A Failure to Communicate

In Marketing, Self-Promotion, Rants and Sermons, VisionMongers by David29 Comments

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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  1. This is a appropriate blog for everyone who hopes to learn about this topic. You already know a lot its practically challenging to argue with you (not that I just would want…HaHa). You definitely put a whole new spin with a topic thats been revealed for some time. Fantastic stuff, just excellent!Agen Poker Online

  2. Reading this stuff I can’t help thinking about a photographer and teacher I know who showed up at a wedding with a Diana. When the bride saw the pics her response was ” Oh my God thats exactly how I felt”

  3. I really appreciate these thoughts about vision, fear and limitations! They are a vital consideration in business and life-
    Thank you David, point taken.

  4. I think I’d have to disagree with you. Her reasons seem to be two fold: personal comfort, enjoyment and her “brand”. At the very beginning she writes: “Feeling the weight of the camera in my hands and hearing the sound of the mirror slap was part of the joy of photography for me”. Clearly, she is someone who places emphasis on the physical aspect of photography. The “brand” aspect will probably evolve as mirror-less cameras become more common place and acceptable. I share her enjoyment of the physical; I do landscapes, shooting with both a 4×5 and a D800 (with battery pack).

  5. David, I couldn’t agree more. I did a gallery show last year in NYC and almost everyone had asked me the same question.. “what gear did I use?” After getting off my soapbox on how it’s not about the gear, various ways of saying gear is good but vision is better, I started showing my iPhone work. I decided to have that conversation, to use it as an opportunity to educate others and to put my money where my mouth is by proving it.
    Since then I’ve lectured at Apple, worked with google, have done various workshops including a series for Adorama coming later this month. I’ve also shot commercial projects around the world using just my iPhone (and trusty Mavic Pro also operated by my iPhone 🙂

    I’m on a bit of a campaign to prove to others as much as to myself, it truly is not about the gear but about your vision. Taking it one step further, when the gear is removed from the equation (i.e. the constant everyone is using) your images need to stand out because of you, not your gear. It has made me a better photographer in so many ways.

    Not a plug, but for those who are curious, check out https://www.instagram.com/eyephonephotographer/

  6. Buy a big used camera with big, plastic used lens (24-70 2.8 from Sigma will work well because its light) from 2 generations ago and put a big wide strap on it. An empty battery grip adds to the look. Hang it from your shoulder, but use your mirrorless shoot 95% of the pics. They’ll get drunk at the reception and not notice.

  7. But the first question is… Why do I shoot… and to quote a sage… it is about my vision, style and purpose… switching to what a client wants changes the discussion to commerce, not my vision, style or purpose… I recently switched to mirrorless and I celebrate the small wonders and their incredible performance… it allows me to shoot more with less… but I have been a choir member for several years now… just not sure which section… sometimes my voice isn’t quite what the director expects…

  8. Gotta’ say I love mirrorless. i don’t see any loss in quality in images. Photographers like Trey Ratcliff have switched over and is still making great images. i am using an Oly EM-1, and I have to say it’s not “cute” it’s a very finely built piece of equipment. i still have a big DSLR, and sometimes it’s just what I need, but I would’nt trade the mirroless for anything.

    I also have to believe that if your images are fabulous, the client isn’t going to care what equipment you are using.

  9. Hi, David –
    I read your blog post first and, though I am not in the shoot-for-money side of photography, I can completely agree with your views.
    Then I read Ms. Joy’s article, and found that she worded her view equally as well. It was written to take responsibility for her own opinion and experience as a photographic subject, and her expectation of what her clients may feel.
    As you suggest, her article might be better titled, “Why I Won’t…” — or perhaps, “Why I Have Decided…” — since she is basing her decisions on her own values and projections. And with all these new, cute (!) mirrorless medium format cameras appearing like the svelte, sophisticated Hasselblad X1D, we may soon be reading articles titled, “Why I Never Shoot with Less than 50 Megapixels in a Sub-$12,000 Body” and cuteness will not be the limiting factor.
    I’m sure that at a Sony/Olympus/Panasonic exec’s wedding, the photographer would not dare shoot with a big clunky mirror-box DSLR; they would look completely amateurish and unable to read their client’s expectations.
    OK, I have to go hang my Toyo carbon fiber 4×5 view camera with its Holga lens on my custom handwoven sling strap and shoot some nude boulders on yonder hillside. Catch ya later.

  10. David, you have rightly acquired a significant voice and become an influence on all topics photographic and in particular the question concerning gear versus creative output. Our cameras are tools and a part of the means to the end of our creative process. I like my tools/cameras, have chosen them carefully and use them wisely…but our EYES/IMAGINATION and our worldly experiences have it over any lens/body combo you could ever come up with. Speaking of a “Failure to Communicate” it seems the most recent blog posts over on Craft & Vision featuring Adam Eldestien and Cynthia Haynes are leaving me wondering…What’s driving this shallow content? It comes across as sub par/non excellence…Somewhere along the line the blog has taken a wrong turn and I’m wondering if you and Cool Hand Luke might be coming back to take the wheel and get things back on track?

    1. Author

      Hey San, thanks for this. I’m not sure I understand the question re. shallow content. I really enjoyed the interview with David Adam, as I also enjoy his work. Not for everyone, for sure, but shallow? I’d be more interested in knowing if this is a reaction to just the last two pieces or something larger, for example, are the articles I write for the C&V blog not landing for you? Craft & Vision does target a slightly different audience, and try to remain accessible to as many photographers as possible. I have my hands pretty firmly on that wheel, and am always tweaking the direction, so your feedback is helpful. Is it just the last two articles that didn’t strike you as particularly helpful/deep?

      1. Thanks for the quick response. I say shallow, you say didn’t strike as deep. Yes, the last two articles on David Adam were found completely lacking to me. Take a look at the image of the woman walking away with the shoulder bag and his comment: “Subtle differences made by using the highlight brush and Dehaze slider”. Do you see a difference? It comes across as wasted time and effort while not teaching us anything. Most disturbing and completely unprofessional is the bio at the end. Did you read Mr. Edelstein’s closing?
        “David Adam Edelstein grew up in Hawai’i and China, and currently lives and works in Seattle, Washington with his brilliant daughter and smart, beautiful wife, neither of whom take any of his whiny artistic crap. He has had a camera with him at all times since his parents made the expensive mistake of giving him one when he was eight. He thinks sharpness is overrated and is moderately distrustful of color.”
        Have you visited Cynthia Haynes’ website? Soft. Enough said.
        David, most if not all Craft & Vision articles/posts and ebooks that I’ve purchased have always landed with me. I’ve become a much better photographer thanks to you and Craft & Vision. And I’m still part of the slightly different audience.

  11. I feel I have to point out that I find the typeface and text colour on this page extremely difficult to read. Not only is it low contrast having grey text on a white background but the text appears not to render crisply. I find I needed to zoom the page to 175 or 200% before I could read it comfortably and even then the text seems not to be crisply rendered. Sadly this made me give up on trying to read the article; it just wasn’t worth the eye strain.

    1. Author

      Thanks Steve. I’ll play with this. I did just now change the colour to a darker grey, almost black. The weight of the font is a book weight. I’ll see if something heavier can be used without it all looking atrocious. I appreciate you taking the time to bring this up. Thanks!

    2. Author

      Take a look now, Steve. Does that work better for you in the body of the blog?

  12. I think her article is misguided. Clients chose wedding photographers for a ehole host of reasons…price, like ability, availability and of course, style. And if the main factor is style the client isn’t going to care what the photographer uses. They’ll simply want their wedding to be captured in the photographers style.

    So, day of the wedding arrives, you turn up with a mirror less and the couple will do precisely……….nothing, they trust you to get the job done. Any consultations leading up to that should revolve around ‘I take great pics just look at thd size of my camera.’

  13. You make a strong argument for promoting the slow changing of perception about photographers, but I’m not going to blow sunshine up your butt on this one. Vanessa makes a great point. Perception is not only important, as you say, I would argue that perception is everything in the eyes of the client. If they THINK they are getting a better photographer with because you show up with a bigger camera, then they are.

    It may be a sad commentary (which I assume is your point) but in our current culture, until you make it so big that you don’t care what the clients think, then you are forced to depend on their perceptions and recommendations no matter how well you communicate.

    1. Author

      Aww, come on, Dave, not even a little sunshine? 🙂 You make a fair point, but my contention is that it is we who should, and can, control the expectations and perceptions. To do otherwise is a perpetually losing position. And ultimately I think most of this is in our heads. It’s only the photographers who are so neurotic about how large the camera is. By the logic that bigger is better we should all be showing up with 4×5 view cameras or at very least a medium format camera. Why is this article not titled, “Why I Should be Shooting a Medium Format Camera Professionally”?

  14. I like to think that when we focus on the tool, not the job or the outcome, we lose something.

  15. I’m not sure that’s entirely true.
    Annie Leibovitz turns up and photographs with her phone
    Annie Leibovitz turns up and photographs with a medium format camera, assistants lights etc.
    Which would a client think they’re getting the better service?
    Part of the process for the client if there is the performance. And like wine in a more expensive bottle, they appreciate the image more.

    1. Author

      As an analogy to prove my point it still works. But so does your point. The question is really, ultimately, about value and what it is you’re selling your client. If it’s a performance, then yes, you’re right. Bring all the gear and arrive in a black SUV. If it’s photographs, then use the camera that works for you. This is about what we’re selling. And, not to be too blunt, you can sell anything to the right person. You just have to know what it is you’re expected to deliver. Annie is still Annie, regardless of the camera she brings. But managing client expectations and assumptions about “Annie the Brand” is another thing. Two questions: what are you selling, and what are they buying. The two had better be the same thing. Thanks for chiming in, John. I appreciate the feedback.

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