Commentary # 23 ~ September 2008
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Getting to Know  "Joe"  Photographer

Part Two:    Pros and Professionalism

September 2008

- by Craig Wassel

I don't know if I want to be a "Pro" anymore. What a way to start a commentary, huh? Can anyone already guess where I am headed with this?

While out doing some shooting a few weeks ago, I met (sort of) one of those people that has - at times - stereotyped or even stigmatized professional photographers over the years. Now I will admit at the outset that the way I was shooting at the time did look pointless and was worth questioning, but let me go on to explain the encounter I had.

The situation:  It was a mostly sunny day, and I was after a shot of a historic riverside district of a neighboring town. I had my tripod out, and my saddlebag hanging from it. On top of the tripod was a DSLR in MUP mode, and my cable release was attached.

During this time a heavily equipped photog comes strolling along. He looked the part of a pro, but I don't mean that in a bad way. He looked at my setup, then sneered and said (partly edited for language):

"That's not a view camera, newbie. Put your tripod away and go take some lessons and learn what you are doing".


At this point, three possible retorts flashed through my mind.   [a.] Respond in kind, which I quickly dismissed.   [b.] Smile, nod, pretend that I was a clueless newbie, and continue to concentrate on the sky and clouds I had been waiting on for months   [c.] Politely explain the reason for the tripod, etc., and strike up a conversation.

I went for option "b". The fair sky and clouds I had long waited for had been around most of that day, but they weren't going to last forever. Besides - there are certain kinds of photographers that I really like talking and shooting with, and I didn't get the sense that he was going to be one of them. Respond in kind? That would not have been the right thing to do, and just would have distracted me further from capturing what I had long waited and watched for. I just hoped that he wasn't expecting me to ask him for his business card and for the lessons he recommended.

If he had walked by just a little earlier, he would have seen that I was using the spirit level on my pivot he didn't seem to notice. If he had looked a little more closely he would have seen that I was using a deep orange filter that at ISO 100 was brining my shutter speed down to 1/30th of a second or less. He could have found out that the reason for the tripod, saddlebag, pivot, cable release, and MUP mode was that my goal was a wide, sharp stitched cityscape that could be printed very large, and that I was increasing my chances for success by doing as many of the little things as well as I possibly could.

What was the outcome of my efforts? It may not be an award winning shot, but I got what I wanted. Click on it below for a larger view.

That persona I bumped lenses with that day by the river is not unique to photography; many other endeavors have them. They are not new to photography, either. So what drove him to act so hostilely toward me? I cannot say for certain, but isn't it safe to speculate that he did not like me because of what he perceived? Isn't it fair to say the he views himself as a pro, and me an amatuer? Why would he even care enough about what I was doing to show such an unflattering side of himself?

I inevitably go back to what photographer Ctein wrote several months back, and that I linked to on this site:  many photographers are terribly insecure (link to his article), and they are becoming even more so with the proliferation of DSLR's in the hands of recreational shooters. I was amazed how many parents and teachers were armed with DSLR's when my wife and I took our son to his first day of kindergarten. Was I worried that maybe one of those parents took some better photos than I did that morning? No, why would I care? I was there to mark a milestone in my son's life. Three weeks ago I shot a wedding, and there were several guests there with DSLR's. Was I worried that their shots might be better than mine? Of course not. After I was sure I got the shots I needed and wanted, I even stepped out of the way to let them get theirs. It's no different than if I go out today and buy a Fender. I think Mr. Clapton can be quite confident the masses are not going to flock to YouTube to download my rendition of "Layla" and throw away their Derrick and the Dominoes cut.

But no matter. More and more photographers seem to find it necessary to define their professionalism by declaring what "real" pros do or don't do. I read more and more of this type of thinking every day online. I'll go over three notable statements I have come across, then measure Joe McNally by them on a scale of one to five and see how he does. If you don't know who Joe is, read Part One of this commentary (link) or visit his site (link). Here we go with the measuring:

"Real Pros Shoot Film" - I am sure Joe McNally still shoots film, but less and less of it lately judging by what I read in his blogs. I guess that means that day by day, Joe is less of a pro than he was before. Joe is not off to a good start. Since his use of film is on the decline and he is headed the wrong direction by shooting more digital, I can't even give him a 4. He only gets a 3.

"Real Pros Don't Have Websites" - The reason given is real pros don't have time to mess around with websites because they are too busy shooting. Joe has a website, so he is clearly not a pro. I am sure Joe has a webmaster who takes care of his for him, but I still see that he writes blogs for it. That takes a good bit of time, and real pros are too busy to spend even doing that for any website. He gets a 0 here.

"Real Pros Only Use Macs" - I'm not really sure how this statement even matters since real pros only shoot film, but I am benevolent and will give Joe a 5 on this one. I don't believe I have ever seen him use Windows.

There are many other statements like these I could cover that I have read online, but lets keep it simple and see how Joe McNally scores just on these three. Out of 15 possible points, he has 8. That puts Joe at just over 53%, which is failing. Sorry, Joe, your are just a little more than half way to be a "real photographer". National Geographic is making a big mistake if they send you out on any more shoots. Of course, I am being facetious. If I spoke with any of the photographers who made these three statements, they would probably say that I am twisting their words or taking them too literally. All right, then, untwist them for me, or tell me what was really meant since they were not as clear-cut as they seemed.

The problem with these and other measurements that some photographers declare is that they have less to do with defining what makes a pro, and more to do with elevating themselves by disqualifying others. It is a display of competiveness, but also - I am sorry to say - of immaturity. Therein lies the insecurity factor that Ctein so eloquently highlighted. I am not going to make my photography any better or diminish anyone else's by degrading them, their work, or their workflow. All I do is make myself look very bad.

So what does make a pro? Others say it means you get paid for your work, while some say it means photography is one's sole source of income. Personally, I am just not very interested anymore in defining or defending whether or not I am a pro by using any of these statements, nor by measuring how much of my income comes from photography.

Just a few days ago, I did a sitting for a family at their house. There were three parts to the sitting: a portrait session for their daughter to mark her 3rd birthday, a family portrait, and then headshots they needed for their real estate business. I traveled to their home with studio lights and backdrops, and did all three parts in their living room. The couple was great, and their little girl was just an adorable delight with which to work. They needed very quick turnaround on the headshots, so before I left I brought the photos onto my laptop. With the clients looking over my shoulder, I scaled the headshots against eachother, did some touchup work on the background, then saved them immediately to their own jump drive. The husband said, "that is astonishing how quickly and how well you did that". I asked them the same thing I ask all my clients: "did I meet your expectations?" His answer was, "this was far beyond anything we expected. You were totally professional".

Did they care that I shot digital? No, and in this case digital suited their need for rapid turn-around. Did they care whether or not I had a website? No, but this site gave them an opportunity to view my work and decide if it gave them confidence I could deliver the service they wanted. Did they care whether I edited the images on Windows or a Mac? No. The headshots exceeded their expectations and met their timeframe.

To sum it up, whether another photographer wants to catagorize me as an amateur because I do or do not have a website, or do or do not work on a Mac, etc., is of no importance to me. What is of importance is delivering professional quality work, and conducting myself professionally toward other photographers as well as clients who put their trust in me. We can call ourselves pros because we make some or all of our living through photography or because we do or don't do one thing or another, but getting paid for our work or calling ourselves pros does not necessarily mean we act professionally. I would rather forever be called and amatuer than carry the attitude of the pro I encountered that day by the river.

Do you want to be categorized as a pro by matching up to a checklist some other online photographer proclaims? Go ahead, and start with the three criterion above that Joe McNally does not even fully meet. Would you rather be known as a photographer with a high degree of professionalism? Concentrate on conducting yourself like Joe McNally and others like him.

"Once the amateur's naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it. Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur . . . "

~ Alfred Eisenstaedt ~

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" . . . So what does make a pro? Others say it means you get paid for your work, while some say it means photography is one's sole source of income. Personally, I am just not very interested anymore in defining or defending whether or not I am a pro by using any of these statements, nor by measuring how much of my income comes from photography. . . "

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