What Are Red Flags You Have Noticed in Other Photographers?

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.)

Toxicity

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.

Complete Anonymity

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?

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47 Comments

James Cowman's picture

This was a good article. I recently had a photographer ask me to give examples of images that don’t work because I teach design. My response was, I’m always a bit hesitant to critique work because it’s such a sensitive topic. I know how I felt getting reviews many years ago. But I’m learning new ways to help photographers learn from their mistakes but try to do it in a constructive way. With that said, I see a lot of red flags in the photography arena when it comes to learning composition. Most don’t want too learn real design and actually get mean about the information provided because it’s more complex. The point I’m making is that I’ve learned to see the red flags in the industry that I teach. Thanks for the article.

Pete Whittaker's picture

Photographers who try to establish their own expertise by talking negatively about other photographers. I've encountered this in particular from photographers who put on workshops.

Ola Åkeborn's picture

My big red flag is photographers who highlight their own skill as an artist and photographer when photographing concerts or other productions lit by a lighting professional and with lighting equipment for $ 100,000 and the performance is rehearsed for months and performed with an endless budget. All they have done is stand in front, with their camera and press the button. Sure, they have set the right automatic mode, but that they then take credit for the pictures and above all think that they are enormously good photographers. Maybe worst of all that they get praise from others for their amazing pictures ... Sorry, just had to get it out of me ...

Stuart C's picture

Seems a very specific genre of photography to pick on?

Ola Åkeborn's picture

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Översättningsresultat
Sure, but the idea can be applied on many occasions. For example, some who take photography courses and take pride in their photos in their own portfolio, without telling that someone else has acquired a model, location, set the light and told where the photographer stands best. Or the Chinese fishermen who catch their fish with birds, early in the morning in a mountain lake. There are busloads of tourists who pay a lot of money for "unique" pictures. That motive has even won international competitions. https://www.google.com/search?q=chinese+fishermen+using+birds+to+fish&rl...

Stuart C's picture

Right, I didn't understand your comment the first time around. So basically you mean people who pay to go on a 'workshop' whereby a pro is arranging all the elements of the studio, only for the participants to just click their shutter, which they then pass off as an image created by themselves?

If so then yes I would agree with you, its a bit lazy, and not entirely honest.

Tom Reichner's picture

I cannot understand why 4 readers gave you a "thumbs down" for your comment. What you said rings true to my ears, and is right on the money.

Doug Peters's picture

Why is it so many “professional” photographers have this opinion, then when they get hired to do a concert or event their photos are usually trash? I think a huge red flag is any photographer who calls out a whole genre of photography when they have no idea of the intricacies of said genre…

Ola Åkeborn's picture

Do not get me wrong, I love the genre and the pictures. But I dislike when photographers call out that they created the picture and take the pride of being a great photographer, and the guy with an iPhone beside him takes exactly the same pictures ... In my world a photographer should be able to create pictures in every different situation and of course at a concert and other productions. But the credit for the fantastic pictures should honestly go to the team or person how has given the photographer the served table of great lightning and a stunning act. And what do you know about my concertpictures? I'm not saying that I'm a concert photographer, even though I've done my fair share in front of the stage, but it´s the principle of taking credit for something you have not created yourself. That's what my red flag is.

Tundrus Photo's picture

A thoughtful article - thank you.

J.d. Davis's picture

Disagree with "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."

Why?

'In short, don’t post any photos online that you can’t afford to lose control over.'

No one can steal what they can't see!

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

No one can also discover your work or verify if you even know what the hell you're talking about. What do you do...take photos and just let 'em rot in your computer? With a paranoid hermit mindset like that, you'll always be pissed at kids more successful than you. https://fstoppers.com/comment/690666

J.d. Davis's picture

No, son, my work is on an iPad.

And saying I have "... a paranoid hermit mindset..." is so thoughtful of you, I didn't know that you cared so much about me. Truth is, I don't think about you at all!

Brian Cover's picture

B Z E = toxicity

J.d. Davis's picture

Game, Set & Match to Brian Cover, ~ well played!

Tundrus Photo's picture

Apparently, some people believe that if you don't have a website or social media you either don't exist or are shady. Interesting. By this logic if you aren't on LinkedIn you've never had a job and will never get a job. Or if you're not on Facebook you don't exist or have any friends. The internet and social media have created a whole new way of looking at the world and people's interaction - and often not for the better.

J.d. Davis's picture

It's really funny; I was doing national ads when Mr. Baggs was still in diapers, long before BZEddy discovered half naked women and decades prior to the internet, google and the day zuckerberg flunked out of Harvard!

God Forbid you take away their photoshop and ask them to use hot lights or figure out bellows extension on a large format camera.

Some actually do good work, and that is to their credit, others are just a bladder full of hot air....it's easy to tell the difference.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Do you do them right now and if not, when did you stop?

Brian Cover's picture

When customers ask me why I'm not on FB, I tell them I get all the business I can handle from referrals. Then I ask them who gave them my info......

Alexander Petrenko's picture

It just doesn’t make sense to spend time on FB as it doesn’t worth the effort. Noone will see your posts anyway.

Ed Sanford's picture

I learned a very long time ago to never accept much advice from a photographer without seeing their work. I have seem some very pointed and terse comments on this site regarding technique, style etc... When I see these things, I go looking into their profile or their website to see their work. On an anecdotal basis, I find that some of the most outspoken critics have no evidence of their work for observation... Just say'n

J.d. Davis's picture

After seeing some of my online work stolen, it all migrated to an iPad, which I am more than happy to show anyone who wishes to see it.

Ed Sanford's picture

I hear you…. Couldn’t you put low res stuff out there?

J.d. Davis's picture

Ed, it was lo-res and it was stolen anyway (640 X 480) After careful consideration I decided that advertising agencies and art directors could look at my iPad, with me present, and decide if we were a good fit.

While there are some who take web based submissions only, pushback has thankfully been limited. I have found that when presented correctly - there is nothing that beats a smile and handshake after a meeting, or at least a smile and fist bump.

Ed Sanford's picture

I would agree with that…. Glad you have a solution…

Lee Christiansen's picture

Photographers are a bit like actors in an audition.

When asked "can you photograph this?" the answer is almost always "yes."

Jeff McCollough's picture

Not me lol. People beg me to shoot newborn photos and I say nope sorry!

Gregory Mills's picture

I would stay away from any photographer that shows up late. In this business, meeting deadlines, time management, and showing up early to make sure your gear is ready for a shoot is critical. If you cant show up on time, how can I trust you to get the photos to me to make my print deadline? If I am getting married, how can I trust that you will make it to my wedding on time?...or even show up at all?

Brian Cover's picture

Promptness is a regional thing. There are parts of the country that if you show up 5 minutes late, you will still be the first one there. Whenever I make an appointment, I always make it a time window of 20 to 45 minutes wide with the disclaimer added "depending upon traffic". And add "I can text you when I'm 10 minutes away." People appreciate that.

Hans J. Nielsen's picture

Great article. Just found it a little funny that the section called [Speaking in Absolutes] was written in such an Absolute language.

I leave --->

J.d. Davis's picture

I'll take 'Irony' for 200 please!

Brian Cover's picture

My favorite part was you ending the section of Speaking in Absolutes with
" So, never trust someone who speaks in absolutes."
Did never get reclassified as a non absolute? I missed that memo....... :)

Les Sucettes's picture

Social Media is the silliest of the reasons listed. A great portfolio on a website is enough. No need to join INSTASPAM

Ed Sanford's picture

People can resist the possibility of getting “likes”. It is salve for the ego..

Les Sucettes's picture

Only very few who play all the tricks can actually benefit. All others are fooling themselves. If you’re not fully committed or motivated there’s no chance in hell you can make Instaspam work for you

Aidan Hughes's picture

Very interesting article. I would be interested to get the communities take on something I recently experienced that fits within this topic. How do you respond to critique from other photographers who APPEAR to have little understanding about what they are critiquing, to the point that when you look at their own work it is let's say far from perfect and has very little if anything to do with the work they are critiquing? e.g an events photographer commenting on product photography. I get that certain rules of composition etc can be carried over to most genres of photography but when they give very genre specific feedback and seem to have no experience of what they are saying how do you take them seriously? Should you take them seriously? Or just ignore and move on? I would love to hear if anyone has some thoughts on this? I am not saying that the photographers I encountered were in anyway a 'lesser photographer' far from it. I just think it's important to know when to trust the opinions of my peers and when to take something with a pinch of salt!

J.d. Davis's picture

Less than 1/10 of one percent of critique should be taken seriously. Especially egregious are camera clubs, the 'local contests' and most so-called Art Galleries who want money to show your work.

Do you really feel the need to have someone look at your work and give honest opinions? OK, here goes: I looked at your work, it's good. Meat & Potatoes and it gets the job done. Only negative: the beer pour does not look real. Thing is, we all know how hard it is to get a good 'beer pour' without having a hole in the center of the head.

Keep up the good work

Aidan Hughes's picture

Thanks for your response and feedback. I guess during the early days I have found that social media has been a good source of CC for my work whilst I am learning. It's basically free advice. I get that you have to take most of it with a pinch of salt. However, on the flip side I have had some really useful critiques through social media groups that have definitely helped to lift my game! Thanks again.

Brian Cover's picture

In every field there are so called experts who know less than the person whom they are critiquing. I just reply "Thanks for your input." and move on. Anything more than that is a waste of your time and likely to lead to something unpleasant.

Aidan Hughes's picture

Thanks Brian!

Pete Whittaker's picture

If you didn't ask for the critique and the person giving the critique isn't in a position to hire you or send work your way and the person giving the critique isn't an expert in your genre... No, there is no reason to take those critiques seriously or to engage with the person offering them.

Aidan Hughes's picture

Thanks for your input Pete!

Ryan Cooper's picture

One of the biggest red flags, for me, is when the entire portfolio is filled with work created at a workshop. I feel it doesn't really count as "your work" if an instructor set everything up for you (lighting, model, location, etc) and all you had to do was walk up and press the button. It is even worse if you are trying to sell yourself to clients using that work because you haven't even proved that you have the ability to create what you are selling yet.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

So, you mean like Annie Leibovitz? ;)

Ryan Cooper's picture

Zing. ;) Though to be fair, I'd argue Leibovitz isn't really selling photography, she is selling the exclusivity of working with the brand that she built. Clients get exactly what they are after when they hire her.

Brett Lackey's picture

Good post

Kai Eiselein's picture

My favorite is, “professionals always use RAW”.
Uhh, nope, not true at all.