Professional Photographer Shares Uncomfortable Truths About the Industry

Professional Photographer Shares Uncomfortable Truths About the Industry

A professional photographer came forward on Reddit with a real rant about the photography industry. It's causing a stir amongst photographers everywhere - perhaps because he makes some great points! When I read this post I found that I was agreeing with a great deal of what he had to say. The industry definitely is not as much about talent anymore as it is about affording the kit and being good with photo editing software. A few weeks ago we posted an article on The Hard Truth Why No One Will Hire You As A Photographer and I found myself agreeing with a great deal of what was said in the video. Whether you are just starting out in the industry or you're well established in the photography world... you will enjoy this read.

1. It's more about equipment than we'd like to admit.

Years ago, I started with a shit film camera. The PJ playing field was divided between those who could afford fast lenses and bodies that allowed quick film loading and those who could not. Talent meant not just knowing how to compose and expose a frame correctly, but also knowing how to trick your goddamn shitty equipment into doing what you want it to do.

Nowadays, especially those of you in college, the playing field is divided between those who can buy adequate equipment to get the job done, and those who can afford fucking MAGIC. Let's face it: the asshole kid whose dad bought him a D3 and a 400mm f/2.8 is going to have a better sports portfolio than you when you apply to our paper. You're both talented but we're too fucking cheap to provide equipment and so was your school. As a consequence, he got all the primary shots he needed for an assignment in the first five plays and spent the next half-hour experimenting with cool angle choices and different techniques while you were still trying to get your 60D to lock focus quickly enough.

True, you can't pick up a pro camera, set it to P mode and instantly turn into Ansel Adams, but if you're learning on the same pace as everyone else and you are trying to keep up because your equipment can't hack it, the difference will be stark, and frustrating.

2. People are doing some unethical shit with RAW and nobody really understands or cares.

Photoshopping the hell out of photos is a nono in photojournalism, we all know this. And yet I see portfolios and award compilations come to our desk with heavy artificial vignetting, damn-near HDR exposure masking and contrasts with blacks so deep you could hide a body inside them.

When I question anybody about this they say "oh yeah, well I didn't do anything in CS5, just the raw editor in Lightroom real quick so it's okay, it's not destructive editing, the original is still there."

It's not okay.

But it doesn't seem like anybody cares. Some of the shit on the wire services looks exactly the same so they got jobssomewhere.

That dude that got canned from The Blade for photoshopping basketballs where there were none? He's found redemption- I remember reading an article where some editor says "oh he sends us the raw files so we know its kosher now."

Fucking storm chasers are the worst offenders at this shit. Guess what he does now.

3. Many times, sadly, it doesn't even matter if your photos are all that good or not.

We are in the age of the Facebook Wedding Album. I've shot weddings pretty much every Saturday for a decade and if there is one thing I've learned it is the bride paradox: people hate photos of themselves even if they are good, people love photos of themselves with people they love even if they are bad.

And that's totally fine.

Now that everyone has a phone with a decent camera or a little money for a DSLR with a pop-up flash, there exist an entirely new and growing population of couples who are perfectly happy employing their wedding guests as proxy paparazzi for everything from prep to ceremony to formals to cake to dance. They will like their photos better than ours. They won't last, they won't be able to put together a quality album, and they really don't mind.

Consequently, there also exists a class of photographers that saw how happy their friend was with the photos they snapped at their wedding in this manner and read an article on Forbes that said they could make $1500 a week doing it again and again if they wanted. They make no attempt to get better, they spam the bridal shows with booths that are alarmingly tacky and worse yet they learn they don't actually have to shoot the thing themselves with they can pay somebody else to shoot the wedding at a third of the cost and pass it along.

And nobody cares.

My buddy, an excellent photographer that chooses to shoot mediocre but proven poses for senior portraits, yearbooks, weddings, school sports, etc.,.. makes something like $70k/year in Midwest money. He's a really great photographer, but you'll never see the good stuff he shoots because it doesn't sell. You shoot what the clients want.

More and more, you won't like what the clients want.

And that goes for news outlets, too. "User submitted photo" is becoming the number one photo credit, it seems.

Nobody cares about recording history. Nobody cares about documenting the events of our time for the future. Just send us a low resolution .jpeg still frame from a movie you shot with your phone and that'll work if we get it by deadline because all the photographers are laid off. Nobody seems to care.

I wish I could tell you I haven't seen it happen myself.

4. Photography is easier than we'd like to admit.

Here's something for you: I've been doing this for a long time. I am an excellent photographer. Give me an assignment and tell me what you want and I assure you, I'll come pretty fucking close to the picture you had inside your head. I am very, very good at what I do.

You know what? You could learn everything I know in a few months.

Maybe less if you really focus on it.

That's it.

My knowledge, my experiences, all of it- from professional sports to weddings to news to feature to product to portraits.. A few goddamn months.

In college, I studied alongside classical artists like we were equals.

We were not.

5. We need to stop being goddamn snobs and accept the coming of The Golden Age

Remember that asshole kid with the $5k Nikon D3 whose portfolio was better than yours? Guess how much that camera is going to sell for in say.. five years.

Would you believe $300? $500, maybe? That's all that body will be worth, if it's in good condition. And that's if Nikon decides to keep repairing the shutters that will inevitably die by then.

Have you played with a D3? That is a sweet goddamn camera. That can do everything you need to do, right now. Even ISO 6400 is beautiful. A lot of cameras are like that.

Right now.

Imagine what will be $300 in ten years.

Everything is getting better. Sony, Canon, Nikon, Pentax, everything is fantastic. All of the future's crappy old stuff will be today's awesome new stuff. And that means more people are going to be able to afford really great cameras that can do amazing things and we are going to see some amazing photography come from surprising places.

It's going to be awesome.

It may also be the death of our profession.

Of my profession.

If you want to be a photographer- wonderful, good, yes, do that, I can't recommend it enough.

But I do not think we will last.

Is this a bad thing for the industry? If you look at the quality of the photos that you can get on a smartphone now and the level of editing you can apply to those shots... it is truly amazing.  

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Previous comments

A lot of these points are as salient now as they were then and will be for some time, so untwist yer knickers would you?

J.R. Clubb's picture

Yes Knicker Police, that's why I said "still relevant as ever'.

Daniel Godoy's picture

Great article…lots of passion in the writing , but lets not forget the single most important item about been a photographer , or better put a truly wonderful visionary of a photographer.. the person that is not an equipment junky , that is not the tech wiz , but the person that has a story to tell , his or her story ..different than anyone..a story that will captivate the viewer and at the same time linger long after it has been see.. this does not come from equipment , money , resourses but it is a life experience transformed and imbedded in our mind set …I believe that photography will soon divide the Iphoners and photoshoppers will all crumble together in one sad bunch while the visionaries ,the mavericks will excel with their vision of that singular perfect photo that captures that MONENT

Although I agree with some points I don't think that photoshop/lightroom or new technology has anything (or at least it has very little) to do with the business of photography.

For example, I agree that most of the people can not tell a good photo if it hit them in the face! I'm always amazed when I look at pro wedding/baby/family photos shared on Facebook that are ridiculously bad and yet they get loads of 'likes' and comments like 'Wow, what an amazing photo', etc We've all seen those. This is also why instagram and instagram-like apps and services are so successful. Take a really bad photo of your baby/cat/dog/etc... out of focus, badly composed, grainy, blurry... stick on a filter and watch the 'Likes' come in like crazy!

Also, yes, photography is relatively easy. If you really wanted to educate yourself to do an 'ok' job you could. Get a mid-range or above dSLR body with a couple of lenses and you're half way there! You might never be an amazing photographer but you can be good enough to make some money. I know I fall into that category. Not amazing but I have made some money over the years shooting weddings, portraits, etc.

And yes, I get annoyed when photography is not valued as a service. Hands up who has been asked to do a job and instead of money they are offered to be credited in the publication/website. However, it's not only photographers but artists in general that have to deal with this. I'm sure there are other professions that have similar complaints.

It is also soul destroying when most potential customers - especially when you start out - care about one thing: cost! And even then you have to compete with 'uncle Bob' and those who are trying to put a portfolio together and are willing to do it for free. I was there once. I tried to find 2nd shooter jobs (without pay) but had no offers at all. (after working with a couple of 2nd shooters thought I now know why... but that's another story!)

However, since we're talking about the BUSINESS of photography, there's only one single thing that one needs to be good at in order to be successful and that has nothing to do with photography. It's all about business skills and business acumen! A great businessman but below average photographer will always make more money and be more successful (in business terms at least) than a great photographer but below average businessman. Unfortunately, I know I sort of fall into the latter category (more like average photographer but rubbish in running a business!), which is why after about 5 years as a full time photographer, I'm now part-time with a day job (in IT, but still get to do use my photography skill set).

It's been said many a time from people far more knowledgeable, that a photographer's job is 20% actually taking photos and 80% it's all the rest. Doing all the mundane tasks of running the business, promoting yourself locally, on the internet, updating your portfolio online, updating your website, facebook, tweet a few things, go to wedding fayres, play with google/facebook ads, local mags, design albums, meet potential customers, etc.

Also, photography is not great for creating a steady income stream. Perhaps that's true of many freelance jobs. But,have you noticed that many of the big names in photography (or at least those that we hear about on the interwebs) are moving towards teaching photography and branching out to producing videos, podcasts, books, etc? They have superior business and marketing skills! For anyone wanting to start working as a freelance photographer, my advice would be... study business and marketing!

LOL some random idiot excretes some embarrassing ooze and you post it as "professional" comes forward? Professional? Pah! I couldn't disagree more with all of this rubbish. It's myopic and naive trash, spoken from someone who doesn't get it. If he seriously thinks you stop learning after a "few months" or even a couple of decades he is a meek dilettante. If you think it's easy you re not doing enough! All this points to someone who can't take pictures, doesn't even get what photography is in the first place. Everyone has a pen, it does not make them a poet!

Surely the only reason you post this garbage is to stir people up.

Brett Campbell's picture

Adam I looked up some of your work. You say you are an excellent photographer but I looked up some of your work. It seems pretty average or even below for what I for someone at the professional level. Perhaps your perspective come from your entire knowledge base being able to be learned in three months. Maybe less ranting and more working on being a better photographer may be appropriate.

Wow...the worst review I ever read. Could you possibly have used any more four letter words.
So much for the education system. An expensive camera will not make you a good photographer.
Very nice work is being done with iPhones for example. It all depends on what you are shooting.

I'm a guy who has spent the last couple of decades shooting glam and tease, much of it for adult companies like Vivid, Hustler, Playboy/Club Jenna, and more. Here's what I've heard many times, or some close facsimile to these words, regarding why these companies kept hiring and re-hiring me over and over: "Jimmy, there's plenty of photographers who shoot as well as you. Some of them even better. And some will work for free to shoot these girls and most of them will work for less than your rate. We hire you because you know how to work with the models. They never complain when working with you. They love working with you and it shows in the photos. More importantly, you keep/make them happy on a set." So, while I agree with much, if not most, of what the guy is saying in the article, there's other stuff that matters -- and gets you hired -- when shooting some genres. I haven't shot much fashion, some but not much, but I wouldn't be surprised if what I said also holds true to some degree in the fashion photography biz as well, leastwise in terms of a shooter's hire-abilities.

Undrell Maholmes's picture

Definitely spot on. Some comments are saying it's whiney, some are saying make better images, but if you really look at what he's saying he's just telling it like it is. As far as commercial images goes, it may be a bit more of talent and who you know, but as far as senior portraits, weddings, family shoots, etc it's dead on.

Mark Darren Mui's picture

This is not new. Technology has always leveled the playing field forcing industries to decentralize and evolve. Spears, Guttenberg press, personal computers, photoshop, auto tune. Ubiquity is only bad for the elite. On mass, it redefines value and allows for more individuals to take part. When everybody can take a photograph, real photographers still evolve. If you are not one of them, evolution has sadly left you behind.

Joshua Boldt's picture

I know some really great people who know everything about cameras and camera settings, exposure triangles, etc. Some of them have watched every single Kelby training video that every came out and they can explain every technique. None of them take very good pictures because they don't have an eye for what a good picture really is. I've been in Facebook photography groups with people who have thousands of dollars of gear and post pictures that make me embarrassed for them. I'm not saying I am great or anything, but the people out there making real money know the technical stuff AND have a great eye on top of having business savvy.

Apparently being a potty mouth is "cool". Geez, no wonder people don't want to work with this guy.

Bavarian DNA's picture

Well, each era has its own conditions and we are not living in 70's or the 90's anymore, i understand his frustration. But at the end you have to live the moment and move on. Nothing will stay unchanged in this life :).

Those who lived and experienced the film cameras lived the golden era of the photography, were it was limited to a small group and those who can afford buying it.

Now its challenging more than ever and i guess you have to deal with it :))

I don't agree with #2. Let's be clear here. There is a BIG difference between his initial premise of people changing contrast, saturation, etc and photoshopping in stuff that is outright lying. Besides, a bad HDR photo will always expose itself as such and a good HDR photo will just look GOOD. Putting something in or removing something out via photoshop, well that's just outright lying.

Edgar Maivel's picture

...I don't see a reason to complain, every other industry getting changed, and while good tools are great help to a professional, the laws of business are still there, if you offering "same" product as everybody else you have to give a good reason to buy it from you, or why you charging premium for "same" product,
differentiation is one of the keys....

(Un)Fortunately for us, only about 10% of this business is actually in taking pictures. The process is the part most of us fell in love with in the first place: Finding a beautiful spot, the right light, the perfect exposure. Whatever it takes to express your passion for a subject, or the technical challenge of realising your vision. But taking great photos is really only the first step to making a living from it. The rest is, well, business.

I'm still new to this, but what I've learned is that the most important part of what we do is to get our heads around how to grow beyond just the art of taking damn good pictures. Learn to network, be remembered, stay in touch with important clients, be realistic about money, exceed expectations, communicate. When shit hits the fan, and everything goes wrong, deliver work that maintains your standards anyway. Even better if the client doesn't even have to find out about everything that went wrong. Have the courage to charge what you need to not only stay in the game but to thrive at it. The majority of people will need to find a job that gives them security. This isn't one of them, and that is the hardest part about it. Learn how to continue growing your business long enough, and even the spoiled rich kid with the sweet cameras in college won't keep up. It's not an easy career, and the challenge of tackling it head on should excite and drive you. But if it makes you drag your heals and complain about how saturated the industry is, then you should probably not be doing this job. For most of us it will mean years of practice, side jobs, long hours and very few breaks. Broken backs and sore shoulders can't be feared.

If it's about taking good pictures, impressing your friends, and taking the occasional wedding job on weekends, sure this article has some valid criticism. However, professionalism goes well beyond the job specs in most industries and photography is not excluded from that notion.

No criticism to this article whatsoever. I fully agree with most of these points. But it shouldn't be discouraging: just a piece of warning that if you want to do this, it's going to be a long ride with very challenging obstacles that reach well beyond the art of taking good pictures. Stick with it, but decide that either this is a hobby you love, or that you want to turn the hobby you love into a business.

What a whiner! Seriously don't you hate people who thinks they're the know it all, seen it all then brags his thoughts are the holy grail? That's a pathetic type. Don't like then don't shoot besides I'm one who shoots perfect but always thinks with an empty cup and no ego, that's how one learns.
Sad case of esteem problem, this writer has

harry sandler's picture

I come from a music/entertainment background and have been a serious amateur photographer since my first Polaroid my father gave me as a kid. That started a 60 some odd year addiction to image making. I mention music for a reason - Bob Dylan went electric at Newport and you heard the same rumbling about the music business being over and that simply never happened - just as the CD did not kill the recording industry. I do not think digital will ever end the photography business. It is only another tool we can learn to use or not. I felt like part of that rant had to do with printed newspapers which are struggling with digital media, most of which will either have to make the move or lose readers.

I worked in a photo lab in the late 60's and we manipulated fashion images analog - cutting masks and making dupes using pin registration - this is nothing new other then they figured out how to do it faster and cheaper - but is has always been around and will continue to be part of it all.

The strong will always survive as with any industry - young folks are actually starting to shoot film again as well as listening to vinyl records - a very good sign.

Wayne Leone's picture

I think he's right. Clients do accept less that awesome photos for their wedding album. Not all clients want (to pay for) high fashion style wedding photos. It's been this way for a long time now.
Yes, newbies can go buy a high end camera & lens and spend a few months learning how use them to get decent even great shots. However you can't fast track wisdom and wisdom will have your back in difficult situations.
Professional Photography is a business. Just like any business, it's dead in the water if it doesn't innovate, doesn't differentiate. If it thinks yesterdays service was good enough for today. The photography market changed a long time ago but a lot of us are still trying to sell the same product/service for the same price. That has and will continue to fail and examples of it will frighten new talent, new ideas from entering this industry.
It's definitely the end of HIS profession if that's what he chooses to believe.

mohammed albahrani's picture

I agree one hundred and one percent . Just look at pictures taken from any 15 year old Instagram , with only Instagram filters that young person can do magic . Now go to 500pix and get blown away by the thousands of amazing photographs photographers out there that popped up in only the past 5 years or so .

John Skinner's picture

Coming from the late 70's managing a lab that pooped out about 700+ rolls everyday, this is a reality -- in it's entirety I've felt and seen for 40 years.

It's all FedEx'd to hell in a hand basket and we're merely here to watch it take place.

Steve Andrade's picture

I agree to a point, yes technology is swallowing up another trade and many professions! I assisted my farther for years and have been shooting for many myself but I'll never forget what the old man told me and that is " Experience will always be king" ! You can show off all that work on social media, talk the talk amongst freinds, but can you close a 5k a 10k wedding and shoot it with confidence! Can you back it up with your awesome work and run a successful business! Can you balance family and still make a profit successfully ? Those photographers that can do this, shoot awesome images in camera and sure create art again in post are the one's I respect! I've seen Jerry Ghiones, and Joe Mc Nally live and watching these two in action sure set me straight! It is an experience I will never forget watching True PROS in action! I know and most are aware that there is a Niche for everyone whether you charge $100 or your the guy that charges $5k! Just get out there and take it or shut up!!!!!!!

Some of it is partially true and a lot isn't. It depends upon the genre of photography you work in to a certain extent. You can't learn what a professional photographer or photo-journalsist knows in a few months or even a couple of years. Taking pictures and illustrating stories and concepts takes years of understanding how to get below the surface of the subjects you are shooting not to mention light and composition. It's far far more than just pressing a button with a piece of high-end equipment, as the the author suggests. And if he truly believes that is all a photographer is worth then he's been missing the point of the profession. It's true that many many potential clients are taking a lot imagery themselves - and finally understanding that it takes more than a nice camera to do the job and satisfy the client. Modern equipment has certainly leveled the playing field - which is a good thing - but is hasn't made photography and photojournalism less of an art - it's simply embraced more artists. And the good thing to come out if it all is that professionals really do need to know their shit and work hard with a passion or they will be out of the game because there are a lot of youngsters snapping at their heels.

Paulo Macedo's picture

This is just a rant, pretty much like the ones i do around here when i'm pis*** off...
This is just whining, cameras can be good as do cars and airplanes, but not all of us can drive them can we? It's not about the camera, it's about taste! There are delicious pictures like Dani Diamond portraits, or Miles Morgan landscapes.
You can have the gorgeous model, the stunning landscape and come up with dull pictures, even if you are handling the Nikon D4s, Canon 1D X or Hasselblad H5D. I do believe that photographers rant when somehow they feel the menace of other good photographers.
It might be easier to get cameras, courses and all the stuff, but man if you don't have the taste and eye for the thing, you are loosing your time.
So, i take this article as a massive rant, and nothing more to add.

Ahmet Ergun Doğan's picture

damn right. Like or not customers doesn't care art or technique. They just care how they look and probably all these photos that they like will now exist a few year later.

Other thing is equipment is everything after you learn basics. I never seen worldwide known professional photographer with 18-55 IS 3.5-5.6.

Dennis Wolcott's picture

Thank you for your post. Unfortunately, you're assertion is close to being very accurate. It's the nature of things these days, and isn't limited to photography. Everyone can become an expert in a matter of hours by watching a few YouTube videos, whether it's for music recording, lawn maintenance, writing a book, auto repair, etc. Used to be, before the internet, we'd have to hire someone who knew how to take us through to the other side of these challenges. Now, people can do these things themselves. In some ways it's a good thing--I don't have to pay someone to fix my lawnmower. But it's also bad for the guy down the street who makes a living fixing lawnmowers. However, talent cannot be accumulated by watching a couple online videos; creativity is something that comes within and is honed with practice. The more practice, the more difficult one's inner artistic voice will be hard to imitate, and will therefore remain both viable and desirable. Hopefully, this emergence of these instant experts will serve to inspire us to become better at our craft.

Jason Langley's picture

This whole piece wreaks of "I couldn't cut it and its everyone else's fault". Maybe photography as YOU know it is dying. There is a whole new breed that are embracing change and thriving. We choose to make ourselves irrelevant by holding on to old ideas along with a refusal to evolve.

A close mind spells death to creatives.

"You know what? You could learn everything I know in a few months."

I don't know your level of skill and knowledge, you seem to feel it's of a high order, but I can tell you that I have been a professional photographer for 40 years and I'm still learning. By stating that the skills required to be a competent professional photographer only takes a few months is both inaccurate and damaging to the industry. This is part of the reason that photography has been devalued.

i agree with what you are saying. It doesn't, however, mean all other phototographers' value will end. Being a mainly wedding photographer I see many of others filming but losing pics, getting intoxicated, being not very fun to be around. I hope the best for all but working hard and trying your best at your job/talent is what can help. If nothing else, let's just continue on our own to capture memories of history whether it be for others or one's own.

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