In DEFENSE of Momtographers Everywhere…

Debate about momtographers the Improve Photography Facebook page

The momtographer debate. I liked these and other comments on the Facebook page. Many people had valid points.

For years, I’ve heard well-known photographers on the web (I’m resisting a strong urge to name names here) bash people–often young moms–who begin a photography business without the training and experience of seasoned professionals.  Today, on the Improve Photography Facebook Page, a mini-debate broke out about so-called “momtographers” and their place in the photography business.

Emily Straw, Erika Darcy, Mary Vogt, Erin LaSorsa, Mindy Woodford, Alexandria Wilcox, and other members of our community made valid comments on the topic which I appreciated.  But in this debate, I feel like I have to speak out a bit too.

Momtographer in action

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What I’m NOT Saying…

I am not advocating that someone pick up a camera, call themselves a photographer, and then advertise that they shoot weddings.  That is a fantastic way to ruin someone’s wedding, and for the photographer to get sued.  I understand how important family photos are, so the thought of once-in-a-lifetime events being treated carelessly isn’t a winning proposition to me.

If I were a beginner who eventually wanted to do photography as a business, I would take my time.  Take courses (I happen to know someone who teaches online photography classes….), practice like crazy, shoot casual family events to learn the ropes, get critiques, and then slowly dip your toe into the market.  It is possible to make a great living as long as you have good business sense.

Oh, and the last thing is that I’m using the word “momtographer” only because that was the word thrown around in the mini-debate on our Facebook page.  My wife is a stay-at-home mother of two young children, so please don’t get the wrong idea–no one in our society deserves more respect than mothers.

What I AM Saying…

First of all, business means competition.  Photographers have watched competition in action as point-and-shoot camera sales have plummeted over the last few years.  Canon, Nikon, Sony, Olympus, Kodak, and other camera manufacturers have watched as consumers have chosen to use their camera phones as a substitute for point-and-shoots.  Consumers have decided that a camera phone is “good enough” because they don’t want to pay for an additional device.  The manufacturers could certainly complain that camera phones don’t capture good quality and consumers are idiots, but that wouldn’t get them more business, would it?

A similar thing is occurring with momtographers (and dadtographers as Curtis Isaak pointed out on Facebook).  Inexperienced photographers, who flatly cannot deliver the quality of a seasoned pro, are offering cheaper prices.  Customers–hundreds of thousands of them–are choosing to purchase a $100 session with a new momtographer rather than spending many hundreds (sometimes thousands) more to hire an experienced professional photographer.

It is frustrating to be undercut.  As an entrepreneur and professional photographer, I can sympathize.  I support my family through photography, so the thought that someone would have the audacity to undercut me with virtually no experience is frightening to say the least.  HOWEVER, it’s business.  And not just any business.  In this business, the customer looks through the photographer’s portfolio, sees the price, and then signs up.  These startup photographers may not offer the quality of a seasoned pro, but for the most part, the customers know what type of quality to expect.

When I first started in professional photography, I advertised $50 for a one-hour shoot of any type.  It was completely unsustainable as a business, but we had recently moved to Florida, had a newborn, and I couldn’t find a job anywhere.  There is no shame in doing the best you can to support your family.  I think that’s what most momtographers are trying to do.  I didn’t produce 5-star photos, but I was honest about my lack of experience as I advertised to potential customers and I showed my photos to potential clients so they knew what they could expect to get.

With time, I improved.  I worked extremely hard to learn the craft and my prices increased to match my skills.  Eventually, I was charging several thousand dollars for weddings and several hundred for portrait shoots.  I came to the point that I supported my family 100% through my photography.  I’m grateful for the success I had, and I’m also grateful for the lower-end of the market that allowed me to gain experience and build up my gear to be able to create a sustainable business.

If you’re a professional photographer who likes to whine and gripe about momtographers–you need to face the facts.  Not every client is willing to pay $500 for a senior portrait.  If you don’t like that, then offer a service to the clients that is so good that they won’t be willing to accept the newer photographers.

2 Things Professionals Have Done to Groom the Market for Momtographers

  1. Hanging on to the digitals.  I completely understand why professional photographers refuse to hand over the digital files.  In fact, I rarely sell anyone a digital file of my landscapes.  I want to control the original and makes prints for the customers so I can make money off the prints and assure they are printed properly.  HOWEVER, it’s a digital world.  When my wife and I were engaged, we hired a professional photographer to shoot our engagements.  The photos were beautiful (I have it hanging on my office wall), but we were too poor to purchase more than one photo, and now the other photos are gone forever.  That once-in-a-lifetime photo shoot is gone forever, and I am MAD that I don’t have the pictures of it.  It’s frustrating.  Does that make me more likely to choose a newer photographer who would give me the digital files?  Absolutely.  This is one example of a practice by professionals that is driving away customers, even though it makes us money.
  2. Refusing to mentor newer photographers.  I often hear well-known photographers online advocating that new photographers “shoot second” for a while or assist pros before taking on a wedding; however, I hear from the newer photographers every day who would love that opportunity, but can’t find mentors who are willing to help newer photographers.  In a way, that’s the mission for ImprovePhotography.com–to be that online mentor for photographers everywhere.

So what’s my point?

There’s no shame in being a momtographer, who spends every ounce of energy she has to learn a new skill in order to provide for her family.  Everyone gets their start somewhere, and as long as they are honest about the service they can offer clients, they ought to be applauded rather than criticized.

What do YOU think?  Leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts.
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Comments from the I.P. Community

  1. says

    I have two young nieces (both mothers) that have started photography businesses with an entry DSLR and the “kit” lens. They are doing quite well with baby, high school, and family portraits, with an occasional wedding. Their rates are quite reasonable, and their business is booming. They are both very talented and produce great results with two distinct styles. I applaud them for their accomplishments.

  2. says

    I am 17, going on 18 years old… and am an enthusiast. i saved up for my first DSLR for the longest time, about 8 months of part time work to get it, and have worked with it for about 2 years now. I know I would never make it in the photography world because I am not good enough to make it there. Going to the college in the fall, I am pretty much majoring in the farthest thing from photography, aviation. I shoot for friends who want a little bit extra that what they can do. Is that really hurting professional business? Heck, I did a shoot for someone on a barter agreement. I vehemently disagree that this is hurting business. The experience gained, just for pleasure, and making those small shoots the best they can be by talking with experienced photographers is second to none, however.

  3. says

    Personally I’m grateful for the momtographers because I’ve picked up so much retouch and recovery work from them over the years from shoots they’ve blown. Let them keep shooting.

  4. says

    There is a lot elitism among photographers. What’s important is not if you are full time professional photographer with the latest Nikon or Canon or a part time momtographer, what really matters is the end result, the photographs that are created are really the only thing that really matters, and I seen moms and paps that are better photographers that some pro’s. The photography market will regulate itself and weed out the bad ones!

  5. says

    I am one of those “dadtographers” that you mentioned. I have been told by many that I “have a good eye”, and have been asked to do several weddings. I tell them up front that I am NOT A PRO, but do to cost they ask me to do the shoot. I never set a price, I let them pay what they feel is fair AFTER they see the shots. I appreciate your point of view and applaud you for stating it so well. I really like “Improve Photography”. Thanks

  6. says

    What I find interesting about this issue, is how being in business seems to instantly legitimize someone as a “photographer” to many people, regardless of the quality of the images. Someone taking images that are of mediocre or less quality but selling them, or running a business based on them is a “photographer” in most people’s eyes, yet someone who is producing images of clearly higher quality, but not selling them, will generally not be referred to as a photographer. I wonder if the decision to go into business is, for some (not all), a way to feel “legitimate” because selling images makes them feel worthy of the title of photographer?

  7. says

    I totally agree: Markets are changing in many professions. Online business, legal changes, advanced, affordable technology make it harder to “keep people out of the trade”.

    Quality counts high – but also has its price. I can only advice professionals to point out what the customer really gets.

    Not everybody buys Versace, but Versace still makes a good business.

    I just think, customers should know what they are getting. When friends ask me to shoot their wedding, I will do it, but only after telling them that they should hire a pro and not rely on a hobby photographer. I tell them that I will do my best and bring my equipment and take care, but that I do not take responsibility for it being great. Due to my experience and status I do pretty well, or so I am told and think, but I am by far not a pro.

    Therefore I prefer baby picture shoots and such to practice: If I do not do that well enough the parents can hire someone else the next day :o)

  8. says

    I appreciate this article. Im a new photographer and never heard the phrase “momtographer”! =) I thought it was funny, but, I guess people might call me that. But, I agree w/ you 100% when you say I should let my clients know what to expect… and I have. I have people telling me to take it out, it doesn’t sound professional… but IM NOT! And, I admit it, but, I figured I have to start somewhere to keep learning and push forward, and if I can make a little profit from it and build up my equipment and experience, then I’m going to go for it- while being honest to my clients of what to expect.

    And you’re right about pros not wanting to help learners, well not all professionals.. I couldnt believe when I started asking for help or looking for someone to train me how difficult it was. I’m thankful for a local photograher who was more than willing to train me. I appreciate it SO much and made it known.

    Thank you for this site, I find it very insightful as a beginner! =) Take care!

  9. says

    Your article is wonderful, thank you. I have always loved photography but before the digital age and being a mom of three boys, the cost prohibited me from continuing further with it, sadly. Now my boys are older, technology has changed everything and I’m looking to start anew with the hope of maybe earning some kind of an income. Intimidated by it all and knowing I will probably never acquire the expertise of a professional, you have given me hope that there is an opportunity and I am excited more today since I read your piece. You’ve opened my eyes. Thank you.

  10. says

    Very interesting. Two points I thought I’d make (hopefully not made yet, there are already a lot of comments!) is that amateur photographers who hope to make a living are often shortchanged by family and friends who want them to take their photos for free. The other day I heard of one who gave up their business because no one wanted to pay her. Two, customers can’t always tell the difference in quality between professionals and amateurs, especially if the amateur is talented. What the customers want is their mug on paper, not the Mona Lisa, so they are going to go to the cheapest person. This makes it hard to be a professional at all, but hey, people might not want professional photographers. People’s desire to be a professional photographer does not a profession make.

  11. says

    Great article. I’m still a somewhat new photographer. I’ve never had a mentor, so I’ve had to learn everything on my own. I have tried to learn from others, but many in the photography community don’t like the new up and coming photographers for number of reasons. I just recently found this site, and love it.

    Some of my photos are now chosen before other established photographers, because I’m trying different things. A message to the pros out there is for you to start trying to mentor a new photographer, you will learn just as much from them, as they will from you.

  12. says

    I can see good points on both sides of this arguement and I find myself at both ends quite frequently. I am a hairdresser who hated every single day of beauty school. I buy professional products, pay my taxes and have to set my prices accordingly, and it never fails that someone always wants advice on how to fix an at-home haircolor mistake with more at-home haircolor. I hate to give out this advice because not only do I not have a clue what is available on the public marketplace, but maybe what I tell them won’t work, but I still tell them anyway.

    I am not by any means a professional photographer-I just purchased my first dslr this past fall-but I do know a thing or two about hair. IF photography is anything like hair, I can tell you that what works in one situation might not work in another. I still learn things after 14 years and I would imagine that would be true in photography as well. After all if everything had already been done there wouldn’t be any appeal, right?

    And, like already mentioned earlier, everyone does not require professional results, but to those that do they will be paying professional prices. Sometimes good enough is good enough.

    As free advice is concerned my stand is that what goes around comes around. If you aren’t willing to help someone once in awhile then hopefully you won’t need any help in the future.

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