Is professional photography really worth it?


Is Professional Photography Really Worth It?

Like many other professional photographers, I often wonder just what is the perceived value of great photography today. I see it a lot from many sources, most typically social media posts that query connections: “Does anyone know anyone good with a camera who isn’t too expensive?” I see these queries for Wedding Photographers, Portrait Photographers, Event Photographers, Real Estate Photographers, … heck, practically all types of photography. I see these requests in on-line ads from people querying absolute strangers. These posts and ads typically look for a trained worker – one who isn’t going to cost a lot of money – someone safe to work with, and one who will respond to an important event in a reliable and professional manner with skills, equipment, and experience sufficient to produce beautiful, insightful, and long-lasting memories. Each time I see these queries, I can’t help but wonder if the people posting them have thought through in detail what they are really looking for, what they are really risking, and what they are really willing to settle for.

The degree of risk varies, of course, depending on the event. If you are someone who considers a Wedding a very important event (as I and most people do), then the risk is high. Generally with photography you get what you pay for. If you want someone with a nice camera but not pro quality skills, you will get that. If you want someone with an average camera and average skills, you will get that. If you want pro gear and pro skills, you will get that. So posting what I consider a contradictory query leaves me wondering what the poster is really thinking, … what are they willing to settle for – less than professional gear, less than professional skills, or less than professional imagery? What I have learned the person posting the ad wants is a cheap price – not quality of images, not quality of gear (or proper gear for an occasion), and not knowledge of how to use the gear. And that is terribly unfair to photographers who have spent years learning a craft, investing savings in procuring appropriate equipment for a job, and gaining years of experience only to be treated like second class citizens who don’t deserve to earn a fair wage.

It happens a lot these days. It happens to journalists who once worked for News organizations and had replacements told to use phone cameras. It happens to corporate staff photographers let go because “… executives don’t really know the value of good imagery.” And it happens to professional freelancers who lose jobs to local photography students (one example), because potential clients decide that’s a great way to not to have to pay for photography skills and knowledge.

Pro Photographer vs. Amateur - the Difference Is Degree

You see, someone who is not a pro and isn’t going to charge professional rates may actually at times produce decent snapshots, maybe even a great photo or two. My question is, is the person posting the ad looking for someone “…good with a camera who isn’t too expensive…” willing to live with only decent snapshots and maybe one or two great ones – assuming the non-pro photographer they hire is lucky and doesn’t run into photographic challenges that day. (This also assumes the photographer they hire is able to recognize a photographic challenge requiring compensation, modification, or other adjustment before clicking the shutter.)

Most brides, assuming they are going to spend a lot of money on a wedding, place a sizable amount of money aside for a dress. The wedding dress is a big thing. Of course, you don’t see many new brides getting much mileage out of a dress. I mean, how many times have you seen a woman walking down a street in a wedding dress on her way to work? It’s a one time thing. Yet wedding images, when captured and created masterfully, can bring tears of joy and elicit lifetime memories each time they are viewed.

Take a look at the difference. Check out some of the images from great storytellers and Wedding Photographers (e.g., John Dziekan Photography, Scott Kelby’s Wedding Shoot Images, Cliff Mautner Photography, Jerry Ghionis Photography, Catherine Hall Photography). Each photo tells a story and captures a moment, one that becomes more important as each year passes. And great photographers can make even the most simple wedding seem amazing and magical. Have you seen the post about Joe McNally’s wedding images he captured for people getting married at City Hall? And he captured them from the back of a truck. Talk about some lucky Brides and Grooms! Memories and special moments are like that. Sometimes we are lucky enough to know when we are experiencing a unique and memorable one. Other times, time has to pass before we realize how precious a photograph becomes. The significance of captured masterful imagery intensives with time. Photographers who are able to tell a story do so only after years of work, practice, financial investment, and experience. And Wedding Photography is hard. It’s physically demanding. It’s important. It’s fleeting. And the images matter for a lifetime. Do you really want someone merely “good with a camera?” I am biased, but I think the most important investment of the day is the photographer.

Other types of photography matter as well. If you are trying to sell a property or lease one, you have a matter of a fleeting few seconds to capture a reader’s attention. What makes the difference? The imagery. What value do you think pro images have in this scenario? Not having them can cost a client a lot of money, perhaps a sale. Strong imagery can make a difference. Just look at the advertising all around you.

The Difference Isn't Only Quality

There is a difference between snapshots and professional shots that isn’t only related to quality. Both amateurs and pros can produce both. The difference is more of degree. Non-pros can capture lucky shots – along with a maze of typically average looking snapshots. Professionals can produce non-professional looking shots in their quest to create the perfect image – but the vast majority of final finished images delivered to clients will be exceptional, any one of which would be difficult for non-professionals to produce. The difference is frequency. The difference is capability.

Another difference is ability to recover from a substandard capture while a moment is occurring. Pros can do this depending upon the cause, of course. Someone “good with a camera” may not be able to. Is the person posting the query/ad willing to accept this risk during his or her event? Usually the answer is no. The person still wants great images. He or she just doesn’t want to pay for them. Please pardon my sarcasm, but welcome to the world. I want a great car. I just don’t want to pay for it. I want a great house. I just don’t want to pay for it. I want a great education. I just don’t want to pay for it. I want a dog that is already trained, but I don’t want to have to pay the trainer. It doesn’t work that way.

Now I know not all brides have money to spend on an expensive or big wedding. They are not purchasing a venue, or a dress, or a destination, or a honeymoon, or food for 50 or more. These comments are not directed to those individuals. In my experience, they are not the ones posting they are looking for “someone good with a camera” – many times who is also willing to work for next to nothing. Almost always, in each case I know of, the person had funds, but was just trying to save a few dollars at a photographer’s expense. It was not a hardship issue. It was due to devaluing that person’s photography knowledge. This post is directed (in part) to brides and grooms who have allocated a budget and funds for a wedding, a honeymoon, a dress, a venue, a location, flowers, etc., and who have selected other elements as a higher priority. The question I am posing here is, do they really want to skimp on images they receive, because that is what they will likely receive.

I am not questioning final priorities – if they are based on educated decisions rather than driven by a decision to save a few dollars at someone else’s expense. If a Bride, Groom, and family truly don’t care much about photography, there is no need to invest in a pro. Tell guests to use camera phones and e-mail the Bride and Groom the images. It won’t cost anything, and it won’t matter much to the Bride and Groom if there are few or no photographically excellent images – at least not in the short term. (One recent article I read cited a poll that identified the things couples most regretted about their weddings, and a top regret was not investing in better photography. I can see this. Just guessing, they are likely some of the very people who post these queries for “someone good with a camera who is cheap.”)

Proposed Solution - Truth in Advertising

I write this blog post mainly because I am for truthful advertising on the part of posters and respondents. I am suggesting that those posting these queries/ads precisely clarify what they are willing to compromise on, if they don’t want to pay professional rates – images, gear, skills? (If it is only the duration of coverage – for example, four hours versus ten – there are pros who offer shorter coverage at cheaper rates.) So my question here is, just what is the desired compromise in lieu of professional rates? So that there is no miscommunication about what they are seeking and what they will be getting, I would like to see social media queries for “… people good with cameras who are cheap…” modified to reflect something like the following:

“Wanted: Someone cheap and good with a camera who will take 25% decent photos of our wedding and give us 500 mediocre images”
“Do you know anyone good with a cheap camera who can capture 10 good photos over a four hour period?”
“Looking for semi cheap photographer who has nice gear and can take 1000 non-professional looking photos of our wedding, because we either don’t know the difference or we don’t care about photography anyway. The images are for our parents.”

And before any non-pro who takes great photos at a low rate gets mad at me, I am suggesting you request to be paid what you are worth, because great imagery matters. You are rare. Your skills matter. Most amateurs have to work and study for years to become even a little bit good. If you are there now, request to be paid a salary based on the value you bring. The profession you are a part of deserves it. Any other social media query or ad is an insult and shouldn’t be allowed, because the person is saying someone isn’t worth their years of training, skills, knowledge, and experience. Make no mistake, it is blatant discrimination one against an entire profession. On top of which these kinds of posts are just not kind. Social etiquette doesn’t allow other occupations to be so degraded. Why is it accepted for the profession of photography?

If you were looking for an architect, would you take out an ad saying “Wanted: Fully trained but not yet certified architect willing to work for minimum wage to design our house.” If you wanted to save money on medical bills would you post “Wanted: Final year medical student (but not yet graduated) willing to work for minimum wage to care for our son the weekend of August 3, 2015. References and experience with broken bones required.” If you wanted to save money on your tax preparation bill would you post “CPA wanted to prepare our tax returns. We will feed you a meal as a thank you and tell our friends about you on social media.” If your group needed legal advice would you say to an Attorney “We are hosting a networking event. We want you to come and give out individual legal advice to each member for free. We will give you snacks as a thank you and then tell others about you.” Of course not.

Now, I get that in this day and age, everyone has a camera and is likely satisfied s/he knows how to use it. Some may believe there is little difference between pros and non-pros. As someone who has spent years studying and practicing photography and has invested significant funds into professional photography gear and building a professional business, I have learned there is a huge difference. In fact, the more I learn about photography, the greater respect I have for the master photographers who came before me, as well as their knowledge. It is a tough field with much to learn.

And before you think these words might put a damper on those trying to learn photography, they are not meant as such. No one, including me, desires to stop anyone from wanting to learn and master photography. There is great joy and pleasure with each bit of new knowledge gained and applied that produces a great image. I am always amazed at some of the new photographers I see who demonstrate brilliance and innovation in their work early on. It can happen. It is rare though. And there is a difference between someone learning photography for the pure joy of the experience and an untrained novice who produces substandard imagery attempting to gain income before he or she is ready. The latter hurts the profession as a whole. Both parties can end up dissatisfied, and the person hiring someone cheap can become turned off from hiring any one again at all, especially if they don’t know why the disconnect happened in the first place.

To those considering offering their services to the marketplace, one place to start is to look at the work of the best in an industry (world wide) and at competitors in your given market. Consider how your own work holds up. If you are better than the majority of working professional photographers for your specialty in a given market, then you might be ready to begin competing for someone’s hard earned money. And you should continue to try to improve your skills to become as good as the very best in the field (world wide). But it is important to know what a great image actually looks like. It is important to know the components.

You see, photography is anything but aiming a camera and clicking a button. Everything required to create a great image happens in a photographer’s mind before s/he depresses the shutter. In fact, that might be a better query for the person posting the ad for someone cheap. Ask the non-pro you are thinking of hiring if s/he believes all s/he has to do is aim a camera and click a button. If the person says yes, I think the poster of the query has found a photographer!*

So What Is the Value of Great Photography?

To answer this, look around you. Look up when you drive down the street. Do you think the marketing images you see would be the same if the photographer was just someone good with a camera? Consider that If photography knowledge was indeed worth so little and was so easily gained, than the mass of social media images we would see would be wonderful, and everyone would be a pro.

Discern the Difference

In this day and age, with the flood of imagery we see, it is more important than ever to learn to discern the difference. It’s kind of like the change to our Age of Communication. Just because there are lots of media messages out there, doesn’t mean they don’t require screening. Consumers need not only to learn to read them, but to discern what is actually being communicated.

I have an iPad, iPhone, computer, TV, and devices that beep messages at me all day long. The volume and/or frequency of content has nothing to do with the value of the messages sent. That varies. I have to learn to discern what is most important. If I don’t take the time to do that, I will lose the ability to interact in a meaningful way with the most important messages. Everything would become equal. None would matter. All would matter equally. Their importance would be devalued.

And if photography was easy and warranted not paying much for it, everyone would turn pro in five weeks. With the flood of imagery, it is more important than ever to hold onto when and what is the value of professional photography. Weddings surely require better consideration. Marketing images warrant them. Even personal portraits warrant them. So does Real Estate photography.

Ethics in Real Estate

Recently I’ve seen a trend in Real Estate photography where super wide-angle lenses were used to photograph rooms. Some photographers use wide angle lenses because they want to make rooms look much larger than they actually are. I’ve seen the images more than once. I’ve gone to look at houses when I suspected the images were created solely to draw clients. (I saw an entire suite of properties for a given firm use these lenses.) Since I was looking at houses, I went to one to see how significant the difference was. Because the images artificially skewed my view of the rooms to such a great degree, I felt a little angry because I as a consumer wasted my time – even though I knew going into it what I was likely to find.

Cleaning up too much out of a real estate property is also unethical. If rooms are damaged, for example, then buyers need to know what they are getting. Some things should not be removed from real estate images. Marketing imagery is different – but viewers know when they are looking at marketing photos and advertising images. Professional photographers in a specific discipline know what defines removing “too much.” Non-pros may not give these ethics a thought.

Consumers here, too, bare a responsibility. They need to become educated about when to use pros, when pros might not be needed, and when to call out those using someone “good with a camera who is cheap” – especially if the person demonstrates little knowledge of ethics and norms. (Each discipline has its own, something in which many non-pros are not educated.)

Gaining photography knowledge in a specific field is hard work and takes time. It is a valuable skill and it is worth hiring a pro, if and when you find yourself needing strong imagery – whether the image is a portrait, headshot, real estate imagery, web based digitals, marketing materials, or wedding photographers. If you don’t think so, try mastering photography.

And if you are someone who is about to post an ad for someone “… good with a camera who is cheap,” please at least post something that clarifies what specifically you are willing to give up in exchange for the lower rate – a solid house? A semi-well son? Ending up with only 25% decent photos? Then ask yourself what the value of your important day or event really is.