Monday, March 17, 2008

Going Pro - Shoot What You Love!

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned since I dropped everything and started shooting full time about a year ago:

Learning who you are as a photographer, what you like to shoot, and how you like to shoot it, is the first and most important step you can take into the world of professional photography. Learn what you love, shoot what you love, and then figure out how to make money shooting subjects you're passionate about. You don't have to shoot weddings for a living if you don't like dealing with in-laws. No matter what the subject is, chances are there's a market for it somewhere. The more you shoot, the quicker you'll discover what you're really passionate about, and if you're passionate about something, chances are you'll find a way to translate that passion into great photos!

It's a lot easier to create photographs that evoke feeling if the subject you're shooting evokes feeling in you. Photographers don't just share what they see - they share what they feel, even if that feeling is detachment or apathy. Those things translate in your photographs.

There are benefits aside from creating better photos. If you're shooting subjects you're passionate about, you're less likely to get burned out doing the busywork that goes along with professional photography. I spend most of my week at the computer, editing photos, drumming up new business, scheduling shoots, networking, estimating, billing, accounting, hiring, etc... Shooting is just a small part of what a photographer must do to earn a living. It helps if your shooting time rejuvenates you and gives you a sense that everything you did to land and produce that gig was worthwhile.

Before I took up photography full time, I was running an MP3 blog on electronic music and producing nightlife events. I wanted a professional photographer to come take photos of the events, and I had a hard time finding somebody I could count on to do a good job, so I started bringing my own camera and taking photos for myself. When other people noticed that I had a pretty good camera, they started to hire me to shoot their events, and when I started making more money at that than I was with my other work, I dropped it all and made the switch.

At first, I thought, "Okay, now I'm a professional photographer. How do other photographers make money?" I considered weddings, high-end portraiture, tourist photography, etc... At that point, I was willing to do whatever it took to rake in the money, so I started developing a portfolio of product photography, family portraits, lifestyle photos, fashion, you name it! I was all over the map, because I thought I had to be.

But I kept going to nightlife events and taking photos there. At first, I thought of the nightlife photos a personal project. And then one day it hit me -- "Hey! There's money in this!"

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I can go to the shows, enjoy the music I love, work with a network of people who have become like family to me, and make money doing it. Why did it take me so long to figure that out?

Shooting what you love also helps to differentiate you from the swarms of other photographers competing for art buyer dollars. Art buyers don't want to see what you might think is safe and sellable. They want to see what makes you special and unique. Get edgy if edgy is your thing. Love sports? Get out there and start shooting sports! Cars? Motorcycles? Landscapes? Macros? Your tastes and passions define your style as a photographer. They make you special in the eyes of art buyers. Don't hide them!

Rob Haggart recently interviewed an anonymous art buyer from a big shot agency who had this to say:

A good photographer has their own style and can’t shoot anything. Nor should they want to…because they’re so good at whatever it is that they’ve focused on, that they’re not shooting everything. Take any great legendary photographer, they didn’t shoot everything, they had a particular style, focus, interest, and then made it their own. When you look at these photos, that’s how you know it’s theirs and not anyone else. Photographers reading this should ask themselves “are they passionate about what they’re shooting and do they recognize the difference of their own work compared to someone else?”

Having read Elyse Weissberg's Successful Self-Promotion for Photographers, and listened to a sample photography consultation with Leslie Burns-Dell’Acqua, I can tell you that one of the first things that consultants for professional photographers emphasize is the importance of highlighting your unique vision in your portfolio. You can't do that unless you trust yourself enough to be true to your own style and career goals. Try to imagine your dream job, and then focus your portfolio on landing that job. In the linked interview, Clay Stang made the mistake of saying, "but realistically..." and Leslie's reply was revelatory and inspirational:

"What you're doing by being a successful creative is violating all the rules of business already, so forget about realism."

The median photographer's wage is only $26,170, yet PDN reports that there are many photographers making quite a bit more than that. I assert that what separates the average photographer from the successful photographer is that successful photographers believe in dreams. Speaking of dream jobs, I have a photo shoot with Tommy Lee tonight. I'd better wrap this up and get ready for it.

The bottom line is, you're an artist, and art generally sucks when it isn't genuine.

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