Six Things You Should Never Say to a Photographer (Or, if You’re a Photographer, Never Say to Yourself!)

Kiska Barking at the Window

Kiska Barking (c)2013 Soraya Rudofsky 

by Soraya Rudofsky and Hillary Rettig

It’s never easy to be a creator, or creative professional, but in the age of ubiquitous camera-phones, photographers have it particularly rough. Photographers, how often have you heard someone say one of these:

1. “Photography’s easy, because the camera does all the work.”

2. “Photography’s not a real art like painting or sculpting where you need to build your skills. For photography you just need a good eye.”

3. “You take such great pictures–you must have a great camera.”

4. “Could you take the pictures at our next family reunion?” (Alt: “Please bring your camera to my five-year-old’s birthday party that I invited you and your child to attend.”)

5. “It must be easy to run a photography business.”

6. “You don’t have a degree, so you’re not really a professional.”

These misconceptions are all around us, and they can do a number on our self-esteem as artists and professionals. They reflect not just a naivete about the realities of photography and photo businesses, but perfectionism, which causes us to oversimplify and deprecate both the creative process itself and the work of building a sustainable creative business.

Here’s the truth about photography and photographic businesses:

*A camera is only a tool that the photographer uses to realize her creative vision, just as painters use paintbrushes and paint to realize theirs. All artists use tools.

Moreover, most photographers work hard. A photographer might take twenty photos (or, in some cases, hundreds of photos) of the same thing using different angles, composition, lighting, apertures, lenses, etc., until they find the combination that works. Moreover, the chances are that the photo you see on the wall has been carefully edited with extreme attention to detail to achieve the final look (and this doesn’t mean Instagram filters).

Non-professionals might point-and-shoot, or at most adjust their camera to a pre-set like Portrait or Landscape, but that barely touches the surface of the camera’s use as a tool. Most professional photographers spend a lot of time learning the nuances of how to see, and how to use their camera to record what they see.

*Photographers spend years not just mastering lighting, composition, and other shooting skills, but developing their vision. Which is why…

*A good photographer can take a better picture with a bad camera than a bad photographer can take with a good one.

*It’s no more a compliment to ask a photographer to work for free than it is to ask a doctor, lawyer, etc. Sure, the photographer will probably be glad you like his work, and he may be happy to volunteer once in a while. But his time and talent are valuable and, in the case of professionals, the means by which he makes a living. If you wouldn’t ask a baker for free bread, or the hardware store for free hammers, you shouldn’t ask a photographer for free photographs.

*No business is easy, including businesses that “look easy.” Moreover, many professional photographers earn at least part of their living photographing weddings and other events, which is about the most high pressure gig of all. (Imagine coping with frazzled brides and grooms—not to mention, their families—week after week!)

Most photography businesses fail within the first year.  For an excellent graphic showing the realities of the photographic industry, click here.

*Degrees are irrelevant. While there are excellent degree programs out there, many great photographers, including Ansel Adams, Herb Ritz, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, were mainly self-taught. In photography, as in many other fields, degrees are a perfectionist “fetish”–a relentless, but ultimately meaningless, focus for perfectionist self-criticism.

(Please note we’re talking about degrees, not training! Training is very valuable to photographers as it is to artists of all sorts.)

The above misconceptions do hold a lot of photographers back, so it would be great if all photographers would do their part in: (a) making sure they themselves are absolutely clear on the truth of the situation, and (b) pushing back (gently!) on the misconceptions when they do encounter them. That would make life easier for all photographers.

There’s also another set of problems that hold photographers back—perfectionism and traumatic rejections. We’ll discuss those in a followup article.

Update: Thanks for the positive feedback! This post on Coping with Clueless Questions, Crass Comments, and Crazy Conjectures should also help you when faced with the many naive judges out there!

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