Better RED Than Dead
"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.