Jay Sousa: Professional photography requires education, training

December 13, 2013 

Jay Sousa

As I enter into my 35th year as a full-time professional photographer, I have been thinking about how much the business of photography has changed over the years.

Many portrait and wedding studios that once thrived are now a thing of the past. Recently one of the largest operators of photography studios, The St. Louis-based CPI Corp., which ran portrait studios nationally in Sears, Wal-Mart and Babies R Us stores, shuttered their operations and filed for bankruptcy.

Many factors are to blame, including the digital revolution. Lower prices for amateur-level digital cameras, a huge influx of amateur photographers trying to break into the field, and the “do-it-yourself” mentality of the times have all taken a big toll on the portrait studio industry.

Add in a still-bad economy and you have the perfect storm for the collapse of an industry. I feel very fortunate that I am still able to make a good living doing photography full-time.

Years ago I branched out into school photography, and that has been very good for my business, along with corporate and commercial work, high-end old master-style studio portraiture and a few quality weddings.

If I were a young photographer just starting out with aspirations of supporting a family by doing portraits and weddings on a full-time basis, I would have to think hard and long about it.

I am not saying that it is impossible, but a photographer wanting to do well in this profession needs to be not only an exceptional image maker but also have great people, business and marketing skills.

There is much more to producing a professional portrait than putting a subject in front of a bush at a local park and firing away, hoping for one good photo.

A true professional knows how to make his clients look great using good corrective lighting, posing and clothing, and saying the right things to get the perfect expression.

In the past, I have made the distinction between a pro and an amateur using golf as an analogy. I see on various Facebook pages for photographers that you should hire them because they are “passionate” about photography.

I love to play golf, to the point of being “passionate” about the game. Does that mean that I can go pro? Of course not. I might make a pro-quality shot three or four times a round, but at the end of the game my score is not even close to a pro’s score.

Same thing with photography – a real professional will make beautiful images almost every time, whereas an inexperienced amateur might get lucky a few shots every hundred.

I recently stumbled across a website devoted to bad photography: www.youarenotaphotographer.com. At first I was amused by all of the horrible photography the creator of this website has found online, mostly from Facebook pages.

But then I became sad to see how low photography has sunk in terms of quality. I am afraid that the general public will start settling for less.

So, what is the answer? In my opinion, it’s education. I don’t begrudge anyone from following his or her dream to become a professional photographer. While many outstanding professional photographers are self-taught, the quickest way to improve is to take some classes.

I will be offering a short-term basic digital photography class through Merced College Community Service office. This class runs three Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon starting Jan. 18. To register, call (209) 384-6224.

It is a long road to learn how to create beautiful, classy, meaningful and timeless pro-quality images. It takes hard work, practice and dedication. I encourage all who have that drive to pursue that dream. Just don’t advertise yourself as a pro before you are ready – in the end it could backfire.

On a final note, this will be my last Rangefinder column. When I started writing this column in July 2011, I figured that I had enough material for a year. Now, almost 21/2 years later, it is time to retire the Rangefinder. I hope that you have enjoyed reading the column as much as I have enjoyed writing it, and that you have learned a bit about photography and me.

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