Does Good Technical Knowledge Allow You to Accept Projects Outside Your Area of Expertise?

Does Good Technical Knowledge Allow You to Accept Projects Outside Your Area of Expertise?

Whether you are a professional or an amateur, you will eventually be asked to work on a project in an area of the industry you are not so familiar with. Assuming you are technically savvy, would you accept the challenge?

This question is both for photographers and filmmakers. If you are a beginner who is technically incapable of doing the job, the answer is simply "no." However, there's no definite answer if you know how to use a camera, work with light, know how to make a good composition, and have experience in post-production. Even if you are great at these (regardless of being a professional or an amateur), the answer won't be "yes" every time. Below is my personal advice on making a decision which will be good for both you and your client. Even if the task is assigned by a friend or you are an amateur, these next paragraphs are still in force.

Bride and groom at moon light

One of the projects I rarely work on: weddings. Here, my clients had a photographer who covered the whole event. I was there just for a fine art session.

What Are the Expectations of the Client?

At this point, you have to be aware of whether the client worked with other artists before and what their expectations were. I am always clear with clients what my field of expertise is and I ask them why they wanted me to take the task. If their expectations are quite high, I don't ta,ke the job, because this will have bad consequences both to my image as an artist, my business, and, of course, for the client. After all whether the client is just a friend or a big corporation, they want one thing: someone to get the job done for them. Your goal should be the same. Profit comes second.

I am a commercial portrait photographer and a filmmaker, which means when I do photography, I have people in the frame and those pictures are going to be used for someone's business. From time to time, I have requests for photographing products, and my usual response contains both gratitude and a question: gratitude that they contacted me for that project and a question why they want me to do the job instead of having a dedicated product photographer execute it. You may think you've lost the client at that point, but here are the possible scenarios for why they've got in touch with you:

  • They just found someone with a camera and ask for a price. Usually, these are not my clients, because they don't care about dedication or quality, but just numbers on their final bill. I may take the project sometimes, but I will also consider the next points in making my decision.
  • They've liked your other work (or you as a professional and as a person) and they thought you'd do great in other fields of photography or filmmaking. This by itself is a very important potential client of yours, and though you may not work on the project, they would love to work with you on other tasks. Just be honest with them, and you may work with them on that or on future jobs.

Woodworking workshop

I photographed this workshop for a friend, which helped me get some experience in shooting interiors.

Have I Worked on Such Projects Before?

Whether former tasks were paid or not, it means experience. This is the reason I constantly work on personal projects that may prepare me for complex commissioned jobs. Sometimes, if I haven't worked on such tasks, I will try to give an example to the client how the end result may look by assigning myself to a simple similar project and showing them the results.

Product photography for a local company

Photographed that on a budget at client's home at 9 pm. The environment is created entirely with flash.

Do I Know the Pitfalls of Such Projects?

Having worked on such a project once or twice doesn't mean you know the deep waters of that area of the industry. I would not work on something that's much different than what I have experience with in the past. For example, I would reject photographing high fashion or conceptual fashion, because it's not just photographing people, which I constantly do. I have to know how to direct my subjects and know what the expectations of that part of the industry are. The same goes for products: not all products are the same. Photographing objects made of glass, plastic, or metal requires quite a different approach.

BTS from a conceptual photoshoot

Do I Have the Gear?

"No, but I can rent it" is not always an excuse to take the project. Renting another stills camera may not be that different, but renting a different cinema camera changes exponentially your usual workflow. Even renting a simple macro lens for photographing jewelry may be very different from what you may normally expect if you haven't used such. A macro lens sometimes requires focus stacking, which you may not be familiar with or never tried on dozens of products at once. Don't take gear lightly. You need to have experience with such tools on a similar project in order to give a confident answer. Nothing beats experience.

Food photography

Food styling is one of the most important things in food photography, and for this project, the client agreed that I would work only if there was a food stylist.

Do I Have the Team?

Even if you don't have the gear, you may collaborate with someone who has it and let someone else have a piece of the pie. A fresh example is a project I worked on that also called for areal photographs. I hired a drone pilot to do them for me.

What if I Fail?

There's a much higher risk of failure with such tasks than with those you are comfortable with. Taking the risk to work on the project should be by a mutual consent with both parties: you and the client. To minimize the risk, you have to get some experience in that field prior to the days of actual shooting, only if the client is aware of your lack of qualification. You should never ever work on such a job without making it clear you don't have the right level of expertise, regardless of the magnitude of the client or the possible profit. Accepting to do the project may ruin your established image as an artist to an extent that you may not be able to attract clients in the field you usually work in.

Benefits From Rejecting a Project

Remember, this industry is not just about the money. Being honest with the client can win them for future projects. Another benefit comes from referring the job to another artist who is an expert in that area. This may result in stronger relationships within your community, and you may get jobs in return. Be good at what you do, be wise, and be honest.

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14 Comments

Jonathon Rusnak's picture

I would dive in as long as I was at least capable of treading water. Even in ones area of expertise particular clients can ask for something you haven't tried before. If you have the right tools and some knowledge to get started you can learn on the fly if the task isn't too complicated.

Of course you need to be honest with yourself and the client. Like the article states failure isn't an option. It's best to pass the work on to some one qualified if need be. Honesty goes a long ways.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Yep, "area of expertise" must be e a really narrow-defined term as I gave an example with photographing people (which I do) versus photographing models for a conceptual fashion project. It's totally different.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's what I'm talking about. I'm not a food photographer. I just refined the composition and set up the lighting. A photographer specializing in photographing food knows much more details than me.

BTW, the knife was like that in person. I'm a fan of Japanese cooking knifes and shiny steel is usually the cheaper ones (that I have). Those that are said to be of "Damascus steel" (or layers of steel which is not exactly the original Damascus recipe, but kind of) are always a bit gray-ish, because of the different layers of soft and hard steel that are folded and then hammered many many times.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I know about the lights. The shot has been made with 3 (I think) lights while other shots were with 4, mostly gridded. But I remember that I wanted to minimize the glare off of the knife (about 50% max on your knife will be as a mirror if slightly rotated). I was photographing the meat. That was the product the company was selling and on this composition that 30% of shiny steel on that knife would draw too much attention.

Very nice knife by the way. I'll probably buy a similar one in the near future.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Very nice image. Good job!

And yes, that knife is quite different from the other one on the picture above and in my photograph. The way they make the steel is very very different and this is the reason such knifes cost $300+ while those from shiny A2 steel (which is still very good) to be $40.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That doesn't matter. I use a crop sensor for almost all of my photography work for 10 years now.

I would be grateful if you could draw the 8 lights setup.

I specifically do NOT do work outside of my expertise. I tell prospects that they wouldn't hire the attorney who put together their will to represent them in a DWI case, and that instead of using me for their work if it's not in my area that I have a network of other photographers I can refer them to who do specialize in what their interest is.

When I got into the business, I did about 30 weddings to see if I should specialize in that. I found I was a good B+ wedding photographer. But I was an A+ photographer in other areas, and I knew a good handful of A+ wedding photographers. It made no sense for me to do what they do so well when I could be spending that time doing what I do so well.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

And that sounds reasonable.

Stas Aleksandersson's picture

“..the client agreed only if there was a food stylist present” - how did this situation develop? The client approached you undecided and you then came aggressively so he would need to agree to something he approached you about? Or did you approach him and told him it’s not your area of expertise and the client was reluctant?

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I was approached by an agency who worked with the client for their new catalogue. I explained that this wasn't what I usually photographed, but anyway I sent them a few examples of food photography I've done through the years, as well as examples of what they wanted for their project. They were fine with the price and the examples and hired me with the agreement they would take care of the food styling for these types of shots (which were about 20% of the job that also included products on white background and on a textured organic-looking background).

Benoit Pigeon's picture

I have less glass than lights and accessories for this exact reason.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

What is the exact point of having less glass that lights in your case?

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Covering anything that comes my way. I typically shoot furniture for a living, improvised rooms, silos, grand father clocks, glass tables, leathers of all kinds, some people and clients always ask for something new while on location. I shoot a lot of cars as well, very fast cars at night and lowest iso I can, totally different from. I like having a nice amount of lights and accessories because it saves me time as well. Picture attached, 2 kittens shot on a Hazylight flipped upward. 2 minute set up, 2 lights.