Regulation and control of Pro Photographers

Should there be controls on who can call themselves a pro photographer?

I was recently looking at a report published last year called the British Photographic Council Industry Survey. It was a survey of what a number (~1600) of UK pro photographers thought was the state of the UK photographic industry.

Shakodo has just published a guest article of mine with more thoughts about about this report. If you don’t know it, the Shakodo site is aimed at helping pro photographers answer that common question of ‘How much should I charge’ and well worth a look for professional and aspiring pro photographers.

Photography training by Northlight Images

You too can be a pro photographer if you want...

In it, there are some quotes from some of the people (UK Pro photographers we’re told) who contributed.

Two in particular caught my eye:

“The mystique is gone with digital, the amateurs go untaxed, uninsured and unregulated. We have Fensa for double glazing, we have Corgi for gas and plumbing but an owner of a digital camera is not a wedding photographer and goes unregulated.”

and

“Only professionally qualified photographers should be allowed to operate and practice the medium as a profession. Although the advent of digital has been fantastic, the flood-gates have been opened for all the ‘johnny come saturdays’ who don’t undertake any training to become professional photographers overnight.”

No thanks!

I hear versions of this regularly, and I wholeheartedly reject the idea.

Where do you start to apply it, and where would it end? It reminds me all too much of the railing against change of a whole number of extinct crafts and jobs that have been passed by with changes in technology and business.

There is all to often an almost implicit – “we do valuable stuff, so keep the great unwashed out of our business” – do I hear calls to bring back copy typists? I might make the best hot metal type in the area, but if no-one wants it, then it’s hardly a business any more.

All to many photographers lack good business skills and an appreciation that if they are going to be ‘professional’ then they had better provide services and products that the market genuinely wants.

If the market changes, and it comes to a surprise to all to many when it does, then you can adapt and evolve your business or stick your fingers in your ears and hum loudly, which is what the cries for regulation suggest to me…

One example I’ve seen elsewhere was in respect to the (IMHO derisory) rates offered for some residential property photography in the UK. It was suggested that UK (real) estate agents were doing their own photography and there was no money in providing normal stills photography to them.

New cameras being distributed on one of our photography training courses

New cameras being distributed on one of our photography training courses

What to do? Well, I expanded the training side of our business, to teach them to take better photos. As a side benefit, when they do need to get someone in for more advanced photography, who is it they call?

Another solution I’ve seen is to offer VR photography and other value added services. However, you are up against a sustained slump in the UK property market, so any new business plan had better have a demand for its services (a novelty to some people setting out on a short lived attempt at making a living from photography ;-) )

Reduce the number of photographers!

I’ve seen it suggested that licensing for pro photographers would give me lift up in the visibility of my business activities… well actually, I prefer to put effort into establishing an effective web and (local) business networking presence.

If I’m any good at it, then my search rankings (for example) should rise above the part-time efforts. If I’m no good at making my web presence effective, then either I need to spend money and/or acquire new skills and address that aspect of my business.
If, without spending a penny on advertising, I can get this site into Alexa’s worldwide top 40 photography sites, then it’s hardly rocket science (#33 today). I still feel that the ‘Business side’ of the site could benefit from a makeover for ‘look and feel’ – but this is actually one of our -business- objectives this year.

If I suppose that there was some form of official photography certificate I can display on the wall, just who is it going to impress? apart from the government photography inspector?

As a commercial photographer, I can say that in the last few years not one client has ever enquired about my professional affiliations or qualifications. They come back because we’ve provided a product that is useful and cost effective for them. Our business is aimed at addressing their needs, not what I feel they -should- want.

I cannot think of any form of certificate that truly benefits my customers or my business – it’s not about how much -we- care about any certificate/license, it’s what it’s worth to customers that counts, and I suspect that in today’s business world, it would take considerable expense and an element of compulsion to make any certificate remotely of value – neither features likely to enamour it to many.

If only those calling out for restrictions were a bit more willing to look at the usefulness of their own business offerings, I feel it would help.

In many ways, one of the most disappointing findings I saw in the report was this:

“Twice as many respondents considered amateur photographers a threat compared to other professional photographers. Many respondents elaborated on this in the comments, blaming clients who placed price above quality, and that amateur photographers could charge lower prices due to lower overhead costs or being subsidised by income from other occupations.” (21.1)

Blaming clients and others is to me a sure fire indicator of people minded to think they are owed a living, even if the demand for their services is vanishing.

Ho hum, time to get back to that update of our business plan…

More of Keith’s Photo Business related articles

  • jack

    You are an idiot. All of these people are buying cameras and calling themselves professional. Clients dont know what real photography is because of these lazy worthless people.We need regulations. Just like every other service profession. This is the only industry where you can call your self a professional and never learn your trade. The plumber, electrician, and carpenter have to be licensed. Now its time for the photographer. Cant make the cut choose another profession!

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Suffice to say. I think you are wholly wrong :-)

      Whilst electricians and plumbers in the UK do have to have accreditation for gas and electrical installations, there is no such thing for carpenters… An incompetent gas installer can kill my family and blow up my house – sounds a good reason for controls.

      The article was first published two years ago, and re-reading it, and looking at how our business has progressed over the two years, I still think that calls for ‘regulation’ are misplaced.

  • http://www.lindsaydobsonphotography.com Lindsay Dobson

    I entirely agree with that Keith. I’d wager that these days some clients don’t even bother to read the photographer’s Terms, in the belief that the photographer can be pressured to relent on any given clause or worse, on the agreed price.

    There’s a very good argument for entering the professional photography arena later in life! Client management is more important than ever.

    Kindest regards,
    Lindsay

  • http://www.lindsaydobsonphotography.com Lindsay Dobson

    Keith, you and I have talked in past years about the importance of understanding the business of photography, and more importantly maintaining control within the business. That’s partly why my business is growing (along with other practices and products which help to differentiate my brand) while many others are failing. I feel I should better clarify some of what I was getting at above. I think because of the huge influx of inexperienced newbies who’ve bought a decent camera expecting to create a business, and the consequent lowering of standards, our industry has lost an awful lot of the respect it once had. In fact these days if or when you inform someone you are a photographer, it sometimes becomes clear that most of us are tarred with the same brush, and often we find ourselves in the position of having to defend what we do, and the prices we (have to) charge.

    I quite agree with what you have said in your reply. Photographers do need to make more of an effort to educate their customers as to the benefits of using a trained and established photographer – reliable results, good service etc. I spend more time than I would like to explaining why I cannot work for the same price as an inexperienced photographer who may not do a good job, and who may not have insurance, backups etc.

    Qualifications are not necessary at all, but they are one way of setting yourself apart from the influx of unskilled newcomers.

    In terms of income, I think the particular conversation you have provoked is best answered by those who make “all of”, “most of” or “a significant chunk of” their income from photography, as they are likely to be most aware of the forces at play in today’s market. At no point did I suggest that you of all people were not “full time” enough to have a view – that is an odd assertion.

    It’s always good to talk to you.

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Thanks – I should have prefixed my comments about full/part time with the admission that I was never able to satisfactorily answer this question in the past for my own business, yet alone anyone else’s ;-)

      Fortunately, the clients who appreciate and want good work are often the easiest to deal with and give your best to. I still get jobs where I think the client is more concerned about cutting cost – sometimes they appreciate good work and we end up working again, other times it obvious that no matter what I do, they begrudge the money. There are times to cull bad clients and concentrate your efforts on the better ones ;-)

  • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

    Thanks Lindsay …I do appreciate the work that some put into acquiring such qualifications, but I’d still advise anyone to seriously question their -actual- worth from an all round business point of view.

    Whilst I agree that we need to show the business benefits to clients from using good photographers, we need to remember that it’s the benefits to clients that we should promote. Clients need to be able to answer the key ‘What’s in it for me question’

    My two different degree certificates live at home with my Mum, since she’s allowed to be impressed – they have no place in my business, it’s results and satisfied clients that count.

    I also don’t have any real problem with part-time photographers – in the changing market, our products need to change, and if that means that the number of full time photographers that can be supported is less, then so be it. If I became one of the surplus ‘pro’ photographers, then I wouldn’t like it one bit, but I’d blame myself for inflexibility and lack of business vision, long before I’d ever suggest that I was in any way ‘owed’ a living, by dint of my experience.

    I’ve addressed more of this in another post.
    http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/stuff/?p=1229

    I’m also curious as to what point of income generation you move from part-time to full time? Not to mention that awkward question of when you move from amateur to professional.

    Does this site’s advertising income or my time spent writing reviews mean that I’m not full-time? Does the fact that I try and average no more than two jobs in any one week mean that I’m only a part timer, or does it mean that I’ve got my business costs and profits well planned as part of my overall business plan and strategy?

  • http://www.lindsaydobsonphotography.com Lindsay Dobson

    I have always seen and understood the arguments of both sides, but I find it extremely disappointing that any successful or competent photographer would publicly denigrate the distinctions that many photographers have worked very hard to achieve, both for personal reasons and as a means of differentiating themselves from the many newcomers who have done so much to lower the public’s perception of paid photographers.

    I’ve seen many debates like this, and quite often the individuals who maintain that accreditation is pointless or unnecessary are the same individuals who do not depend on photography as their sole source of income. Keith, you are obviously a notable exception to this and I have always had the utmost respect for your views, but on the whole there will be respondents to a debate like this who really have no conception of how draining and expensive it can be to constantly invest in change and increasingly innovative, time consuming and costly marketing efforts within a now volatile marketplace. No matter what we do, I think it is true to say that our incomes are greatly reduced compared to, say, 15 years ago. I personally feel that as an experienced, trained photographer, I have every right to want to earn enough to feed myself and keep a roof over my head. Others may feel differently, and of course we are all entitled to our opinion, but an amateur photographer is unlikely to have much experience of the problems we are discussing and I will regard some of the comments I hear as entirely hypothetical.

    To the full-time professionals reading this let us hope the coming years see the beginning of a backward shift in favour of a healthier status quo. For what it’s worth, I do not know how our industry can be effectively regulated, and I have always been of the view that client education is absolutely key to running a successful photography business. That is a big part of my business and I also help to educate new photographers on the importance of clear communication and good business practice, because this is another area lacking in the underpriced and usually very poorly skilled newcomers which have flooded the market in recent years.

    Regards
    Lindsay

  • http://www.artistnos.co.uk Colin Hall

    I’d rather be a talented amateur than a bog standard professional anyday. Personally I think those who chase the tag ‘Profesional’ are just trying to make someone else proud of them.

    I believe that it’s the images that are important, not the photographer ;-)

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Indeed – IMHO, ‘professional’ only really means you make a living from it – it’s a business, not a paid hobby. It’s got nothing to do with spurious letters after my name ;-)

  • http://www.bobray.net Bob

    “Not going gently into that good night” does not change the reality that night has indeed fallen; a situation beyond all our control.

    Railing against the advent of technology does not alter the truth: amateurs today can take excellent pictures with little or no training and some of that flock is going to give s go to taking pictures for a few quid on the side; another situation beyond our control.

    What can be controlled is the quality of our images which, most assuredly, should be head-over-heels better than the aforementioned amateurs. If they are not – proclaim this to the heavens – ‘they’ are not the problem.

    Inviting regulation into the photography profession is simply not going to happen for myriad reason, most of them valid in my view but – regardless of your position – it’s not in the cards on British or American soil.

    As professionals – with office rent, insurance, employees to pay – we must realize that the lower end of consumers will not a) cover those expenses and b) ever be satisfied with the work you produce and c) you’ll be gritting your teeth all the way and the work likely won’t meet your own standard.

    As photographers, we each need to assume the responsibility for selling ourselves: our expertise, our personal style and our value for the investment to our clients.

    Photography has always been far beyond simply clicking the shutter [glittering generality noted, used here to make this point only]; over and above the artistic aura of our profession.

    We must be – and always have had to be – dare I say this: sales people.

    These days, we must be more salesman than artist; another reality not controllable.

    Live with it and move forward. Or stay behind and join a group lamenting ‘the good old days’ …

    Harsh? Perhaps.

    But there’s no denying its succinct veracity.

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Thanks Bob – I can only agree with your realistic approach.

      I’ve seen some responses elsewhere, to this post, that make me wonder whether some pro photographers ever realised the idea of running a business is to make a profit?

  • Ken of London

    Keith it is one thing that Australians are good at, taking a pragmatic approach, getting past ones ego and getting on with what needs to be done.

    They are no different to photographers across the world in that they are well opinionated and believe that theirs is the correct direction etc.

    So all discussions are lively and informative but eventually a plan has come forth which is a good one and everyone has gotten on board, simply as it means we can go forward sooner.

    I really wish British photography could get a collective direction going

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      I still don’t think that in reality, there is very much hope of this happening to any noticeable extent in the UK.

      From a personal point of view I’m also much happier in choosing what aspects of training I choose to pursue and consider relevant to my business, rather than any prescribed requirements.

  • Ken of London

    Keith, I think you are a bit wrong on this front. Any professional Association has to look at the challenges beset of it’s members and put their heads together and look for a solution.

    Assoc’s put their collective heads together, currently you are looking at it from a singularity. My bet is if you sat with 30 or 40 of your peers and work shopped a plan of action that was appropriate to your needs, my bet is you would realise quantifiable business benefits.

    The big one is business’s engaging other business’s that are accountable. Investing money and trust in a photography business is risky, but less so if their is a quantifiable level of accountability.

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      The prospect of trying to organise 30-40 pro photographers to come up with an agreed (realistic) business oriented proposal is one I would not relish ;-)

      The profession is liberally endowed with those with an ‘excess of personality’ – herding cats is one metaphor I’ve seen…

  • Ken of London

    Just to add, you must attain the points each year, this stops people who have reached a Master or equivalent level from sitting back and telling people how it is, they must continue to learn and develop along with the rest of us.

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      Sounds fine for those that want to go that route, since as you say, nothing will come of any attempts at compulsion.

      The key issue for me is just how do you sell this to potential clients – how much is it attempting to shut stable doors where the horse has already wandered elsewhere.

      Without quantifiable business benefits, it would be a tough sell to many.

  • Ken of London

    So here’s the thing, the Australian Institute of Professional Photography has been banging around this issue for some years like most pro organisations.

    They know that no one will ever come at government regulated accreditation, its all too hard and there really are bigger fish in the world of government to fry – unemployment and poverty come to mind.

    So here is the solution that starts from this year. In the old days you got accreditation by peer assessment, which works unless you strike a peer on a grumpy day and then things go to hell. The new system is a points system of continued professional development covering most of the things that have been mention so far in the article or the comments. Many points can be picked up by just entering the annual professional photography competition, The APPA’s, but not all, you must still attend workshops, seminars and information evenings.

    The AIPP charter is to now promote AIPP professional standard to business (and individuals re: wedding and portraiture) as the sensible option to make sure you have outcome delivered on time to a high standard with full backing of a registered business (re: insurance and accountability)

    This is the first year, we believe we have most of it sorted, the whole process is to give the buyer an informed choice, the whole thing is based on that old classic:

    Caveat emptor

    We will see how we go

  • Demon

    The comparison made in the post by lamar is laughable, if you screw up someones wedding images, it’s not like you can go back and ask them to do it all over again….

    If you screw up the deadline on a book being published, what will you do when the sue you for damages.

    What if one of your pieces of equipment falls on someone and causes them an injury….

    FENSA is a ‘standard’ of competence and quality, GAS SAFE is so dodgy dudes are not going to kill you with Gas or CO2 leaks…

    I can see the situation from both sides, of late, I am beginning to err on the side of a form of ‘Accreditation’ and this can be carried out in several ways, because having a degree on photographer does not mean you are either competent as a photographer or even professional… and not having public liability in any trade whereby you are on someone premises dealing with the public is dangerous in this culture of claim..!

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      I still can’t see how accreditation benefits anyone except the organisation administrating it and those wishing to take a protectionist attitude towards their business.

      Liability insurance is important as you say, but who (from a client POV) is going to take the slightest interest in seeing if I have an accreditation certificate on the wall…

  • http://www.lamarfrancois.wordpress.com lamar

    I say all of this as a serious amateur photographer , albeit one who’s got ambitions of making a little money on the side (but not as a main profession).I’m definitely more interested in cranking out great images (see my site) though.

    “The mystique is gone with digital, the amateurs go untaxed, uninsured and unregulated. We have Fensa for double glazing, we have Corgi for gas and plumbing but an owner of a digital camera is not a wedding photographer and goes unregulated.”

    An unregulated DSLR owner can’t do material damage to property or life and limb , in quite the same way an unregulated double glazer or gas engineer can do…?.I do agree though some of this is sour grapes from some people who don’t want to change what they are doing. Having said that I do get the impression that there are certainly some “wedding photographers” around shooting with kit lenses in dark churches and giving those who know what they are doing a bad name.

    • http://www.northlight-images.co.uk Keith

      very true – poor photography won’t blow up your house :-)