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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

On professional photography and bun fights

So it seems I inadvertently walked into a fight at the OK Corral. At the start of the week I retweeted a post by photography blogger Scott Bourne entitled 'And you call yourself a professional?'

In this post he talks about how selling your photography services cheaply can degrade not only your own image, but the photographic industry as a whole. I thought he made some very good points and so sent the message on to my followers.

I then got a DM from one of my followers asking if I'd seen the original post that he was referencing. Well I hadn't so I went and had a read of it here. If you scroll down you can see the comment that I made.

All the stuff about insulting messages and non-professional behaviour etc doesn't interest me in the least. I'm too far away, don't know any of the people concerned and at the end of the day it's not really any of my concern.

But the original argument is. The argument that just by buying a camera and charging money (any money) for your services allows you to call yourself a professional. That attitude is so far from the heart and soul of what it means to be a 'professional' photographer that it's not funny.

I'm always bemused at the number of people who think that just because they like photography that they should make it their job. Why the need to make money from it? I can't think of any other 'hobby' where people sometimes glibly just decide to try their hand at it as a way of making money. Car racing? Nup. Tennis? Nope. A musical instrument maybe? Lots but I would bet not nearly as many as photography.

But putting that little curiosity aside I realise that there are people who absolutely love photography and that influences their decision to turn pro. But I wonder how many people who decide to follow that path actually truly love the BUSINESS of photography. The making money part. The bit that sustains their desire to take beautiful pictures. Because I understand the obsession with photography, I really do. Hell I've been doing this for close to 15 years and love it as much as the day I started. I'm sure I'll be buried with a camera in my hand!

But here's the thing. It might be your greatest passion in life, that click of the shutter. You might think about photography from the morning until the night but unless you're charging enough money to make a living you're going to burn out.

The stress of wondering where the next dollar is coming from will lead you to hate the camera. You won't be living to create beautiful art but scraping from one low paying job to the next wondering when you'll get your next break.

Now we all have different standards of living and live in different parts of the world so I'm not saying here that we all have to charge thousands of dollars per day. But we all have to charge at the very bare minimum ENOUGH for ourselves to survive - let alone thrive. We owe it to our internal muse who is cheering us on from the sidelines. The inspiration within us that wants us to create beautiful pictures.

But it doesn't stop there. In the world of instant-access information we get to hear the voices of photographers from all around the world. And increasingly I've noticed this attitude of 'well I'm doing OK so f%$k the rest of you'. I live in a pretty small town and there are a lot of photographers. And yes they're my competition but they're also colleagues. Other photographers aren't the enemy, they're colleagues. Brothers and Sisters. What you do to them you do to yourself.

So you charge less than everybody else to get more work, but you're not charging enough to make a big enough profit to live on. You do great work but the hours you put into creating beautiful photography doesn't pay enough. And so you crash and burn on take off. In lowering the fees you charge you have also lowered the general perception of what good photography costs. When you do that you hurt your 'colleagues'.

I know the general mood seems to be 'what do I care if somebody else's business fails, they just couldn't compete.' Well I just don't think it's good karma to think like that. Why should they have to compete with somebody who's not pricing sensibly? Why should they be forced to treat their own talents as a commodity to be sold to the lowest bidder? I know I couldn't sleep at night knowing that by not charging enough for myself to succeed in my photography business I had inadvertently caused somebody else (a colleague) to go out of business. Remember what we do to others we also do to ourselves.

Now remember I'm not talking here about charging less because you have a smaller overhead and can afford to, and still make enough money to live on. That's called good business sense. I'm talking about deliberately charging either less money than you're spending, or only marginally more but not enough to live on. In other words you're low-balling to get work. Creating good work but not profitably.

I sincerely wish everybody who wants to become a professional photographer all the best of luck. I truly hope you succeed in creating your dreams and get to take beautiful pictures every day for the rest of your life. The more you create and share with the world the more the rest of us get to enjoy wonderful images.

But if it means you're going to charge such little amounts of money that you don't succeed in your business venture, and in doing so you lower the perceived value of this amazing art form in the eyes of our clients (and possibly take other colleagues down with you) ...well you know what. I really do believe it would be better for you to look at other ways of making money and feeding your photography passion in a non-professional way.

Have gallery shows, put on slideshows for local senior citizens, enter contests all around the world, gather a million followers on Twitter and Flickr. Because mixing photography and commerce is not for everybody and there's no shame in that. You don't have to make money off it just to feel like a real photographer.

If you don't feel good enough to charge the kind of money you need to survive now then practice religiously until you are good enough and then start charging it. Don't work your way up to it by charging less than what you need to. Be as good as you can be before you take the plunge, then when you do you'll be confident in charging what you need to survive.

Professional photography is a calling. If it's your vocation it really is something you can't not do. But it's a different ballgame from being passionate about photography alone. The desire to take beautiful photographs and the desire to make money from taking beautiful photographs are two entirely different things. To truly make it as a professional you need to go in with your eyes wide open to the difference.


Anonymous said...

Good post Paul. Makes complete sense to me, and I doubt you will cause the same furore that Scott did!

Anonymous said...

Nicely put, Paul. The business side of things is a totally different ball game, one that not everyone is cut-out for. All the best for 2010.

Albie said...

Hi Paul,

As you already know I am a regular reader of your blog cause I find it informative and useful in my photography life too. Drawing on your insightful musings and everything.

I completely whole heartedly with you about what you have written in the article. I also wrote an article back in october looking at the industry from another direction... from it's publisher and content purchasers...


I think as an industry we are underselling ourselves to a great extent. I have a common problem where I have various organisers and promoters getting in touch with me to get photos at no cost in return for 'full credit' and to be used in their promo material.

At the end of the day, its the kid who's rich parents has bought them an DSLR for xmas who can now go to various outlets and say I can take photos for you for little or no money. This is the practice that has to be stopped by media outlets.

Paul Dymond said...

Thanks jonny and fotofugitive. I hope the post was logical and non-insulting. I just wanted to say that just because you love photography doesn'tean you have to make money from it. But If you do decide to make it your profession that maybe you have a responsibility to your colleagues as well.

Paul Dymond said...

Albie, great comments as always. To tell you the truthI don't know what the answer is for clients who prefer cheap or free. If the work is good it's sometimes hard to convince clients they should pay you. Providing brilliant customer service on top of great photography is probably the best and somtimes only option if it's hard to differentiate yourself visually alone. Who knows where it will all end.