First published at  26/08/09

Photography as a Career Choice And Photography De-skilled

I have been involved in photography since 1979, having studied the subject to degree level, and worked as an assistant in London during the 1980’s. Most of my assisting work was for still-life product photographers taking photographs for catalogues and below-the-line advertising clients. Since 1990 I have been a self-employed photographer working primarily in portraiture for editorial and in-house publications.

I have also, since 2000, been teaching photography and basic computing for adults in community education classes.

A few weeks ago an advert appeared for a position of Catalogue Photographer based in an Edinburgh auction house. I applied for the position out of curiosity. It must be understood that the average annual income in the UK is put at about £25,000. In Scotland it might be presumed that the average income might be slightly lower, as London and the South East of England tend to skewer the figures. By the average income for a photographer in the UK is about £27,000  and make the average about £23,000. The job on offer in Edinburgh came in at between £15,000 - £20,000 per year. I presumed that this was for a basic junior position working with a team of photographers.
I was offered an interview last week and went along. The job was as advertised - a catalogue photographer - but they wished the individual to have expertise in Adobe Photoshop so that the photographer could do the cut-outs, internet catalogue, administer the back catalogue and up-load to on-line libraries. There were planned to be twenty catalogues a year with various studio and location shots of items ranging from silver, jewellery, ceramics, furniture and carpets. Travelling to London and the North of Scotland were also expected.
I asked about the team – there was no team. The photographer was expected to work alone and find help if he/she could for moving furniture etc.
I asked about studio facilities – there were none! The work was to be carried out in any office that the photographer could find – move furniture – work around other members of staff, etc. The main office is on several floors so it meant carrying all the items to be photographed up several flights of stairs and they were expecting, on some occasions, to have 100 items to photograph within a day. Though I have done this, it has been in properly equipped studio with lighting and all the items to hand.
Speaking of equipment – there was none. No lights to speak of and no cameras at all.
Salary for this position - £17,500 per annum.
It was suggested that the photographer, once in place, should come with an idea of a budget for setting up a studio, but as no budget considerations had been discussed by the management of the firm for the photographer’s post beyond that of income, where would the photographer begin to start. Medium format digital - £40,000 maybe, full-frame dslr with specialist lenses - £25,000, or a kit dslr £500. Plus lights etc. Given the salary I can guess the company’s preferred option.

So, how had they come to the salary of £17, 500? How had they decided on the job description and what kind of quality of work was expected?

I know there were specific issues at play within the company. The Designer, who was sitting on the interview panel, wanted an assistant to help him with the work load. So that explained the Photoshop requirement. But asking for a photographer to undertake the photography for 20 catalogues per year without providing any facilities, assistance, or equipment I think shows a deeper and more worrying aspect of the devalued importance and subsequent de-skilled profession of photography.
I think there is a belief that a kit camera and lens will do the job. And any problems can be ironed out using Adobe Photoshop. Problems that include no lights. Photography is about photographing light. Without light – hard, soft, high/low key etc - there is no photograph. The subject is almost irrelevant. Good lighting can make a picture. Bad lighting can destroy it. Lighting of products in still-life requires good, I would say an excellent, understanding of lighting. On top of that there must be an understanding of perspective to make sure that the product is shown correctly in proportion – especially if you are bidding for it at auction and are basing your bid on a photograph of the item shown in the catalogue. But, hey, who needs to understand lighting and camera movements when you have Photoshop to sort it out.

On top of this, is a view held by many that all cameras are of the same quality, especially digital and the magic dslr. What I was trained on as a student and assistant back in the eighties when working on product photography – a 5x4 format camera with movements – can know be taken on a £500 dslr with kit lens. I personally think not. But as long as our employers/clients think it, then how can photography, or the photographer, claim to be a profession/al or essential member of a design team.

Photography is seen as cheap and, though a part of the process, not an important one.

So, this company, which has been using a freelance professional photographer, has decided that a person on £17,500 can fulfill the role. This, I think, shows a lack of understanding of photography by the client.

How has this come about?

A number of factors have affected photography over the past thirty or so years. When photographers used film, there was a view held by the public of some kind of alchemy, or magic within the process, that was considered out side the normal realms of the amateur photographer or ordinary person. Even with adverts by the camera manufacturers of the 1980’s professing that their cameras were easy to use and that the subsequent photographs could be as good as those taken by professionals, professional photography was not truly at risk of losing its position within the creative media and photographers could, therefore, make a good living from photography.

However, the digital medium has changed the apparent perception that photography is difficult or exclusive to a trained individual that has a special eye or understanding of the process of making a picture. Digital photography has become painting-by-numbers with the obvious brush strokes hidden. The magic of film, the chemicals, darkroom and specialist knowledge once needed to work with a camera has been removed. The camera manufacturers have sold these new digital cameras on the basis that anyone can take a photograph and if you don’t like it delete and take another. Such an attitude in the public's mind that photography can be ‘snapped’, deleted and instantly forgotten has effectively deskilled the professional photographer and devalued the photograph.

Only a few years ago I was earning £200 - £300 per job photographing for in-house publications and I could do several jobs in a day. So, a modest living could be made from photography. With the advent of digital I was suddenly replaced by the p.r man, designer, and picture editor, and sometimes by the office junior, taking the photographs on a low cost digital camera. The subsequent images were atrocious, (I mean awful – out of focus, weird highlights, flash on camera bouncing off windows etc) but to the untrained eye they were fine and to the accountant they saved hundreds of pounds employing a photographer. So the rates plummeted to about £60 for a job. Many photographers tried to work to this level of pay, snapping and sending in low resolution images and further devaluing the profession.

Can anything be done?

We have to look back at where photography began – at least in the UK to understand where it is today. Photography from its very earliest users and developers was not considered a profession, but rather a rich man’s hobby. This was partly because it was very expensive to do, and partly because it tried to copy paintings rather than develop its own unique character. To some extent this remains the same today. The profession of photography was mainly carried out by wealthy individuals, especially in the UK and this was not broken until the 1960’s. But the photographers never agreed to create a profession of photography. Though there are professional organisations there is no need to join to be a professional photographer. One of the highest rated in the UK is the Royal Photographic Society, an organisation that exemplifies the amateur/enthusiast in photography if ever there was one. Anyone with a camera can start a photography business at any time. With film, as I have said, there was already an acceptance that a certain ability/knowledge was necessary and cost of funding cameras, darkroom, etc effectively prevented the market from being swamped by enthusiasts. But digital, and the apparent ease of taking a photograph, has enabled the market to be inundated with cheap imagery and people believing that they can make a living from photography without any knowledge of photography, cameras, or lighting. It has always been hard to make a living from photography, but know with low returns it is almost impossible – unless you don’t need to make a living from photography. If photographers had to join a professional organisation and hold professional qualifications, then, maybe, photography as a career could have survived the changes in technology; but it appears that it will return to its roots and again become the preserve of the rich and their hobbies. For those who wish to follow photography at college, then developing other skills will be essential to survive – web design, re-touching, and any other affiliated skills will be necessary. Only today in the British Journal of Photography, dated 26 August 2009, a job is advertised for Photographer/Graphic Designer, salary scale £21,000 - £26,000 and another Photographer / Digitisation Assistant, salary scale £19,000 – £20,600. No longer is there a place for ‘Photographer’.

Final Thoughts.

So, where does that lead us? I am not optimistic about the photographer as sole-trader. There will be some who can make a living, but unfortunately the average person, including the average client, perceives photography as a deskilled job that anyone can do for an income of £17,500 per year full-time.