Simple answer. Yes. But you may need to find some new levels to your personality. You may need to create a pretty strong façade behind which to function in your professional career.
You should read this article alongside our article on what it takes to be a professional photographer here.
The common image that most people have of a professional photographer is a gregarious, people-loving person standing in a room with music pumping having a crazy time with a group of models, but it’s not all like this. You don’t have to be the coolest kid in school to be a professional photographer. Not at all.
You will have to work with people!
You will have to work with people, sure. You’ll have to work a room. And if that’s something that makes your nervous, that’s ok. Being nervous in that sort of situation isn’t a bad thing. That shyness is something that can be overcome. It’s even something that can be harnessed and used for good.
One of the great things about being a photographer, is that you can hide behind your camera. I class myself as a shy person. And yet I am a successful professional photographer. The fact is that I find, not really intentionally, a new person coming through when I’m on a shoot.
In my private life I will do almost anything to avoid a room full of people. I’m not a big one for parties, I don’t crave the company of others all day, every day. If I think hard about it the shoot elements of the job, it’s my least favorite part. I much prefer the time spent alone editing and working in photoshop.
But I also accept that I can’t have one without the other. In order to have the material to work with in the edit, I need to work hard and be effective on shoots. You could, of course, just become a photo re-toucher and do post-production work on other people’s images. But if you’re reading this blog then I don’t think that’s what you have planned for yourself.
What it takes to be a professional photographer
Let me run down for you exactly what is expected of a professional photographer on a photo shoot.
Unless you are piggybacking on another event (like photographing a wedding, for example, for info on shooting weddings and how bold you have to be see below) then you, as the photographer, are the most important person in the room. You have to command the people around you. Sound daunting? It doesn’t have to be.
A few years ago, when I first started offering video as an option for my clients, I got a chance to hear myself as I worked.
Hearing yourself when you work
I couldn’t see myself because the camera wasn’t pointed at me, but I could hear all the commands I was giving to everybody in the room. At the time I considered myself a shy person. And whilst the people responded to me and my shoots never went awry, I didn’t find being centre of attention the easiest thing. And I would agonize after each shoot about whether I had said the right things, and if I had pissed people off.
But when I did those first few video shoots, I heard myself thundering away at the room on the audio. I was genuinely surprised. I called my wife into the room and asked her to listen too. But she wasn’t surprised because she had been on a shoot with me before. She knew exactly what I sounded like. She said “that’s what you sound like”. I was like “Jesus, I’m so bossy.”
And here is the thing… whilst inside I feel shy, that’s not what anybody else says.
Being the boss of a room
Whenever I’m on a shoot, I know exactly what I want. I have a plan because I’ve thought it through carefully beforehand. I know what I want people to do, I know where I want them to be and how I want them to look. And during the shoot that’s all I’m thinking about. I’m not worrying about whether people think I’m an idiot, I’m just trying to get my job done.
I do listen carefully to myself and make sure I’m always saying please and thank you, and not barking orders like an asshole. And I always make sure I tell people when they’re doing a great job. But I’m not trying to make friends or have people like me. I’m just trying to capture the images that were in my head before we started.
And that’s what goes down well. The people on the shoot, whether they’re models or office workers, want to give me what I want because they trust that whatever I’m asking for will be the path to good photos. So they’re listening intently to my instructions. They’re not thinking “do I like this guy?”, or “should I invite this guy to my birthday?”… they’re thinking “like this? Is this what he wants?”, and “what do I do next? I want some instruction”.
You are the photographer!
That’s what I find comforting. That’s what gives me the confidence to command that room, and not wither into a corner. This is a business situation. We’re here to do a job, not make friends. So the social angst is completely removed. And at the end of the day, we’re all going to thank each other, high five, go our separate ways and potentially never speak again. And I get to drive home and disappear into my office!
Now, wedding photography is a little different. You are no expected to command that room. It’s not your room. Back off!
However, you absolutely cannot be a wallflower either. You have a job to do. The bride and groom have hired you and they will not thank you if you come away with poor photographs because you didn’t want to interrupt people. Always remember that.
If you’re photographing a wedding and you want people to give you a smile, or face your way so you can grab a quick snap, they usually won’t mind at all if you ask them. You just say “look this way guys and give me a smile!”, and they will turn and smile and then carry on their conversation.
What if I piss people off?
If you get someone giving you grief for interrupting, keep in mind that they’re not the client. The bride is. And if it really comes down to it and they’re really complaining, tell them that. Tell them that you’ve been hired by the bride and groom and you’re doing what they asked you to do. And if they have a real issue they need to take it up with the bride and groom.
But consider what the bride is likely to say to a moaning uncle who complains that the photographer interrupted their conversation to take a photo… she’s not going to tell you off (unless you have had a specific conversation about not interrupting anyone!), she’s going to tell the complainer to shut the hell up!
So, as a wedding photographer, whilst you have to play second fiddle to the wedding itself and remember that it’s the bride’s day. You have to guarantee that you can deliver those photos. Be as vocal as is required to do that.
A genre of photography that people who consider themselves to be shy sometimes drift towards is street photography. But you do need to be a little careful if you think you can be a street photographer without speaking to anyone.
It’s a hotly debated topic whether you need to approach people and ask permission to photograph them. Technically… technically… you don’t need permission to take someone’s photograph. However, you do need someone’s permission to publish that photograph, if they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in whatever situation they are in.
Do I need to ask people’s permission?
So, if your subject is taking part in a public protest, is wearing a placard and shouting on a loudhailer – zero expectation of privacy. If your subject is walking along the street, minding their own business – low expectation of privacy. If your subject is sitting outside a café, eating a meal – medium expectation of privacy. If your subject is sitting inside a café, eating a meal – high expectation of privacy. If your subject is in their own home – maximum expectation of privacy.
For all but the first two, you should be seeking permission. Or at the very least letting that person know that you have photographed them. And to do that you need to approach them and speak to them. And risk getting shouted at!
Stand up and be visible
Street photography is not about hiding in the shadows and snapping on a long lens. That shit can get you in a lot of trouble. And holy smokes, don’t go photographing kids, privacy expectation or not! At best it will get you a smack in the face from the kid’s parents, at worst it will take you straight to jail, do not pass go.
It’s also worth remembering that street photography doesn’t easily pay any bills… there are very few street photographers who can genuinely class themselves as pro-photographers, and earn a living from street alone.
Get out there and do it!
The answer to the question of whether you can be a pro photographer if you’re shy is yes… of course. However, I don’t believe you can be a pro photographer and be so shy that you can’t face speaking to anyone. That may be too much!
Toughen up, get out there and speak to people. You’ll be surprised how easy it is once you get going!
If you’re thinking about turning pro with your photography check out our other articles on making a start as a professional:
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Love and hugs, the BudgetProPhoto team x