The Secret Key to Success a Photographer Must Know

The Secret Key to Success a Photographer Must Know

There is a growing tendency in photography to produce commercially viable portfolios. I can't say that this is a bad tendency, as it nurtures image-makers who are more profitable. However, there are a few negatives to this. One of them is that everyone's portfolio looks the same.

As I travel a lot, I end up seeing a lot of landmarks. Funny enough, I almost never take photos of those landmarks. If I do, it's for personal purposes, never for artistic purposes. Sure, I have a selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, who doesn't, but images with the Eiffel Tower are nowhere to be seen in my portfolio. Being one of the most recognized landmarks in the world, it has been shot from every angle below, above, left, right, and center. You really can't take an original image that will make one go "wow" with such a landmark.

At the same time, there are tons of photographers with similar images of the same landmark in their portfolios. This doesn't only apply to landmark photography but to every genre possible. For example, still life photographers all have a splash shot, headshot photographers have the same exact shot with the Peter Hurley lighting, and so on. You get my drift.


My expertise is in editorial and commercial fashion photography, so I will go over that. Whenever I look at portfolios of photographers aiming to do work in the fashion industry, I tend to divide them into two categories: original and boring. Perhaps a slightly stupid division, but it is important for me to understand what kind of vision the photographer has. As such, I look at portfolios from the standpoint of a potential client rather than anything else. The original portfolios will contain images that I, as a photographer, have rarely seen before. Only a very small percentage of the work I look at falls into that category, unfortunately. Many more photographers are doing the same thing over and over again.

A boring portfolio will look the same as any other portfolio. There are a few trends in fashion photography that make their way to portfolios nowadays. Let's go over such practices. One of the most common ones is a neon trend. This is where you shoot a model in a dark, vibrant atmosphere, using color blur, a fast lens open all the way, and so on. This trend was popularized by YouTube photographers pretending to know what real work is about. I don't want to slag off YouTube photographers, though; they are great educators but not so much photographers. Another one I keep seeing is running shots to showcase how good the photographer is at capturing motion.

One more would be almost any nude. Nudes in general are a category of their own, but a lot of photographers jump on this genre in hopes of shooting something provocative and so on. Boudoir and nude are nothing shocking these days. There is more porn than ever, and there are really very few cases where a pair of breasts surprised anyone. A stripper friend of mine would always say that a pair of breasts is hardly shocking, much to her disappointment, of course. Continuing on, there is a ton of work that is being shot in the Peter Lindbergh style. This work is, of course, black and white, with little to no preparation, and with little to no consideration for the topic at hand: fashion. While Lindbergh is great, there is really no reason you should be copying his work. The classic natural light, white shirt, no trousers image has been done time and time again. The same goes for images of Lindsay Adler being copied all the time. I have the utmost respect for Lindsay; she is a hugely talented photographer and more than anything I will ever be, but because her work is copied so much, it becomes cliché. The list goes on and on, honestly.

Living In The Shadow

The point I am trying to make is that if you are creating work that looks like the work of an already successful and known photographer, you will more often than not end up being a cheap version of that photographer living in their shadow. As an artist, is it really what you want? Ego aside, being a knockoff of another photographer will get you jobs, but you will be known for that forever. Just think of anyone who rocks the Godox V1. They know that light was copied from Profoto and it's not as good. Godox, as a result, gained a reputation for being a knockoff brand in some regards.

Producing original work can be and will be difficult. It's not like you can rock up with a camera and make the most original image the world has seen. Truth be told, originality is very subjective as it is. The photographers shooting top jobs now make good original work, but it's not like the style is hard to reproduce. Lindbergh also did not pioneer the black and white fashion photo. Helmut Newton did. Or he didn't, and Richard Avedon did. The point is, original image look is one thing. Authenticity to your own aesthetic is another.

Strive For Authenticity

Authentic work, honest work, work that speaks to you and shows the way you view the world to others is the work you want to be producing. Being a technician who can nail any kind of shot is not nearly enough these days. Moreover, if I need help with figuring out how to light a certain subject, there are plenty of lighting techs I can turn to. Their job is to provide me with tools to carry my vision and opinion. You can't get away with just knowing how to do a 20-light setup and light anything. You need to have the aesthetic understanding, the feeling of zeitgeist, so on. On top of that, your work needs to both be authentic to you and also somehow fit in in that said zeitgeist. Only then can you produce original work and get booked for the way you shoot, not for what you are able to do technically.

Recently, it occurred to me that my clients are mostly booking me for the way I photograph. Briefs and client mood boards tend to have one or two images of mine that the brand found appealing. As such, it shows that my personal work is relevant to the current market demands and is getting me booked for my authenticity, and not the ability to set up a light.

Over to you, what is originality and authenticity for you? Are you producing such work? Let us know in the comments below!

Illya Ovchar's picture

Illya aims to tell stories with clothes and light. Illya's work can be seen in magazines such as Vogue, Marie Claire, and InStyle.

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"There is a growing tendency in photography to produce commercially viable portfolios."

Yeah, troubling. Has been going on since the 1820s. Sure hope it doesn't catch on.

I appreciate the sentiment of this article but it feels a little gate-keepy to me. I get that there is a lot of emulation in photography, but 1) that is how we learn and grow and 2) everything is a variation on something that came before. I’m sure it’s not the writer’s intent to suggest that original comes naturally or is easy, but we’re all trying to stand on the shoulders of giants at some point in your career. If not, good for you.

Not every (commercial) photographer is producing breakthrough original work. To get work from an agency, publisher or brand most of the time a photographer has to fit into a style the client can understand.
I think all photographers at first follow a style that they like, maybe not 100%...except for the Headshot crew who use a common triangle lighting formula. Then we develop "our look" with influence from other photographers.
But that is the same as it ever was.
In my work I had in my portfolio/website the kind of stuff that the client already does and some work that is in sort of in my style. I remember a great meeting when everybody liked some wacky thing I shot and they hired me to shoot a bunch of products on white, but it was for JEEP so they paid with car account dollars.