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.
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
- 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.
- 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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