What kind of photographer are you?

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Evening light from London's Tower Bridge. From my EyeEm feed.

© Neil Turner, August 2013. Evening light from London’s Tower Bridge. From my EyeEm feed.

When you are introduced in a social situation as a ‘photographer’ there is almost always a follow up which will vary from “do you do weddings?” via “what kind of photographer are you?” to “I take a lot of pictures myself”. How you respond to these various questions and comments says a lot about you.

There was a time when I got quite annoyed that so many people automatically equated professional photography with wedding photography and it didn’t help that I wasn’t a huge fan of the work most wedding photographers were doing.

That has literally all changed. Fewer people automatically assume that I must shoot weddings at the same time as the quality of the best wedding photography has gone from quite good to extraordinarily good. It is inexcusable, not to mention counter-productive, to get worked up about people not understanding a job market as complex as photography when the only professionals that the majority have met are high street portrait photographers and wedding photographers.

My annoyance has gone away (that could of course be my age showing through) and been replaced with a desire to educate as many people as I can about what makes a professional photographer different from a person with a nice camera. I’ve had a go at defining professionalism on this blog before so I want to visit my notions of myself as a photographer:

What kind of photographer AM I?

This is an exercise that we should all do no matter what we do for a living and no matter how we have described ourselves in the past. Every website, social media platform and discussion forum that I appear in has some form of description of me but they vary subtly from one to another. For example, on the EyeEm photo sharing site I have been using this;

Middle-aged editorial photographer still obsessed with taking pictures for fun, for a living and for posterity

Whereas on my AboutMe page I use the following;

Middle-aged editorial & corporate photographer, still crazy about pictures after all of these years

And then on LinkedIn – which I regard as the most important and most serious of the social media platforms for work I use a much longer description;

Freelance photographer based in the south of England providing editorial and editorial style photography to the media industries. Features, portraits, case studies and documentary style work for newspaper, magazine, commercial, PR and NGO clients

On the one that matters, I don’t mention my age and I don’t try to be even remotely witty or self-depricating. Horses for courses. Encapsulating who you are and what you do in one line is a lot easier when you have time to think about and when it is written down. I have lost count of the number of people that I’ve met in situations not directly connected to finding work as a photographer who have gone on to provide me with work. Your social media presence, your website or your blog are important shop windows and it is very important to have good and concise biographies available for those who want to know more. It’s important to keep them up-to-date and professional and that is something we all need to work hard on. Responding in person in a social or business setting is a lot tougher unless you give it a great deal of thought and have a few reasonably well rehearsed (without sounding glib or insincere) answers up your sleeve. I say this because it does matter.

So what are the options?

  • You can come up with one or two simple descriptions of what you do that rolls off of the tongue and says exactly what kind of professional you are.
  • There is an option to have a slightly less perfect description that invites further questions to which you have good answers that will lead into a proper conversation rather than you just giving a straight answer to a straight question.
  • It’s very easy to have some rather more enigmatic answers that give hints to what you do for a living but that have the goal of really dragging the other person/people into a detailed analysis of you and your work.
  • Finally you might want to deflect the question altogether – sometimes you meet people who aren’t interested in you and just want to talk about themselves and it is often easier to give them permission to indulge in that. Similarly there are occasions where you meet people who have a camera around their neck and who want to bore you rigid with their questions about the minutiae of photography.

Once you have been in this business for enough years you tend to make snap judgements and use an answer from any one of the four bullet pointed categories above as the situation demands. That isn’t always easy and so my default position is the second option – the imperfect description that invites conversation. The question can be phrased in far too many ways to work out an exact response for each one but my stock response would be something like;

“I make 90% of my living as an editorial and corporate photographer”

That gives them a chance to ask for definitions of editorial and corporate, to ask who my clients are and to ask how I make the other 10% of my income. I guess that there is a hint of ‘enigmatic’ in that answer but it mainly gives me a chance to assess their response and to line up some good descriptions and the odd anecdote. This is basic conversation and we all have conversations all of the time but I’m a very strong believer in responding professionally to enquiries about my profession.

To me, editorial photography is anything used in a newspaper or magazine, on a website or in a video to help to tell or illustrate a story. The pictures should have been shot as a third party where the person paying you doesn’t have a direct relationship with who or what is in the photographs. I also shoot a lot of PR and commercial pictures in an ‘editorial style’ where I use the same styles and techniques of lighting and composition but where I am being paid by someone who have a personal or business relationship with my subject. My corporate work is very similar but isn’t intended for use in an editorial context. The corporate stuff might be for a brochure or an annual report – a blatantly non-editorial context.

You can see that I have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this stuff. It’s important. At a time when the amount of work out there hasn’t increased with the number of people chasing it and when prices are under constant pressure because of supply and demand you have to have some clear ideas and visions about where you want to be, where you are perceived to be and how to marry those two often conflicting views. As time moves on, your own attitudes and positions change as well and you need to be able to give articulate responses to questions because more than ever before everyone you meet is a potential client or knows someone who is.

Because I make 10% of my income without a camera in my hands – something that has come into being in the last five years – I also have to have simple descriptions of what that entails. That, weirdly, is a lot tougher than describing how I make the 90%. Simply put – I teach, write about and consult on editorial and corporate photography. I am at pains to stress that whilst I love having the variety my heart remains with taking pictures and that my value to clients as a teacher, writer and consultant is vastly increased because I’m still a practitioner.

Quite how many social situations allow you to get through the whole script is a whole other blog post. You have to obey the social conventions and be interested in other people too. How easy that is depends on who they are and how engaging they are – exactly what they were thinking about you.

 

3 comments

  1. Great article Neil. It’s becoming harder to define concisely what kind of photographer you are with the need to continually adapt in an ever shrinking market. My work is mainly editorial and documentary weddings now so I find Facebook and Twitter far more important to me than LinkedIn. I spend much more time maintaining those profiles and I think they’re becoming more relevant to PR and corporate clients now as well. I’d view the about me section of my website with as much, if not more significance than the LinkedIn profile.

    Like

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