In DEFENSE of Momtographers Everywhere…

In Marketing/Business by Jim Harmer186 Comments

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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About the Author

Jim Harmer

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Jim Harmer is the founder of Improve Photography, and host of the popular Improve Photography Podcast. More than a million photographers follow him on social media, and he has been listed at #35 in rankings of the most popular photographers in the world. He blogs about how to start an internet business on IncomeSchool.com..

Comments

  1. I cannot stop applauding you for your outlook on this. You hit the nail on the head when you said that “as long as you are honest and upfront about your experience” that is the key. These people are CHOOSING to go to this momtographer because it is what is financially manageable for their family. And however they are able to get semi nice or nice family pictures more power to them. I see both sides of this. A family member of mine is a very good pro photographer, with a lot of experience under her belt, so some of the photographers that just bought their slr and already have a website and charge her prices, those tick me off. But the ones who charge fifty dollars for a cd of your pics so that they can learn and get better, that’s ok. It’s always best to go to someone who really knows what they are doing, but not everyone can afford the best.

  2. Thank you for defend Momtographers and those starting out! Like yous said everyone has to start somewhere. While it is true people should know as much as they can about photography before they jump into a business it doesn’t always work that. I struggle to understand some professionals need to pick on the newbies.

    Thank you for finally pointing out that many professionals create their own “problems” when it comes to being undercut by their competition. In reality you are your only competition. No one can “steal” clients from you because if a client chooses to go elsewhere they obviously don’t appreciate your work.

  3. As one of those mom-tographers, thank you!! We all have to start somewhere. Even out in the “regular” job market, you don’t apply to be VP as your very first job experience ever (or if you do you certainly don’t get it but kudos on the confidence). I have taken my daughter’s photos for nearly 5 years now, and only this year branched out to friends and acquaintances, I would NOT offer to do a wedding (unless it was as a 2nd or back up photographer) because I KNOW that my skills, experience and equipment are not on that level.. I would never want to ruin someone’s once in a lifetime photos! I am very honest on my page and have lots of examples of my work so that anyone who wants can see my quality. Thank you for standing up for the little “guys” like me who are just starting out <3

  4. I think this is a fabulous article and I think you have very valid points. The beautiful thing about this business and many other is that there is opportunity through creativity. “Momtographers” are using their gifts and talents to provide a service to others who may think that what they have to offer is perfect….if not then the consumer should move on to a different photographer that suites their needs. Any profession has newbies and many of the seasoned professionals have opinions of them and their level of training…my personal thought is that I would rather live in the world of opportunity to choose my photographer, painter, plumber, etc. based upon their service, expertise, and ability to provide the service that I need instead of purely based off of how long they have been doing it for. At the same time I agree that the newbies should be honest with their level of training. In the end business is business and who is to say how it should be conducted unless they are the one purchasing the final product, the consumer is the one that has to live with their choice hanging on the wall.

  5. While I was not part of your discussion on facebook today, I would love to say that this article is very well written. I worked as a professional studio photographer for a couple years before I had a child & started staying at home. I am now one of those “momtographers” but I do think that I have enough of a background to call myself semi-pro in the field. I do charge lower prices because I think it’s what our financial times call for. I charge more this year than I did last and I agree that as my skills are increasing so are my prices. Thank you for “sticking up” for those of us out here who are just trying to make it by. Slowly but surely, we’ll be right up there with you. Loved the webinar last night… very informative!

  6. Most people are aware that they get what they pay for…pay a small amount for a shoot and you will get mediocre prints but maybe if you just simply don’t have the sort of money that the pro’s are asking then second best is adequate – to have a few pics that are better than the family snaps, and at a very reasonable price. It’s the same market, but not really competition for the pro’s as they are at the high end of the market and the momtographers at the lower end of the market – no worries!! It would be a bit like thorntons worrying about tesco value chocolates….

  7. As an admitted MWAC (mom with a camera) I completely understand both sides of the story, particularly because I have daydreamed about making photography more than a hobby. I started (like most moms) because I wanted to take better photos of my kids. So, I bought the DSLR, actually read the manual, took a deep breath and got started. Photography is addicting, as most pros should know. To see a crisp, candid image that YOU took of somebody is enticing. However, I know enough to never think I will ever know enough to be a wedding photographer. Or a photographer worthy of $500 sessions. But if the neighbor family wants me to take their picture for $50, do some entry level editing, hand them a CD of their pictures and be on their way, then who am I to say no? They would never have shelled out for even a $200 session, so am I really hurting the “business”? We are not a threat to professionals everywhere. We are creative moms who know what it’s like to yearn for professional images of our children. And we are not dumb. We know these images from a MWAC won’t have that certain Je ne sais quois…But it’s enough for us. There is enough room for everyone.

  8. As the saying goes… “Hater gonna hate”. This is especially true when someone’s livelihood is involved.

    I am an IT guy by trade, but I am also an amateur photographer. That means (to me) that I like taking pictures, and sometimes I am lucky enough to get some good captures. Even though I am not a professional, family and friends are always coming to me, asking me to take pictures for them.

    More often than not, they are very happy with the pictures I take, and sometimes like mine better than the ones they paid a “professional” good money for.

    I do however, always try to steer them to a professional first, especially for memorable events. Like I said earlier, my great shots still involve more luck than skill, and I’d hate to be responsible for messing something like that up.

    p.s.- Lighten up on the “momtographers”, you don’t see me getting all pissy when you fix your Mom’s computer for free do ya? 😉

  9. I agree completely. Either “you get what you pay for” is true or it isn’t. The market can’t command the outrageous prices that some ( and I mean some) commanded in the past. Equipment has come down and accessibility to editing and printing services has gone up. The pros have to step up their game and make their services desirable again.. Not to worry. After one bad experience with the novices, the customer will be back for good.
    Insulting your competition (and these “momtographers” are your competition whether you want to admit it or not) by name-calling is petty and unprofessional.

  10. I appreciate your article and see both sides of the debate as well. I am just getting started as a “momtographer” and having a blast learning as much as I can and meeting new people and families. A photographer’s talent and pricing will ultimately dictate their client base so the pros shouldn’t worry as long as their results remain worth it to the consumer. I treat my clients the way I would want to be treated by offering the digital files. I wouldn’t even think about going to a photographer that wasn’t willing to sell me the digital files of my own family. I love the pros and learning from the best so hopefully they don’t view the lil gals as stepping on any toes. As you said, we are just trying to provide for our families and do something we love to do!

  11. I like this article. It made me feel a little better. I have to say some of the comments left earlier almost had me wanting to run away with my tail tucked between my legs. I am unexperienced but totally willing to learn everything I need to know about photography. Its something I’ve always wanted to do but I also have 3 kids and they come first. I have a fb page that shows the pictures I have taken and people have paid me to take their pictures. I’m learning as I go and the people that ask me to take their pictures know that. I’m certainly not trying to compete with anyone and would never claim to be a professional. I just found the “improve photography” page yesterday and I’ve already learned a lot and have gotten some great advice. What I need most is constructive criticism, which I started trying very hard to get after a very rude person saw one of my pictures and told me that “just because I owned a camera doesn’t mean I am a photographer”. The bad part about it was she wasn’t even a photographer herself.

  12. You did an excellent job of presenting your view and I agree with you wholeheartedly!!! Every professional had to start somewhere too.

  13. I agree, Jim. There are aspects of this subject that are great. I went through some tough times as a photographer and still do. Here is what I have vowed as a current photography business owner: pay it forward. I am currently mentoring about three people. I have found that yes, there are tons of snooty photogs out there who want to see people fail. These three, I hope they sincerely learn what they are looking to learn and even teach me something along the way. As far as the mentoring, you are so right. So many aren’t willing to help. I think the roughest part of all of it is that there are a few out there who know that there are points that need improving (admittedly, yours truly has those points – we all do) but if you aren’t willing to “fix” it, that is a tough hurdle. Some feel it as an insult because they can’t take constructive criticism (I used to not be able to either) or even you don’t know what you’re talking about and don’t trust you. I guess though, if you aren’t willing to learn, you will hang your own self and try to remind myself of things like that. Yes, I do tend to try and make myself different to avoid these things and move past but there is always going to be these issues and just have had to learn that with the trade. Thanks for sharing. I think it will help people to understand and maybe even soothe some others and help people to understand the frustration from others a lot better and vice-versa. Looking forward to some more learning!! Thank you again for the webinar!

  14. You have no idea how glad I am to hear this from a pro. I have read so much negativity from pros about newbies that I have almost given up. Its very discouraging.
    I recently did a wedding for a friend of a friend. This person knew what to expect from me. They knew I had no wedding experience, I made that very clear. She wouldnt have been able to hire a wedding photographer otherwise and would have relied on guests snapshots to remember her wedding by. She was so happy with the pictures that she cried. I didnt undercut anyone, as she couldnt hire a pro. I got the experience and she has wedding photos that she is happy with. I see nothing wrong with that, and honestly thino its a great way to get started. It benefits the photographer and the client. We have to start somewhere, just like everyone else. Also I am a single mom trying to make ends meet, and if someone is willing to pay me to take their photos, you can bet Im going to do it.
    Thanks for the encouragement!

  15. I LOVE this!!! I too am starting out very slowly. I don’t have a mentor either, but took high school and college photography classes because it’s been a passion of mine my whole life. I shoot my friends free simply because the reward of seeing how much they love the photos, and sorting out ones that I’m impressed with myself is far more gratifying – and confidence boosters! It’s so nice to see a professional photographer, and a great one at that, encourage those of us starting out. Thanks so much for this, and for the wonderful tips!!!

  16. Well, I’m not a mom yet, but the momtographer, as defined here, sounds a lot like me. I’ve enjoyed playing around with cameras and taking pictures since my mom let me get my hands on her .0001 megapixel Sony way back when. I’ve had my first and only DSLR for about 3 years now and have taken my time reading, researching, talking to professionals when the opportunity presents itself, and picking up lenses or accessories when the money is available. I’d absolutely love to eventually make a living from photography…but I could not offer my services for payment knowing that they’re not quite to the level I would want them to be if I were a paying customer. There are a few local 20-somethings who took a film photography class in high school and have subsequently started photography businesses that offer weddings for SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS. I look through their portfolios and scratch my head at who in their right mind would pay so much for such poorly exposed and composed pictures that I would not drop even $50 for.

    As someone who would eventually like to, as you say, dip my toe in the photography business, I am grateful that such shoddy work apparently can sell. But as someone who has taken the time to actually learn about exposure, composition, and post-production, as well as what proper, basic portrait photography equipment entails, it irritates me to no end that as soon as someone gets their hands on a DSLR, they immediately set up a photography website with a price list before even trying to shoot off auto.

  17. Thank you. As a newbie and coming to it later in life because I was always hung up on not having ‘studied properly’ so never followed the dream of doing this as a job, because I thought I “would never be qualified ” with a piece of paper to show it. I spoke to a few people who were self taught and wondered if I could do this. I have spent the last year pretty much glued either to my computer learning everything I can, or with my eye glued to my camera practicing. Am I good enough? I dont know. But I have started to get a few jobs. I get nervous everytime someone pays me for a session but I am totally dedicated to doing the absolute best I can by them. There is still residue of that feeling of being looked down on by a “proper photographer”, but thats up to me to get over, and up to my clients to decide whether they think Im good enough, and want to use me.

  18. Thank you. It is so easy to get discouraged in this day and age of digital perfection. Your article just fuels me to keep learning and developing my skills. At the end of the day, I usually shoot for friends, family, and friends of friends. They are ordinary people who would not have paid hundreds for a session but now have sessions that capture those family moments. In my mind, I feel no guilt for “momtographing” for them if it means memories or no memories.

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