Every now and then, well about every week actually, I get a message that goes something along the lines of, ‘Photographers are skilled artists – they should be paid and not expected to work for nothing’. The last one I got on this theme was a photo of a central heating unit with ‘suggestions’ of why a plumber ‘should’ work for nothing to gain ‘exposure’. The tag line went something like, ‘If you wouldn’t ask a plumber to work for nothing, why would you ask a photographer?’
Well, my next door neighbour is a plumber and I certainly wouldn’t ask or expect him to come and fix my plumbing for free. I’m going to be paying for his years (decades actually) of expertise, obviously. I’m going to be paying him for the insurance policies he holds to protect me. I’m going to going to be paying him for the years spent at college gaining his essential qualifications, and the mandatory refresher and updating courses he has to undertake to keep his qualifications current.
Most of all, I’m going to be paying him because he does this for a job. While he is very good at what he does (excellent in fact), it’s hardly a passion for him. He’d give it all up to be a musician if he could.
The world if full of under-employed and unemployed musicians. On the other hand my neighbour has a skill that is in high demand and short supply. As such he can attract a reasonable fee for the labour that he expends fixing my plumbing.
On a recent trip to Orkney I met a guy while waiting for the light to change at the stone circle at the Ring of Brodgar. I was hanging about with my little compact camera, eyeing up his new Nikon D600, so obviously I asked him how he found the new camera.
To cut a half hour chat down to a few lines; he bought it as an upgrade to his D60 and he’d only bought it a couple of days before. He’s been interested in photography (well, taking photographs) for about a year, and he let the camera sort out the complicated bits, leaving it on the green ‘bit’. One day soon he wanted to take a course on photography to learn more about it. And would I like to see some of his images?
Well, yes, I certainly would.
The images on the back of the camera were a mixed bag, to be sure, but quite a few were very, very good.
The next day I was in a bookshop looking at two books of photographs of Orkney. They were both taken by ‘professional’ photographers, but to be honest they looked like holiday snaps to me. Compared to the best of the shots of my new friend (who really was on holiday), they didn’t stand up favourably.
Now, I’m not suggesting that this guy with his new toy could produce the consistency that a wedding photographer needs, or would even want to, but this chance meeting illustrates that with the latest equipment, knowledge about photography can sometimes place second to just being in the right place at the right time and having an eye for your subject.
Now, my D600 owning friend would be the first to admit that he lacked knowledge, and the more he used a camera, the more he wished he knew. However, his lack of knowledge didn’t stop him from taking some excellent shots.
Let’s ‘fast forward’ this guy a year or so. Now he’s learnt a fair bit about photography. He’s learnt to apply that to his camera, and he’s learnt how to use photo editing software. He’s in great demand photographing family, friends, and work colleagues. He may have even had a few publications (no fees, of course). What, then makes him different from a ‘professional’ photographer – apart from the rather obvious fact that he’s not earning money from his hobby?
One thing I haven’t mentioned is that this guy just happens to be a trainer by profession. It’s entirely conceivable that he could run courses in photography at the point in the future where his knowledge have grown sufficiently to allow him to teach others.
The depressing reality for those trying to make a living out of photography is that this guy isn’t a special case.
At a recent trip to the British Wildlife Centre my daughter spent half an hour teaching someone how to use his Canon 650D with a rather nice 200-400mm zoom. Another visitor to the centre was trying to manage three children and a buggy around shooting with her Nikon D800, and a trio of pensioners in the canteen must have had 15K of equipment lying on the table in front of them.
Any one of the above might get a really, really good photograph (or indeed many) and most would quite happily sign away the rights for a credit in a magazine!
Photographers in newspapers are being laid off, or not being replaced when they leave. National Rail are currently inviting members of the public to photograph railway stations for a competition. The prize? To have your photograph on the National Rail website! There are even magazines who will only publish your photographs if the meet the editorial standards of the magazine and you pay them a fee.
While complaining that their livelihoods are being destroyed, some photographers act in a similar vein. The photographer who brought the example of paying to have images printed in a magazine to my notice and is keen to argue that photographers should be paid well, often advertises for unpaid assistants to help on jobs: to gain experience!
In a world where a few hundred pounds will buy equipment capable of producing professional results, there are many people who will happily pay a few thousand pounds to get the ‘best’. Many of those people will, and do, regard photography as an enjoyable and rewarding hobby that brings its own intrinsic rewards. They are simply not in it for money.
Going back to where I started, I’ll continue to pay my neighbour to do my plumbing because it’s a difficult, skilled job. Even if I felt I could do the task myself, the thought of working in cramped, badly lit conditions, without the correct tools and with (possibly severe) consequences if I got it wrong make his fees the far lesser of alternative evils.
Photography is a great hobby, and the more you learn about it, the better your photography will be. In the past it was an exclusive subject which few people really understood, and which required expensive, bulky equipment and usually a well appointed darkroom to achieve good quality prints. Digital photography has truly democratised photography, bringing low cost photography to a huge new audience.
But as a job? Perhaps it would be better to train as a plumber.