The Hard Truth Why No One Will Hire You As A Photographer

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.  

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Previous comments
Robin Binder's picture

This was great and inspired me to blog about this subject. I gave you credit for the inspirational post.

Adrian Farr's picture

Great article. I am forever advised by my friends and photography peers to do a little bit of everything in order to get more income from my photography, but I do believe it is important to become known for just one thing and to grow into a master of that specialisation. After all, all the top photographers in the world do exactly that. Although on the other hand, it is extremely difficult in the early days to get paid anything decent from specialising and doing just one thing. Simple survival is crippling to an artist trying to specialise, especially in fashion/fine art. Catch 22. No-one ever tells you how to survive in the early part of your career, without jeopardising your potential future.

I believe this is an excellent thing for being a professional photographer. It all comes down to Branding, and Producing a Cohesive Portfolio around your Photographic Vision that makes you different from everyone else. Who wants a bunch of technicians all shooting the same thing? I am happy the industry has gone this direction as creative directors are expecting more hands-on art direction from photographers which in turn truly make the ad campaign about the photographer's vision in addition to the creative directors vision rather than being a tool of the creative director. To find out more about branding yourself as a photographer you should take one of these high end workshops that I attended -

It changed my life as a photographer and now I am shooting ad campaigns!

i guess you can't go wrong with doing something you love and if you can make money out of it, than more power to you.

Tim adkins's picture

When I initially read this I my gut (read: wrong) reaction was " who the heck is she to judge" but after reviewing her comments AND looking at her body of work my reasonable reaction was "she is sooo right and THANK HER" for giving the BEST, honest and helpful information without all the sugar coating. Especially if you desire to remain relevant and continue to grow.

Agree with some of what's in this article, but the title is a tad ridiculous if you're only talking about the commercial market.

People have never hired us because we're "good" photographers. Portfolios are important for closing, but without marketing, networking and referrals, no photographer is going to get new clients. There are so many photographers out there with great portfolios that do not know how to market.
On the one hand you speak of being a "specialist and a master of one trade" and then immediately go on to speak about also offering video services. Kind of ironic.

Patrick Hall's picture

I simply mean your style should be specialized. If you are a well known swimwear photographer with a specific look then translate that to video. I think John Keatley has done this well. He is sort of known as the quirky and situationally funny advertising photographer and now he is producing videos (like Macklemore's music video) that have that same theme. Video and photography do not have to be these separate worlds everyone tries to make them.

Took a long way to get to the point. I think most of us are aware on what was written.

The article and video is something everyone should consider. This concept of being different is not unusual, it is present in every business. If you look at the cream of the crop (photography) they have the brought their style or specialty and are in the forefront. There is nothing wrong with being a general photographer but I believe what this article and video brings to light and reminds us (again) is if you want more, or to stand out, create a niche or specialize. Develop a post process or heck, start with a custom preset that is yours. Thanks Patrick for bringing this to us.

Richard Peterson's picture

Love this! I am a cross-over fine-art/commercial photographer with an off-beat rebel nature, and I've always used and believed of this. The fine-art community readily accepted by quirky nature because I used this approach, and now I am a star in the museum world with many sales into major collections with my prints starting at $2,000. A museum director has written a book about me. Now, I am using my recognition in the fine-art world to approach the commercial world and discovering it works very well. I understand the comments about people defending the need to be a "jack-of-all", and I still do that quietly. However, you want to get past the dead-end street where "sameness" will leave you, you will never reach the higher levels of the really progressive minds in the industry (the award winners, the risk-takers). Thus, you will be stuck in your cul-de-sac spinning your wheels and never advance in your life and your career. Love this article and video, it is brilliant and perfect!

There are many levels in commercial photography now and while always competitive, there are those who shoot regularly based on massive experience, working with reliable crews and producers. Sure they are in fields hard to break into I guess, but if you interviewed a high-end rep. I'd think you'd find agencies won't risk big budget jobs on anyone without a proven track record, plus the ability to come up with new viewpoints.

Jacques Cornell's picture

"Unfortunately for a large percentage of photographers this means they will never be hired by one of these dream brands."
Where on earth did you get the idea that working for a "dream brand" is what's necessary to have a satisfying career as a photographer? There are scores, if not hundreds, of different career tracks in photography. Fortunately for me, most newcomers to the field are fixated on one of just three - advertising, fashion, or weddings - and never think of entering my market.

There is a huge difference between being an artist and just doing your job.

Anonymous's picture

I think this article is spot-on. However, there was not one mention of smart marketing. It's really not just about the content. A photographer who has the business smarts - ie: sales and marketing know how, not to mention personal contacts, will go a lot further than the photographer who doesn't.

Good post! Scary but good things to consider.

Louis Joseph
Asbury Park child photographer at the Jersey Shore.