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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186 thoughts on “In DEFENSE of Momtographers Everywhere…”

  1. I don’t consider myself to be a professional but I do have repeat customers who appreciate my work. I also charge $50 per hour and I do make it affordable to those who can not afford a professional. While I have had satisfied customers when think back I remember the mistakes I made and I wish I could go back and fix the photos. I have sense learned a lot and I always looking for photography tips to improve my skill. I went to one photography workshop but they tend to be expensive. I would like to get more gear but I have to do my best with my Nikon D40 camera until I can afford to upgrade. I do believe that there is a lot to learn and I intend to in the very near future. Your article shared both the perspective of the professional photographer and the novice and I can appreciate both angles. So, I will continue my hobby until I can become the professional as you have become.

  2. Thank you. I am a stay at home mom and Yes photography is my passion. Finding a mentor is exhausting and I am so glad I came across your website yesterday. I took photography in high school and I have learned more in the last two days from your site than I learned in high school. So thank you for “keeping it real” 😉 and providing a FANTASTIC tool for those of us who can not afford to study photography the traditional way (financially as well as time)

  3. I’ve been taking pictures for 40 years, but my career was in Stained Glass….then I switch from film to digital ~No more darkroom, no more chemicals! I closed down my glass studio and at age 50 began my 2nd career in photography.

    It’s been a humbling experience as I’ve had to learn all things digital and make less money than I used to. Call me an “Empty-nestographer! And yes my prices are lower and I sell my clients a digital files on a CD but I’m learning, and able to bless people who can’t afford a pro. It’s a win/win for both of us.

  4. I am a fairly new photographer, been dabbling in it for a few years. This year is my first year pulling together a portfolio and trying to build a business. I do not charge much for sessions because I know I am new and don’t compare to a more experienced photographer. I have given many free photos to family and friends just so I can get the practice in every aspect of photography. I am also seeking out community projects for those in need to offer free services as well. One, for good practice, two because these projects are important to me in helping others.

  5. Thank you for this article! It’s sad when we are our own worst enemies, rather than our biggest supporters. As a photographer, I still need to hire other photographers to photograph my own events that I personally need to be in the photo. I will not hire those who I know have been unkind to me personally or those I mentor. I think in the long run, ‘being nice’ is just better business.

  6. James, I agree. However, my brother and sister in law hired a photographer to do their outdoor wedding. I just hung around the outskirts of the audiance and shot pics using my zoom. In the end, they liked my pics better than the ones they paid for. So, as a good brother in law, I gave them to them.

    Also Jim, I agree with the fact that there are alot of people who either will not or can not pay for a professional. We have friends that cannot afford it and so as a Christmas gift to them, I do it for them in my country back yard.

    About the digital files, I to agree. We have a family member who passed away suddenly and it would be great to have the files of them that were taken just a month before. We were not aware at the time that it would be the last time they would have a professional portrait taken. So now, irregardless of the cost, we will only hire a professional who will allow us to buy the copyrights to them.

    We are also Foster Parents and I have taken pics of Foster kids so as to offer a service that no one else is, at least in our area. Quality or not, these friends do not have the resources to pay high fees. And yes, $25 is high. If it gives you a boost into this biz, or you are helping out friends and family, your talents are yours. How you spend them is totally up to you. If Annie Leibovitz wants to photograph a friends kid for free she can and charge me a ton that is up to her. Just sayin.

  7. Great article. I started my photography business about 2 years ago and have experienced a measure of success. I have to say, though, that a great deal of the success I’ve had was due to help from established photographers who were willing to share their knowledge. Some were not interested in helping the competition. I sincerely believe, though, that helping someone technically will not hurt your business. You cannot teach someone a style. Each of us has a style that is uniquely ours. We all learned from someone and I feel a debt to new photogs to offer the same help that I was offered. That is the beautiful thing about art, people can copy your style but it can’t be duplicated. And I do not feel like my business has suffered from helping out other photographers. People who connect to their style hire them. People who connect to mine hire me.

  8. Excellent article! Everyone starts somewhere/sometime! I only wish that more of the professionals were open to helping out. I went to high school with someone that was always carrying a camera around. Now, 15 years later he is a very good photographer. However, when I try to ask him questions he is very difficult. Like because I didn’t start out years ago in HS I’m not and can not be in ‘the club’. Luckily for me I have another photographer friend and she is only to happy to let me pick her brain for hours! If we lived closer she would let me tag along and learn.

  9. I have no problem with new photographers who are just starting out. My problem is some of them are producing work that is sub standard while charging pro prices for their work. They fly”under the radar” of the “tax man” and have no business license. Some charge low prices for their work because they already have a full time job to support themselves or a spouse who supports them. This lowers the standards for us who are Professional photographers.
    I think in time the market will shake out and the consumer will come back to the studio photographer and get away from the “natural light” photographer.If the “Person with a camera” wants to be a working pro,they need to get educated by joining the local,state,or national professional photography organizations. They also need to get a business license along with a state and federal tax number.this way they can pay taxes like the rest of us.

    Harry Briscoe
    Briscoe Studios

  10. One word to describe this artical, AMAZING. I was one of the comments up in there about this topic. I myself started as one of these women. And my goal when I started it wasn’t to gain a large amount of money. It was to gain a passion/career that I have always dreamed of and capturing the priceless memories that we can hold onto. With that being said, it has allowed me to be a stay at home mother of 5 children that God has called me to be. Along with capturing life long memories for others. I took my dive into the photography world not knowing a thing about photography, turned it into a business within months. I have now been in business for about a year and half and I keep striving for more ways to learn new things. I was givin the honor of shooting 3 weddings so far, and those were truely amazing experiences. I will continue to strive and keep learning the art that I love to do. Thank you for backing up Mom-photographers 🙂

  11. also would like to add that in any industry there are those who cater to the wealthier client (Nordstrom) and those that cater to the more budget contiouse customer (Walmart). Each does well in different financial times. But they are both still in business, because there is a lot of business to go around. We live in a town of 3,000 and there is more than one photographer. It seems that there is still enough business to go around. In larger towns, why the fuss from pro’s.

  12. Thank you for writing that. I followed the mini-debate on Facebook today and while I resisted weighing in, it frustrated me. Glad to know you don’t share the view of some of those commenting. I am a mom who enjoys taking pictures, learning about photography, and trying to improve. My motivation for learning and improving is wanting to capture my kids as they grow. It bothers me when people act like you need a license to own and operate a nice camera. There are all different levels out there for hire, and that is the beauty of a free market. People get what they pay for, and consumers know that. I rarely hire a “pro” anymore because I can get nice family shot for $100 and I get to keep the digitals. On very special occasions, splurging on a “pro” is definitely worth it. Maybe those frustrated by the “momtographer” should adapt to the market by offering classes and lessons to the armature. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! 🙂

  13. Excellent article, Jim, and I totally agree. As a long time professional, I have watched the industry change dramatically in recent years. And while the changes have been painful at times, overall the changes have inspired most professionals to deliver a higher level of service, higher technical quality, and greater creativity.

    In that regard, the seasoned professionals of our industry owe a debt of gratitude to the mom- and dadtographers. It is far too easy to become complacent, even entitled, when only the elite professionals can lay claim to delivering well-lit, well-posed photos.

  14. The first thing that concerns me is the person holding the camera and lens incorrectly for a portrait mode photograph. For starters, your right and left elbows to the right (and left) side of your belly (and in to your hips) will be imminently more stable that holding your elbow in the air. I don’t care what anyone says. It is a simple ergonomic fact.

  15. I have unfollowed and unfriended many of photographers because I got tired of hearing the “fauxtographer” rhetoric. I have always found your insight to be nonjudgmental and safe. The so-called haters have made me extremely self conscious about my work and honestly it was not until I was chosen one of the finalists in the portrait competition that I even shared my website with ANYONE (family or otherwise). I have yet to set my prices and I certainly don’t plan on shooting any weddings anytime soon…
    Thank you for your encouragement and more importantly sharing your knowledge with those of us that are trying to make a career out of a passion. We appreciate you!

  16. Great article! My hackles went up when I first started reading the debate on Facebook because I fit the bill of what was being described. I am a mother, teacher, wife, and so much more. I also love photography. A few years ago I bought an entry-level DSLR and started shooting anything and everything. I took a class. I got Photoshop. I upgraded to a professional level camera. I read everything I could get my hands on. My skills have improved to the point where many people look at my pictures and insist they look no different than professional (including professionals I know). Word gets around in a small town and I have gotten some significant business. Word of mouth now has me booked for five weddings this summer. Am I charging $3000? No…but I am photographing weddings for people who would NEVER pay that. There is a market out there for mid-range pricing. Like I tell my friend (a professional photographer who chastises me for my $600 weddings). I am not seasoned enough to make $3000, so I am happy to make $600, improve my skills, provide a service to people who would be without it otherwise, and use the money to slowly but surely upgrade my equipment. But for me, it’s the joy I get out of taking great pictures. This is not my career, it’s a hobby and I make sure my clients understand that. And I have happy clients who have pictures on their walls that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

  17. Great article, thank you! As a momtographer I know I am under priced for what I produce. But I am still starting out and I really like that I offer a service at an affordable price for families in my area. I cannot afford to spend $500 on a session but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to have beautiful photos of my children to cherish. And neither should my clients.

  18. 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.

    That’s the most important sentence in this entire article. If your work is worth a grand per session, you’re going to be able to command that. The rest of us are going to get everything else. And that’s ok. The people paying $100/session are likely not going to pay $1000.

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