Why You Should Consider Doing Public Work Instead of Pursuing Client Work

Why You Should Consider Doing Public Work Instead of Pursuing Client Work

It is the dream of many amateur photographers to be hired for celebrity photo shoots and high-status advertising gigs. What could be more exciting than photographing a famous singer in a large photo studio with stylists, digital techs, and assistants at your beck and call? Imagine how great it would be to see your photographs published on a magazine or album cover. Best of all, commercial jobs can pay well over $10,000 for a single day of work. Surely this is better than just photographing ordinary folk, right? Maybe not.

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

With so many photographers desiring to work with celebrities and music artists, it might seem odd that some photographers would choose to walk away from these shoots to focus on photographing the general public instead. This article will not attempt to lay out all of the relevant information you would need to decide if you should focus on client work or public work. We will instead focus on highlighting some of the advantages of doing the public work that you are already doing. Chances are, you are already doing public work but don’t realize just how good you have it.

Jeremy Cowart has photographed celebrities for some of the biggest brands in entertainment. He has created his art in photo studios and locations across the country and the world, even. And while he expects to continue working on large-scale productions in the future, Jeremy is discovering that his true passion may lie in working on smaller, more personal portrait shoots with regular folk. Jeremy recalls one specific shoot that embodied what he does not like about client jobs. “I was on a medical shoot probably three years ago and the client was directing every single little thing. I didn't even know why I was there. They were determining the crop, the color, everything. They were basically shooting it. And I was just pushing the button. And I was like, this is it. I can't do this, anymore. It was a good-paying job, but I hated it.”

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

I recall having similar feelings when I first shifted from working with friends to working with professional models. This was a natural occurrence as I became more successful in my photography career. When I began working with higher-status talent, I was disappointed whenever it felt that the model was just running through a series of poses that she had performed on dozens of other photography sets. It sometimes felt as if the model didn’t care that it was me pushing the button and she had no interest in bringing anything authentic to this specific shoot. She was just doing the poses with me, which she has done 25 times in the last six months for 25 other photographers.

One major difference between doing client work and public work is the process of receiving payment. The process of being paid for public work is simple. Using software such as Acuity/Squarespace, it is possible to require payment to be made in full on your website when someone books a shoot. The rate of payment on client jobs can be substantially higher than that of public jobs, but this payment isn’t typically received until at least 30 days after the completion of the shoot. Sometimes, the client is required to pay a deposit prior to the shoot taking place but even when things go smoothly there is still a multi-step process of bidding for the job, creating estimates, sending invoices, and waiting for payment. Recently, I photographed headshots for the Hilton Hotel Corporation. Before I could be paid I had to register my business in a supplier portal called Coupa. I had to answer dozens of questions about banking codes, ethnic status, number of employees, and tax information. The process took over half an hour.

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

Jeremy is familiar with the complications involved in receiving payment from corporations. “In the last few weeks, it's taken two weeks after the shoot to get the deposit — the upfront payment. And then it can be months until you receive the final payment. And it's exhausting to track down those payments. I just did a massive shoot for somebody who will remain unnamed, and I put in a good week or two of work into this shoot. I got paid fairly decent, but in the end, I'm like, was that worth it? I don't know that it was. And it's a big name and there'll be a lot of recognition that comes with it but even then, I was like, I don't know that that was worth my time, financially speaking.”

On client shoots, the photographer is one part of a large machine that is creating the final image. The photographer does not have full control nor does she have the final say when there is a creative dispute. The photographer rarely even makes the final image selection. For Jeremy, being able to make final image selections on his public work is a game changer. “I can't say how many times I've done a photo shoot, and I swear, it's like the client asked, what's the worst photo Jeremy took? Okay, that's the one — that's the album cover,” he said. You might think the solution is for the photographer to delete all of the bad photos from the session before the images are delivered to the client. “Even if you delete a lot of the bad photos…what’s leftover, they're still going to pick the worst. It's like you can't win,” Jeremy said.

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

To make matters worse, on some client jobs, the photographer has signed a lengthy contract that prohibits the photographer from showing outtakes on social media. I just did a shoot where I was like, finally, my absolute favorite photo from the shoot, they're actually using as the photo, that's like a unicorn,” he said.

On a client shoot, the creative direction will be decided in collaboration with others. This can lead to the photographer producing some beautiful images that benefit from the input of art directors, stylists, and artists. The process is different from public work where the amount of input from others is an element under your control. You are free to utilize a full team, or just fly solo and execute your singular vision. “I love that I just get to do whatever I want. The people who are paying me to come in and do a shoot, they trust whatever I'm doing. It's amazing. There's no questioning, no arguing, no debate. It's almost like they are not actually coming in for the photos. They're coming in to be inspired and to be a part of the creative process. I know that because they’ve told me so.” said Jeremy.

Currently, Jeremy is offering 60-second photo shoots. You read that correctly. He is offering an entire photo shoot that is completed in one minute. In that brief period, Jeremy creates dozens of distinctly unique images that are lit using a variety of different lighting setups and different composition elements. The sitting fee is a meager $49 but there is a per-image download price in addition to the $49 sitting fee. There is also an option to buy the full shoot in high resolution for $500 (for noncommercial use). This is a rethinking of how photographers price their work and it allows Jeremy to retain full ownership of his work as well as control the look of the art he creates. This shooting and business model also makes it possible for Jeremy to generate a lot of money in a single day.

“Because of the volume, I'm learning so much and tweaking the process. Literally every day something is changing. The business model is evolving as quickly as the creative process itself. My goal is to be charging a very high premium, but even $49 a minute multiplied by shoots taking place all day … that's a lot of money. My goal is to actually make more money shooting personal work in one day than I ever would make shooting for clients. So other photographers need to understand that this is not an undercutting the competition model of doing business. I’m simply slicing up my commercial rates into tiny slivers so that the everyday person can afford a shoot with me. It’s a win for both of us and in the end, I’m trying to raise the bar for all of us.” 

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

A few years ago, Jeremy released a video tutorial titled, “The Camera Money Workshop” that detailed a blueprint for offering 15-minute photo sessions. The video advised the photographer to set up 3 distinctly different lighting setups that the subject can be moved into during the course of the shoot. Using this system, Jeremy made over $57,000 in 57 hours. Few photographers could pull off creating as many looks as Jeremy does during a 60-minute session, but creating 3 looks in 15 minutes is something many photographers can accomplish, and scheduling 5 or 6 sessions like this in a single day could be a great source of revenue.

Jeremy has a large following on social media and this makes it possible for him to book a lot of people when he offers portrait sessions to the general public. A photographer with a small social media presence will find it more difficult to fill multiple spots in a single day. It should be noted, however, that Jeremy earned his following on social media by consistently showing up, posting strong work, and interacting with his followers. Unlike most photographers who might pursue public work, Jeremy has created a strong portfolio of celebrity images that is invaluable in gaining the trust and attention of the general public. “A couple of people have brought up a very valid point. They're basically saying that I can only do a lot of personal work because of my success doing client work, which is valid. I had built a name doing client work over the years and that allowed me to get so many people in here to do personal work.”

This isn’t to suggest that you can’t book public clients without having done client work in the past. Persistence and hard work will do you more good than having a photograph of Taylor Swift in your portfolio. Jeremy’s work first came to my attention about 10 years ago when he shared images he had taken in Haiti using an iPhone. From a technical standpoint, anyone could have taken those photographs. What made the images compelling, however, was the vision and talent of the photographer who made the captures. Like every person who logs on to Instagram for the first time, Jeremy began with zero followers.

One of the best things about working with corporate clients is the possibility of traveling to different locations to practice your craft. Having a client foot the bill for you to travel to other states and countries can be a beautiful thing for a young photographer. It is both fun and educational and the exotic locations look great on your Instagram feed. After a few years of extensive travel, however, an older photographer may enjoy the efficiency of shooting in their hometown. And, if a photographer uses an elaborate lighting setup, it can be difficult to transport the lighting and computer gear necessary to do work that matches what you can create in your home base. “When you're young, all this traveling and shooting sounds super fun and sexy. But then as you get older and you get kids and you're busier, you don't want to be traveling all the time. You don't want to be leaving your children. So when I am doing public work, I love that I get to just drive to work every day and people come to me. I've got people flying in from around the country for one-minute photoshoots. It's wild.“ 

When doing public work, you have the freedom to release images on social media as you see fit. There are no embargoes and the images don’t need to be approved by anyone before they are posted. The situation is usually different on client jobs and you can’t release images at will. Often, only images that have been approved by the client can be released. “That's one of the most painful parts because as an artist, you want to show the work you're doing. This big shoot that I just did last month … it's probably the coolest shoot I've ever done in my life. But no one will see that for a year probably. And even then I don't know that they'll see much of the work at all. I shot an amazing amount of work (Over 10,000 images in 3 days). And again, easily the most creative, coolest work I've done in a long time and it likely won't be seen,” said Jeremy.

For an artist who is passionate about their work, the desire to post images right away is strong. It is not uncommon for an image embargo to last 6 months on client jobs. By the time the photographer is free to post images from that shoot, she has moved on to the next project. Many artists do not think about the past. They are focused on today and tomorrow.

On many client shoots, the photographer does not have the final say over how the images are color graded, nor how graphics or other elements are added to the final image. Sometimes the filters and such used by the client are not representative of the photographer’s vision for their subject. “I'm very much an artist through the whole process. I want to control the color and the tone and the contrast and the white balance … all that stuff. And so many times when you do a shoot, actually, most of the time, you are giving them a hard drive with the raw files on it never to be seen again,” said Jeremy. While it would be courteous for a client to consult the photographer about edits being made to the images, this is not standard procedure.

Photography by Jeremy Cowart

When doing a high-end commercial shoot, it can be difficult for a photographer to fully control the set. There can be more than 20 people fulfilling various jobs such as caterers, glam squad, security, drivers, art directors, and even a person or two whose job on set is not readily apparent.  By contrast, a photographer doing public work has more freedom to create the mood she desires on set. “I'm pretty much an introvert and I like having an intimate set with my subject and just letting the two of us do our thing. And of course, sometimes, the hair and makeup artist or stylist, but many times with commercial shoots you have a gazillion people on set, completely unnecessarily. And they can really become a hindrance to the process. I love just having a very intimate vibe with me and my subject, and we do our thing and that's it.”

A high-level client shoot will invariably involve many emails back and forth discussing details about the shoot. Everything from call time to the number of looks the photographer is expected to create will be discussed in the days before the shoot. And while it is understandable that the client has concerns that need to be addressed, when you are doing a shoot of the kind that you have done dozens of times in the past, some of the back and forth feels unnecessary. “For my most recent client shoot, there were weeks and weeks of emails. That's time that you're not even getting paid for. It's just all planning, and so much of it is unnecessary. So I love it today, when someone walks in the door, I just get to riff and do my thing. And I get it, a lot of these complicated shoots do require planning, and they do require sets and locations and producers. I totally get it. But my preferred process is improv, is to just riff and do my thing and I love that,” said Jeremy. It is also worth noting that once the looks have been predetermined on a client shoot, you may not have the freedom to just shoot anything you please as the mood strikes you on set.

Another difference between working client shoots and public shoots is how the person you are photographing values the images you are producing. I have photographed a lot of artists in my career. Sometimes they seemed jaded entering the studio because they had done a lot of shoots in the past and even this day their schedule is filled with interviews, media appearances, and perhaps another photo shoot as well. “They've seen it all, they've done it all. And so it's just another day. It can almost be a ho-hum kind of thing where they don't care. And so when you photograph everyday people, that get to come and experience the magic of what we do as photographers, it’s a different vibe. I've got people in here literally screaming out of pure joy and delight. And that's fun. It just reminds you how special it is what we do,” said Jeremy.

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