Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Everyone's a Photographer

My wife once suggested that a co-worker, who was interested in starting a photography business, take some classes to develop her skills with a camera. "Oh, I don't need any classes," responded the co-worker, "I have a natural ability to take good pictures." The full automatic everything of her point 'n shoot camera would apparently be sufficient for establishing her niche in the industry. It was around this time that my wife began her sarcastic "everyone's a photographer" comment. It seemed to apply to someone on a weekly basis. If a celebrity went on an African safari and somehow managed to get images published, that person was quickly proclaimed a photographer. Anyone with a decent DSLR was being asked to photograph their cousin's wedding. A nice vacation sunset print, enlarged & framed, could convince a novice to pursue a career in photography. And now there's a former working pro attempting to market a 10-step program to success in professional photography, even going so far as to suggest shooting in Program mode when all else fails! Has it come down to the quality of the gear instead of the skill and experience of the photographer? Near the end of a commercial shoot for a school website, an administrator approached me who was impressed with my Nikon D3, sporting a 24-70 f2.8 lens. He said, "These cameras are so good nowadays that it would be pretty hard to take a bad photo." Yep, and a very expensive stove pretty much guarantees gourmet meals every time the burners are lit up. I recently showed someone with a wedding photography background how to set the aperture on his camera. I was so shocked that 1) he didn't already know this basic procedure and 2) that he hadn't taken the time to look it up in the owner's manual. The fact of the matter is that photography - like any skilled trade - requires time, effort, practice and plenty of real-world experience to become proficient. It amazes me how many wanna-be photographers don't actually practice shooting in various situations, under different lighting conditions and from several perspectives. The greatest athletes in the world don't reach a point where they no longer feel the need to practice - that they've finally "arrived" where there's no more room for improvement. I've been shooting professionally for over 20 years (and as a hobbyist for more than 10 years before that), and I'm still constantly learning. I still set up practice sessions for myself to test exposure, lights, lenses, etc. that will prepare me for actual photo shoots. And yet, sometimes I'll stumble through a camera setting that I haven't used in awhile, or get a little anxious about why a light isn't firing the way it's supposed to. We don't retain everything we learn, so of course we'll eventually be in a situation where we're lost or feeling somewhat out of control. So the more we practice, the less likely we'll get stuck trying to figure something out on the job. I'm always impressed when I see someone so skilled in their craft that they make it look easy. A guitarist. A plumber. A mechanic. A dancer. Anyone who has put in the hours, days, months and years to make their work look kind of effortless. This doesn't come from "natural ability", no matter how gifted they are with their God-given talent.
So, is everyone with a camera a photographer? I don't think so. Not anymore than calling myself a painter because I own some paint & brushes. There's probably no definitive level of experience you attain before you are considered a photographer. Personally, I really felt that it was OK to put myself in that category when I began working as a professional. Does "turning pro" activate that definition? Of course not. But it's a slap in the face to those who've earned the label to see an absolute beginner calling himself (or herself) a photographer without earning the title. It's certainly not an elitist rank, nor does it require a formal education. But an unskilled person with a camera is an amateur. A shutterbug. A shooter, at best. Maybe the industry should require a certification process. Or maybe it's just a matter of reaching a point of understanding and respect for what it means to be a photographer.