Can you name a single photographer, alive or dead other than Ansel Adams?
That is a question I ask my photography students. Often they can name one or two because they are studying photography, but if I posed that question to the general public, I wonder how many could name a photographer. I wonder how many fewer could name a wedding or portrait photographer. My guess is not many.
The Rockstar Photographer[pullquote]This marketing idea played right into the mythology of what it means to be a photographer. [/pullquote]The term “Rockstar Photographer” originated about 5 years ago when a photographer, who shall remain nameless, (in fact, this post will reference a lot of photographers that shall remain unnamed,) started marketing an idea to other photographers. His idea was how to become a successful wedding and portrait photographer by focusing not on the photographer, but on your public persona. The photographs were secondary to the types of clothes you wear, the car you drive, and your social network presence.
This marketing idea played right into the mythology of what it means to be a photographer. There is a romanticized view of a photographers life in the public. They picture us sitting in our fancy homes, drinking imported coffee, and the phone ringing off the hook with couples wanting to give us $10,000 to photograph their wedding in some exotic locale, or National Geographic calling sending us off to some far off country for a three week paid vacation. Of course the reality is quite different. I have worked for National Geographic before. One time I was paid $475 for a photograph that required 6 days of white water rafting to capture. I can’t say that it wasn’t fun, but no photographer is going to get rich on $80 per day. And while $5,000 for wedding photographer might seem like “easy money,” it represents the costs of tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, marketing, education, and more than anything else, a decade of experience.
What this photographer was doing was capitalizing on the public perception of the life of a professional photographer. Many soccer moms and weekend warriors fell for this faster than you can say “Bernie Madoff.” Afterall, the idea that you could spend your weekends making thousands of dollars by simply dressing the part and using the fake it ’til you make it strategy was all too appealing. And what about a complete lack of photographic skills? No problem. With digital photography, he simply encouraged photographers to go to a wedding, set the camera to auto, and “spray and pray.” Afterall, if you take 10,000 images in a few hours, there are bound to be one or two that are passable, right?
The New Rockstars[pullquote]The only photographers that are living that glamorous life, are the ones that make their money selling false promises to the uninitiated.[/pullquote]I am not sure what has happened to that photographer. After so many new photographers gave him a lot of money for the secret to being a “rockstar” went out of business nearly as quickly as they started. However, there are plenty of other photographers in his place, taking advantage of new photographers’ naïveté in his place. One photographer promises to show you her editing secrets by doing an online performance where you can see her screen as she edits four photos in an hour for the low price of only $500. Another photographer will let you follow him at work for a day for only $20,000. Is that too much? Well for $2,500 you can speak with him over the phone for an hour, and he will share his secrets.
Do those prices seem ridiculous? Good. If you have half a brain, they should seem ridiculous. However, those photographers have obtained a cult like following among the newer photographers in our industry. And there is a simple reason why. What they are selling is instant success. Just like the “Rockstar” photographer was selling five years ago, these new snake oil salesmen are also selling instant gratification. Both of these photographers I am talking about have been in the business for only a few years. They started after the Rockstar craze, but they certainly learned from it. They learned that in an era when nearly 90% of wedding and portrait photographer do this as a part time job, that photographers are looking for that instant success, without any time or effort that will allow them to quit their day jobs to live the glamorous life of a wedding photographer. However, the only photographers that are living that glamorous life, are the ones that make their money selling false promises to the uninitiated.
There are no Rockstars
Carin and I spend a lot of time attending conferences, reading trade publications, and in general trying to improve our education in the industry. I have seen many of these photographers speak to rooms with well over a thousand people in it. Their fans are young and devoted to the point it feels like I am at a Justin Beiber concert with a bunch of thirteen year olds. At any moment I expect one of these young photographers to run up on the stage and ask the presenter to sign their chest with a Sharpie. I get it. Their presentations are high energy and fun, but like your typical pop music star, they lack any real substance.
[pullquote]None of the new photographers want to hear a presentation that tells them they can be successful only after decades of work.[/pullquote]Although there may not be rockstars of wedding photographer, there are leaders of the industry, and people I deeply respect. At WPPI last year, there was one presenter that I really wanted to see more than any other, Dennis Reggie. If there is a real rockstar of wedding photography, he is it. He has been photographing weddings for decades, and his clients include the children of multiple U.S. presidents as well as heads of state from around the world. And at close to $50,000 per day, he might actually have the kind of lifestyle that people imagine photographers have. However, he didn’t get there overnight. He got there through decades of work and talent.
So that might be the reason why his presentation on timeless wedding photography was in a tiny room with 40-50 people in it. None of the new photographers want to hear a presentation that tells them they can be successful only after decades of work. They want to hear how they can do it overnight. Shows like American Idol, have us thinking that success is defined by someone recognizing your innate talent, and then immediately rewarding you with fame and fortune. The real music world is not like that, and neither is the photography world. So I was saddened by how little interest there was for seeing Dennis Reggie talk about the creation of beautiful timeless images, and how people were jumping up and down screaming when the photographer who sold phone calls for $2,500 was giving away 10% off coupon to a few “lucky” people.
I am not a Rockstar
I feel old. I have been in this industry for a little more than a decade but that is enough to have missed a lot of the nonsense when I was a new photographer. When I was starting, the biggest debate was if digital would ever be as good as film (it’s better.) I am a little sad because that decade makes me an “old timer.” As I said earlier, according to an industry survey over 85% of wedding and portrait photographers have a full time job and only do this part time. There are very few full time photographers like myself left. Nearly three fourths of all photography businesses fail within 3 years. That means the market is saturated with new part time photographers. Most of them do not have the experience to recognize these “rockstar” get rich quick schemes for what they are.
[pullquote]For instance, understanding the difference between current trends and popular gimmicks.[/pullquote]More importantly, wedding photography consumers, the couples that are getting married, often cannot tell the difference. With portraits, there is a learning curve, and when people discover that their photographer is not everything they had promised, they can simply choose another photographer for the next portrait. Weddings on the other hand, are a once in a lifetime purchase for most people. And that means they are left trying to figure out on their own who is the experienced professional, and who is trying to fake it until they make it.
Personally, I think the biggest difference with an experienced pro is the timelessness of their images. For instance, understanding the difference between current trends and popular gimmicks. A current trend in wedding photography is a move towards more editorial style portraits. For example, something you would see in a fashion magazine as opposed to your grandparent’s photo album. A current gimmick that is popular, is to run the photos through a digital filter to make it look like a faded photograph from the 60’s. The difference is how they will look to a viewer in the future, which is exactly the purpose of a wedding album. In 30 years a trend is representative of the time like clothing or hairstyles. However a gimmick is viewed as tacky. Take a look at your parents’ or grandparents’ wedding photos. A powder blue tuxedo is a trend, but that photo where the roses are left red and everything else is black and white is a tacky gimmick.
My photography style has changed a little over the years. My experience has increased the demand for my work, which has in turn resulted in higher prices, which has allowed me to buy better equipment, etc… Meaning, it takes years to build up a business no matter how talented you are. It takes time to cultivate relationships and collect reviews from happy clients.
Evolution of Style
The following images start with some of the earliest weddings I photographed nearly a decade ago, and finish with one of my more recent weddings. If it is hard to tell when the image was taken by looking at it, I consider that to be a good thing.