Are you a “photographer” or a photographer?

Last night while browsing photo blogs, I came across a post critiquing the various photo apps and filters currently available. At least that’s how the post began. It quickly turned into a semi-rant against those who never shot film, never learned proper darkroom technique, or never learned how to do things the hard way via Photoshop. The blogger ridiculed the misuse of apps and filters, the garish or cliched images that often result from their misuse, and the fact that people use such apps to dress up images full of compositional flaws. Sorta like putting a powder blue leisure suit on a pig. In fairness, the post contained more than a few valid points, yet the tone was so bitter that the whole thing came off sounding like the photographic equivalent of the grumpy old man who tells the young whippersnappers how he used to have to walk 10 miles to school everyday… uphill… in the snow… with no shoes… oh yeah, and there were tigers. I’m pretty sure there were tigers.

What really irked me though was his constant use of the word “photographer” in quotation marks, effectively suggesting that those who don’t possess the skills or knowledge he toiled years to learn weren’t real photographers, and didn’t deserve to refer to themselves as such. It started me thinking – what exactly is a photographer? Is it anyone with a camera? Heck, I own a baseball glove. I even played little league and made a few all-star teams, yet I still don’t refer to myself as a baseball player. I know people who can sing like birds, but don’t refer to themselves as singers or musicians. So I don’t believe being a photographer is about owning the equipment, or even about one’s skill level. On the other hand, I’ve known those who’ve casually dabbled in a hobby or pass time for decades, without ever being fully engaged. I know a guy who’s played golf every weekend for over 30 years. He doesn’t practice during the week, doesn’t study to get better, has little interest in the history of the game – he just goes out there once a week and swats at a little white ball for five hours. Then he has a beer and goes back to his regular life until the next Saturday. I don’t believe that makes him a golfer, so clearly it’s not about the amount of time you spend doing something. As an aside, no one gives a damn how hard you worked on creating your images, or how you went about creating them. It’s the final result that matters, and I’m quite thrilled to have NIK pluggins for Adobe Lightroom that allow me to do things in 30 seconds that might have taken 30 minutes in Photoshop using “old-school” techniques. Remember something else about photo editing software – garbage in, garbage out. You can take a good image and turn it into a bad one by misusing Photoshop or any other type of app/filter/photo editor, but you can’t take a poor image and turn it into a great, or even good one. The inherent compositional qualities are locked in the moment you press the shutter. Photo editing tools are not a cheat nor a shortcut – they’re just tools, tools that you control in pursuit of your creative vision.

So back to the initial question – what makes one a photographer? I believe it’s about passion, effort(which is different than time), and respect. How much of yourself do you put into your images, how much effort do you put into trying to improve? How much respect do you have for photography as an art form, and for those who paved the way? How much do you care about communicating your personal vision to the rest of the world? In my opinion these are the qualities that make you a photographer – not how good you are, nor how long you’ve been doing it, and certainly not the cost or brand of your camera… it’s about how much you care. That’s what makes you a photographer.

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