Two Good Questions

One of my students recently asked me this question:

Samantha, what is a day in the life of a professional nature photographer like?  Is it difficult being a woman in a seemingly male-dominated field?

These are two huge questions, so I will break them up and give it my best shot!

A Day in the Life

The answer to this question is a big IT DEPENDS.  It depends on the personality of the photographer and her priorities.  It also depends on how long the photographer has been working because the photo industry is in a huge state of flux right now.  Those who have been around for some time will likely still be doing their old work: shooting for stock, heading out on assignments, or fronting the financial risk on a trip to get new images.  But they will also most likely be spending increasing amounts of time doing new things like teaching courses, leading photo tours, and building a presence on the web. 

I asked Darwin about this as he has been around the scene for some time.  He used to head out to the wilderness and capture images he thought would sell, hand them over to a stock agency, and then head out again.  There was some administration in dealing with the odd print sale or camera club talk, but he spent much more time out in the field than at a desk.  Even if he had a book deal it involved working outside in nature.  Now, he spends relatively little time out shooting and most of his time behind a desk processing images, dealing with emails, and building a presence online. 

And that describes my days too since entering the field about three years ago.  At an entry level, photography is much easier because modern advances have created programs that take the guesswork out of exposure for the beginner resulting in more and more amateurs picking up a camera.  At the same time, the digital era has allowed for near instantaneous transmission of images over the internet resulting in a flood of decent images for a fraction of the cost.

What is also a part of my day is the pressure to master a multitude of tasks seemingly unrelated to photography per se in order to build my business.  Various computer software programs, such as Adobe’s suite, need to be mastered in order to teach and stay current.  Photoshop, Bridge, Elements, Lightroom and InDesign are all programs I am continually trying to advance in.  Even when I feel like I have a grasp on one program, new updates, plug ins or other software make that knowledge dated.  As well, I find the more I understand web (and graphic) design, traffic patterns on the web, preparing images for the web and networking on the web, the better for my business.    

When I do get out to shoot, it is usually with a product in mind and not just for the joy of it.  You have to enjoy making images that you can sell to succeed at this business.  I spend most of my time at the computer on collateral aspects of photography and not on the taking or processing of images.

Working in a Man’s World

The answer to the second question is an unequivocable YES. 

Some of the reason for this is just that, when one gender dominates a profession, it starts to look a certain way that is reflective of the values of the gender that runs it.  For example, in the traditional photo industry, hierarchy is important.  Women can be possessive, but in my experience we are less hierarchical.  I have bumped up against the ‘hierarchy’ wall in photography a few times.  For me, if something is good it should receive appropriate recognition whether that image was made two years into a career or twenty.  Opportunities should be awarded based on merit, not station.

Another big difference is that photography is considered more of a craft, or even a trade, than an art form for many photographers.  This is obvious from the emphasis placed not on the principles of photography (why, what) but on the mechanics (how).  I know of very few art forms where most of the discussion revolves around the gear required to make art than the actual making of the art.  The thinking is that, the better the tools, the better the image!  Camera companies recognize the importance of tools to modern man and exploit this in their marketing.  If they were marketing towards women, I imagine the name, colour, size and weight of all camera gear would be substantially different.  If you aren’t a gear-head, the constant hawking of camera ‘toys’ and the endless discussion over gear is disheartening.  Let’s just say that very few people I meet debate the merits of composition and visual design!

But….  That shift in the industry I mentioned above is also having a large influence on who are the photographers.  More women and more young people are picking up cameras.  This, too, will have an impact on the industry.  These people tend to be multi-talented, juggling more than one job and bringing in sophisticated media skills into the mixture.  Graphic designers, software creators, animators, scrapbook lovers—anyone who works in visual media may find it easier to get their own stills than hire a photographer.  Remember Mom always behind the digicam?  Well now she’s taking an online course on photographing pets and updating her family’s facebook page with fresh video of the family vacation.

The ‘old way’ of photography is dead.  I think if you are flexible, multi-skilled in media forms and happy to network online, now is a great time for you to join the industry.

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~ by Samantha on March 25, 2010.

8 Responses to “Two Good Questions”

  1. Hi Sam,

    Interesting Rant.

    There are a few points I think you missed;

    1. Photography is a practical application. It can only be learned by practicing in the field. It is my opinion for you to get as much field experience as possible and also to build upon a portfolio. It can take a considerable amount of time in the field to build a strong portfolio. Plus that is the fun part of photography.

    2. Also, this new way of promoting our photography is not yet proven. Anyone with a computer and skilled in the new media can compete on a equal footing with you or Darwin. I think we will become over saturated and get lost or tangled in the web. It will come down to the basics, Show me if you are a good photographer, don’t tell me. The proof is in the photography.

    I speak for myself. My opinion is I like to see new photography from photographers. Anyone can be an armchair photographer.

    I spend a lot of time in the field looking for new subject matter, as I put it new product. It is difficult, but field time is important to be a great photographer. All great photographers are judged on their photography and not on their computer skills.

    I think you are wrong to say, “The old way is dead”. The old way was spending time in the field learning and using your equipment. The computer and web marketing has only made it easier for photographers to reach out to more markets quicker. I want to note here, this can be done in the field as well as at home.

    Just my two cents worth.

    David Lilly

  2. I agree that the proof is in the photography. I often see people look at photographer’s work or their gallery and decide whether or not they want to purchase their products or use them for weddings etc. and it’s all based on how the photographs look to them. I also think that spending time in the field and learning and using the equipment is just as important as being behind a desk. I often compare it to what a musician does. They create songs by playing their instrument. On the other hand, I also agree with Sam, now a days everybody has a camera and with the digital era out comes the everyday person becoming a photographer. There are so many tools out there to become ones own photographer. Because like art, photography is personal. Everybody wants to capture their moment and they have the tools now to capture that moment. While they admire professional photographer’s art, it’s almost like people say, wow what a beautiful photograph, how did you capture that? And then, they try to capture it for themselves. So, now I see professional photographers making more money on teaching classes and holding photo tours. And therefore, it is important to market yourself on the web etc. because people need to know who you are and what you have to offer. For example, Sam, I like your photographs. I like your articles, oh and I see you are also teaching classes. Therefore, I would love to take one of your classes. And how did I know that? You marketed yourself well. Just my two cents from a newbie. 🙂

  3. […] Here is Samantha’s answer to the following question: What is a day in the life of a professional nature photographer like?  Is it difficult being a woman in a seemingly male-dominated field? […]

  4. Hi Sam,

    Great post. I grew up in a household where my mother was stomping down the doors of a male dominated profession and actually continues to do so to this day in her mid 70s. She became a pharmacist in her twenties and still goes to work almost everyday of the week. Mostly, not because she has to, but because she loves to. I have witnessed the hardships that she has had to overcome for 40 years now, but have watched her push beyond everything for a pure love of what she does. She has often told me that I could be anything, including President, if that in fact was what I wanted, as long as I put my mind to it. And you are obviously following that mantra.

    I personally do not care about color, gender, preference or the like. I know these issues exist, I wish they did not exist. It makes me really happy to see people like you, my wife, and my mother going beyond the norm, driven by pure passion, and succeeding. When that happens the given profession becomes less of a domination and more of a competition about who is the best. You also drive out those old boys club guys who have said these are the rules and everyone has to adhere to them. To truly succeed I think a person needs to weigh everyone’s ideas, then you become the most well rounded, educated, and truly successful.

  5. Very thoughtful comments, everyone. This is an interesting conversation partly because it encompasses so many peoples’ diverse life experiences.

    David: I totally agree with you that you need to take pictures to make images and that you have to build up a repertoire to last at all in this biz. Thanks for bringing out that point. I do think though, that being able to shoot in the field more than half of your time is a thing of the past, and that is what I meant by “the old way is dead”. You’re right though: time will tell.

    Consuelo: Thanks always for your thoughtful and constructive comments. I think ‘newbies’ have the freshest perspective out there, and I consult with them frequently (especially since I’m a relative newbie myself!!)

    Jay: Oh, I do love a man who appreciates strong women! Men–and women–I know who admire strong people in general often grew up with or knew someone influential in their life who was strong and courageous and taught them to aspire to these qualities. Thanks for your insightful comment.

  6. Hi Sam,

    I found your comments really practical, honest and thought provoking. It’s interesting to see someone say that so little of a vocational photographer’s time is spent making images. I’d read it before but not quite that transparently! The comments seem to agree that there is some sort of balance or at least compromise to be found between time spent on making images and everything else.

    I’m similar to yourself although nowhere near as far down the path. I’m a female mining engineer who enjoys photography and is dipping her toe in the vocational photography pool (with the lifejacket still on!!). In the first few months, I’ve got quite jittery as the “other” tasks of a photography business eat into time I’d rather be spending on improving my skills.

    I booked on a photography workshop of over 20 participants recently to find that I was the only female. And yet the open education courses I’d been to were 100% female. It seems that women are happy to go to a “beginner’s” course and improve their skills as a hobby but are not in the professional arena. Has your experience been the same?

    • Darrienne,

      First, congrats to you for exploring going further with your photography. Keep the lifejacket on until you are sure you want to jump in these deep waters!

      In answer to your question, I think women often underestimate their level of knowledge and capability (I may get in trouble for that one) while men seem more confident and jump in sooner. Case in point: I have not led a photo tour yet by myself for various reasons, but one is that I do not feel I know enough about people’s cameras to confidently resolve their questions on how to run them. I know how to run mine, but that isn’t good enough! Also, I want to ensure I have all the permits and liability insurance in place to run a tour. I know of many photographers who do not get proper permits, guiding licenses and liability insurance yet still take people out on tours. I don’t think that’s appropriate, or safe.

      If other women think the same, or are cautious like me, they may stay out of this aspect of money-making in photography. My impression is, if you keep photography as a passionate hobby, you have more time for actual picture-taking than you will if you become a pro who is responding to the new industry.

  7. […] couple of must reads, one is the link on Photoshop CS5 and the other is a post that his better half Samantha Chrysanthou has on her blog. Next, friend Jim Goldstein interviewed Art Wolfe about his book Migrations. It is a really well […]

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