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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Steve Beaudet's picture

I have to disagree with everything here. Perhaps, for the majority of lower end assignments, whereby budgets dictate who can even be considered, these things may be true. However, for the assignment “diamonds in the rough”… the projects to which all skilled, experienced and talented photographer aspire, this list couldn't be further from the truth.

I take great pride in the fact that I know I can take a far better photograph with a 30 year old Pentax K100 and a roll of consumer print film, than a guy fresh out of school with a camera bag full of gear that his rich dad bought him. Hell, I once shot a national ad with a disposable underwater camera. And while it is true that certain specialized equipment might be necessary to do a specific job, that is not really what we’re talking about. Of course a sports photographer will need a super telephoto lens to do his job properly, but having one doesn’t make the novice photographer better than the 20 year veteran whose 400mm just got busted by a 300 pound defensive lineman, just like a new scalpel doesn’t make the medical resident a better surgeon than a hospital’s chief of surgery with a pocket knife. Crediting good photography on your gear is the same as blaming a bad shot on your gear. A hammer is a hammer… it’s who’s swinging it that matters.

Photoshop is a tool. And while it can be used to make bad shots better… perhaps passable… it was designed to make great shots better too. If you intend to make a career in photography by taking bad photos and fixing them in Photoshop, you better hold onto your day job for the time being. Sure, if you’re a journalist adding explosions behind school buses, you’re probably going to get fired in the not-too-distant future. However, if you are a commercial photographer who can illustrate a concept better with the addition of well placed, well used Photoshop, you have value added. And if you’re a wedding photographer who can retouch the giant zit off the nose of the bride, you’ve made a friend for life. I can just imagine the conversation with the bride upon delivery of her wedding photos, her zit in full bloom. “Well you see, Mrs. Kardashian-West, retouching in photojournalism is a no-no.” I hope you like delivering pizzas.

Sure, some people wouldn’t know a good photo if it was fastened to their forehead with a ten-penny nail. This applies across the photographic client spectrum… from commercial clients and ad agencies, to brides and moms. That’s why Walmart still has a portrait studio in every store. You think anyone is going there for the quality of the photo?… they either like the price or can’t tell the difference between a good photograph and a plate of chili. Anyone with a good grasp of what makes a great photo, and is willing to spend a bit, is not having the family Christmas card shot at a Walmart. If as a photographer, you’re going to assume your entire customer base just doesn’t care and that no one appreciates good photography today, I’ve got some suggestions for your studio name. How about, “Grumpy Studios”? Or perhaps, “Defeatist Photography”. My favorite?… “Space For Rent”… your landlord would probably even supply the sign for you. The fact is, there are amazing, appreciative clients who seek talented photographers and are willing to pay them. These people know that good photography isn’t cheap and cheap photography isn’t good. These are also people who will pay huge dollars if you can shoot an amazing photograph on a Kodak Brownie and will never ask if you own a 400mm.

Photography is easy?!! If you really think this, then you’re doing it wrong. If you think it’s possible to learn everything about photography in a few months, you don’t know everything you think you know. I’ve been shooting for more than 20 decades… and I learn something new on every shoot. I’m always trying new things. I’m always challenging myself. I’m convinced the best photo I’ve ever taken, hasn’t even happened yet. You think being a photographer is something you can teach… and this is wrong! You can teach someone to operate a camera and/or lights, but you can’t teach someone to take a photo anymore than you can teach someone to paint like Monet by giving him painting lessons. A photographer’s vision is his own. Each of us sees the world differently. It’s what makes each photographer unique. We all use the same cameras, but what lens we choose, what aperture we shoot with, how we pose our subject, whether we shoot by lying on the ground or from the top rung of a ladder, whether we shoot in full sun, backlit, open shade… all of these combinations create infinite possibilities as to what the final image will look like. Whether yours is outstanding or not, is the intangible aspect of photography that can’t be taught… not in a lifetime. The photographer who thinks he knows everything about photography is a technician, not an artist.

Finally, I agree that your $5,000.00 Nikon will someday be worth $300.00. So what? If you’re an amazing photographer, that $5,000.00 investment will have paid for itself hundreds of times over before it ends up holding a stack of estimates in place on your desk. And if you resent spending $5,000.00 on a camera, shoot amazing, unique, singularly spectacular photographs with your iPhone… if they truly are amazing, unique and singular, people will pay for them… and pay well. Lamenting the devaluation of equipment is like the carpenter lamenting the fact that his 1992 pickup is no longer worth the $15K he paid for it. The fact that your camera is just a tool escapes you. It appears to bother you that some people have the ability to buy better camera gear than you, thus giving an “undeserving” photographer an unfair advantage. You appear to be defining a photographer as someone who owns cameras, is well versed on their manuals and is forced to take bad photos because that’s what the customer wants. You have it backwards. A photographer is someone who has a vision and has the ability to utilize optics and light to bring that vision into reality. Will this vision please everyone?… of course not! But that’s not the goal of a real photographer. The goal of a real photographer is to create images that pleases himself!… and then to seek customers that appreciate that unique, special, magical and individual style.

Steve Sanacore's picture

Steve B. kind of said it all. It sounds like someone upset about changes that are effecting his career, but it certainly doesn't apply to many of us to the same degree. If you want to shoot sports and can't afford the gear - simple - you can't shoot sports that require that gear. I always tell fellow photographers that if your work can be done by amateurs or someone just out of school, then you're in the wrong market to begin with. Competing at the bottom tier of any industry is usually a losing scenario. You've got to have some business smarts to pursue the markets that are profitable.

Anonymous's picture

I think this writer makes some pretty valid points but it also sounds like he is pretty burnt out in his career and sadly his attitude really sucks. Its a pretty defeatist way of viewing things and more likely than not, his career ambition is just gone and is going through the motions.

Brian Muntz's picture

This is exactly why high-end medium format is more popular than ever before! It's allowing shooters to seriously separate themselves from the amateurs. Not to mention, the simply fact that medium format companies like Phase One offer killer upgrades by trading in your older digital back for the latest and greatest (getting your megapixels count off as a discount, i.e. 50mp = 50% off in trade to a higher mp back) truly keeps those shooters happy.

The first democratization of photography happened with the advent of the Kodak's serial number 540. The advertising actually stated that the common man could make a photography with the pressing of a single button. Yes, photography as a profession has changed substantially over the last thirty years. Yet there are many positive changes. We have cameras that are simply amazing in what they can record. Printers, inks and papers that produce remarkable imagery. We can present our work in many forms, printed, projected, online and available for viewing any where globally in a moments notice.

Photographers have not always been their own best advocates. Reduced profit margins are an issue in all professions. Thirty years ago I could get a decent discount on my equipment purchases, your lucky to get 20$ off a 1K$ lens. On the other hand you can rent any type of equipment you want and have it arrive the next day. Also cost of equipment does not dictate meaningful art work. Actually the equipment argument seems a little, "sour grapes" like.

There is a proliferation of imagery yet the public's visual literacy has actually declined. Selling our vision and service has always been the core of the photographers work.

What do photographers need to do as a group? One action is to copyright your images and support strong copyright laws. Find alternative marketing channels, innovate and provide the best quality and business experience to you clients. There will always be photographers frustrated with the business, it's always been a tricky and tough business, I would expect the competition to increase, yet quality and value are a very persuasive combination for most people.

It's so easy to just say this is the way it was and this is the way it is now... everyones screwed. Actually we live in an era where things move faster. So why don't we quit whining and adapt.

Is the bride and groom going to put their entire big day in the hands of untrained guests that may get a few shots but not THE SHOTS they specified.

Is the corporate personal assistant going to let their nephew shoot their bosses linked in headshots with a point and shoot with their career on the line... I doubt it.

Will an advertising agencies put their clients huge £££ campaigns in the hands of someone who isn't practiced and lacks experience.

Photography is not easy.

You need balls and experience to take on responsibility for getting "the shot" no excuses. No "my iPhone battery died." You are paid to do a job that other people might attempt... but for everyone that does a half hearted job the person that hired them will be more willing to pay your full fee next time.

Tim Skipper's picture

When I was 17 (many moons ago) American Photographer magazine published an article in which the author said the photo industry would die due to the influx of affordable 35mm film cameras. There is always someone who sees destruction in change. While it is true not all change is good, all change is not the end, it's just the beginning of something new.

Only as true as we allow it to be. But an interesting perspective.

Nothing like a hard-core blunt dose of reality to piss off others. Quit making excuses folks, this article hits the nail squarely on the head. "Give the people what they want" attitude is what is killing this country. After all, the public is, for the most part, full of morons who would not know a Rembrandt from a first grade finger painting. Yeah, give the idiots what they want.

Spot on. "Give me what I want even if it's crap" is killing photography everywhere....and a lot of other professions. Sad, but true.