Portrait of Kirk amidst the crane trucks.
How am I defining "professional photographer" these days? It would mean: the people who go out with cameras and earn the bulk of their living taking photographs on assignment for clients, or making photographs to sell to prospective clients. It's cute that we can all play around in the sharing economy and make some pocket change blogging, or earn a meager living hosting workshops but the reality of commercial photography is that it's hard work, the aesthetics of the imagery change all the time, and the way we engage with clients is always evolving. To make it financially one must be in the game. To understand how best to use the gear we write about the quickest, surest education is spending long days with the camera in your hands or the lights on the set.
The funny thing for me is to read about the photographic adventures of other photographers on various websites. They make the profession sound so alluring, so glittery. Some make it sound like rocket surgery because that plays well with the math, tech and toy geeks. Some paint a picture of the profession as a never ending series of care free travel assignments complete with five star hotels and daily meals with Michelin-starred chefs. Still others make it sound like a glorious way to meet fashion models and rock stars, and in the process, make a fortune.
I'd like for my writing to project what I experience as the truth of professional photography as I live it. How do I do the work? Where am I working? Who am I working for? What does a real day look like? How is commercial photography different for the thousands of working stiffs compared to the work of the trust funders who dabble and demand to be taken seriously?
I was thinking about all of this as I headed to my job today. I was hired to take photographs of crane trucks. Those are the trucks that have various sized cranes attached to them which are used to load materials at construction job sites, to hang signs up high, to elevate workers who fix telephone and electrical wires and much more. Sounds sexy already, right? Well you wouldn't be getting cable TV without the crane trucks, that's for sure...
A few days ago the client mentioned to the ad agency that they'd like to shoot in the afternoon. I lobbied to start at 8 am. It's not that I'm an early bird who loves to get up with the sun but more that I'm a self-preservationist who wants to stay out of the heat. It hit 105(f) yesterday here in Austin but with the moisture in the air it felt like 110)f) by 2:30 in the afternoon. I knew the weather pattern would be the same today. The bulk of the job was outdoors, shooting trucks in a large parking lot. A parking lot covered with black asphalt. The perfect heat sink.
The client was located in Georgetown, Texas and according to Google Maps the travel time was supposed to be about 43 minutes. But traffic is zany in the area. The population has grown like weeds and the number of roads has remained mostly constant. The round the clock road construction doesn't help either. I hate to be late so I left the house at 6:30 and headed to Starbucks for a 1/2 caffeine coffee and one of their little "hockey puck" egg and sausage sandwiches which I ate on the road.
I drove up Mopac with the flow of traffic heading north to Dell, IBM and Apple, intersected with IH-35 for the last lap of the journey and then slid through the sleepy town of Georgetown until I found Manitex; makers of fine crane trucks in almost all sizes.
I went in and introduced myself and was led to a small conference room where I was asked to read a very short safety booklet and to attest that I had been offered steel toed shoes (brought my own), safety glasses (brought my own) and a hard hat (thank you!). We headed to the manufacturing floor right after stopping by the dispenser for ear protectors.
I spent a bit of time photographing various steps in the mating of heavy duty cranes to heavy duty trucks and then we headed outside to photograph the finished product. An editor from a trade magazine that specializes in heavy duty crane trucks showed up to guide me in what she might need for a cover image.
We had a list of images of trucks and cranes to shoot. We shot everything in the direct sun and positioned ourselves so we always had clear, blue skies instead to trying to shooting into the sun. I carried a tan Domke camera bag with three lenses and two cameras in it. I shot with the D810 and had my D750 along as a back up camera --- because professional photographers never go on assignment without a back up camera. Even in the digital age. The bag also contained a couple extra batteries, a polarizing filter and a bottle of water.
The web experts would tell me that everyone travels with an entourage. They would chide me for going out on location without an assistant. Without an assistant (and their second assistant) who would carry the ninja props and the mini trampolines? But this was a one camera, one lens job. I couldn't think of minimizing another human's potential by having them tag along just to carry my camera bag for me. Can't carry your own camera bag? It's a sure sign you are ready to retire from commercial photography on location.
Our budget was our budget. It was the most I could talk the advertising agency out of for this kind of work and this kind of usage. I chose to take the job because I wasn't booked for today and I'd rather have "good enough" money than to hold out for the elusive "spectacular" money. I rather be working than reading the web fiction about someone else's amazing trip to Nassau to shoot a bikini catalog for a camera company. (Those are actually called "junkets" not jobs...). If I included an assistant in my mix today I would have had congenial company driving up and back, someone to carry my camera bag for a couple of hours, and a $300 hole in my budget.
I shot the stuff we agreed upon during the time we'd budgeted and I headed back to Austin around 11 am. I got to the Thundercloud Sub Sandwich shop in my neighborhood a little before noon and had a tuna salad sandwich on whole wheat. I read the Austin Chronicle while I ate my sandwich. I was nutritionally bad today and bought a Doctor Pepper to drink instead of water or tea.
When I drove back to my house there was a pickup truck parked mostly across my neighbor's driveway and across some of mine. I squeezed around and into my parking place and then I started the search for the owner of the pick up truck at the job site next door. I explained to the 100th different person, just as I have countless times to others the last two years, why he couldn't park on my driveway while working on the house construction next door. His excuse? "I was only planning to be here for a few minutes." He moved his car and my mood darkened by two stops. I sent an e-mail (one of dozens) to the owner. He'll promise to take care of it but will forget his promise when the next wave of new subcontractors show up.
I downloaded the files from the shoot. There were about 400 from this morning. They were all big, raw files from the D810. I tossed some duplicates and some I didn't like and then I had 330 files. I pulled them into Lightroom and started color correcting and making small tweaks to the images. They seemed to be in groups of three. I'd correct, apply the corrections to all the ones with the same exposures and then move on to the next sequence.
I took a break to go out and talk to our yard guy, José. He cut our grass and stuff a couple of weeks ago but none of us were home at the time to pay him so we owed him for both times and I wanted to make sure I didn't miss him again. He tends to knock on the door of the house and avoids the studio door. I put the two checks in an envelope and brought them out to him. Thank you for asking, he's doing well.
Around 3:00 pm I got all the files of trucks with cranes color corrected and converted them to full size (36 meg.) jpegs as my client requested. I thought that the quantity of files would come out to a little under 2 gigabytes which would have been great. I could have used WeTransfer.com's free service to deliver the files. But the files came in at almost 7 gigabytes so I decided to just toss them on a memory stick and deliver them myself.
I called to confirm that the person I needed to hand them to was still in his office and then headed over there immediately. If everything went to plan I might be able to get there and back before the worst of the Austin rush hour traffic started. I was successful and the images are now in the client's hand but the job has eaten yet another hour that I was loathe to give it. When I got back to the office I sat down and wrote out an invoice which I sent over via e-mail as a .pdf. That job is now complete.
Which gives me time to prepare for tomorrow's job which is a continuation of yesterday's job. We're working with a P.R. agency to help them create a website to promote their specialty of executive training. Yesterday we had eight models and two trainers in two borrowed conference rooms and I shot a mix of video and still images. All of them will be used as strongly horizontal visual content on a WebPress style website. It sounds "glamorous" but really it is straight forward project that requires me to do a lot of set ups in a short amount of time and to go back and forth from my still photo brain to my video brain, over and over again.
I need to recharge LED panel batteries, clean the cameras from the truck dust, charge the camera batteries, pack the portable green screen and find a fresnel spot that I am sure I have sitting around here somewhere. I guess I also need four or five C-stands, some scrims and flags, the video monitor and that black case full of microphones and cables.
Once we finish with the shooting I'll need to do the same kind of edit and post production on the still photographic files and then string all of the videos together in Final Cut Pro X, importing them as Pro Res files, stabilize them, add some contrast, do a bunch of color adjustments and output them for the art director at the P.R. agency who will select snippets as infinitely revolving gifs (or something) for inclusion on the website.
When we finish up tomorrow evening with the actual shooting I'll tear all the lights down, pack em, load the car, unpack them at the studio and start the routine of charging the batteries and cleaning the gear.
I work a lot. Most of the jobs we do are pretty routine. The locations change and the players change but the nuts and bolts are straightforward and logical. We might try new styles and new approaches now and then but most clients are pretty conservative and stick pretty closely to what they know. I do dozens and dozens of jobs like the ones I described above for every one outlier job that features a former president or a gorgeous portrait subject. But that's how I can call myself a professional photographer. I go to work every day and make images. I solve (admittedly low level) visual problems for clients and help them show off things like trucks with cranes. Or executive training. And then I do the paper work. The marketing. The tax accounting and the maintenance.
Maybe I am just missing out on the juicy stuff that goes to everyone else but I don't think so. I stay connected to other photographers. For a while I was a chapter president for the ASMP. Everyone seemed to be waiting for the big pay off that rarely came. At some point I realized that what we do is a job like everyone else's job. We trade off some security for the illusion of free time but we either fill the free times with all the tasks that are required to make the business work or we trade that security for free time to embrace the abject fear that we'll never be asked to work again.
It's a funny business. Photography. The companies that make money are the ones selling photographers the lights and the cameras and the lenses and all the gadgets that we are convinced will make our pictures better, our clients happier and our teeth whiter. The other people who make money are the ones who prey on our insecurities and offer "education."The gear companies have found that giving those people cameras to review helps them create a mythology about how the business of photography works. Getting the gear also implies that the people receiving it are "special" members of the clan. But do they ever really work with the cameras in a commercial way? People who are web and blog savvy have found ways to make compelling stories of exciting photographic experiences that become part of the current legend and seem to make becoming a "professional photographer" something culturally aspirational. The more people who aspire to become sports photographers (in reality a tiny, tiny market at the high end = high end meaning average American middle class wage level) the more long, light gray lenses Canon sells and the more D4s Nikon sells.
The more people who aspire to torture other people as wedding photographers the more Canon 5D mark 3s get sold, along with the almost "required" 24-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f2.8's. And those stupid, ugly Black Rapid straps...
Generally, when I see amazing photography, or work done in amazing places, I dig a little deeper and find that it is inevitably "self-assigned." Nothing wrong with that. We do it all the time because I like photography; both the process and sometimes the results. There's a freedom in shooting for oneself that is vital in this age of homogeneity in almost all things visual. We all shoot for ourselves but I wish everyone was honest about the work. I wish the web gurus would step up and say "I shot this for myself." Instead of, "Here's the kind of work we like to do for clients." When, in fact, they have probably never done anything of the kind for clients.
I read one person's blog nearly every evening because he's great at speaking the geek talk. He can go on about micro-contrast and nano acuity as though they are ubiquitous measures in the general consumer market. He sees bokeh even through brick walls with lead lining. He talks about international clients. But we never see any work actually done for clients; real clients. The blogs are entertaining but he paints a picture in which all clients are amazingly well educated about aesthetics and equally, they are uniformly demanding when it comes to the revelation of micro-contrast, sharpness across all fields, and dimensions known and unknowable in the work being delivered to them. To believe his writing is to imagine that all the clients you will meet will demand you use a Nikon D810 as the minimum acceptable standard. Better yet if you can stitch twenty or thirty frames together to form one archly perfect and micro-contrast encrusted file for just those clients who must make billboards which you will approach with loupes; then and only then will have you entered the "envelope of acceptability."
But if it is all a lie or an artful untruth predicated to help sell more cameras, more blog clicks, more workshops and more secondary engagements then what, in the long run, does this exaggeration do to our markets, your egos or your pocket books. It's so cool that people get who have a big photo website get to go to the Antarctic to photograph ice flows (not for long) and penguins. But no one other than the workshop attendants will be paying them for this service. And so there is no reality to their recommendations, to their prescriptions for photography as it relates to the business of taking images.
It's exciting to think that someone can make a profit creating and selling workshops all over world but if you have time to do workshops all over the world you have surely run out of good paying clients to work for on a regular basis or you could never afford the time away. Surely, if your work is so majestic that it should be the center of workshops don't you have an obligation to yourself, nay, the world, to go out and keep creating the work instead of squandering your potential and your productivity teaching the unteachable to retired programmers? I am a believer in the idea that art is a combination of personal vision, first person knowledge acquisition and a healthy dose of self-directed trial and error. Through which you learn better lessons that form the foundation of your art. Are thousands of dollars spent "workshopping" a faster way to mastery than doing the time? I don't think it's the same... And I know the results are not the same.
I am equally suspicious of "best selling" landscape photographers or fine art photographers. I would like to see their tax returns to see just what their spouses do for a living...
In the end I have as narrow a point of view as anyone else. I think being in the act of creating and making money with the cameras is a different way of looking at the world. The decisions I make are not always clouded with reason but are many times clear, crisp windows into self delusion. I am as sellable as the rest of you who spend time wandering around the web with our wallets open to the charlatans who sell the promise of artistic fulfillment and riches to be garnered, if only we had their special camera, their special advice, or one of those militaristic straps.
Maybe I am just tired from spending too much time working the work of photography. Maybe I'd feel better if I just insinuated my talent and leveraged the insinuation to sell something people think they want or need that doesn't require me to move away from my computer keyboard.
But every time I consider doing a workshop or getting chained again to another camera brand I feel this incredible resistance that tells me I'd rather be out, wandering around, taking images that I love and then writing about them to as much of an audience as might care. And never being tied down to the necessity of talking about it instead of doing "it."
It's a bizarre lifestyle. Like being a chef who only wants to cook for himself. Or a writer of books who knows the "formula" for success in a genre but chooses to write what his muse suggests instead. But really, if I'm going to follow the meanderings and teachings of a "professional" photographer it is, for some, reason important to me that they actually have paying clients....