Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What is a Professional Photographer and Why are They Starving?

A few weeks ago I attended a workshop where someone brought up the question, what does it mean to be a “professional photographer?” Even amid a large diverse group of photographers opinions varied greatly from someone who has ever received payment from providing photographic services to someone who earns all of their income from providing photographic services. The exponential increase in the availability and affordability of DSLRs and other photographic equipment has everyone believing themselves to be a photographer. But the definition of what constitutes a “professional” and the relevancy of that definition may be more abstract than you think. 

The greatest oversight in this debate is that the opinions presented overlook the qualitative aspects of the art of photography and focuses more on the quantitative. Even respected photography associations at one time had defined it as income based, saying that more than half of your income must come from photography. It doesn’t mean you’re any good or not. Even now these associations cloud the debate even more by offering you a “Certified Professional Photography” status with a fee of course. While their attempt to un-cloud the issue might be arguably a measure toward clearing the ambiguity, all it does is make people now ask “Oh, you’re a professional photographer but are you certified?” What does that mean and who makes that decision when everyone is still ignoring the qualitative aspects of what we do? So now that you’ve paid a fee and cleared a couple of basic test and visual inspections by some unknown person or group you’re certified now?

Relative to industry norms, are you consistently taking high quality imagery and being recognized either monetarily or even visibly credited with  your work? Shouldn’t that be enough? Years ago, a prospective client learned that I was a photographer. They eventually approached me and inquired about types of photography I’d done. Then they asked, “but are you a professional photographer?” So even then and there, without ever seeing a single thing I’d done, without ever even looking at a single picture of mine they were blinded by phraseology and meaningless semantics. But they were uninformed, and like most people they were caught up in the glorification of status. Now I suppose they’re asking people if they’re certified professional photographers.

By some definitions, I’ve been a professional photographer for years; as a sole proprietor as well as during employ as a product photographer and graphic designer for an employer. But the onslaught of wannabes makes making informed decisions as a consumer looking for photographic services difficult; or that is what you’re telling yourself. Photographic services might be the easiest thing you will ever choose. Like most creative professions, the work is the resume. You can’t hide behind finances, numbers, or shady tax returns to hide how good you are or aren’t. The proof is in the pictures. Additionally, you should be treating it like any other service you seek; you look at the most current work, you determine if they are licensed, if applicable you determine if they are insured, you call a reference or two if you need to, you settle on a price and terms and you make a commitment. 

If having earned money on photography, having a license, paying for permits, hiring assistants whenever needed, designing sets, writing and modifying licensing use fees and contracts, maintaining equipment, editing and processing files, managing email marketing campaigns and some, all makes me a professional then of course I am and have been for as long as I remember. But I implore you not to get too caught up in the words. I have a fantastic product and/or service to offer. It’s readily available and you get to see past work at any and all times. I’m legally entitled to sell it. I’m damn good at it. I have a great list of references. I’m affordable and you need me. Shouldn’t that be enough? Most other professions can’t even make that claim so why are we getting so caught up in phraseology?

The reason for all the smoke and mirror games is because of the abundance of service providers. Unfortunately, most of them are new and shady and not likely to make it past tomorrow; and consumers are only marginally aware of the conundrum in the industry. The more seasoned professionals have been searching for more and more ways to separate themselves from the lesser experienced masses. Prices have dipped and most seasoned photographers have closed up shop because every Joe is an alleged photographer now because he has a camera. An over abundance of suppliers make prices drop and a once elitist field dominated by only a few is up for grabs by anyone with enough talent and staying power to last thru this over supply. 

Photographers with decades of experience have a tough time sustaining their businesses because every kid with a camera is undervaluing the service due to an ignorance of not understanding the work and expense involved; a mistake realized all too late to counter. Yet, they wonder why they have thousands of dollars of equipment and still can’t make it as a photographer. Even the so-called pros are now teaching photography and lighting workshops under the guise of helping others. Why? because photography alone doesn’t pay anymore; not without a hook or a niche. You have to be damn good and have a totally underserved market to make it. Those guys that are making six digits or more a year taking pictures aren’t doing it by taking pictures alone. NO! They’re selling DVDs and doing workshops in multiple cities. Heck, I'm organizing a workshop or two myself. But I’m not gonna say it’s only because I want to share my knowledge; that too. It’s because there are thousands of people out there who could use what I know and there is money to be had by my doing it. Like anything else, it’s a business opportunity that happens to involve something I love doing. 

Aside from the qualitative ignorance and degradation the industry has suffered in recent years, there is the persistent notion that anyone can do it. While improvements in technology has made taking a picture without thinking easier, it has done little to improve overall quality. There is still a matter of composition, color, symbology, line and form, light and shadow; only a true photographer can adapt to changing environments and produce great results consistently throughout different and often unexpected scenarios. I can teach you how to use a camera but that will never make you an artist if you don’t have it in you.

Anyone who has done this for awhile will also tell you being a photographer is about 20% photography and 80% business. You will spend more time marketing, selling, processing, editing, permitting, copyrighting, registering, insuring, scheduling, paying taxes, renewing business licenses and permits, casting and booking than you will actually photographing. If you disagree then you’re clearly not a photographer, professional, certified or otherwise. You’re just a Joe with a camera. You’re a poser (pun intended).

I encourage you to get informed about photography as a consumer and a potentially practicing photographer. You will at some point in your life have your picture taken or take someone else’s picture for fun or business. But more to the point, this is a free enterprise system we live in. Photography is more transparent than most industries. Keep putting out your best work, find someone who will pay you for it and stop being so caught up in the status and the symbolism of title. Let your work speak to your competence.