I have been sent a lot of messages and seen a lot of comments on this topic over the last year, and it is something I have shied away from tackling, but in this article I am going to delve into the taboo debate around internet photographers versus professional photographers.
This article is going to need a bit of background and a few disclaimers upfront. First off, I work as a photographer predominantly, but I also write here and run a very small YouTube channel that focuses on the business side of commercial photography. However, I have an agent, work with good directors and producers, and shoot well known food campaigns when not in lock down, from the outside, most would class me as a professional photographer. Although on some videos and articles I have been called an internet photographer as an insult, and I will delve into that in more detail later.
When I started photography the internet was just taking off for us fellow creatives. Chase Jarvis was king and his channel showed you everything you ever wanted to know about professional commercial photographers. Jarvis is the real deal and his production house creates some of the most elaborate lifestyle campaigns that you could ever dream up. Following on from Jarvis came a host of lesser known photographers doing a similar kind of thing. YouTube was amazing at this point in time. Real information from real photographers about being a pro. I learnt most of my profession from the likes of Chase Jarvis and Zack Arias. A lot of this information though was of little use to the average camera club photographer, and there are far more people doing photography for a hobby than as a profession. So at some point channels started popping up that were designed for those starting out and those who were interested in the physical camera equipment. Everyone had something to watch or read. Originally there was a very clear divide between those channels offering professional advice to professionals and those offering great advice to beginners. Everyone seemed to harmoniously go about their photography in the way they wanted to.
Then, about 4-5 years ago (probably longer now, I dare not check for fear of feeling old) there was a big change. YouTube and Instagram became real business opportunities and lots of us realized how much money there was to be made on the platform. In jumped a load of great presenters. DRTV was perhaps one of my favorite channels to watch and YouTube became flooded with great content creators, a lot of whom were not professional photographers nor professional teachers, just people who wanted to share their passion or offer entertainment. At this point, in the simplest terms, we ended up with 3 categories. Information from those in the know for professionals or those wanting to become professionals, information from those in the know for people wanting to learn, and entertainment channels about photography. I now spend most of my time watching the latter. More so than I watch TV.
So Why Is There a Problem?
Why indeed. There are clearly three camps here online. Those who are professional photographers, those who are professional teachers, and those who offer great entertaining content. However, the problem seems to arise when less scrupulous folk with large followings try to portray themselves as offering professional information to those wanting to become professional photographers and give out incorrect advice. There are now enter genres of professional photography that only seem to exist within photography. Take a look at my article on the business of model photography for example.
I recently did some portfolio reviews online and one comment asked if I would review a landscape photograph. As a food photographer, I know absolutely nothing about landscape photography, so any advice I give would be utterly flawed, hence why I don’t offer up such advice. Nevertheless, you will find photographers out there offering advice and workshops on every genre under the sun that they feel they can cash in on, unsuspecting new photographers who don’t understand that being a photographer doesn’t make you great at all genres subscribe to said view points and sadly find that the career they are chasing is running away from them whilst the follow a train headed off in the wrong direction.
Why Should You Care?
You may feel that it is a case of “more fool them” when people buy into these things. However, we were all beginners at some point. Perhaps if I was starting out now I would not have found such a direct path into photography. The internet is full of content and strong opinions, and much like with me writing this article, there is little vetting process as to what can and can not be said (although a certain standard of writing and photography knowledge is required over here at Fstoppers).
The problem that this leads to is a disillusioned populations of want-to-be professionals who are working their socks off to try and make it in an industry that either doesn’t exist or that they are shooting the wrong work to enter. It has now had such an effect that people are giving out this information as fact, no longer knowing that it is not correct as it has now been taught from photographer to photographer.
Being a little older, my experience of the internet was great. Good content from a few knowledgeable content creators who helped me fast track my career in a way that university wouldn’t have been able to. I am however acutely aware that if I were to start today that I would probably drown in a sea of information of which a majority is pretty useless and some is downright incorrect.
Now I don’t hate folk on YouTube or content creators. I spend a huge amount of time consuming their content. Even those whose content has no impact on my profession. For me it has become TV and it is a very worthy profession to be in. If anything it is something I will be investing more time in going forward as since Brexit in the UK and now Covid-19 the fragility of commercial photography has never been more apparent to me. What I don’t enjoy though, are the people with large followings who have decided to cash in on genres where they really have no knowledge or background in. I find this to be of poor moral practice and extremely damaging to peoples' dream careers.
The way that the creative industries work in 2020 is very different from the year 2000. It is also worth noting that just because someone makes fun videos, it doesn’t mean that they are not also very much a professional photographer or videographer. I know of a person who made $20k+ for a day in the life video to have certain brands of equipment. As far as I am concerned, this makes them as much of a professional photographer/videographer as anyone with a fancy agent and studio. The lines are most certainly blurred, which only adds to the confusion.
There seems to be a hatred from old school photographers toward internet photographers, and I think some of it is founded, however a majority of it is misplaced. I have been called an internet photographer as an insult, I have also been accused of not being a real pro because I write, make YouTube videos, and have an Instagram account. If anything, I feel stupid for not investing more time into those pursuits given the current climate. I might not be able to produce big campaigns right now, but I could certainly be producing YouTube and Instagram content on an industrial scale which would be making me a good income had I started years ago. Times change, the industry changes, and we either need to move with it or to be left behind. You don't need to be on YouTube or Instagram to be a professional photographer, but it also doesn't make you less of a professional photographer if you are.
What Should Be Done?
This is where things become difficult. Who am I to say that a creator should not be selling a product because their knowledge isn’t at a high enough level? If people are willing to pay for it, should it be my concern?
The problem I find is the frustration of folk trying to create careers based on incorrect information. I am not so much talking about the technical side of things, more the style, genres based, and business end of the spectrum. You only have to scroll through the comments sections on articles here to see how many people are sadly becoming disillusioned by the career path they once dreamed of, or who are angry that the business doesn’t work in the way that they were told.
I think everyone can play their part here though, and I don’t think a lynch mob naming and shaming is the way to go, although it of course would make for great viewing in a creepy kind of way. Sharing good solid information and pointing folk in the right direction is key. Having open discussions when people may be being misled can be hard, but I feel is every ones responsibility.
We should all be aware of how to vet the information that we are receiving too. Although my undergraduate degrees and post grads were in science, the biggest thing I learnt that translates to photography is how to vet the publication. In photography I would look at this key point before listening to anyones advice;
Are you able to validate that the author of the advice has any experience at the level that they are giving out information? If they are offering advice on how to be a fashion photographer, who have the shot for, who are they signed to, where are their tear sheets?
If they are offering business advice on how to be a commercial photographer you want to know who their clients are and which campaigns they have shot for them. A bit of digging can usual bring this up. You would be amazed at the amount of people selling extremely expensive packages actually have no experience within the industry themselves.
My closing point is this: Unless the seller is bringing in experts for each genre of photography, it is highly unlikely that they are offering good advice on more than one genre.