A recent article on F-Stoppers, written by a wedding photographer, starts with the title, Why I Can’t Use a Mirrorless Camera Professionally. Anytime an article starts with “Why I Can’t…” I prepare myself for a personal defence of a position that should otherwise be titled, “Why I Won’t…” and I brace myself for a list of limiting beliefs. Now I don’t know the author, Vanessa Joy, but her work is beautiful, and I don’t care what kind of camera she uses, or the reasons for which she does or doesn’t use that gear. But the reasons she gives tells me she’s missing some larger truths.
The gist of the article is simple. When she sees someone making photographs with a smaller camera she thinks, Oh my gosh, how cute! She assumes clients will think so too. The article is about perception, nothing more. And perception is important, I’ll give her that. Hell, in the world where craft and commerce meet, it’s everything. But she is missing the chance to create that perception, make it about bigger things, and drive those conversations with clients.
What we’ve got here, to quote the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate.
The reason I’m writing this article at all is because I’m hoping you’ll see a bigger picture. I’ve talked about this stuff before and I know I’m preaching to the choir, but hell, I love this choir I’m preaching to. You can do better than this limiting (self-limiting) paradigm that reduces you as a photographer to the kind of camera you use. We all can.
When we allow the conversation about photography to be about cameras and not photographs, we have lost control of the narrative. Sadly, it’s photographers themselves who are driving this conversation off the road.
If a client hires you because of the size of the camera you use it’s a clear sign that she is hiring a commodity – just another photographer – not a brand. That client might choose you for other reasons too. Price. The colour of your hair. Who knows. But she is not choosing you for the photographs you make. If, say, Annie Leibovitz showed up at wedding with a small Leica, or an iPhone, no one would blink an eye. They wouldn’t say, “Well, hell, if I’d known she was going to use her little girl camera I’d never have hired her.” Why? Because no one hires Annie for anything based on which camera she uses. Annie is a brand and she took a long time to become that brand but she didn’t get there by making excuses for which camera she could not, or would not, use.
This position, and I understand it but no longer subscribe to it, is based on fear. It is based on the belief that there are only so many gigs out there and we have to do everything we can to get our share. That’s why I’m writing this. Again, it’s not because I care what camera you use. But if you are choosing to make your decisions based on fear, you’re going in the wrong direction. Right now that fear is dictating what camera you use. But soon it will be driving your pricing down, and you’ll be taking gigs you know aren’t right for you, and you’ll be working with, and for, people you don’t like, people you know are not a good fit. That’s the lot of the commodity. It is not the lot of the brand, the photographer that tells a bigger story, that delivers such high value that no one can compete with them. It’s also a much harder road, so I get that.
There is a larger conversation here, and depending on how you look at it, it’s either a conversation about how hard it is to be a photographer right now, or it’s about the incredible opportunity that we have right now in a world where “everyone is a photographer.” It used to be that photography was inaccessible to most. The gear cost a lot of money. It was hard to master. Early films were a tricky beast. And if you could buy that gear and master the techniques, you could hang your shingle and make a living. The value you brought to the market was “This guy can make photographs!” and if I wanted photographs, I paid you for them. Simple.
The value proposition has changed. The scarcity has shifted. Everyone owns a camera. Despite the fearfully hand-wringing of the old-school that arrogantly fling terms like “faux-tographer” at the amateurs, a great many people can use those cameras very proficiently. It’s scary for them. No one is coming to them anymore because they can “use a camera.” What’s scarcer now is not access to gear, and it’s not the ability to use that gear. It’s how we use it. It’s vision. It’s the ability to tell a great story.
Use whatever gear you want to use. But don’t say “can’t” when you mean “won’t,” don’t let fear run your business or your creativity, and don’t believe for a moment that your big DSLR is getting you those gigs. Because everyone has a big DSLR, and someone else probably has a larger one, a shinier one, a newer one, one that looks even less cute than yours.
It is time photographers started having a more intelligent, human, creative, conversation about what we do. If the larger markets don’t take us seriously it’s because we have trained them how to see us and how to treat us. It’s not going to change anytime soon, so that great opportunity I mentioned is there for those who see it – to impress people not with the size of their camera but with the depth of their images, and their imagination, and work ethic, and any other thing that actually goes into making great photographs.
This is a confidence problem. It’s a communication problem. It is not a camera problem.
Let me repeat myself and clarify: I think Vanessa’s work is beautiful. She knows her craft. This article is not about Vanessa, nor is it an attack on her. I have a feeling we’d get along beautifully because she seems like a lovely person. My thoughts are directed towards the thinking that is behind the article. I think Vanessa could use any camera she wanted, and I think this is an opportunity to own that, not hide behind her choice of camera.
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