What a mouthful of a title. It should really also have the subtitle “what pays isn’t always what’s popular or what I want to shoot” – but that would have exceeded the string length for post titles, run off onto three lines on the title, and completely ruined the front page design aesthetic of the site.
But I think there’s really no simple or concise way to express it. What sells/ what clients pay for is not always what is popular with the viewing public; in fact, it’s usually completely uncorrelated since the commercial side of things seldom elicits an emotional response in the way personal photographs do. And on top of that, what photographers actually enjoy photographing is seldom what pays – sometimes also because the nature of the subject matter means that it has no commercial value in the first place. So, as a commercial photographer, what do we do?
The images in this post are a mixture of what I consider to be amongst my best recent work at the time of writing; it’s difficult to say exactly what the absolute best is, simply because that’s a subjective question, and I’d like to think I’m continually improving. There are also commercial images that have either had high value or high client appreciation – I know both of those are equally nebuluous, but bear with me here. Finally, I’ve also taken the most popular images on flickr by number of favorites.
I personally find the commercial images a bit too stiff, formal and regular; that’s what the client wanted, but other than portraying things in a corporate-safe and clean manner, I think the images are too safe. Perhaps that’s the nature of the local market. Fortuantely, there is one exception to this – the workers of heavy metal (photoessays parts one and two) – that work I also found to be amongst my most personally satisfying. But clients like that certainly don’t come along every day. Let’s look at it a different way: you wouldn’t hang an advertising photo on your wall at home, would you?
By a similar token, photographs of gear, kittens and other random things might be popular online, but they have no commercial value: they don’t sell prints, nor do they even sell gear. They’re just voyeuristic, in a sense. But yet there must be some value there, otherwise people wouldn’t take the time and effort to view, share and ensure proliferation of the images. This is a disconnect in itself: how can something be popular but worthless*? Perhaps it’s the emotional connection – think family photos and moments – we’ll hang these, but other than the perfectly lit, made-up, politically-correct, contrived simulation of family life with angelic kids in a huge, modern, clean suburban house with parents out of a fashion spread, it doesn’t exist in the commercial world. Reality, it seems, is not aspirational.
*I’m not talking about photographic merit, though I believe frequently these kinds of images are lacking in that department, too. I certainly don’t think my most popular work on Flickr is my best, or even representative of what I shoot.
We then move on to the world of fine art photography: there’s commercial value, but what sells and fetches high prices (discussed not so long ago below the line in one of the other threads) certainly isn’t what’s necessarily popular. That market is made by those with skin in the game: you buy something, hype it up, then sell and make a profit. It has almost nothing to do with artistic merit – it just needs a good story to sell. In an ideal world, what works – both aesthetically and commercially – as fine art does so on the strength of the idea of the creator; here, personal and professional work must merge.
One notch down from that, we have smaller scale art – think print sales. Here, the disconnect widens: because we’re not talking about single pieces, the evaluation is somewhat more democratic; what people like, and what’s considered to be a strong/ impactful image is not necessarily what they’d also hang in their living room. Whilst I love Salgado’s work, I don’t think I’d like to wake up every morning to polio-stricken orphans in Africa. People who hang images have been found to prefer anything with strongly positive emotional connotations: landscapes, sunrises, flowers – or at best subjects that are aesthetically pleasing but neutral – e.g. abstract architectural geometry. This of course may or may not be what one enjoys photographing.
Taking things off on a slight tangent, we have this site: it’s all about photography, and ultimately, about the creation of better images. However, the posts that are the most popular – often by an order of magnitude or more – are those about equipment. Granted, the primary constituents of readership for the philosophical posts are not really the same demographic as the reviews, but it’s interesting to see that they too get caught up in the excitement. And needless to say: those who comment/ shout the loudest on the gear reviews are not the kind of people who attend workshops – if you think that some minute item on the spec sheet is going to dramatically improve your images, there’s something very wrong here**.
**In fact, most of my workshop participants are surprised by just how equipment-agnostic the syllabus is: all you need is a wide and a tele; doesn’t matter what it’s attached to.
If you’ve noticed a large range of variety – in subject matter, style, etc. between the images – that’s because there is. Fortunately, there’s a bit of overlap, but not by much. Closing that gap is something I debate about: would it be better try and sell the work I enjoy producing, or focus more on producing work that sells? I honestly don’t know if there’s a right answer to this question; there are advantages and disadvantages of both approaches. Needless to say, the commercial work has to be popular to be successful; as much as the client has the final say, their veto is affected very much by the response of their target market. Having some separation between personal and professional work means having other creative influences to draw on to produce something different, having the benefit of psychological separation between work and life, but on the flipside, possibly feeling frustrated or held back. Making it all one and the same makes things simpler, but at the same time, can take the fun out of it. In fact, it’s already happened to me: I no longer shoot watches for fun.
Personally, I’m increasingly enjoying photographing abstracts and still life; in some ways, that ties into the product photography I do; even if the techniques might cross over, the subject matter certainly doesn’t. Does the experimentation help with production of better images across the board? I’m pretty sure it does; but photographing urban street furniture, toilet bowls, piles of garbage, random lamps etc. is not going to pay the bills – at best, I might be able to sell a few prints. I can’t even put this stuff in the portfolio.
Perhaps it really boils down to being a question of balance, as well as ‘magic time^’ – as a professional photographer, one has to have a strong enough portfolio of the kinds of images that sell work; these images have to be unique enough that they stand out from the competition; and the only way to do that is to maintain your creative edge and keep experimenting. But you can’t do it on a job, because that would be at best risky and unprofessional, and at worst, a disaster. So you have to find time to shoot for yourself in a way that might perhaps have some tangential application to your commercial work; and needless to say, there have to be compromises made for popular tastes – unless you are an artist and willing to subsist of ramen.
^Consulting-speak for the hours that are required to make something happen that the client isn’t billed for, or is billed for but are impossible to exist on the calendar due to petty considerations like sleep etc.
Maybe that’s the endgame: one’s personal work has to be the advanced force recon team, and the professional work is the infantry. There’s always a bit of lag, and information from one influences the path of the other – but ultimately, both generally need to go in the same direction. Unless you’re schitzophrenic, of course. MT
For those professionals in the audience, I’d be curious to hear: does your personal work match your professional work? Or does it diverge enormously? How do you stay sharp? Please leave your thoughts in a comment below…
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