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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Making sense out of visual clutter

One of the most difficult things about street photography is cutting through all the visual clutter so that you're just left with the essence of the story.

The weekly Saturday market in the small Himalayan town of Namche in Nepal is the perfect example of this. A thriving hub of traders, locals, tourists and animals produce a cacophony of noise and photogenic subjects everywhere you look.

The trick is to slow yourself down a bit, settle in one place and just watch what is going on around you. Many people make the mistake of using a wide-angle lens to try and fit everything into the one frame.

The problem is that the more subjects you have in one picture the more the impact of that picture gets diluted. Take out a short to medium telephoto lens and concentrate on one or two things at a time.

In this case I really liked the colours and action of this chilli seller. I did a couple of things to get the viewer to look where I want them. Firstly I used a long lens just concentrate just on the seller, the chillis and the buyers. Secondly I chose an angle where the sun was hitting the main part of the picture. Your eye tends to gravitate towards the brightest part of the picture so you want to make sure that whatever it is you want to make people look at is bright.

And to really emphasise that I created a natural spotlight effect by looking for an angle where the highlit subjects were surrounded by shadows so the eye wasn't led out of the frame. Was I thinking about all of this while I was photographing? Not consciously, but sub-consciously I was looking through the viewfinder at all the ways I could improve the picture. Walking around left and right until I got an angle that supported the image I saw in my mind.

All around these people are hundred of other people, stalls and goings-on. I zeroed in on this particular person and ignored everything else. They could wait for the next photo.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Don't forget the little details

As travel photographers our task is to tell the stories of the places we visit. But as photographers we tend to get caught up in the vicious circle of trying to create the greatest piece of photography ever seen.

It's pretty hard not to be influenced by all the great imagery we see in our favourite magazines, on websites and on TV.

But as story tellers our job is much more than grabbing the 'wow' shots. We also need to take notice of the little details and show them to our viewers so that they get a full appreciation of the places we visit.

This image here was taken at the Jantar Mantar observatory in Rajasthan, India. The site is home to giant structures used to predict the passage of the stars and I took lots of wide-angle images showing the giant structures. But they were just pictures of large structures that looked very impressive but didn't really tell the story of what their purpose was.

To tell that story I had to look for a place where the sun and shadow met. Where the measurements were taken and used to make their predictions. So I hunted around for a place where the sun showed how the instruments worked. Looking closely at one of the giant sun dials I found a shadow across a set of measured carvings and the Hindi character for one - Ek. At least I'm pretty sure that's what it is - maybe some of our Indian friends can tell us if I'm right.

Anyway this shot says far more about how the instruments would have been used but of itself is not a 'wow' picture. It's just a good story telling one that helps tell the complete tale to the viewer. So before you leave a place after only photographing the big moments, take another walk around and look for some little details that will help you tell a complete travel story.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Zoom lenses vs primes

Back when I first started photography there wasn't a hell of a lot of talk about megapixels :) There was a lot of talk, however, about the benefits of using prime lenses over zoom lenses.

In those days zoom lenses were a lot slower and the quality was certainly a bit dodgy. But they had some advantages, one of them being that you could change your focal length without having to actually physically move forward or backward.

Now if you're in a studio or somewhere where there's a lot of space around you to move then that's probably not much of a concern. But when you're 15 feet above the ground on the back of an elephant and there's a very large rhinoceros at your feet - well you can't move much, the elephant probably doesn't want to and the rhino definitely doesn't. (actually we heard a rumour he was chained there for the benefit of tourists! Just joking)

This was taken in Royal Chitwan National Park in the Sauraha region of Nepal. It was my first time out on elephant back and I wasn't really sure how close we could be expected to get to the animals so I put my 400mm on - just to be safe. Well as you can see it got me very, very close. Probably a little too close for my liking. I would have liked to have had a bit more room to move and so a zoom would have been a lot better in this case.

With the modern zooms being not only fast (the expensive ones are all a constant f2.8) but incredibly sharp, for the travelling photographer there's probably not much need to use prime lenses unless they're specialty ones. Some photographers swear by their 85mm f1.2 lenses for their shallow depth of field and beautiful portraits, others carry a small, fast 50mm for dark situations. But as our cameras go to higher and higher ISO's with hardly any noise the argument for needing a fast lens for darker situations is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

With your zoom lenses the faster you can afford the better. And the longer the lens the faster you want it. So for a wide-angle zoom you might be able to get away with a slower lens (say f3.5 to f4.5) but as your lenses get longer the extra light gathering capabilities of faster lenses (f4 or f2.8) will be worth their weight in picture opportunities. Many travel photographers (including myself) carry a kit of 3 zoom lenses - super wide-angle (16-35mm), medium zoom (28-70mm) and telephoto zoom (70-200mm).

Oh and I still carry my 400mm wherever I go -just in case I run into another chained up rhino!