It was 11:30 p.m. Friday. I dragged myself to the West 4 Washing Square metro station with a hope that D train could take me home in a second. After 20 minutes, I was still waiting. The lady next to me leaned over the track. No train was coming. Then she stepped back and skimmed her Nikon camera catalogue. Without finishing one page, she checked again if the train was coming. Finding no train, she rolled the catalogue and threw it into a large Nikon bag. “Is D train running?” she approached me. “Yes, I think so…are you a photographer?” intrigued by her Nikon bag, I could not help asking. “Yes, I’m a professional photographer. I have been a photographer for 30 years. Look at my hair!” She smiled and ran her fingers through wisps of black and white curls, “my name is Maria Ferrari.”
Ferrari specializes in still life and has her own studio located in Chelsea. “There’s a huge transformation in photography business. Photographers are less respected today.” Ferrari sighed. “Is it because everyone is a photographer today?”I doubted. “Well, right and wrong…” Ferrari argued. Her voice was gradually covered by the incoming D line, so we resumed our “everyone is a photographer today” discussion on the train.
I believe everyone is a photographer like most people do to the point where technology enables us to turn everyday pictures into artistic images. Today we have our own camera, be it an Iphone, a regular small digital camera or a DSLR. A DSLR user can hardly take crappy pictures with a good lens. In addition, mobile photo applications like Instagram can give saturated color and add special effects to imagery. However, after discussing with Ferrari, I started to see the other side of the coin and muse over the difference between photography hobbyists and photographers.
Photographically speaking, these user-friendly DSLR modes and mobile editing applications are not photography. Photographers have to acquire editing skills while not all photography amateurs have access to in-depth editing programs. Ferrari asked me which format I preferred: RAW or JPEG (RAW is an original and proprietary format that requires a special software to view while JPEG is a compressed format that can be readable by any image program. Meanwhile, JPEG allows around 3 times the number of pictures that we could shoot in RAW). Considering the capacity of my camera, I usually shoot in JPEG with my DSLR and believe they can spare me a complicated editing process.
However, photographers produce files in a RAW format and edit them for the best quality. Mobile photography applications and non-manual models on DSLR produce JPEGs that are immediately suitable for uploading and sharing on website. However, with only 8 bits per color (RAW has at least 8 bits per color), JPEG is not an ideal format for printing. Ferrari drew an analogy between the JPEG format and food: JPEGs are “cooked” and when our food has been processed before, we cannot taste its freshness and absorb the nutrition.
Photographers are familiar with camera settings and need more control over how their images look like, because for them the quality of images is of the utmost importance. Therefore, they shoot in RAW and edit RAWs via an editing program. “A photographer cannot depend on her camera only. She has to master an editing software no matter it is Photoshop or Lightroom. To my surprise, many people do not realize the importance of editing. Even some photographers today just dabble in editing programs while dabbling cannot secure them a place.” Ferrari said.
I’m not in a position to discuss how far photographers should go in terms of editing, but in this regard, if we just put our DSLR on automatic mode and simply click the button, or share our Instagram documents on Facebook, we are not a photographer.
Though I am not adept at editing yet, I’m in course of learning and have created enormous archives of image. Therefore, my friends consider me a photographer. And occasionally assign me shooting tasks. I have been comfortable with this position, but am I really a photographer? Not necessarily.
Photography is a profession. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics define photographers as a group who “photograph people, landscapes, merchandise, or other subjects, using digital or film cameras and equipment. May develop negatives or use computer software to produce finished images and prints. Includes scientific photographers, aerial photographers, and photojournalists”.
Concisely, photographers make a living out of taking and editing pictures.
It’s complicated when it comes to the definition of photographers, let alone to differentiate photographers from photography armatures. Take, for instance, it’s controversial whether Vivian Dorothea Maier is a street photography master or photography hobbyist. She worked as a nanny rather than a photographer when she was alive. Her vast body of 150,000 negatives was not known to the public until she died. Her work proclaims her an important figure in American street photography today but she was not considered a photographer by her contemporaries.
It might be unfair that not earning a living out of photography prevent us from being a photographer and takes away our experience and even years of education we have spent on photography skills, but it credits photography as a profession. Meanwhile, it is one of the reasons why photographers have to produce images based on clients’ needs as well as shoot subjects they do not like.
We are in a state of digital cameras where we have access to do the same as those whose profession is to take and edit pictures. However, being a photographer requires more endeavor and time investment to the point where the person makes a living out of photography. Jim Bryant, an experienced Seattle-based photojournalist and photography business owner said on a digital photograghy forum: “Learning photography is easy, there are so many articles, books, blogs, videos, workshops, and schools. Yet, becoming a photographer is a completely different story; it’s a journey that doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey that requires knowledge and experience.” This may be the reason why Ferrari has committed 30 years to photography and is still exploring how to hone her skills in shooting still life.