Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Choosing Who You Learn From

A few years ago, I allowed myself to get sucked into a rather heated debate in a Model Mayhem forum. It quickly became me versus some arrogant asshole of a commercial photographer from Chicago. I don't remember his name so, if you're curious, I can't provide it. (Not that I would anyway.) Besides, I can't remember half the names of the gorgeous models I've shot, I'm certainly not going to remember some jerk's name from an internet forum. He was, as I recall, a very active, long-time, MM member. His photography, I'll readily admit, was quite good and he was looked up to by many other photographers on that site.

The thread had to do with the (then) current state of professional photography from the perspective of career opportunities for photographers-- both new photographers and already established photographers. My position was the industry was shrinking rapidly and there were fewer opportunities than in recent memory. Leastwise, regarding more than a few photo genres. His basic position, since it seemed he had not yet felt a decline in his personal workload, was that the problems, if any, were the photographers themselves: Those having problems getting work simply didn't have the chops to be pros, regardless of skill or ability.

According to him, there were as many opportunities as ever for commercial photographers, editorial photographers, fashion, beauty, and glam shooters, and others. Also, according to him, it didn't much matter if there were many more photographers competing and vying for the work that was available. "The cream always rises to the top!" he announced. He then added something about photographers whose work wasn't cream-like should pursue other careers because those people were, rightfully, shit out of luck.

I don't know about any of you but I've seem more than a little less-than-creamy work coming from some very successful and continually working photographers. I've also seen some absolutely stellar work from photographers who couldn't manage to get themselves hired to sweep out a photo-booth at a kid's arcade.

Quickly, the Windy City photographer ran out of evidence to support his contentions. Mostly, because he had none. All he had to go on was what he was experiencing in his own, private little world of photography. At that point, he resorted to name-calling and trying to convince others that whatever I had to say had zero relevance due to the content of my work, i.e., because I mostly shoot glam and tease and naked women.

His change in approach backfired on him. Instead of scoring allies, even from those who were, up to that point, kind of agreeing with him, he ended up alienating himself from many of the photographers participating in the forum thread. (It was Model Mayhem, after all. A site mostly aimed at pretty girl shooters of all sorts.) Abruptly, the guy quit MM and canceled his long-time account. Personally, I didn't feel at all sorry for his sorry ass. He took the coward's way out in my opinion. Undoubtedly, he was once one of those kids who took his ball and went home when he didn't like something that took place in a game.

Flash forward and here we are: It's a few years later and it seems many opportunities for photographers have melted away faster than the ice caps. This, in spite of global-warming as well as today's "photography as a highly rewarding business is in deep Bandini" deniers. I guess both Mother Nature and today's realities of the photo-biz climate have a way of ignoring lies, bullshit, and denials.

Sure, if you're shooting weddings or families and events, or a few other genres, there's still work. Perhaps plenty of it. To score much of it, though, most photographers will have to seriously cut their asking prices. I'm not talking about everyone. I'm merely addressing about 80% or so of the folks pursuing photography as some sort of a career, myself included. There are still those doing quite well and charging hefty rates. I'm guessing those folks and/or their rates are also melting away, although that's purely speculative. I don't shoot those things.

On the other hand, it's been and continues to be an incredibly exciting time for hobbyists! All the advances in photo-technologies, from the gear to software to learning opportunities, have been and continue to be positively awesome! The learning curve has been dramatically flattened by many of those technologies and photographers with less and less real experience are often able to put out work that rivals people who have been doing the same sort of work for many years. Again, myself included.

There are a few things, however, I find curious. As you probably know, there are now plenty of successful and talented photographers writing how-to books and putting on workshops and seminars. Never before have so many novice photographers had so many opportunities to learn from the pros. Course, if you're wondering why so many successful pros are suddenly sharing their secrets, you only have to go back to my forum debate with the jerk from Chicago.

If you believe many of these successful shooters are suddenly rubbing elbows with all the newbies because they suddenly woke up one day feeling like they needed to become some sort of altruistic guru, you're wrong. A decline in available work has hit them hard as well. It's not that they have no work of the sort they spent most of their careers shooting. It's that a substantial amount of the available work they once relied on has also receded like the ice caps. And what work there is for them often pays less. Too often, significantly less.

As a result of all these newly-minted mentors and gurus, I have some advice: If you're seeking to learn from the well-known guys -- and this, in some ways, goes back to my previous post about vetting e-book authors -- you might want to, in specific ways, vet the photographers who have written the books or are hosting the workshops you plan to spend your money learning from. I'm not talking about vetting them in terms of their so-called sense of morality or other crap like that, as discussed in my previous update, but in terms of other qualifications: Their genre-specific qualifications.

Here's an example: Just because someone is a rather well-known nature photographer, it doesn't suddenly mean they know much about shooting portraiture-- glam, fashion, editorial, or other sub-genres. Sure, they know the gear. They also know something about lighting. And they know much of the technical stuff. But that's mostly all they know in terms of genres outside of what they normally shoot or have shot for most of their photo lives. Someone who is a successful and often published nature photographer probably knows little about working with and shooting models. Even if, believe it or not, they write a book or suddenly begin conducting workshops on the subject. I'm not naming names but I see more and more well-known photographers from other genres acting like they are experienced at shooting genres they, frankly, barely know squat about. (Not that they'll admit that.)

Yes, part of the reason I'm writing this update is self-serving. I am, besides being a long-time photographer, also a photography book writer. But I haven't written any books that don't specifically target the genres of photography I know best. Genres I've worked in for many, many years.

In the world of photography, my name is far from being a household word. But in the world of pretty girl photography, I've shot more models than most or that most will ever shoot: Literally, a few thousand of them. Certainly many, many, many more than most of the guys who have shot umpteen covers for Outdoor Photographer magazine. BTW, if you don't think many of my clients aren't as picky and as tough to please as the photo editors at Outdoor Photographer, you are sadly mistaken. That aside, I'm pretty sure after shooting so many beautiful and sexy women, and shooting them in so many ways in in so many places, I might know a thing or two about doing so. If I don't, I'm either a complete moron or I have a severe learning disability.

All I'm saying is if you're of a mind to learn, learn from those who know a lot about what it is you specifically want to learn, and not from those who know something else best but suddenly have proclaimed themselves, by words or actions, experts in areas of photography where, frankly, they barely know shit. And yes, I'm a bit annoyed with some of those folks. In my mind, they're simply trying to fool people, trading on their skills and notoriety in one area and trying to play them off like they really know what they're doing or talking about in another. I call bullshit on that! Just because someone is an expert in one type of photography, they're not experts in all types.

Ok. I feel better getting some of this stuff off my chest. If you want to learn something about shooting glamour and you're up for learning some of it from an e-book on the subject, I suggest you purchase my e-book, Guerrilla Glamour, or some other e-book authored by someone who has actually shot tons of glamour for a very long time. Someone who knows, from oodles of experience, WTF they're talking about. I'm not claiming I'm the only one who knows what they're talking about with glamour. I'm certainly not. I'm merely trying to share some straight-up and sensible advice for choosing who you might learn from for any specific type of photography.

It seems the model at the top whom I chose to accompany this lengthy rant update is one whose name I do remember: Paris. I shot Paris in my studio on a gray seamless with my 33.5" Mola "Euro" beauty dish for a main light and a couple of medium, Chimera strip boxes, either side from behind, to "edge" her and separate her from the background. There probably was also a white board reflector involved.


james said...

I'm essentially a newspaper and magazine photographer, now in my mid-60s. I've found a niche and am doing fine, but I know some seriously good photojournalists who can't make any money without doing seminars and teaching. One thing about the current economy that is disturbing: I'm constantly badgered by people who think they should be allowed to use my pictures for free. Where does this come from? I've got people telling me I'm a jerk because they can't have my photos for their lunatic non-profit....from which they themselves are getting a check.

jimmyd said...

@james: This notion of free comes from a lot places. Places like Anywhere, USA, where some people are willing to work for free or near-free because they don't make their livings from photography. It comes from places like Time magazine who has mined Flickr for cover photos that more than a few will let them have for free or near-free simply for the ego of the tearsheet. It comes from a lot of places. I wish I could figure out how to compete with free. I have a few clients who don't hesitate to remind me they can easily find someone to do my job for free or nearly free.

I understand fully why some seriously good photographers do seminars and teach. My issue is with those of them who decide to have a workshop or write a book about some genre of photography they know little about. I'm not saying there's tons of those types out there but I seem to be seeing more and more of them.

Jay Kilgore said...

I totally agree that people should research who they learn from. Here in my state, as well as the rest of the world, everyone is a "professional" photographer and as a result, they're teaching "workshops" for cheap and people are signing up and assuming this is how all workshops are. I once had a student text me asking if he set is f/ to 64, would it break as that's what one "instructor" set her cans to!

I totally agree many of the top shooters today aren't putting out work that "Wow's!" like they used to. One "top" photog I was talking to, got a gig to shoot a UFC fighter and complained that the job didn't pay for anything. So everyone is hurting and it appears as a result, the top guys work (imagination) is matching it.

This will pass but damn if it doesn't need to hurry up! Econmy needs to get better so everyone can go back to making money and leave our profession to the professionals.

Michael Sawyer said...

Great post, timely and well spoken.

RandJ-Photo said...

Had a student in one of my figure classes relate an experience.
He'd spent over $1200 on a portrait work shop by a dentist for dentists. (The new cool thing for expensive cosmetic dentists is a portrait wall of 'after" pictures.) About thirty minutes into our first class was the first time he'd had his camera off of automatic. That he'd received a workbook at the dentists' workshop with four set-ups. Of course the set-ups didn't work because he never was taught the variations that can occur. Because he learned photography from a dentist.

jstachowski said...

One more things to consider is what the class size is. If it's 11 students to 2 instructors it's one thing, 30 students to 2 instructors is another.

jimmyd said...

@jstachowski: True that. And if the instructors don't have significant experience shooting whatever the genre-theme of the class might be, it doesn't matter if the student-to-instructor ratio is 2:1.

I don't care how many landscapes or food product shots someone has shot or if their images have appeared in every magazine out there, if they haven't shot models, for instance, and the workshop is about shooting models, they really don't have much that students can learn... Beyond, of course, some of the technical camera and lighting stuff.

There's more, way more, to shooting models, as an example, than knowing how to light a cheeseburger or capturing great images of lighthouses or a covered bridges. I'm not putting that kind of photography down. I respect those who do it well. But if someone wants to learn a certain genre, I suggest they learn from those who know that genre well and have shot tons of it.

Elegance And Chaos Photography said...

The fact that more photographers are teaching courses and that it is a growth business reinforces your point that it is more comptetive out there with more people chasing the same business.
Established professional don't need that amount of education and it takes a lot of new people entering the field to support the workshop business that appears to exist.

I remember one photographer mentionied that workshops were about 50 percent of his business.

I am not sure that it is a good thing that all this education is to promoting the concept that it is easy to break into the business let alone that it is viable business model for all but the most committed and those with good business and marketeting sense.

The reality is that the business is more like 60 percent marketing, 20 percent business management and 20 percent actual shooting and creative expression.

I think the day to day grind take all the passion one has for photography out of most people.

jimmyd said...

@Elegance and Chaos: I'm not sure all the workshops are designed for people learning photography as potential career. The world of hobby photography dwarfs professional photography in terms of people interested in it. Photography is not only a career or a business, it's a hobby and an entertaining and rewarding one at that!

A lot of people, IMO, go to photography workshops to learn and as well as a get-away, a vacation, or for entertainment purposes. It's fun, for instance, shooting models. And you don't have to be a pro or semi-pro to be interested in the fun that goes along with shooting models.

Gene said...

jimmyd - what, you got into a heated debate? You? Really? Seriously? Bro, yes I am still reading all your posts and yes I am still filing all these away in the damm this is great info file.

OK - agree with you on all points in the original post and in the comments. GIGO really applies to a lot of the professional photographer websites, training, workshops and seminars.

But I will take a different look at the root causes of several of the issues you discussed. And, I will focus my POV on your title of "Choosing Who You Learn From", because in reality - we could go off on a hundred tangents from your discussion content. In more than just a few of the following comments, you can apply this to just about any profession today - as the digital age and computer age have allowed unskilled, untrained, and uneducated individuals to perform on a level that just a few years ago, took a lifetime to learn and master.

"Professional" and the misuse/abuse of the term in any employment, businness, craftsman guild, etc. Today, it seems everyone is a "professional". They may be untrained, unschooled, uncredentialed, and for the most part unknonwn. But, they are "professionals" just because they hang a sign out, are working within a career field, and may be making money at it.
- Today, anyone can grab a couple of DSLRs, some lenses, flash/light boxes and because of technology (both in camera and in computer) they can shoot as well as some of the real pros of the past.....but, they are not subject matter experts in any of the areas of the profession.
- Thus the lack of a trade or industry standard for "professional" allows anyone with a camera to call themselves a professional. It also allows these individuals to write and teach using the title of professional.

"Subject Matter Experts (SME)". Many across the industry reference the disciplilnes within photography as genres. Within many industries, to be considered a professional someone must be accredited and recognized by their peers as a SME in one or more disciplines within that profession. Again, as there are no qualification standards, you hear lots of photographers qualifying themselves as an expert or a professional within one or more of the genres within the industry.
- Just because a photographer shoots a genre for years; has shot hundreds of thousands of pictures; and, has been "published" - doesn't make that individual a SME. It also doesn't mean they can "teach" that genre or any other genre either.

"Internet, Self-Accreditation/Validation". Before the internet came along, professionals were known...for professional work locally...regionally..and nationally ONLY if they really were professionals and only if their work was recognized by the industry and the populace. Today, I can go on any photography website and self-accrediate myself as a professional, subject matter expert in any and all genres.
- WTF?
- OK, enough on that subject, you get my point.

So, to get back to your original title and point of choosing who you learn from... All I can say is buyer beware and become educated BEFORE you take any courses or even "advice".

From what I have seen over the past years - - is one very, very good resource in learning how to chose a real professional to listen to, to be mentored by, and of course for training. And, it's the only site I will even recommend for new shooters and old ones who ask me where to go for TTPs (tactics/techniques/procedures).

Later bro and keep posting...and I'll keep reading!


jimmyd said...

@Gene: I have no clue what the answer might be. There are so many self-appointed (anointed?) experts. Interestingly, many of them are all saying/selling the same thing: small flash photography. Not to pimp my e-books but my last one takes a way different approach than the vast majority of other e-books. Do we really need another book or e-book on small flash photography? Regardless of who wrote it? Your "buyer beware" advice is on the money. I don't know what else to say about it?