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Rules are for Fools

Rules exist for the obedience of fools, and the guidance of wise men - Douglas Bader

I’ve seen many forum and Facebook threads lately that appear to be a battle between established portrait/commercial photographers and newer, potentially up and coming photographers. The cacophony, naivety, resentment and outright venom is not doing our industry any favors. Invariably, two topics are at the center of these “debates.”

1. What constitutes “good” photography 
2. The legal aspects of business 

The concept of “good” photography appears to be a difficult one, though in actuality it’s quite simple. There are two aspects to every photograph – technical merits and artistic/design merits. Technical merits are easy to evaluate – is it in focus? Is it exposed properly? These can be critiqued objectively, and it is necessary to do so. 

I say “properly” exposed rather than “correctly” exposed because the “correct” exposure as given by proper metering techniques may or may not be appropriate to the scene being captured, while the “proper” exposure accounts for and compensates for this fact. I see the two terms used interchangeably all the time, but do not feel that usage is correct because “proper” can be a subjective determination. 

Photographs can be sharp, but not in focus. They can also be in focus, but not sharp. These are two distinct things that ultimately have little to do with one another. Regrettably, these two terms are often used interchangeably as well. Focus occurs where light is refracted by the lens into the smallest point possible on the sensor (or film). It’s usually, but not always, quite apparent when focus is missed. Regardless of depth of field, only a single plane can truly be in focus. That plane will be the naturally sharpest part of the image. Depth influences sharpness away from the focus plane. Ultimately sharpness is edge contrast, whether it’s natural, or artificially added later. The “sharper” the lens, the higher the natural contrast in the produced image. This is not always necessary, nor even desirable. It was Henri Cartier-Bresson who said, "Sharpness is a bourgeoisie concept." 

The artistic merits are more difficult to evaluate, but most can still be objectively determined. There are many rules and guidelines for design that I will not discuss. Whichever you choose is of no consequence to me or anyone else, as long as they are followed. Like technical merit, a deviation from accepted design guidelines must be done with a clear, and obvious, purpose. 

Powerful photographs evoke an emotional response from the viewer. The most powerful photographs evoke an emotional response from the viewer who does not otherwise have a direct emotional attachment to the content of the photograph. 

The world is constantly inundated with photography, good and bad. The truly bad far outweighs the truly good, and truly great is exceptionally rare. 

Regarding business aspects, which were the inspiration of this essay: There are some universal truths that seem difficult to grasp. Ultimately there are two types of photographers – those who practice it for fun, and those who practice it for money, regardless of “specialization.” Anyone can grab a camera and practice for fun. The minute you take one cent from someone in return for photography services, you are subject to an entirely different set of rules, and had better be prepared to play by them. The business world is a cold, unforgiving place. It always has been, and always will be. The photography industry is largely self-unregulated, however this does not exempt anyone from following local, state, and national laws regarding conducting business. Whether your locale requires licenses, permits, insurance, bonding, tax filing, etc, depends entirely on your locale. It becomes your responsibility, not only to determine the requirements, but also to meet them. Failure to do so opens a nasty world of fines, citations, lawsuits, and even criminal charges. If you operate out of your home, lease and/or deed restrictions also come into play. Contracts, compliance, paperwork, and legalese are generally despised by artistic types who pursue photography, but naivety and ignorance towards them is the quickest way into oblivion, and personal bankruptcy. Going in unprepared, without professional help in those areas, is business suicide. 

The “venom” seen in forums, specifically toward business matters, often comes from the naïve, in response to education on the matters. Some people, particularly the well-established, are sticklers for it. Their reasons are plentiful though. Perhaps they have made the same mistakes or taken the same attitudes seen in forums at one time and have learned better and want to pass that along? Perhaps they view the unlicensed business as a threat? Perhaps they see the entitled attitude “Those rules don’t apply to me?” Who cares why? Suck it up and listen to them, you might save yourself a load of headache, heartache, time, and money down the road. Below I list some of the most common points that eventually result in venom online. 

“We all start somewhere.” Yes we do. The question is where? No sane human being decides to become a carpenter and then goes and buys a saw; or decides to become a mechanic and then goes and buys wrenches; or decides to become a computer tech and then goes and buys a computer. Nor do they become that immediately after they purchase those things. They become shade-tree mechanics, computer tinkerers, or small item builders. Yet this is common to the point of rampant in photography –why? The crafts take years to learn consistency and control, and photography is no different in that sense. Only after learning consistency and control does it make sense to even consider charging for your work on the path to mastery. Once you consider that path you step into a different world. 

“It is art, and thus subjective.” Fine, we have nothing further to discuss, and you have no path for improvement. Your opinion likely differs from mine. That’s how opinion works. The one that is based in more fact is the one that’s more defendable, and ultimately all opinion must be defended. In other words, your entitlement to your opinion does not infringe on, or even hamper, my ability to call bullshit. At that time, debate ensues and you better be able to defend your position. I have to do the same. Either one side is proven more valid, or we meet in the middle. Done properly, this is where the most learning occurs, like it or not. 

“These rules are silly.” They may very well be, but they exist for a reason. Whether you believe the reason for their existence is valid is irrelevant. Artistic rules are accepted design principles, most of which are far older than any of us. They exist because they’ve been proven effective over the centuries. Legal rules may exist for many reasons, usually to separate you from hard earned money. Just because you think they’re silly, and they actually may be, does not exempt you from being bound by them. 

“The rules don’t apply to me.” Get over yourself. They most certainly do, whether you accept that or not, and whether you realize it or not. Eventually you will, one way or another. I can only hope that your learning them is not the result of fines, jail time, or death, and feel quite obligated, both as a human being and fellow photographer, to do what I can to prevent that result. 

“I deserve this.” Great! I feel the same way. The question is “How hard have you worked for it to justify said deserving?” You may indeed deserve it, but you are not entitled to it. You still have to work very hard to get it, just like the rest of us. 

“It’s my passion!” Great! Mine too! Don’t tell me, show me. 

“I can’t compete.” Sure you can. You just have to be constantly vigilant, find the right niche, and stand out. A beginner to the trade (not the business, the trade), can rarely do that. 

“I have natural talent.” Maybe, maybe not. See “I deserve this.” 

“I do what makes me happy.” Fantastic. In the United States, you have an inalienable right to pursue happiness. Pursuit and achievement are not the same. Others will not always share your happiness in your work. That does not make them wrong. Ultimately you will realize that photography as a business is about making others happy, while photography for the sake of making the perfect image is what may make you happy. There is a massive distinction. 

 Are you ready to enter the paid world? Perhaps. Are you prepared? Have you done the research? I hope so, otherwise you’ll find it a very unwelcoming place. Good luck!