In the mid 1990s, when I first became involved in photography, digital cameras were still very much in their infancy. Inferior to film and with a prohibitively expensive price tag, even professionals shunned the switch to digital in favour of their traditional film kit. Most commercial photographers worked with medium format and digital photography equaling the quality of medium format film was a long, long way off.
Since then, digital photography has steamed ahead to the point where even entry level DSLR’s have specs that are beyond the needs of most amateur photographers. With the advent of mirror-less cameras, consumers have the ability to carry some incredibly high-powered kit on them in tiny packages. Digital medium format, while still incredibly expensive now provides unbelievable quality so that aside from artistic choices, film has now virtually vanished from professional photography. At the other end of the scale, the quality of images possible from smart phones has made photographers out of everyone with a phone in their pocket.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for users is the instant nature of digital photography, what used to be a fairly laborious process of sending film away to be developed has been replaced with instant results. Users can see exactly what they shot and if it’s not great, shoot again with no fear of running out of film. Now there’s no fear of getting a roll of film back only to find out every shot is overexposed or that there is a spot on your lens or that in most of your images everyone is blinking.
This has also massively changed the professional job as now most clients are desperate to look at the back of your camera during a shoot or for you to work tethered so they can huddle round a laptop and watch every shot instantaneously. From an art director’s point of view this is a fantastic opportunity to see what is happening in real time and make artistic changes on the fly. From a photographer’s point of view, it gives huge scope for experimenting with instantaneous feedback.
While these advancements have been undoubtedly amazing for both photography and professionals, it has also brought along with it some new challenges that every photographer has to deal with. The first has been the blurring of lines between professional photographers and amateurs. Armed with a shiny new entry level DSLR, one lens and a quickly published website but no training or experience whatsoever, thousands have flooded the market claiming to be professionals and charging for their services.
Now I have to point out here that I have seen some work from amateur photographers that has been absolutely amazing. If the quality of a single image was the benchmark for professional photography, then they would pass with flying colours; however, creating one stunning image, no matter how impressive, means very little in the grand scheme of things. Until you can produce that standard consistently and on demand then you are only as good as your poorest image. Reacting to briefs, translating visions, working with and keeping clients happy, running a business, looking after employees and most importantly maintaining standards regardless of circumstances or difficulties – that’s what being a professional means.
Respect for the industry
The plethora of untrained, poorly skilled and equipped ‘professionals’ have done a huge disservice to our industry, eroding trust and cheapening the standing of professional photography. As with all art, there will always be a view that anyone can do it and unfortunately in these cases it’s pretty spot on. I’m not advocating that every professional photographer must go through traditional training, nor that they need to be equipped with the ultimate kit, but some basic standards are a must. A well maintained kit with backups for every eventuality, the ability to produce the standard of images in your portfolio on demand, the ability to work with clients and understand their briefs – this should be the entry point for anyone wishing to call themselves a professional photographer and charge for their services. It’s a simple matter of respect, respect for your clients, respect for yourself and respect for the industry. If you are lacking any of these, then I would suggest a career in professional photography is not for you.
Have courage in your convictions
With so many people taking photos and sharing them online, quite often people can become filter blind. While styles and fads in photography come and go, great images never go out of fashion. When you look at the works of Richard Avedon or David Bailey, it still stands up today just as strongly as it did in the 1950s and 60s. They didn’t rely on gimmicks; just strong, engaging images that speak to the viewer. Their images couldn’t be further away from the filter heavy looks that are splashed across social media. But here’s the thing: there is no filter that can make a bad photo good but there are plenty of filters that can detract from a good photo. We’ve all seen those images that have had the HDR ramped up on them enough to burn your retina – horrible bright colours impossible to find in nature masquerade as landscapes and skin tones so saturated it renders the subject inhuman. Not only that but even the reasonably conservative filter use in many cases will look incredibly dated in a few years when the next fad comes upon us but those images of Avedon and Bailey will still tower above as beacons of style.
Don’t let yourself or your client down
This can often put photographers in a difficult position, especially those working in the editorial field. It sets alarm bells ringing when a client’s brief contains the phrase ‘Instagram feel’, an altogether excessively generic term that is almost always impossible to nail down. As a photographer working with clients you are often going to find yourself making artistic compromises to fulfill a brief and please clients, but you also have to remember why that client hired you in the first place.
As the professional it’s not your job to sit back and blindly accept a brief. If you know something won’t look good or is going to look dated or cheesy before it even gets published, it’s now that you have to find your authoritative voice and speak up. You’re not only being paid for your photographic ability, but your visual experience. So by agreeing to that ‘Instagram feel,’ you’re not only selling yourself short but your client as well.