There are a zillion photographers out there, but there aren’t a zillion clients. How do you make your work stand out? Success comes when a client will book you because it's you and not because you are just another good photographer. In the process, having a recognizable style might also make you a happier photographer. But how can you get there?
It’s very annoying, but the times of Irving Penn are over — you know, the guy who shot every genre and nailed it each time. People believe that one person cannot be good at everything. True or not, diversity in your portfolio can create a panic attack for a high-end client, an agent, or an art buyer and not just because the tendency today is to collaborate with a specialist in one field.
When you show up with images that vary greatly, your audience will feel submerged; there is too much to process for them to quickly capture what kind of a photographer you are, and that’s when they lose interest and you lose your opportunity. You need to get to the point fast and efficiently. The impression you make on your audience happens in seconds; think of the attention span you have to offer when browsing the web. In this matter, in our times, we are a lazy bunch; if we get bored or are asked more effort than expected, we move on. Don’t let that happen to your work.
You might find this unfair; after all, logically speaking, the fact that you can shoot a baby and a beer bottle on location or in studio and that you can totally adapt your lighting and style to a client's needs is a plus. It is in the beginning when you need any type of client to get your business going, but in the long run, you are becoming a replaceable commodity. If you don’t have a style that is unique, if your work is not consistent in its mood, you are putting yourself in a delicate position: you are not creating, you are just executing. Why is that dangerous? Have you seen the competition? There will always be somebody technically fluent enough to replace you for cheaper pay.
Establishing Your Style
So, what should you produce? There are three ingredients you need to take into account when elucidating the recipe of your style. I chose to illustrate the theory with the work of Cape Town Photographer Francois Pistorious. He worked as an assistant for many years and had the opportunity to test all kinds of lighting in many different locations. When it came his time to be the creative, surprisingly, he chose a style based on natural light without much equipment. For Francois, shooting a moment was more important than over-planning or creating staged images. He thought about what and how he wanted to shoot and stuck to it. That discipline is paying off.
I work very spontaneously and try to create a feeling, an emotion by being in the moment. Cape Town has given me the opportunity to create a style that is timeless because of the beautiful light and environment I am privileged to shoot in.
Yes, there are some that can handle any genre with the same panache, but if you’re still figuring out the dos and don’ts, start with the safe options. Choose your field of photography; some of them naturally go together, while others are trickier. Safe options are lifestyle and portraits, artist portraits and concerts, events and weddings, fashion and beauty, and landscape and reportage. I am not saying you can’t mix things up at a certain point, but do it when you have a style that has become the bridge between varied domains. In the meantime, if the majority of your work is documentary and you add commercial beauty shots to it, you are asking to be spanked.
The mood of what you photograph is crucial. What are the three adjectives that describe your work? Energetic, vibrant, and happy? Dark, moody, and romantic? Epic, sporty, and healthy? Edgy, conceptual and monochrome? You get my drift. Find your own trinity, and when you are shooting and editing, keep them in your head. If your images don’t embody those adjectives, don’t show them just yet.
Location, equipment, and retouching will define the look of your work. Do you do primarily studio shoots with the same type of light? Maybe only interiors in which you mimic daylight? Or just outdoors with lots of strobes? Is your retouching soft and natural or crisp and sharp? Do you do mostly black and white or do you have a color palette that is omnipresent? Is the first lens that you always pull out of your bag a wide angle or a 100mm macro?
If you take a hard look at your portfolio and cull images with this in mind, you might end up selecting the majority (applause) or trashing 80% of your work. If it’s the latter, keep your cool. Having a sacrosanct style is sometimes instinctive, but mostly, it is hard work in which trial and error is the only way to attain the holy grail. Keep shooting! Practice makes perfect. Look around you. What are the elements that you have access to and that you are drawn to? Find them and explore them relentlessly.
Let’s not be maniacs, though; if you have just two of the ingredients, you are already on the right path.This is not a mathematical equation, and as a creative pushing boundaries and exploring options, hating rules is in your DNA. In the beginning stages of your career, though, when you are still figuring out your style, showing all of the multiple sides of your creativity in one presentation is not always the brightest idea, especially when approaching the bigger clients. If they ask you what you shoot, you will not be able to answer succinctly. If you are not sure if you have a distinct style, ask yourself if your images are recognizable? For example, if a person that knows your work a bit sees some of your new output in a magazine, will they automatically bet that you are the one that created the images? If they will, you have nailed it.
In the beginning of your career, the commercial work you get will often be hard to mold to fit your style. Moreover, some genres of photography imply a feel and a look in which you don’t have a lot of leeway. Finally, your client will have specific needs and a dedicated budget, and if you want to eat, you will need to deliver exactly what they need. You can easily get stuck in a situation in which what you are shooting is not exactly what you would like to shoot. If that happens, keep experimenting on the side and curate the work that you send out.
Promoting Your Style
The first time that I Googled Francois' work, I was surprised to realize that he had two websites. Smart! (And why did the blonde in me not think about that earlier? Duh!) One is a platform on which he can showcase published and personal work, and the other is aimed at his commercial clients. Being that lifestyle is a genre that is very codified, Francois uses his personal work to make an impact. He is a great commercial photographer, but as you can guess, he is not the only photographer in Cape Town. What makes him unique is his personal and editorial work. When I think about him, the images that are associated with his name are those in which his style smacks me in the face. I am sure it is the same for his clients, and it is a serious advantage over his competition. Clients will book him for their jobs, even the ones in which creative latitude is restricted by the very nature of the work, because they know that if they like his personal work, they will not be disappointed by his commercial approach to things. Since he made the decision to promote his personal page, his clientele is also expanding to different genres of photography. And after many years, clients are finally starting to book him just for his style and his way of shooting. His style has given him the joker card; his creative freedom is not questioned on set as he got the job because of it.
You might not have Francois' energy to manage two websites, but you can always use different social media platforms. Your website can be all about your clients and your Instagram can be your personal portfolio, or the other way around. The day they become one, you become a brand; that day, you are playing in the big leagues.
Images used with permission of Francois Pistorius.