You are a real photographer

One of the seemingly endless arguments going on online is people trying to define who is and who isn’t a “real photographer”.

It’s my turn.

Do you own a camera, or something like a phone that takes pictures? Do you take pictures?

Congratulations, you’re a real photographer.

95% of these arguments boil down to this definition: “If you don’t make things to my standards, it’s not real photography and you don’t count”. The subtext of that argument is pretty simple: “I’m better than you are”.

A lot of this seems to be people either trying to set up photography as a guild, and they’re in charge of the membership committee, and, of course, they had to do all this crap before they became a success, so unless you go through all of that, too, you aren’t really serious about it.

It’s all crap. I try to ignore it, and I suggest everyone else does, too. There are only two people you need to please with your photography: yourself, and the person writing you a check to buy your image from you.

Nobody else’s opinion matters, especially if it’s exclusionary or negative. It doesn’t matter if you’re using a 5DSR or a Canon Rebel or an iPhone — if you take pictures and you like those pictures, you’re a real photographer. If someone argues with them about it, point them at this piece and tell them to shut up. I’m officially giving you permission to call yourself a photographer, because you are.

Can your photos get better? Do you want them to get better? Great! There are always ways we can improve our photography and resources to help us figure it out. Do it, but don’t let that slow down what you’re doing now. Happy with your photos the way they are? Great! Enjoy taking pictures and don’t listen to people trying to tell you otherwise (and maybe see what they’re trying to sell you to solve this ‘problem’).

As a group, we photographers spend too much time arguing about gear and too little time discussing the image. We spend too much energy defining who’s in and what’s out and not enough time understanding why people are making the creative choices they’re making and appreciating the results of their choices.

When I founded the Bird Photography group on Google+, I and the other moderators defined the imagery into two broad categories: Lifestream and Traditional and we looked for ways to include both forms and make them feel welcome. If you look at the image streams online it’s obvious that the Lifestream style image is by far the common one out there, and we didn’t want to be exclusionist by rule or by attitude. One strong reason why: the Lifestream photographers are by far the most common pool of people likely to be interested in and recruitable into the Traditional Photography world — and I’m being very careful in terminology here to not use words like “Serious” or “Professional” in defining these groups, because if you call one group Serious you’re insulting the other group by defining what they do as not serious. It is — to them, even if it’s a more casual style of photography.

Here’s one problem traditional photographers lose sight of: Most people aren’t interested in photography, they want pictures. They don’t care that the highlights are blown or the shadows are muddy, they see the subject and it triggers the memories of the event and that’s what they want out of the image.

When I publish pictures, I don’t talk about ISO or shutter speeds or F stops. I talk about the image. I know — because I’ve gotten the feedback — that this annoys some people, and I’ve ended up in arguments with folks over images that have nothing to do with the image itself, but about the data found in the EXIF (“Why did you shoot at F/11? That should have been shot at F/16!” — “Did you actually look at the image? It looks fine!” —  “Irrelevant, you shot it wrong”)

I don’t have those discussions any more, and this is my call all photographers to do the same. I’m not saying the geeky bits don’t matter — they do. Photographers have to get to know and obsess about their gear to get the best images out of it — and then realize nobody else gives a damn about anything but the picture.

Often, our reaction is to denigrate people who don’t get into the geeky aspects of the craft, when I think we need to accept and embrace that interest. I feel strongly that’s a big mistake that has to stop.

If we don’t want traditional photography to go the way of ham radio in a generation or two — and I think that’s definitely a risk we need to grapple with — then we need to not put down the more casual photographers but reach out to them and help them both see the joys of our styles of photography and to feel welcome when they attempt to experiment and move into that area. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re doing a good enough job at either of those.

So here’s my new manifesto on who is a real photographer: Everyone is. And I am going to promote this idea by doing the following:

  1. I will judge an image, not the techniques used to create it. Is it a good image? That’s what matters.
  2. Are you happy with the image? Then the previous rule is invalid and what I think is irrelevant.
  3. Do you want to have a discussion of technique and geeky stuff to evaluate the image and look at ways to make it better (or different)? Awesome. I’ll talk your ear off if you let me. Don’t care? If I get started, tell me to shut up. I won’t be offended.
  4. I don’t care what camera you used.
  5. I don’t care what technique you used. HDR? Composite? Photoshop? Did you hit it with a stick randomly until you liked what you saw? All fine.
  6. I don’t care if you shoot raw or jpeg or film.
  7. I care that you take photos, that you like those photos, and that you enjoy taking, watching and sharing those photos.
  8. And my role here is to do the same, and to help others do so as well.

I want to encourage all of you to do the same. Let’s stop the turfing, the faux-guildhall attitudes and the exclusionary acts of “I’m better and I want you to know it”. We’re all photographers and we’re all creating good, interesting work, and we should be working together to enjoy these images, educate each other and improve the field and our craft by teaching and learning from each other.

I’m going to try to do that here in my writing and when I meet other photographers in person — and I want everyone else to join me and do the same. There is a wide universe of possibilities within photography and the field is big enough to all of us; we shouldn’t waste our time and energy trying to define which aspects aren’t good enough to join the club.