Getting From Competent to Something Good and Even Unique in Photography

“Photography is the easiest medium with which to be merely competent. Almost anybody can be competent. It’s the hardest medium in which to have some sort of personal vision and to have a signature style.”

~Chuck Close

If you give a 4th grader a trumpet at the beginning of the school year, by Christmastime she will be playing in the holiday concert. It’s easy to go from nothing to something in art. In September when 7th grade began, Joey couldn’t play the saxophone, and in December he can. Well, he can play some things–a handful of holiday tunes. Perhaps not well, or with nuance, or signature style, but competent for what the middle school Christmas show requires of him.

If you ever wanted to play the piano, the ukulele, the guitar, it’s really quite easy to go from nothing to something. You can easily learn three chords and play a lot of pop songs. Going from something to something good is difficult. To something great is astronomically challenging. Something unique is a long shot you’ll ever get there.

When it comes to music, think Prince, Bob Dylan, Freddy Mercury, Paul McCartney, Chrissy Hynde, these are performers with an instantly-recognizable musical sound. How about Mark Knoffler’s guitar (Dire Straits)? Or as it’s played by B.B. King, Eddie Van Halen, Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chuck Berry, Brian May (Queen), David Gilmour (Pink Floyd).

It’s true in painting. Think Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Edouard Manet, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vincent van Gogh, Salvador Dali, Edward Hopper, Claude Monet, Keith Haring, all very distinctive in their styles.

It also goes for photography–Richard Avedon, Elliott Erwitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Frank, Weegee, Stephen Shore, Garry Winogrand, Cindy Sherman.

Every example depicts a musical, painting or photography style that you can hear or see without playing the album, without looking up their work.

In regards to Chuck Close’s quote, there are a lot of people I see who post photographs online or to Instagram who are competent with a camera. They make a well-exposed image. Those pictures may lack in composition and it may be obvious the photographer doesn’t understand lighting or notice a distracting background or hasn’t developed a sense for editing, but for the most part the image is in focus and properly exposed.

They’re competent. They’re at the start of their hobby, the easy part going from nothing to something.

My concern is when I see these photographers offering to teach workshops, advertising their own Master Class when actually they just picked up the camera for the first time two years ago. Really? “Are you sure you’re qualified?” is what I want to ask them. “Do you really have the knowledge to teach? And what proficiency will your students take from your instruction?”

I’ve heard that the most money (some say only money) to be made in photography nowadays is teaching other people who want to be a photographer, so putting on a teacher hat makes sense for generating income. But it’s the strongest marketers who will get the students, fill the YouTube channels and get the most followers, not necessarily the best instructors or photographers.

I’ve known people who received a camera for a Christmas present and by the following summer they were hanging out their shingle saying they’re a professional photographer. They quickly went from nothing to something, but to my eye, they haven’t yet achieved something good. Which is understandable and not to be expected as that takes time and they are only 6-months into their new hobby. Still, they’re listed in the photographer directory along with the rest of the pros, regardless of their experience level–Google makes no distinction.

What does it even mean to make your living as a professional photographer? My view is it’s mostly a business job, and a bit of photography, not the other way around. I always say to young people who ask about being a working photographer, “Are you a good businessperson? You’ll spend more time marketing your work, connecting with clients, assembling bid proposals and writing contracts, than photographing.”

You have to be an amazing business person to make it in this business. Being a smart business person might be more important even than your beyond competent, something good photography skill, sad to say.

Here’s why. This is a map showing approximately 3-square miles where I have my studio in town called Longmont Colorado. On a Google map, in that 3-square miles, you can count 27 photographers. That’s 27 photographers in a town smaller than Boulder or Denver, with a population of around 95,000.

What do you think the number of photographers in Boulder is, with a population over 100K? Denver with 700K? Chicago with 2.7M? New York with 8.5M? And every other small city, town, and big urban area? And all of these photographers, the experienced pro and the newcomer alike, are vying for the same portrait shoots, weddings, commercial and editorial clients.

It’s not an even playing field when it comes to getting the jobs either. Quality doesn’t always win out. The photographers with the contacts, the connections–a Dad who works at the magazine, the boyfriend of the marketing director’s daughter, the friend who has an in to a job, a celebrity–they all get first look when it comes time to hire. The ones offering it for free, which doesn’t really qualify even them as business people–what kind of business plan is that!?!–those are taking away job opportunities from the working pros, too.

So, it’s a tough business to make a living at.

My suggestion, if you love it that much, you might want to stay an amateur and do it for the love of it–that’s what the word amateur means. Doing it for love, not money.

Here’s a report from USA Today (using a stock photograph from Getty Images which means USA Today didn’t have to hire a photographer and instead Getty got richer and Mario Guti made pennies) with projected growth from 2016-2026 for the photography profession of a negative number:

With the sheer quantity of people trying to make it as photographers, a seemingly easy entry in this gig economy, counting those something good, something great, unique and recognizable, beyond competent and barely started photographers, what does the future look like for the professional photographer? The one who can guarantee they will get you the shot. The one who has long ago moved beyond competent and has their own signature style–their personal vision is apparent in their work.

Will anyone care enough to seek them out?

As the art directors and business owners graduate art and business schools where camera phone snaps are “good enough”, will those top level professional photographers with a recognizable style, will they have any work?

Does it matter that you have a unique vision or personal style at all in 2021 as a professional photographer? Perhaps only if you’re making documentary work and publishing your own books to attract publishers. Or if you’re independently wealthy and self-funding your own work while you’re between gallery and museum shows. Best bet is to get known somehow. Maybe become a Hollywood actor or rock star, then turn your lens into a living–that’s how Brian Adams got the gig photographing the Pirelli Calendar.

But if you’re working to make a living as a commercial, editorial or retail photographer, what’s the chance of getting past the sea of people with cameras, and new ones entering the market regularly, all vying for the same job from the same clients? All putting the same pitch out, the same query, the same solicitation to art buyers?

There are those, myself included, who would say, “We just have to be the best at what we do, the new inexperienced ones aren’t our competition,” but the truth is, I don’t know that experience is enough, and that the best perhaps may not be able to be found among the sheer quantity of photographers, plus when you add in all the influencers with their large followings, all the people with a camera available at every turn in the road.

In 1900, to be a photographer, you had to have a camera, that’s all. Cameras were scarce and expensive, so if you had one, you were a photographer. That’s changed completely. Now everyone has a camera, and are mostly competent. Some are even calling their phone their professional device. When that happens, what happens to profession of photography? What will it look like in 10, 20, 50 years?

What will the photographer’s personal vision and unique style mean then? If anything.

Where will the new Dylan, Weegee, van Gogh of photography come from and what will they look like?

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Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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