I’ve been a professional photographer my entire adult life. Here are my thoughts about photo gear, access and vision.
Gear: Gear talk has never really interested me. I’ve always looked at gear as the tools of my trade and used what I felt was the best tool for the job. I don’t buy gear simply because it’s new or it’s the latest. I buy it if I need it to tell the story I want to tell. I’ve been a Nikon shooter, a Canon shooter and now a Sony (mirrorless) shooter. I can’t honestly say that my favorite images or my most successful images were shot with one particular camera or brand. However, I’m most proud of the images that I obtained the hard way – before auto everything cameras or Photoshop.
Access: Access is everything and is more important today than ever before. But it’s kind of like the chicken and the egg. What comes first – a good portfolio that leads to an assignment with great access or access that leads to a good portfolio? I spent a great deal of my time at the beginning of my career shooting travel. But I don’t feel that one needs to travel to the other side of the earth in order to get great travel images. It may help (or it used to) in catching someone’s eye but a good travel photographer should be able to make good images anywhere. I learned that early in my career when legendary National Geographic photography director Bob Gilka asked me to show him what I shot in my own backyard.
Vision: I have actually grown to dislike this word because it has been overused. I think that it should go without saying that all you really have that is unique is your vision or perspective. When it comes down to it your perspective and vision is what’s worth sharing. I suppose that’s why I’ve never tried to emulate someone else’s style. I’ve always used my tools as a means to an end – the end being what I want to say or share. Styles come and go. No doubt my style has changed but it happened organically as I got older and saw things from a different perspective.
What’s most important to you? That’s something you have to find out on your own. I’ve learned a lot at workshops over the years but I’ve never taken a workshop that defined my priorities.
Note: I’m looking for subject for a project. If you are someone or know someone who has been dismissed simply because they’ve gotten older (between the ages of 40 – 60) and have a story to tell please dm me. I’m hoping to hear stories that had a happy ending because it nudged them to a better situation.
I find that many creative (and not so creative) people confuse the meaning of the two words – vision and trends. When someone has a vision, they see past the status quo, whereas by the time something becomes a trend – it is status quo. Seems clear to me, and yet for the most part, the common perception of what a trend is – hot, successful, youthful, revolutionary – really isn’t visionary at all, because by the time it becomes a trend – everyone is doing it.
Case in point. Four years ago, when I joined the board of ASMP, some may have seen me as a visionary because of my early foray into video. Four years later, it seems like everybody is doing video. Does that make me a visionary? Perhaps. But I need to make a very important point here, and that is when I started shooting video almost 15 years ago, it was not because I had a vision, that the future of photography would be video. It was because I saw myself then – and still do – as a storyteller and one who delivers the visual message, with whatever creative tools do it best.
I get super frustrated with people who define me by the type of camera (tool) I choose to use. Anyone who has heard me speak, knows my mantra is “it’s not about the tool”. So for anyone to narrowly define me by this one particular medium – video – instead of understanding that I foresee the “future of photography” in the broadest sense of the word “photography”, – are only seeing me through their own “narrow” lens.
I’ve spent a lifetime, trying not to pigeonhole myself into one genre or medium and to stay true to myself and what my instincts are telling me, rather than to jump on the latest trend. I can tell you this – by the time something is trendy – there’s nothing gutsy or visionary about jumping on that bandwagon.
Being visionary is:
Taking a risk based on instincts instead of emulating the latest trend.
Being concerned about the substance of something – not just the packaging and the veneer. Thinking that way will make you outlive any trend.
Being afraid, yet still being brave enough to act on what your inner voice is telling you.
Managing to be bold enough to come forward with an idea that is not the popular opinion du jour.
Not getting in your own way by seeing yourself through only one narrow lens – In the early 1900’s, when the automobile hit the scene, the folks in the horse and buggy business who saw themselves in the transportation business survived – the ones who saw themselves as in the horse and buggy business………well we know what happened to them.
I won’t get into politics here, except to say that sadly these days, so many of our world “leaders” are not visionaries and we desperately need leaders who are. But that takes courage and going against the status quo. It’s far easier to follow others, after they have paved the way. That’s not only a lack of vision – that’s bad leadership.
This topic comes up a lot these days. But you could apply “new business models” to just about any business – not just photography and video. Photography and video, in and of themselves are not business models at all, but rather they are mediums that are used commercially, non-commercially and personally. The business end of photography and video comes when you determine how you want to apply them in terms of today’s markets.
Today’s markets are global. That’s good news and bad news, depending on the type of work you do. If you are a stock photographer or even if you have expanded that into also shooting stock motion footage – your inventory or your content if you will, must be unique in some way in order to sustain that type of business model in our global economy. You will need to stand out if you pursue this type of market.
If you are a commissioned commercial or editorial photographer, cinematographer, or director, the competition is fierce and once again, if you don’t have a unique style or vision, most likely you will end up playing by others’ rules or signing “their” contracts. It comes down to supply and demand of talent and work, and you either need to compete by price or offer something that you do better than your competition.
The good news is, if you are willing to do the work, the world is your stage. The portals for distribution of your “content” are open to all and as “creatives” we are no longer dependent on middlemen. When I get asked to talk about “new business models”, I always look at it as “where are the new opportunities?” – where I will be carving out my own “new business model”, rather than having to adapt to others ideas of what that is. There is a big difference in those two approaches.
I am carving out a business model for who I am creatively, and where I see the most opportunities for what I do well. When I am authentic to who I am and apply this to my work, I am able to get the type of work to market and reach the right audience while maintaining ownership and control over the licensing of my work. I am able to do that not only because technology has enabled me to do that, but more importantly it has created a demand for the type of content that I create.
Think about it. What are your strengths? What are your passions? Now imagine a business model based on your answers. The world is our stage.
Today John Lennon would have turned 71 years old, had his life not been snuffed out by a man with a gun in New York City over 30 years ago. John was always someone I revered – in the beginning as a heartthrob – later as an activist for peace and for living his life the way he wanted to live it – despite what others thought.
Today is also singer/songwriter Jackson Browne’s birthday. His music and lyrics have resonated with me since I first became acquainted with his songs back in the early 70’s when I was living out in California. I’ve been in and out of touch with his music over the years, but recently I’ve been influenced by his songs as well as his social activism. Jackson uses his craft to create awareness, gets people to think and moves people to action.
A line from his song “Alive in the World” inspired the title of my documentary Opening Our Eyes, and I have been extremely fortunate to obtain his permission to use his song in our movie for community screenings and film festivals. Next week, I will get the opportunity to personally thank Jackson when I get to meet him after his concert at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, NJ.
I’ve always admired Jobs for his vision and for what he brought into all of our lives. But mostly I admire Jobs for remembering to “Stay hungry and foolish”. And for reminding us to march to our own tune. He sums it up more eloquently than I in his 2005 Stanford University commencement speech:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
I admire these three men for listening to their hearts and for following their dreams – for daring to be different. They have made our world a better place and have inspired me to do the same. I don’t know how much more time I have on this earth, but I do know that I wake up each day and remind myself to make it count.
It’s 4AM as I write this entry. I can’t sleep. That often happens when my mind is in overdrive as it has been all week – over stimulated by the process of editing video. I’ve also spent a lot of time this past week speaking with quite a few photographers who are working in both the still photography and video mediums. Some shooters I spoke with got into video because the entry level became cheaper when hybrid cameras that shoot both stills and video came on the market. Other people I talked to weren’t “camera operators” at all – they were DP’s or Directors of Photography on high-end commercial broadcast productions.
One question I asked these shooters was “What do you call yourself these days?” Personally I’m struggling with that question myself. Am I a photographer?, a videographer? (I hate that term), a DP?, a media producer? Who am I ? What do I call myself? I have yet to answer that question for myself, but the answers that I got from everyone I spoke with, ran the gamut, encompassing all the titles above. As I replayed these conversations in my head, I realized that for me the problem was I was trying to define myself by my tool. And that just doesn’t work.
The problem is if we define ours by our tools – then we are diminishing the value of our creativity or our vision in the process. We aren’t placing the value on what is unique in all of us – our vision. At the same time we’re placing too much value on the tool – in this case the camera. As technology accelerates the production of more sophisticated cameras that are cheaper and easier to use – and we’ve placed our value on being the technician – we’re in big trouble. Because ultimately anyone with a vision who has the “ability” to realize that vision, can put together a crew of technicians to facilitate their vision or idea – and do it cheaper these days because of technology. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Professional photographers get defensive when a potential client places no value on what is unique about them (their vision) and approaches them with the attitude that if you won’t work for the prices they dictate – they will just find another photographer. But what they are really saying is that they feel that they can “just” find another camera operator. The problem is that these photographers haven’t presented their vision and because of that they are perceived as being interchangeable. That’s not a good place to be and never will be. And for that reason when a professional still photographer comes to me and says that they are interested in getting into video and asks the question “What video camera should I buy?” I gently tell them – well sometimes not so gently tell them – it’s not about the camera.
How does one define what they are? Great question that has a lot of answers, as it should. Technology is amazing – but it’s the human part of the process that excites me because we’re all so different in how we see.