If you’re like the typical commercial photographer (or if you’re anything like me), the number one reason you decided to make photography your way of making a living was that you love making photographs.
It’s great! You think to yourself that you can finally get paid for doing something you love. You dream of big dollars, endless creativity, exotic locations and beautiful/handsome models.
Then reality sets in. You don’t immediately become one of the world’s top ad shooters, picking and choosing the work you do. You don’t become a social media influencer being paid tens of thousands of dollars per Instagram post.
The working photographer calls it personal work, but for the enthusiast, it’s just photography.
Instead, you find yourself shooting corporate portraits one day and interiors the next. The following week sees you heading out of town on an editorial assignment that came through at the last minute, before rushing back in time to cover an event for a business organization.
All these gigs help with getting the bills paid but very few people get into photography because that’s what they love shooting.
It’s regularly said that you need to specialize and that’s true – to an extent.
However, if you don’t live in a major market, NYC or LA or London for example, the reality is you’ll probably get hired to photograph a diverse range of subjects, and they won’t all be jobs that inspire you creatively.
A lot of the time, the only reason you’ll take the job is that you need the money. Every photographer has stories of assignments that they’ve taken solely for the finances. It’s just a fact of life if you’re a working photographer.
Sometimes, It’s Just All Fun And Games
Compare that to the life of the enthusiast photographer; people who work in offices, schools and factories who pick up the camera on weekends for a hobby.
Most working photographers I know shoot because they can’t not do it.
Everything they shoot is work that inspires them creatively. That may be street photography or flowers or portraits of friends or whatever. The working photographer calls it personal work, but for the enthusiast, it’s just photography. It’s all they do.
I’ve heard it said that if you can do anything else that’s not photography, then do it. Keep photography for a hobby.
It’s probably good advice. You’ll always be able to shoot what you want. You’ll never have to answer to someone else. And if you’re feeling sick or tired or lazy or would rather binge-watch Netflix, you can. You can’t do that if you do it for a living.
Most working photographers I know shoot because they can’t not do it. For myself, it’s much same way.
I’ve done other things in the past and been left unsatisfied by them. Where I live now, my only options other than photography would be some variation of a dead-end McJob.
To do something other than photography (that is fulfilling) would probably require moving countries or at the very least, large amounts of retraining. That’s not an option for me.
That’s where personal work comes in. It is essential for a working photographer to have at least one personal project going on.
An even better situation to be in is to have a few projects in various stages of completion. It’s only in personal work that the reasons for being a photographer in the first place shine through.
You have complete creative control. You can focus on whatever you desire. You aren’t bound by deadlines or trends or the opinions of other people. You can shoot solely for yourself just like you did before you ever contemplated working in the industry.
When Did You Last Shoot Something For Yourself?
My guess is it’s probably been longer ago than you realize. Time has a habit of going by quickly, and before you know it, you haven’t picked up a camera outside of commercial work in months.
You may not always be shooting for clients, but there are test shoots, scouting shoots, portfolio shoots, etc. that need completing. All things that, while they may be conceived and directed by you, are still destined for someone else.
All images © Craig Ferguson
Your personal work should be for you. Sure, publish it and show it to the world. After all, this is your creativity fully on display.
When you reach out to clients, both existing ones and potential new ones, let them know about it. It may just resonate with someone, and you might find yourself commissioned to create something based on ideas you have created.That’s the zenith of a career for a commercial photographer.
Even if you’re not hired for it, keep making it. Making photographs of your design is what drew you to this industry in the first place.