Are You a Photographer?

Sitting in a study group recently, a statement was made that caused me some quick reflection on what exactly I had chosen for a career. For as long as I can remember, I have been taking pictures. (12 years old) I loved to seek a common subject, study it from different heights and angles, and eventually find the one that gave me the ultimate pang of perfection - a perspective to wrap my four corners of composition around, and fire away. It never occurred to me that I was "a photographer", rather obsessed with using a camera.

The personal growth class consisted of mostly career-established adults who were seeking to get more from their daily lives, finances or relationships by studying a timeless, 100 year old book called "The Science of Being Well" by Wallace Wattles. At the beginning of our fourth session, an observation was made that there were two photographers in the group. Having been to three prior sessions, I was surprised to discover I had missed that there was another photographer in the room.

As I scanned the others in curiosity, one lady looked at me to say, "Well I'm not nearly as good as you, and I don't have that nice of gear..." At that point, two thoughts occurred to me.

First, the insecure one that left a pit in my stomach that someone who did not depend on photography for a living, was sharing my title as a "photographer", when I knew she made a living in a restaurant.

Second, that I started out the same way, only working in a grocery store. Upon further, less inferior thinking, it also occurred to me that in my history of photo-related compliments, I was also called a photographer LONG before I declared myself professional.

So what, more accurately than a dictionary, defines a photographer?

Taking my camera to a wedding that was being photographed by a professional, I only saw through my lens. I stayed out of the way of the professional, but having gotten a few really great images from a roll of 36, was both jazzed and flattered, after hearing how great they were from my encouraging, though amateur supporters.

Photographing sunrises, sunsets and anything that gave me that nudge to share with others, I was happy with this habit, but when someone gives you that ultimate compliment of having a few shots as great as a professional, you start to ponder... "Hmm... What is the difference between me and the professional if I have the same camera, and desire to shoot?"

Friends would brag about their friend Brian, who "had a nice camera". Those compliments eventually cost me some nail-biting weddings (with one decent camera, and NO back-up gear), photographing my classmates senior portraits (thank God for the auto features when I was sweating on settings) and soon I was a "photographer". Lacking confidence in my skill level, I gave it away, charging barely enough to cover my film, processing and printing. Acquiring the nickname "Joe Photo" in school, somehow kept me out of the bushes. Hazing was common by seniors, and being one of the shortest in my school made me easy prey until a group-influencing Senior named Bill Turner gave me the nickname. "Let him go, he's cool, he can get us into the yearbook..."

Impressed with my photos, classmates often told me I should be a photographer. While I was thrilled and relieved about those 1-in-12 WOW-images that pleased the untrained eyes, there was my private truth that there were still 11 frames that needed some serious work.

It was a long, jagged and expensive (lab bills) path from 8%-80% presentable, but the cost made me think a great deal before pushing the button. Lighting, expression, background and composition all became second nature before I ever felt like a true professional and it took me years to master with portraiture.

Today's digital cameras have allowed us to take a quick peek to make sure that the flash went off and that we didn't overexpose a wedding dress, but they still cannot self-compose, fire themselves or even know what the true effect or feeling that you desire from the image. In the days of film, EVERY image, no matter how great, required some post-process finessing, which was often done by a professional (not retail) lab. "-2 red, +1 yellow..." and then sent back into the printer before the photographer ever saw a "proof" to obtain sales from. Upon presenting and selling that image, further enhancements would be done, such as negative retouching, and then additional touch-ups to the prints, before applying that sweet smelling protective spray. (an acquired taste/smell, but in my mental association, it said "COMPLETE")

It was like Christmas to open lab envelopes, and it took me several years (as a charging professional) to allow those lab envelopes to be opened by staff. NOBODY could look before I did. I didn't want their feedback, since it was hard to critique myself if someone else weighed in, and even more painful for someone to find a flaw before I did... As egotistical or pride-ridden as that might sound, it was my lack of confidence, thus humility that caused me to insist that nobody open them before me. (Shh... I was 33 years old before I let go of that one)

Before I ever knew I'd choose this craft as a career, I sought a mentor to critique my work and tell me how to get from where I was to where I saw him. He used to teach photography in Chicago before opening his studio in Eastern Oregon, so I knew he could help me. His answer... "Start charging money." He simplified it all to these three words that made me question his wisdom until now 25 years later.

He told me, with conviction, "The only difference between you and I, is that I charge money while you give it away."

"What?... I can't create a portrait like that (pointing at the wall) when I don't even have a studio, lights or know-how..." I replied with my own certainty.

"Yes, but if you charge, you must perform. If you are required to produce, you will improve. If you improve to the point that you like your work, you can charge more... Come, I'll show you how this stuff works..."

Today, there is an industry-damaging misunderstanding that a good camera can allow one to become a "photographer" by deleting a few images, burn to CD, and charge a few hundred dollars less by not finishing the job.

So what's the difference between taking pictures, and being a photographer?
MONEY? Certainly money, but more than that, it's dedication. A professional photographer charges more money than a hobbyist, because they've achieved enough happy clientele to quit the day job - this is it! My professional portrait-artist-mentor Louis M. Ver Baere gave me the royal crowning to say I was a professional. The day I learned to be satisfied enough with my work to charge a professional rate for my services. This began the never-ending responsibility of attending seminars to grow, improve and to keep my axe sharp!

In most businesses, it takes a HUGE amount of right-action, to offset one error that might send an unhappy customer off to vent on a review site. In this business, it seems ironically inverse, that the barrage of DIY brides instead brag of how little they pay, vs. the artistic quality of the images they receive.

Yes, a botched wedding, will get it's due reviews, as will "the ego that couldn't fit inside the body of the shooter" - these things, I often hear from disenfranchised brides maids at friends' weddings... It is odd, however, that an invited guest can shoot over the shoulder of the composing professional, get a similar shot and be touted as a photographer.

Since it is not necessary to become a PPA Certified Photographer (and I confess I am not - yet), there are at least a few things that we as professionals, and you as clients might consider.

1 - Are you exclusively doing photography for a living?
Though I can say I've been shooting since I was 12, there is an awareness that only a professional knows or understands when you cut that umbilical cord of other-income-security, and MUST out-perform your prior amateur self.

The fear of sustenance-dependency (needing photography for survival) intensified my need to NEVER stop trying to improve my work. It does NOT happen overnight, however. I worked (literally) 16-20 hours per day for 4 years (graveyard, 2 hour nap, photographer, 2 hour nap...) to get my studio started from nothing, while still feeding my family. There are easier ways, but I was driven by a dream - failure was NOT an option.

2 - Do they have accolades or certification within their craft?
In August of 1996, I hung the proverbial shingle, and joined the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) as an official member (vs. associate to my mentor's studio "Ver Baere Studio"). I also joined the state affiliate, Professional Photographers of Oregon (PPO). Why? Because my mentor, at age 70-something, was ALWAYS reading pro magazines, especially PPA's, and commenting... "Ah, I hope one day to take great portraits like that". In my opinion, he was already there, but his humility and desire for greatness kept him on a client-pleasing pursuit of a consistent, calculated excellence that set him apart from "a nice camera".

If you are a client or photographer that is new to the process, winning a PPA (or state affiliated award) is not a "luck" thing, nor a bias of a judge knowing who the photographer is. It is a feat that can only be achieved by creating images that pass the agreement of certified judges. Jurors that themselves must have attained a great deal of accolades, and then trained in what makes an image "worthy of merit", and furthermore awarded. They do not know who's image is being judged, it is all based on the "Twelve Elements of a Merit Image", with disputed scores being called back for further review until agreed.

If the photographer you are hiring has been awarded, there is a reason that their image was selected at a PPA sanctioned event. It is not because it got the most votes via social networking, as is the case with many contests. A professional that has collected enough PPA merits (via print awards and educational credits), and has passed the rigorous test of PPA Certification, you can expect to be worthy of the higher price they deserve to offer in trade for their excellence.

3 - What is the level of your photographer's competence or confidence?
We can all discern between an ego and a photographer's level of certainty. Let's face it, an ego is not an easy thing to work around all day if you're the bride. A photographer must be confident enough to verbally direct any desired groupings (without offending or annoying subjects) and be as stealth as a ninja for the rest of the day. That doesn't mean hiding around the corner with cake and champagne, it means being everywhere at once without disrupting the event they are there to illustrate.

A great test for brides... Carry on a conversation with them at your initial inquiry. Of course they must sell themselves on you, so first impressions might be hard to gauge, but ask yourself -
"Is this a person that I can imagine sitting at a table with my friends?"
If your answer is no, then you should seriously consider the expression they will be giving to your photographer's camera. No matter how great the exposure, color and composition are, it's likely that you want your memory book or album to reflect comfortable, genuine, cheerful expressions.

4 - Trust your gut!
It is painful to think of the countless time I've tested my intuition by defying it, but we all do it, yes?.. If you are not comfortable with your interactions, no matter how great the selected display images might be, then don't be surprised if it shows in your captured expressions.

This message is for photographers too. Several years ago, I was referred a nice couple that was planning an incredibly extravagant wedding. The couple was very well established, and money was not an issue. Despite my grounded approach, cheerful interaction during our engagement session, and confidence that I could serve them well, the bride-to-be was clearly not comfortable.
I had plenty of accolades, trophies and testimonials, but I could see in her evasive eyes that she was not at ease. The fact that I was starting out in my basement (albeit very well decorated) combined with looking 19 instead of 36 years old was all that I could assume to cause our lack of chemistry.

Just the same, as I walked them to the front door after the session, I suggested that they should visit another photographer friend of mine that was a bit older and had an amazing property established for his home-based wedding business.

On a backpacking trip with him that next summer, I asked if they booked. "Yes, and it was probably the biggest order I've received to date - except I have never spent this much time working with a client to finalize an album." Considering the fact that I shoot portraits throughout my weekdays, I could not fathom being available for the number of hours that he was able to provide her, regardless of the price.

While I could have used the extra money in the early stages of building my business, I knew that what I did was best and was glad to hear that the client was able to trust him enough to desire this many images. Though I have always been able to adapt to the personality and needs of my clients (and their family dynamics) I was not willing to risk this bride's dream-day images for my own financial gain when I knew another option was available. (the perfect segue to the next tidbit of wisdom...)

5 - Is your photographer part of a professional network?
I admit it, I rarely hang out with other photographers. I am not a "gear-head" that likes to discuss gear etc., so I used to avoid photographer peers. HOWEVER, one of the greatest membership benefits with PPA and other organizations is the vast network.

I was giving a presentation in Las Vegas a few years ago when the hotel's only available projector broke down. Giving a photography presentation without a projector was not an option, so I logged into the PPA website, located a nearby photographer and with no questions asked she loaned me her projector. It only took a few calls to find a willing photographer, which speaks volumes to the amazing benefits of a fellow professional "having my back" in a time of need.

If you are a bride, you can only imagine the peace-of-mind that this access can provide you. Knowing that your photographer is trusted enough by peers to cover them if gear is down or he/she winds up on crutches the day of your wedding. (and yes, this has happened with another PPA success story)

In a bargain-driven market, I hope that these tips will help you determine if your photographer is in fact a "Photographer", or a budding amateur with a nice camera. There are great bits of wisdom in many planning guides, but as an insider to this craft, I can assure you that this short list can give you a better insight to the artist that holds the camera.

Brian GerathsComment