I'm not sure how many of you are in the same boat as me, but I'll lay it out. I enjoy photography and genuinely want to improve. In my case, that means learning any way I can. I skipped my high-school ambition to go to a photo school because I developed an interest in personal computers. I've never worked as an editorial photographer for a news agency, magazine, or anyone else. I don't even have anyone to rely upon as a mentor. Anything I learn about photography is either from trial & error or consciously going through educational material that's on the market now. I should also mention I'm a slow learner (or so it seems to me).
Although I do this for the fun of it, I'm not immune to the notion of making a living as a photographer. That's why I picked up David duChemin's book Vision Mongers: Making a Life and Living in Photography. (note: I included a link below to the book on Amazon, but I'm not signed up with them as an affiliate. I don't get any shill money if you decide to purchase it).
I've enjoyed the book and I think David covers the bases. He's not trying to tell you how to do things, but rather what things you need to consider so you can cover your business. There wasn't anything in there that came to me as a surprise. Most of it was information I've heard before in various business books and discussions, but this book does a fine job of bringing it all together and delivering a consistent message about the business of photography.
I've used it as one of my “restaurant” books, meaning that I just keep it in the car and only read it when I'm at a restaurant by myself. It tends to take a bit longer to read that way. Last night, I was getting toward the end of the book and decided to bring it in the house and complete it. Once I get to the end of a book, I start reading faster. It's almost like a race to check it off the list and get to the next book (I have tons of unread books).
The last part of the book is “A Conversation with Joe McNally.” I perked up a little because, quite honestly, I like Joe's observations and comments about photography and the business. This part is laid out exactly as it's titled. You can imagine David and Joe sitting down for a cup of coffee (or some other brown beverage) with a recorder going and you're reading the transcript. However, it's pretty much re-hashing stuff I've already read or heard from Joe. That's not a criticism; it shows he's consistent in delivering his message. It also makes it easier to read faster and get to the end of the book. I'm on the next to last page (pg. 247) and figure I'm skating to the end. That's when everything changes and Joe says something in the book that just completely pisses me off.
One of my criticisms of younger photographers is that their portfolio often doesn't tell me what they shoot. It's more of a collection of pictures and not a portfolio.
That stopped me right in my tracks. It's something from Joe that I haven't previously heard him say or write on his blog. It's a new thought. On one hand, it totally fits into the theme of this section about a couple of photographers having a conversation and letting this little thing slip out. I have no idea if Joe ever says this thought to young photographers directly or not, though.
The reason it pissed me off is because it seems he's talking about me and he's right. Not about being young, mind you, but about my portfolio. This is something that's been in my subconscious and background thoughts recently, but Joe's statement in this book just put it out there. I have a collection of photos, not a portfolio. During my portfolio review at Photoshop World last month, Bert Monroy politely indicated something similar at the end. I also heard other speakers discuss finding your niche. David points it out quite clearly in this book, also. You may be able to shoot everything, but you can't market to everything. That's why you find a niche; to target your market.
I'm probably similar to a lot of photographers in that I enjoy shooting a variety of subjects. I like landscapes, portraits, glamour, and events. The course I just took on concert photography has me pretty excited to get involved in that aspect of photography. However, I'm struggling with the notion of either refining myself into a specific niche or defining a signature “look” to my photographs. To continue with Joe's comments:
The best photographers, even if they shoot all kinds of stuff, do have a central theme, be it the way they work with the light or people, or perhaps with color. Find your style.
I can't count how many times I've heard people tell an audience to find their style, find their niche. It never really resonated with me because they never told you why you needed to fit in a niche, why you can't have more than one style. If I don't know why to accept your premise, I'm just not going to accept it. That's one of the failings of having an INTP personality temperament.
Joe, in his blunt comment, summed it up in a way that I could understand. It's not about whether I want to shoot the stuff I want to shoot, or how I want to shoot it. It's about how I communicate what I'm shooting to someone else as more than a single image at a time. It's about cohesiveness. If you're in this to win customers, you need to show them consistent results and style so they can know if you're going to deliver the results they want. Otherwise, why should they hire you?
In my case, it's not about winning a client. It's about making a personal statement. It's about changing my perception of photography from a hobby to an art. It's about sharing a vision with others, whether they buy my work or not. Ultimately, it's about growing. I now understand why I need, or more accurately, want, to develop my own style or niche.
Of course, now I have to do the soul-searching and extra work of determining what style I'm going to foist upon the world. What story do I want to tell? What emotions do I want to share? That's a lot of damn work. Damn you, Joe.