What It's Really Like to Be a Female Photographer

Nikon's recent choice to promote the new D850 with a pro team of 32 men has started waves of conversation of gender inequality in the arts. During the uproar, I received a few messages requesting for me to share my own experiences that are unique to being a female photographer. Whether we like to admit it or not, America is pretty far from complete gender equality. Many are surprised to learn that the accepting arts industry isn't an exception to the current gender norms. As to not a let male-dominated industry intimidate me, I try to ignore the upsetting gender-specific challenges I face. But there are a few too hard to ignore as they're present in my life daily.

When I first started to pursue photography as a career in Atlanta, I didn't notice many differences as a woman. That all changed when I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, a city with a drastically smaller arts industry than I had become accustomed to. Ironically, it was the man that I relocated to work for, Clay Cook, who taught me the most about the adversity I was going to face as a woman in this industry and what it would take for me to plow through it. During a crew lunch following one of my first shoots with Clay we chatted about our weaknesses and goals. My memory isn't the best but I will never forget the words he spoke to me that day. Like every day working with Clay, I learned a lot, but it was one simple sentence that I am reminded of all too often today. With the utmost seriousness, he looked at me and said, "It”s going to be really hard for you as a woman Gabi.” No one could have prepared me for the year to follow that would prove just how right he was that day.

Self Portrait of Photographer Gabrielle Colton

 

Behind the scenes video still by Blake Mcgrew

"You Should Try Modeling"

I hear this at least once a day; I am being told to do various things instead of photography. This has happened to me at the bar, the grocery store, doctors offices, photography conventions, my own photo shoots, and even weddings where I was the photographer. Before people even see a single piece of my work, they don't believe or approve of what I've shared with them. Because how could the thin woman wearing makeup and a dress in front of them be a professional photographer? Being the way that I am, I have to prove myself, I always ask these people to add me on Facebook right there. They always send me a request and react with an “Oh wow you're actually good“ or similar in attempts to make up for the judgments based on my gender they just made. This is just a small example of the heavy tension I am constantly against as a female in a world I'm not meant to be in. And of course, even after proving myself for years, that I could completely fend for myself, my father still doesn't understand what I'm doing. He has said that what I am aiming to accomplish is "too hard" and suggests other places I could work. To this day I am fighting to prove that this is what I should be doing and will do forever, both to strangers and my own family, something men don't have to worry about proving on a daily basis everywhere they go. 

Behind the scenes with Gabrielle Colton, Video still by Blake Mcgrew

I Took My Gender Out of My Social Media

To detach my gender from my work and to sweep it under the rug, I stopped posting images of myself, something Clay suggested I do to be taken more seriously in spite of being female. Sadly, it worked, people began to appreciate my work once they were no longer getting stuck at the initial shock that this tiny woman created it. Now when you do come across a post with me in it, my back might be turned or my face covered and behind the scenes, images went from being of me in action to photos of my camera.

Behind the scenes of shooting a wedding

Always Wearing Some Sort of Camouflage

I respond to many comments where followers mistake me for being a man and it's pretty funny. I've even met random social media followers in person who have tilted their heads in confusion or disappointment when they realize I'm a female. In attempts to neutralize peoples reactions to me, I make sure to put together outfits that aren't too girly when I wake up every day. I’ve come to realize that for some reason the more feminine I look, the younger and less experienced I seem to people I shake hands with. When I walk out my door in a nice dress and shiny shoes I rarely make any promising business connections. But when I throw on jeans, a leather jacket and boots with my hair slicked back, I am treated drastically different. Even though I am the same artist and businesswoman while wearing a dress, because of my gender I have to provide reassurance with a tough physical appearance.  

It's a bit unnerving for me to look back on the girl at lunch a year and a half ago because back then I had no idea I'd have to evolve tremendously, solely to make up for the disadvantages my gender causes me. I got tough, courageous, vigorous, or according to my thesaurus: ”manly” is what I became. The only real difference there is to being a woman in the industry is that on top of perfecting our craft we have to learn how to be a man. 

Images used with permission.

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82 Comments

Ben Perrin's picture

(deleted as commenter deleted their reply)

Anonymous's picture

Of course this isn't the same thing but almost every time I go to the local parks and see someone photographing a family or seniors, it's a woman. I see how comfortable everyone is. I'm an older man and have to work my ass off to make people half as comfortable as most will be with a female photographer. Just sayin'.

Joshua Kolsky's picture

I'll second this one. The area I work in is easily 20/80 (men/women) photographers. My clients are for the most part women. Women who want family, children, wedding, etc...pictures. Women for some reason feel more comfortable contacting women photographers. So I have to let my work do the talking and do my best to attract them to me.

Tim R's picture

I'll third that. So true.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

You guys are right, there are some great advantages to being a woman as well. Unfortunately this comfort doesn't really take us far in high fashion and editorial work where we deal with large clients. This is another assumption people make, that I am a family or wedding photographer because I'm a woman.
Yes a lot of the time, women are more comfortable being photographed by women, but agencies, the marketing teams that hire us don't hire based on this.

Anonymous's picture

Can't argue with you there. :-)

Gabrielle Colton's picture

:)

Anonymous's picture

Nice smile!

Jason Smith's picture

You are right, I did assume you were a wedding photographer because the only example of your work in the post is of a wedding, and that is the example of your client in the article. The other pictures do not show me what type of work that you do. Perhaps if you had said that in the article we could better understand where you were coming from. I didn't think most high fashion and editorial shoots would be booked via someone demanding to be friended on facebook.

Also if there are advantages of being a female in the industry, why would not not even give a throwaway line in an article about being a female in the industry? If someone was really wanting to know and expand their knowledge, would not sharing the positive with the negative be more correct than just presenting one side?

Joshua Kolsky's picture

Thats definitely a problem. But I don't sit around and hate on the world because women won't choose me to take pictures of their family or children because they'd rather choose the woman in the next town over because they feel more "comfortable" with that. Your going to have to be more aggressive with your approach and stop taking no for an answer.

Tim R's picture

I totally get your challenges in a tough industry, but you knew all this prior to advancing your photography career. Isn't it a little late to complain? And to change the industry, best of luck. You're swimming upstream forever.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Not complaining, I am simply sharing my experience as several people asked me to do so. I wouldn't trade what I do for anything in the world, but I do pay attention to these things, I pay attention to everything. Me addressing adversity like this does not mean I am out to "complain" or that I'm in the wrong industry.

alberto cabrera's picture

As for high fashion/magazine editorial . My favorite photographers in those markets are mostly women. Yes, i maybe in love with 80% of them. But its because they are so amazing in their craft. I hope to become at least as half as good as they are. Being at their level would be a great goal to meet.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I have 2 young kids and my oldest, my daughter, Kyla, is in Kindergarten. It started in pre-K last year and has continued into this year, and I'm sure it'll continue for a LONG time to come, but she's getting teased and picked on at school. Not often. We're talking once a week she'll say a kid laughed at her for something. I share all that to say this...
I tell her that the best way to handle it is to not care what other people think. This is something people tell kids of all ages. And we mean it. We know it's the best way to handle negativity. Yet, as this article shows, even as adults we still care.
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK.
That goes for the good, and the bad. You can't care about one, and not the other because you're relying on one of them to tell you how to feel about yourself and the other is the opposite, so of course it's going to be impactful.
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK
STOP CARING WHAT PEOPLE THINK

Anonymous's picture

I wouldn't say to stop caring altogether but, give it appropriate weight. Consider if what they think is valid and you can profit from it. If not, then throw it away.

Ramon Acosta's picture

Jonathan:
I will assume you shower often, before work, even when you are not really dirty.
I will assume also that you don't go to work wearing flip flops.
Maybe you also have to shave every day , if you don't want to look scruffy at work.
And you might say "But it's different, it's my job!"
But it's not different, you have too dress how your boss expects you to.
And so does she. Her boss doesn't take her seriously when she wears a dress.
So she wears something else.
When she is off the clock, she wears sun dresses. And doesn't care what you, or anyone else thinks...I assume.
I could be wrong.
Am I wrong Gabrielle ?

Jason Smith's picture

But the same is said when I show up wearing basketball shorts and a Tshirt. There is a set amount of dressing up for both genders. If I go out in basketball shorts, my crocs and a geeky tshirt, i don't get anyone taking me serious as a photographer either. I have to prove I am a professional and not just a creepy guy with a camera, so I have to dress a set way. Its no different. Both genders have a set idea of what a photographer should look like.

Neville Ross's picture

Pardon my asking, but what is this 'set way' that a professional photographer has to dress if they're a male?

Jason Smith's picture

For me in most professional situations means dress pants, dress shoes and a pressed shirt.

Neville Ross's picture

Thanks for the tip/heads-up.

Jim Strutton's picture

Well to most of the responders here I come from a different generation, but I still think the advice I was given as an apprentice photographer is as valid today as it was in the sixties. You need to be dressed clean, smart and above all appropriate. For example my partner and I had a successful and busy wedding photography business in the late '80s and '90s. We both dressed in a suit to attend the event, but had a Hi-Viz waistcoat in the bag to wear as needed. I have also shot on industrial sites when I needed a hard hat and a boiler suit. Once you have a 'reputation' you can roll up in ripped jeans and a Death Metal 'T' shirt if that's what floats you boat. But you need to build that reputation first.

Photography is a secondary career for me, 99% of my revenue came from the computer industry and there my 'Uniform' was always a quality suit, shirt and tie with shiny black shoes. My customers dressed like that so I blended in. My difference was that I always had a camera too............

Jonathan Brady's picture

I think you've misinterpreted what I meant my message to be. My message had NOTHING to do with what someone chooses to wear or whether they're hygienic or not. My message was that you shouldn't allow other people's opinions to affect your self-confidence or self-worth. What's the old saying?... You can't control what people say or do, you can only control how you react to it (or something along those lines). THAT is the point I'm trying to drive home. Don't put weight into people's opinions of what you should do with your life. Don't put weight into "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" votes. Do what makes you happy and to hell with everyone else.
Some people are very perceptive. I wonder if they're offering alternative careers to the author because they sense she feels the need to prove herself.
Now... what I've said above is VERY different from accepting praise or criticisms for the results of one's work. If someone receives a critique, they should first determine the source and then determine the worth of the critique. FYI, IMO, it's possible that the source is important, but the critique is not and vice-versa.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

I'm somewhere in between on not caring about other people's opinions. Judgement is real, whether we care or not. It is part of running a business to look the part, that's why companies require employee uniforms. So if it will make a better impact on a client if I tailor my outfit or appearance to appeal to them, I'll put that effort in. It's part of the business, you show up to a big client you dress nicer to match their level. But you don't want to intimidate a family by dressing like that so you wear something more casual.

Jonathan Brady's picture

My comment wasn't related to one's appearance at all. It had more to do with having confidence in one's self-worth as an artist and not allowing ignorant people to deter one from their goals. STOP CARING WHAT THESE PEOPLE THINK YOU SHOULD DO WITH YOUR LIFE. STOP CARING ABOUT THEIR PREJUDICES. "Just do you", as the kids say these days :-)

Robert Nurse's picture

"To detach my gender from my work and to sweep it under the rug, I stopped posting images of myself ..."
"In attempts to neutralize peoples reactions to me, I make sure to put together outfits that aren't too girly when I wake up every day."

May I make a suggestion? STOP IT! This really isn't your problem. I mean, for crying out loud. Why are you doing all this? Let them get over themselves. You are who you are. Your talent will show regardless of what you look like or of your gender. We really can't control first impressions no matter what we do. Peoples' first impressions are usually baseless and have little to do with reality. Now, if this stupidity is impeding your ability to pay your bills, then I guess you'll have to take such measures. But, if not, screw it! Don't jump through all these hoops for little or no gain.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

It does impact my ability to pay bills, I have been denied for jobs because they have chosen men over me, even though I was very clearly the better one for the job. People expect to pay me less and don't see me as highly as they would a male photographer of equal quality.

Jonathan Brady's picture

I don't doubt that this has happened, or at least could happen. But please, just make sure you're not carrying a chip on your shoulder. After all, when you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Douglas Turney's picture

Gabrielle I respect where you are coming from but I feel that you might be a little off course. I have two daughters, one 20 and the other 14. If they said to me that they lost out on something because the other person was "you fill in the blank" rather than the other person was better, I would ask for proof. I wouldn't accept speculation as an excuse on their part. I get that there are prejudices in our world and they aren't only male-female, black-white, east-west, there are all kinds. Perhaps the jobs you think you missed out on was because the client felt more at ease with a male photographer. I don't know because the only reason you gave was they were male. To me that statement is the exact same thing you are accusing others of doing to you. The same happens with clients picking female photographers, younger photographers (something I have to deal with as I'm in my 50's), gay photographers, straight photographers, white, Asian, and on and on and on. I wish it could only be about the product we produce but let's be real that for some people there are other considerations. They may be absolutely wrong reasons or they simply might be a preference for some other reason other than being racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever. To say you have to be a man to succeed in photography is just wrong and is as bad as what you are claiming to be wrong with the industry. I'm sorry to say but your own remarks have shot holes in your argument.

Robert Nurse's picture

Well, if your bottom line is effected by this bias, then, do what you have to do. It's really a shame though. I took a look at your work and I wish I had a tenth of what you've got!

Gabrielle Colton's picture

Thank you for the compliment! Hard work and obsession pays off my friend, you got it if you want it!

Jason Smith's picture

Both genders do have issues. I doubt as a woman the author has ever had the police called on her because they were standing near the playground with a camera with a zoom lens. Or had to set up cameras and have mandatory assistants on a set to protect yourself from a false accusation.

I know one male photographer that because he didn't let a model blackmail him, the first result you get when you google his photography business is her false reviews claiming inappropriate behavior. The thing is he never shot with her, never met her. The day she claims the shoot happened he was at the hospital with kidney stones. Yet he was instabanned from every local photography group because of a liar.

Personally I would much rather have to just be concerned about dressing a certain way and people telling me I was attractive enough to model than to have my business ruined just because of my gender...

Brian Curtin's picture

It's always fun to see who can post the first "yeah, but look how *I'm* affected!" whenever a woman shares things like this.

Anonymous's picture

Perhaps you think we're minimizing her problems. In fact, we're saying, "Yeah, me too!" ;-)

Jason Smith's picture

When the article starts talking about gender equality and talks about it being male dominated, and America not having gender equality, pointing out things that I can't change about being a male is a valid criticism. I would love it if a change of clothes could stop men from having the stigma we have photographing women and children. I mean yeah I am a guy, so you know I don't know what it is like to have people tell me I look like a model, but everything else is relevant to both genders.

Richard Murley's picture

It's sad that even as a photographer you may face such inequalities, maybe they are insecure:-)
Your images say it all, as an amateur I wish I had 1% of your skill and creativity.

Kim Ginnerup's picture

I believe it is slowly changing. 40 years ago you never saw any women with a big DSLR. On vacations I took I saw women carry their boyfriends gear while they where running around photographing.
Today I see a lot of women photographing with the same gear as their counterparts. Facebook groups that I visit regarding photo has a lot of women members. Something has happened. I am not saying things are perfect, but it is moving in the right direction.

Tim R's picture

I agree, although the barrier to entry is also lower and way less technical.

Jonathan Brady's picture

to be fair, 40 years ago, NO ONE had a DSLR ;-)

Elan Govan's picture

Amazing how controversial gender issue still is. Extraordinary.

Anonymous's picture

You foresee a time when it won't be!? Never happen!

Elan Govan's picture

Yes I do, just not there yet. Progress comes very slowly and at different speed. Prime Minister of UK said this recently, "People who have lived with discrimination don't need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge," 2017.

Reality is, we have steam engines in museums that have been around longer then women's right groups. Of course they are going to be a little irritated.

Gabrielle Colton's picture

It is. I didn't ever expect to be experiencing the things I do.

Ben Perrin's picture

I know I'll get a lot of hate for this but this just sounds like an excuse. Let me explain. Photography is one of the least gender biased hobbies out there in that ANYONE can pick up a camera and start taking photos. Your ability to take the photos is not related to your gender at all but rather your natural talent and your experience and ability to learn your craft. Having said that everyone I'm sure will feel some sort of perceived pressure to fit the stereotype. Don't bother about trying to fit the mould or worrying about what others may or may not be thinking because it has zero effect on how good you are as a photographer. There will always be barriers in front of us in life; overcome those barriers because no matter who you are you'll have to overcome something. Life is not fair nor easy.

Alex Cooke's picture

What exactly is the excuse made by this article? Gabrielle didn't write this because she's failing; she's a talented and successful photographer. I don't think it's at all fair to equate documenting a problem with making excuses. Also, you completely contradicted yourself by claiming there's no gender bias in photography, then basically saying: "well anyway, we all have things to overcome; life isn't fair." Lastly, I don't think the article argued anything about gender being relevant to the talent of a photographer, re: "it has zero effect on how good you are as a photographer." The argument (in my opinion, I defer to Gabrielle for the final answer) was the perception others have of photographers based on the shooter's gender, something that does have a very real effect on financial and career success, no matter what the innate talent.

Ben Perrin's picture

It's an excuse to say roughly "I should be more successful than what I am". Never did I say nor imply that she was failing. Also I never said that there was no gender bias ever just that we all go through barriers no matter who we are so there is no contradiction in my statement. But there in lies the problem Alex, you view everything through the lens of social justice and assume that everything is about gender or the latest fad version of inequality. It taints your perspective and puts you down to the level of victim. You and Gabrielle are not victims and you need to rise above this crap. Once again learn to be overcomers rather than victims, you have more power in you than that.

I don't expect everyone here to agree with me but there's one thing that I'm certain of. Too many people are complaining over trivial things in life. Too many people are whinging when they have the key to success within them. This victim mentality is dragging people down. It's a negative mindset and I've seen far too many articles on Fstoppers and the news in general written from this perspective.

Alex Cooke's picture

The problem with saying "we all face difficulties" is that you're dismissing the legitimacy of any one difficulty by saying all are equal, and any rational person can tell you that not all roadblocks present equivalent difficulties (also, why on earth should we ignore one injustice because another exists?). And no, I don't view everything through the lens of social justice and I resent being told I latch onto "fads." How lucky one must be to be so unaffected or callous toward real problems people face to call them "fads" and "trivial." I view things through a quantitative lens, and when I see statistics and studies that time and again document a problem, I believe them. Again, Gabrielle is successful, so I'm not sure why you keep telling her to "overcome" things. She clearly has. She's telling what she's experienced along the way.

So, returning to the "trivial fad," why is someone saying "this is what has happened to me" a negative? Should we just ignore people's experiences that don't portray a world free of inequality or injustices? Come on. There's no victim mentality here; it's drawing attention to a person's experience. The negative mindset is the one that refuses to even consider its legitimacy, particularly when sitting from the position that automatically makes the person unaffected by that which has been spoken about. A person can be successful and still say: "hey, I experienced this along the way and it wasn't right. Let's make it better for the next generation."

Jason Smith's picture

But she wasn't just telling her own story. She is generalizing for her entire gender based on a limited area of photography and doesn't even go into detail about that. If the article was "Issues I have faced as a photographer" then I would not take issue with it. But this is a article that says the only way a woman can be a photographer is to act like a man. It doesn't qualify that as talking about high fashion and editorial photography, in fact the article instead talks about Wedding photography and the only photo of hers we see in the article is from a wedding. She even says in the comments that in weddings her gender gives her an advantage. Do you not see how that is misleading?

Alex Cooke's picture

I'm not going to speak for what Gabrielle meant, but I don't understand where you got that interpretation of generalizing from. Almost every sentence in the article begins with "I," as in her personal experience.

Jason Smith's picture

The title and "The only real difference there is to being a woman in the industry is that on top of perfecting our craft we have to learn how to be a man. "

The clickbait like title and opening start it off to be about 2 genders. And it ends with the same generalization.

This is tagged as education. If it is her personal story instead of something speaking to a greater gender issue, what is the education there ? Why would it not then be tagged similar to https://fstoppers.com/editorial/photographer-born-without-hands-and-legs... or any other article about a photographer?

Alex Cooke's picture

Sorry you think the title is clickbait. And of course the article is going to be about two genders. I'm not sure why that's an issue. No offense, but I think you're latching onto a single sentence summarizing her experience at the expense of ignoring the 50 sentences preceding it that are structured as "I experienced this."

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