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.


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!

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.