Photography is more about access than cameras
I was listening to an interview with photographer David Yarrow and he said that “Photography is more about access than cameras” and that really struck a chord with me because what he said was so true. In 2021, everyone is a photographer. Everyone has a mobile phone these days, and people are shooting more photos than ever before. Everyone is a photographer. So what is the difference between a pro shooter and just an average joe with his iPhone?
I would personally say that access to taking a shot is what differentiates the pros from the averages joes out there. Being in the right place, at the right time with no hurdles to getting the shot is what makes someone a professional. But getting access to what you want to shoot is the hard part now. Getting access a few years ago used to be easy. But everyone is a photographer now. Everyone wants to shoot. So the gatekeepers for access have become very selective now. Getting access is not easy but it is what differentiates the pros from the amateur shooters. Truth be told, I could most likely still do my work with my old Nikon D700 and my clients would still be happy but I could only do my work with the access that I need. So many up-and-coming photographers obsess about gear. They read and watch every single video about the latest camera and lenses. But all the expensive gear in the world will still only give them snaps shots without access.
Access to what you want to shoot, access to be in the right location, at the right time is key to making a photo. The key words being “making a photo”. Most amateurs see something and they take a snapshot. But snapshots very seldom build careers. I think street photography is a perfect example of that. Most street shots, walk around taking snapshots, some of their snapshots are very good, but very few of them will sell for money and they can’t really build a career from their work. To make a photo, you need to plan, you need to get access to the location, and then execute the shot to the best of your ability. Those are the types of images that clients will pay for, and that is how you slowly build up your career as a photographer.
Access is the key to success in photography, it is the golden ticket into the chocolate factory but how to get access. Well, I am not going to go over how to get a photo pass this time, I have done an article on that in the past, so instead, I am going to talk about how to get access to any type of location that you are thinking about for a shoot. The key to getting access to any place you want to shoot is communication and building connections. Sounds simple right? But it is not as easy as it sounds.
The is a reason why you will find so many pictures of beers and cameras in my blog posts. Business gets done with alcohol in China. You want access, you need to make friends with the right people. You need to meet the friends of friends. Go out with them, slowly build up your social network with people face to face. This takes time. I remember my first six months in China. I spent almost no time taking any photos during that period of time. I spent all my time slowly meeting the right people. Gaining their trust and forming business connections that I could use later on down the line. I only attended my first music festival in China during my seventh month and even that was more recon as I didn’t have a backstage pass and I was stuck shooting three songs from the pit. But those early days were very important to my success in China. I made almost no money during those early days but it did allow me to meet the right people and it gave me a solid foundation to work from in the future.
Thanks to Covid-19, I have hardly been able to work since December 2019 and the way China is changing now, I might have to relocate and starting work in a new country again. If I have to make the move and leave China, I would have to repeat the same process as last time. My first few months would involve almost no shooting and I would have to slowly rebuild new connections to gain access to things I want to shoot. A lot of people believe that if you are a pro shooter, then you spend all your time taking photos, but the truth is that even if you are very lucky, you would only really shoot 30% of the time and the rest of your time will be taken up by the business of photography. Now there is a shortcut that photographers can use when it comes to getting access to shoot. The shortcut that a shooter can use is called “Hiring a fixer” A fixer is someone who can organize or arrange access to the location that you want to shoot in. But a good fixer is not cheap. The more difficult the location is, the more money it will cost you.
In the old days, when you were shooting for magazines and newspapers, the photo editors would usually maintain a list of fixers that they knew in different locations and they could hook you up, but those days are long gone now. Most working photographers maintain a list of fixers they know and sometimes they will share them with other photographers. If a photographer that I knew was coming to shoot in Shanghai or Beijing, I could easily hook him up with a fixer, as long as the story he was working on had nothing to do with politics(Most fixers will not work on a political story in China as it is too dangerous). But I would not share a fixer’s name and details with a stranger, it would have to be with someone that I know or at least a friend of a friend. Basically, someone would have to vouch for the person.
If you don’t know anyone in the location that you are going to shoot, then you basically have two options available to you. The first is the internet. Try searching for a local photographer or a tour guide, they might want to work as a fixer or the second option is the bellboy at the hotel you are going to stay at. I have found that a lot of the bellboys in Asia will be more than happy to find someone to help you, as long as you are going to be greasing their palms in the process. But these two methods are the least successful method that you can try and use to get access to a location. But I will warn you, you get what you pay for. A cheap fixer will deliver shitty results.
To sum this all up, I guess I would offer this advice to new photographers. Don’t spend all your money on new gear. You only really need two lenses to get the job done. A prime and a telly will be more than enough when starting out as a photographer. The rest of your money should be invested in yourself and your career. Instead of spending $5000 on a new camera and some lenses, spend that money on a trip where you can get some really good images. Build up your portfolio. A new camera will lose almost all of its value in a couple of years but a great shot in your portfolio will help you find jobs and make sure you can get access to be in a position to make a great photo. I will wrap up this blog post by repeating David Yarrow’s quote ” Photography is more about access than cameras”.
As I am wrapping up this blog post, I am reminded of a video I watched many years ago with Zack Arias. He spent money going on a photo trip to New York and then got his work critique by a photo editor. I remember watching that video and thinking, that is so smart. If you are an up-and-coming photographer, I strongly suggest you go watch that video and learn from it. I did some quick googling to find the video and it is called the 5K challenge. Unfortunately, the video is locked behind a paywall now. Seems like everything is locked behind a paywall these days on the internet. But if you can find the video, there is a lot to learn from it.