Photography – Learn What the Nail Does Before You Start to Hammer.

PinExt Photography   Learn What the Nail Does Before You Start to Hammer.

“Many think they’re ready to build a skyscraper by nature of the fact that they own a hammer. I submit that they should learn what a nail is first”

family portrait fail 600x387 Photography   Learn What the Nail Does Before You Start to Gavin Seim: I have a true story to tell. The other day while traveling, I saw a woman at a rest area on the Salt Flats of Utah taking photos of a family, the sun gleaming overhead.

There were no strobes to compensate for the intense light, the shadows on the faces or that glaring sun. Just a person with a camera moving bodies and working in seeming blind confidence that she was in control. Not a single flash in sight. Not that that would have been enough. No consideration given for the fact that the light, the way it was being used, was completely wrong.

I felt kinda bad for the family who probably thinks they’re getting good portraits. I felt annoyance for the would be photographer who took on something she was unprepared for, while in reality she seemed to have no idea what she was doing. Perhaps she was honest with them about her experience. But from what I saw, it struck me that she was posing in more ways than one.

It was clearly a planned session were this lovely family came to meet their photographer. I felt tempted to let them know that they were getting little more than they could have by handing their iPhone to a passer by. But I setup my 4×5 for a stark desert landscape and tried not to think about it as they bustled around in the corner of my eye doing cheesy poses in what “could” have been an amazing setting for a portrait.

When my son asked what they were doing, I explained ruefully that they “thought” they were making portraits.

Some of you may feel I’m being mean. But I’m not and if this offends I suggest you read it again. My job here is to challenge. I want people to learn, I love to share expediences. But I won’t offer them a pretense. I’ll tell my fellow photographers the truth so we can all grow. I don’t know this person first hand. In fact I’m glad the faces are not distinguishable. My story is not just about this person, or about naming names. It’s a reminder of the fact that this is happening too often.

I don’t know exactly how these photos will turn out, but I have a good idea. I can say with certainly that the portraits were not being done well. Both the client and the would be photographer are getting the short end of the stick. The family will get poor images for whatever they paid. The would be photographer will probably go on in digital bliss rather than actually learning the trade she wants to be a part of. Eventually she will likely tire and give up. All because she has the pretense that you can be a good photographer simply because you own a camera. No experience required.

Some will say “You have to start somewhere”. There is truth in that, but we still need to learn before we leap. We need to learn what the brake is before we drive a car. There was a day when “starting somewhere” meant learning how do something reasonably well before working for pay and selling yourself as a pro.

There’s are surely some new photographers reading this. Don’t be offended at my frankness. It’s OK to be new. But don’t be the person that takes on something you’re not prepared for while acting as if you are. If you don’t know how to light, pose or plan your project, then go learn about those things before you jump in and start charging. It’s a science. Not something you just make up as you go.

I’m absolutely for sharing knowledge and yes, I imagine most of us are guilty of having someone who was a bit of a lab rat on the journey to skill. That’s fine as long as we were honest with them. But increasingly we see people who don’t desire knowledge and think they’re artistic masters right our of the gate. Experience matters. It’s not wrong to be inexperienced, but it’s wrong to pretend you are, when in truth you are not. Take your time, learn the skills, the marketing, the sales, the presentation, the science. Because if you don’t, your journey will likely end in frustration.

Some think they’re ready to build a skyscraper by simple nature of the fact that they own a hammer. I submit that they should learn what a nail is first.

Thanks for reading… Gav

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  • Jack Larson

    Great stuff. I am passing it on to all of my friends on Aminus3, and especially to a high school senior that I am mentoring. Thank you.

    • Gavin Seim

      Thanks Jack. Keep mentoring. If we professionals work together we can Raise the Bar… Gav

  • Alan

    My friend also suffer the same fate recently when he is paying for his wedding photo shooting. When he show me the photo, I was so piss off by the unprofessional shot. Worst off all it people wedding photo once in a life time and to by spoil by this kind of people as you mention own a camera and think he is pro.

  • Sidonie

    A very interesting question. In my opinion the problem here is that there is a “`photographer” and money. Imagine I were there with friends and in the same position as the “photographer”. When I am home, I’ll notice my images are not good, I’ll wonder why, I’ll try to find out why but I’ll have learnt from my (bad) practice. And after reading and trying to learn more, next time I’ll make better shots. Now, too many people pretend to be pro instead of just enjoying themselves taking photos.
    It’s the first time I am here, thanks to Jack and though I am not a pro and never will, I’ll go through your site and I am sure I’ll read interesting tips.

  • Jennifer

    I am going to be frank with you as well and say I am quite disappointed to see how this was written. I have been learning everything I can from you and certainly know that you are extremely passionate about the craft. There’s nothing wrong with that. However, at least to me, this came across as very harsh and made you look like a big snob. You have no idea who she was or what she was doing. She could have been practicing with some family or friends. If she was getting paid, what’s the problem as long as the clients are happy? They chose her, she didn’t prey on them. You serve a much higher income set of people and most average joes cannot afford your level of service. Yes, her images probably didn’t turn out well, but please don’t pass judgement when you don’t have anything but your assumptions. You could have made the point without assuming anything or degrading anyone. Everyone does have to start somewhere. Not everyone can afford good equipment to begin with. Everyone must practice to get better. I mean this with the most respect. I am a big fan of you and your work. As someone just starting out on the professional side, I want to say check the attitude and be nice. You were once a beginner and possibly looked down on yourself. Not every newbie is an uneducated, lazy, jerk who takes too much money from unsuspecting families. As a teacher and someone who many people, including me, look up to, you also set an example with your attitudes toward other people and photographers.

    • Gavin Seim

      Thanks all.

      Jennifer you too. But I submit you reconsider what I’ve written. I addressed nearly every issue you brought up here in my post. While it seemed clear this was not a practice session, it’s the principal at point here and I made it clear that my goal was not to name names.

      I was not mean, I was honest and being honest, while sometimes sounding a little harsh is actually far more kind than pretending. I’m kind enough not to sugar coat our trade. We all start somewhere, but a reminder to be honest with ourselves and our clients is valid. As I said, I don’t know this situation here. I can guess, but it was only an example as I stated.

      But lets not pretend. People all over the globe are picking up cameras and calling themselves professionals when they have little or no experience to do so. In most cases their not being honest with themselves and it not being honest to their clients. Advice against doing that is not only moral, it’s sound business advice.

      I don’t serve a much higher income level than the average Joe. I serve mostly middle American clients and I sell them quality by showing value in what I offer, because I’ve trained hard to do so. It’s taken time and effort and no, I did not get there overnight nor and I’m not done working on it. But increasingly I see people pretend they are professional photographers when there are only learning the basics and are not ready for any sort of professional work.

      Being new is just fine. But the situation discussed here represents basics of understanding light. And basic practice is something you do on good friends and non paying jobs. Being a professional, like any other trade takes time, effort of will and experience. Someone that is not ready for that will do themselves a great service by taking their time.


  • scott

    Hey Gav,

    You should have dragged out a speedlight and taken a photo so they got to see the difference.


  • Sara

    I am a fairly new photographer and I have to say, I LOVED this article. I want every single person on earth to read it… because so many people that don’t work in photography don’t understand how much work and learning and experience really goes into creating the kind of beautiful portraits that clients want to see. I hate, hate, hate the mentality that everyone seems to have that if you buy a camera, automatically you’re a good photographer… it’s not true at all! There’s so much more to it.

    This story is especially appalling because as a photographer, the first thing you learn is not to shoot at midday in the direct sun. :( I totally agree with everything you said about being disheartened by seeing someone taking photos for money who obviously didn’t know what she was doing…. and not only didn’t know, but couldn’t even be bothered to find out an extremely basic fact that had nothing to do with the price of the equipment she was using.

    People think that because there are so many people that charge $50 for a portrait session and a CD of unedited images, that’s all professional photography is worth. We have every right to be unhappy with people that do that! They are really hurting everyone including themselves by completely devaluing the trade, making people believe that either good results are not worth money or “professional” photographers are not very good at their jobs! As a new photographer, I find confronting this issue every bit as frustrating as I’m sure a photographer with years of experience who knows what they’re doing finds it. I want to be the exception, being a new photographer who is actually willing to learn and be able to get outstanding results… otherwise, I’m not charging money for it. I wish more new photographers would really be honest with themselves and not sell themselves as professionals when their results are not professional quality.

    • Gavin Seim

      Well said Sara. Keep it up. And check out the Wall Portrait Conference. If you want to take your work and your sales to new levels that’s the first place to start.

      Best… Gav

  • Jesse Baynard

    Although have you thought about the possibilities of taking photos like these in such unfavorable conditions and without the traditional photographic aids to overcome them?

    Perhaps the entire family was horribly disfigured… expose for the background and voila a silhouette every time, cute poses with no disfigurement.

    Or maybe she works nearby and doesn’t have room for a roll of white seamless… just step outside expose for the family and voila… a ready-made knockout and family is ready to be composited into a less desolate scene… maybe a rain forest or at stone henge.

    On a serious note, it does strike me as odd based on the setup shot you showed that they didn’t as least bring some reflectors or scrims, but I’m sure that they’ll just have under exposed subjects in every photo and they’ll just use a very crude brush to boost the brightness (and noise and overall ick) and make something that will sully the name of professionals everywhere… On the bright side at least the family might walk away with some okayish high-key photos and will only be out the the cost of their $49 Groupon and after the photographer realizes that $25 for 5 hours of shooting and editing is less than minimum wage they will go back to the day job and hopefully read more before venturing out again. ;)

  • Jean-Pierre

    Maybe that photographer follows your HDR tutorials, so he didn’t need a flash. Just put 3 or 4 layers together and call it a day.