Why photographers can't rely on technical excellence.

When I was writing my book I was naturally worried about a potential negative comments and feedback.  So it was a relief when the  first challenge came in a fair, well written, and well meaning comment from Pete Sherrard. With his permission I’ve reproduced his comments here, and I’d like to address them.

Perhaps if you put a link explaining how you know what it means to be a photographer you might get more sales?

If you go to the Amazon page, the ‘look inside’ feature just shows the part in the book where you explain that the only photo in the whole book is an out of focus snap shot of your camera bag on the front cover. 

Although the review in the above link implies that this is the best photography book since Susan Sontag’s On Photography, (and who amongst any of us would dare to argue with such a high claim?) you don’t actually explain what the book is really about or how you have any knowledge of what it is to be a photographer. 

In an age were every one has a camera that is more than capable of recording information to a National Geographic standard, just owning a DSLR doesn’t make everyone a photographer. Actually being a photographer is something special. Even the big picture libraries who used to value true photographic talent are now giving away our images for free in the hope of making a quick buck with the advertising that it brings in. So when a real, trained, experienced, talented photographer used to introduce themselves as “a photographer’ It really meant something. 

The implication that it’s possible to write a book, and make money from it on being a photographer, without ever having been a photographer, does little to help the continual undermining and devaluation of professional photography. And the more it is de-valued, the more difficult it becomes for professional photographers to make a serious living. And that means more and more really talented people will be forced to turn to other, time consuming ways of paying the rent instead of taking great photos. 

It’s not possible to read inside your book to see what you actually say about being a photographer. I think my point, therefor, is just referring to the title that implies that the book will tell us how to be a photographer. So the assumption is that the author would know. But then the introduction, that you can read, tells us that you have actually had no experience at all of ever being a photographer. So I think if you link to a few pages of the actual book, where people can sample the style and content of the writing, people are much more likely to take a risk and buy it just to see what you have to say. Sontag had published hundreds of essays before she turned her attentions to photography, so it was much less of a risk to buy what she was writing, despite there being no photos and her not being a photographer. So its not going to be easy without actually giving a sample. 

Just thoughts. And I write them with the utmost respect. I honestly wish you luck in selling this book and any other books you might write in the “Being” series.

I want to jump straight to what I think is the most important part of Pete’s comments:

The implication that it’s possible to write a book, and make money from it on being a photographer, without ever having been a photographer, does little to help the continual undermining and devaluation of professional photography.

The last thing I want to do is undermine professional photography – in fact I would hope that reading my book would make it clear I’m attempting to do exactly the opposite.

The simple, and unpleasant fact  is that technology has eaten the professional photographer’s business model.  In the same way that Napster challenged the music industry, the abundance of affordable professional standard  automatic everything cameras have challenged the photography industry. Taking a technically awesome photo is no longer the realm only of a professional photographer, its become a commodity. If a  potential client wants nothing more than a technically correct photo they probably are better off getting their mate with a Canon 5d (or equivalent) to take it.

In the same way that the music industry had to re-assess what it was doing, so do photographers. They have to work out what it is they can do that someone who just brought a DSLR off of Amazon or B&H can’t. If the answer is nothing then they won’t get work for much longer.

To my mind this is the biggest question facing photographers right now. My theory is that only a skilled photographer knows how to think about what impact they are trying to create with a photo, and how to use that knowledge when planning, shooting, editing and presenting their photos. That’s because it’s a skill, it requires practice, and it’s something I don’t see technology being able to duplicate. My book is an attempt to encourage photographers to think this way.

As for  “it’s possible to write and a book, and make money from it”, books don’t make money, not any more, at least not unless they sell in the volume that Harry Potter did. I’m still running at a loss on this project and I’m perfectly OK with that, I’m not doing it to make money  – though that would be a pleasant side effect if it happens ;-).

The second point I want to touch on is the opening paragraphs:

Perhaps if you put a link explaining how you know what it means to be a photographer you might get more sales?

If you go to the Amazon page, the ‘look inside’ feature just shows the part in the book where you explain that the only photo in the whole book is an out of focus snap shot of your camera bag on the front cover.

This is an interesting one. I’ve been a photographer for over 10 years. In that time I’ve taught photography (camera skills, composition, critical analysis, darkroom technique) to many people .  I’ve had photos published in national magazines and newspapers and created photos for countless marketing publications and usages. I’ve even created a business providing photographers with a market place for selling their photos.  In addition my parents worked in the photography industry as far back as the 60s, giving me a good insight onto how the industry has changed.

I’ve never been a full time professional photographer – meaning making the majority of my income though photography – but I don’t think my argument  only applies to professional photographers, so I don’t see that as particularly relevant.  The way I see it, whether or not someone wants to make their income via photographer or not as important as whether or not they want to push themselves beyond being someone who owns a camera into being a photographer.

You are probably right that I should make more of a point about my background and experience. It’s a difficult one to get right though. It seems you only get a short span of attention in the ‘about the author’ section, and it’s a challenge to work out the best way to use that attention, plus I’m still learning the Amazon platform. When publishing a book you have to wait till it’s live and for sale before you can tell which bits appear in the free preview and which bits don’t. So more experimenting is required :-)

Finally, in the fourth paragraph, Pete says

In an age were every one has a camera that is more than capable of recording information to a National Geographic standard, just owning a DSLR doesn’t make everyone a photographer.

Exactly! I couldn’t agree more. Every photographer owes it to themselves to really understand and address the question what it is that does make them a photographer. I’m pretty certain the answer is not their equipment.

 

 

 

 

One thought on “Why photographers can't rely on technical excellence.”

  1. Hi Laurie,

    Thanks for the feedback and clarification. When you say “I’ve never been a full time professional photographer – meaning making the majority of my income though photography – but I don’t think my argument only applies to professional photographers, so I don’t see that as particularly relevant.” That makes everything much clearer. I guess I assumed that being a photographer meant being a pro. You say that you are a photographer and I can see now what you mean when you say that. In much the same way that although I cooked dinner last night, I am not a chef, but I can call myself one if I have the right attitude. So if we all adopt this aproach, the people who make a living from photography would need to say “I am a professional photographer” to indicate that it is actually their profession and not just a hobby.

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