Whether you're looking to hire a photographer yourself, are looking to work with another photographer, or are being given advice or criticism from another photographer, what are some red flags that put you on high alert?
I was recently writing about photographers giving other photographers advice. For the most part, constructive criticism and feedback on images posted into groups and communities are as delicate, positive, and thoughtful as they ought to be. However, there is also a sizable chunk that will tear into anything they see. In my article, I was advising that you ought to ignore most negative feedback, but if they're a trustworthy source, it can be valuable. But, how on earth do you tell who you can trust and who has slithered out from under a rock to spit venom around for a while?
I soon realized this is a similar problem to when you are booking a photographer or looking to work in collaboration with one. You have to verify that they are knowledgeable, skilled, and trustworthy, or it can end in tears. We have all seen devastated brides online after their photographer was a disaster, for example. I have also seen companies opt to hire photographers who I can tell are going to be a problem, but I cannot say anything. The reasons I can typically tell are based on a handful of red flags. I have decided to compile those here, but I would like you to add your own in the comment section below.
A Lack of Presence and Social Proof
This is a difficult example, as I know a handful of photographers who have been around for decades and don't have much of an online presence. One has a rather average website, no social media, no online reviews, and yet he works with Vogue regularly and has been given some of their most coveted awards for photography. However, as a general rule in modern photography, I think this is a useful marker.
If a photographer has no online portfolio, no social media (including image websites like Flickr and 500px), and no reviews or testimonials, I'd be suspicious of them for any purpose. That is, I wouldn't want to hire them, work with them, or trust their opinion if they have decided to give me advice or criticism. Our industry is necessarily "showy" in how it operates, and whether you like it or not, few photographers can succeed while scarcely existing online.
Speaking in Absolutes
This is one of my biggest bugbears and red flags with any person, on any topic, not just photography. If somebody is making a point and uses language that leaves no room for maneuvering, I take what they say with a handful of salt. For example, "professional photographers only use mirrorless cameras" or a recent example I gave, "you should never work for free." There aren't many occasions I have found where something is either one or zero, and if people tell you that something is always one way, or never another way, they might not be the most trustworthy source. So, never trust someone who speaks in absolutes. (I'm a big Chuck Palahniuk fan; I couldn't resist an unreliable narrator opportunity.)
This almost needn't be said, but although it may be obvious, it's easy to still make mistakes. If a photographer is being toxic or has been toxic in the past, it's a large red flag. Where this is most pertinent is when you're getting comments, feedback, or criticism on your photography from another photographer. Though it can be easy to say that the person being toxic isn't pleasant, you can still take their words to heart.
We have a fantastic community here at Fstoppers, but as I moderate the comments, I see the worst of our community too. I have no issue with disagreements, even if they get somewhat heated, but it's typically the same people who take it over the line, who get personal and aim to upset and offend rather than change opinions. This is true of all industries and particularly prevalent online thanks to anonymity (we'll come back to that), but consider it the reddest of red flags.
A Thin or Suspect Portfolio
This is one of the most difficult pieces of advice to give, because a thin portfolio could — in theory at least — be a well-curated one. Many photographers opt for a highly refined portfolio with only a handful of examples of their best work. This is far from a red flag; it can be the polar opposite, in fact. However, if the images aren't of the highest standard and the portfolio is thin, it likely warrants further investigation.
When I have looked to hire another photographer or advised other people on doing so, their portfolio is my first port of call. If there aren't many images and the images aren't incredible, I would always request to see full galleries. Consistency is the hardest part of photography, and when you're making a living from the craft, it's usually the most important.
As for a suspect portfolio, there are a few ways to identify it. I usually have concerns when a photographer's work lacks any congruency. That is, they'll have large gaps in quality, subject matter, editing style, or other hallmarks of photographic identity. There is an alarming number of photographers out there who outright steal other photographers' work.
The beauty of the internet is the anonymity (to a degree) it offers, but that's, of course, an infamously double-edged sword. While I respect privacy, if a photographer wants to be taken seriously but retain complete anonymity with a pseudonym, I'm unlikely to trust them without a very good reason. This is a rare issue if you're looking to hire a photographer, as even the ones who work under a company name are usually forthcoming with their real name. That said, this problem is more common when the photographers are primarily retouchers, in my experience. And it's more common still with photographers offering unsolicited feedback. So, take their views with a pinch of salt.
What Are Red Flags You Have Noticed?
This is far from a comprehensive list of red flags of photographers. It is, however, a list of the red flags I am most familiar with, but it would be interesting to see any I have missed. What do other photographers say or do that instantly puts you on full alert?