In search of the unicorn

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Nope, that’s not it.

The ideal [insert your obsession of choice here] doesn’t exist.

We all like to think ‘if only…’ and it might. Whether it’s cameras, clients, light or partners, there’s always something that could be better. Perhaps this is a reflection of the consumerist and entitled nature of modern society as a whole, or perhaps it merely shows that we as people are always changing. Ironically, it is this very ‘if only’ that keeps things interesting: if you were to make the ideal image (in your own mind, and subject to the constraints of personal bias) of whatever you framed whenever you pressed the shutter, you’d quickly run out of possible subjects. It is not a bad thing at all that a) everybody has different opinions and b) we ourselves are in a state of constant flux. I know for certain that I approach familiar subjects like family or watches very differently now than from when I did previously. But there is perhaps such a thing as ‘good enough’ – better than 80/20, certainly – and we should probably know when to appreciate it. Today’s post is going to be looking at the business side of photography.

At the risk of doing a U-turn and contradicting myself, I’d actually venture to say that the ideal client does exist. It’s different for everybody. It isn’t necessarily National Geographic*, either. And during the course of the last three-plus years, I’ve been lucky enough to have that opportunity happen at least half a dozen times. Aside from the (mostly) fictional clients from hell, a lot of assignment work is mostly routine and repetitive. You might be shooting hundreds of watches for a catalog in identical poses, or trying to work around poor weather and limited time. I would say these are challenging because there’s some restriction that keeps you from knocking one out of the park – and you know it.

*Not to be arrogant, but if such an assignment came along I’d probably have to turn it down unless it was an urban assignment – between my young family, having to have an internet connection for at least 4-5 hours a day, and other business interests, the tradeoffs to spend several months in a jungle hunting down one particular species would probably not be workable.

Every professional has different priorities when it comes to client expectations – perhaps budgets and prompt payment are paramount; perhaps it’s organising logistics, or access, or getting the right team. Perhaps it’s the subject and the company/client itself. But to me, the most important thing is creative freedom. I’ve always felt that it does not make sense to hire a creative professional on the strength of their portfolio only to then dictate what they should create – this completely defeats the point of hiring a creative at all. The reason you hired them in the first place is because you presumably liked their work, and that work was strong enough to move you. Not allowing them to work in their own way means they will not be able to deliver this kind of work for your assignment. I’ve had this happen to me on more than one occasion; once the client turned and became even more restrictive and landed up not liking the results – short of saying ‘I told you so’, there’s not much you can do – and a couple of times I was able to shoot some tests and convince them to allow me a bit more latitude.

However, the onus must also partially fall back onto the photographer: if you present a portfolio of work that was client-commissioned and not of your own creative direction, then you only have yourself to blame if the client wants you to do something you disagree with creatively. There is no way the client can read your mind since you didn’t show your ‘own’ creative chops to begin with! Photographers who complain about only ever getting clients who want them to shoot unimaginatively should really a) stop complaining that they have work to begin with, and b) look closely at not just the kind of work they are submitting as proposal portfolios, but also the kind of work they have visible online (and are credited for). I am very, very careful to only submit images that I am 100% happy with from a creative standpoint as prospective portfolios, or upload, or be credited for. Images that I would rather not be credited for I’m very clear about also: I don’t want to be known for doing straight catalog work, for instance. (This of course does not mean I would turn it down, either).

In this way it is somewhat possible to have some influence on the scope of work you might be commissioned for. And the more you do it, the more it tends to be self-reinforcing – my last three jobs have all had effectively open creative briefs, without art directors, and with a level of trust from my client that is both humbling and incredibly daunting.

An open creative brief is by no means the free pass that many laypeople or inexperienced ‘pros’ would think. You now have an even higher level of expectation, because the client hired you on the basis of a set of (presumably) extremely tightly curated images spanning a large body of work and long amount of time. They are the best of the best, work which you believe you cannot better given time or resources. Your client was suitably impressed and believes – trusts – that you can do the same for them, whatever the subject may be. However, the simple reality is that your assignment is not going to last years, you are not going to have the luxury of photographing only the things that inspire you, and even after discounting positive biases towards one’s own product or service – at the end of the day, you still have to deliver very close to the level you presented. I think it’s easy to see why this is nowhere near as simple as you would expect.

Compounding that, if you’re the kind of person who values creativity over everything else, you’re probably also going to be your own worst critic. This is good seeing your bar is going to be higher than your client’s, but I can say from firsthand experience that it can also be somewhat demoralising if you cannot produce images that you instantly want to append to your portfolio – even if rationally, this is a completely unrealistic expectation. I’ve had times when I felt I delivered 90% of what I could have done under ‘ideal’ circumstances – meaning I wasn’t fully happy – but the client was. As an artist, you don’t want to deliver anything and perhaps have a large alcoholic beverage. As a businessperson, you should celebrate. As a professional photographer – for which one really has to wear both hats – you use it to get another opportunity to deliver 100%.

I think this will sound odd, but I actually like this feeling. The knowledge that there is something left to push and something more you can probably do to get a better image keeps you going. The open brief and pressure to deliver creatively means that even though you might shoot some ‘insurance’ images, you’re also going going to push yourself even further in search of that unicorn image. I know it’s why I keep shooting. MT


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  1. Thank you Ming. As always, intelligent and enjoyable.

  2. If I ever produce my best-image-ever, it would be time to quit after that, because every following image would pale in comparison. I suppose that’s something that keeps some of us going, the idea that we can continue to grow, learn and produce better work as our creative profession continues.

    • Yep. That’s my attitude too – I’ve often been asked what my best images is, and it’s always got to be the next one. Not the same question as favorite to date of course…

  3. Well, I’m not a professional photographer (this’ll get me chased out of this comments section for sure), but I am and have been for over 32 years a lawyer. I have clients (fortunately), and along the way I have picked up a few things. One of them is to never look down on a client; they pay my bills and deserve my respect, whatever the job is. Another one is that through the years I have developed a “vision” of the sort of work that challenges me and that I enjoy, and that goes (far) beyond the sort of legalese black magic/gibberish that a lot of lawyers like to engage in. I (try to) analyze, anticipate and prevent problems and provide solutions that often go beyond the legl domain. Sometimes I’m so arrogant as to think that my “vision” should prevail over any that the client might have. It is of course my duty and a challenge to convince and persuade him of the “superior” value of my vision.

    The unicorn, in the sense of that ideal collaboration between client and lawyer (or photographer) is an elusive beast; it’s never quite fully there, you have to keep chasing it.

    On the material side? Of course the ideal, unicorn camera exists! I’ve just found it! And it’s not my D810 (preceded by the 800 and /E), it’s my 25 year old FM2n, which does everything it was designed for in the most accessible, easy, dependable way imagineable. It’s an extension of my eye and my right hand. So, ideal. Well, except for that “clank” of the shutter/mirror assembly. A result of the combination of lighter chassis (than the F2AS, which goes “clack”, loudly) and ageing foam strips in the mirrorbox?

    • The funny thing is I’ve had more ‘unicorn’ creative collaborations than hardware moments. Enough to make me think that it isn’t so much a unicorn as merely an endangered species – that is A Very Good Thing. 🙂

      I’m very partial to my Hassy 501CM and F2 Titan, though.

      • Good for you; glad to hear that. Lawyers are (still) often seen as rather unwanted expenses; flunkies. I have to put a lot of effort into being more than that, which makes the unicorn position harder to achieve. But it’s doable. If it weren’t I wouldn’t still be in this business.

        And about the cameras? There’s something so timelessly irresistible about well designed, well made mechanical “tools”.

        • I have to say we lucked out with the lawyer who’s handling our house move – there were a lot of complex issues on the seller’s side, which have delayed things by more than six months but fortunately have been resolved. Without him, I think the deal would have been a no go. So, I do not at all regret the fees…and if anybody needs a conveyancing or property lawyer in KL, let me know. 🙂

  4. This is a sore spot for me. To suggest it’s always the photographer is not true. I have had a string of jobs where they have hired me, based on a very tight proposal and portfolio of images with a defined aesthetic, then the client wants you to do something totally different after the hiring, after the contract has been signed, and also at times after the shoot. I am well known for a certain kind of work; I’m booked for that. Then, there are some who want me to do something different, even after we have spent a month in meetings over it and everyone being in agreeance. It seems for some, the more they pay you, the more their ego wants to control and/or you. Sometimes, it’s as simple as certain people in the project team just can not work well with people. They have a lack of respect, a lack of experience, their own agenda, some just like to trip others up to make themselves look better, the list is long and it’s a minefield. Sometimes, it simply comes down to an animalistic power play, they want to own your ass because they’re paying a lot for you, or worse, it’s just their personality. It becomes difficult in business because it always is, and should be, 50/50.

    Dream clients exist, they understand you and your work, they book you for something relevant, but mostly, they are simply good with working with people. They treat with respect and understand creative process, they understand collaboration and 50/50. These clients are the unicorn but they are seemingly becoming more rare, and I treat them like gold.

  5. Gerner Christensen says:

    I assume a unicorn camera would be the camera you are most happy to shoot with. The hunt for the unicorn shot will always be the driver behind packing the gear and on you go for the hunt. There is perhaps more than just one unicorn image for us and it would always be the next and better one. Just imagine we got that shot of all times and stopped photographing for good .. well that would be unthinkable.

  6. The horse might not be the unicorn, but I wonder if the place is..

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