Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A career as a professional photographer

Boys playing on a sea-saw in South Africa. This shot has been in my portfolio for a long time. It has won numerous awards and been in exhibitions all over the world. So now as I glance back over my shoulder at where I've come from it seems an opportune time to show it here.

Best Viewed On Black

EPUK has published a great article which ties in with my previous blog. The article asks ten top photographers, "What do you wish you'd known when you started out ?"

I wish I'd known that things are not always fair and that taking good images is not enough. I also wish I had known how kind and wonderful people are all over the world. It seems the less people have the more generous they are, and often happier. I also wish I had known that I didn't need to buy most of the cameras and lenses that are sitting in my studio. I would have saved a fortune.

I highly recommend reading this article.


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Is professional photography still a viable career?

I am not against amateurs and semi-professionals selling their photography. It's a great way to earn some extra cash. However I am concerned about the level of high quality published work and the standards that clients and the public accept these days.

It seems that just about everyone is a photographer. The line between amateur enthusiast and professional is fuzzy to say the least.

Photography enthusiasts are selling their images through stock libraries and microstock websites, directly to magazines or through their own and third party sites. They're accepting commissions to shoot weddings, being hired to shoot for magazines and selling fine art prints from their websites. They're teaching photography on the weekend and guiding photographic holidays and safaris.

Photography became accessible to the masses with the first non-expert cameras and the famous Kodak slogan"You press the button, we do the rest." The digital camera age has taken the whole thing to a new level of democratisation. Automation and user-friendly, so called idiot proof modes mean that photographers can get decent looking results under most circumstances.

Companies and organisations that previously employed professional photographers to shoot their brochures, directors' portraits for annual reports and images for corporate magazines now increasingly rely on the ubiquitous staff member who is a photography enthusiast, a dab hand in Photoshop and has the latest digital SLR.

Inevitably the results are not that great. But does it matter? I work with a few of the leading business communication agencies in the UK and despite the protestations of the graphic designers the clients say they've not got the budget for professional photography. The poor quality snap by the staff member will have to do.

What happens is that the photographic content often becomes a mixture between, staff generated images and a perhaps one or two features shot by a professional.

The quality of photography in corporate brochures and magazines is often appalling and the trade press is not much better. To keep costs down they often rely on advertisers and PRs to provide images. Out come the company photo enthusiast's pictures again. And nobody seems to notice or mind.

This goes through to the serious press as well. The reputation for superb photography once held by the UK broadsheets is more than a little tarnished. The glory days of great photojournalism are over. Now newspapers are sending out journalists with HD video cameras and extracting stills for print. They're also increasingly asking journalists to take their own pictures.

On the subject of image quality. I recently read about a stock library that closed its doors after more than 20 years of trading. The reason. They couldn't get a fair price for the high quality images they stocked. The Managing Director said that clients just didn't value quality anymore and their commercial model appeared to no longer be viable.

I've seen agencies at work and know first hand that if they can buy an image for a dollar on a microstock site they are going to put up with lower quality, the client doesn't seem to mind (tight budgets), and they're not going to hunt for a top quality rights managed image.

A professional photographer in the UK earns an average of £19K per year. I've just had a look on some job websites and seen adverts for photographers at a national chain of portrait studios. The advertised salary, £12K per year ie not that much above minimum wage.

Professional photographers rates have not really increased much over the last years. But they're working harder than ever. Long hours, that they cannot charge a decent rate for, spent at the computer processing images diminish their time available for administration, marketing, sales and photography. Actually professional photographers spend very little of their day taking pictures. Most of the time they're in front of screens now just like any corporate worker.

How about social photography. Let's take a look at the traditional portrait studios. The high streets are now dotted with chain stores where portraits are churned out using a standard formula. The pictures all look the same with bright white backgrounds and here and there a bit of tarting up with a Photoshop effect. There is no individuality or creative vision. They seem to be giving the public what they want though.

Many professional photographers supplement their income with other work, for example shooting video, writing, giving seminars and coaching amateurs. Competition is fierce, not only from other pros but also from amateurs and students who are prepared to work for next to nothing.

Yes you can still make good money as a photographer if you find the right niche. Only a very, very few will get rich. Still, when surveyed most photographers said they wouldn't want to change their job. I suppose photography is a bit like the priesthood. It's a calling and a lifestyle more than a career.

Many of the professional photographers that I admire are more interested in what they can achieve through using the medium to communicate than in photography itself. People like Yann Athrus-Bertrand and Jim Nachtwey want to communicate with us about the state our planet and humanity.

I think professional photography is still a viable career if you do it for the love of the work. On the other hand the daily grind may well kill your passion for the medium. I know of a few photographers who are now enjoying photography for the first time in a long while after giving it up as a profession.

So if like many of my friends you get that far away look in your eye when you say the words "professional photographer" and you harbour romantic notions of the lifestyle then I would suggest taking a deep breath and having a good think about it. Of course most people who say they would like to turn pro will never actually take the step.

What are the differences between an enthusiast and a pro? The enthusiast takes pictures because they want to and they like it. The pro takes photographs to put food on the table. That sharpens up their instincts and they try harder to produce excellent images. The good professional photographers produce work is way ahead of what amateurs do. That's a fact. If you don't believe me visit a few pro sites or agencies and then afterwards trawl through the pages on Flickr. It's two different worlds, photographically speaking and to be fair the people who upload their images on photo-sharing sites have no pretensions about their images. They are just sharing their photography for everyone's enjoyment.

What about me? Well I've not done too badly. Every day is a challenge and I'm hungry to improve my photography. This article is an attempt to share some of my experience and present a frank appraisal of professional photography as a career. You'll have to forgive me if I gently raise an eyebrow if we meet in the street and you gush about wanting to be a professional.

I'd be delighted to read your comments.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A site for professionals

Have you got 20 minutes, well better make that a few hours? Take a look at a relatively new site (www.rank.aphotoeditor.com) that features the work of many top professional photographers.

Anyone can sign up. You don't have to submit your own work, you can vote for the photographers who have submitted their portfolios or act as a photo editor and submit your own favourite professional photographers.

I've submitted a portfolio of my "most interesting" images on Flickr and I will be submitting my website once it's had a revamp, which it definitely needs again. Got to keep things fresh in this fast moving world.

So go on, check it out and have fun.


Thursday, November 15, 2007

Design in photography #3

A canal near Damme, in Belgium, provides the perfect landscape to create a strong design statement in photography.

I've written two articles on using design in photography, here and here, and I said I would be adding to the series. Unfortunately I never got round to writing more but I hope this image illustrates several of the points I made in the earlier articles.

There's a rather strange phenomenon that happens. I look back at what I've written some time ago and somehow it seems fresh and I discover things that I'd not thought about for a while. This is exactly what happened when I re-read my articles on design in photography this evening.

As the readership of this blog keeps growing, at a quite phenomenal rate, I'm sure that some of you will not have read these articles and hopefully you will discover something of value in them that can be applied to your own photography.

So in the best tradition of TV re-runs here they are once again:
Design in photography 1
Design in photography 2

By the way you can catch up with some of my other new work on my Flickr account.


Monday, November 05, 2007

A day in the life of a portrait photographer

This couple came to our studio for a portrait and I just knew something special was going to happen.

She was very bossy. If you've ever seen the English TV sitcom Hyacinth Bucket, well that's exactly how she was. The real Hyacinth. Everything had to be the best and most expensive.

Eventually she fell under the spell of my irresistible wit and cracked up with laughter, and I got my shot. Actually come to think of it it was probably Magda's wit as I tend to go fairly quiet during photo-shoots.

Her dress was very expensive but didn't quite fit, which she was really annoyed about. So Magda used washing pegs on the back of the dress to make it fit, an old fashion photographers' trick.

Oh by the way the flower thing was 'Hyacinth's' idea. Credit where credit is due...

Hope the image makes you smile.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

My 20 most interesting on Flickr

Flickr uses links, tags, who's commented and made your image a favourite to rank images according to interestingness. These are my 20 most interesting images according to Flickr, of the pictures I've uploaded so far.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

Do photo 'enthusiasts' really want to learn?

"I don't have an expensive cameras and software to manipulate my images," says one photography enthusiast in reply to a critique of their image. The faults I spotted were basic exposure and framing. Things you could get right on the most simple of cameras with a bit of care and attention.

But many amateurs snap away, upload their pictures to the net and then expect to have plaudits heaped on them for their fantastic images. And they do get lots of awards and praise for the most appalling rubbish. Social networking can do that for you. Praise enough people and they will come back and praise you. It would seem that many have a desperate need for applause no matter how hollow and empty.

Either that or a good deal of the online photo community is on happy pills or delusional. So what happens when a photographer with a bit of experience, who has suffered the stinging critiques of editors, curators and other far better photographers writes a simple honest critique on a photo enthusiast's picture? The response is defensive. The enthusiast blames his equipment, lack of time, experience, knowledge...any excuse will do.

The truth is that we all make crap pictures from time to time. But if you choose to show your picture to the world and ask for an honest opinion, write that you want to learn and that you are passionate about photography; then when somebody does take the time to offer a positive critique have the grace to take it on the chin. It's not always pleasant but most of those who dare to offer an honest opinion are actually trying to help. A far better endeavor I would think than someone patting your back in the hope you will pat theirs.

My conclusion is that there are photo enthusiasts who genuinely want to learn and there are those that do not seek knowledge, who do not really want to improve. If you're reading this you probably belong to that minority that does want to learn and I'm preaching to the converted again. Never mind. I feel better for getting this off my chest and so should you. The competition to be a really good photographer is far less than you thought.