Tony Sleep, EPUKTony Sleep, freelance photographer and a moderator of Editorial Photographers UK,discusses whether replacing the darkroom with digital has removed the idea that training, equipment and experience are needed to do the job professionally.

Pro photographers have an image problem, they seldom appear in the media as thoughtful, skilled professionals, most often as uncouth aggressive chancers and invaders of privacy.

All those paparazzi progs and news shots of a ravening pack present pro photography's primary skill as a talent for mercenary opportunism with Camelot-like rewards for success.

Whilst Joe Public quite likes to look up Paris Hilton's skirt, he doesn't want us anywhere near his wife or daughter. We clearly can't be trusted because of how he sees us behave.

Marketing of all digital cameras, software and computers majors on how easy it is to produce 'professional' results, this has also had a profound effect on our art by telling the public that it is the product that solves the problem.

Marketing aims to convince the public that perfect images are just a matter of owning the right stuff and pushing a button and to an extent it's true - technique has been displaced by automation.

I know 10 or so amateurs who have good incomes and jobs and have better kit than most struggling pros'. Always the latest, the most recent software upgrades, printers etc.

It would be a mistake to think all of them have no idea what to do with this stuff, a couple are exceptional photographers. Most sell on Alamy, carry out occasional assignments for friends or employers, sell prints, or teach.

They don't do it to make money so much as give them purpose, kudos and a sense of achievement and identity. They pitch pricing at achieving those aims, rather than the higher amounts they would need to live on. If the kit pays for itself and helps them buy the next upgrade, they're happy.

One, who has just bought an EOS5D camera, asked me last Saturday 'what's the point of RAW?' I explained some of the potential, and he said 'would you come and show me, I'll pay you'.

His photos are actually fairly appalling, not in need of RAW so much as an eye/brain interface, but that hasn't occurred to him yet. However, even he is selling through a specialist online agency.

These hobbyist semi-pros have access to exactly the same rapaciously inclusive distribution channels that we do. Their different priorities have given rise to 'penny stock' libraries and much in-house substitution for pros.

Technical excellence has to an extent displaced 'having something to say'.  To put another way, there are an awful lot of perfectly executed photos around that say nothing at all except 'yo!'

At the low end, the only requirement of photographs is that they be recyclable clip art. Photoshop guarantees almost anything is suitable raw material. Little is required in terms of world-view, thought, or ideas, to realise any of the above, just mess about with layers and filters for a while. The professional skill of producing a communicative image is of little relevance for much of the market.

Photographic visual literacy was always hard work and most of the population escaped it. From photography's birth to the 1990s it was the specialist preserve of a small priesthood, arbitrated by a relative handful of gallery directors, editors, teachers, critics, and most of all, the outstanding photographers of each generation.

Their work was widely seen and formed a cultural force that we, as youngsters, took our lead from, and tried to move the continuum on.

Elitist it may have been, but there was a clear consensual structure and filtering mechanism that sorted wheat from chaff. That has all been sidelined in the digital age, which is flat, a melee of equal opportunity where those that have a clue have no more weight than the pig ignorant.

There are no new household-name photographers - even laymen knew names like Bailey, McCullin, Ansel Adams - and there will not be.

Ask any layperson under 25 to name a photographer and most will not know a single name, and if they do, it'll be one of those old guys or someone they've seen on Flickr yesterday.

Photography has been emancipated by digital but it has also turned into a bunch of headless chickens that have invented their own benchmarks - the snapshot, the banal and prurient, the instant and effortless, and above all free. It's us pros who are out of step, not them.

Fifteen years ago a publisher at Dennis said to me: "I don't think punters care about the quality of photos in my magazine, and I'm going to stop wasting money on photography and see if it affects sales at all."

He did. They dropped the house rule that PR pics went in the bin and used those instead of commissioning. He was right, it didn't. It hasn't. It isn't going to now that photos for this generation have been redefined as something even more ordinary than they were then.

Good, interesting and thoughtful work is still being done in spades but the economic basis that once supported it has been cut away. Good photography is simply beyond economic sense now, for a majority of clients.

If it's sharp, colourful, waved in approximately the right direction and cheap or free it's fit for the purpose and the financial director will love it. Digital delivers that. Who needs pros?

This is an edited transcript of a piece that first ran on the NUJ photo email discussion list.

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