes money from advertisers and so should the photographers whether they are amateurs or professionals. I hope they do, and kudos to Swellnet if they pay appropriate rates. If not then you are part of the death of an art form.

So does Swellnet pay the photographers who so beautifully illustrate their site?

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esaltau Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 4:04pm

I've posted my thoughts on this article in the Surf Photographers Forum. Would love to know what others think.
Was not meant to offend Stu, I 'm a big fan. I hope my criticisms are read as being polite and reasoned.

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thermalben Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 7:56pm

jasone, what would be considered "appropriate rates" for online content?

Yes, we do pay for some photographic, video and editorial content (including a full time editor for Swellnet, and a full time editor for Fluidzone), however our core business are surf reports, surf forecasts and surfcams.

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heals Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 10:32pm

Says Jasone "kudos to Swellnet if they pay appropriate rates. If not then you are part of the death of an art form."

'The death of an art form', doesn't strike you as being a touch melodramatic? After all no-one's taking the cameras away. Seems the ability to earn money is being reduced but the artform will always exist.

Although I have no photographic experience the saying 'the right price is what the market is willing to pay' rings true here. Or are you still hanging on a horribly outdated 'from each according to his ability...' communist credo? Marx was wrong remember? Let the market decide and then find a way to be on the right side of that decision. Every other industry has had to do it.

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jasone Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 10:53pm

Wave of the Day is predominantly a one off use with potential archive access so I'd say anywhere between $100-150 +gst would be appropriate given it's home page lead positioning. For photo essays I'd think $300-450 +gst depending on the length. For minor insertions eg thumbs and the like about $70 +gst would fit.

I have watched Swellnet since it's earliest days and would say the site and service has grown to encompass more than just the reports we rely on so heavily and the effort of the team deserves praise. As an established photographer I like to see contributors benefits grow with the companies they support. I make no claim that this has nor hasn't happened at Swellnet, for all I know the site may have areas where people can contribute freely knowing there is no fee involved and other areas that offer commercial rates. My concerns relate to the precedents set by all unscrupulous users of imagery who have set a very low benchmark.

I wonder what these people think will happen in the long term, will there always be another bunny willing to give their work away nothing? Probably, but will there be any depth to the work, any more truly memorable imagery? I doubt it...

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thermalben Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 10:59pm

$150 for Wave of the Day? Ok, with 30 days per month, this would equal $4,500 for Swellnet, and $4,500 for Fluidzone. That's $9,000 per month for content for one page on the website. And this is before I employ someone to get them up on the site too (and field the 100+ photographer emails per month).

jasone, have you any experience in running (or monetising) a website, specifically a surfing website? I think you'd be in for quite a shock as to the amount of revenue advertising brings in.

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jasone Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 11:32pm

Heals it sounds like your from 'the world doesn't need another starving artist' camp. Photographers and videographers are artists in their own right and to practice their art they need to make a living. I read somewhere that photography has now surpassed golf and fishing as the most popular pastime in the Western world. Doesn't that indicate the human race has a innate desire to create art?

Yes I agree the art form will survive in some form but will it flourish and support future generations to explore their potential and follow their dreams, not likely if rates continue to dive. We will find our image making community dominated by people who have other employment and pick up the camera on weekends. Do a little googling you'll see that these concerns are coming from all directions even photojournalists.

Yes I agree in a free market economy the market will pay what it bears but therein lies the issue. Every other industry has not had to do it as you say. Unions protect salaries of members, manufacturing (in developed nations) have salary guidelines, the Government has minimum wage standards for all employees (except the self employed), even lawyers have minimum rates!

You are looking at this from the consumers perspective which is fine. You can go and haggle over the price of a flatscreen TV and the company that discounts the greatest gets more business and stays afloat, your point I think. But remember most people in the foodchain have had their salaries protected to get that product to store.

I have mentored long and hard countless photographic students to value their product and keep rates at a level to support themselves. It's a numbers game and when millions of people are desperate to see their name in print and will happily give something away to get that moment in the spotlight it makes it impossible for many to survive such an onslaught.

Is digital media amazing, yes! Did it allow many into the marketplace that had neither the knowledge, skill nor determination to do it under the brutal film regime, yes. And before you jump on me, yes I understand many people have only ever experienced digital due to their age. But it's even more important for these creative individuals to value their talent appropriately as they will find it even tougher in the future.

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jasone Tuesday, 10 Aug 2010 at 11:49pm

Thermal you asked what I thought were appropriate rates and I gave you an answer! I'm sure your photographers liked my answer even if you didn't.

And please don't get huffy, I have run a website for many years that helps support myself, my family and several photographers that I represent. I've never allowed advertising on the site because I am represented by National Geographic and by doing so would imply a relationship between those companies and the Society. So no, I've never run a surfing website but am quite experienced none-the-less.

I don't know what revenue advertising brings in but I've surmised that with the rapid expansion of advertising on Swellnet you must have been doing quite well out of it. If not that's unfortunate, but as a member of the photographic community I still like to see everyone paid well. Swellnet's rates are between them and their photographers and if they are happy and you are happy that's all that counts. They eat and produce good work for you and everyone's a winner.

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heals Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 12:20am

Jasone says "Every other industry has not had to do it as you say."

Spoken to any graphic designers lately? No, well lucky for you you're speaking to one now. I could give you the details of HUNDREDS of designers who've had their income potential downgraded by technology. None are protected by minimum salary or unions, as you say. You live in a dreamland mate. If a customer gets a cheaper quote elsewhere they go there. If a company doesn't get work they lay off designers. Simple.

Photographers aren't the only one on this boat.

You can blame Swellnet, the internet, Canon or whoever. Just as designers blame Adobe, Microsoft and the 'home designer'. None of it changes a thing. As I said earlier, the market will pay what it thinks is fair, so do some lateral thinking and find a way to get on the right side of that equation.

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jasone Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 1:27am


a) I work with designers all the time and have never not paid the rate they quote. Why would I bastardise another creative? However, every second call I receive from designers I am asked to discount my rates. Actually that happens about 75% of the time...

b) ALL artists are struggling but the article was about photographers and vidoegraphers only.

c) I specifically mentioned the self employed have no protection. Also, agencies/employers will always attempt to pay creatives less. Even if they cut their figures to get the job the company will usually still make their margin, it will be the staff that feel the pain.

d) Your price point determines where you sit in the pecking order that's the global economy. A house in one suburb is worth more than another, one make of a car the same, restaurants, clothes everything. People who want a certain type, style or quality of product will spend money on that. Granted the number of people willing to do so is shrinking, sometimes to be replaced sometimes not, so it is definitely tougher out there.

e) If you'd read my posts you'd note that the only individuals I hold responsible are the creatives themselves and the people that exploit them. Call me soft but I hate exploitation. I never blamed Swellnet or any other company and at all times my support has been for people standing up for their work.

f) Hmmm, right side of the equation... I cannot keep up with the work I have now and if I pick-up any more overseas hops my wife will divorce me. Things might change they often do, and then I will try and adapt as I have since I was taught DOS at school using a pencil and computer cards. And pray!

I am a little surprised at your responses, as a creative I thought you'd be cheering someone on who thought we were worth more than people say we are. As John Ruskin said. "The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can't be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you add that you will have enough to pay for something better."

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freeride76 Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 2:32am

"Photographers and videographers are artists in their own right "

As a person working in the content production game I would dispute that statement.

Most photographers and videographers are talentless hacks who met the right people at the right time or found a niche for their gig.

I'd say genuine Art in the fields of Photography and videography is very much the exception.

Taylor Steele is Exhibit A of a talentless Hack who has achieved success by knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time.
His work is boring, derivative rubbish and he uses a RED.

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jasone Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 2:55am

See the last paragraph of my post 3 hours ago. We all lament what you have described and the crap that is inundating the marketplace. Generally speaking they are artists in their own right, however not every artist is a Monet.

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abc-od Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 3:03am

As long as RED keeps 'ironing out bugs' they'll concede the territory to Canon. Canon digi video footage trumps what RED offers anyway. RED's innate graininess will wear off like a passing fad, and Canon's browntones will always be a better match for surfing in the long run. Sand, skin and rock look better than anything I've seen on RED.

I think the threat lies more in the film industry than in the surfing industry. Canon is cheap and easy to use and surfers care less about hi-qual viewing.

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top-to-bottom-bells Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 3:13am

I'm getting married at the end of this year JasonE, any of your students want to film it? Mates rates of course.

They can even do it in RED.

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otzy Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 6:44am

In regards to motion blur at 1/60th it wont be an issue as you will be shooting a frame rate beyond 24fps. Anyone shooting surf will probably make use of the 100fps option in which case they will use a shutter speed around 1/200 and with a bit of luck you get a sharp grab and smooth video. If you have a spare 40g and get the epic then you can shoot at 250 fps which means you would shoot at around 1/500 and get both sharp grabs and super smooth slow-mo video.

I'm sure Red will change the game, but not in the way people are expecting it too.

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esaltau Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010 at 11:05am

ABC-od have you heard of aliasing? 50% of my surf footage shot on a canon DSLR is unusable due to this artifact. That doesn't sound like a camera that is well suited to surf filmmaking. If you don't like the colours, blame the lighting, and the colourist, not the camera. Red looks better. There can be no argument there.

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herp Thursday, 12 Aug 2010 at 12:15am

otzy red one will only shoot 120fps at 2k which isn't enough res. for stills. Don't think epic will shoot 250 fps at full res. but sure one day in the next few years it will happen. Hopefully computers will be fast/cheap enough to render motion blur when all that 250fps is turned back into 25fps (don't think the groms will sit through 2 hrs of super slo-mo)

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otzy Thursday, 12 Aug 2010 at 1:03am

Epic goes at 100fps at 5k and 250fps at 2k. The 5k grabs have already been used on a magazine cover in the U.S.

Future surf films will be about the quality of moves not quantity, maybe 5 slow-mos attached to more creative dialogue and expression. Surf films are too repetitive at the moment and thats the reason no one is buying them. Good music is so expensive to use that producers will in the end just replace it with narrative and instrumentals.

Surf mags will stop using still images altogether. You may laugh but its not that far away. Only a few mags will continue in print form and run single images. The top mags will use grabs as entrance to a full motion images. It's all just starting to happen behind the scenes, expect examples coming out at the start of next year.

The future of publishing is changing now. Anyone not on exploring this technology now will miss the boat, this includes surf photographers, video makers, editors and publishers. In 12 months time things will be very different and those not prepared will struggle to survive.

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herp Thursday, 12 Aug 2010 at 2:11am

Interesting perspective otzy, sounds pretty fucked, hopefully if this happens there will be a way to make money from online distribution so the younger guys can do it away from the surf companies. Seems like the only movies being made serve to promote riders/companies now that the sales are dead.

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thermalben Thursday, 12 Aug 2010 at 3:40am

"The top mags will use grabs as entrance to a full motion images."

Interesting claim otzy, especially seeing how little traffic the Australian surf mags websites are doing. I wonder how they'll be able to monetise it (which in turn will pay the videographer).

Also (and this is somewhat of a rhetorical question) - how much interest is there in online surfing films anyway?

Sure, good surf videos have the potential to generate a lot of traffic. But, if we quadrupled the amount of available surf video content, would it all receive a similar increased level of exposure? The surf mags have always had content/advertising ratios to adhere to (in order to remain financially viable), and it's not too dissimilar in the online world either.

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buddwha Friday, 13 Aug 2010 at 5:37am


Get over it Pal, If photography is an art form and you are true to what you are saying you will continue to take happy snaps with what ever equipment takes your fancy and like the rest of us go out in search of employment that will allow us to eat, put a roof over our heads, send the kids to school and take an indo trip or two each year.
Technology has been and will continue to render certain employment positions redundant. I paid for my shopping at safeway the other night without having to deal with a check out person. Furtehr to that, no one has wanted nana to knit them a jumper since the rag trade embraced sewing technology, but guess what? Nana still knits. And you will no doubt continue to take photographs. I can run down to JB, pick me up a SLR for just over a Grand and in the same sense as I am now as good as the check out chick at checking out my groceries, I will be just as good as you at getting that perfect happy snap... Have a good week end all, im off to take a shot of the surf with my iphone.... Ahhhh, there's nothing quite like stirring someone up on a Friday ;-)

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roystewart Saturday, 14 Aug 2010 at 10:05pm

The entire mainstream industry is based on the psychology of depression and inadequacy, I think that people are starting to get sick of that tactic i.e. "look at us we are doing what you can't do but we'll let you buy the t shirt" and instead are more interested in pictures of their own day out or that of their friends. . . and that's a good thing.

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nifty Tuesday, 24 Aug 2010 at 4:01pm

Good call Roy, Jason your commercial world can stay where it is, look i'm stoked you have a gig to support your lifestyle, kudos to you, and i think true artistic photography is an art worth paying for but this is surfing. We surf for free, take photos for free and if we capture something someone is willing to throw some coin at, i'm sure any of us will take it but it is more about sharing the experience than having commercial intent. With technology, the advances has made it more affordable for us "punters" to go out a capture an amazing shot but it's more about creating memories, a captured moment in time that for the most part means little to anyone except surfers. I was talking to Rick D the other night about the early days of surf photography, he still needed a freelance job outside of the surf industry back then, however the amount of crap they had to put up with they probably deserved the extra coin that was available in the 70's. Ben, i have a suggestion, maybe $10 for a wave of the day and $5 for any other amatuer shots used and once enough credit is accured we can use it to buy a new leggie or something from one of the advertising shops etc sponsoring swellnet and feature articles can just be by negotiation as i'm sure they already are. I ran into Dylan L in bali in July and we reminisced for a minute on the ol' UndergroundSurf mag, another reminder of how hard it is for anyone to have a solid career in the industry that basis itself on "freedom" with the operative word being "free".

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stunet Thursday, 6 Feb 2014 at 2:43pm

The prescience, it stings my eyes! In 2010 we said RED Epic cameras would shortly be used for hi-quality stills work, covers even. We had our critics, oh yes...but behold! Surfing World's latest cover. John John at Pipe, shot by Aaron Lieber on a RED Epic at 30 fps.