I’ve been pondering this piece for a while and wanted to share my thoughts on what may well be an emotive subject. To be truthful I’ve avoided writing it, the perceptions I’m about to share may be flawed or just plain biased by my own path through photography. However I think I have a point or three, and invite your responses in the comments should you have an opinion either way.
For now I’m going to use the terms ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ in the conventional manner, as I see it in the photographic arena. An amateur is usually seen as a hobby photographer who by association is often perceived as learning the craft whereas a professional has ‘got there’, is making a living from photography and is looked up to by others as a skilled creative who has mastered the craft.
Many photographic competitions affirm this distinction by excluding professionals in the belief that they will have an unfair advantage over amateurs and their inclusion may even dissuade some amateurs from taking part. To add to the kudos that a pro photographer is often held in, their signature and validation is often accepted on judicial or official documents alongside doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Indeed I’ve been asked to witness signatures on important documents in my ‘position’ as a professional photographer on many occasions but in truth I’ve no letters behind my name and my only official qualifications are 7 ‘O’ levels and a certificate that shows that I’ve completed a permaculture design course!
No room for sloppy technique
Once upon a time perhaps the pro photographer did have a creative edge over most amateurs. In the days of film there was no room for sloppy technique or guesswork when it came to the technically demanding aspects of photography. The fact that pros could constantly refine their skills at the expense of clients helped keep them one step ahead of the masses. Indeed ‘masses’ is not a word that could be applied to photography back then.
When I was learning the craft I had to invest all of my spare money and more besides in film and processing. Every 12 or 36 shots depending on the camera I used left me not much change from a tenner meaning that I had to really learn the craft and not rely on guesswork. Clients would be none too happy to receive lots of bracketed images, they wanted the minimum film cost and the maximum number of usable images from every shoot.
Back in the days of film a photographer really had to have mastered photography to have any chance of making a living from it. Competition was nowhere near as tough as is today so the need to be a red hot marketer and all round competent business manager wasn’t as essential. Once a photographer had proved his skills a client would stay loyal, at least until a photographer who’s face fitted better and was equally talented knocked on their door. Back in the ’90’s I was seen by several of my London editorial clients as their Scotland photographer, and me living in Lancashire!
A sea change
The digital revolution brought with it a sea change in the professional realm. No longer are there large material costs involved in practising and refining photographic skills. Photographers can choose to spend lots of time learning and perfecting the techniques and then simply delete failed images after evaluating them and taking whatever lessons were presented. Also, to be truthful, it isn’t all that necessary to master the technical stuff any longer. The image review function available on digital cameras means we can leave a shoot knowing we’ve got the shots in the bag and can have taken lots of failures along the way to get there. This single change in the photographic process opened the floodgates and changed the marketplace for everyone.
Now competition is rife. Most photographers can produce marketable images thanks to equipment advances and the market knows this, as a result prices have been driven down. What a photographer needs now to make it as a professional is to be a sharp and savvy marketer, to have an intimate understanding of social media manipulation and to have the charisma to rise to the top and consistently win the attention of clients. It’s possible to earn a living of sorts without the depth of knowledge that was essential a few years ago. Of course I’m not berating this change, it is what it is and I for one am happy that more and more folk can find pleasure in the craft.
The thing is, a photographer doesn’t necessarily need to be a masterful photographer to be considered a professional and this is very obvious in the realms of workshop photography whether online, in the classroom or on location. Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not dissing professional photographers in general, it’s simply a fact of the modern day marketplace. The viewpoint that professional photographers are technically, or techniquely competent is an illusion and anyone who assumes they are good photographers simply because they are making some of their living from it is deluded.
I know professionals who don’t understand what photographic infinity is, how aperture changes depth of field, why hyperfocal distance matters, what stops are or what are safe shutter speeds for handheld work never mind the more perceptual aspects of conveying the message and story within images. With luck, perseverance, a thick skin and plenty of memory cards it’s perfectly possible to come up with ok images without being intimately familiar with any of this stuff. However this does not make for a craftsman, this does not make an artful photographer who can change perceptions and evoke emotional responses.
Strong words I know, but bear with me here. So many amateurs who I meet venerate professionals and see it as a hierarchical thing, something to aspire to and this saddens me. I know many ‘amateur’ photographers who’s skills, passion and connection to subject and craft blow many pros out of the water and for me these elements are the ones to strive for. I’ve been a professional photographer for over 30 years and I’m constantly coming across non-professionals who happily call themselves amateurs from whom I can learn lots.
To pursue photography for nothing more than the image or the process is so much purer, inspiring and nurturing than taking photos just for money. In fact it is the so called amateurs who constantly impress me with a hunger to improve, a desire to tell stories and a passion to portray their vision to a watching world. These are the ones who are doing the work, who are pushing the boundaries and standing on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before.
Jack of All Trades
A professional has to be a jack of all trades in order to survive with photography coming surprisingly low on the list of skills necessary to make it. Having said that a passionate photographer will always stand out in the marketplace as that passion will show through in their images as long as they know how to blow their own trumpet. Discerning clients are hungry for ‘real’ imagery created with character and style, however without the necessary skills, or funds to buy in specialists for web design, copywriting, social media engagement, client segmentation and web funnel management, even the very best creatives will sink below the noise of those less able photographers who truly grasp these necessary clan building skills.
Due to the pressures of making a living many pros are constantly frustrated and need to turn their attention to subjects that don’t inspire in order to pay the bills. By the time the workday is done they often have no creative juices left and personal projects never come to fruition. The Muse turns her back and stagnation sets in until a creative crisis strikes and perhaps then something will change.
Contrast this with non-professionals, or amateurs as they are often called who see their photography as an escape, a way to step away from the everyday, the mundane world and the monetarily driven career path. Their photography is their life, but in a different way, without expectation and with nothing but the image envisioned as the end result. This leads to a much healthier creative life compared to needing it to bring home a paycheck.
Telling the Stories
Years ago, whenever I was asked for advice on becoming a professional I would suggest doing away with the safety net of another job. ‘Just jump’ I would say… ‘give it your all and if you have no safety net you will have to make it work’. I truly believe that was the right advice for way back then. Not anymore though. My advice has mellowed somewhat. ‘Shoot just for you not your market’ is what I tell folk now. The ability to tell stories is what truly matters and that comes from a depth of engagement that goes beyond mere money. The driving force needs to be an unstoppable need to create photos and worthwhile clients will see this. Learning the aforementioned marketing skills are also essential and this can often dissuade photographers who merely want to become better and more fulfilled creatives.
Fortunately for the future of photography I see more and more amateurs devoting blood, sweat and tears to their craft and along the way they are creating images that few professionals have the time, money or headspace to envision. Art for art’s sake. The Muse sees this and she likes it.