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The PRO-Files: Are You An Ethical Photographer?

Sony Artisan Mike Colón

Talk to practically any professional wedding photographer and they’re bound to tell tales of awfully unprofessional behavior they’ve witnessed. From not being straight with customers to mistreating assistants, it seems like there’s nothing some people won’t do to make a buck. If you want to have a prosperous career in wedding photography, ethics have to be at the core of your business. When you do the right thing, a couple of things happen; your clients are happy and give you good references and in the community, people want to work with you because you’re the photographer with the solid reputation.

Be Upfront With Your Clients

Double booking is something that all wedding photographers run into. After all, there are only so many prized wedding weekends in the course of the year. It’s imperative for the ethical photographer to be up front with prospective customers particularly when it comes to explaining who will actually be photographing their big day. Booking multiple weddings is just fine; lying to customers about it is not.

“One thing I have heard a fair amount of,” says James Christianson, a Sony Artisan and one half of the world-class wedding photography duo known as James + Schulze, “is people booking more than one wedding and they’re not upfront with the client about the fact that the primary photographer for their wedding may be an associate. The studio owner makes the deal, and strongly implies that he or she will be the one doing the shoot. But then another booking comes up and they’re off. That might be fine as long as they’re up front about it with the first client, especially if the first client got a discounted rate or other added value, but it should be fully disclosed up front. That’s an easy conversation to have if it’s done at the outset. ‘Hey, because I’m discounting this rate or because I’m giving you this thing, but if I book another wedding it’s going to be this person from my team and not me.’”

Early in his career, celebrity wedding photographer and Sony Artisan Mike Colón was surprised to find himself caught up by another photographer’s unethical booking practices.

“There are photographers out there who will triple book on purpose,” Colon says, “and then send someone else in their place. And the bride’s like ‘who are you?’ When I was starting out, a photographer hired me for a job like that and I showed up and the bride had no idea. She was not happy at all. So I was the bad guy the whole day and the bride hated me. The guy who hired me was double booking without any disclosure at all and it turned out he did that all the time. He called me a few times after that and tried to get me to do it again, but there was no way I wanted to be doing anything associated with him.”

Be Up Front With Your Staff

As careers blossom, wedding photographers tend to hire larger staffs—including second shooters and those who will work as the primary photographer for some weddings, albeit under the brand of the established wedding studio. This is a time to be sure all expectations are clear. One of the most important expectations, as Christianson explains, is about image ownership and copyright.

“One of the big complaints of wedding photographers that have been doing it for a while,” he says, “is the practice of being an assistant or a second photographer and having the expectation that those are your images. If you’re shooting for James and Schulze, we’re very clear that the images the assistant shoots are ours. We’re putting our name on them. You shot it, but they belong to us. You can’t use them.”

“I think often it’s just because of a lack of understanding or communication,” Christianson adds. “An assistant photographer thinks, ‘well, I’m doing this at a low rate and this is part of my payment.’ I’ve heard it over and over again. The fault there is on the studio. It’s the studio that needs to make it clear.”

Thou Shalt Not Steal… Really

Do we really have to say this? We all know it’s a not ok to take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own—or at least, we all should know something that obvious—yet it still happens all the time. Too many photographers have had the experience of finding a shot or two of theirs in another photographer’s portfolio. For Christianson, he’s found entire weddings he shot appearing on the websites of strangers.

“We’ve found other photographers who have just ripped our entire portfolio and have them on their website,” he says. “Literally, whole weddings. That happens more than you might think. People want a shortcut.”

Being Honest With Yourself About What You Can Do 

Ok, obviously stealing images is not just unethical, it’s illegal. But subtler transgressions can occur on a more regular basis. Every photographer knows that when a client asks if you can do something, the answer is probably going to be yes, even if you haven't done it before. But you have to back that yes up with becoming an expert before the big shoot. When photographers who aren't experienced in the latest trend claim being able to pull something off when, really, they can't, it can taint more than just that photographer's reputation. Christianson mentions the recent trend of going retro with film as an example. “One thing that I always think is just a little bit unethical,” he says, “especially if it's from a photographer who’s new to film and says, ‘I’ll shoot the entire wedding on film.’ Can film be shot beautifully in the dark with a flash if you’re really great at it? Yes. But most people are not great at it. Especially a new-to-film photographer. I’ve looked through portfolios where as soon as the sun goes down, the pictures are just awful. These are not professional-quality photos. And they’re trying to bill themselves as a film photographer and saying they only shoot film.”

Following a trend can be a viable business strategy, but only when you’re producing good work. If you want to get in on the retro film trend, fine, offer film as an addition to your digital imagery, not a replacement for it. You'll probably also discover that your clients like the idea of film more than the actual film itself, especially after the sun goes down. As a professional, you really do have a duty to do the very best possible job for your client. If you’re not an ace film shooter in tricky lighting, use the digital tools that will give your clients the photos they’ll cherish for their lives.

About the author:

William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.