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Go Ahead And Call Yourself A Photographer, It’s All Right

In the short time since I went pro (read: started making money) with my creative work, I’ve experienced a truly disheartening amount of judgment — snobbish judgment, most of it full of contradictions designed to place some creatives above others based on entirely arbitrary criteria that benefit the speaker and put up a wall of mystery and privilege between people who like to take pictures and the “photographer” label.

Photo by Adrian Egger

Photo by Adrian Egger

I think that’s a whole lot of bull. I think old-school (and some new-school who like to think they’re old-school) creatives feel threatened in many ways by how much more accessible their field of work has become in recent years — decades — and are determined to defend themselves by attacking others’ methods instead of simply taking a step back and realizing that accessibility won’t hurt them. It won’t.

A lot of it is understandable: someone’s put a lot of money and time into their education and they don’t want people who haven’t done the same to have the same opportunities; someone’s taken years to get clients to pay their rates and doesn’t want newcomers to devalue the market by offering to work for nothing; someone’s invested in their equipment, spent a long time honing their craft, built their portfolio out of their own pocket.

Someone’s learned to work their camera to do exactly what they want it to do, and doesn’t want other people to achieve the same results via post-processing methods, because a shot straight out of the camera is the real thing and there are no effects involved in it… hang on, I can’t keep going, I just ran out of understanding.

Anyway, my point is that competition is scary and we’re raised to believe that we have to follow a specific path and reach specific results and anyone who does differently deserves less. We’re raised to believe that There Can Only Be One. It’s harmful, and dangerous, and at the end of the day it doesn’t help anyone. And it makes no sense whatsoever. So I’m going to share some choice arguments people have used to take the “photographer” label away from other people who were using it, and what each argument really serves to accomplish.

The Equipment Conundrum

“Canon EOS-1 + EF Super Telephoto Lens as observation decks” / 香港佳能數碼影像坊陳列室 Canon iSQUARE Showroom, Hong Kong / Crazyisgood / SML.20130412.EOSM.03836

Photo by seeminglee

Argument #1: You don’t have enough equipment to be a real photographer. Real photographers have multiple camera bodies, multiple lenses, accessories, tripods, reflectors, flashes, a veritable arsenal of equipment they’ve put sweat and tears into accumulating. You can’t waltz into the profession unless you’ve got all that stuff, and you need to take it with you to every shoot to prove that you’re the real deal, and you have to use it.

Argument #2: You have too much equipment. It’s not the lens or camera but the eye behind it. It’s not fair for someone to spend $6000 on photography equipment when they’re not experienced enough to make the most of it, and anyone who’s invested in expensive gear must have done so to obscure the fact that they don’t know what they’re doing.

Besides contradicting each other, these arguments basically say that you are what you own, and the equipment makes the art, which I think every creative out there would disagree with. But that’s what you’re saying.

One of the side effects of this argument is making hobbyist photographers think they need to bring a ton of stuff onto every shoot, even outdoor ones that involve walking around for locations, just to prove that they’re legit. Now, don’t get me wrong, you can do cool tricks, you can diffuse the lighting, you can do a lot of fun stuff with lots of equipment. But you can also get good shots without half of it, and avoid the hassle of setting up and putting away a bunch of bulky stuff every five yards, and maybe not balk when someone suggests that you try something different just to see how it comes out.

Mastering lots of equipment is useful, and it will help you get the exact shot you want. But the fun thing about art is there are lots of good shots to be had, and you can achieve them with various levels of equipment. One level isn’t superior to another. You can be a terrible photographer with a £6000 camera or with a £100 point-and-shoot — and you can be a good photographer with either, too.

If you’ve got the money, and you want to splurge, why not? My entry-level DSLR was a splurge for me, and it’s what set me off on my photography journey, and what I still use.

If you can’t justify the expense, and you still want to shoot with what you’ve got, then why not? I’m still using that entry-level DSLR, and the lens — the default 18-35 mm lens it came with — has a hitch. The only thing I’ve managed to get is a tripod. My equipment has its limitations, and I notice them more and more the more I shoot, but does that mean I shouldn’t shoot until I’ve put together the money to upgrade? When I’ve still got a camera that works and that I’m comfortable with and love? A camera that turns out plenty of photos that are up to my standards? That seems pretty silly to me. I hope it does to you too.

The Formal Education Myth

Photo by Lix Hewett

Photo by Lix Hewett

Argument #1: If you went to university for art, you got it knocked out of you by people who claim to know what makes good art and will strip all the creativity and freedom out of it. You can’t learn art. You can’t pay people to teach you to be an artist. You either are one, or you’re not.

Argument #2: If you didn’t achieve any sort of higher education degree for art, you can’t possibly have a clue what you’re doing. You can’t teach yourself everything. Get a job cleaning toilets to pay for a course, and once you’re miserable and broke, then maybe you can try to make money off your creative work again, when you’ve earned it the regular way.

(I wish I were exaggerating, but I’ve had this suggested to me on more than one occasion, mainly about graphic design.)

What this argument comes down to is: you need to follow the Path because I followed the Path, and if you can make it in the industry without following the Path I did, that means all the money and time I spent on it was worthless. And we can’t have that. And you can’t possibly have spent money and time on your Path and made it count unless you spent it the exact same way I did, and got the exact same qualifications I did.

Argument #1 is more widespread in disciplines that don’t involve any tech, like writing and painting, even though to write and paint you need to know a little something about grammar and flow and consistency and what brush does what and how paint mixes. It’s just been so long that everyone can have access to that knowledge, so writers and painters don’t feel threatened by others learning their craft. They know that it’s all about the execution, what you do with what you’ve learned, however you’ve learned it.

Photographers and graphic designers, well — the ones with decades of experience were around when tech was too expensive, too inaccessible, when it was new and difficult to master, when you needed some serious privilege to get hold of a camera, and film, and a dark room or regular trips to the lab, and you couldn’t share your work online, and it was restricted and only special people were allowed in.

The problem is that special, in this context, means privileged: privileged to have been born or raised into a wealthy family, probably white and male (it’s true), basically possessing qualities that don’t make you any better in reality, only in our messed-up society.

Acknowledging that is a hard hit. No one likes to be told that half the reason they’ve made it as far as they have isn’t talent. But it’s true. Privilege doesn’t mean you’re good. Lack of privilege doesn’t mean you’re bad. At the end of the day, all it determines is whether you’re allowed to find out.

How is it anything other than wonderful that more people now get to try and find out?

The Full-Time Job Dilemma

Argument #1: Becoming a photographer takes a really long time, and it’s delusional for anyone to do it full-time from the get-go. All photographers must go through the arduous ritual of having a job they hate — or at least dislike — because that shows a commitment to their art. Having a full-time job gives them freedom to do the work they’d like to do professionally for free, and that’s essential. It’s essential for any creative to not charge for their time and work until they’ve spent an arbitrary amount of money and time building their portfolio out of their own pocket.

Argument #2: If you started out small, with your own different job, if you’re a mom, if you’re a dad, if you’re a teenager, if you’re an elderly person, if you’ve used family members and pets as subjects, if you’ve done work for free for your friends, if you’ve covered events just for fun, you’re not a real photographer. A real photographer wouldn’t undervalue their work like that. A real photographer wouldn’t consider the things and people that are accessible to them a worthy subject.

The ugliest consequence of these, again, contradictory myths is that it encourages one of the very things creatives want to avoid: competing on price. You’re telling people they don’t deserve to be paid for their work regardless of whether they need it or want to be, which means they’re working for free, which means potential paying clients are seeing that some photographers will do what they need for nothing, and will expect to pay less. Literally everyone loses here. The client maybe spends less money, but they lose a little bit of whatever respect they had for creative work.

Everyone loses.

Conclusion

I know there are people who will see this as “an attack on formal education,” or “an attack on TFP work,” but it’s the opposite of that. My point is that art is really awesome. It’s a line of work that allows you to put creativity and time into projects, and you can decide if you want to charge for your creativity and time, or work for fun, or — amazingly, this is possible — do both things simultaneously.

It’s a line of work that can be self-taught, because there are lots of books out there, and articles and tutorials, and instruction manuals, and inspiration, and you can practice with things that are living and things that are not, and you can practice on people without risking their life in the process. It’s a line of work that can be taught, because history and light and color and settings and tech and tricks can be shared by instructors, and picked up from assisting other people, and picked up from working on your own, or reading about them.

You can let people know you’ve studied the craft with proof of your degree or certificates, and you can show how good you are with examples of your work and testimonials, and they can see exactly what they’re getting if they decide to work with you.

See, none of these things are mutually exclusive. You can mix and match, and if you love photography, and you do it consistently — whether that’s twice a day or twice a year —, and you consider it an important part of your life, you can call yourself a photographer. If you make money off it, you can call yourself a professional photographer.

Other photographers will still be photographers. Other professional photographers will still be photographers who make money — even a living — from their craft. A bad self-taught photographer with lots of expensive equipment who mostly shoots his relatives and slaps a massive watermark on his photos doesn’t give all photogs a bad rep any more than a bad formally educated photographer who mostly shoots on commission does.

There isn’t a finite number of photos that a finite number of people need done and then the pool runs out. Contrary to popular belief, there is room for everyone, and to me, that’s one of the very best things about art.

Lix Hewett

Lix Hewett is a multi-passionate creative: photographer (fine art and freelance), model, graphic designer and writer. She lives in London. You can connect with her through her blog or any of her social media accounts.

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  • Hysterectomypants

    I don’t see this article as “an attack on formal education.” I do, however, see it as a misrepresentation of formal education by someone who has not experienced it. Being self-taught is absolutely valid and doesn’t have to affect the quality of your work in one direction or the other. But going to art school does provide remarkable benefits in terms of networking and portfolio-building and it does produce a more employable creative at the entry level. Art education doesn’t exist to make people into artists–it exists to help shape the skills and build the potential of an artist.

    My point is that it’s not a level playing field, and it never will be, no matter how much you wish it to be, or how unfair you may find it. Being self-taught (in any field) means that you may have to start lower on the ladder, do more to establish your credentials, perhaps be more open to unpaid work and portfolio-building as an investment. I have a hard time believing that most new photographers and designers resent this quite as much as you do.

    But obviously, if you’re a photographer, call yourself a photographer. Anyone would would tell someone otherwise based solely on their education is pretty clearly an asshole.

    • I think your clients/people you work with will be interested to know that you are addicted to taking to the Internet to aggressively slander people by using vulgarity. Should do wonders for your business and your work relationships from now on!

      • Hysterectomypants

        Disagreeing with the author about the role of art education is slander here? I certainly wasn’t referring to her with all that outrageous vulgarity.

        And two comments in a day qualifies me as “addicted to taking to to the Internet?”

        I suspect my business will manage to survive this.

        • BrokeButProductive

          I think Marc meant that to be directed at the author and not you. At least, it makes much more sense of his comment in that context as those things are true of the author.

      • Mary Peters

        Then you will have a field day with Lix’s twitter where she threatens to stab and murder clients.

  • Steve

    The problem is this person tries to validate how she does things with articles like this. They believe they should not have to do the grunt work of building and just be able to start at the top. Education, self taught, it doesn’t matter, you have to earn your way to the top. Sometimes along the way you do have to scrub a few toilets, wait tables, or what ever to keep fed and a roof over your head. We all have been there. But then this self taught person bashed another for suggesting trying the library (which is free) to read up on some techniques. You can never learn too much. Natural talent or not you still need to learn learn learn and build build build. Even DaVinci had a teacher.

  • Ansel

    How about Brain Surgeon or an Astronaut!
    As long as you keep taking the meds you can call yourself anything you like!

  • apolloOMDEM5

    As a full time professional photographer I welcome the competition because it makes me work harder. That being said I can’t tell you the amount of people who have come to me saying my wedding was ruined by a “so called professional.” I hate hearing this and wish so many photographers would stop encouraging people who aren’t ready to shoot a wedding for example. I just try to do my best to educate people around me as to what to look for in an actual professional photographer. Just because someone has a nice setup does not mean they are a pro. I tell people that the photo business is 25% photography and 75% business. The 25% photography is absolutely imperative but if you can’t do the other 75% business you will fail and you won’t last long. You have to know how to take care of a client beginning to end. I know many people who have great pics but they won’t go back to that photographer due to not being taken care of in other ways. To truly be a professional it takes so much more than taking nice pictures. I get asked how did you get where you are today with a studio and large clientele? To be honest I have an amazing support system of people who have spread the word and I never pretend for one second that I know it all. I have never worked harder at any occupation in my life. It is a level of hard work that I never could have comprehended in the beginning. I mean hair pulling out lying on the ground exasperated hard at times. However fighting through it the reward has been seeing my dreams come true. If you want to make photography your only work and profession be ready to work at a level that you didn’t think was possible. You need to also be ready to watch other peoples’ most precious moments be ruined by bad untrained so called professionals. That will tear you up a bit knowing that you could have perfectly captured their moments they will never get back.The old ways of photography are gone and the old ways have taken a lot of bitter photographers with them. My advice is adapt, don’t just sit back and watch the changes to the industry pass you by. Be the industry, be a mover, don’t let others take you down. Be true to your vision, don’t let another photographer’s success take you away from your vision. Don’t copy them, be unique in how you do business. Keep shooting and love it.

  • Steve

    This professional photographer who wrote this article, (according to her twitter) not more than a few hours ago discovered what an fstop is and has decided gee she might need to know what this does. It is the same as a painter figuring out what a brush does.

  • Kyle Clements

    Not everyone who picks up a rifle is a marksman. Just the same as picking up a camera does not make one a photographer. It has to do with only one thing: skill.

  • Mary Lee

    This blog seems fraught with anger and self justification. I got tired reading it, skimmed to the end and decided to return to downloading some photos I took this morning. Later.

  • g16studios

    An owner of a Graphics and Photography School, asked me to teach one of his batches of Basic Photography Course and paid me a share from the total fees collected, however he himself regularly attended the classes like other students. From the very next batch, he himself started teaching in his institute, now think about the students who learn from him as well as pay heavy fees, remember his total experience in Photography is zero. Moreover he started taking the assignments as well. There are 100s of things he does not understand, like using the studio flash, he shoots JPG, extreme high-ISO, poor white balance, zero knowledge of Post Processing. Some clients understand this, some do not, but he charges little less than the pros. For the clients who refuse his results, he get the pro from outside and re-shoots it, Don’t you think it is deceptive?

    Therefore I think you need to consult to an experienced pro photographer about your preparation to go Pro, It’s not about equipment, it’s about your training, and ability to deliver like a pro. You may be a self thought or Youtube learner, does not matter; but learn with honesty and jump in only when you are confident of delivering like a pro.

  • Adrian Egger

    Please note that my image you’re using for this article is licensed as CC-no-derivs. You are not allowed to edit or create derivative works from this image.

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