I’m just coming off a two-day shoot for a client. A run-and-gun affair that took us to five location, using ten models. I’m looking at a preview of the shots — they are as gorgeous as they are varied. I’m an adept photographer, and I’ve certainly worked with enough over the years to have learned the business through osmosis, but in these situations, and for many reasons, I hire a pro to shoot. It allows me the freedom to do other creative thinking on set (which is by far my greater talent), but more than that, there’s just something about a pro. I took some time during the shoot to really observe and think about the difference between a great photographer and a pro photographer. In this day and age, with the rise of the instafamous photographer, it would seem the line is getting blurrier. However, taking a moment to truly appreciate the skills of the pro I was working with made me realize just how important the distinction still is. Here’s my observations and takeaways:
Pros Aren’t Enamored With Equipment
He had great equipment of course (though nothing that would surprise you), but his attitude toward his hardware was much different than what I experience in social media. Which is to say, he never mentioned it. He’s a Nikon guy, but he spends zero time talking about the differences between brands or the latest lenses or bodies. A professional needs their tools to be on automatic. It’s more important for them to have muscle memory and intimacy with their equipment than to own the latest and greatest. When it comes down to it, there are only a handful of things in hardware that truly make a big difference to the professional — fast auto focus, frames-per-second, a high pixel count and one or two other things I noticed, none of which have changed much over the last decade. In general, though, the pro seems to be striving to think less about the equipment, not more. And that’s in stark contrast to the ongoing discussion you experience in most social circles.
Being enamored with photography turns people into fans, not professionals. Those things occupy different parts of the brain and create different sets of knowledge. It’s like being a mechanic versus a race car driver.
The Takeaway: Learn more about the camera you have. Use it more, in more situations. Use it so much that you stop being enamored with equipment. Your shooting scenarios will tell you what you need, not a website, manufacturer, blog or Instagram feed.
Pros Are Professional Problem-Solvers
I was struck the whole shoot with how well our photographer handled everything thrown at him. From my creative direction to the clients needs to directing the crew to working with models… it’s the entire business of image-making that he is engaged in, not simply “chasing light” or “capturing a moment.” Every one of the things that happens, or can happen, on set is a factor that a professional photographer must contend with and manage. When I need a location, I ask the photographer. When I need models, I ask the photographer. When we need a certain kind of light, look, composition, feel… we ask the photographer. When the weather changes, when a model doesn’t show up, when a car is in the way, when something breaks, when the client wants some options… we ask the photographer. They are professional problem-solvers and you don’t just pay for their vision, you pay for the guarantee that no matter what happens, you’ll still get great images.
By contrast, your average Instagrammer works on their own time and for imagery that defines their own tastes. This is not to judge them or their images, I follow many amazing photographers online who I admire, but the beauty of their work tells me nothing of their ability to solve a problem. And I can’t hire someone who can’t do all of it.
The Takeaway: There is still no substitute for actual, on-set experience.
Pros Enable Creativity
The professional photographer has dialed in the job of creativity within their discipline to an extremely tight and efficient work flow. Our shoot took place over two days at multiple locations — which we had determined together over the previous month. But before the shoot, the photographer created a look/feel for each location using found imagery. Then he got into town two days early, rented a few items to have on hand (just in case) and visited each location to see it in the various lighting conditions we would have.
By the time we were on set, he already had the shots planned out in his mind, which meant we could bang those out and spend more time on set giving direction and trying different things. It also meant that no matter what we threw at him, he was un-phased. If he had simply shown up and tried to figure everything out on location, any one of the things we wanted to try would have been doubly hard for him to manage.
The Takeaway: Getting the shot is the cost of entry, creating an environment that promotes the creativity of the group is a job that takes extreme precision, preparation and stamina.
Pros Have Better Attitudes
I’ve spent a lot of time with Instagrammers and a lot of time with professional photographers. They have very different attitudes. Instagrammers are largely concerned with their own brand. They discuss their following, their themes, their look and their personal successes. Professionals don’t discuss any of that stuff. And it’s not because they don’t care about those things — they do. It’s because professionals are much more concerned with getting their next gig and making sure it goes really well. The large majority of their work comes from repeat clients and word-of-mouth, so they tend to spend the majority of their time trying to solve other people's problems: their following, their brand, their themes, their look and their success.
I think this is the core of “professionalism.” Those who possess it tend to be outwardly-focused. They listen and they figure out how they can help you with something through their talent. At least my favorite ones are like that — I won’t work with prima donnas anymore . But in my experience, across the entire spectrum of professional photography, the pros have that special skill to be able to make things happen for you.
The Takeaway: Get outside your own themes and personal drive and focus on the needs of who you are (or want to be) doing your photography for. And for god’s sake, be nice.
The final thought on it, for me, was that being a pro is hard. Not that going out and building a large following in social media is a piece of cake, either. But being a pro just entails more things, with more pressure attached to it. Handling all that is still a distinction that truly belongs to the pro. If you post one poor shot on Instagram, nobody cares. If you aren’t feeling it one day, you can just skip it. A professional must deliver greatness, every time. At any time. The ability to work at that level is still a class of its own — and a million followers still doesn’t get you close to it.
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