What does it mean to be a photographer?
Since the first invention of the camera heralding the birth of photography, many millions of people have created their own images using an ever growing number of cameras, lenses and now mobile phones. We now live in an age where taking photographs is the same as brushing your teeth or sending an email. Photography is all around us, from the magazines we read, the clothes we buy, the TV programmes we watch, we are saturated by images, but what does it mean to be a photographer? The first step to answering that question must be another question, what defines a photographer. If we take for granted that everyone is taking pictures on their phones or cameras then there is a photographer in everyone of us. If we take the view that those who make their living from photography as a definition of a photographer then we could perhaps struggle again as many people sell images they took on their mobile phones. The definition must be whittled down to just those who work in the photographic industry if we are to have any chance in answering our original question.
What does it mean to be a photographer? It means different things to different people. For the man who has just joined the photographic industry it means a lot to hold the title photographer. To the seasoned pro the title means very little if he can’t earn a living from his trade. To me the question can best be answered by the one word statement – quality.
A photographer who takes pictures that the world population want to see, because those images are informative, educational or just pleasing to look at will be proud to be called a photographer if his images are regarded by his peers as high quality. True photographers strive for high quality images, therefore everyone else who takes pictures could generally be called ‘snappers’, in that they snap a picture with little thought or regard to quality.
What skills do you need?
A high degree of technical ability. Anyone could take a great photograph on any camera device, a good photographer consistently takes good photographs. Its one thing to know you’ve taken a good picture, its another to understand why its a good picture. Understanding your camera and its limitations, its strengths and weaknesses is essential to being a good photographer. If you are to be a commercial photographer then one set of skills you will need is how to run a business.
If a photographer is not making a living from his or her art, in other words a hobbyist – enthusiast, then many of these business skills are not needed nearly as much. Whilst for many years I did fit into this category I found as my photography improved, inevitably, I was asked to undertake even the simplest of commissions.
Whilst “doing a favour” for someone has its own rewards, ‘clients’ expect professional results even if they aren’t paying for them. Refusing to be out of pocket I started charging. I had only one potential ‘client’ say to me “that’s an expensive quote after all you’re not a real photographer” (referring to my amateur status at the time). Needless to say I didn’t take his commission even though he was convinced he was doing me a favour by giving the job to me for the experience.
So the first skill I learnt was learning when to say no.
Next was pricing up a commission. This is a difficult task as the client will have a budget for the job even if it’s a ridiculously small one. The temptation is to accept what’s offered. Carefully assessing the actual work required is needed and thus estimating what the value of the job actually is and what the cost and value was to me kept me one step ahead. Never be afraid to cut the job down if the money on offer is too low for the whole job. If the client won’t spend a penny more, its sometimes better to walk away. I also learned a valuable lesson, if you charge an unprofessional fee the client will always expect just to pay you your unprofessional fee, disregarding any changes to the size, quality and quantity of the work . Unfortunately there will always be a ‘weekend warrior’ who will take the fee that’s offered.
Interpretation of the brief was the next skill to master. In this skill set I learnt to ask lots of questions. Unless I completely understood exactly what the photographs are to be used for I would never be able to fully complete the brief. Problems always arose when the client realises half way through the shoot that the brief doesn’t actually achieve what they were after. You are then put in the awkward position of renegotiating during the shoot or completing the extended shoot for no extra money.
If you are actively looking for work then marketing is a skill to learn. Labelling every print, digital image, invoice and quote sheet with your details is a must. Having your own website also will gain you commissions as it’s a quick and easy way for clients to see your previous work. Having only your best work on your website though is a must.
Maintaining quality control on your work is a must and if you use a contract printer get to know them and the quirks of their printing methods. Understanding how they print, what machine they use and what brand of chemicals and paper will give you a ‘heads up’ on any print errors to watch out for. Being able to identify exhausted chemical signs is also a skill I learned along with colour balance.
Ensuring that all your best work is backed up at least three times on three separate media is an underestimated skill set. I keep one backup hard drive off site so even if my house burns down I still have all my best images safe.
There is nothing worse than being contacted by a past client for an urgent re print and not being able to find the image, so a fool proof cataloguing system is also a skill to master. Mine are filed by date, subject and client details. I also keep a copy file of everything the client has received.
If you work with models the photographers patter (the dialogue between photographer and model) is a skill to learn. Being respectful and well mannered whilst pushing the model to work that bit harder takes a lot of practice. Models more than anyone else talk to others in the business and will promote you if they enjoyed working with you. If they have examples of your work in their portfolio then potential new clients will see your work with little effort from yourself. Being disrespectful or ‘sleazy’ to a model will get you a bad reputation which will stick like chewing gum on a shoe, you’ll never get rid of it completely.
Over time I became a diplomat, learning when to be forceful and stick to my guns and when not to be and be more flexible.
As my commissions grew larger I learnt to time manage. Deadlines don’t move except in exceptional circumstances and that generally is only when the client has completely under estimated the work involved and therefore got it wrong. Negotiation of the contract is key and it is essential you understand fully in advance of starting what you are required to do to complete it as whatever you’ve agreed to in the contract is what you must deliver.
The more experienced I became the better I got at trouble shooting. I adopted many phrases to constantly remind myself that ‘what could go wrong will go wrong’. (Murphy’s Law), I left nothing to chance.
The best phrase I’d happily pass onto anyone is “Never assume”. For example if you don’t know for sure that the new model knows where your studio is, don’t just assume she’ll find you, assume she won’t and will be late. The knock on effect could throw a very busy schedule out of the window, let alone the effort of trying to work with a stressed model. Therefore a quick phone call the day before to check she knows where and when she’s expected and what to bring will resolve that potential disaster.
Clients don’t accept excuses and they don’t like paying for failure. If you failed because the client got it wrong you might get another booking from them and you should still get paid. If you failed because you got it wrong, don’t expect a cheque or a flood of work afterwards. Clients will recommend good photographers and have been known to warn their clients about bad ones therefore maintaining a good professional reputation is essential for your success.
Equipment failure is another example of Murphy’s Law in action. On nearly all my still shoots I double up on all the important equipment so if failure of a battery or a camera body or a lens occurs I’m prepared for it and can switch immediately to my backups. Trying to wrestle with a piece of gear that won’t play ball for more than a few minutes gives a bad impression especially if you can’t fix it.
All good photographers need accountants as the other person you’ll encounter who is never wrong is the tax man. Good record and bookkeeping is therefore vital.
A good understanding of the minefield called copyright is also a skill to acquire. Under English law the photographer owns all his or her images irrespective if the client has commissioned them. The client has legal rights to use the photographs as they hired you to take them so spelling out your terms and conditions at the start gets you both off to a good beginning as you will know where each other stands.
The skills of a photographer are many and varied, but the most important skill is leadership. Being able to make correct calculated judgements and decisions not only in your picture taking but in your choice of help, sub contractors and agents will lead you to better jobs and clients and a fun and enjoyable career.
What are the similarities and differences between photographers and artists?
The similarities are obvious as both use exactly the same artist rules of composition, light and colour with which to amaze anyone who views their work.
The difference is only in the medium they chose to use, for one a camera the other a pen or pencil.