Grumpy old photographers’ charter

I do a lot of seminar and teaching work these days and one of my most popular presentations is about professionalism. The talk is aimed at new entrants to the profession but it seems to go down well with photographers who have been around a while as well. I have even delivered the same talk to a group of lawyers because actually replacing the word ‘photographer’ with ‘lawyer’ brings a lot of the meaning around to the central idea that, in many ways, professionalism is the same no matter what you do for a living.

©Neil Turner. March 2009, Bournemouth Beach

The final part of the talk is a bit of a dig at myself and my peers. Those of us who have been in the job for a long time and who might just be getting a little complacent about things. I call this part of the talk “The five worst habits of those of us who should know better”:

1. Harking back to a golden age that may, or may not, have existed

It’s a simple idea really – we all look back with slightly misty eyes at the time a few years ago when things were good and before something new came along to spoil everything. Take your pick from the use of colour in newspapers, the whole move to digital, the adoption of multimedia by newspaper websites and several other developments in the industry. The truth is that when I was just starting out there were a few photographers who complained about the arrival of 35mm film and the loss of their beloved Rolleiflex cameras and even one or two who bemoaned the passing of half plate cameras and dark slides with sheet film. I reckon that every photographer has a ‘golden age’ that they look back at and that you can calculate when that was for each of us using a simple formula which compares how long the photographer has been working with when they got their first big front page and divide it all by the first major change in the industry that they went through. There never was a true golden age was there?

2. Forgetting why we came into the job in the first place

Easy to do this… most of us had a desire to tell stories, create arresting and beautiful pictures and to make the world a better place with our photography. Very few of us did it for the money, not many of us did it so that we could play with ever more expensive toys and only a tiny number came into it so that they could work unsocial hours and have to chase clients for money the whole time. If you take a step back and think about your original motivation and it isn’t there any more you really need to make your mind up about whether this is still the business that you want to be in. The older I get, the more I feel the need to shoot pictures that I want to shoot just to keep myself sane and sharp.

3. Failing to keep up with new business practices

“I’ve always done it that way, why should I change now?” is a common lament from photographers who are in trouble of getting it wrong. From the way you buy and use equipment to the way you store your archive and from the way you word your invoices to the way you put your portfolio together should be the subjects of constant review and possible change. Technology affects every single aspect of who we are and what we do and anyone who decides to stop keeping themselves up-to-date with what is happening is consigning themselves to a parallel dimension where they may get some work but where that might  be a temporary state on the road to going out of business.

4. Throwing money and effort into the latest thing

Exactly the opposite of the last problem really. Keeping abreast of developments and knowing where the market is a good idea whereas automatically jumping on every new idea, fad or fashion is not. So many new developments turn out to be ideas that don’t stand the test of time and too many of us have invested too much time and money chasing them. The worst way to do this is to assume that somebody younger and hipper than you automatically knows what to do – that, in my experience, is rarely the case. There’s always a middle-aged geek who you can ask…

5. Letting professionalism slip

Another thing that is far too easy to do. I know that I’ve done it – mainly through over-confidence. You have to remember the maxim that “professionalism is everything we do, everything we say and everything we produce” in our working lives. You can get too close to clients, you can cut corners in your workflow and you can rely too much on automated systems. This is far from a full list but it illustrates the potential pitfalls when it comes to losing our professional edge.

Being a professional photographer is a fulfilling and interesting way to make a living but we all need to remember that it is a profession and not a lucrative hobby. I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with a clever and punchy pay-off line for this blog post but I’ve struggled. I’ll just content myself with some advice: when things are feeling tough and not all all like the ‘old days’ just remember the five worst habits of those of us who should know better and if that doesn’t help… get some help!

6 comments

  1. Point number 2 I agree is very important but would it not have been pleasant if our employers had taken point 3 to their hearts. Is it not true that it is the lone freelance, poorly funded, that improves his business practice first and then tears his hair out at desks who do not understand – remember the change over from pagers to mobiles!

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    1. There were and are so many things that the papers and agencies could have done to make our lives easier but the editors that understood were few and far between. I started out in 1986 and got a mobile phone in 1987 – never had a pager…

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