Some thoughts on the Professional Photographer

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May 1, 2005
Warwick, N.Y.
Real Name
John DeSanto
(Moderator note from Commodorefirst: this post that John composed has been requested numerous times to be applied as a sticky. I have done so and placed it here in the making money area. This post is closed for discussion, and it has appeared in several other areas of the cafe already, so feel free to comment in those areas on this topic. The moderating team does not necessarily agree or disagree with the comments, but are responding as the members suggested.)

The Professional Photographers of America need to step up to the plate and start licensing pro photographers instead of simply collecting dues.

If plumbers need to be licensed...
If day care centers need to be licensed...
If massage friggin' therapists need to be licensed... then I'm sure the photo biz industry can withstand and, in fact, be helped by the same action.

Actions also chip away at the industry's reputation, including:

1) Giving photos away for free.
2) Taking on paid work without proper knowledge and equipment.
3) Shooting work "for the boss" because he asked and doesn't want to pay.
4) Shooting weddings "as a gift" to the couple.
5) The "fake it till you make it" business model.

Now, you may argue that licensing of photographic professionals would do nothing to stop thieves. Fair enough. But, in my opinion, we have to start somewhere and basic licensing would be a good place to start.

I typed the following response in another thread way back in October. But I think it bears repeating:

The topic: As I am sure you are aware, the "I have a camera and I wouldn't mind making some money with it" topic has been hashed to death in the almost seven years of the NikonCafe's existence and on photographic websites around the globe. Sometimes the discussions have turned very heated and I don't mean to open old wounds or start new flame wars with this post.

But consider this: Photography is a career, a vocation, a skill that is learned - like many trades - over the course of time. It is not unlike carpenters, electricians and plumbers in that respect. And just like the other trades, the road to professionalism starts with an apprenticeship and proceeds over several years as your skills develop. And, just like the other trades, simply owning good equipment does not buy you a free pass to the top. There is so much to learn about photography from posing, to lighting to analyzing facial structure to evoking emotion and handling clients' needs and the business and checkbooks and taxes and insurance. And we all know that owning pro equipment does nothing without the knowledge of how to use it. (And - more importantly - how to use it in conjunction with every other piece of equipment in your bag.)

An analogy: I've used the following example many times over the years, but I still feel is pertinent although, to be fair, others do not. Let's say that all of a sudden, I decide I want to be a plumber. I've never done it professionally but I've fixed some things for the neighbors and they've always been happy with the results. So I open up shop across the street from the biggest plumber in town and I charge half what he's charging, just "to get my foot in the door."No I don't have professional training, or insurance or affiliations but I've got some spiffy new tools and what I don't know, I'll figure out along the way. Hey, how tough can it be? Customers, excuse the pun, flood into my new business, mainly because of my pricing structure. But five jobs in I come across a situation that I never considered and completely screw it up. Then, two weeks later I hit another problem and screw that up too and then another problem and I eventually decide that the plumbing business just ain't for me so I shut it down. (Hey, happens all the time.) I gave it a good try and no harm, no foul... right? Wrong. As an unprofessional, unprepared, underpaid newbie plumber I caused tremendous harm to the reputation of the entire industry during my short time in the business and forced the other plumbers to have to defend their pricing structure to their customers. And their pricing structure included equipment, insurance, training, membership in professional organizations and other items - and mine did not. Now I'm going to try and go into the ice cream business instead. (And the real pro plumbers are left to clean up the mess I caused). Sound familiar?

The situation right now: As I'm sure you know, the exact same thing is going on in photography right now and it's killing the business. People are jumping in without the proper knowledge and experience, without insurance and professional affiliations. Hey, it looks easy, doesn't it? These newcomers are undercutting the market just to get started. But more often than not, six months later they are quitting - telling stories about how difficult it really is - and leaving behind a trail of damage in their wake. So naturally, the question from newbies is this: "How do I get started if I can't just jump right in and undercut the market to get my foot in the door? How do I get started on the path to professional status?

Here is my answer: You start like any trades person would start. First you have interest, then your buy equipment, then you get a mentor, then you buy more equipment, then you learn the business of business, then you get a job as an assistant, then you buy even more equipment, then you strike out on your own, and then you buy even more equipment. If you are really, really, really smart, the process will only take a couple of years. I can tell you that professional photographers everywhere welcome new talent into the field. Hell, we all started somewhere. (I'm a member at several pro photography websites and this is a very, very hot topic.) For the most part it's great to see newcomers and track their learning path. In fact, pro shooters are really crazy about helping amateur shooters because it's really a lot of fun to mentor someone. I teach workshops and talk to college photography classes and mentor several newcomers myself. But what pro photographers absolutely hate is the person who works outside the system. You know, the one who gets a new camera for Christmas and six months later is out trying to "make a little money on the side" without the slightest amount of training and very little talent. Some are not even smart enough to know what they don't know. These newbies never factor in cost or equipment or any of the previously mentioned items - they just want to play pretend pro. And every time a newbie plays pretend pro and takes on a senior portrait, wedding or event and undercuts the fair market price and does a crappy job, it's just another nail in the coffin of the photography business and someone else left cleaning up the mess.

Here is what the amateurs don't get: It doesn't really matter if your parents and friends think you take good pictures. It doesn't matter if the neighbors think you take good pictures. It doesn't matter if the parents of the athletes think you take good pictures. What matters is the marketplace. And if the client thinks your pictures are good enough to pay money at fair market value (which includes the factored-in cost of equipment, liability, event and equipment insurance, your experience and knowledge and the accepted rate in your area) than good for you. Welcome to the club. If the prospective client doesn't want to pay for your images than you are not good enough to be in business - simple as that. In other words, everyone will love your pictures when they are free. But the true barometer of photographic talent comes at the moment of the check writing.

And here is what the pros don't get: It's a tough economy out there and people, as a whole, are struggling and getting desperate. The general thinking has become: I've got to do whatever I can to earn money. Photography seems like an easy job and it is, if you don't know what you are doing - or don't care about quality. Yeah, it's an expensive hobby and to justify the cost, some people feel the need to make money. If you are young and just starting out, well baby-boomers are not retiring and you are stuck on the bottom floor waiting for the elevator to arrive. And it ain't arriving. So screw you and your professional pricing structure, I've got to make some money, they say. I'll fake it 'til I make it. Which, seems to be the general plan these days in just about every field, from music to acting to photography.

The individual problem: In reality, a lot of this is not about survival or making ends meet or even paying for that expensive hobby. (No matter what you tell the wife.) Deep down inside, if you are honest with yourself it's more about playing "wannabe pro." Right here on the Cafe, I have seen many, many posts similar to yours, Don. Some of the more glaring examples have shown images that are horrendous in execution. Trees and buildings growing out of shoulders, harsh lighting and awkward poses and nothing that resembles good photography. Nothing. That, of course, doesn't stop people from typing "I just SOLD my first print!!!!" or "It's my first senior PORTRAIT!!." Almost everyone would agree that most of these folks are not within shouting distance of professional-level work. Sure, it's the NikonCafe and all that - and everyone here is very gentle with their criticisms. (Hey, I've been around since the beginning - I know THAT problem.) And yes, I realize that when you post amateur photos on an amateur photography website and ask amateur questions you should expect amateur answers. I get it, really, I do. Because Circa 2011 typing the phrase "what should I charge" is just a another form of internet bragging. But when bad talent starts thinking they have good talent - in any field - and passing themselves off as professional, that is not a good thing. (You certainly would not this to happen to the medical profession.) Sometimes we all have to take a deep breath and tell people, nice try but no you aren't good enough yet. So practice for a few years and maybe you will improve. I've given this advice to hundreds of people during my workshops: Millions of people own cameras but very few are actually photographers. The follow up point being - do you take photos or make photos?

The industry problem: Now, if every wannabe pro starts undercutting the market just to get a start, then he/she is contributing to the slow death of photography in some small way. It is getting very close to the point where no one will be able to make a living at photography if everyone wants to do it badly enough to undercut the market. Take a look at the stock photo field - completely ruined as a marketplace for serious photographers by millions of amateurs willing to accept pennies for their stock pictures. Portrait, sports and wedding photography seem to be headed for the same fate. Everybody has a camera and everybody wants to play pretend pro. But something to keep in mind - the photography career you covet may be cut off by your attempts - if you continue to undercut the market. In plain English, in a few years there may be nothing left for you to aspire to.

The important thing to remember is this: Don't try to act like a pro until you are actually a pro. Be upfront with people and tell them when you are just learning the craft and they will understand. Put in the effort and the time and don't try to "go pro" until your skills warrant it. Learn the business and all the posing tips and lighting skills first. Learn all the sports tricks and gather up equipment and advice like crazy. Backup shoot on weddings before attempting to be a lead shooter. Then practice, practice, practice and take the time to learn the business of photography before jumping in with both feet. Yes, it takes time. But your reputation - and the reputation of the entire field - is more important than making a few bucks just to please the wife - or your ego. Because in the end, it only drags down your own reputation and the reputation of your chosen field if you fail to produce less than professional results. (And reputation is far more important than equipment in this business.) Make sure you have enough knowledge about photography to realize what you don't know about photography.

Rule of Thumb: I've written the following advice many times in the past, but it still remains true. If you have to ask "How much should I charge?" than you shouldn't be charging at all. Because someone who has the most rudimentary experience at the professional level will already know the answer to that question. (And the plumber? He don't ask that question - he just sends you the bill.) All kidding aside, it really is the key to any trades biz: If you don't know what to charge, then you ain't ready to be charging.

Gut check time: So now, if you decide to go ahead anyway and undercut the market just to get a start, you will know why the real pros may be less than cooperative - even hostile towards you - both online and in person. And, you can ask yourself this question: How would you feel if someone set up shop in your chosen profession without the knowledge, training, insurance, equipment and hard work that you have put in over the years. And they are offering cut-rate prices to your clients. How would you respond?

Bottom Line: Dabbling in a professional field is not a victimless crime.
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