“What a Woman Can Do with a Camera”

by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Ladies Home Journal, 1897


In order to solve successfully the problem of making a business profitable, the woman who either must or will earn her own living needs to discover a field of work for which there is a good demand, in which there is not too great competition, and which her individual tastes render in some way congenial.

There are many young women who have had a thorough art-training, whose talents do not lift their work above mediocrity, and so it is made profitless; others who, as amateurs, have dabbled a little in photography, and who would like to turn an agreeable pastime into more serious effort; while still another class might find this line of work pleasant and lucrative, where employment in the more restricted fields of typewriting, stenography, clerking, bookkeeping etc., would prove wearing and uncongenial to them.

Photography for Women

Photography as a profession should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business—but only under very well defined conditions. The prime requisites—as summed up in my mind after long experience and thought—are these: The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital, and a field to exploit. This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible, and hard, intelligent and conscientious work seldom fails to develop small beginnings into large results.

The Best Field for a Beginner

The range of paying work in photography is wide, and most of it quite within the reach of a bright, resourceful woman. Regular professional portraiture is lucrative if it is made artistic and distinctive, but it involves training, considerable capital, an establishment with several employees, and a good deal of clever advertising. Under these circumstances the most successful way would be to gravitate into studio portraiture after a few years of careful apprenticeship and experience in other lines.

As a rule the beginner will find her best opportunity, and her chances of success greatly multiplied if she is able or originate and exploit some special field of work. In this direction there are many openings, such as interior and architectural work, the copying of paintings, “at home” portraits, outdoor picture of babies, children, dogs and horses, and of country houses, photography for newspapers, and magazines and commercial work. Developing and printing for amateurs, and the making of enlargements, transparencies, and lantern-slides have also been made profitable by a goodly number of women in some of the larger cities.

The ancient law of demand and supply governs the market price of photographs, just as it does any other commodity, and, therefore, the woman who contemplates making photography a business should first take a careful survey of “her” individual circumstances and surroundings, with a view to finding out just what are the photographic needs of her immediate neighborhood. Of course, there are always large possibilities is showing people what it would be advantageous to have in the way of pictures; but the best general rule to follow is to accept cheerfully any work that comes, doing what there is to do rather than waiting for the particular kind that one would prefer.  Usually a business woman who shows a disposition to do anything asked of her in her line of work, soon finds herself able to exercise some choice in the matter of pursuing her own taste and pleasure.

Training Necessary for Good Work

The training necessary to produce good work is, after all, probably the most difficult part of the problem of making photography pay. While there are few schools of photography in the large cities, most of them are designed to help the amateur out of her difficulties rather than to give a thorough and practical training for the business. Experience, therefore, is about the only reliable teacher, and the quickest way to obtain it is to serve an apprenticeship in the establishment of some professional photographer, who has a good knowledge of his profession. Unfortunately for the tyro, most of these neither have neither time nor inclination to teach photographic processes, but there is frequently a chance of obtaining employment in photographic studios in consideration of the experience to be acquired. Even if a woman finds such an opportunity it is most important that she learn to think for herself, and to keep her own ideas and individuality in her work.

The bane of the average professional photographer is the deadly commonplace—and it is safe to say that the majority of those who fail to make their business pay, do so because they are not progressive in keeping up the advancement of the art, and lack originality.

The best camera clubs all over the country have opened their doors to women, and when these societies are at all progressive the beginner may obtain many very useful and helpful hints by an exchange of experiences and ideas at the meeting of their organizations.

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When Distinction and Originality are Aimed at

To those ambitious to do studio portraiture I should say, study art first and photography afterward , if you aim at distinction and originality. Not that a comprehensive technical training is unnecessary, for, on the contrary a photographer needs to understand his tools as thoroughly as a painter does the handling of his colors and brushes. Technical excellence, however, should not be the criterion where picturesque effect in concerned. In truth, to my mind, the first precept of artistic photography is, “Learn early the immense difference between the photography that is merely a photograph, and that which is also picture.”

Any person of average intelligence can produce photographs by the thousand, but to give art value to the fixed image of the camera-obscura requires imagination, discriminating taste, and, in fact, all that is implied by a true appreciation of the beautiful. For this reason it is wrong to regard photography as purely mechanical. Mechanical it is, up to a certain point, but beyond that there is great scope for individual and artistic expression. In portraiture, especially, there are so many possibilities for picturesque effects—involving composition, light and shade, the study of pose, and arrangement of drapery—that one should go for inspiration to such masters as Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Sire Joshua Reynolds, Romney and Gainsborough, rather than to the compliers of chemical formulae. In fine, learn everywhere and of everybody study carefully the work of other photographers, whether good, bad or indifferent; be sure to always regard your own productions with a severely critical eye—never an over-indulgent one; guard against this, and, above all, never permit yourself to grow into a state of such superior knowledge that you cannot glean something for the humblest beginner.

It would be impossible in so short a paper to give any detailed suggestions as to the best methods of developing, printing, etc. Most dealers in photographic supplies present neat little books of instruction with the cameras they sell, while every box of standard-brand plates contains printed slip of well-tried formulae.

In general one may advise the beginner to be exact, infinitely careful in the matter of details and in carrying out instructions intelligently and to the letter. It is also well, in all photographic processes, not to take any liberties with the chemicals by missing them up regardless of formulae. In the matter of jars, bottles and trays, learn early that “chemically clean” means something more than merely “clean.” Plenty of water will generally be found, of not a panacea, a preventative of many of the spots and stains in both negative and prints which so often agonize the soul of the tyro.

As to apparatus, it is also impossible to offer any but general suggestions for the obvious reason that no one lens nor camera will cover the entire field of photographic work. Each worker must study what is best suited to her particular line, and be guided accordingly. The only universal rule is to buy the best apparatus obtainable—the prime consideration being fine lenses.

The ideal outfit for all round outdoor and indoor work would be a six-and-a-half by eight-and-a-half-inch or eight by ten-inch camera, light in weight, compact and simply in construction—that is, easy to carry, easy to use and easy to keep in order—a light, but rigid, tripod, and a few extra plate-holders. For a plate eight by ten inches have two lenses of the rapid, symmetrical form, the first about fifteen inches in focal length for architectural and general outdoor work, also for portraits, groups, copying, etc. A second lens of about ten-inch focus is of great use in confined situations. Both lenses should be equipped with combination time and instantaneous shutters. A wide-angle lens of about six-inch focus for interiors is also necessary. All these, of the best and new would cost about three hundred dollars. But there are bargains to be found in second-hand photographic apparatus, especially in lenses.

Even if a beginner should be possessed of the necessary capital it would be wiser to start with a modest outfit. This could consist of an inexpensive camera and one fine lens; and then if the enthusiasm for the work outlasts all difficulties something more adequate could be obtained.

The Dark Room

In improvising an “at home” darkroom the bathroom is usually the first resource; and equally as a rule, the appropriation of it for this use involves the inconvenience of the rest of the household. It is better, when possible, to make arrangements for water connection in another room, which can also be kept cool and well ventilated. Verily the woes of the photographer are multiplied a thousandfold by small, hot stuffy dark-rooms. If a good-sized room with several windows in it, is available, it is quite easy to make it “light-tight” by pasting several thickness of yellow post-office or ruby paper of the panes, stopping up the chinks with flaps of dark felt, and it necessary using yellow cloth curtains. A room so darkened should be tested for light-leaks before it is regarded a s a safe place in which to handle plates.

If possible place the developing sink in front of a window which has been in part darkened with post-office paper, and the rest—at least one good sized pane—glazed with two thicknesses of ruby and one sheet of ground glass. On the outside of the window, in a sheltered box, place either a gas jet or an oil lamp, insuring a cool dark-room , and a steady even light which is of the greatest importance—in fact, it absolutely essential.

As to dark-room accessories it is better to have a few simple, useful things than to waste money on all sorts of expensive patented devices, which, as a rule, prove encumbrances. The greatest dark-room luxury—after running water and proper ventilation—is an abundance of large, deep, hard-rubber trays. It is simply a waste of money to buy any other kind. If possible, have separate trays for developing and toning, and never use the “hypo” tray for any other purpose.

Arrangement and Management of a Portrait Studio

Photographic portraiture should prove as charming and congenial as a field for artistic effort as a woman could desire; and that it is lucrative is well demonstrated by many women who are successfully established in the business. To properly conduct a photographic studio experience, training and capital are required. Nothing more, however, than is necessary to enter other professions, with the added advantage that, for the start, photography is usually made to pay something.

The ideal studio is, of course, the one built or remodeled to suit the exact needs of the photographer. But, in most instances, the woman entering professional photography will be obliged to content herself with what she can find ready to her use.

My studio room is eighteen by thirty-two feet, with a single slant skylight of ribbed glass, on an angle of about sixty-five degrees, and twelve by sixteen feet in size. Ribbed glass gives the soft, diffused light so desirable fore effective portraiture but needs to be further screened with transparent white curtains of the entire skylight, and, on occasion, patches of semi-translucent curtains to town down the intense high-lights. Inside the white curtains are opaque shades on rollers, which overlap and serve to shut out he light whenever necessary.

I have tried to make my skylight room as artistic, as cheerful and as inviting as would be the studio of an artist. Most people consider dentistry and having their picture taken as being equally unpleasant and painful, and shrink from the one quite as much as they do from the other. I do not know if dentistry can be robbed of its terrors, but I am sure that the imaginary sufferings of those who visit the photographer can be to a great extent mitigated—in fact, can be wholly dispelled by making the studio of the photographic artist inviting and attractive. This is a very good factor in making portraiture photography a success. I fully understand and appreciate the fact that every photographic studio cannot be metamorphosed into an artist’s den. This of course, is impossible, and in many instances it would not prove profitable undertaking. Again it might not be suitable to transform a photographic establishment, and beside it might prove the very opposite of convenient. However, the point that I wish to give emphasis to is that a woman of good taste will exercise it in order to avoid the bare ugliness and painful vulgarity of the ordinary “gallery,” and make it her careful study to render her surroundings as attractive and beautiful as possible. I must not be misunderstood as saying that the galleries of all photographic artists are ugly and vulgar in appearance, for I only want to say that with a little additional effort the usual photographic establishment can be made much more attractive and inviting to the public, also much more in harmony with art. I think that what I have said makes entirely plain the value is set upon making the studio inviting.

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The Studio’s Equipment and Its Cost

On a conservative estimate it would cost between one thousand and two thousand dollars to properly equip a photographic studio, if lenses, cameras, backgrounds and furnishings are to be bought. Even more than two thousand dollars can often be profitably spent, but that sum will secure a complete outfit.  Of course it is always possible to make a very modest beginning, but, in any event, some capital is needed until the work becomes known and the business reaches a paying basis.

In general, for the fitting of a studio I should recommend a good-sized—say eleven by fourteen inches—camera, with extension bellows adjusted to take various sized plates from cabinet size—five by seven inches—up; and with at least six of eight light plate-holders of each of the smaller sizes-the best portrait lens obtainable. Also two or three plain, rather than ornamental, backgrounds (a strip of seventy-two-inch gray felt, five yards long, stretched upon a light wooden movable frame, making an excellent ground for general use); and five or six pieces of furniture, such as chairs, benches and stools of good artistic design. By simple and effective belongings rather than the showy papier maché accessories and fussy wicker furniture, the injudicious use of which so frequently ruins an other wise beautiful portrait.

Sitters Before the Camera

As to the actual work under a skylight, only a few general hints may be given, as here each must “work out her own salvation.” Do not attempt to pose people, or to strain our sitters into uncomfortable or awkward position, in order to obtain picturesque effects. Watch them, and help them into poses that are natural and graceful. Study their individuality striving to keep the likeness, and yet endeavoring to show them at their best. Avoid emphasizing the peculiarities of a face either by lighting or pose; look for curves rather than angles for straight lines, and try to make the interest in the picture center upon what is most effective in your sitter. The one rule of lighting is never to have more than a single source of light. Many portraits, other wise good, are rendered very inartistic by being lighted for several different directions.

Another consideration of the first importance is not to permit portrait negatives to be over-retouched. It is not too much to say that this is the worst fault of the average professionals. Their work strikes the level of inanity because they consider it necessary to sandpaper all the character and individuality out of the faces of their sitters. In regard to the finished work I would strongly advise the use of only the best and most permanent printing processes. “Mounts” should be quiet and effective while correct taste, simplicity and a sense of the eternal fitness of things should be displayed in the matter of letter-heads, announcement cards and all other forms of advertising. The importance of this often —overlooked detail must be obvious to everyone.

The Business Side of Photography

Good work should command good prices, and the wise woman will place a paying values upon her best efforts. It is a mistaken business policy to try and build up trade by doing something badly cheaper than somebody else. As to your personal attitude, be businesslike in all your methods; cultivate tact, and affable manner, and an unfailing courtesy. It costs nothing but a little self-control and determination to be patient and good-natured under most circumstances. A pleasant, obliging and businesslike bearing will often prove the most important part of a clever woman’s capital.

By the judicious and proper exercise of that quality known as tact, a woman can, without difficulty (in fact, she can readily), manage to please and conciliate the great majority of her customers—even the most exacting ones. She may do this, too, without being very greatly imposed upon—without being imposed upon at all. Tact, I would emphasize, is a great factor in successfully conducting a photographic studio; it is, I suppose, a virtue to be cultivated by everyone who has dealings with the public, and who is brought to contact with people in whatever business or calling she may be engaged.

Above everything else be resourceful, doing your best with what you have until you are able to obtain what you would like. Resource, a good sense, a cultivated taste and hard work for a combination that seldom fails to success in a country like ours, where a woman needs only the courage to enter and profession suitable to her talents and within her powers of accomplishment.

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