Shooting for yourself, part two

Continued from part one.

I’m wondering where the happy medium between the pro and amateur camp lies; the pro has to be both, and the amateur wants to be a pro (usually) – until reality intervenes. It’s too easy for pros to slip into the ‘shoot only for pay’ mindset, and lose their sense of personal style and creative edge – which is probably what made them successful in the first place. And by the same token, it’s easy enough for amateurs to get a little paid work here and there, and either be disillusioned about how easy it is to make a living out of it, or not realize that doing too much of something can take the joy out of things very quickly. (If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading my advice for photographers thinking of turning pro.)

The period of non-shooting got me thinking: I need to spend some time being an amateur, doing work for myself, and then find some way of linking that into my commercial work so that the two don’t diverge too far. I suppose there has to be commercial potential in the personal work that elements of style could translate over into something people would pay for. Or perhaps this is a load of bull: personal work should reflect the personality and thoughts of the individual, and those are never the same as those of the corporate, therefore making it impossible. The short conclusion is, I just don’t know. But I’d like to figure it out, because it doesn’t feel natural for me to be two different photographers most of the time.

I’m finding of late that there are some jobs I just have to turn down because they don’t make sense from a creative standpoint; there’s no point doing them for referrals or portfolio, because those aren’t the kinds of subjects I want to shoot; I just don’t have any affinity to them, or the market here is already a bit of a disaster. (We’re talking events and portraits – get known for the wrong thing, and it’s very easy to have your career pigeonholed and limited in this country.) The frustrating thing of course is that I do need the work, but I don’t think it’s worth taking the long term career risk. After all, the whole point of attempting photography as a career was to avoid having to do things I disliked; if I’m going to sell out, I might as well do it to the highest bidder.

In mid-March, I was in Japan for a few days. Originally, I’d intended to use the time to test  and review some cameras both for this site and other partners; coincidentally, the timing on all of those fell through, which meant that I was pretty much free to do as I pleased. In hindsight, it was probably a good thing because I was quickly approaching the point of being jaded and just generally uninterested in shooting. I brought the Hasselblad, wandered around, made some images, and for the first time in ages (at least until I went back to the hotel to deal with the usual daily email deluge) felt that I was actually taking a break – both creatively and personally. It sounds odd, but up to this point, I don’t think I’d fully appreciated the value of a holiday – in both the ‘you’re-not-working’ sense and the mental freedom associated with it. (Or perhaps I’d always just had the kind of job which comes with a Blackberry and the expectation that you’re always on call for some sort of PowerPoint emergency*.)

*I think the blinking red light on top was specifically designed to condition a Pavlovian response to new email, and have people working 24/7. It’s the modern form of a handcuff. The one thing I like about the iPhone is that I can choose when I read my mail.

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The bridge, I: a commercial job shot in the style of my recent personal work, on medium format film. The client is a heavy engineering company.

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The bridge, II: same client, same job. I can say that I’m happy with the results on both a personal and professional level.

One recent job – still in progress pending some other products being complete and ready for documentation – allowed me to converge the two. I’m glad I had the opportunity to work with this client, because I was given complete creative carte blanche. Admittedly, several things made me nervous – the style, the use of film for a commercial job, the anxiety of not knowing if they’d like the results – but I’m pleased to report so far, so good. Perhaps there is a commercial future for me in convergence after all. That reminds me, it’s probably about high time I updated the portfolio again to reflect what I’m doing now.

To the amateurs: Photograph so long as you enjoy it. When it becomes a chore, stop. There’s no point because you’re not going to produce something you like that way.

To the pros: Remember to take time out, and yes, we have to make a living out of this, but in the long run if you’re photographing as somebody else: it’s not sustainable.


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  1. Chris Searle says:

    I absolutely love the whole process of taking photographs for myself and have absolutely zero desire to turn my passion into ‘work’. In fact I am extremely happy if someone likes my output and everybody and anybody is welcome to use any image I make and put on Flickr. Now I do realise that this attitude is a little disquieting for those who want/need to make money from photography, however as none of my work is of commercial value I really do think this is an issue. I only wish that this link between the art and practice of photography and ‘making it pay’ were not so evident on (almost) every forum and blog as I feel that the vast majority of ‘serious amateurs’ have no need or desire sell their work, enjoyment of the discipline coming from the satisfaction of making an image that pleases.

    • You can’t have the freedom to make photographs for yourself without other considerations and compromise unless you’re commercial or independently wealthy.

  2. randomesquephoto says:

    I love the philosophy in the dialogue of the comments. 🙂

  3. Pete Johnson says:

    Hi Ming, one thing you said in the article brought a thought to mind. You stated portraits (if I read it correctly) as one of the things you are not interested in commercially speaking. Having viewed your site for some time I have come to love and look forward to your images of people in their surroundings. I would think that there could be a market for “portraiture” done in the style you do so well, people in everyday urban settings. A lot of creative possibilities and, who knows, maybe some revenue to boot?

    • I think that goes more towards the editorial/ photojournalism side of things, which I did do for a while; unfortunately, it doesn’t pay.

      • Pete Johnson says:

        Ming, I stated that poorly. I was wondering if people would be interested in having portraits of themselves in “their” familiar surroundings such as a tailor in their shop doing what their lives are immersed in. It would be documentary in a true sense but on a very personal level for the client. It would be capturing a moment in time of their life for them. Not a practical idea, I guess, just a thought. The people who would like this type of image are probably not the ones who could afford it.

        • On the contrary, it’s a great idea – the problem is convincing people here to pay for it. I think part of the greater problem is that I very much live in the wrong country.

  4. Ming, thank you for an excellent, thought-provoking set of posts. I have found your blog to be the “perfect storm” of philosophy, photography, equipment, and art. It sounds like you are ready to “take it to the next level” by taking a sabbatical and I appreciate you letting us in on that. Out of this come great things. Don’t hold back. Meanwhile, the thoughts you’ve generated:

    Ideally, Commercial v. Art should never end with an either/or choice, but rather be a continuing dialectic. Once we choose one path over the other, we tend to lose our soul – or our relevance. I’ve found that the world I live in (the need to support myself and others) forces me to creatively seek options for expression – until I give in to either path. Looking back over the years, I’m glad I stayed within this struggle (not without some serious help from family and friends) as it has led to unexpected discoveries and, ultimately, my best work. On that note, pleasing seemingly inane, ignorant clients sucks. So here are two lessons I’ve learned to keep my sanity and have some measure of success (with still a long way to go in both):

    #1) Ultimately, there comes a time in your career when you stop asking your client (or paying attention to) what product or “output” they think they want (they don’t have a clue – which is why they always choose safe) and instead (here’s the most difficult part), really, truly understand the problem they are grappling with.

    #2) creatively present to them a solution to that problem.

    Guess which one is most difficult?

    This requires me to let go of my expertise as my main front to my clients and instead focus in on the messy human aspects of their situation using empathy, patience, sensitivity, questioning and perception. In other words, really truly knowing the people in the room beyond their role as clients. If that seems so out-of-reach/implausible, as an artist, isn’t this what we do with our subject when no one else sees what we see? So rather than only apply our creativity to our “product”, bring it into “the room” as well. Find the essential; focus on that. Present back addressing the essential. You won’t win every time. You may frighten people. But you will be respected. You will be doing your art in unexpected places. And you will get paid.

    • You’re weldom.

      1. That would be ideal, but when you get emails showing you some extremely poorly done HDR/ compositing and asking you to produce similar work because it looks ‘more lively’, you can only hope to try to educate the client and then if not, use your tripod to beat yourself senseless. This kind of thing has zero artistic integrity and is really no better than selling your soul.

      2. We try! It seems that I’m doing more and more non-photography related things in this vein to try and differentiate myself since it seems the local market is rather quality-indifferent. I’m even consulting on interior and product design…

      I think a large part of ‘success’ – or at least getting paid – is being in the right market for your skillset. I am seriously considering emigrating given a) the near complete inability of clients here to differentiate quality and solely making engagements based on price; b) the socio-political climate, but that’s another story altogether.

  5. Ultimately, after doing shooting several jobs and looking at what interests me vs what has a market, I decided not to actively seek out paying photography clients. Somewhere above you made a comment to the effect that if you were going to be doing something you didn’t like, might as well sell to the highest bidder. In my case (and probably most people’s cases) I can easily make much more from non-photography endeavors than I can from photography. Even if I was at the top of the photography game I probably still would not make as much as I do now doing non-photography work and I would likely have to compromise a great deal. I always thought it was funny in the past when people would talk like that and I would tease them about being a snobby artist. But after going through it myself I totally get it and see that it doesn’t have anything to do with being snobby. So if it comes down to doing something I don’t enjoy 100%, I would rather do that through non-photography endeavors and keep photography as something that I do 100% for me, without compromising the experience or enjoyment.

    • There’s no snobbery involved whatsoever: it’s simply impossible to force creativity on demand. There have been several countries that have tried to replicate the success of Silicon Valley by setting up the same infrastructure, trying to teach ‘creativity’, then incentivising it – notably, Malaysia and Singapore – both have bombed because nobody who’s running the program has the faintest idea what are the key drivers for creativity, let alone any creative abilities of their own…

  6. As I walked though my office building to get to my room, I noticed all kinds of art on the walls – photographs, paintings, woodblock prints, charcoal sketches – (yes, it is a large building). I wondered how all that art work was accumulated, and how it got there.

    It seems to me that you want to develop a market for your work in the museum and interior decoration space. It seems to me that one thing to do is to find some interior decoration firms who decorate office spaces, give them some private exhibitiions, and come to some deal with them, even if it means leasing or selling prints of some of your photographs for only a small fee. Initially your goal is that many eyeballs see your art, and if people have a taste for it, eventually they will be happy to pay.

    • Yes and no – commoditizing your work to the point that it becomes spread over lots of walls also devalues it. There is also value in scarcity, especially if you are trying to maintain a premium. You can’t justify charging clients rate X if they can buy similar images to hang for a fraction of that – and unless the volume makes up for it, you’ve just shot yourself in the foot.

  7. Thank you again for you thoughts! I saddens me to read that some people take you work on the blog for granted!
    I truly appreciate reading most of you blog post (the reviews usually don’t interests me) and I really enjoy you photo essays.
    It is though your blog that I have learned and now understand that equipment really isn’t the most important thing when photographing.

  8. I love your images. Could you talk about how you process these black and white conversions? Any secret sauce? 😉

  9. Jan van Bellen says:

    You could’ve given the first picture to you your client and he might not ‘get’ it and say: Yeah, no, we’re looking for something different here. But personally, you might really think it’s the best one and should be used. You could spend an amount of time educating him to the point where he agrees with you (considering he’s got the same taste) and he might answer: Well, if you could educate the people we would show this beautiful picture to… Not going to happen.
    My point, I think, is: teaching can be tiring, unless you get to see the results of that, which you in 90% of the cases don’t. Learning can be recharging.
    You’re at a level were you’ve got a lot of people to tire yourself on and few to recharge yourself on.
    Hoping everything works out in the end!

    • We try, but usually they stick with what they had in mind. It’s only when the clients have no expectations/ preconceptions that one gets away with something different.

  10. Neil Hoyte says:

    There is a possible argument in considering just how much art there is in photography,whether the art that there is could quite easily be left inside ones head rather than pressing a couple of buttons to let those brief sensations of artistry leak out.That decision is personal but I do wonder if the art of photography has lost something from digitalis almost complete lack of human contact.

    • Surely something is lost of the art isn’t shared, though?

      • What would happen if you took a holiday from “sharing” and photographed literally only for yourself for awhile, not allowing others (except maybe your wife?) view the results? Maybe a break from the public aspect of your art would help.

        When I write words I know I will never share with anyone else, I feel totally free from the burden words can be (to a paid writer, as I am).

        There’s a French film from the 1990s, La belle noiseuse, in which a famous painter is inspired to get out of a “rut” by a young woman he meets by chance and paints intensely for a period of time. We the audience and the painter’s friends expect to see a masterpiece but in the end the painter seals up the portrait — which, it’s implied, is sensationally intimate — behind a wall in his studio and shows a very different painting that preserves the young woman’s modesty, in every sense of the word. The point is that the man painted what could have been his “chef d’oeuvre” only for himself, and that act and process, we are asked to believe, was essential to his art.

        • Actually, so long as it’s not for a paying client, I do photograph for myself. I delete what I’m not fully happy with, and keep only that which I am.

          • Oh yes, you did tell us this already. I only meant to reply in a kind of out-of-context way to your thought about something being lost if the art isn’t shared. (I don’t necessarily think it is.)

            I was imagining a kind of artist’s retreat from viewers — even from us, your loyal readers — to recharge the batteries. Of course someone or something has to pay for such freedom. What about an artist’s residency?

            • Perhaps ‘lost’ is the wrong word – how about ‘not appreciated’? Though I suppose the creator is the ultimate gatekeeper and appreciator of their creations.

              Artists’ residencies don’t exist in this part of the world. For the most part people here buy art because it makes them look cultured or has some status attached to it, not because they have any particular interest or understanding in it. This of course means there’s also no money for artists…any retreats I might happen to have would have to be self-funded 🙂

  11. Make sure you do take some real time off, Ming. With all your photography work, this blog, your marketing efforts, etc. it’s really easy to burn yourself out. I work in a different creative field and realized that’s where I was a year ago — the first thing to go when you’re too stressed or tired is the creative drive. I don’t know your personal situation, but I’m just saying to take care of yourself 🙂

    About the balance between personal and commercial work, I think there are 3 ways to do the work (this is based on my experience outside of photography, but I think it applies here as well). 2 of those are less than ideal, the third is the best but hardest to achieve.

    1- You do the work purely for the money. The goal is to maximize revenue, so most people taking this approach will do the least amount of work for the largest amount of money. A lot of companies in many fields work like this. It’s profitable, but clients end up less than happy and the work has no real artistic merit.

    2- You do the work purely for the art. The goal is to maximize the artist’s creative expression, so this approach tends to ignore the client’s need and focus in the quality of the work itself. A lot of artists take this approach, which is self-centered. It results in beautiful, unique work that doesn’t pay the bills because it’s too personal (so the only person who would pay for it is the artist himself)

    The problem with these two approaches is that they’re focused on the service provider (the photographer, in this case) and not on the client. In both cases the work is done to please the photographer (with money or creative expression) and not to really please the client. So this brings us to the third approach, which I think is the best:

    3- You do the work to surprise and delight the client. The goal is to maximize the client’s satisfaction by understanding his needs (possibly better than himself) and crafting something of great quality that answers those needs in a wonderful way. This way you still do work that’s meaningful and of high quality because that’s what will delight your client, but you can also get good pay because the work fits the needs of somebody who can pay for it. Think of Apple making the iPhone: it was expensive, but millions of people were willing to pay that price because it was a high quality product that improved their life rather than a cheap unusable phone that was made to maximize corporate profits. This approach is also the hardest, because it requires really understanding how somebody else thinks and taking a chance doing efforts beyond what’s required.

    TL; DR: Don’t work hard, do hard work: don’t kill yourself doing lots of low value work, but rather do high value work that nobody else can provide.

    • I think you summed it up perfectly in the last line. I try, and usually manage when the client is willing to take another point of view, but often they’re so set and narrow that they only want exactly what they contracted – and that’s when you run into the creative rut.

      But yes, I need a real break. And soon. One with no e-devices, and maybe not even a camera, preferably. I think there are a few photographers who do just this to recharge every year…

  12. I have been reading your blog with interest since I discovered it several months ago (researching the Leica M 240) and have found that many of your articles have a certain down to earth viewpoint that I find very refreshing. This current series has really gotten me thinking, As most pros probably know finding yourself in the doldrums, where the challenge and excitement of our work is a little on the low side, is an occupational hazard. Fortunately for me, I have been a staff photographer for 15 years at the same agency, and do not have to wonder where my next paycheck is coming from. But I feel that same security is making me lazy, knowing the type of images the client needs and shooting only to those requirements is a constant temptation. Years ago I always carried a camera with me, then as my personal photography began to look a lot like my professional work, I stopped carrying the camera around. It’s not that I lost interest in making images, I desperately wanted to create images that I could call mine, but everything was looking the same. Things turned around for me when I picked up a used M8, and for the first time in a long time I was challenged with creating images that to me seemed fresh. Finding myself actually engaging with my subjects and going from the telephoto lens on a DSLR mentality to the somewhat archaic 35mm perspective of the Leica was invigorating, and I know that my work began to show it. I now find that I have two distinct tracks of image types, even if they are of the same subject, those that are for the client, and those that I shoot for me. Interestingly enough, many times the client prefers those images I shot just for me…

  13. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Glad to hear this Ming!

    Whenever I hear about some creative person succeding in going his own way,
    it is always by word of mouth, not by advertising.

    So for each creative-minded customer you find…
    (I mean, he would associate with others.)

    And Ming, your enterprise is still rather young…

    ( A friend of mine started a web business alone ( a few years ago, making very non-standard stuff. Now he employs 5 or 6 people. Word of mouth. )

  14. I don’t have any awkward prose or analysis. Thank you for writing. I hope this article was carthartic for you. I hope many aspiring pros or pros feeling drained will gather insight and inspiration from your words.

  15. Interesting article and thoughts, thanks for both parts. Oh and the images here are really good, but you always show good work, personal or not.

    I know you don’t like taking portraits that much, but if you can make them as personal a story like Phil Toledano did with then that could turn out as a commercial success as well – even if he has the whole thing online and for free, I still had to buy that book. It *is* that good. Even our 8 year old loves it.

    • I’m really not a portrait person. I think to make a great portrait you need to know the subject on a personal level, and that is unfeasible for most assignments. It’s like any subject: to do a good job capturing its essence, you have to first figure out what that essence is.

  16. The only way is to unite your artistical and “professional” lifes.

  17. Consider other professionally creative fields. Is there something about the market for photography that causes professional vs. personal work to diverge so quickly and disadvantageously? Is the tendency worse than in other fields? How do interior designers, architects, or industrial design engineers who love their art/craft continue to develop themselves and remain creative while making a business by simultaneously “selling themselves” and their services?

    • I have no idea, but from the few I’ve spoken to, they all face the same problem. It’s probably why there are plenty of average-grade pros, and few truly outstanding ones – the former fight the divergence, and the latter just don’t have it.

  18. Tim Fisher says:

    Yes, a load o’ bull.
    If your tax return says, ‘Photographer’ you are a professional.
    All professional photographers need and shoot non commercial personal work.
    However, I would caution you against doing it 52 weeks a year or you become a bore, and probably an obese one at that!
    Witness the hours we now spend in front of monitors. Yuk!
    Go ride your bike 8hrs+a week, likewise walk, swim, why are you not competing in triathalons (?), play with your kids. Your wife did not marry you only to be a camera widow.
    Do you own the camera or does it you?
    Find balsnce or the whole thing unravels without you ever comprehending why you have put on so much weight, you sre singke sgain and you have lost all interest in what you once did for the joy of it.

    • Far too much monitor time, that’s for sure – be it for personal work or pro work. No kids and I have metabolism like a black hole, so no worries about obesity for the moment. But I get your point entirely.

    • MI Photographer says:

      I do photography for fun, but the monitor time is the reason I took so long to get back into it after I quit shooting film years ago.

      90% of what I love about photography is getting out of my seat and moving around outside. My day job requires way to much PC time so I can’t stand importing/managing/editing my photos after I shoot. Maybe if I went pro it might be better because actual sitting time would be less even if photo management time would increase.

      Also, for many of us amateurs such as myself considering turning pro, statements such as, “Going pro means work, being bored, frustrated, etc” don’t scare me off too easily. After all, it IS work, right? Let me tell you about how boring and stressful making financial reports and spreadsheets sitting at a desk for hours on end, and how that will stifle creativity and your health.

      Work is work. You need to keep yourself fresh and updated in order to succeed year after year.

      Appreciate the article.

      • Actually, I spent ten years in finance/ M&A, so I know exactly how stressful reports and spreadsheets are. And slides. Endless mountains of slides. But at least you had the illusion of a secure paycheck at the end of the month, which isn’t the case if you work for yourself.

        • And there is the reason why I probably don’t make the leap.
          However….what I have noticed about middle aged seasoned people in my position is that job security in a traditional environment becomes less secure. The longer you stay in a position, the more costly you become to the company. How many times can one keep getting pay raises (small, but add up over time) and be worth the same as a younger person starting at the bottom of the scale? Eventually striking out on your own becomes less of a risk.

          • That’s true. And in the modern corporate economy – there’s almost no such thing as job security anyway, just the illusion of it. Perhaps it’s even worse than working for yourself because at least in the latter situation, you’re prepared for the unexpected, whereas if you’re used to drawing the same paycheck every month, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of allocating spending for monies that haven’t yet arrived…

  19. Thank You Ming! Here is to clients that appreciate your considerable style.

  20. bertram eiche says:

    It took a while to regain the status of an amateur.
    I’m happy about that.
    In the end it pays off.
    My pro-work is more fun that way.

    • That’s a very interesting and true way of putting it…amateurs have the luxury of shooting for themselves, without the pressure of diverging client demands to their own interests…

      • Philip Millenbah says:

        I think of Andy Warhol. He was the most famous graphic artist in New York when he decided to become an “artist”. I am sure if you asked him what the difference was between his commercial work and his “art” he would say “none”.

  21. Thank you for your thoughts Ming.
    It has made me realise a question for myself:
    When is Photography an Art or a Process?
    In commercial reality, for photographers who’s photographic income contributes to their living costs (rather than more gear) they have found or are trying to find a balance between these.
    Kind regards,

  22. John Cameron says:

    Best post yet. I was hoping you’d get to this spot.

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