Will the “real” pro photographer please stand up?

Posted on October 12, 2011


This post is motivated by a conversation with a photographer from a town South of where I live. He was adamant about getting the “fake” photographers out of the photography business because he is being hurt so bad by people who weren’t real photographers. This begs the question of who and what is a real photographer?

First and foremost is someone with all the documentation for running a business. This means registering with the local city or county to get a business license or registration. This would also mean acquiring a tax ID and registration for the business so that taxes are paid on the items sold to the customer. How many people do you know who are running a business without these? This would be a good question to ask prospective photographers before you hire them on to do work.

Next, we get into a tricky little area that many photographers want to dangle in front of people to distinguish themselves from other photographers: equipment. I personally don’t think equipment that one uses makes a big difference if someone is a “real” photographer, but rather what matters more is the person behind the camera who is clicking the shutter. If they know how to use the equipment they have and produce good quality work, then I personally am willing to call them a photographer. More frequently than equipment, it comes down to pre-planning, outfits, location, lighting plans, execution of those plans, and then the post production work to make it all possible. On the other hand, I frequently see many people who have lots of expensive photographic equipment but don’t have a clue on how to use it and don’t plan anything out as a problem. We frequently call those people “GWC”s or “guy/gal with camera”. They are individuals who think owning a complex camera and gear makes them a photographer. It doesn’t. That is why we have terms such as “chimpers” and “machine gun shooters” when we refer to people who shoot images instead of photographer. Last, we have the person with no gear and no experience. You see them as people who think they can do the work that a professional can, but really don’t have a clue what they are doing. I don’t have a problem with them getting experience, trying to take these images, but I do have a problem with them saying they are a “real” photographer and misleading the general public. They need to be up front and honest, and not give every photographer a bad name.

For example, when I was in Washington, D.C., I visited one of my friends who had bought all this expensive and top of the line camera equipment from Nikon. He easily spent $20,000 on a single camera and several professional lenses. When we were shooting together, he was a constant machine gun shooter – you know the type, they hold down on the shutter and hope to captuer the best instance eventually. With cameras like the new Nikons and Red cameras that only shoot video, this seems to be where the industry is heading for equipment. My friend insisted he was a photographer because he had all this equipment. If you look at his images, it was obvious he wasn’t a photographer. When I referred to him as a GWC, he called another photographer friend and asked him what that was and if he was one. He concurred with me.

Another photographer friend has referred to customers who come to him after there is a trail of chaos behind them. They rarely have much equipment – usually just their camera. They don’t know how to do anything other than take snapshots. They tell people they are photographers. They also say they “prefer natural light” because it is more realistic and only shoot outside. When they show up, they only have a camera and camera strap. No flash. No reflector. Nothing else. I have been told by several customers that “prefer natural light” might be a code for not knowing anything about photography. Being a photographer who does prefer natural light over studio light and prefer being in a real surrounding to being in a dull studio, I take offense to someone who says this as a way to be dishonest and mislead the paying customer. Yes, I have a lot of studio lighting equipment (strobes, ring strobe, various softboxes, various umbrellas, a beauty dish, barn doors, grids, gels, backgrounds, etc. – as a photographer, we seem to collect them) and can take images anywhere with the equipment that I have. But, I still prefer working in a natural light environment if at all possible. Depending on the need, I have shot images in studios, concert halls, theatres, hotels, bed and breakfasts, and homes. It all comes down to what the client wants and needs.

Another example is someone seeing an image they like, then going out and buy all the equipment used to create the image  expecting to be able to create that same image. I have seen many so called photographers do the same with my images. Once they can’t get the image they have seen, they come to me and ask how I did what I did. Then they find out it was something fairly simple and came down to planning and preparation prior to the shoot – not the equipment. It usually comes down to knowing how to use the equipment you have. Just owning an expensive camera isn’t enough. Putting a camera on automatic, just because it can do it, isn’t enough. The photographer really has to _know_ the equipment they use.

I can also go on and mention that most photographers don’t maintain a wardrobe or know anything about the makeup a model wears in the Indianapolis area. This is one thing that distinguishes me from the other photographers in this area. They can’t tell you why you shouldn’t be wearing expensive mineral based makeup, and should be wearing something that is a high definition or camera ready makeup. But, this is something that most photographers should also know about, and how it will impact the images they capture. Again, it comes down to knowledge and equipment that they know.

Sometimes you will find people who are in high school or college or in between who want to make a few dollars. Their prices are frequently lower than a professional, rarely are they licensed to do business, and claim they have lots of experience. Beware of these people! Often they are a friend, a friend of one of your children, or friend of a friend, or similar. Be doubly sure they are who you want creating your memories before committing to using one of them because your decision will be based more on emotion.

Why do I even take the time to mention this? First, the market for photographers is getting tighter in the economy, and as with everything else, people don’t want to spend as much for photographs like they did in the past. They want the quality and knowledge of someone who has been out there for a while, but why should they pay it? Even better, why do I need to go to the photographer to get prints of the images I have taken? Most people will sell me the rights and ability to print them on my own. There in lies the problem: a shoot and burn photography mentality. Sure, anyone can shoot your images and burn them to disk. But, I have to ask if that is really something that will sustain a business? Simply put, no, it won’t. Yes, we all want a good deal. Yes, we all want to pay the least amount of money possible for a good or service. But, if you don’t think someone’s profession is a good one and worth something to you, but want that same quality in the products, the people capable of producing those quality items won’t be around much longer. They, too, have bills to pay just like you.

Taken to a different extreme, one photographer in Atlanta was fed up and posted a bulletin on Craig’s List there indicating that people who have “free” products and services to come out and show themselves. He was more than willing to use those “free” services and he would be perfectly willing to give them exposure and credit for giving that service. Why did the person do this? It is because he is tired of being trampled on and expected to do work for free and told that he will get credit and visibility. No one else works for this. Why should a photographer, model, or makeup artist be expected to do this? Why should someone who plays basketball get paid $2 million a week and a photographer who creates a lifetime memory for you should get paid nothing? I don’t mean to just pick on the NBA, but there was an article in the paper today that listed what these individuals make who are on strike. Is that game really worth more than a memory? Even better, should it?

I can also say that I get asked by prospective models to look at their book, and let them know what I think. Some of this is because they hope I will give them an in with someone else who I work, and get them contacts that will give them a high paying modeling job. I look at some of the work in these books, and all I can do is cringe. Some have really bad work, out of focus, and look more like snapshots taken at a club in the middle of the night where everyone (including the photographer) was drunk. Others have images that look like they are snapshots from their best friends or parents who took images of their prom night. Or images taken by a soccer mom who figures this is an easy way to make a few extra bucks. These don’t make it in this world for these types of images. They are to be the best you have to offer. It shouldn’t be painful to look at them.

Why would I write a post like this? Part of it is being bombarded with many photographer friends (and artisans) who are tired of working for free and want to move on to something that does pay for them to live. Great, one less good photographer. For every good photographer that leaves, six to ten GWCs take that one photographer’s place and they erode the market even more. If this continues, there won’t be any good photographers left who can create quality memories except those who beleive in creating art… and they are only going to do it as a secondary profession to something else.

I also keep refering to artisans above. Many people think an art image is something you can stumble upon. In reality, the images I create take time when I do artistic images. This means working with a model, keeping an eye on the location, planing things out fully and completely. If you want to see one of my story boarded sessions from the past, feel free to ask. I don’t have a problem with doing this. But, art isn’t going to happy by just agreeing to meet somewhere and clicking images. There is a possibiliy that it might happen, but it is highly unlikely. Don’t think that these artistic images happen purely by going out and happening upon them. Artistic photography doesn’t work that way unless you are a news correspondant photographer-then you have to still be in the right place at the right time and notice what is unfolding so you capture it.

Anyone can add the “photographer” monicker to their name who has a camera. The real photographer is someone who is legal, registered, and really knows what they are doing. It isn’t someone who is out to just take snapshots, or produce low quality images. They may or may not have a lot of equipment – but they will know how to use the equipment they do have. They won’t be a friend in high school, the son of a friend who is still in school, a soccer mom trying to make a few extra bucks, or someone out to undercut the real photographers by creating shoot and burn sessions. If the market won’t support the people who know what they are doing, then all that will be left are people who won’t know what they are doing.

Next time you are looking for photographer, keep this in mind when you decide who you want to shoot and capture your memories that will be with you the rest of your life. Is it someone who runs a real business and has a license to be running the business? Are they paying the taxes to the state like they are supposed to be paying? Do they really know how to use the equipment that they say they know how to use? Are they just in it to make a few bucks or are they in the industry to be a professional?

Some other questions to ask when considering a photographer to shoot for you:
a) Will there be a consultation prior to the shoot? b) How long will it be before I get proofs or something I can select my images from? Once ordered, what will the turn around time be? c) Why do you take portraits? d) How long have you done photography professionally (emphasis on ‘professionally’ – this is often skirted and potential customers have been told how long they have been taking pictures which is often single digit years for their age)? e) Do you have a licensed makeup artist doing your makeup? (see IC 25-8-2 for Indiana residents) f) Do you offer prints and if so, who prints them? g) Where have your images been shown or used?

Edit: For a good photograph, there is a quantifiable value. A snap shot shooter may not have the experience or life experience (age) to capture such images. Anyone can take a shot – lucky beautiful photograph – but a true photographer can do this repetitively and in many styles.

Edit: One of my friends from the KY PPA reminded me that having liability insurance is another thing to ask. People who are fly by night operations and not pros won’t have it. This is required by any landlord for a studio operation and is recommended for anyone who does photographic work as a protection if someone gets hurt while a photographer is working with them.