Creative development for working pros

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The Crawick Multiverse, Scotland. Part of one of my most satisfying commissions from 2015

Here’s a serious consideration for all working professional photographers: how do you ensure your work stays fresh? We face several challenges. Firstly, unlike those in conventional employment, there is no obvious career development path; no HR department or performance review officer to ensure you attend the right courses to (supposedly) give you the right skill set for the next position up the ladder. Secondly, our clients almost always hire us on the basis of our portfolios: this is work we’ve already done, i.e. historical. It would be nice to be hired on the basis of imagining what we could do, but for obvious reasons, this is unfeasible. At very best, we are hired based on what we might do for a client in a given situation which might be outside our current scope of experience, but still based on an extrapolation of what have previously done.

I think it’s clear that the challenge comes from the fact that everything we do in the future is based on expectations of the past. It’s also the reason why any portfolio we present to a prospective client must be based on work we want to do and feel represents us creatively now; if it’s based on a wide cross section of work that also includes things we’ve done because we need to put food on the table, then this is probably not going to yield the kind of clients you want. In reality, it becomes very difficult to submit or propose something entirely different if we have not already done it. And though we may be able to convince some very trusting clients, this has become an uphill battle in the current environment of increasingly curtailed budgets – there simply isn’t time or money for an extra day or props to experiment on something that may not yield returns which your counterparts can justify to their bosses.

If your pitch portfolio has to be full of the sort of work you want to do, then you must have some examples; to have those examples, you must have actually shot the photographs (even if not for a paying client, though of course better if they were). By extension, the existence of the image implies that you know what you’re doing and are capable of replicating it if required*. The more your own personal vision diverges from your historical commercial work to date, the more time you’re going to have to set aside to build a portfolio that is representative of that.

*Never mind the fact that almost every photographic situation is different, and repeatability can never be guaranteed. The biggest challenge is architecture: it’s so weather dependent that you may not even ever be able to get the same shot of the same building again.

I suppose this is the closest we get to investment and training in this business: we spend time and sometimes production budget in making images we feel represent our own vision and style, and hope there’s some payoff later when a client commissions something similar. Of course, it’s entirely possible that there is no commercial application for that, in which case you’re stuck at the mercy of the galleries, or for personal pleasure only. That said, I still don’t think there’s such a thing as a total loss from any kind of photographic practice: the very act of making a photograph adds to one’s ‘library of experience’ in different situations, and means potentially avoiding mistakes in the future. (Of course there are exceptions: making the same photograph of the same object under the same fixed lighting isn’t going to add to your experience.)

For some odd reason, I’ve felt this very strongly in the last couple of years. More so since updating my portfolios at the end of last year – I was struck by the amount of ‘old’ work in there, both in terms of style and divergence to my more recent commissions. There are things I photograph out of reflex habit – reflections, abstractions, architecture, some street stuff, family etc. – and then there are further images that fall out of that which appeal to me in a much deeper way, and subsequently become projects – Idea of Man, or Forest, for instance. Of late, and perhaps because I feel the reflexive subjects are decoratively literal and not really much more – I’m finding myself pursuing several of these projects very deliberately and in parallel (Paradise Lost, Idea of Man II, Crucible-un/natural, Anatomy of the Quotidian etc. – there is a complete rundown of my current ongoing personal projects on this page). My vision is forced into a very narrow form to find the way that best translates my concept to an image, and with the liberation of expectation around presentation, style and other parts of the visual toolkit – new ideas come forth.

For instance, I’ve always been against composite images because I feel that is somewhat antithetical to the whole concept of a photograph – yet the ability to combine images is a powerful tool that allows us to present realities that might well be physically impossible, or in the case of Anatomy of the Quotidian, realities that may run in parallel or do not necessarily view time as linear and causal. Along with Crucible, that particular project is a complete break for me stylistically and visually. Having successfully completed one (Crucible) I feel liberated: there more tools in the box now, and I’m looking for opportunities to use them.

Conversely, if one just shoots what’s familiar in the same way they have always done – many things might happen. Firstly, the highest risk is of the photographer getting bored, then sloppy, then out of business. (And the current reality is, if you don’t care about your work, then you might as well do a job that pays better than photography.) Secondly, you could land up doing the same thing for the rest of your career – which is great if you’ve found your niche, and I would probably do the same if I could. However, I do get bored easily and I think the number of people who can get away with making the same kinds of images is very, very small. Clients too want something different after a while – yes, there’s consistency of corporate identity, but at the same time, for commercial images, it’s necessary to present the audience with something different if you are hoping to entice them to open their wallets. It’s much easier to pass over ‘more of the same’ than something that’s unfamiliar.

On the balance of things, I think sustainability favours evolution and development rather than step changes or static-ness; but without any structure to slap us into shape, the responsibility rests in the hands of the individual. It’s the reason that next year, I’m going to be taking a bit of step back to sharpen my skills in other directions – more personal projects, more experimentation, and hopefully, a better commercial future in the long run. MT


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  1. J. Thomas Coles says:

    Great essay …wonderful image!

    So, shot using the lowly Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0 ….hmmmmm!
    This gives me hope that one does not need to mortgage the house to buy the Leica or Zeiss lens.

  2. J. Thomas . says:

    An absolutely lovely image …such depth as well as calming tones.
    Based on your critique of the final printed image you have a real winner. Yet, according to the Flickr image exif data, it was shot using the lowly Nikkor 24-120mm f4.0. Hmmmm …..
    Would it really be ‘that’ much better using the finest Leica, Zeiss, etc etc, lenses available?

    • The composition wouldn’t change, color would probably be better with the Hasselblad and I’ve had to do a lot less work to get it there; the edges aren’t as sharp as I’d like them to be, and that’s visible in print. I think the overall impact would certainly be higher – but materially? I don’t know, hard to say without doing a direct A-B.

  3. Robert E Good says:

    I always get a lift reading your essays. It feels like an unguarded conversation with a friend where topics that really mean something to each of us are openly discussed.

    On this topic of freshness and growth, for me, familiar situations or locations provide a pull between experience and experimentation. I may know when and where the light is good, the background clean, and when decisive moments may occur. Fortunately, a little inner voice often says “but you’ve done that before” and I’m sometimes able to devise an artistic escape. I would like to think that my tolerance for the failure that comes with experimentation is increasing a bit. A sure thing is a boring thing. When you know you can get the shot, the tables turn and you have to ask yourself if that’s really the shot you want to get.

    Thanks for your inspiration.

    • Thanks Robert. Yes, that’s the intention: the opinion pieces are frank and open, and in some ways a behind the scenes look at what I’m currently going through professionally. I hope they’re of use to some of the audience, and at least an interesting read for the rest.

      As for familiar situations – I admit I do feel like I need something that’s a little fresher because I’ve probably exhausted all of the possibilities (even if I don’t necessarily show them). But at the same time, something too fresh tends to have us devolve back to habit – which is probably why the best stuff is always produced on the last day of a trip 🙂

  4. Well said. Creativity has to keep flowing to remain fresh. However, I always wondered about the photographers who keep doing the same thing again and again. School kid portraits, sporting events, to some extent weddings too. Not being professional photographer, I always wonder what is the differentiation and I keep thinking it is all about marketing and professional connections and not really the work. Sometime ago I read about a photographer who made decent money shooting exotic cars for rich people. Nothing special, exotic cars look good themselves…. 🙂

    BTW, the title picture is amazing but you have been told by others already.

    • You’re 100% right: it’s all about the marketing. But it’s also repetitive, boring, and just a job: if you want ‘just as job’, there are plenty of other things that pay better for less effort. Personally, that isn’t why I’m doing this…

    • stanis riccadonna zolczynski says:

      Also doing the same thing again and again making money that way, you do become almost foolproof prof, knowing exactly what works and what not. This way, maybe you don`t develope your creativity but at least you`re 100% sure the bills will be paid. As to exotic cars, fascinating women and breathtaking landscapes- many photographed them, few showed the true spirit behind them.

  5. Praneeth Rajsingh says:

    Your opener image is IMO one of your best Ming. I’m still disappointed it’s embargoed and not available as a UP.

    Good luck! I can’t imagine how difficult many of these decisions must be for you. Balancing commercial and practical realities with the strong desire to evolve and be the best form of ourselves. Especially when ‘best’ is subjective and a question only you can answer for yourself.

    I’m sure the time and effort will be well worth it and I look forward to what the future has in store.

    • One has to respect one’s own image licenses 🙂

      I think nobody ‘has to’ continually push, but then the game becomes a finite one.

  6. Very nice photograph, and the subtle color is great.

  7. Nice photo. Looks over sharpened…but I’m assuming that is Flickr’s fault. I love the greens.
    The flattened down grass area(s) are from deer or livestock bedding down for the night.

    • It is flickr. The full size image (and even my reduced version) is relatively low contrast and doesn’t look over sharpened at all.

  8. John Weeks says:

    Makes me want to buy a ticket…

  9. Think laterally? Developing an interest in doing different things can feed back into one’s primary activity. A course in learning a language, on another culture, on history or anything else which grabs your attention, some voluntary work in an unconnected field, changing one’s routine – all these things can eventually bring new perspective to how one sees the world and spark ideas in surprising and rich ways. Anything to avoid cycling through the same old stuff with that growing feeling of “I’ve done this before, why am I still stuck in it?” … Trying to stay current with what’s fresh and in demand probably is pretty hard given the fickleness of fashions but keeping oneself perky and curious is mostly common sense?

    • Absolutely agreed. Ayn Rand had it right: you’ve got to do it for yourself otherwise you can’t really be brilliant, because the path is never quite uncompromising enough 🙂

  10. An incredible beautiful shot Ming.
    I just browsed a tour on you Fine Art Project pages .. what to say? One of the best visual satisfactions I’ve had for years.
    Keep on seeking and you’ll be the one who is searched. Don’t worry about it, just follow your inner impulses. That somehow worked for me so far 🙂

  11. It is with great interest I have read your reflections on development and work as a photographer. The joy and inspiration seems to me to be the main force of them all.
    Your pictures from Scotland are incredibly beautiful and interesting. It’s a great experience to browse through them, thank you, Ming.
    All the best,

  12. jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Nothing’s forever – and that applies equally to photography. Which of course is why repetition becomes uninteresting.

    Whatever we do, we have to avoid pastiche. Because pastiche is NEVER “right”.

    That said, in the privacy of our own experimentation, learning and self-instruction, we can all “learn from the masters”. As indeed great artists have, down through the centuries.

    I am about to “do a Monet” on seascapes – I want to go to the beach nearby, and take shot after shot of sunsets, waiting to capture different tints, cloud formations, lighting effects – I want to do it, so that I can LEARN from it. I haven’t the slightest intention of inflicting them on anyone. I just want to study them and see what knowledge I can gain from the experience. I don’t imagine it’ll turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse, and make a top-level photographer out of me – but I do hope to learn from it, and at least be turned into a “better” photographer.

    And I think everyone does something like that, sooner or later – one way or another.

    • Guy Incognito says:

      The title image… wow… just wow…

      I would love to see it in ultra print. That said, it is even stunning at websize – the downsizing does not subtract from the painterly nature of the image. It reminds me of an impressionist work. It has elements of Monet and Van Gogh.

      Well done Ming!

      (If this is the result of more personal projects and more experimentation – I say bring it on!)

    • Agreed. Pastiches only go so far because each ‘source’ situation or subject is different; we can never be sure what the ‘original’ would have done in such a situation. We can use it as a start to find new inspiration and other directions to pursue, though.

  13. Good luck Ming! I know it’s hard enough to self-direct, but more so when it’s something as subjective as any kind of artistic endeavor where there isn’t a good quantitative metric to pursue.

    The opening shot is gorgeous, and works well at web sizes, because the textures get a painterly look. How does it appear as a full-resolution print? Does that look get replaced with something else?

    • Thanks Andre. That shot works at full resolution, too; it’s got plenty of microcontrast but not much macrocontrast. It Ultraprints well but looks better still on a large canvas, which is what the client eventually got 🙂

  14. I’ll be honest. I didn’t read a word of your text, I just saw this shot and want you to know that it is sublime, delightful, fabulous. I love it! I would like to see you do one of Texas bluebonnets, or DC/Tokyo Cherry blossoms, or ______________. Great landscape technique. I’ll read the post later. Just wanted you to know that I’m inspired. Thank you Ming!!! On of your best ever.

    • Thanks – I’ve somehow never managed to make it to Tokyo during sakura season; perhaps some subconscious avoidance on my part because costs go through the roof for those few weeks…

      • L. Ron Hubbard says:

        Oh man does Japan get expensive during Sakura season. Think Tokyo is bad? Try Kyoto….that is if you can get a room, which you can’t unless you book half a year in advance. Prices of $350 a night for a dump hotel are the norm. I dont know if I’ll ever get to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. I’d have to sleep in the park to make it affordable.

  15. good luck with this. It’s taking a risk for the benefit of all.

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