Should Commissioned Work Differ Stylistically From Personal Projects?

Should Commissioned Work Differ Stylistically From Personal Projects?

Often, the portfolios of famous photographers and filmmakers have a "personal" category where we see work that drastically differs from what they are known for. Do you think that's the way it should be?

That's not only the case with ultra-famous visual artists, but also for many among us. Their commissioned work is styled in a certain way, while their personal work has nothing in common. Some of them share that they don't put much passion in their commercial work, although it may look stunning. Some even say they just do it for the money.

My personal belief is that all your work should look "personal," regardless of being commissioned or not, because it ought to have the fingerprint of the artist. To my pleasant surprise, I have found other photographers who also live by the same principle. One of them is Gregory Heisler.  

However, I also understand why others have different-looking personal work, and I'd like to outline some of the cases I find reasonable.

Example of paid and non-paid work from my portfolio

Images from my portfolio. One of them is not a commissioned work. The others are paid projects.

Big Budget Productions

The budget is one of the primary aspects of personal and commercial projects that may vary a lot. Especially when working on visuals that have a great amount of depth in the scene, this may require big sets, which require a big investment. That's one of the reasons why big-budget films look different from small productions: their sets are huge. Cinematographers often choose the point of view where there are more layers in the foreground and the background to provide a feeling of vastness in the image.

It is possible to do that on a smaller scale when using some creativity, free resources, friends, and cheap locations. If you are good at post-production or have friends in the business, you can extend your sets in post.

Working on Ideas of Other People

Having worked with agencies, it's common that you are given a very specific visual task that you need to accomplish using the tools you have. The client has approved the idea and paid for it, and it's your job to draw it with light or direct the people on set to make the idea a reality.

Not My Style, I Just Do It for the Money

There are creatives that are not very fond of or are already tired of the style of work they are famous for. Instead, they take a break from the commercial world of illusions and take pleasure in art featuring other subjects and environments. At the same time, they get their bills paid.

I Do It for the Money Because I Have To

Financial struggle is not uncommon in the lives of many artists, and some feel that they have no choice but to work on anything that helps pay their bills, whether they like it or not. For certain creatives, it is a temporary period, but others take it as a normal way of living as a creative.

What About You?

Do you think commercial work should be far from what you like and distant from your style? Can you afford to decline projects that won't sit well in your portfolio? Let us know in the comments below.

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Kirk Darling's picture

"Should" implies that a moral choice is being asked or made.

Some people enjoy doing things in multiple ways, being refreshed by the change-ups. A meticulous food photographer may use a Loma for personal work and thoroughly enjoy both of them.

Tony Northrup's picture

Shooting in another photographer's style is a great way to improve your skill set... and if you need the job and want the client to be happy, it's often the reality of being a professional. You don't have to put the results in your portfolio. If you're David LaChappelle and you're well-known and have a very distinct style, obviously it's better to stick with it and let the client's choose you for your style, but if you're short of that mark...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It also depends on how much debt one has and if they pay an enormous rent.

T Van's picture

Yea the amount of clients that have ever let me choose the creative direction is pretty short....

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I've found that if I make and show personal projects that display my style, I get more creative freedom.

Darren Loveland's picture

I can definitely identify with this post on the terms of photographing one style to make a living and one style quite differently for my personal stuff. I shoot luxury real estate photography full time, with a dabble of vacation properties, staging, interior design, hotels, etc. The look of these images is something that's become "industry standard" in most client eyes and it's nowhere near the style in my personal projects. The RE photography tends to be a bit more saturated, completely balanced in exposure, staged, and cleaned up quite a bit in post. With that being said, I love my job and I enjoy the process of making these photos. In my personal time I take on projects for wine industry clients and shoot lifestyle stuff for fun. I'm also starting to dabble in street photography. These images are much more organic, ad hoc, and barely touched in post. The latter is a better representation of "my style" but I've developed a very good business that I enjoy working every day shooting high end real estate, it's just a different style, more reminiscent of photography styles from when I first started out years ago.

Charles Burgess's picture

Commercial gigs are shot to a specific brief. Although the commercial brief often allows some creative latitude for the photographer, there is never the amount of creative latitude that personal assignments provide. An example is that commercial work is often limited to a specific "look", while personal work I can do whatever catches my "eye" and my range of expression is not limited to what a specific client wants. Additionally, it is in personal work that I can freely experiment, results of which can succeed or fail - a risk I never take with a client unless they specifically ask for it.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It depends on the clients. When I'm working with agencies there is less creative freedom, although I had a project where they told me to think of ideas and execute them (within the budget). I like to work outside agencies, because there's more freedom and you can educate the client on certain things related to their idea. Showing a portfolio with enough personal projects (because there you can show what you actually can) makes the client more and more confident that you can be their "all-in-one agency."

Charles Burgess's picture

I agree with Direct2Brand as allowing for more creative freedom, especially when there is an adequate budget - which is often the toughest nut to crack in getting them to let you know what their budget is.

As to the ad agencies, that too depends on their internal style as to when they get the photog involved. Generally the larger the agency and the larger their client, creative freedom gets reigned in more or less. Even in working directly with the brand the larger companies tend to have an in-house "ad agency" department and they too can be very tight on creative freedom.

Being their "all -in-one agency", or AIO, would make for a great article too, as doing AIO work directly with smaller business clients helps bridge the gap between the larger gigs, while also enhancing the photog's ability to differentiate her/himself from other photogs.