From Good Photography to Great: Personal Work

Warning! The images that accompany this post are graphic, potentially offensive, contain partial nudity and may not be suitable for viewing at work or with young people. 

In my last blog post, I wrote about how important personal work is to personal satisfaction, business success and avoiding burnout. Today, I’m going to expand on those thoughts, talk about the how and why of personal work and encourage you to get on the personal project bandwagon.

Before I get started, I’m going to guess what’s in thoughts of many photographers looking to excel. They just want me to tell them what camera to use, what photos to take, what Photoshop actions to use, what lighting to use and so forth. Success to many is like a recipe -” just list the ingredients and then I can take it from there.”

I’m sorry but that’s not going to work. Not in this business. Not in this day and age. There are just way too many photographers all doing the same thing for that to work. Sure, you can look at some “rock star photographer” with trendy-to-slightly-above-average work and think that if he can make it doing that level of work so can you. Maybe. But unless you are off-the-charts with personality, charisma, and smarts, that just ain’t gonna happen.

No. The way most of us are gonna get to rock star status is through doing great work. Yes personality and marketing goes a long way, but they go much, much farther if they’re backed by work that stands out. So let’s focus on that.

What is Great Work?
Here’s one of the great truths that you should know: People have a much easier time deciding what is different than what is better. If all you do is try to create marginally better work than your competition, you’ll never stand out. But if you create work that is different, people will sit up and take notice. For example, wedding photographer Jason Lee made a huge splash with photos of his kids shot in all sorts of fun, zany situations. What makes this body of personal work stand out is that it’s different.

The images are different from your typical shots of pretty girls with little bows, cute dresses and a field at sunset (and tinted via a yellow vintage Photoshop action). You can line up one of Lee’s shots along with a dozen pretty shots of kids’ portraits and argue for hours about which is the best. But everyone will point to Lee’s shots when asked which of the shots is different from the rest. Such is the power of uniqueness.

Above all, great photography is work that is different and resonates emotionally with the viewer. My suggestion to you is to focus in the beginning on different – emotional resonance will come with time.

Different Kinds of Work
There are three kinds of work that you’ll produce as a photographer.

1. Personal Work – This is work that you shoot for yourself with little thought of any audience besides yourself. It’s your R&D. It’s where you express yourself through your work. Experiment. Have fun. Create your art. Focus your passion.

Every photographer should have a book they’re working on. The working title of mine is Life of the Party and is all about people enjoying themselves in the company of others (and usually plenty of alcohol). I take this project seriously – the photos for this article resulted from my trip to Lake Havasu in Arizona over Memorial Day weekend 2012, a not inexpensive trip that I made for the sole purpose of photographing the weekend’s havoc. Some people consider the images borderline pornographic or, at a minimum crass and misogynistic. I don’t disagree, but then again, I don’t care since this body of work exists for my reasons, not anyone else’s.

2. Portfolio Work – This is work that you create for the purpose of attracting new clients. Here you may take some of the style and concepts that you’ve developed in your personal work but package it in a format that’s friendly to potential clients. For example, I’ve taken the style of work developed in my out-of-control partying photos and incorporated it into my lifestyle portfolio so that it’s appealing to commercial clients.

3. Client Work – This is the work that clients pay you to do. It hopefully incorporates the work that you’ve incepted in your personal body of work and honed through your portfolio work. When clients pay you to create work that’s uniquely you, not only are you most satisfied, you’re highly paid because no one else can offer what you do. The flip side is that if the client is paying you to do work that you’re not interested in, it’s not that big a deal because you’re creating emotionally satisfying work on your own.

There’s one category of work that I haven’t yet addressed – snapshots. To me, a snapshot is a pretty picture that you shoot for either fun or documentation but with little purpose. Instagram and iPhone photos are a classic example. Now, you may well incorporate Instagram into your personal work, but shooting a pretty picture of a sign or a sunset does not constitute the purposeful practice of creating personal work that speaks to who you are as an individual. That’s not to say that snapshots can’t spark some inspiration and lead to a personal project. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’ve snapped a few pretty pictures with your iPhone yesterday that you’re actually doing personal work.

It All Starts with Introspection 
If personal work is all about saying something with your work, how do you know what to say? This is not an easy question to answer. Most photographers never contemplate this question and thus their work rarely acquires a unique personal style. In search of this idea of personal style, many turn to workshops with their favorite photographers – who often encourage their acolytes to “just be yourself!”

When I hear that I just think to myself, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

This process of being one’s self is not easy nor self-evident. My advice to those wishing to better their work is to forego the workshop in favor of some form of psychotherapy. The greatest feedback I ever received about my work came from a therapist who helped me to understand and see my emotional voice in my photography. You may think I’m crazy, but if great photography is about communicating one’s self through one’s art, the more help we receive in understanding who we are and why we are, the better photographers we’ll become.

Okay, so maybe seeing a therapist is a bridge to far for you. Fair enough. But the process of introspection and existential evaluation is key to progressing as a photographer. Either do it with help or do it on your own – but do it.

Using myself as an example, much of my personal work comes from my own experience of growing up in a religious environment (12 years of Catholic school) where sexuality was considered nonexistent and expressions of it were sinful. After much introspection, I came to realize that I could use photography as a means to express this side of me that otherwise had no voice. With that realization, photographing barely clad, drunken women puking beer became the only logical conclusion.

Shoot, Shoot, and Shoot Some More
As important as introspection is, there’s nothing more important than the act of continually shooting and experimenting. I’m not talking about client work, but work that you enjoy and self-assign. Each shoot, each image will lead you to something new.

Personal work is as every bit important as client work – if not more so. Schedule time for it. Spend money to make it happen. Give yourself assignments. Don’t just settle for what’s right in front of you but create moments – beg, borrow or pay for models, props and wardrobe. Above all, step away from the computer and immerse yourself in the world around you. There’s so much inspiration right outside your door – if you’re open to seeing it.

Seek Out Inspiration from Outside
Not too long ago, I met up with a established local photographer and industry leader over coffee. I mentioned something about photographer Richard Avedon. He stopped me to ask, “Who was that?” I hid my shock and dismay over the fact that he wasn’t aware of the greatest photographer of the second half of the 20th century. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in his ignorance. So many of the wedding and portrait photographers I meet don’t know any photographers outside of their respective industries. (I’m sorry but just because Samantha Pettigrew has 50,000 Facebook likes and 100,000 Twitter followers all proclaiming her greatness doesn’t mean that she’s any better than average. It usually means her followers are below average.)

Instead of following/copying/seeking inspiration from the same group of photographers as everyone else, step outside that pond and investigate the much larger ocean of fine art, editorial and commercial photographers pushing the boundaries of what is possible and even acceptable. To get a head start on who’s out there, check out my collection of photography books that I’ve shared via Pinterest on my Facebook page.

What’s Your Book?
As I mentioned earlier, every photographer should be working on a book. This may be a book that takes a month, year, decade or even a lifetime. But thinking in terms of a book gives the your work a sense of purpose, scope and direction. Most importantly, it gives you a goal to shoot for.

Indeed you may have many book ideas. Some will never take off and others you may work on for awhile. Hopefully, you’ll see one through to completion. Whatever the case, thinking in terms of a book can help bring your work to life in a more complete and meaningful way. Think for a few moments about what book you’d like to create with your work. Once you come up with the basic idea, it’s hard not to come up with all sorts of ideas of what kinds of shots would fill up its pages.

Final Thoughts
The more personal your work is, the more unique it becomes. The more unique, the less it looks like that of others and thus the less competition you have. The less competition, the more you can charge. Pursuing personal work is not just an exercise in artistic indulgence; it’s a smart, even necessary, business decision.

Great personal work is by its nature intensely personal. We’re all going to approach it from different ways – mine is certainly not the only path. Regardless of how you go about creating it or what you create, personal work is the most certain – and most rewarding path – to success as a professional photographer.

Finally, if you haven’t been totally put off by my Lake Havasu photos, you can view more on my Youtube slide show.

If you’ve found this article helpful, please help me spread the word by hitting the Facebook Like button.

John Mireles

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Art. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to From Good Photography to Great: Personal Work

  1. Joe Maher says:

    Debotury captured at its best John! Love the work!

  2. Joe Maher says:

    And the blog post is spot on as well! 🙂

  3. Mila says:

    excellent written!!!!!

  4. Tulsi says:

    Essential photography tools that cannot be bought, but must be cultivated, and represent a true venture of “soul” proprietorship in one’s craft. Once again, John Mireles, you bring the best fruit to the table–ripe with wisdom.

  5. Great article John (as usual). As well, people should just consider full-on photography school to educate themselves. You can almost always tell the difference between a photographer with formal education especially when you make a reference to someone like Avedon and they know nothing about them!

  6. Debra says:

    Thank you John, as always, for getting to the heart of the matter. Great shotss too by the way.

  7. Regina says:

    Good stuff here! Inspiring!

  8. Su says:

    I just wanted to say that I really like this post. You’re open and honest about how you feel and it reinforced the fact that I’ve been struggling with, that I need to show through my work who I am. Thanks.

  9. Jay says:

    I can’t believe this article brought me to tears. What an eye opener! My head has been so bogged down with STUFF, such as whether or not I should start shooting RAW, that I can’t even remember why I got into photography! I hope to be able to truly express my gratitude for your transparency (I went to Catholic school too), and this wake up call, with a body of personal work and at least one book, if not several, I’ll be working on, by this same time next year. GREAT article!

  10. Chris says:

    This is the first time I have ever heard psyco-therapy and photography together in the same article…..kudos!! They compliment each other nicely!

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