Ten Myths of Professional Commercial Photography


Err… at least the 10 that I hear a lot of chatting about. I get questions about these at nearly every workshop. So a quick post on what some folks think is reality and what IS reality. Yeah, I know… you saw it on the interwebs. Shoots with all the latest and greatest gear, a few dozen ‘assistants’ there to move stuff to the photographers every whim, lavish lunch spreads, incredibly exciting atmosphere with the thrill of not having to bust ass for ‘the man’.

Sure. Yeah, that’s the way it always is. Except when, you know, it’s not.

Before we start down that path, there are a few posts out there in the interwebs I want to make sure you see:

- Smashing Magazine had a great post on excellent product photography (thanks guys!).

- “Flashing the Middle Finger to the Dreaded Middle” by Bruce DeBoer.

- Kirk Tuck’s wonderful article on street shooting. Worth the read, so do it.

- Seth has something to say about hiring professionals – and amateurs that can meet the level of professionalism.

- And if you are not aware of what is in store for us photographers, take a look at this via A Photo Editor.

Now on to some myths that get related to me often at the workshops. If you have any you would like to bust as well, add them in the comments and I will make another post.

1. Professionals all have the best, most modern gear:
Well… no, not really. Some do, and many have top-of-the-line stuff mixed with old stand-by’s. And some only replace when needed. And most have what they have and it still works and they keep it working as long as possible.

My suite-mate Ken Howie still shoots the original Leaf back on his view cameras. 6MP backs… and he has a stash of them from EBay and anywhere he can find them. They are cooled by refrigeration units when shooting and all of them are about 20 years old… so having a stash of usable backs is important. His first one cost about $35K, and he is getting them off of EBay for around $300 in working condition these days.

But the point is – they work. Beautifully.

His clients are some of the most demanding; advertising agencies, art museums, and custom automotive. He has 30″ x 60″ prints in the lobby that are amazing. He knows his craft and delivers a wonderful product. From a 20 year old back. He also owns a fill 1DSMKIII system as well, because there are times when he needs that format. He has what he needs, not simply for the ‘new’ factor.

Of all the working shooters I know, most have a mix of good gear and ‘it works’ gear. Clients don’t really care if your stands are a bit older, or whether you have the newest and greatest softbox. The images don’t care if you use a $600 photo scrim or a $12 Shower curtain – as long as the image rocks, it’s all good.

I recently spoke with an editorial portraitist who has 2 bodies, 2 lenses and a small portable lighting kit (all total less than $15K) and he is working pretty regularly. His style of image doesn’t require that much stuff. And his clients love his work, not his gear.

Get what you need. Make sure it works. Shoot more pictures.

2. Professional photographers need lots of staff.
Well, that looks cool on video doesn’t it? Whole gaggles of 20 somethings running around and being ‘involved.’ And I am sure that situation plays itself out in many studios. But in most, there are the minimal staff needed to create the work. I know many shooters who rarely use assistants unless they really need the help. Carrying 20 packs of gear up three floors is a gonna trip getting an assistant for me… heh. And there is nothing better than working with a great assistant when the shoot calls for having a second pair of hands and eyes.

Working outside with umbrellas and softboxes when there is a breeze can be quite a challenge, for sure. So great folks willing to help hold stands can be a blessing.

However, in most working studios staff is rare. Staff is expensive. And if you aren’t making the money you need, paying staff for sitting around can be a drain of resources. Be judicious when you hire – make sure you need and will be able to use them. Be fair to them, as well as yourself.

For me, freelance assistants are the way to go. And when you need them, they are worth every dollar. So get to know who they are so you can find them when you need them. For most of us though, working alone is probably the reality for most of our gigs.

More after the jump…

Recent posts:
10 Website Strategies for Photographers
10 More Website Strategies for Photographers
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3. Every shot is portfolio worthy.

Yeah. Heh.

Actually most of the work is not portfolio quality for most of us. They are work-a-day shots of people, places and things that are used for commerce and for illustration.

A six day shoot of garage opener doors and parts for a catalog may be a real kick to the bottom line that month, but probably not gonna be stuff you share in your portfolio -with the possible exception of trying to get another catalog of garage door openers… and then, only if asked.

Commercial photographers do a lot of commercial gigs that are not going to ultimately end up in the portfolio. It is simply a part of what we do. A big part.

Most shooters in smaller to mid markets are going to find it that way. The portfolio work is much harder to come by as you start to build your careers. And choose those pieces carefully.

4. Too much competition:
Well, if there is that much competition, there must be work to go after.

I cannot think of a single endeavor worth doing that doesn’t have competition. Can you? Why would I want to do something that no one else has proven they can make a living doing? (Of course there are entrepreneurs who do that all the time, but we are talking photographers here.)

You want competition? Try being a bank president. Or a top attorney. Or a prize winning jockey. Now there is competition. There are very damn few of them… there are lots of photographers. That’s a good thing.

And with the internet I can see what they do. And make my stuff better.

Hard to make your stuff better than the other guys? Hell yeah, it is. Did you expect it to be easy? Really?

Sorry. It isn’t easy, it is simply what you have to do.

5. Too expensive:
Nope. It isn’t.

You can start a photographers business on less than $15K. And you can make it thrive.

Tell me any other businesses that can be started up for under $20K and see revenues in mid 5 figures in a year or two.

You think cameras are expensive, check out what a pizza oven goes for. Those mom & pop pizza places have a hell of a lot of money in those pizza ovens.

Stop telling yourself that it is too expensive and get your work out there.

6. It’s shooting every day:
Oh, sure it is.

Except for those days when you are editing, packing, unpacking, traveling, scouting, marketing, cold-calling, marketing, working on the portfolio, gathering receipts, marketing, making bids, filling out RFP’s, marketing, going to meetings, returning calls and emails and marketing.

Yeah, except for when you are doing that stuff, it’s shooting every day. Yep.

7. Your art will ultimately win out.
If you are really, REALLY good, you don’t have to market your self. The work will speak for itself and the phone will ring.

Sure.

Good luck with that.

8. You can get rich.
A. If you got into photography to get rich, you should quickly get used to disappointment.
B. If you do manage to get rich (and there are most definitely some very rich photographers) try to manage your money and stay rich.
C. But most of us will not. Just the way it is.

9. Working for yourself is a blast.
Except for of course the boss. He/She is a slave driver who will make you work instead of watching the game, fooling around on Facebook, hanging out with the guys, having a weekend without work… I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Being self employed has a lot of perks. It is also one of the most demanding endeavors you will ever take on. It takes discipline, self motivation, perseverance and sheer guts to do it. You are the only one that can make the decision whether it is right for you. But please be sure you take a very strong self-audit to find out if you are ready for the challenge.

10. You never shoot “for free”:
Yes. You do.

On occasion.

Anyone who says they haven’t or don’t are not being straight or parsing the terms.

There are times when the gift of photography, the goodwill of images, the ability to help a friend who can in turn then help you is too compelling. Just be sure you know what you are doing and what will come of it.

Be judicious, be careful and be aware that you MAY be getting taken advantage of… but you can take advantage of situations yourself.

Thanks for coming along on this little rant. I hope that I may have helped to put a hole in some of these “myths” or whatever you would refer to them as being.

Follow me on Twitter, visit the Learn to Light Workshop page for information on the workshops, and have a great shoot this week.

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About 

I am in love with light.

Also known as Don Giannatti, photography has been the focus of my life for most of my adult years. I have written three books for Amherst Media (available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble: keyword 'don giannatti'. Lighting Essentials is my flagship blog and ezine with a slightly different slant than most photography related blogs. If you are interested in becoming a better photographer, check out www.project52.org. Thanks for visiting.

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