Should I become a Certified Professional Photographer

I have worked in and around photography almost my entire working life. I took a few short detours away from my beloved medium, but those went nowhere fast. A recent email prompted me to look back over my career for insights to share with the photographer who wrote me. Looking back, I noted two important trends, lessons I wish I knew way back when I was starting out, but I did not. I am heartened by the thought that at least I can explore and explain those ideas now, for others to learn from.

So what else did I aspire to do besides photography? In an effort to live out my childhood fantasy of being an astronaut, I tried to become an Air Force pilot (the preferred route for astronauts-to-be at the time.) Also, because I was spending too much time around cops as a newspaper photographer, I briefly looked into becoming one. In both cases, the systems that each of those professions have set up to weed out the “crazies” and the less than serious people did their jobs very well.

In terms of photography, almost every job I ever had in the business has added to my ongoing and evolving set of skills. Working in camera stores while I was in college paid the bills but it also helped me understand how amateur photographers approach camera gear (which is quite different than how professionals do that.) The same job taught me what to do to figure out how a given camera works as well as to learn “where the buttons are and what they do,” a skill I use to this day in my workshop teaching.

So the first major insight is that for me, as a working photographer, what I do is exists within an ever changing, constantly shifting technical, aesthetic and commercial landscape. The skills required to keep up with those changes are things I simply need to know and the sooner I learn them, the better. For example, I was initially uninterested in “going digital,” but forces larger then me forced me to change with the times (and I am glad that I did.)

To appreciate this, look at my career path. I started out taking pictures in high school, because I loved the process and taking all those photos was my way of learning the technical aspects of the medium. (I was blessed with an exceptional teacher, Michael Coppenger, who was generous enough to teach me as much as he could and smart enough to get out of my way to let me learn the rest by experimentation.) I soon learned enough to sell cameras to people who knew less than I did about photography (though often not much less.) Then I studied the history of photography in college, in order to fully appreciate the creative aspects of the medium. (Again, I was blessed with a great teacher, Leland Rice, who taught me what he could and set me on course to learn the rest under my own direction.)

Then I churned through a series of jobs at small, medium and large newspapers in an effort to find a place for myself in the world of photojournalism. Unable to find a position that met my needs, I became a freelance magazine photographer. Since I worked my way into that “job” I have done advertising, editorial, annual report, portrait, photo-essay, wedding, conflict and stock photography for publications of every sort imaginable varying from the National Enquirer to the National Geographic.

When it comes to the idea of an ever changing, constantly shifting technical and commercial framework, I now appreciate that there are many hats that I wear as a photographer and I change them constantly. As I write this, I am a blogger/self-promoter/marketer. On my other computer, a video file is rendering, so when I step over to that machine, I will switch to being a multi-media artist. Before the day is through I will certainly do something in terms of my stock photography business. I may not be pushing the button on a camera to make a new image or teaching a workshop today, but I know that I have to write some emails about plans to do both of those in the near future so…. I will wear those hats, and others briefly too today.

The other insight that I had is that, for me, institutional affiliations, external validations of my skills and conventional certifications have been, at best, of limited value in my particular practice of photography. Some people do very well after being designated a “Certified Professional Photographer.” In the arena of what is usually called “retail” or “consumer” photography, primarily wedding, portrait and children’s photography, such certification can be reassuring to the customer. Similarly, other photographers have been equally able to capitalize on their affiliation with publications such as National Geographic.

These labels give outsiders a simple definition to use in evaluating the photographer in question. They can also, unfortunately, serve to limit the scope of practice that the same photographer is expected (allowed) to perform. Because I am not well suited to such structured situations, I have not done that well with those short hand identifiers.

Also, most of my institutional affiliations over the years have involved publications, photo agencies, organizations, etc. which are almost all now out of business. For me, the labels are not as important as the knowledge and experience that I have. No matter what happens, I will always have the skills, the portfolio of work and the required professional track record.

Which leads me back to the query that started this whole question. A photographer wrote me:

I’ve decided to make a small business out of my photography. I would like to focus on events, infants and portraits; however, I’m not sure if I should become a “Certified Professional Photographer.” Do you think this is a good idea and if so what classes, courses or books can I take/read to help me better understand some of the questions that may be asked of me. I want to go about doing things the right way.

I am not sure what to tell the questioner. My thinking goes something like this:

1) Those certifications cost a lot of money for the training and the exam. Once you complete them you are no closer to actually earning a living from your photography. Since marketing is the key to making a living in today’s photography world, I would want to know how much you learn about self-promotion before recommending such a costly step.

2) There are cases where such certifications within the world of photography do make sense. Certified Evidence Photographers are much more likely, because of that credential, to be able to work within the legal system. So for that kind of work, such credentialing is clearly beneficial.

3) Think of photographer whose work you admire and career path you wish to emulate. How many of those actually have that kind of certification? Have they ever indicated, in blogs or presentations, the ways that such credentialing helped their careers?

4) What skills or credentials would I try to get, especially if I were a young photographer starting out? The broad answer to that is “whatever skill or credential can you get that other photographers will not have!“ As many bloggers who are smarter than I have pointed out, the basics skills of photography are simply a given requirement. They are something that many, if not most, competing photographers already have. A certification like that of “Certified Professional Photographer” only in fact tells potential customers you have passed a test that verifies those skills. A portfolio of good work and recommendations from satisfied customers are better indicators that you can do the job.

5) Having said that, many customers, especially on the retail side of the business do look some kind of credentials or certifications. They are used to such labeling in everything from auto mechanics to x-ray technicians. This is an argument for such a credential.

6) Lawyers and Rabbis are examples of highly educated professionals who have used their trade groups and credentialing mechanisms to enforce high standards. They also have been especially good at limiting the number of practitioners, which has enabled them to very adeptly keep their wages particularly high.

There are historical (and even philosophical) reasons that some realms of photography have stayed far away from certification and regulation. Photojournalists, for example, have stayed far away from that in order to maintain complete freedom of the press/freedom of expression. Also, many photographers are almost stereotypical rugged individualists and push back when corralled into tightly defined groups/structures.

Having said that, there are trade groups such as American Society of Media Photographers, Association of Independent Architectural Photographers, American Photographic Artists (formerly Advertising Photographers of America,) National Press Photographers Association, Professional Photographers of America and Wedding and Portrait Photographers International, among others. Membership within these groups is supposed to tell outsiders that the photographer in question has certain skill set/expertise.

Most but not all, of these groups get around the certification/licensing issue in largely the same way. Rather than prescribing an exact course of study or requiring passage of an exam, they have minimum experience level requirements. They also have student or emerging photographer membership categories where members-to-be can work their way up within the organization while improving their skill levels. Members who are active in these groups are supposed to sponsor or mentor their peers-in-the-making to ensure the new arrivals have the required skill levels. Is this is a perfect system? Not by a long shot. Do people get into these organizations even though they may lack the skills suggested by membership in the same organizations? Certainly! Is it better than some kind of arbitrary exam based credentialing system? I think it is.

So what should the questioner who was asking me about the best way to follow up on having “…decided to make a small business out of my photography.” In next weeks’ blog entry I will answer his question and offer some thinking points for any professional photographer (or professional photographer in the making) who is looking at the current business of photography and asking themselves, where can I fit in?

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