YouTube & Photography

I sometimes caressed the idea of opening my own channel on YouTube — intrigued by communication through an experience of time that is so different from the written word. In the end though I never do that, mostly because I like the written word so much.

I like to read — and I like it much more than consuming video. When I read an article I have total control on how I absorb its content. Watching a video is a different experience, because it is based on a definite timing. The duration, the editing, the audio/video sync, it all demands that you submit to the time treatment expressed by the video. This can be fine sometimes, especially if there is some entertainment value at play, but I usually find it tedious.

All the photos in this post are shot with The Nikon Z6 II and the Nikkor 28mm 1.4

Most photography YouTube channels are showing the same kind of content — or at least, most of the (at least moderately) popular ones. How many times did you see the same titles — even the same thumbnails — “tips and tricks for doing X” or “why I switched from brand Y to brand Z” or the classic “N reasons why ___ “.

Social media is what we could call a basic tribal social structure, where trying to replicate what seems successful is the norm: people in the videos mostly act the same, edit the video in the same way, light the video in the same way, talk about the same topics, start and close the videos with the same words, attempting to craft their own iconic catchphrase –– or shamelessly adopting someone else’s. Whassap YouTube! Please like and subscribe! Smash that like button! This video is brought to you by (insert sponsor).

Some channels have a slightly different video structure, but if you look closely, the song remains the same. YouTube photography channels usually don’t exist for sharing something worthwhile — they share something as a mean for existing, and they exist for making promotion possible — self promotion, another brand promotion, or both — it is all about selling –– selling yourself or selling a brand. How many did start a channel cos they felt the urge of communicating? And how many started it as a complement or substitute for their existing income? We can’t know, but it’s possible to form a reasonable idea by looking at their content and presentation.

I always had a hard time with accepting promotion, and things only became worse in current era, where promotion is masked as content. A journalist once asked Alessandro Bergonzoni (an Italian theatre actor, playwright and all around genius) why he wasn’t doing TV commercials even if he was so popular. His answer was (I am going by memory and I suppose slightly paraphrasing): “it’s not mandatory to do commercials. It’s not like you must do them. I pay bills with what I do, with the books I write, with the theater”.

YouTube was once an outlet of creativity and it now became hostage of greed and companies. Even smaller channels are bombarded with offers for promoting something, and they usually do, because who can say no to extra cash?

The content creators of the biggest channels are doing all they can to show how successful they are — how they are renovating the studio, buying the latest gear, getting invited by a famous brand for a camera release, going to some exotic place to do fun stuff. This way they become more useful for the brands using them: they must look cool if they want to stay relevant, attract sponsorships and survive. It is the same concept adopted by many famous generalist vloggers, who are bound to look successful and stuffed with cash, if they want attract sponsors that will let them live doing vlogging.

When I open an 11 minutes video and the beginning is 2 minutes of talking about bloody omnipresent (insert name of that trendy website builder), I already question the value of the video itself. Did the creator publish that video because he had something to say? Or is the video solely necessary for the existence of the ad? Maybe there is some deal where the content creator has to put out at least that many sponsored videos every month? And so on. These are reasonable doubts, and they become stronger if the video unfolds without providing quality content.

Everyone loves some passive income and there is nothing bad about this. Most photography channels on YouTube are opened by amateurs or semi-pros trying to earn some extra with sponsorships and ads. Professional photographers rarely have the time to also become full time YouTubers, because they are very busy doing… photography.

Some channels maybe started with a honest wish to share experience, but as soon as the money offers start arriving, many happily bend to the mighty dollar. And yet, for me, the problem is not the involvement of money in the equation, but what gravitates around it: the quality of content, the way it is structured, the level of honesty behind the façade.

I wouldn’t mind commercials if they were a mean for bringing resources into something worthwhile. My beloved Orson Welles did terrible commercials he wasn’t proud of, for earning money to invest in the projects he cared about. But can we say this about so many YouTubers? What are they producing? Another superficial pseudo review of gear? Another collection of tips that are already present in hundreds of other videos? Another video for selling their own Lightroom presets? And I must stress this again: what I am criticizing is not the existence of that content or its financial aspect, but the fact that such content often exists only for enabling ads and affiliate links programs.

What is happening to YouTube is not much different from what happened to Instagram. Once money starts playing a major role, once the platform becomes optimal for ads, then the honesty and creativity are thrown out of the window and all that matters becomes attracting sponsors and adding to the income. Money is the enabler for wanting to look like, instead of being.

Many YouTube photography channels are built with the only purpose of being a personal marketing platform and are devoid of original or valuable content. Many of my clients approach me asking for help with their social media campaigns, because they think they need to be on Instagram. Similarly, many photographers feel they need to be on YouTube, because it is a huge opportuinity for building their own brand and attract sponsors. So they start to think: what can I publish? What is popular? And they end up doing what al the other are doing. Again, copying what works, for reaching a definite goal that is rooted in financial prospects. And here lies my problem with such channels: for me, a urge for communication must come first –– and it is evident when the opposite happens.

A YouTuber can create a channel and exercise all the rights to earn money with it — we as viewers are similarly free to judge that content and say if we find it useless, bland, empty, a sterile repetition, and suspect the intents of the channel are petty and greedy, lacking in honesty and value. I don’t go to write this under their videos, because I believe spreading negativity is not useful and can only do bad to society –– but I still form my own opinion and eventually stop checking that channel. And I write this article, I guess.

A number of these channels are also embracing the clickbait strategy, building videos that are meant to stir controversy and bring lots of reactions (comments, likes, dislikes). Micro Four Thirds fans are quite susceptible? So let’s do a video where we say their dear system is dead. Nikon fans are feeling their beloved brand is being ostracized? So let’s make a video where we say Sony and Canon are the only real professional systems. Leica cameras produce feelings of envy? Let’s do a video where we say Leica is overpriced crap. And so on. Stimulating a response using negavity is the oldest trick, and since that response translates intro traffic, and traffic into ads revenue, it’s a very common practice on YouTube.

Again: who is the beneficiary of these videos? What are these videos bringing to the viewer, and what are they bringing to their creator? As you can guess, the balance is heavily hanging toward the video creator.

I will go even deeper with this final concept: when was it the last time a YouTube video about a photography topic leaved you satisfied and gave you the feeling that your knowledge grew? That you were inspired to do something, rather than pushed toward the envy for some crafted ideal?

YouTube reviews are usually superficial and that’s precisely why you go to look for more of the same as soon as you finish one. And the promised tricks and tips that are meant to help you take better portraits are also nothing worthwhile, so — again — you go and look for more videos. Viewing stats keep growing not because there is lots of quality content, but precisely for the oppositive reason.

Photography videos usually present some fragments of knowledge, trying to keep it as simple as possible, providing the viewers information they can digest in one view, where going back and watching/listening again is not contemplated nor needed. There are no layers of understanding, everything has to be simple and linear.

Buying a book like “Light: Science and Magic” by Hunter/Biver/Fuqua and reading it carefully a couple of times will give you more knowledge than what hundreds of YouTube videos about lighting and photography can give you.

I strongly believe investing in photography books is still the best way to increase knowledge ad educate our aesthetic: the will to understand and reproduce what we find marvellous or interesting is the fuel for improving. After that it is just practice, trial and error.

Now, it is hard to sell YouTube ads and attract sponsors if you content is mostly “read books, try, fail, try again, enjoy the process“, which, I believe, is the ultimate truth about learning photography. It is similarly hard to sell ads if you do a video and say that nowadays most cameras are ultimately good enough and offering more than any photographer could ever realistically need. What is left then?

It is much more financially rewarding to do countless hands-on, pre-reviews, reviews, 6 months reviews, 1 year reviews, comparison reviews, switching brand reviews, etc etc.

But at this point I think I made my point and I am also starting to waste your time with repetition.

So, that’s why I am not having a YouTube channel.

First, I love the written word.

Second, I am a professional and I spend most of the time shooting for clients, so I have very few time for becoming a YouTuber.

Third, creating worthwhile content is very hard, if you want to respect your viewers time and offer them something that is rewarding and in some part unique.

I am feeling the charme of the moving images, of the sounds, of the flow of time. That’s why I think I would want to do something with it, but I still don’t know what. Maybe one day I will understand how to do all that, but I suspect by that day YouTube will be long gone!

A final note about YouTube photography channels names: I avoid naming names, because what I am interested in is the overall concept and not the single person.

I also don’t know the people behind the channel — for all I know they could be reluctantly making choices they don’t agree with because they need cash for some serious reason. Judging people is not a good idea — and it is an especially terrible idea when we know nothing about that people.

Expressing opinions about the overall picture is something different though, and that’s what I care about and what I tried to do with this post.

But there are some names I would like to mention in a positive way, because every once in a while I do find a photography channel that is useful and pleasant to watch. I will list a couple and probably update this post whenever I find new ones.

MarkusPix: Markus Rothkranz is quite an incredible person. A man that would have been right at home during Italian Renaissance, with his curiosity and wide range of skills. Just take a look at this video where he mentions a couple of events about his life. Crazy inspiring stuff. His photography channel is all about practical problem solving and experimenting. His joyful attitude toward photography is inspiring –– and so is his knowledge of lighting. He loves to takes photos of his beautiful partner, but what he teaches and shows can be applied to all of your ideas. I also love that even though he is rich and he can own whatever is existing in the market, he still enjoys to get the best out of older and cheap gear. That’s the spirit, that’s something I love. He is far from the marketing crap and he judges equipment according to how it works for him. Really, check him out if you want to enjoy a different point of view and if you want to breath some positivity. He is the opposite of everything bad that is polluting YouTube photography.

Dave Morrow: Dave is a truly inspiring person and the embodiement of being true to your craft and escaping the vortex of social media and advertisement. His videos are stuffed with inspiration and useful info, and the same goes for his website.

Zenography: an informative and slow paced channel about photography, with a focus on old vintage lenses. You will find lots of info and the extent of knowledge and concepts being shared is going way further reviews. The pauses, the flow of time, the value of the content shared –– this channel is the antitheis of pseudo entertainers like Peter McKinnon and their never ending fast cut stream of sponsored content, edited for attention deficency, built on the cult of personal brand.

Damien Dimik: videos showing practical information and actual behind the scenes, in a very enjoyable way. Damien is a cool funny guy with lots of skills and talents, and the fact that his channel didn’t manage to grow during the years is a proof of how rotten YouTube is.

Elena Jasic: her channel has few videos but they are all very well done and useful. her tutorials on Dodge & Burning and on Frequency Separation are among the best ones on YouTube. Again, it’s a shame this channel didn’t acquire more popularity.

Workphlo: photographer Dustin Dolby shows how to produce high-end images with minimal equipment. The videos are inspiring, straight to the point, without wasting time.

Common Spaces: a collection of short but valuable videos about photography history.

f64 Academy: tons of info on Photoshop and retouching in general. There are many other channels I could reccomend on this topic, but I think this is among the ones that gave me the most for my time. Blake is an example of how you can create a business based on YouTube and teaching, without compromising integrity and while producing eccellent content.

David Thorpe: David recently passed away and thousands of fans lived this fact with deep sadness, myself included. He was a gentleman and his videos are among the best you can find about Micro Four Thirds, stuffed with useful knowledge and humor. No promotions, no sponsorships, just love for what he was doing.

I could add lots of other YouTube channels I find useful, on other topics I deal with (Affinity Suite, drones, Blender, Unreal Engine, cinema history). Maybe this could become a separate page on the blog, a sort of collection of resources I think are worth sharing. Let me know if you would find it worthwile.

And once again, thanks for reading.

11 comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful post! Somehow, it resonated deeply with me. Perhaps that is a sign that I have been watching too much Youtube lately, and feel the emptiness. Your article offered a much-needed change of pace, and perspective.

    And what wonderful pictures!

    1. Thank you for your comment, it’s so nice to see others share this point of view. There is good content on YuTube but it rarely gets promoted by the algorithm and even in search results in ends up behind tons of pseudo reviews, sponsored videos, brand ambassadors, influencers etc. This issue is present in every big social media and no one has a reason to change it, not the social networks, nor the channels/profiles making money with it. Avoiding popular channels and looking instead for more honest ones seems to be the only solution for now. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  2. Thank you for this. I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time now.
    I got into photography through social media and youtube. These days I work as a product photographer directly with a client, so 9-5 is a typical schedule that I have and I am blessed to be in this position. Not really a glamorous photography gig but a steady income is very nice. In the mean time I do street photography and document my everyday life, and because of social media I think I am burning out on photography more than gaining from it. I have unsubbed from many youtube creators because all they do is complain about XYZ, tell you that this new camera is XYZ, and better than the older model which has the same image quality. I like gear, and I like watch people using their cheap old beaten second hand stuff to create nice things. My suggestion for a channel to check out is AOWS. Black and white, landscape, one of my favorite photographers at the moment. His book ONE is a wonderful collection of BW images taken on various different formats.

    1. Hi ELias! I know AOWS yes, very nice attitude and photography. I actually bought his book (“Becoming an american”) for supporting him 🙂 I forgot to mention him in my list, that’s true! I should add him.

      Having the passion for photography being burned out by YouTube and social media is a real risk, that’s another reason why I drastically reduced the time I spend on social networks, and I try to make the time I do spend there count more. Thanks for your comment and for reading the blog!

  3. I don’t think I ever watched a YouTube Photography channel pre-pandemic. During the pandemic I started watching a few, but soon got bored with them. Anyway even when I did watch it was more often than not with horrified fascination rather than genuine interest. And I felt dirty afterwards 🙂 One thing is pretty clear – the intersection between interesting photographers and engaging video presenters is very small.

    Based on comments (for which YouTube is anyway the absolute nadir), the majority of followers are some kind of desperate groupies, seeking validation directly from, or by (virtual) proximity to, their appointed Guru. Discussion on photography itself is very, very rare.

    Of the few channels I’ve watched, I guess I’d say Alister Benn’s Expressive Photography is the most genuine, but to be brutally frank, he’s really not a captivating presenter. Actually, there is one channel I find useful and well presented, which is Paul Reiffer’s CaptureOne sessions and tutorials. But that’s more work than entertainment. Otherwise it’s exactly as you observe, Andrea.

    Essentially I’m really not interested in people telling me how I should do photography, even if they’re not using this as an excuse to please their sponsors. I may be interested in them telling me how they do photography (although not if all they want to tell is how long it took them to get there, and even less if it is about what cameras they use), but mostly I am interested in talented photographers showing and talking about their photography, and that is very rare on YouTube. I guess that’s because such people would rather use their time taking photos.

    So instead I buy their books. Or read their blogs – like this one 🙂

    1. Hello David! Thank you for your insightful comment, I agree with pretty much all of it, and I took note of the two channels you memtioned –– I didn’t know about them.

      Your sentence “the intersection between interesting photographers and engaging video presenters is very small” is presenting an important topic indeed: the abundancy of possibilities and tools tend to make people believe everyone can successfully do everything. The truth is we’re not all Leonardo or Michelangelo, and that’s fine –– interdisciplinary proficiency is rarely gracing humans. That’s how we end up with mediocre photographers and presenters hosting a show, or mediocre photographers being effective presenters. I never found a good photographer that’s also a good presenter, but I don’t completely rule it out!

      You also mention comments, and that’s indeed one of the worst aspects of YouTube. It seems YouTube comments foster the worst behaviors, and the abundancy of trolls underlines this doubt I have. Most popular channels tend to remove controvertial and negative comments, especialy the ones driven by insecure egos. Others leave all comments because their greed for engagement is stronger than their ego insecurities –– but it’s extremely rare to find a productive exchange of knowledge on YouTube, since, as with most social media, people love to drop sterile comments, mostly of approval, probably following the psychology you described so well.

      Having this blog is my little attempt at sharing what I do and think and receiving real comments that express valuable thoughts — like your one 😉

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the online world of YouTube. Couldn’t agree more! You should check also the channel of Daniel Milnor. Ciao

    1. Thank you for your comment, I am glad you found it interesting! I think watched a couple of videos by Daniel long ago, I will check his channel again, thank you.

  5. Excellent writing as always! That’s exactly what photography-side of YouTube mostly is nowadays, gear reviews- and comparisons, clickbaity “instructional” videos, selling presets etc… And because of that I follow only a few photography-youtubers who are actually doing their videos out of passion for photography rather than for selling crap.

    You also reminded me of one thing I’ve been thinking about the common mindset many people have nowadays which is how you HAVE TO have an Instagram-account for your photography. I have never published a single photo of my photography on Instagram and I have zero intentions to do so any time soon. I think sharing your photos or just watching photos from others on social media can become quickly counter productive, as you said it starts eventually killing your creativity. It turns quickly into something like “I don’t get that much likes, I can’t edit my photos to look like that, I can’t take photos like that anywhere” etc. Photography on Instagram is starting to look too much the same in a way when people are getting peer pressure from others works and following “flavour of the month”-trends regarding to photography style, editing etc. Reels are full of the same clickbait-bullcrap as YouTube is.

    I’ve been visiting your blog regularly since I found your GR II-review which actually made me buy one from eBay back in the day. Thanks for that, possibly my favourite camera up to date.

    Could you recommend any photography-related blogs like yours for me?

    1. Hello Markus! I am glad you are having fun with your GR II, it is a lovely camera.

      I am compiling a list of insteresting photography blogs, they will end up in a future post or some special section of the blog 🙂

      And about YouTube… I often start watching something and at some point the presenter starts promoting some product, or his own presets etc etc… So I start wondering… is that video existing for me or for that ad? And I lose confidence in the rest, and eventually stop the video. Building trust is hard, and it takes few to lose it.

      Did you already read the post I wrote about Instagram? It is old but I still believe all that. I kept my account deactivated for almost a year and I turned it back on in June because a minority of my summer clients like to use it for interactions. The whole platform became terrible, in every possible way. I hope it will fade into oblivion soon.

      Thank you very much for reading the blog and writing your comment, I really appreciate it. See you around!

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