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September 18, 2009



A few weeks ago I took a day off and went to the beach. Sitting with a new friend I was greeted with a wonderful quote.

“Photography is great because you don’t have to know anything about it to do it.”


I don’t think my new friend knew the brilliance of this quote, and his intention was not in a critical direction, not by a long-shot, but he brought up a valid and accurate point.

For the consumer, this idea, that someone can know nothing about photography and still do it, is a wonderful opening into the world of picture making.

But on the flip-side, this reality has eroded much of the professional photography world, and will continue to do so, at least in my humble opinion.

Currently, much of our industry is fueled by companies selling the idea of “push here stupid,”(someone else came up with this slogan) and selling equipment, software and other technical gadgets that take the skill and vision out of making pictures.

“It’s simple.”

“Anyone can do it.”

“Fix it in Photoshop.”

“Instant gratification.”

“Shoot an endless number of pictures.”

“You don’t need to hire a photographer because now YOUR the photographer.”

Photography is accessible. That’s it. In a nutshell. Every protagonist has a tragic flaw, and these warm, open arms of photography are both a blessing and a curse. Like water finding a crack in the concrete and what once was a small fissure is now a blown-apart foundation.

Standing in front of a blank canvas, with tubes of oil and having someone say, “Okay, paint,” is a terribly humbling experience. I know. I had a life -drawing class in college, filled with wonderfully talented artists…..and me. I dreaded this class, really dreaded it, because I sucked at drawing, sketching, painting, etc. And when I say sucked I really mean it. I’ve got ZERO skill in this department, among others. At the end of class we would turn our easel’s around and face the wrath of our fellow participants. I would sneak to the other side of the room, as my abandoned easel stood in front of the firing line being ripped to shreds. The only sound I heard was my knees knocking together. Luckily, my highly trained prof took pity on me and gave me the mercy grade, probably to guarantee my presence would never again be felt in the arts building.

With photography, my canvas was already painted. I dissected it and I sold it, and I still do.

“Shoot enough pictures and something will turn out,” has become the battle cry of an entire photographic generation.

Think I’m crazy? I was at a trade show and heard some “featured photographer” stand in front of the audience and say he shot “10,000 images by myself,” during a wedding…and everyone clapped! No joke.

How did this become photography? When did this become admirable?

If you still think I’m nuts, then I’ll relay a small story from a friend who recently had an experience to backup my point.

My friend has kids. A photographer was hired to photograph these kids.

Okay, multiple choice.

This hired photographer:

A. Came with one camera and lens, neither suited for the job.
B. Had no understanding of light.
C. Had no knowledge of photography.
D. Had no ability to shoot anything moving.
E. Had no knowledge of how to post-process the images.
F. Shoots all kinds of paying commercial jobs.
G. All the above.

If you answered “G” then you are well on your way to becoming a photo-legend.

What is my point with all this? No idea.

Okay, maybe my point is that I believe that photography is something that needs to be learned, and not something that can be bought, downloaded, copied, finished at the computer, or has anything to do with the latest gadget or gizmo.

I have a degree in Photojournalism. What has this meant to those hiring me?. Perhaps not that much. I’m not saying you have to go to school for photography, although I think for many people this can be a fantastic experience and the best thing they could possibly do. But at some point a photographer has to “learn” what photography means to them, what their style is, how they want to see the world and how they want to present it.

“But Dan, what about the brilliant self taught photographers out there?”

I believe that the great self-taught photographer still learned photography. They discovered what their vision was, by trial and error, failure, etc, and used these experiences to become great, self-taught visionaries.

Sounds easy. It isn’t.

It takes some soul searching, and what I fear is that photography, for the most part, at least commercial photography has lost it’s soul. It’s up to the photographers to get it back.

I’ve said this before, and will probably say it again and again and again. Why? It just seems like we are going in the opposite direction. There probably isn’t anything I can do about it. It seems the train has left the station, and working in this manor of buying equipment, shooting thousands of images and then post-processing them seems to be the way of the future.

If it is, I guess it is our responsibility to just admit we brought it on. What we can’t do is complain about the industry, or complain that clients don’t want to pay reasonable rates. Why would they when they can get a camera and do it themselves?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Leigh permalink
    September 18, 2009 7:12 pm

    Oh so true.
    In Malcolm Galdwell’s book the ‘Outliers” he has concluded that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to master something. He uses the example of the Beatles, whom unbeknownest to most people, they spent 5 or 6 years in Germany playing in night clubs 5 days a week, 6 hours a night. So they Beatles were not the overnight sensation everybody assumes they were. It took them time and practise, determination and examining what didn’t work to finally hit their stride.
    Before photography I was a Riding Instructor for 22 years. Rode as a kid, 4H and all and ended up at Riding School and graduating from the program. In Europe you can’t breath in the Riding Industry there unless you went to school, passed exams and became qualified to teach or train or whatever. After school you still have to apprentice under a master for a set time before anyone would consider you qualified to do much of anything. In order to be credible in the industry you have to pass a test proving your abilities.
    The reason Europeans are so anal is because the level of their qualified people is very high [and they want to keep it that way] and with as big of animals as horses are you better know what you are doing. Animals and people can get hurt.
    In the USA anyone can hang out a shingle and be a horse trainer or riding instructor. Now I’m not saying that there are not qualified people here but…this means non qualified people heavily dot the horse industry landscape. When people go to take riding lessons it’s because they want the instruction of someone who knows more than they do. Due to their lack of knowledge they have no idea what the instructor knows or doesn’t know.
    My point is that an awful lot of people out there aren’t qualified to do what they do. There is no test one must pass or license to get to make your living as a photographer. The general public knows little of what is good photography and when they get their family photos back from their photographer what they are responding to is the emotion of seeing their loved ones on a screen or in a print.
    I really don’t know what the answer is. I wish I knew.

    • September 18, 2009 7:42 pm

      Well, I think in certain genres you have photo-editors and art directors, and the likes, that act somewhat like the barrier to just anyone attempting to work in these fields. But now, even this seems to be changing. I’ve heard art directors on panels talk of searching Flickr for work and photographers. I love Flickr, but I don’t think it has historically been known as the place to find pros. However, I think that is changing. And news pictures these days are coming from anyone, and in some ways the consumer is a better option because they typically don’t know they are being taken advantage of. We have so many images today, so much continual barrage of feeding the machine that people, in in high photo-positions, seem to care less and less.
      With portrait/wedding, it’s true. Anyone can do it. There is no barrier, no editor, nothing to stand in your way. A website and digi cam are your only requirements, and consequently, you see the results.

  2. David Wissinger permalink
    September 18, 2009 7:25 pm

    So many comments come to mind…

    1) Digital cameras = quantity not quality. Take enough shots; one will be good.

    2) Plentiful, relatively inexpensive gear. Go to a soccer complex tomorrow afternoon. You’ll see a couple of Dads (it’s always the Dads) with a GIANT telephoto lens on a 50D. You’ll see a dozen Moms with a 70-200 f4 on a Rebel. Everyone else will have some kind of digital gizmo.

    3) So geared up, who needs a pro? Everybody’s good!

    4) What gear and quantity can’t do is what your photoessay on Border Collies did: show the essence of Border Collies; teach us; enlighten us. This takes a trained and/or practiced eye. Talent, too.

    5) I’m a big fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson. When I first saw his images I thought, Hah, I can do that. Nope. It’ll be years before I can do that, if ever. He was NOT a gear guy. But he could see things that most people can’t, and knew when to press the shutter to snag what he saw.

    6) I’m not pessimistic. There will always be a market/demand/need for real photography. I sense a small but slowly growing resurgence of film. Why? Becuase it slows us down. You can’t flip the camera to full-auto, 10 fps and hope for the best. You ‘gotta think. And the results are satisfying for the viewer as well as the photographer.

    7) There’s a poster hanging in the barbershop that I go to: “Golf is like sex. You don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it.” Photography is somewhat the same in the digital age. But, also like sex, if you ARE good at it, it’s WAY better!

  3. September 18, 2009 7:45 pm

    Too funny. I like that golf and sex reference. I think you are correct in all points. I love the idea that people pick up a camera and can instantly enjoy the process. What is strange is when that same person says, “Now I’m a pro.”
    Like a friend of mine says,”If I gave you a formula one car, you think you could drive in the grand prix?”

    • David Wissinger permalink
      September 18, 2009 9:25 pm

      Could you please introduce me to that friend of yours with the Formula One car? I’d love to give it a try, and while I don’t think I’d survive the experience, I know I’d enjoy the ride!

  4. September 18, 2009 10:43 pm

    It got stolen.

  5. sarah permalink
    September 19, 2009 12:17 am

    Such a great post, Dan.

    I took a workshop from a Art Director-turned-photographer just because I was curious about how he managed to be doing so much commercial kids work.

    The first few minutes of the the full day workshop we had to introduce ourselves. Out of 20 or so people I was the only one who had any training whatsoever (a BFA in Photography at that). The room went quiet as though people couldn’t relate and for the rest of the day no one was particularly friendly to me (and I’m a friendly person).

    After a long day where I learned that that you can shoot at high-noon, hold-steady at f2.8, punish one lens, and ultimately rely on good-looking kids, I was disappointed to say the least.

    The successful people in life are not always the most talented, most creative, or those best suited for the job. They are typically just the ones that are doing it for better or worse. And as you propose in the photography industry, they are proceeding with reckless abandon. That train has definitely left the station.

    • September 19, 2009 1:31 am

      It seems to me that art-directors turned photographers are typically really good at getting work, seeing as they were the link to photographers and knowing the markets. But, never really heard of them teaching photography, but hey, whatever works. I think your right.
      I know photographers who are perhaps not the most gifted visually but man can they network, market and sell. And, it doesn’t just fit the portrait/wedding field either. They are in all genres.
      I think it used to eventually get back to the images, but nowadays we look at something so quickly, so briefly, so effortlessly, it doesn’t really matter if your images are good. I wrote a post a while back about it being easier to work today if you have no style. Just put yourself in front of people as often as possible and don’t rock the boat.
      This is why I love Flickr. Yes, there are pros, but there are also a lot of really good photographers, perhaps better than most pros, who are just doing it because they love doing it.

  6. Jacques Barbey permalink
    September 19, 2009 11:46 am

    Dan, i really enjoyed this article thank you

    check this seems a bit timely to ur own ….and keep up the great work !!!

    oh and as you carry the fire this:

    • September 19, 2009 6:52 pm

      Ah yes, I saw that link on Twitter but didn’t take a look yet.

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