Medium Rare: Understanding the Photographer's Value

The painters have their paint.  The sculptors have their clay.  The carpenters have their wood.  That is their medium.  When we think about certain artists, we don’t question what their medium is because it’s fairly obvious.  That makes it a lot easier to appreciate their skill.  After all, we’re aware that we don’t have the skill or patience to replicate their work.  Most of us have no clue how to mix paints, chisel stone or cut wood.  We leave that to the professionals.  Likewise, one would never approach a painter to say, “That painting is beautiful!  You must have a really expensive paint brush.”

Anyone who has ever invested in a professional photographer will recall the price related sticker shock.  The prices leave many people wondering “Why am I paying thousands for something my nephew can do with his smartphone?” 

Some clients may be somewhat more agreeable.  They may reason that the price points are connected to the equipment a photographer has to purchase.  After all, photography equipment is incredibly expensive.  It stands to reason that the average photographer charges the kind of prices they do because they need to pay for that equipment.    For those prospective clients who have no interest in financing a photographer’s new toy collection, this concept can be very off putting.  Likewise, it creates the impression that a photographer’s value is directly linked with how expensive their equipment is. 

On the other side of the spectrum is the photographer.  I cannot tell you how many online platforms are dedicated to frustrated photographers.  As good quality digital photography products become increasingly accessible to the average consumer, many photographers are beginning to feel like their craft is dying.  No one appreciates good photography anymore.  No one wants to pay thousands for talent when they have a friend of a friend “with a nice camera”. 

Many photographers are desperately trying to find a solution to this problem.  There are many sources out there encouraging photographers to educate their clients.  After all, a photographer’s work doesn’t end once the shutter has released.  There are hours spent, after the day of the event, when the photographer painstakingly culls the images, edits them and orders products on your behalf.  And that’s giving you the condensed version of the reality.  However, this reality doesn’t address the problem.

As someone with years of corporate sales experience, I can spot the problem almost instantly.  Clients don’t want to hear sob stories.  Everyone has bills, everyone has responsibilities and everyone has road blocks on their personal road to having a comfortable lifestyle.  Throwing money into the wind is better left for celebrities in rap music videos.  This is why hearing your photographer cry about all the work they’ll have to do to finalize your product will never justify the cost to you, as the client.   As the one investing in the service, your question will always be, “What are you giving me in exchange for my money that someone else wouldn’t?” 

“A sad story,” is not the answer clients seek.  In my opinion, it’s better to educate the average non-photographer about the photographer’s medium.  If you don’t yet know, allow me to blow your mind: light!  The photographer’s medium is light.  Once you understand that, everything else falls into place.  Photographers understand, shape, control and sometimes even create light.  That is the key difference between a professional photographer and Uncle Bob with the nice camera. 

I won’t completely discredit technology.  There are multi-million dollar photography brands whose focus it is to create intelligent tools.  With today’s technology, anyone can create a nice enough photo, sometimes.  Heck - anyone can even (on rare occasions) fall ass-backwards into a great photo!  However, until one understands light, they will never be a consistent photographer who produces beautiful images, again and again.  One’s camera is simply a utensil they use to execute what they want to produce with their medium.  A nicer spoon won't make you a neater dinner guest.  For anyone who has ever used power tools, you know that handing an amateur contractor a set of brand new Makita products will not improve their skill.  Yes, the tools will be faster.  Yes, they will be smoother, more reliable and they will generally perform better.  But they will not change how good the contractor is or whether they’re so good that they deserve to be called an artist. 

Photography and its medium are no different.  In order to learn and grow, photographers spend years learning about light.  A great photographer will know how to shape the light they focus on their subject in such a way that highlights only the best.  They will know how to troubleshoot lighting imperfections, as well.  A thorough explanation of the Inverse Square Law is a topic for another day but that is one of the pieces of knowledge separating a professional photographer from Timmy with the T3i. 

Understanding what a photographer’s medium is, is a key factor in educating non-photographers.  Paying for an artist’s knowledge and expertise with their medium is the value point that makes sense.  You’re no longer investing in someone’s equipment and you’re not purchasing a service because you feel guilty about the photographer’s ability to feed their family.  You’re investing in your memories.  You’re giving yourself some security that the photographer will capture you and your loved ones in a way that will remain honest and beautiful even as life changes.