Muscle memory, match fitness and second nature

Whatever you do for a living, for fun or out of necessity the general rule is that the more you do it, the better you get at it. Like a very large number of people I have been doing what I normally do a lot less through the COVID-19 pandemic and I have found that has caused me to stop and think a lot more.

I haven’t been into a single school for almost a year and a half and I haven’t shot a large set of corporate headshots for almost as long. I haven’t been asked to photograph retail spaces, conferences or the work that takes place inside hospitals. That’s a massive chunk of my core photography work missing from my life and the relatively few editorial and news jobs that I’ve done certainly haven’t made up for any of the regular commissions.


Define the word “PHOTOGRAPHER”

When does a person with a camera, even a person with an expensive camera, become a photographer?

Apologies if this seems to be getting a bit philosophical but it’s a question that someone casually threw at me a week or so ago and I’ve been struggling with it ever since. Let’s get the dictionary stuff out of the way…

Right now we can really get on with the real business of working out what a photographer is. I’ve always been a fan of simple definitions and I like the idea of making a comparison between things, so how about this:

Someone with a camera tries hard to get everything into the picture whilst a photographer does their level best to keep as much out of the picture as they can.

All that means is that there comes a point in your photographic journey where you realise that most pictures are much stronger when you leave absolutely everything out that doesn’t need to be in. In a paraphrase of the old saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” (which isn’t necessarily true by the way) we can come up with “what doesn’t add to the composition detracts from it”.

The dictionary definition above, which comes from the English dictionary built into the Apple OSX operating system, steers away from the word professional and I’m really glad that it does because there are an awful lot of superb photographers out there that take pictures for fun and not for a living. Being a good photographer is not the same as being a professional photographer. On balance, MOST professionals are good but there isn’t a direct relationship between earning a living and being proficient.

These days there is a belief that ‘everyone is a photographer’. I wouldn’t argue that almost everyone takes pictures and that almost all of them take two, three, four and even twenty times as many pictures as they would have done when we had to buy film. Someone who I once discussed photography with reminded of another old adage – the one about if you give enough monkeys enough paper, enough typewriters and enough time sooner or later one of them will create the complete works of Shakespeare. It doesn’t hold up here and I told him as much.

People with cameras are largely rational, intelligent and reasoning beings and so most will work out what they do and don’t like and then take better and better pictures over time. Their image making isn’t the random act of monkeys with no comprehension what they are doing – the point here is that when it comes to learning that less (content) is more (better pictures) some will figure it out for themselves , some will need to have it pointed out to them and the rest will remain blissfully ignorant of it.

For some lucky people the knowledge is instinctive. The rest of us have learned through trial and error and/or formal education to know a good picture when we see one. Those that take the next step by learning what makes it a good picture can call themselves “visually aware”. The final (and never ending) stage is to develop the skill to see the picture and make the best of it before and during the pressing of the shutter. Those people can call themselves photographers.


Professionalism 101 (or P101 for short)

©Neil Turner/TSL

The hardest part of the transition from good photographer to professional photographer is in understanding the difference between the two. I once wrote that the best definition of “professional” is someone who gets the shot 99.9% of the time and has a damned good excuse for the rest. Still true, but professionalism has another side to it – one that can be learned pretty easily.

Clients are used to dealing with professionals: Slick presentation, questions being answered before they are asked and great customer service. These are all things that we expect as consumers and in business we expect even more. As a professional, you are in a market place and you have to compete.

We work in an image-conscious business and we live in an increasingly image-conscious world. Even as self-employed freelancers we need to have corporate identities of our own. The vast majority of our clients have proper business cards and 99.9% of them have email addresses that tell you who they are and who they work for.

I am constantly amazed by the number of decent photographers who hand out slightly apologetic home-made inkjet printed cards and I’m shocked by the number of Yahoo and Hotmail accounts that people rely on. Webmail is useful but it does nothing to positively affirm you as a professional. Buying and running your own web domain is not difficult or expensive and it really helps to give potential customers the impression that you are in business and that you have been for some time. If your email address matches your portfolio website there is a certain synergy. If your on-line presence is a gallery on Flickr and your email is then you really are missing a trick.

Keeping everything the same, presenting a corporate image and playing the game doesn’t detract from your photography. Quite the opposite; it removes a potential barrier to clients taking you seriously. Having a well-designed and easily navigated portfolio on the internet is almost as important as owning a camera. Being a member of at least one of the professional bodies that offer searchable freelance directories is also a very good idea.

Moving on in the story a little, you have met the client, they like your folio and they give you some work. Professionalism moves up a gear and this is your first job for them so you cannot make presentational mistakes now. Be clear when accepting the commission what the fees and expenses are, what rights you are selling them and what they are expecting from you. Get technical specifications, deadlines, delivery addresses (FTP, email or postal) sorted out and then go and do what you are there to do – shoot the pictures.

Let’s say, for arguments sake that the job requires a CD with twenty high-resolution, post-produced RGB JPEG files in the post. P101 says that the client will be used to proper presentation and so your CD should not be a PC World own brand disc with a few illegible words written in marker pen in a cracked plastic case. Printing proper CD labels is very cheap. Getting discs printed on an upmarket Inkjet printer isn’t expensive and having a few hundred professionally screen-printed will not break the bank. Slim CD cases are OK but softer plastic flexible cases are better and they will cope with the postal system far better. Of course the disc should be labelled with the date but the main impression should be that this came from Joe Bloggs – professional. The packaging should be professional, the label on the outside should be neat and tidy and you should have a properly printed compliment slip in there too.

None of this makes you a better photographer, none of this will actually impress the client. But none of this costs much money either. What it will do is not raise any negative thoughts. The hand written scrawl on the cheap disc stands a good chance of making a negative impression – yet hundreds of photographers still do it.

So what about what is actually on the disc. There are the pictures of course. It’s important to make sure that they meet any specification given to you by the client and it’s also vital to make sure that the client can open the disc on whatever system they use – but what else? Make space on the disc for a PDF file containing licensing information and a second PDF with the caption details (it’s amazing how many picture buyers still don’t understand or see the metadata that you embed in the images). For some clients a set of clearly marked low resolution, screen sized sRGB JPEGs can be useful too.

Going deeper still, think about the metadata that you attach to the files. Professionals have to add IPTC caption details. Who, what, why, when and where. No matter which imaging application you use you have to put into words what is in the picture – which balding middle aged man is which, where they were taken with a date and possibly a time. You also have to add your details. Stamp your identity right there in the metadata. Use the © symbol liberally so that everyone knows who owns the pictures. The tricky thing here is to know which box you put this information into. Many newspapers want you to put everything into the main caption/description box. Others only want the names and places in the main box. Most magazines and commercial clients don’t have a preference. If in doubt put it all in the main caption/description box and add it all in the other relevant boxes too.

Metadata has another face – EXIF. These are the shooting details that your camera will add to digital files. Some are useful – time, day and date. Others are annoying – which lens, shutter speed, white balance. Does the client need to know this stuff? Probably not – so delete it.

This is not rocket science 101. This is, however, a very competitive market. P101 says that you have to do everything that you can to give the client confidence that you are a pro and that you will deliver the goods. I was giving a talk on this very topic at a college when a very-self-assured young man told me that he wasn’t interested in any of this “plastic b******t” and that his clients would have to take him for what he was – an excellent photographer. This kind of approach might have worked twenty years ago but it doesn’t have a snowball-in-hell’s chance in the 21st Century.

Having a “USP” (unique selling point) is a great idea as a photographer, but being the one who eschews good presentation and good practice is a pointlessly high-risk strategy. If you want to take pictures for a living, you have to get people to pay you. Most of the people who control the market place wear suits and respond well to corporate image. It’s a game and you would be well advised to play it.