One Disadvantage Almost All Photographers Share

One Disadvantage Almost All Photographers Share

As photographers, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But there’s one disadvantage that almost every photographer has in common.

I am both a still photographer and a motion director/cinematographer. Because of this, my articles are sometimes split between the two disciplines. But one analogy I’ve found myself fond of using as of late is referring to filmmaking as a team sport. Despite the fact that the general public knows the names of a film’s stars and often the more prominent directors by heart, films are very much the result of collaboration. So while it is entirely possible to make an entire film by yourself. I’ve done it. It is also no secret that the more resources (i.e. people) you have to draw from, the better the end result tends to be.

As a commercial photographer, I also work in a team environment. Yes, I am leading the set. But there are also a bevy of talented assistants, stylists, makeup artists, and the like who all come together to contribute to the final image. But, of course, not all photographs require those large teams. Photography is, in many cases, a solo act. Even if you frequently assemble a team, the sporadic freelance nature of the profession often means that the faces of those team members can be transient, with your own being the only constant. Working as a photographer can, in short, be a lonely profession.

Not that I’m complaining. I’m a born introvert and have absolutely no doubt that one of the things that drew me to still photography is that it is an art form that I can do all by my lonesome. I love working with my filmmaking team. But there’s something to be said for an activity that can be done without having to rely on anyone else at all. You can literally walk outside right now and create art in 1/8000 of a second. No need to ask permission. No need to organize a full production. Just pick up a camera and go. It suits me well as a break from my larger scale work where planning and production are essential.

But, of course, since much of my work, still and motion, requires the participation of multiple stakeholders, it is in my best interest to maintain a constantly growing list of co-conspirators who I enjoy working with and whom I would like to bring on to projects in the future. After doing this for so many years, that list has grown exponentially. Yet, there is one category of creative that always seems to be lacking on my depth chart.

Obviously, if you do photography as a profession, you would expect the vast majority of incoming emails you receive to be concerned with jobs that you yourself will perform. But every now and then, potential clients will reach out in search of a type of photography that you simply don’t perform (or in a location it’s impractical for you to travel to). You may decide to do it anyway. Or, like me, you will often find yourself turning away such jobs simply because it’s not the product you are offering. No hard feelings. No harm, no foul. You can’t be expected to do everything, so you wish the client a great shoot and return to the rest of your day.

Upon doing so, you are often met with a return question. “Well, are there any photographers that you recommend?” It is this question that I always find most difficult to answer.

Of course I know a lot of other photographers’ work. I might even know of someone in that particular specialty or location that might be great. But, as I more often than not have never actually met that photographer myself in person, it’s impossible to know what they are like on set. Are they professional? Would their personality vibe with the particular person seeking the recommendation? What is their process? These could all potentially be important questions. And I have no way of knowing the answers.  

I can recommend makeup artists. I can recommend stylists. I can recommend assistants. I've worked with them personally. But, when it comes to recommending other photographers it can be more of a challenge. Not because I don’t want to pass along business. But, because, as photographers we very rarely have first hand experience on set working with other photographers.  

A set might have multiple assistants, multiple set builders, multiple wardrobe assistants. But, in most photographic genres, a set is not going to have multiple photographers. While this makes 100% practical sense as there is little need for multiple photographers on the same set in most cases, it does mean that we, as photographers, don’t often get a chance to see each other in action. Being well connected in the photo community, I couldn’t even venture to count the number of photographers who I consider friends or colleagues. But virtually never have I interacted with them on set.

This is somewhat sad. Not just because it makes recommending other artists more difficult. But because we, as photographers, often lose the benefit of shared information. If you are an accountant at an accounting firm and you work within a team of other accountants, as one of you learns a new skill, they can pass it along to others. Conversely, most artistic growth occurs on our own individual islands. Most business learning happens on our own personal computers. There’s no “water cooler,” so to speak, where we can see each other in action. Sure, we can watch curated behind-the-scenes videos of one another on YouTube or exchange information on forums. But the live and in person front-row seat to another person’s process is a hard ticket to come by.

What got me thinking about this was a recent shoot that I did as a cinematographer. The vast majority of my work is either with me as both photographer and director/DP or with me as either the solo photographer or solo director/DP on a non-integrated campaign. In the case of this particular shoot, through a series of random circumstances, I essentially found myself grabbing video alongside another photographer’s photoshoot. As the day unfolded, it occurred to me how long it had been since I was on another photographer’s set. It’s been over a decade since I last assisted, so suddenly finding myself in a position to observe another photographer in action felt like a strange experience.

But it was also a valuable experience. I won’t go into any specifics about this particular shoot as what happens on set, stays on set. Especially when we are talking about someone else's set. But I found the experience a teachable moment for a variety of reasons. For one, it provided me the opportunity to see how the photographer ran his set. Dramatically different from how I run my set. Not good or bad. Just different. I got a chance to see him interact with the client. I got a chance to see him interact with talent. Again, different from how I set the tone on my sets. No better, no worse.

What was valuable about getting to see another photographer in action was that you could pick up tips on how you might do certain things better, while also strengthening your convictions in other areas. Without bearing any responsibility for creating the stills myself, it gave me the opportunity to observe his process from a more objective standpoint to see what was effective and what wasn’t. This knowledge can then be used to re-examine my own process to see where there is room for improvement.

As I said, situations where I’m on a set that I’m not wholly responsible for are rare. But I appreciated the opportunity to take a load off and watch someone else work. It reminded me of the benefit of assisting early in one’s career. As an assistant, you might not have your name above the marquee, but you get a front row seat to see how a wide variety of photographers approach their craft. These are lessons you can take into your own career as you become the one behind the camera. It also reminds me of the value of my involvement with groups like American Photographic Artists, which is a trade organization built to support the commercial photography community. And others like it, which bring artists together to network and share knowledge.

It’s a shame that we aren’t afforded as many opportunities to see each other work once we ourselves become the name on the invoice. But one thing is for sure. As photographers, the more chances we get to learn from each other and grow together, the better we all can be.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Great read Chris! It's funny, coming from the wedding world where we use assistants and also producing so much content for Fstoppers, I've actually had the pleasure of working side by side with many photographers and seeing how they work. It can also be that way with youtubers who share some of their work in video form. But yeah, there are a lot of my commercial photography friends who I've never seen shoot, direct, or lead a team. It's kind of strange to think about when you compare photography to athletics, musicians, or other types of art forms.

That's definitely a benefit for wedding shooters. You are always working with other photographers to create the final product. I work with a lot of team members, but, generally speaking, I'm the only one doing the actual shooting.