It appears to me that everybody is a professional these days.
Buy an expensive camera that you have no knowledge of, poke the buttons for about 5 minutes, point it at something whose name you have to look up in a Bird Atlas, press the shutter, spend a day confused in Photoshop and finally, privately (at your 32nd attempt at processing), publish on a forum: and yes, you’re now a self-proclaimed Pro; capable of charging serious money to impart your day’s hard spent learning. Find a honey-spot, or block book an international set-up and, voi-la, you can run workshops? What a farce, except that, in today’s economy, it isn’t funny.
To become a pro photographer, that is one who has something to impart and worth learning beyond “this is the shutter speed; this is the aperture….” takes time, quite a lot of time actually! Compound that learning with a specialism e.g. Wildlife and it takes a lot longer again. I could go on about how much time it takes, but let’s cut to the chase – would you learn to drive from a person who had just past their test and bought a Porsche; or learn SCUBA with an instructor who hasn’t a clue what a purge button does, or why? H’mm, tough question – not!
My advice, where possible first learn by oneself, it’s easy and more practical. Books are fine for beginners; they let you work at your own pace; whereas at a workshop the possible pace is that of an instructor who’s on a mission to look impressive – a pointless exercise if you have lost the plot an hour into an expensive day.
Try tuition by Digital media (e.g. DVD’s). Good material for beginners as you have a future physical reference point which you can replay; rather than some faint recollection or a fleeting memory.
Forums are fine for beginners; they give you the view of lots of varied people; rather than the unavoidable indoctrination of one. A unbiased consensus view is usually correct.
Conferences and seminars are fine for beginners, they present pros who, though selection by their peers, have something to communicate deemed worth listening to; rather than a recital from a absent “Bill and Ted’s Guide to Photography” book.
Listening is best for beginners, as that is the way you learn; rather than being bombarded/cajoled into answering questions that you have never considered to fill an telling silence from a struggling tutor, e.g. ” What’s you view of captive subjects then? Huh! Huh? “.
Wildlife Sanctuary open/photography days are fine for beginners as you can learn the basics of composition and the specific animals’ behaviour; rather than waste time in some pro’s exquisite/elaborate animal set-up that will be “commercial” but, perhaps, slightly unnatural/unethical.
In the beginning, save your cash, buy the book not the pro; at least that way you have something tangible at the end of the day to refer to, rather than sore ears, a confused brain and an empathy with lemmings.
Now, beyond the basics, Pros are good. They are the glue between basic and detailed, the provider of that illusive information nugget that transforms mundane to memorable, normal to noticeable, crap to craft and inexcusable to inspirational. They provide the words after the chapter finished; implanting a vision beyond the printed visible. In short; contemporary, informed, practiced, novel dialogue effectively aimed at moving you down the road to your next destination and much faster than you trudging there and back again repeatedly because you missed the vital signpost a few times. A good pro should be able to communicate well, show by example, and, most of all, guide by experience.
Ah, that word: experience, the Grail you seek. It’s something that only time participating can impart, something so concrete you can ask to see it, or its products. It’s something so tangible that you should be asking to witness it up front before signing up for a cash transfer. Phone, to ensure they exist, are coherent, and aren’t some mumbling mirage. Ask for their program and their advice on accommodation and travel to the location. Request email addresses from past clients, enough for you to easily pick and choose a couple from. Seek qualifications. View their images, either editorial or web; are the images something you aspire to taking? If not, book elsewhere; after all, when is the last time you employed a trade without references?
Finally, just to be sure in these rogue trader days, ask for booking form and return address. Ensure the address matches up with the directory enquiries name and phone number. Agree up front terms and conditions before you sign a contract. A contract would be professional. Read the small print. Agree a date by which the tuition day will be confirmed. Determine what equipment, if any, they have for you to loan on the day and book it as part of the terms and conditions of the day. Enquire what third party liability insurance is in place in the event of an accident and what repatriation procedures are in place, if any. Ask to pay by credit card and request a receipt for any deposit. Purchase the correct external insurance for the location including any rescue package, if appropriate. If being offered tuition AND accommodation or/and transport – are they ABTA/ AITO registered or do they work through an agent who is?
Most Professional outfits can supply all the above if they are in business and they take that business, and you, seriously. If they cannot, then the choice and money is still yours, but you only live once and this is it, why live with a nagging doubt?
© Tom Wylie, June 2010
NB for what it is worth: although a trained and practiced teacher/educator with formal qualifications in photography I don’t give paid tuition. I don’t run workshops or paid days anywhere. I have been ‘learning’ photography for over 32 years. I can take a good image and know a few nuggets. This ‘rant’ was born from an educated friend, a budding enthusiastic photographer, returning from a expensive foreign workshop more confused than when they went!
The paid tutor was always in another hide “taking photographs” when the action, and subsequent, questions flowed; later presenting their photos to “show how it should have been done” – unquestionably a true ‘orifice’.