Womanizing Photography

We live in amazing times. The technological, societal and social changes that have occurred over the past century are mind boggling. I grew up in a small immigrant home, with no air conditioning, no fancy electrical devices (we had a hand-wring washing machine) and no technology of any kind. We got our first colour TV when I was 16.

Today, my life is surrounded by convenience gadgets and entertainment toys of all form and function. I connect more than 20 devices to my home internet network to provide everything from the service to write this post to the automated voice that wakes me in the morning to the electronic keyboard and wonderful online instructor that are teaching me how to play piano. No one born in the mid-20th century could have predicted how far we could come.

Despite those changes, some aspects of our society still could stand with some improvement. Women do not equally participate in all aspects of business, culture and sport. We don’t always get recognition even when we do. Even in my little world of hobbyist photography, the vast majority of people who are accomplished artists and who offer their expertise to others are male. I wanted to bring forward some of those challenges in this post. Maybe some of this applies to you. If so, it would be great to share experiences and advice.

Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to do more than sit at a desk in the office. Don’t get me wrong – I had a well paying, somewhat interesting job. But in the 1980’s, in the large utility company that I worked for, there was only one female director and only a handful of women managers. Women served as secretaries and clerks and librarians and typists. I wanted more.

I decided to apply to join the Canadian military, in a part-time reservist role. Supposedly, I could pick any job I wanted and if there was an opening, I would be vetted and hopefully approved. I decided to apply to be an airframe maintenance mechanic. I couldn’t be a pilot for several reasons, so I took the next best thing. As I sat with the Recruiting Officer, who was a woman, she asked me a simple question: are you sure this is what you want to do? It won’t be easy, she said. Turns out she was right, not because it was hard work, but because women just didn’t do that. And to top it off, despite 4 years of “doing it”, I was eventually told that women were no longer eligible for the role and was offered a commissioned position as, you guessed it, a Recruiting Officer. I left 18 months later.

That has set the stage for trying unconventional things all my life. Most recently, in my mid-60’s and a woman, I’ve decided to take up astronomy and astrophotography, which I’ve discovered is 95% male dominated, at least in the hobbyist circles in which I move. I’m delighted to see however that women are now taking active roles in all of the professional engineering and scientific endeavors out there, including high profile projects like the James Webb Space Telescope and planned missions to the moon.

But women do have some specific challenges when moving into these new domains, and specific challenges in being able even to participate in photography generally. We’ve started to look at these challenges in the little camera store where I work, hoping to provide female photographers with opportunities to connect, share experiences, share questions and answers on situations they are facing and find ways to make photography more enjoyable and convenient.

One simple issue is the design of gear. It’s improving now, but the majority of professional cameras were large, heavy and designed for the male hand. The grips were oversized and even reaching for the buttons for individual functions could sometimes be impossible. Luckily, older photographers, whether male or female, have been demanding smaller and lighter equipment, so if for no other reason, some of the basic ergonomics that may have made photography uncomfortable for women is being addressed.

Maybe not so much for lens design though. The fastest, most optically excellent performing lenses are large in size and weight. Even with mirrorless cameras, performance seems to mean size and weight. So the choices to help address that would mean possibly slower glass (f/4 rather than f/2.8 or less) or smaller camera form factors (crop sensor, micro 4/3 sensor) with correspondingly smaller lenses. The nice thing is that both of these options are not compromises any longer. Image quality does not suffer with the latest generation of smaller form factor cameras.

One key area of concern has been camera carry and storage. Straps, shoulder bags and backpacks have all been designed for the male body, often landing on just the wrong places on the female form. Shoulder harnesses were often two wide for us, sitting at the edges of our shoulders instead of in the well between shoulder and collar bone. Hip belts were often too short, not allowing for a wider hip base. And overall length of wearable packs has been a long standing concern, with straps and ties not allowing for enough shortening to be snug and comfortable. Instead, they bumped along on our backsides.

There are options now, from straps with adjustable lengths and angles and backpacks with adjustable everything, including the internal frame. But we women are inventive too, finding ways to minimize the carry and to combine that carry with other items to serve multiple purposes. Everything in a bag is removable now, so it can be configured for whatever need might arise.

But maybe the main topic for today isn’t about gear or accessories. It’s about the steps that women photographers need to take to be recognized and to be taken seriously. It’s also about the ability to work without worry or concern for personal safety. We are seeing working women photographers at sporting events, concerts, or leading workshops with paying customers. They go into dangerous parts of the world and capture the epic photographs of key events, including conflicts and natural disasters. They demonstrate as much stamina and perseverance as their male counterparts. Good on them.

And yet, many women hobbyists won’t venture out alone, are reluctant to exercise their interests independently and may also give in to outing plans that don’t include sufficient time for them to enjoy their craft. Rocking the boat is not what we do well.

It is challenging to feel safe when shooting, especially in public. In the countryside, it might be concern with other humans or animals, or even falls and injury. In the city, it might be hostility from bystanders who think they are being photographed. It might be complaints from event organizers or property owners. It might also be just the crush of crowds of people.

What’s interesting is that we enjoy shooting with friends and sharing common experiences. At least most of us do. I often find that I want to linger at a location longer than my friends, making it challenging to keep up. I also find that my agility is no match for that of my friends, and I linger behind for that reason too. However it works out, shooting with friends is a good way to manage the concerns that might otherwise prevent an enjoyable experience with the camera. And it is a great way to stay safe.

Organized photography tours are a great way to experience photography at its fullest and stay safe. While many book these tours for the adventure, I have and will continue to book organized tours for the safety factor. The challenge is finding the experience that I want (sometimes off the beaten path, sometimes in solitude/quiet, sometimes lingering) while still being part of the group. At times, I do break away from the group and do my own thing. But someone always knows where I am. I also never really stray far from the car, the hotel or the popular area. Just far enough.

Even when the partner is not a photographer, there are ways to ensure both halves get the experience they would like. Many photographic tours offer other activities for non-photographers. And it’s even ok to take two trips, one for photography and one not. I would even suggest that some apart-time keeps a relationship healthy. Maybe each partner can take a separate trip once a year.

So you’ve got the shots. Now what? I’m not in this game to earn a living, so I might not have a good perspective on this last topic. It’s about having a voice as a female.

The quality of the work has to be able to speak for itself. In my view, public access through a website and social media are a must. But nowhere near enough. Something else has to trigger that access.

For me, it’s been three things: volunteering, offering to speak about/lead photographic activities and working in a place where I can offer advice/assistance to photographers. You build a reputation by having others see you. You build a reputation by offering useful information. You build a reputation by acknowledging other people’s interests/abilities and interacting with them on their level.

It hasn’t been easy though. Some obvious examples are the guys that come into the camera store, walk right by me and head for the male staff, not because they know them. Or the people who assume I am not a photographer, and ask to speak to one. Or the people when I ask them questions to try to clarify what they are looking for will simply say “I want to talk to someone who knows what they are doing”, looking over at one of the males.

I am happy to say though that just as many customers now thank me for helping them and for doing so on their level. Sometimes I go full geek and banter with them about the best settings to get that epic shot; sometimes I just show them how to download their images. Sometimes we spend an hour exploring the pros and cons of their purchase options. Sometimes they just need a print for a memorial service.

I also offer talks to local camera clubs. I ask club members questions as we go to have them contribute to the conversation. And the number of folks asking questions afterward confirms that I hit the mark. Lots of those questions come from women. Every time I see a head nod from a woman, I try to bring her into the conversation.

I have volunteered to organize and lead programs and activities, again, to get my voice out there. I especially try to focus on the women who join in, to get them comfortable with me and the group dynamics as quickly as possible.

There is a fine line though between effectively demonstrating your expertise and either doing too little or too much. It’s all about knowing your audience and being able to adjust to what they need from you at that moment. I may be biased but I think women do that really really well. We exude empathy and concern. But we do need to get better at exploiting it, to help each other and to show just how great photographers we really are.

So speak up, ladies.

4 thoughts on “Womanizing Photography

  1. Thank you Nina, another epic post, nailing all the points about being a woman enjoying photography. I have found it increasingly difficult to enjoy it since using a walker to ferry myself and kit around. In a particular, small New England town, I will not enter any store that does not provide a ramp of some kind for me and my walker. Someone could help me up the stairs, but that’s not the point. I sometimes wonder if they realize the loss of sales due to this situation.


  2. Thanks, Nina. I do find it a challenge to go out alone, whether it is for safety issues or just lack of companionship, but I am trying to over come this. Otherwise I have not had too many issue for “being a woman”. As you know, the majority of our seniors club is women – maybe because we live longer, or maybe because we are more social or some other reason. Whatever the reason, I do enjoy the companionship when I can get it. Hint, hint.


    1. Thanks, Donna. That’s true – I do see a good mix of male/female membership in the camera clubs I visit. But often the folks leading the club or being featured that evening are male. It would be great to see more women in those roles. Sadly, one of the drawbacks for me personally is getting busy and sometimes not having time to get out with friends. Will try to get a better balance soon. Thanks for the reminder.


Comments are closed.