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