The Power of Perception – Creating A Reality For Commercial Clients

The Power of Perception – Creating A Reality For Commercial Clients

The music business is a brutal, cutthroat, dog-eat-dog world and I lived it for nearly 10 years. Since the age of 16, I struggled as a touring musician, surviving off nothing but cold Spaghettios and sleeping in a decade-old 8-passenger van. I was fortunate enough to explore the nation and see things that most will never see, but by the time I left the business I was completely burnt out. When I picked up a DSLR some years ago, it was a breath of fresh air, but many of the same business techniques from music applied to the creative world of photography and film. The biggest takeaway being... perception.

As stupid and shallow as it might sound, during my time on the road, it was important to always maintain an appearance, that being of a “rockstar.” If someone perceives you to be a “star,” then in their eyes, you are. An appearance can be a powerful tool, as long as your check your ego at the door and stay humble. The same can be applied to photography; a new client will automatically judge your work and your work ethic. Therefore, it's important to maintain a standard and produce great work all while upholding your brand on set.


During my time in the Bahamas for the Fstoppers Workshops 2014, I took away quite a few tidbits of solid information and some great new techniques. But, hearing the affirmation of the term “perception is reality” from celebrity photographer John Keatley was what really stuck with me. John shoots with a Hasselblad, not only for the quality and image size, but also the outer appearance it provides to his clients who are investing thousands of dollars in John’s work. A client once asked him, “How much did that camera cost you?” John replied, “Just shy of $20,000.” A look of shock came of the clients face as he turned to a colleague, “Wow, this guy is awesome.” Due to John shooting with an expensive camera, the client immediately viewed John as an incredible photographer. We all know word can travel fast and if that client tells his corporate friend, that $20,000 camera just might be the point of discussion which leads to a nice referral for John.

Now, most of us photographers are not shooting with a Hasselblad or Phase One, so here are a few tips I recommend to get the commercial clients talking.

Dress To Impress

Let’s be honest, people judge you for what you wear. No need to show up in a tuxedo or a slim cocktail dress, but find a medium between formal and your gym shorts and Sponge Bob slippers. Wear something comfortable that can get dirty, but be aware of the type of client you're working with as well as your end goal. This tip especially important for wedding photography, as your appearance can have a direct effect on a Bride’s experience.


Bring All Of Your Gear And Know It Well

I’ve heard stories where production crews will rent a grip truck full of gear and setup every c-stand, but end up only using one or two of them. Point being, in the client’s eyes, the more gear you have the better photographer you are. Today’s society associates bigger with better. Take for example a subject who knows nothing about photography, but is presented with “Photographer A” who owns a DSLR with a massive 600mm lens and then “Photographer B” with the same exact DSLR, but a short 16mm wide angle lens. I can assure you the subject is associating the word “professional” with “Photographer A” who owns the bigger glass. With that said, bring all of your gear and know it well. Even if you don’t use it, at least know what you’re talking about when perhaps you do have to break out more than a few lights. The client will notice and feel as if they are getting more bang for their buck.


Bring The Assistants

A client who is investing money in your business wants to know you’re in control and that you’re running the show. It’s essential to step into the directorial role and provide leadership rather than breaking a sweat setting up, changing lighting and breaking down. If you show up with nothing but a camera, then expect to be treated like a just another guy or gal with a camera. But if you show up with a professional team, the client will know you mean business. When your assistants are doing the load-in and setup for you, it gives you ample time to consult with the client. Don’t have the budget to pay for assistance? Then ask a friend or two to help load some light stands and hold a scrim, but be careful as they represent your brand. On commercial sets, having a great assistant is vital and the best assistants are always two steps ahead of you, more on that here.


Time Is Money

In every business, time is money. This is especially relative to photography and art as many charge day-rates. If you’re brought on to shoot a job then make sure you use time efficiently, using your assistants accordingly and to not waste valuable time by chimping, changing lighting or over-shooting. Spend sometime beforehand pre-lighting and mapping out a shot-list and once you have "the shot," move on. The perception here is that you actually know what you're doing! Let's be honest here, many times we all just wing it. The client is there to get the job done and will appreciate the quickwittedness.


Fluff It Up

I’ve touched on this topic before, especially in my last article “Content Is King – 5 Fundamentals To Increase Social Engagement.” It’s very important to have a professional presence as well as professional work to back it up. If you don’t have a good headshot, ask a photographer you admire and pay them for it. If you don’t have good design or typeface skills, contract a graphic designer to design your advertisements and promotions. Along with having a professional brand, don’t hesitate to “fluff up” your online presence. Although to internet is a vast spanse of half-truth’s and satire, people have the tendency to believe much of what they see. Name drop, glorify and tell people you’re doing great things.


This might seem a bit much for some photographers, but for those in the commercial world it’s very important to hold to a corporate standard. Much of this article touches on branding and identity, but at the end of the day you’re being watched by some very judging clients and if you show no fear, then you have no fear. And remember, If you show confidence then you better back it up with a great product.

Perception is reality.

Clay CookFacebook | YouTube | Instagram | Twitter

Clay Cook's picture

Portrait and Editorial Photographer, Clay Cook has learned the importance of going the extra mile, after a long, arduous run in the music business. Clay has shaped creative projects with History, Lifetime, Comcast and Papa John's Pizza. In addition, he has photographed assignments for Time, Forbes, The Guardian, W Magazine, USA Today, ESPN and Inc.

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Perception is not reality. Perception is for those who need an adjusted view of reality.

maybe not for you or for the author and even for me, but for most of the clients you are going to have, IT IS , probably for 90 or 98 % of people.
How do you think big companies make money ... do you know what a commercial is ( I am not trying to offend you or your intelligence in any way, Just trying to make the point)
why do you think that cars company advertise usually with beautiful girls/handsome men
toys companies ad put toys expelling fire or toys actually flying when you really know thats not gonna happens.
cigars , soda , clothes food pharmacy companies know that perception for most of the people is reality even though at the very end they hit the wall and realize IS not , but just about time to get hit whit the next commercial of the same thing

Very true, perception is used to sell just about everything, since most of what is being sold is not really needed. But it is not reality, only adjusted reality for those willing to buy into it. The emperer's new clothes. Sure, commercial and wedding photography are all about perception. But regarding the author's comments, make sure that if you want to buy into all this "perception" as a professional, you're not just posing for it. If it's not really "you", you'll burn out really quickly, or at least know that you're playing the same game as much as any "corporate" climber.

I agree

During the first wedding I assisted with, a guest came up to me while on break and started chatting me up about photography... He said everybody in this city with a camera thinks they are a photographer, and initially said the same of our team. He then followed up by saying once he looked closer at all our gear he realized we were the real deal. Not saying the gear made us professional but the fact he knows there was some serious investment in the gear and the fact that we were working the event very well. That comment stuck and I remember you going over this very idea in the Master Class. True story brother.

Awesome story Gary! Thanks for sharing and thanks for reading!

that vid was hilarious!

I agree! Thanks for reading and watching Shannon!

"Uh, I'm not really sure who he is, but I heard he's really famous or something."

Ha! It's a great video. Creating a perception becomes reality.

Recently, I went to a check out line and the person said the "Hightower" that I know was on "Police Academy". I replied, "Yea, he's my cousin."
I should try hiring an entourage when I visit NYC. That looks like fun!

No doubt, hiring an entourage would be an absolute blast in NY.

A reminder of a typical NY boy that was transformed by the Fab 5 in that TV series.

Thanks again Mike! Means a lot to me!

I need to have some oval profoto stickers made to cover the einstein badge. Tho, this is definitely true. My clients are always interested I'm my equipment, and it never fails for them to ask me how much it costs. Their face drops, and they take me much more seriously.

Ha! Dan, Einstien's are great lights! I don't think there is anything to hide there. But you're right. As I put in the article, in the clients eyes, bigger is better! Thanks for reading man!

Act as if.

How photographers get assisatant? You have to be around them? or like they never ask for new one's. Like if I want to be assistent I try to massege them or send porfolio but it's always they don't need it now...

Lukas, I think it comes to just hanging out with other photographers. Also, look into local school's and universities there are thousands of photojournalist students looking to get into the real world of photography, they are starving for it! Thanks for reading!

Hi Lukas,
I worked as an assistant for two years before aiming my work more to the shooting side.

My first job I did for free, I followed the photographer on facebook and they asked for someone to help out on a fun personal project, I went along, it was fun and I still stay in contact with that photographer now. After the shoot we even went out for dinner, and I was introduced to another couple of photographer who I admire and have since worked for them.

My second job, I did for free, I worked my ass off. A couple of weeks later the photographer phoned me and asked if I would help on a shoot...this time paid. On the shoot he said he asked his team who they liked working with, they all said me. while on the job with him, I was booked to go on a trip abroad with him to assist.

Then Other jobs came about through networking, twitter and being able to say I had the experience from these other shoots with names people recognised.

Also, remember who your emailing...when you email the photogrpaher, a lot of the time their assistant will be reading the mail.... are you trying to take their job? or are you offering your services when they need a 2nd/3rd assistant? if your going straight for 1st assistant I doubt the photographer will see that email, it certainly wont be pushed into their must read folder.

Hope that helps.

Awesome information Wayne! We appreciate your input!

No problem clay, it's nice to be able to help out. Yours and the others articles on here have helped me a lot.

If anyone has any questions about assisting, starting in the industry or anything please do ask, I'll do my best to answer.


Thanks, last year I helped wedding and portrait photographer but that was easy because he was in city I lived but accually working with him didnt gave me anything, it was just job for him, not passion as for me, he did just enough to take good enogh picture to sell them. Then I relized it's not assisting like assisting.

This year I tried to aim for more advanced and more product and commericial photgraphers. I send them e-mail that I have many good traits and understanding gear and lighting, I tried to also describe my perosonality and that it's good to work with me and I am not like others.

To photographers who do BTS I also send my video work and that I can do also that, I was ready to do anything just to be around them and I would do it good and with motivation.
To those I know adress, I mailed printed porfolio with commercial and pesonal work so they can have it in their hands.

Now I am trying to go to photography school and doing maonly personal work.
Thanks for tips

It sounds like your in the right track with narrowing down the area you want to work in, and the BTS videos are very handy fto be able to offer.

Personally I don't feel a photographer needs to see a portfolio, I have never showed mine for assisting and I don't ask for one when looking for assistants. The main things I look for is punctuality and that the assistant knows they are there to assist, not to be another photographer on set.

Try and get a phone call or a coffee meeting, once people have a face/ voice to a name the trust is a lot stronger. Arrange a day you will go to the city and then let the photographer know you are local and would love to buy them a coffee. If they are busy... No worries, you will be back down in a couple of weeks, maybe you can meet up then?
If not, maybe you can meet their current assistant and get them a coffee?

Visit equipment rental shops, and see rental studios, photographers are always asking them for assistant recommendations.

Keep up the good work, it will all fall into place.


Thank you for helpfull tips :)

I've been told this same story for years and I guess it just doesn't resonate with me. I've always been of the belief that your portfolio is what impresses the client and I find that they are always impressed that I get the job done with less than what they were expecting. In the end my not bringing the grip truck lowers the bill for them in the end. I rent what I need but never over do it but yes I always look professional.
I can do 90% of my jobs with the following:
2 assistants
1 digi tech/ capture station or laptop
3 packs and heads with a couple modifiers
1 camera DSLR or Medium format
2 Lenses
and basic grip

I listed this because when I assisted I worked for photographers that would have 3-4 assistants
7+ packs and heads with every known modifier and the clients would just roll their eyes at the show.

Thanks for reading! Even with 2 assistants, digital tech, 3 packs and heads and a DSLR, that is still a decent size setup and crew compared to many shooters sets who read Fstoppers. This article is here just to simply let people know that they can get big clients. Keep up the great work!

That's a "humblebrag."

A breath of fresh air for F stoppers. A great article that is extremely important, that many never consider. Thank you for sharing! The psychology of client perception is just as important as the product!

Thanks for that Rob! Very cool of you to say, spread the good word man!

Loved the post. I worked with a major record producer once, when the execs from the label would visit, he would turn on all the gear even things that were not used daily. I guess it is necessary to add a little P.T. Barnum to your presentation.