Today, I state the obvious. But sometimes even the most obvious things can be easy to forget.
I got an email yesterday from a talented young photographer. The aspiring professional asked a very logical question, one that I myself would’ve asked when I was just starting out on my journey. How does one become a professional photographer if one can’t afford to purchase a top of the line camera? I responded to the question in a brief manner, stating that talent makes a photographer, not his or her tools. And while that may roll easily off my tongue like any other proposed words of wisdom, I thought it might be helpful for some out there if I were to go a bit further.
First off, yes, I am not an idiot. Or, at least not a complete idiot. I am fully aware that there are technical differences between a camera that costs $20,000 and a camera that costs $500. Yes, these cameras do different things and bring different skills to the table from more resolution to faster autofocus to a whole host of perks that justify the price tag. And once you get hired to do a job, you will need to be able to provide the product a client requires, which may mean adhering to particular specs. But what won’t happen, at least if your aspiring to be a commercial photographer like the young person who reached out to me, is for a client to hire you specifically because you own a certain camera.
To be sure, there are any number of reasons a client will select a photographer. Past relationship, a referral, reputation, and/or lucky coincidence of timing and availability. But, as you develop your career, you will notice that those who go far in the business, those who stand out from the crowd, do so because they can provide the market with something unique that other photographers can’t. Other photographers may have the same tools, but none have that particular artist’s voice. Or, as someone much smarter than me put it, pencils have existed centuries, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is suddenly William Shakespeare.
Brands need to stand out in the market to sell their products, whether that be a blender or a bottle of soda. In order to make their brands seem unique, they need to find photographs who can create artwork that is unique. Whether the images in the artist’s portfolio were shot with a Hasselblad or an iPhone is really besides the point. The question is: “Does the artist have a unique way of seeing the world?” And, further: “Is that vision cohesive to my brand and can it help me to sell my product?”
Photographers worry about specs. Clients worry about results.
I realize this advice will be obvious to many readers of this site who are working professionals and have learned this lesson long ago. But since the focus of many articles, including my own, can sometimes focus on the joy of a particular piece of gear, I wanted to point out to others for whom said gear may not be in reach, that not having the most expensive equipment does not preclude you from pursuing your passion.
Chase Jarvis is famous for having stated that the best camera is the one you have with you. In his case, he was referring to early days of iPhone photography, but the point was clear. Don’t get caught up with the tools, get caught up in the image.
So, if the only camera you can afford right now is an old point-and-shoot that was handed down from your Uncle Larry, don’t waste time worrying about it not having the highest score on the latest lens test. Instead, put your energy into figuring out how to get the most out of that point-and-shoot camera. Composition and creativity are free. Maybe you won’t be able to rent a grip truck full of the latest and greatest Profoto equipment, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still create a great image.
I was talking to a client three days ago about why it is that I fell in love with still photography. If you’ve ever read any of my previous articles, you can probably guess that my answer droned on for quite a bit. But one of the main points I always bring up when asked that question is that one of the best parts about being a photographer is that you can literally create art at any moment.
Prior to becoming a still photographer, I was wrote and directed motion pictures. While how well it did so may be a subject for debate, what is pure fact is that making a movie is a truly gargantuan proposal. I can write a script on my own in the calm of my home office. But, in order to turn those words into a finished film, it takes months, if not years, of planning, packaging, production, postproduction, promotion, and a whole host of words that start with a P just to be able to be able to tell a simple story.
Coming from that world, the main thing that drew me to still photography was that creating art was as simple as picking up a camera and walking out the door. All it took was vision, the ability to recognize a worthwhile image when it presented itself. And then, boom, 1/200 of a second later I had created a piece of art.
Surely the files I took with my early D200 were not on par with the files I can take today with my D850, but that’s not the point. The point is that I was learning. I was developing my voice and my skills as a photographer. I was even getting published in national magazines despite the fact that I was shooting with only a prosumer camera. None of my clients asked what I shot with. They only cared that I could deliver an image that would help their business. And by the time I got to clients that did require specific specs, they were also the clients with a large enough budget to be able to include a camera rental as an item line.
One last analogy to help cement my meaning. There’s a very good chance that a strong percentage of the people reading this article right now also have a Netflix subscription. Now nearly ubiquitous, Netflix has taken over the landscape of movie distribution and changed the way the entire industry operates. But there was a time when Netflix was the new kid on the block. There was a time when it was just the dream of some ambitious young kid who had passion, but lacked the financing to compete with the long established studios. Back then, Blockbuster was the king of the hill and online streaming was just a pipe dream.
Well, this morning I woke up and read that after closing two of it’s three final stores, there is now officially only one Blockbuster store still in existence. Meanwhile, Netflix just last week dethroned HBO by getting the most Emmy nominations of any studio. Furthermore, the well established studios are now merging left and right just to try to keep up with the financial war chest Netflix has now obtained. None of this was imaginable for most people when Netflix was just a young company struggling for seed capital.
So how did David slay Goliath? Instead of focusing on what it didn’t have, it instead found a way to use what it did have to its advantage. It didn’t have theatrical distribution or a century of relationships, but it had a unique idea and it recognized upcoming trends in the marketplace. It wasn’t big, but it was nimble. It wasn’t all powerful, it was flexible.
Just starting in your photography career, you probably won’t have the money for the most expensive gear. You aren’t likely to have decades of established relationships with potential clients. In fact, aside from Uncle Larry’s camera, your own creativity, and a willingness to put in hard work, it’s likely you won’t have much of anything at all.
But that’s enough.