Expensive Camera vs. Expensive Photographer. Which is Better?
by Sarah Fox

I'm often asked what the benefit is of hiring a professional photographer (for instance me), when for a modest price one can buy lower end DSLR gear that promises to deliver professional results. The reasoning goes that the up-front cost will be higher, but if multiple jobs are required, one will actually pay less for an entry level DSLR outfit than for the photographer. I certainly can't argue that the cost won't be less for certain clients. However, what I wish to address is whether the results will be as good.

It is a strange but understandable notion in this automatic, point-and-shoot age, that a photographer is merely a glorified monkey who presses a button. For most people this is probably the case. Most people know little more than how to set a camera to recommended automatic modes, to point the camera at what they want to photograph, and then to press the button. I suppose it's reasonable for them to believe this is what a skilled professional photographer also does, and that the money spent for a pro photographer merely goes to pay for better, more professional equipment that somehow takes slightly better images. It's almost as though the pro photographer offers little more than a high-end photographic equipment rental company would, providing a shutter-button-pressing monkey gratis.

However, a skilled professional photographer (and I'm not referring just to a person who will take photos for money -- see here) offers much more than an inventory of fine equipment. Often your doctor or lawyer friend will have (can afford to buy) even fancier equipment than the average, skilled, pro photographer, but that does not mean that he or she can make a better photograph.

Omitted in the consideration of equipment cost vs. labor cost is an important intangible asset the skilled pro photographer brings to the table, namely SKILL. Most people don't understand this, because they are able to achieve the task of taking a photo by pressing a button even on their cell phone. Sure, the camera can snap off a reasonably exposed frame, focusing on what it guesses you want in focus. It can even fire off a flash if more light is needed. However, Can the camera adjust the color of the flash to adjust for the often bizarre colors of artificial light? Can it throw multiple lights from remote locations to balance out the scene? Can it balance the flashes against each other? Can it make decisions about how to modify the flashes to make their light soft or hard, as needed? Can it color balance the photo properly when the walls aren't white? Can it select the best perspective for balancing out foreground and background size? Can it level itself to correct for perspective errors? Can it intelligently compute the appropriate aperture for a depth of field that emphasizes or de-emphasizes certain elements of a photo? Can it edit its photographs to correct for small errors, to balance color, contrast, and brightness, and to make the photos pop? Above all, does it have any vision as to how it wants the photographs to appear, or is it simply a stupid machine that follows the instructions of some programmer in Japan who you've never met?

While taking a photograph might be a monkey-press-button procedure to most people, it can be an extraordinarily involved process to the skilled pro photographer. But do the results the pro photographer achieves justify all the work that goes into the process? In a word, "yes." The photography discussion forums are full of postings from people who buy fancy professional cameras and are frustrated that they do not take good pictures. It's somewhat surprising that this should surprise anyone. If I were to give the average person a really nice wood shop, would he or she be able to make a beautiful piece of furniture?

Inevitably, when people ask skilled pro photographers why their fancy new cameras don't take "professional" quality photographs, those photographers usually answer (very honestly and correctly) that it is the photographer who makes the professional photograph, not the camera that takes the picture. A $10,000 camera and lens in the hands of a novice might take a decent snapshot (or not), and the most ordinary camera in the hands of a skilled professional will likely capture an image that, with work, you would want to hang on your wall.

You might then reasonably wonder what the magic is that the skilled professional brings to the table. (Note again that I say "skilled" professional, vs. novices for hire with cameras who are, by definition, also "professionals.") Although the skilled pro is smarter than the camera and knows what settings to use, most of the "magic juice" is frankly setting up the lighting. This may involve setting up one or two or even a half dozen flashes to properly illuminate a scene, or it might simply involve making the proper decisions about natural light (mostly not making the same mistakes that most people make about time of day, light angles, and so forth). The rest of the magic juice is in postprocessing -- knowing how to sharpen a photo properly, knowing how to correct the color, brightness and contrast, knowing how to perform perspective corrections, and so forth. A shot that will take the average novice no more than 10 sec could take a skilled professional anywhere between 5 min and hours (or even days), depending on the complexity of the job. I've never seen a skilled professional complete a job faster than a novice.

So it's all the hard work that goes into a photo that makes it a "professional photo." Which has very little to do with the "professional camera" that takes the shot.

Now you might reasonably ask why a professional photographer has such fancy equipment, if it's only skill that matters. Well, first of all, professionals don't always have the fanciest equipment. That's more the purview of doctors and lawyers who have enormous disposable incomes. I can only dream of owning some of the equipment they do. But second of all, pros buy the upper-tier equipment they do because the precision of their equipment does matter. Getting back to the wood shop analogy, would a skilled carpenter with inferior equipment (rickety hand tools, dull blades, etc.) make a very good piece of furniture? Well, perhaps; however, I bet the product would be better if the shop were equipped with higher precision equipment, and I bet the carpenter would turn out the better product in less time. It's really the same with photography.

So how steep is this learning curve? It's as steep as you want to make it. I can teach you to take a photo in 5 seconds: "Look through here and press this button." You want to know more? There are entire books written about proper exposure, and there is considerable debate about which methods to use. There are entire books written about proper lighting. There's a great series of four articles about depth of field and aperture linked from my articles page that I highly recommend. If you want to know about color, well, there are books about that as well. There are many volumes written about postprocessing work. (Good luck learning all of that!) This is all pretty technical stuff, and you can't just read about it to master it. You have to practice it as well. It's taken me four decades to learn what I have about photography, and not even I know everything there is to know. No photographer knows the field from A to Z, in part because it is always changing and growing.

Surely there must be a shortcut? No. However, there are some OK "photography for dummies" books that will get you started. However, just remember they will get you about as far as "auto repair for dummies." You might learn how to change a tire and replace an air filter, but will you know how to set the valve lash on a V12 Jag E-type or diagnose a sensor failure in your Toyota's airbag system?

If this seems daunting then just remember that all the information is out there. Most of it can be found on the Internet. Some of it must be read in printed books. But it's all there. There are very few secrets in the industry. If so inclined, you can take courses in photography. With a few years of study, you can even get a degree in photography. So nobody is erecting any barriers to your acquiring the skills necessary to match those of a skilled professional photographer.

However, one brutal fact remains: It will take you a very long time and a lot of hard work, just as with any complicated skill. You can buy all the fancy tools, but unless you're willing to invest heavily in time and effort, you will do no better than taking serviceable snap shots, with an occasional lucky grab that you might want to hang on your wall. Fact.

Finally, one should consider the cost of bad photography. Many times this cost is intangible, such as not having a good portrait of your child before he grows older. Many times the cost is very tangible, such as not having good images to market a valuable piece of real estate. I'm always stunned when I see a half-million-dollar home marketed with point-and-shoot, direct flash, straight-out-of-the-camera shots, when research has shown the dramatic bottom-line marketing benefits of little more than a decent camera (not even considering the skill of the operator). Whether you're selling a home or car or are promoting a product or service, paying for good photography can be a very prudent investment that yields a considerable return.

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