I have always found the conversation surrounding professional photography to be fractious, at times deceitful and often tribal. I would therefore not be surprised if this article provokes anger, dispute and accusation. Whenever the lies about photography are revealed, those that promote, believe or live by them can feel attacked. That is not my intention, I do not wish to create ‘click bait’ or negative conversation. The reason for writing this list (from a personal perspective) is to create a list that I can point people towards, rather than having to continually repeat the same mantras.
Of course photography can be whatever you want it to be, you don’t have to agree with me, but understanding a few facts may help you develop your professional photographic practice with focus to ensure your expectations are met. So these are what I refer to as the ‘lies’ of photography, with my responses to those lies based on my experience and multiple conversations with photographers and those engaged with professional photography over the past four decades.
- THE LIE: Photography is easy.
A TRUTH: It’s not! Taking photographs is, but that is process, not practice. Professional photography will require you to create a practice based on multiple transferable personal, social and business skills alongside your ability to make photographic images.
- THE LIE: The better the camera, the better the photograph.
A TRUTH: I know this is a tired old argument but I still hear people making this claim, particularly if it is in their interest to get you to spend your hard earned cash or if their images are reliant on technical expertise rather than creative originality. The camera is a tool and the right tool for the right purpose is the correct maxim, whatever that tool may cost or however old it may be. At the end of the day it is always about the image and you, never about the camera.
- THE LIE: You don’t need to know about the history of photography to be a photographer.
A TRUTH: Would a musician have an interest in musicians of the past as well as of the present? Would an architect have a knowledge of the history of architecture and the architects that created it? What has come before, informs today and shapes tomorrow. To dismiss previous photographic makers is arrogance at best and stupidity at worst. If you can’t name the photographers from the past and present that you admire, that inform your work or who inspire you, you’re not taking your photography seriously.
- THE LIE: You need a ‘style’.
A TRUTH: Style is transitory and therefore to be avoided. Styles based on the latest aesthetic trends are even more dangerous to adopt. One day your work will be in fashion, the next day it will be old news. A visual language based on personal experience will evolve and develop throughout your engagement with the medium, it may take time but it will be more valuable to you in the long run. Don’t use the word style unless you want to go out of style.
- THE LIE: People will pay you to do what you want, your way, on your terms.
A TRUTH: The person paying you is your client or customer and they will have expectations and demands just as you do when you are buying a product or service. As a photographer it will be your responsibility to meet those expectations and demands.
- THE LIE: Photographs have to be in focus, you mustn’t crop ‘tops of heads’ or any other aspect of the human form.
A TRUTH: These archaic rules still exist for some and are still taught as doctrine, particularly at school level for exam grades. They are of course ridiculous at this point of photography’s evolution within the creative arts. Don’t get hung up or constricted by rules, at best they are there to be broken.
- THE LIE: You can ‘Fix’ it in post!
A TRUTH: ‘Fixing’ mistakes, errors and technical issues in post production is not the answer but the problem. If you can’t get it right in camera you need to brush up on your photographic skills. ‘Fixing’ in post takes time, costs money and should be a last resort.
- THE LIE: Photographers with lots of Instagram followers are successful.
A TRUTH: Success as a professional photographer cannot be gauged by a follower or like count unless the response to the work can be monetised. That may seem harsh, but unless you are seeing photography as a hobby, creating an income from photography, however small that may be, has to be an end goal in your sustainability with the medium. There is always a back story to every account, so don’t assume that images on Instagram lead to financial gain.
- THE LIE: Filmmaking is for filmmakers
A TRUTH: For the last ten years at least the digital still camera (and I include smartphones in this category) have allowed you to press a button and record moving image. I often refer to it as the button photographers are scared to press. Moving image is an additional revenue stream for the professional photographer and a challenging creative outlet, there is no reason to dismiss or ignore it.
- THE LIE: You need to enter photography competitions and win them to be a professional photographer.
A TRUTH: There is no doubt that there are a few established competitions worth considering that will raise your profile with specific commissioners but the majority will not. If you research the competition, the judges and most importantly who has won previously, you can make an informed choice on which to enter but always be aware that most exist to make money not successful photographers. My advice is to speak with the people who commission the kind of work you do, and who you want to work with and ask them if they look at competition results. If they don’t (and many will respond this way) then save your money and invest it into another aspect of your practice.
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a podcaster, BBC Radio contributor, filmmaker, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).
His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99 https://bluecoatpress.co.uk/product/what-does-photography-mean-to-you/
© Grant Scott 2021
11. Film is better than digital….one that bugs me..
Let it not bug you… it’s not. That is, it was better in the beginning of digital development, but those times are gone.
Surely a worse camera will produce a worse picture. Noise, distortion, flare, etc don’t improve every scene.
No but they improve some. Robert Frank comes to mind.
It has become usual to distinguish “pros” from “amateurs” and “enthusiasts” etc… while the only thing that makes pros “pros” is the fact that they create their income by photography and are in no way better or more qualified to create good photos. In fact, there are only good and not-so-good photographers. As to the “rules”… the term has to be understood as the way of making photos more easily readable or comprehensible to the VIEWERS. Now, if someone finds it good to “break the rules”, it will be proven good or bad by the viewers, and nothing else! Needless to say, but the “rules” were made by many measurements and other ways to make them understandable and logical… so one has to knoe them in order to change or “break” them! Photography is just a way to communicate, and mainly consists of the thematic impact and the way of expression – just like music, poem, sculpture, or other way of communication.
What any photographer does is, they COMMUNICATE with the viewers’ horizon (or their clients) – and it is either good or not so good, depending. Whatever camera (tool) is used, makjes no diff whatosever, because their work will either be understood or not.
Thus, I’d say, 1) Learn the “rules” (better said, suggestions) so as to create better communication with the viewers, 2) make your own expression if you feel it will be better accepted, 3) use the best tool for the job, be it a simple P&S or the most expensive camera there is, 4) LEARN EVERY DAY, and 5) be open to many ways of communication that the Photography is. Stick to your “style” and do not call it “style” if it is not something totally new! Or, “change” the “style” and let the viewers decide about your expression! Having “style” is emerging from your overal and prevalent views of the World, nothing else. And especially important: BEWARE OF JUST ONE way of expressiveness! Experiment, try, make lots of photos and errors FOR YOURSELF – the viewing public is an unknown, not a constant.
Above all, have fun and enjoy the Good Light!
In my experience the biggest difference between pro and amateur is not whether you are paid – amateurs can be paid – it is that the pro produces what’s asked for or expected, on time, and regardless of circumstances short of the subject of the assignment not showing up in some form. That does mean a good image, it means a useable image.
Grant, good article, you hit the nail on the head with most of it.
It may have been better to head this article ’10 Lies told about Professional Photography’ or ‘Ten Incorrect Assumptions made by amateurs about Professional Photography’. As such the title is a little misleading.
I would also take issue about No.4. You don’t need a style …. but it really does help if you can get one quickly because self-promotion is one of the keys to success. You can hang some self- promotion on a style. If you have it, great. Milk it while it lasts.
On No. 9, as a pro photographer – even shooting stills of still-lifes – you will have to direct. You will have to direct the lighting. If you shoot people, you will have to direct them as well as the lighting. So you are already a director. The history of film and still photography is littered with people who have shot stills and moved on to direct films or vice-versa. People have been film (movie) cameramen as a day job but also freelanced in stills or worked as still photographers when the movie work was unavailable. And again vice versa. Stanley Kubrick is a great example but there others just as famous. Robert Frank is another. Henri Cartier-Bresson yet another although only as an assistant to Renoir.
I really don’t envy the youngsters and the not-so-young on photography courses these days. Professional photography is an increasingly crowded field. I am glad to be a retired professional and to be an amateur photographer again..
Well done for trying to teach the realities of professional photographic life to your young hopefuls.
Best wishes, Olybacker
Thanks for the response but we will have to disagree concerning the issue of a style!
OK, assuming that you have a style, or that you will be identified by a certain style is dangerous. The greatest photographers of all time shot all kinds of situations with creativity, less in cases and more in others. Street photographers didn’t have the advantages of today, yet their photos make you stand in awe. I happened to like the job of a certain modern photographer I discovered about a year ago only to find(a couple of months later) that he uses only one color palette while he edits and every photo looks EXACTLY the same, therefore, it’s boring to watch a collection because you always know what comes next. Plus, I have a friend who is being quite successful by copying trendy fashions in instagram and imitating celebs’ sessions, but he can’t understand the basic of photography. I wonder where he’ll be in a couple of years. So, locking yourself up in a kind od style will tend to your future annhilitation.
No dispute from me. Point 4 on style particularly pertinent nowadays.