What makes someone a photographer?

I’m not sure I have a real point to this post. Or I’ve got several. We’ll figure it out.

Last week, I wrote about how Artificial Intelligence is finding its way from smartphones to cameras, and talked about how I expected that would affect the business of photography. Perhaps I didn’t expand on it clearly enough, because a large segment of the commenters thought that I was saying we’d all be out of business, the photography business was doomed, and we’d be replaced by anyone able to buy a camera.

That isn’t what I meant. 

What I’d intended to convey, is that if you were a photographer relying on the device in your hand to do the thinking for you; If the fact that you owned a camera, and the person in front of you didn’t – if that is what is keeping you in business, then yes, your career as a photographer is very likely to be short-lived. You will be made redundant by a wave of tech-savvy young adults, sporting the latest gear, and undercutting you on price. Cameras are getting cheaper and better and dramatically smarter. Knowing how to operate a camera, and ignoring the new technologies, will not keep you ahead. 

If you are not adding any value to your photography – whether through what you envisage, what your photographic style is, how you make your subject feel, whether you can make people comfortable, or edgy, or <insert something you do uniquely>, or even through your ability in the digital darkroom, then yes, your business is likely to be in jeopardy.

In the aforementioned comments (on Petapixel and Facebook), the general feeling seemed to be that if you were a real photographer, that wouldn’t be the case. No amount of technology or intelligence would disrupt the life of a real photographer. ‘Real,’ in this case meaning the opposite: someone who does add value, who sees things in their own unique way, someone who has gone beyond knowing how a camera works, and makes the camera do what she wants.

I agree. Mostly. Somewhat.

BUT (I think I’m getting to the point of this week’s post), it got me thinking, what makes a real photographer? 

Who is a real photographer? Who can say with confidence, I am a photographer? Who is to say I’m not? And, of course, the converse. You are not a photographer, she is a photographer. Who is a photographer? Who decides?

The guy that depends on his camera, is he a real photographer? He might be. If his ‘edge,’ if the thing that makes him unique, is his ability to embrace the new tech; to use the Artificial Intelligence and stay ahead of the curve; to pull every bit of value from camera’s enhancements to create the best possible photos for his customers, then yes, he is adding value, he is a real photographer.

A few years ago, we took a family holiday to India and surprised the kids by going to Mumbai, and staying with some friends from Shanghai. The kids had never been to Mumbai, so we did some site seeing. We also met up with my wife’s cousin, who’s a pilot and went with him on a helicopter ride! 

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While doing the touristy things at the Gateway of India, we were approached by this guy with a camera who who offered to take a group picture of us, for a fee. I forget what he charged, but it was not more than a couple of hundred rupees (HK$1 = Rs.10). His friend sitting on the pavement nearby (see above) with a portable printer, then gave us prints on photo paper. The photographer saw the camera in my hand, and we got chatting. He said he usually did 15-20 group pictures a day, netting about Rs1500*, after expenses. Once a month or so, he’d convert a tourist group and spend the day with them around town taking photos. He said he asked for Rs.7000 a day for this, but was willing to negotiate down to Rs.5000. He preferred groups of foreigners because they negotiated less and would usually pay for his meals.

We both call ourselves professional photographers. 

And who is to say we are not? We both use our cameras to make a living and feed our families. Do we have the same capabilities as photographers? Probably not. But here’s the rub: with the advent of Artificial Intelligence in our cameras, he is more likely to benefit than I am, because those improved bells and whistles significantly bolster the service and quality he is able to deliver. They help me too, but odds are, I’m already doing those ‘new’ things, manually. For example, I’ve been focus stacking for years, but the new Canon R5, does that automatically. The R5 has certainly made my life easier, but it’s not groundbreaking. For him, it opens up an entirely new realm of possibilities. 

My mind goes back to one of the first weddings I shot. I met the bride and her friends a couple of times before the event, and the bride introduced one of her friends as a photographer. When I asked what area of photography she was doing, she responded with “oh, I’m not a photographer, I’m a banker! I just like making pictures of pets.”

She showed me some of her photos, and they were brilliant. Tack sharp pet portraits, buttery soft bokeh, and perfect lighting. She was a damn good photographer. She had a natural flair for styling, light and composition.

But she didn’t think she was a photographer.

Who decides?

A few months ago, some of my work was exhibited at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. I expected to be in Hong Kong at the time, so told the organisers that I’d miss it. Unexpectedly, my plans changed, and I found myself in Delhi on the last day of the exhibition. So I went across to have a look. One of the other exhibited photographers I met there, said he wasn’t a photographer, he was a content writer. He just did photography as a hobby. I looked at him and responded, “Man, you’re standing in a well-reputed exhibition hall, your photos are on the wall, hand-chosen from tens of thousands of entries! If you don’t think you’re a photographer, then who is?”

“Well, guys like you, you get paid the big bucks!” He started laughing.

I was stunned. This guy’s work was phenomenal. Yet he didn’t believe he was a photographer. Many of the best photographers I’ve met, are hobbyists. Many of them choose specifically not to get into the commercial side of photography because then they would have defined deliverables. This, they feel, would encroach upon their artistic freedom, compromise their ability and flexibility to shoot as, and what, they are inspired to.

I shook my head and said, “The fact that I get paid to make photos, just means I choose to do this for a living. And the fact that I can do that with some success, doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a good photographer, it only means I’m good at business.”

Being a real photographer, doesn’t mean you’re at the top of your game. It doesn’t mean you do this full time, and it certainly doesn’t mean you’re making money through it. 

I guess my point is this: Anyone who works towards making better photographs, is a photographer. 

And with the disappearing barriers to becoming a photographer, the amazing things cameras can (and will be able to) do, the incredibly exciting things that are coming in the future—virtual reality, NFTs, augmented reality—there has never been a better time to be a photographer than today.

Photography is (not really) dead! Long live the photographer!

* Aside: It’s worth pausing for a minute, and thinking about the reasons why I can charge tens of thousands of rupees for an hour’s work, while this guy works his butt off for a couple of thousand bucks a day. It really isn’t about ability. But that’s a topic for another blog post.