This one is quite personal for me. Maybe no one else thinks about this or has ever asked themselves this question, or maybe everyone is thinking it… or has thought it at some point. Who knows. But it has worried me in the past, so I’m sharing with you.
The short answer is this – NO, you don’t have to be an artist to be a professional photographer. But… you already are an artist.
Here’s my situation – when I first started in photography, before I started earning money from it, the fact that I didn’t really understand a lot of the photography that was winning awards, or showing in galleries, was a big worry for me.
Okay… I am gonna do it, I am going to bare my soul. I’ll be completely honest, even after five years as a professional photographer, some photography, mostly what would be described as “photographic art”, still baffles me.
There, I said it, I am a heathen. I don’t understand art. Or rather I understand some art, and appreciate some art, and struggle to appreciate some other art.
But that is normal isn’t it? Not all forms of art, or styles of art have to be to everyone’s taste, surely?
The big thing that worried me in those early years was – can I be a professional photographer if I find a good proportion of what is hailed as great photography a little… unfathomable?!
And the answer, fortunately for all of us, is no. No, you don’t have to do fully understand, appreciate, and spend your time trying to emulate, or better, some of the great photographic art.
The question “do I need to be an artist to be a pro photographer?” is actually slightly different. And, in my opinion, the answer is yes… But don’t panic, because – you already are an artist.
Am I an artist?
The fact of the matter is that photography is considered a form of art… you are a photographer… therefore you are an artist. And I do truly believe the what I create when I work with my camera is art in some form.
Everyone in the world is an artist to some extent. The moment my 2 year old daughter picks up her paintbrush and starts covering the walls of the kitchen in milky blues and pinks, she is creating art.
Is professional photography art?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary’s definition of art as this – the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects, or the works so produced.
The Oxfor English dictionary defines art like this – the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Art, by no definition, has to good! Art is simply the application of creativity and imagination.
So… the good news is… you ARE an artist.
Art is what you want it to be
When you pick up your camera and head out into the world you snap away, capturing images, you take them home you load them onto your computer, you edit them, you export them… And what do you do then?
I would put it to you that in almost all cases, your next step is to show it to someone in some form or other. Whether that be putting it up on your website, or emailing it to someone, or sending it off to a magazine hoping it will be printed, or putting it into an album to be shown to someone at a later date. Or perhaps you’re printing a photograph to put on your wall. Either way, your plan is to display it, show it, or share it in some form.
What, then, is your motivation behind that act of sharing, or plan to share?
If you look deep inside yourself, and ask yourself some searching questions, I would suggest that your motivation the sharing your photography is, in its most basic form, to elicit a reaction in the person with whom you are sharing that photograph.
By that I mean that you want them to have some kind of emotional response. It might be that you want them to like it and tell you that you’re a great photographer. Perhaps you want them to be surprised by it, scared by it, shocked by it… Whatever reaction you are hoping for it is, at its heart, an emotional one.
We are all, therefore, applying creativity and imagination to emotionally manipulate and influence the viewer of our photograph, and that, according to the dictionary, makes you an artist!
You are already an artist!
So, if you are looking at a career in photography, but you’re worried that your sub-standard understanding and appreciation of art, especially in the photographic form, will be a huge hindrance then stop worrying. You already are an artist.
We are all artists the moment we create something that we think is good and share it with another person.
Winning awards, or getting your work hung in galleries, is a completely different prospect to that of becoming a professional photographer. Or rather, it is a completely different prospect to that of becoming a commercial photographer.
Technically a Fine Art photographer is also a professional photographer but, but that’s not the sort of professional photographer that we’re talking about here.
Consider your clients. Who are they, and what are they looking for?
The client is always right
As a professional commercial photographer your client could be literally anyone, with any background, and any level of appreciation for “art”.
When they commission you to create photographs for their company, they are hoping for photographs that they like. They are not attempting to recreate the current thinking in the world of modern art photography. [Maybe they are, but that would be a very specific, and unusual client.]
Your client wants photos that they think look good. What any potential client thinks is a good photograph is, frankly, a lottery.
I do approximately 100 jobs per year, on average. My website gets something in the region of 8,000 to 15,000 new visitors per year. Of those 100 jobs per year, probably about 50 to 60 in any one year I will be repeat business – clients from the previous year.
So my actual rate of new clients via the website (and by the website in this situation I mean my gallery) is something like 10,000 to 40… for every 10,000 new visitors I pick up 40 clients.
If we allow for a bit of wastage, for people who ended up on my website that didn’t really mean to get there – let’s say 20% of people, 2,000 new visitors – then we end up with 8,000 visitors for 40 new clients.
I am not even gonna work this out as a ratio, I’m just gonna give it is a straight number – 7,960 people who were potentially looking for a photographer, saw my work, didn’t like it and didn’t hire me.
I think we can safely assume that a significant number of those visitors, after visiting my site, went to another site, preferred what they saw there and hired that photographer instead. 7,960 people who look at my work and “don’t get it”, or think it’s a load of crap, or think it doesn’t fit their brand.
What I’m trying to get out here, is that everyone’s tastes are different. And I mean everyone. In the world of professional commercial photography what is good and what is not good is not dictated by the current leading photographic artists.
It is dictated by the clients, and on an individual, case-by-case basis.
To sum up… You do not need to be an artist to be a professional photographer. However, whether you like it or not, the minute you picked up that camera, you became an artist.
But…. That doesn’t mean you should turn your back on art.
I have spent many years trying to understand some of the more obscure photography art, with some success. What I can say for certain, is that process of trying to understand, of trying to appreciate what I perhaps at first don’t appreciate, has been extremely valuable.
I would recommend to anyone that, rather than ever dismiss a piece of art work, or a genre of art on the basis that it does nothing for you and you can’t understand it, it is absolutely worth spending some time reading all about it, and trying to get your head around it. This process in itself will make you a better all-round photographer.
In those early days, when I was trying to get my head around the whole thing, I found a book which I loved and I recommend any of you read it, if any of this article rings true with you. It’s called Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, and it’s by Jackie Higgins.
And if you have any thoughts on the above article, or have any requests, or questions, please type them into the comments section below.
Thanks, all the best, the BudgetProPhoto team.