“Funny…You don’t LOOK like a professional photographer.”
“Really? What does a professional photographer look like?”
“Well, for starters, you only have that one camera!”
“Will I be needing more?”
Thus began the conversation– and the engagement session. I’d met the bride and her mother (really awesome people, by the way) when they hired me, but this was my first encounter with The Groom. At first I figured he was just trying to break the ice. I’m still not sure if that assessment was right or wrong, but in either case it was quite possibly the longest two hours of my career as a photographer. Yes– a professional photographer, damn it.
I assured Romeo that I really was a professional and that the bag on my back did in fact have a few more essential items. He still wasn’t buying it. I offered to walk him over to the car where plenty of backup gear was waiting to impress him. No dice. I tried dazzling him with my carbon fiber tripod, rather than beating him with it, but the questions persisted. Non-stop. One after another. It was exhausting, insulting, and I’d yet to shoot a single frame. Maybe I should have brought an assistant. I could see Juliet getting uncomfortable with the interrogation, so I gave her my best, most reassuring “it’s-okay-don’t-worry-I-won’t-let-this-spoil-your-engagement-photos” smile. Although tempted, I decided to spare her the “what-the-hell-do-you-see-in-this-guy?” sneer. Benefit of the doubt, right? He came around eventually, although I still had to explain once or twice why I wasn’t checking the LCD after every shot.
So, the session was an epic pain in the ass, but I got the images that I’d promised Juliet, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. Romeo, however, had gotten me thinking.
What DOES a professional photographer look like?
Obviously, the correct answer is, “That’s a stupid question!”
Is it? I know it should be. I know that the work– the final product– is what should matter, not how much gear we have slung over our shoulders when we arrive on location. So, what separates us from non-professionals, or from each other for that matter? In today’s competitive marketplace do I really need to become something I’m not, or change the way I work, just because a client may have certain preconceived notions about how we do our jobs?
I don’t want to turn this into a rehash of the age-old debate on the definition of “professional.” As with everything else, definitions change over time. Do I stop being a professional when I take a great shot with my phone? What if I turn around and sell that great shot I got with my phone? Do I need a pro-size body? If I don’t shoot with a pro-size body, do I have to add a vertical grip? If I don’t add a vertical grip will I still look like a professional?
See where I’m going with this?
I’m a photographer who is fully capable of diagramming and executing extremely complicated shoots. But sometimes, showing up with a camera, one lens, a speedlight, and a reflector is all I need. Am I supposed to bring every bit of gear I own in the biggest rolling case I can find just to make sure Romeo is reassured with my level of professionalism? Shouldn’t Romeo have a little more confidence in Juliet and trust that she’s hired a professional?
In a perfect world, clients like Romeo would trust that I know what I’m doing and that I will use whatever is necessary to complete the contracted job. That means not giving me grief when I show up with a pinhole camera, some twine, and a roll of aluminum foil if that’s what I need to do the job. In fairness to Romeo, however, I have to realize that part of being a professional means that I sometimes have to give him what he wants, regardless of how unnecessary it might be to the end result. This goes far beyond engagement shoots. I don’t care if you’re shooting food, sports, headshots, whatever. You have to remember that in some ways the client hired the photographer, not the work. That may be an incredibly subtle distinction, but you have to be aware of it and deal with it accordingly, regardless of how ridiculous it may sound. I think we sometimes get a little too hung up on being artists, and not hung up enough on making smart business decisions.
It’s a bit of a dilemma for me, because I believe in keeping things simple. It helps me think through the challenges that will inevitably present themselves, but it also helps maintain a straight line between my vision and the final shot. While I want it to be the photo that matters, and not how I take it, I have to balance that desire with my client’s expectations. Their kid is shooting for the school paper with a DSLR and getting great results. If I need to pull out a few extra bells and whistles to make them more comfortable with the idea of “professional photography,” so be it.
The moral of the story– Romeo called the other day, asking about headshots for everyone in his office. Giving Romeo a little more of what he needed ended up bringing me more of what I needed. It seems like a pretty good trade-off, especially if all I had to do was look a little more like a professional photographer.
Whatever that means.
Author’s Note: The “evolution” composite at the top of this article has been shared so many times across the internet that I was unable to establish the original source for proper credit. If it is your work, or if you know who created it, please let me know so I can remedy that. –J.
About The Author
Jeff Guyer is an Atlanta, GA photographer specializing in commercial and portrait photography, as well as weddings, sports, and street photography. You can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter, or check out his work at Guyer Photography.