Let's face it; the industry is changing. Art directors and potential clients are not looking to simply hire a photographer anymore. They do not care about your lighting, your gear, or even your previous clients. So what do they care about then? Photographer John Keatley sits down with artist rep Maren Levinson at Redeye to discuss the future of photography, and there is a very good chance you are not going to like what she has to say.
A lot has changed since photography has gone digital. The days of a professional photographer being part of an elite underground darkroom society are long past. These days it is likely your neighbors' 17 year old son can light a portrait better than you. Today everyone is a part time photographer, and a large percentage of them are pretty darn good at it too.
It's time to face the hard cold truth: people do not hire you because you are a good photographer.
When John shared with me this video he produced with Maren Levinson, I found myself thinking "yes, yes," every 45 seconds. You see, Maren is an agent who represents some of the most in demand photographers on the west coast. She sees A LOT of photography on a daily basis, and her observations of the state of photography are pretty much dead on point. To sum up the video above, agencies and clients are not looking to hire someone who can produce a sharp looking photograph anymore. Instead, art buyers are looking to hire a brand, a style, a quirk, or more plainly put, a vision. The advertising world thrives on being able to turn heads and grab people's attention in a split second, and in today's grossly over saturated visual market place they need more than just a pretty photo. They need something with teeth.
Unfortunately for a large percentage of photographers this means they will never be hired by one of these dream brands. Just because you have a "good" sports portfolio or a "solid" food look book does not mean that Nike or McDonalds are going to come knocking on your door. Being successful in today's market looks a lot different than it did just 15 years ago. Just as Maren candidly suggests, you and your work are often going to be reduced to a single sentence, and what you are known for is what is going to ultimately land you a successful career in photography. The question then becomes, "what ARE you known for?" Are you the super shallow depth of field portrait guy who uses only a single hard light? Maybe you are the iconic country music album cover photographer with the high contrast processing? The messy and sloppy food photographer who desaturates everything to 20%? Maybe you are the sadistic portrait photographer who tazes everyone (okay, I'm just trying to make this point clear). If you do not have a unique and instantly recognizable answer to this question then your career as a professional photographer might be in dire straights.
If you are just a "solid photographer" then this might not be sounding too good for you and your photography business. You should not stress too much over this however, as I believe there is a silver lining in all of my gloom and doom talk. Since most photographers only push themselves to be "good enough" it leaves the door wide open for those who want to knock their work out of the park so to speak. Being an in demand creative professional means a lot more than simply showing up, throwing a light or two around, and calling it a day. If you want your work to land you a potential job with one of your favorite companies, you need to give them something that only you can produce for them. In the simplest terms, you need to be YOU and only you. It is entirely okay to go through different creative phases and imitate your creative idols, but at some point you need to narrow down your commercial work into a niche product that is not only uniquely you but also instantly recognizable. As Maren Levinson suggests in her interview with John Keatley, photographers might have been able to build a solid career in the past by being a jack of all trades, but in today's market you really do have to be a master of just one.
For me this is great news because being successful today can free you up from having to cater towards all the genres and styles of photography you do not like. It means you can focus more on producing and directing only the projects you find interesting, and in turn, you will be hired for those very same projects you enjoy creating. Even today, so many photographers are resisting the movement towards video and motion which can be a HUGE selling point for your business if you offer it in some capacity. Never has there been such a demand for creative exploration than there is today, and if you push yourself to transcend the previous ideas of what being a photographer means you can reach levels of success never before thought possible. So while the future of photography seems like it is in complete peril, the reality is the future is looking very bright and extremely liberating.
In closing, for many of you I would suggest that you begin focusing on what makes you happy as an artist. Stop building a portfolio that copies and mimics other photographers you admire and instead take what you like about their work and make it truly your own. If you love Peter Hurley's lighting style, take that and mold it into a funny series of comedians making strange faces. Learn from John Keatley and take his approach to set building and build your own sets for your pet photography business. Adopt Mike Kelley's architectural light painting tricks and use them to produce interesting environmental portraits. The world's creative canvas is completely blank and the possibilities are endless. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it can also be the first nail into a career of mediocrity.