Thursday, April 23, 2009

Professional Integrity

As a photographer, I am constantly being advised by my peers to limit myself to one area of specialty. Pick one thing to do and hit it hard. Be the best and be known by what you do. Streamline your website. Focus your whole message in one direction. Be consistent.In the marketplace, however, I see a very different and disturbing trend.

In an effort to corner all of the business they can, many service oriented businesses (and what business isn't service oriented anymore) are expanding their service offerings to the point that some professions are being homogenized down to commodity offerings. You know, the Wal-Mart syndrome. Now you can go to Wal-Mart for groceries, portraits, a hair-cut, banking, tax preparation, see a doctor, auto maintenance and now some kind of eye-brow ripping place! Where will it end?

I think the answer is it won't.

Where this trend crawls me is when small businesses start adding photography to their list of services. I have been a photographer for sixteen years now. When I started out, there was a significant investment of time, equipment, process and craft. I had to buy expensive cameras, multiple lenses, lighting equipment, backdrop rigs, darkroom equipment and all of the necessary supplies to process and print images. Now I have made the switch to digital and there are new cameras to buy and then you have to learn computer image manipulation. There are still a zillion things to learn if you want to stay competitive.

Well, here I am making the new equipment investments, learning Photoshop, learning what all my new camera can do and staying current on the latest lighting trends and I see a shop open up on Main Street in the town I live in. The business is graphic design..and photography! The front window is full of portraits and there is a sparse studio set up inside. The owner is a very good designer, but just likes to do photography also. Then I look across the street (literally, right across the street) and there is a business offering tattoos, fine art gallery and photography. Nearby, in another town one business offers a hair salon, massage therapy and you guessed it, photography! All of these businesses are doing portraits. It is worth mentioning that one proprietor is providing all of the services listed for each business. I don't want to deprive anyone the opportunity to make a buck doing something that is very fulfilling, but I wonder how much they enjoy it if it is listed second or third in their list of services. How much skill and technique do they bring to the table?

So what is the harm? Live and let live. They are not likely to be as good as me and that will separate my work from what they can do and customers will seek me out over them, right?

Not necessarily.

Many people have the perception that one is as good as another and if you are charging me $200 for a portrait session and they can do the session for free or for say $15, why should I spend the extra dough for some hot shot that thinks he is worth more? Well I am here to tell you, it's not that the "hot shot" thinks he is worth more, but his cost of doing business is higher because everything is riding on his (or her) ability to bring it when the shutter falls. If you aren't blown away by your photographs and you don't invest in prints from the shoot, we can't make it up with a few extra haircuts. We have poured everything we have into an art form we feel and believe in. We know what we can do, get excited to face a new challenge and thrill to see the look on your face when you see the results. I can't believe there is as much personal suffering and achievement involved if your photographer is distracted by their other occupation's deadlines and challenges.

The same principle applies if your plumber sells real-estate on the side. When you need your plumbing fixed, you call a professional. When you need to sell your home in a tough real-estate market, you don't screw around with a part-timer. If I come to you for accounting advice, I don't want to know that you also happen to sell MonaVie on the side. I want to believe in you as a professional. Don't dilute my perception of you with sidelines, it tells me you don't believe in the thing I am trusting you with, or that you don't work hard enough at it. When people see me, I want them to know me as a photographer, not an insurance agent who also does photography. I am a photographer….and that's it. When I look at you, I am sizing up how the light plays on your face. I am walking around thinking about how I would compensate for the crappy lighting in the doctors waiting room, or in the mall, wherever. I think in the language of how I can use the equipment I have to make something spectacular out of what is available.

I am making myself stop. It feels good to finally get this bothersome topic out in the open. I welcome any comments anyone may have.