Some Thoughts on Being a Photographer

It’s not too hard to see that the role of the professional photographer is in something of a crisis. With the cost of photography equipment falling in real terms whilst at the same time becoming so technologically advanced it is becoming very hard indeed to take a ‘bad’ picture (i.e. one that is out of focus, exposed incorrectly or suffers from camera shake) the oft quoted phrase “we’re all photographers now” would never seem to be more true. You can even get intelligent camera assistants like Arsenal that will recommend the optimum settings for your camera or have your images ‘reviewed’ by artificial intelligence software like EveryPixel to tell you how awesome (or not) your photographs are. As you can see from the rating I got in this image from EveryPixel I still have some way to go!

EveryPixel Image Review

It’s no wonder then that everyone with a half decent camera (which applies to pretty much all cameras over a couple of hundred pounds these days) calls themselves a photographer and is quite happy to photograph your face, house, dog or even your wedding all for free or very nearly so (with maybe a slice of wedding cake and glass of prosecco thrown in as a payment)!

Photography seems to be one of the few professions that suffers from this phenomena. Most people who can put together a meal with some basic ingredients don’t call themselves a chef, people who can successfully put up a bookcase from Ikea don’t call themselves a joiner and those who can change the oil in their cars don’t call themselves a mechanic. A corollary to this is that ‘photographer’ seems to be one of the very few professions that sees the need to add the word ‘professional’ in front of it to distinguish itself, presumably, from the non-professional hordes of snappers. You rarely if ever see ‘professional chef’, ‘professional joiner’ or ‘professional mechanic’ rather it is taken as read these people are professionals*. Usually it is their good work alone that sets them apart and for which people are prepared to pay them money to allow them to devote their lives to practicing their particular craft. So why do photographers who practice their art for a living feel the need to distinguish themselves from the hordes of ‘happy snappers’ who just like to make great images, and maybe sometime sell or display their work along the way?

One argument has it that professional photographers themselves are their own worst enemies when it comes to protecting their profession. Rather than embracing the diversity that allows anyone with a smartphone to practice this art form (and instead focusing on the skills they need to differentiate themselves) they fall back on making snide remarks about these people and deriding anyone who has not come up through the ranks.

A recent example of this has been a number of posts from a blog I otherwise respect, United Nations of Photography run by commercial photographer and lecturer Grant Scott. One article poured derision over a book of photographs by Brooklyn Beckham  (son of David and Victoria) saying “he’s not very good and needs help”. This about a photographer who has an Instagram following of 10 million people and a commission from the luxury fashion brand Burberry already under his belt. Another post tells us of three photobooks we don’t need to buy (the implication being they are crap) without actually naming any of them and finally a Twitter tirade again the street photographer Eric Kim (the link to which I can no longer find) basically saying his work is less than good and questioning his photographic credentials.

All of this, in my humble opinion, makes for a less than satisfactory state of affairs. Surely the photography community is large enough and diverse enough to allow all of us to operate at what ever level we wish without having to resort to sniping and making uncomplimentary remarks about people practicing the art form? If this means that those who wish to make a living out of photography have to work that little bit harder then so be it. That’s the reality of the world we live in. For goodness sake, even Ansel Adams had to supplement his income from his photographs by teaching and lecturing!

Instead of bitching and whining about the awful state of photography photographers should concentrate on being the best they can regardless of whether they do it for money, for love or anything else. Being professional, in anything, should be about more than doing whatever is needed to be paid for the job but doing whatever it takes to get people coming back for more. If you are finding yourself losing out to some upstart student with little experience and a load of Instagram followers you will just have to face up to the fact their images are preferred to yours because the client knows her images will be more successful than yours in selling their brand. That’s the way it is so you’d best get over it.

Here are the four things that really matter when it comes to being ‘professional’ in your approach to photography and that will set you aside as a photographer. I call them my ‘four C’s of being a professional’. I reckon that if you do not try and adopt these as much as you can then you will fail as a photographer.

  • Creativity. Make no mistake without this you are dead. Coming up with new ideas and new ways of seeing, whether it be for a personal project or for a client, are really where it’s at and seeking out new ways to be creative is what all photographers should be trying to do all of the time. Indeed you should consider yourself a creative first and a photographer second. Creative juices not flowing? Don’t worry there is a tonne of advice out there, here are some links to a few of mine.
  • Consistency. It’s not enough to have the odd creative bit of inspiration; you need to do it again and again. Being consistent for every shoot you do so that the client will know they can rely on you to deliver their brief is absolutely essential.
  • Communication. One of the defining moments for me in making portraits was to realise that whilst it is important to know how to use your kit (see the next ‘C’) actually what is far, far more important is knowing how to communicate with your subject. Making them feel relaxed and at home is absolutely key if you want to capture something unique and personal.
  • Craftsmanship. So all that stuff they tell you about it not being about the kit, well it’s true HOWEVER… If you are not a master of the kit you do have you will also never be a great photographer. It doesn’t matter if its a ‘simple’ iPhone or a top of the range digital SLR costing thousands, the important thing is you know how to use that camera so that it doesn’t get in the way between you and your subject.

* The only exception to this would seem to be in sport where professional tennis player, golfer or athlete are descriptions that tend to be used.

Postscript: Just as I was about to hit publish on this post this news item hit my Twitter feed. Bowens, the well-known 94-year-old lighting equipment brand has officially confirmed that it has discontinued operations. One of the main factors cited for its demise was the rise of cheaper gear by Chinese manufacturers. It seems like its not only photographers that need to learn some hard lessons of competition!

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