Photographers, Choose Your Mentors Wisely

It’s no secret that social media can be leveraged to monetize your reputation as a photography expert. But there is a dark side to this: a whole new generation of photography role models coming up who are unfit to be role models.

The Internet gives people the ability to self-publish and craft an online image. And there is no rule that says in order to be an expert influencing others you have to run an ethical business or have good business practices. So it’s buyer beware.

I’m not suggesting that it is a bad thing to have a photography mentor or role model, but you need to choose wisely. Don’t be afraid to question the advice you get from another photographer. Hear what they have to say, but make your own decision using sound judgment. If something doesn’t add up, then it probably doesn’t.

Bad Advice that No Beginner Should Read

I bring this up because a former wedding photographer / influential figure recently released an online guide giving his 10 steps to starting a wedding photography business. He advocated building a wedding photography brand even if you don’t have the requisite photography skills, because, he said, your brand is more important than your product.

Advice like “spray and pray on P mode” if you are so overwhelmed you forget how to use the camera is so irresponsible that no beginning photographer should ever read such advice.

My own advice if you are too overwhelmed by a photo shoot and forget how to use the camera: Stop shooting weddings (or any other paid assignment) and spend a few years learning how to be a good photographer so you don’t ruin a couple’s special day. Ask yourself: Is this a level of responsibility I am ready to handle? The first rule of customer service is to put the customer first, and sometimes that means turning down a job for which you are not yet qualified.

Further advice advocated spending as little time as possible editing a wedding photo shoot because you have more important things to do. (Like cashing the $6,000 check and not doing work?) He said that you should spend no more than two hours editing a wedding photo shoot and batch process everything. No need to open your images either because it’s a waste of time.

I suppose that strategy makes sense if your business is geared around placing a higher priority on your own image than those in the photos, but that is not the way to go about being a professional photographer. If you take paying jobs, then you need to be able to deliver the goods. This is not the time to be lazy.

Beware of the Hard Sell

Stuffed in the content was the constant reminder to use his products. It turns out that the photographer only had four or five years of actual wedding photography experience before getting out of the business to lecture and hawk products several years ago. There is an old saying that applies here: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” If you are going to seek someone out as a mentor in person or online, make sure that they have legitimate credentials.

The sad part is that he is just one of a bunch. Despite all the great things photographers have done with the Internet, but there are a lot of toxic characters out there who have far too much visibility. And people without the experience to discern right from wrong tend to flock to those who shill the most. Those who shill the most usually do not have your best interests in mind. These “industry leaders” know that and exploit it for all it’s worth.

To these shady photography mentors I say if you got into professional photography merely as a get-rich-quick scheme or to be famous, then do your clients a favor and tell them that first. The let them decide if they still want to hire you.

24 Responses to “Photographers, Choose Your Mentors Wisely”

  1. While I don't like the reference to "those who can do, those who can't teach" ( one ever just "does" stuff and HAS to be educated by SOMEONE or is influenced by someone else's knowledge), this post is GREAT.

    The teaching of photography in of itself is not inherently flawed. The problem is too many photographers want to be Justin Beiber and not Henri Carter-Bresson. Too many Diddys and no Gordon Parks. Too many Kardashians and no Susan Sontag. And worse, the "evangelical prosperity church" approach to photography leadership where leaders are no longer subject to critique and valid critique = "hater" is problematic.

    The problem is not just the crooked photography leaders...but photographers so adverse to learning, studying, developing their craft, practice, and patience that they are looking for such a leader. A leader cannot exist without followers. Many people are culpable in this social media lead degradation of photography.

    The best thing people who care about photography can do is a)keep shooting b)keep speaking out c)provide alternatives to the corrupt self-exhausted leadership that prevails.

  2. I agree Trudy and like your advice. This post is not meant to bash teaching, as good education is vital, but to call attention to people who have questionable motives and misguided cults of personality.

  3. Well said. I wish more people would use critical thinking to evaluate the advice given rather than just take it as true because of who gave it. I know a lot of photographers online who I respect but that doesn't mean I always agree with them. I've asked questions, been given thoughtful answers and that is why I respect them, even if we still disagree. There are others - the type you are outlining here - who will publicly attack you if you dare question (even politely) their advice or ask a question about it. Their only motivation for giving their advice is pretty clear at that point.

  4. When I grow up I either want to be like Benny Hinn or be able to spray and pray with my eyes closed, one arm behind my back and one leg cut off, I will be a rock star either way

  5. It's the major downfall of social media. Now we've got this new guard of photogs (some great, some not-so-great) who've done really well at developing followings of other aspiring photogs. Now, teaching / serving these other photogs becomes more profitable for them than actually being a photographer... And the social aspect makes them way more visible than true masters of the craft, or the folks who are out there pounding the pavement in the industry.

    This seems to be the next big 'issue' in photography. Now that camera technology is scattered enough for us to move on, we're starting to call BS on the cults of personality. Interesting times, indeed!

    And I totally agree with you. DJ's system is insulting.

  6. Great post, Richard. Very well said (and Michael, too). The internet is both a blessing and a curse, and this is a perfect example of why. In the past, most people who had a need for attention and fawning masses were limited to a tiny circle of acquaintances (if that). Now, however, they can run amok: the world (wide web) is their oyster.

    Jut as in real life we need to choose our friends carefully, so online we need to choose our associates carefully. Thank you, Richard, for posting about this and shining a spotlight on a tricky situation. As Michael mentioned, anyone seeking advice would do well to look for thoughtful, reasoned answers and a willingness to see other points of view. If you encounter a "my way or the highway" attitude - take the highway and run!

  7. Someone posted this is a FB group that I am in - I totally agree!

    As far as ruining a wedding is concerned, I am in the unique position to tell your readers that the person dishing out the "spray and pray" advice mentioned above, did in fact TOTALLY SCREW UP my wedding photography. A "rock start photographer" with little or no photograph expertise.

    If you want to see a site I have put up to help stop this person from spreading such bad advice, go here:

    If you want to see all of the terrible images, go here:

    Richard, if you want me to repost without the links, no problem 🙂

    There is no doubt, there are people appearing on large public platforms making claims about their abilities, and lots of people are believing it. The lies told by Scarlett Lillian and her fiancé is a perfect example. People threw a lot of hard earned money at a person totally unqualified to teach.

    It's all very sad - I hope we can change it. 🙂


  8. I am gravely offended by your use of the "those who can't do, teach" meme. That is a huge insult to teachers everywhere. The most competent people I know in their fields teach. That "saying" needs to be retired forthwith. Teachers, whether in school systems, universities, or continuing education, are invaluable and should be elevated; even average teachers are needed and indispensable (not everybody can be a superstar, although all should strive for perfection). The teachers I know, from Skip Cohen, Rick Sammon to my nurse friend who is also teaching high school and getting her Masters, put a lot of effort into helping their students advance and achieve; they love teaching and passing knowledge. So please do not equate someone like this photographer with a teacher; teachers are excellent, valuable people, by and large. Better to say this fellow *shouldn't* teach.

    Perhaps the saying should be, those who can't do, teach poorly. Or shouldn't teach. Whatever. But let's stop insulting teachers.

  9. Hear, hear, Matt! "Perhaps the saying should be, those who can't do, teach poorly. Or shouldn't teach. Whatever. But let's stop insulting teachers."

    My full time job is both as a continuing education provider for massage therapists and as a massage therapist. And I do them well, I might add. (According to my students).

    Other than that, the article is very good. I research so many photographers and their works online, read their bios, etc. before I will attempt to ingest their teachings. And I may not always agree with what they say, but at least I can respect what someone with 20+ years of experience in the field has to say.

    And some other photographers, while young, can still teach well, but they clearly have the skills that they have honed over periods of time!

  10. a very big "BRAVO" to you Richard.

  11. Excellent advice. I enjoyed your article.

  12. Excellent Richard. Thanks for saying it!

  13. Agree Richard, It is tempting to mention names here, but I think many of us know some of the folks you're talking about here without having to mention it.

    One of the signs of a true professional is someone who, even on their worst day, still produce quality for the client.


  14. Just yesterday I came across the site of a "photography professional" who was posting to various photography sites to enhance their reputation. The posts were atrocious by both grammatical and photographic standards.... It was probably written by a VA (virtual assistant) somewhere.

    Even more scary was that they were also selling ebooks on sites such as Amazon about how to become a professional photographer, when they clearly had no idea.

    Starting to see a similar effect on podcasts and blogs, with self-proclaimed "tech bloggers" who don't have a technical clue.

    Too many people generating trash content and polluting the web, just to make a quick dollar.

  15. In the wedding photography world these 'rock star photographers' have dumped their 'knowledge' of marketing over photography skills. Mommy-tographers armed with the newest high priced digital equipment, pretty Kelly bags, a big smile and little skill or knowledge are everywhere hocking their 'great' photography and "oh so awesome love of weddings" with slick websites and blogs. Taught and guided by idiots looking to make a fast buck. I belong to an online local photo group (great way to keep your pulse on the market) and am continually amazed, disgusted and yes shocked at questions asked by these fauxtographers who are charging unwitting clients for skills and abilities that don't exist. While I am not threatened nor even competing with this new fauxtographer it does disturb me seeing the ignorance and hopefully temporary destruction of the professional photography institution. Digital advancements, fancy and expensive cameras/equipment have opened the doors to point and shoot mentality. Lighting? Just turn on the flash and point it up with the newest gadget hocked by the newest rock star. I could go on and on. The recent release of two new expensive DSLR bodies from Canon and Nikon get the fauxtographers excited like some type of orgasmic orgy, salivating consumers running to buy the next best thing cause you know the camera takes great pictures. They say 'you don't need flash cause the iso expansion is so uber awesome'. Why learn flash? This new crop of 'teachers' such as Sarah Petty and the guy referred to in this article are the shysters of the 21st century. Pushing their 'medicine' and all its cures. As America dumbs up these fauxtographers get rick telling everyone how great they can be if they just believe it, buy an expensive camera and talk a line of sh*t.

    I don't believe the author here meant a slam to real instructors. Unfortunately, real instructors are few and far between. Most residing in universities where these mommy-tographers and faux-tographers have no access. Next option? Go to WPPI seminars and learn from the guys who say they are rich and famous and you can be too...if you just buy what I'm selling out of the back of my medicine wagon. I have to laugh as I write this because recently one of the mommy-tographers posted a question asking which 'bag' do you carry to shoots. Every answer was some fancy purse looking contraption that costs over $200 and upward. Me? An old camera backpack and 2 Home Depot tool bags. Works for me.

    It is already starting to shake out tho. I am hearing more and more whining that they aren't getting the business they did last year or worse complaining about their clients. Many work without contracts. I am absolutely appalled at their ignorance but have faith their reputations are preceding them. They are a flash in the pan and soon we can get back to business...creating beautiful and powerful images with our skills and talent instead of the latest gadget, high iso camera or rock star marketing mentality. Have faith.

  16. Thanks for the comment, Pam. True, I didn't intend to slam good teachers, but to those who aren't in it for the right reasons or lie about their ability to do so in order to sell themselves. It should be photography first, image second, not the other way around.

  17. Thanks guys. Great discussion.

    Hugh - feel free to reference the post, though Black Star doesn't want the articles to be re-posted verbatim.

  18. Carl - sounds like an SEO affiliate spammer creating all that content written in a 3rd world country or automated content spinning software. There are no standards on the internet so I wouldn't be surprised if that indeed was happening.

  19. It does strike me as capitalizing on a growing market. I think it was Zack Arias that said people that invent these systems and quick fixes would've made money doing anything, not just photography. They just happened to tap into the photography market and work in there. To be honest, what they do they do very well, which is entice young people to think they too can live a "rock star photographer" life by creating a false sense of who they are on the internet and sticking an Expodisc on the end of their camera.

    It's very easy to fall for the marketing as usually it's backed up by what looks like a successful photography business. The fact the photographer talked about above was called out on it goes to prove that they were never great photographers in the first place.

    With photography so popular this was bound to happen, it's for the students coming up to differentiate between the actual teachers and the salesmen.

  20. @Pam
    Sarah Petty has very valid points. Marketing consistancy is key. I have seen photographers websites with lots of fonts and vids that have a different logo font. I am currently in my branding stage along with lots of delibrate practice. This is an ongoing effort.

    Also another problem I see is no one ever gets a photo assistant any more. Forcing people to do it on their own....

  21. A great post Richard. @Pam said what I've been thinking and seeing the results of for years. I attended a local PPA meeting as a guest this week and had a conversation with a member about corporate head shots. She was more concerned with "how much do I charge" than - did she have the know how or ability to do professional grade head shots. I guess with that mentality if you can figure out how much to charge your photographic skills don't matter...

  22. As an educator myself, I would like to add my voice to those above who dislike the phrase "Those who can do, those who can't teach". Of course, any fool can dispense useless advice on the internet, but good teaching isn't easy and there is no guarantee that people who are good are some activity (like photography) will be any good at teaching it.

  23. This is spot on , brilliantly said . People just don 't learn the craft anymore ... but its endemic in the industry , clients send staff on a weekend course to bypass photographers and think 2 days make you a photographer . As i say would someone get picked to play for Machester united if you've been on a football course for a week . Mind you colleges & unversities don't help , i get Degree , yes degree educated students come to me for assisting work and seem unsure of the relationship between shutter speed , aperture or how depth of field works . Ask them to write an essay on Edward Weston and you'd get a thesis but ask them to put up a light stand and watch them fumble .

  24. Great post, Richard, and one that's much appreciated.

    I won't repeat the pushback appearing in comments regarding the "those who can't" notion other than to say that an effective mentor is also an effective teacher. All that said, I got your point.

    In any case...clearly social media, and digital communication in general, has raised the profile of instances like the one you call out. Snake oil has always been for sale, sadly, but your advice is excellent and hopefully can help people make smart choices.

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