What It’s Like Being a Woman Photographer: Breaking Into an Industry in 2020
In this article, we hear from several female photographers on their perspective and experience getting started and working in the mostly male-dominated, photography industry.
Ever since I was a toddler, I had a fixation with cameras and the stories they capture. As a
young girl, I took photos of my dolls and labeled them “professional portrait sessions”. At age sixteen, I captured portraits of friends and uploaded them to social media. My business blossomed and slowly snowballed into a career.
Breaking into the portrait industry has taught me a lot about my strengths and weaknesses
as a woman in the field. While there have been some struggles, there are also the opportunities to tune into natural gifts. The challenges can be heavy but the rewards always outweigh them. This article touches the tip of the iceberg of my experiences as a portrait photographer.
The Challenges of Being a Woman Photographer
The male-dominated field involves technology and knowledge of equipment. I have been
quizzed on the spot in condescending ways. I often feel as if I have something to prove.
Demeaning and Derogatory Comments
Experts have gone straight to critiquing flaws in my skillset or composition without giving the perspective a second thought. I once took my camera to the shop to check if a lens was broken or just needed calibration. The man helping me fiddled with my camera then said “You have it set to manual? That’s surprising.”
Photography is an art and art is subjective. This disadvantage in the field stems from not
only having more male professionals but a saturated male audience.
I have also received comments stating, “You’re sure you don’t want a career in front of the
camera?” Even if they had complimentary intentions, it’s disrespectful and belittling to my work. The same context of telling a woman she should smile more.
Sometimes I feel guilty for wanting to get into high fashion or editorial work because I
don’t want to contribute to the unhealthy beauty standards of women. I’ve dipped my toes in the modeling industry from both sides of the lens and I’ve experienced the ridiculous practices they expect from women to maintain shape/size.
I have reached a crossroads by not wanting to contribute to the negative but I’m also very allured by the creativity and boldness of the fashion and beauty industry.
Many of the other women photographers we interviewed for this piece also have received demeaning and derogatory comments when working in the field. Here are just a few of their responses:
“As with any other job, being a female in a male dominated industry can be a little challenging in the way that we are not taken as seriously as our male counterparts. It is definitely something that can be overcome and is getting better every day with more and more female photographers getting out there and showing their talents.”
Lifestyle, Family, & Portrait Photographer at Tina Butera Photography
“I think the biggest con of being a female photographer, particularly in New Hampshire which has a largely male corporate workforce, is just not being taken seriously.”
Owner & Lead Photographer at Ridgelight Studio
“Being a woman has made me have to work even harder to prove myself. There have been times people have assumed on shoots that I am a photo assistant and not the principal photographer. In the past, I even kept my photo off my website so prospective clients could only judge me on my work.”
Food, Lifestyle, & Commercial Photographer at Agnes Lopez Photography
“I faced a lot of discredit even when I have explained I have won more than 50 international awards. Female aren’t expected to succeed, at least not in a market dominated by men…My most negative experience was when a guest stood up to me during the reception and simply asked me ‘Do you want to see my d*ck?’ in the most creepy way.
I simply left him waiting for my answer and ignored him the rest of the evening. He was the groom’s cousin and even had a speech after that. I really really hesitated to let the couple know but he never talked to me again so I didn’t.”
Adventure Elopement Photographer at Zephyr & Luna
“It doesn’t matter whether I am behind the camera or in front of it when I am modeling for my content, I have been catcalled hundreds of times almost for every photoshoot I have done outdoors. Street harassment is never a compliment and it also gives me a strong feeling that female photographers aren’t taken seriously as professionals when they are out there doing the hard work.
The most outrageous experience I had happened when my friend and I were shooting a campaign on Parisian streets a couple of years ago. When the cat-calling ended with us being spit on and cussed out by a couple of men who were denied to be a part of our ‘sweet lady shooting’.
It ruined our entire day and the most disappointing part was that we felt helpless, as even when police arrived, those guys were gone and the police just asked us to chill, because it did not constitute a crime that needed to be reported. Unfortunately, for some people, female photographers with cameras are just girls playing games that can be caught off guard and objectified at any time.”
Fashion Photographer & Blogger at KatieOne.com
Being a “Bitch”
Another challenge faced is on the frontlines of business. Young girls have been raised with learned politeness that has clashed with running my business. People attempt to demand extra inconveniences of my effort and time. Friendliness can be mistaken for an appeasing personality. When I am stern and professional, I am “bitchy” or “bossy”.
It took awhile for me to learn and accept that I am the boss. I use my discretion to decide who I would like to work with. Entitled clients are not worth it. People that disrespect my prices and time are not the clients I want. In addition to entitlement, I have had blatant fraud artists attempt to scam me with counterfeit cashier’s checks.
Here is an example of the same scam artist, using a terrible script (it’s the misspelling of “wedding” that gives him/her away):
Fear of Safety
The most extreme weakness for being a woman in the portrait photography industry is fearing for my safety.
In severe cases, I have felt very vulnerable. I have received “queries” from men to photograph them nude. I have experienced attempts to lure me to isolate areas, offering me a significant amount more than my listed rates. I immediately deleted the more disturbing emails because they caused me distress, reminding me of a horrifying experience I had as a teenager on a photoshoot.
Here are a few of the leads:
When I decline to travel to their home, they become upset with me. I’ve been called terrible names and threatened when I decline or choose not to reply. I’ve been told to “eat a cup of sh*t, you stupid f*ck” after refusing to take nude photos of a man.
Being a woman in general, I’m always taking into account to not meet people in isolated areas, especially men. This influences the hesitation I feel to someday invest in my own studio because it would be a private, personal setting. I fear being mugged of my equipment, assaulted, kidnapped, or killed because I am a one-woman show, freelance photographer.
The Pros of Being a Woman Photographer
Photo Credit: Madison Stringfellow
Enough with the doom and gloom, there are many advantages to being a woman in photography. For example, models often seem more eager to work with me and trusting of my motives.
In Los Angeles, there is a community “blacklist” consisting of (mostly) male photographers that have been reported for sexual harassment and/or exploitation. This list exists within the social media community, typically circulated via Facebook groups. Woman to woman there is a general understanding that I am creating to create, not to sexualize.
Another advantage is the neurology of a woman’s brain. Our wiring is designed to be more active than a male brain, always scanning for details and assessing emotions (Different Brains, Different Behaviors: Why Women Lead Differently Than Men, 2017). I will immediately notice anything from a hair tie around someone’s wrist to a traffic cone in the distant background. I can easily connect with my subject and deliver a portrait that captures raw feelings.
Women tend to have a natural fashion sense and that helps when clients want input/opinions on coordinating outfits. We can be more intuitive to beauty, especially features of other women. I can fix hair or give facial instructions to realign a subject’s expression.
Photo Credit: Madison Stringfellow
I empathize with wanting to look the best you can. Women are our own worst critics. We often notice other aspects of beauty such as hair, eye expressions, and smiles. Whereas men tend to notice body features and their appearance first. I have worked with male photographers that have delivered me images of my face mid expression change, but my cleavage was bulging out. I asked myself if they even looked at my face when editing.
Men and women see the world differently. A woman’s work can manifest from feminine
energy and opposite perspectives. I personally don’t take anything at face value which leaves me constantly looking for a deeper message. This encourages visual storytelling about lives through portraiture. I place more poignant value on candid photographs as opposed to stills.
Photo Credit: Madison Stringfellow
Women have been recorded to have stronger emotional skills than men (Are Women More Emotionally Intelligent Than Men?, 2011) which helps in connecting to people on an empathetic level.
Agnes Lopez, a food, lifestyle, and commercial photographer, shares a similar viewpoint based on an unfortunately poor experience she had working with a male photographer:
“I used to work as a wardrobe stylist for several stock photography companies before I became a photographer. So I have worked with a lot of male photographers in the industry. I remember working on a shoot and the photographer got really frustrated with the young model. She started to cry and the photographer looked over to me to help calm her down and get her to do what he needed her to do.
I thought to myself, how can you get a good picture of someone if they are terrified of you. I would always observe the photographers and would think how I would do things differently or even better, haha. So I decided to pursue photography myself.”
One of my favorite parts about photography is the people I meet, along the opportunities I stumble upon. I’ve worked with minor celebrities and clients that have become close friends. I tend to focus on humanity in my work before technicalities.
The road with photography is infinite. It can range from suburban portrait photography,
high fashion photography, celebrity photography, travel photography, brand photography, photojournalism, activism, etc. It is very empowering to be a creator and have my work appreciated and acknowledged. I hope to someday create a platform I can use to raise awareness and encourage progression.
Photo Credit: Madison Stringfellow
The best thing about photography is there is no cap to growth. Technology development is accelerating and creativity is limitless. My advice to anyone working in photography is to never be an expert. Don’t bind yourself to the idea that you have mastered the skill. Always practice, learn, experiment and improve. Always innovate. Always create!
As Katie One, a fashion photographer and blogger, puts it: “There is always someone to doubt you, to think that you are not a ‘serious’ photographer and think of you as ‘a girl that plays with a camera’ but that should never get you. You are the boss and you should always find a way to do what you love the most.”