Although we’re often reminded of the importance of constantly shooting and developing our skills as photographers, is there a point where too often shooting actually becomes detrimental? Through observation and personal experience I’ve come to the conclusion that there is indeed a case to be made for shooting less if you’re hoping to properly develop your photography business.
Now first off, I’m not referring to "shooting too often" in relation to paid work. Although burnout can certainly occur in this situation, in general as a professional photographer shooting is your bread and butter, so turning down paid jobs requires different considerations and is a separate topic of discussion. What I’m referring to here is primarily personal work and creative shoots that so many photographers have to do to build up a body of work. As I observe other photographers and reflect on my shooting history, I’ve come to the realization that there’s a sweet spot that we all need to aim for at a certain point.
The Discovery Stage
If you’re just starting out then I encourage you to shoot all you can. This is a stage of discovery where you should shoot anything and everything to learn what it is that you love, what you excel at and what your style is. This process can take a great deal of time but the key here is to try lots of different things. Therein lies one of the first problems that I continually observe. I see a number of photographers shooting one personal shoot after another, all of which are the same. The differentiating factor between them is often little more than the model while the remaining formula remains unchanged. Once again, if you’re a commercial photographer being compensated to shoot these looks, then by all means, keep hammering out your signature look. If however you’re shooting to build a portfolio, then a book of fifty images, all of which are the same will do little to demonstrate your range. Before you start planning, ask yourself whether your next shoot is actually different from the ones you’ve already done? What are you trying to showcase with it and what do you intend to learn? Creative shoots are about stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new with relatively little pressure should things go wrong. Your prospective client will want to see this so that they can be convinced you can handle whatever is thrown your way. Step one therefore is to not take on another creative unless it’s different in some way. If you're a fashion photographer and you normally shoot soft light, try to shoot with hard light, if you usually shoot with a shallow DOF, try to shoot stopped down, if you always use a telephoto lens, try to go wide and get some creative effects, if you’re always in the studio, get on location. There’s one caveat here and that’s if you’re repeating a look that you shot many months back. If you’ve been trying lots of new things it’s perfectly OK to revisit a past look as you’ll likely shoot it completely differently now that you’ve grown as a photographer.
The Refinement Stage
If you’ve gotten past the discovery stage and honed in on your style, the next consideration to make is whether you’re beginning to sacrifice quality for quantity. It’s great that you’ve got 100 images in your portfolio but are they all of the highest caliber? Would you be better represented with 20 stellar images versus 100 mediocre ones? As you grow as photographer you should come to the realization that top quality results take lots of effory. This work takes place well before the shutter clicks and long after you leave the studio. They come from days or weeks of planning, and subsequently careful culling and post processing. These stages take time so if you’re shooting constantly you can’t possibly put in the effort needed to make the most of each shoot. If this sounds like it applies to you, try to gradually cut down your shooting time and dedicate more of it to planning. This can involve more location scouting, team building, light testing, etc. Once again, trying something completely new will help to necessitate this sort of planning since you’re venturing into the unknown. Aim to steadily increase the scope of each project and place the emphasis on quality over quantity.
The Marketing Stage
With your portfolio of high quality images built, it’s time to slow things down and focus on your business. As tempting as it is to take the next offer for a creative project, you have to stick to your guns and give your business some much needed attention. There’s little doubt that just about every photographer would prefer to be out shooting rather than cold calling or addressing mailers, but unfortunately this becomes the reality of the situation. While I’m not encouraging you to stop shooting personal projects entirely, you do have to become more more selective with them and only take on those that will allow you to reach more lucrative clients or tap new markets. With the plan-heavy approach discussed above, you should have a portfolio of high quality images across a broad range of looks, so it’s time to let your clients know about it. Social media posts won’t suffice here. Instead of heading out with a camera, set up meetings and head out with a printed portfolio. In addition to establishing connections, these meetings will also have the added benefit of showing you want looks your clients gravitate towards and where possible gaps exist. Use the information when planning your next creative so you that you can gradually make your portfolio more and more marketable.
The key to finding the right balance of shooting time is to objectively determine what stage you’re at. If you’re at the discovery stage then the results matter less and the experience matters more. As you progress, your focus should be on high quality results and these often come from careful consideration and slowing things down. Remember that portfolio building isn’t about reaching a certain number of images, it’s about having the right images.