I recently shot a new portfolio and every photographer I have shown it to thinks it is rubbish. But every art director, buyer, agent, and creative director loves it. Let's look into why this is.
First up, I am very thick skinned I write articles online and produce YouTube videos, you have to be pretty confident and able to not take others opinions personally to continue to do these sorts of work. So I am certainly not offended by the hate I am getting from photographers, its a weekly occurrence in one form or another. My area of work is commercial food photography. It’s a big industry with a huge scope of styles and the U.K. is a big location for this and its a genre that we take very seriously and are a go to nation for campaigns. So we perhaps have more sub genres of this genre than many other countries.
I have been working as a professional food photographer for some time. I was asked to shoot a chef's book cover many moons ago, once I had taken the portrait they asked me to shoot some images of their food for online content, to which I agreed. From that point onward I had found my calling.
I took to the internet, the forums, Instagram, and pretty much every editorial food magazine, and found a plethora of beautiful food photographs. Considering I have no internet profile, my work was well received on Instagram and work was going well. I was shooting big print worldwide campaigns, but I was on the cusp of everything and I couldn’t seem to progress.
Now this all comes at a strange time in the world, but my phone has never rang so much, the emails I am receiving are from bigger art buyers, larger agencies, and agents who need my new style of work. So what did I do differently and why don't photographers like it?
After a weekend away with my partner, I read an article about Andy Warhol, someone who’s work I love. For no real conscious reason, I had never ventured into more graphic photography, despite my love for the aesthetic. I had almost become too obsessed with what the profession outwardly looked like on the internet. Now if you had asked me about portrait photography, in a heartbeat I would tell you that what you see on Instagram, in the forums, and on YouTube is not what high end professionals are shooting, but maybe I was too close in food photography to see this before now. So I pulled in my stylist and set about creating my first test shoot for this new project. We managed 6 shots on day one and I had never been happier with any work that I had produced.
One of my strengths in photography is my lighting. It is something that has always come natural to me and I am often booked for re-shoots where I have to deconstruct a previous photographer's work and recreate it so that my work can sit alongside their assets in an advert (happens a lot more than you would expect.)
Some of the more technical work I shoot requires cameras with movements, 15,000 watts of sculpted light, and some fancy retouching. It is something I can do without really having to work my brain too hard, but it is also what was holding me back. For my new work I ended up using an obscure white coated 20 inch reflector/spill kill (has no name on it) from the 1980s and a 500 watt head set to about 350 watts with the classic 45/45 degree lighting from the top left of my flat lays. No bounce, no fill, just a single light source placed at the right distance to create the shadows and fall off I wanted. Then my camera sat on my studio stand with a 100 mm standard lens at f/10. So simple that I have managed to continue with my portfolio work from my house during the lockdown.
I am not going to pretend that I am now enlightened and have a unique perspective on the world. You could find lots of people who are producing similar work to mine in several creative genres. However, the food that I have selected is that of my childhood and more recently what we have available during lockdown, and therefore personal to me and who I am as a person. This is what gives my images a voice and means that when people have seen my new work book that they know it is my work.
Before, they saw pretty images that were well executed and looked like every other professional food photographer. This was all inspired by an article about Andy Warhol that I read in bed from The Times Saturday magazine and a long conversation that a famous photographer's agent was kind enough to have with me. The advice she gave was that after your books have been shown to the art buyers, they will have seen another 20 that week. They need to be able to say “I want the photographer who shoots tinned beans to photograph our new campaign.” If you are simply a photographer who creates nice work, you will be forgotten. That isn’t to say that you will only be booked for work that looks like your look-book, and I can already attest to that. I have shot a lot of big campaigns that looked nothing like my old book.
Why Don’t Photographers Like It?
Let's get into some assumptions here. I am mostly basing this also on how I felt when I shot them as well as some closer friends opinions who didn't like it. Knowing them well allows me to make a few educated guesses upon why they are not fond of these images. It was easier than other work technically. A light, a camera, and a lens. The same settings, nothing changes apart from the subject. Anyone could do it surely? Well maybe they can, that shouldn't be a defining factor of your technical choices. There are a few little things that are technically required, an understating of the inverse square law, hyper-focal, and a good understanding of raw files, but where the photography skill comes in is actually away from the equipment. It is knowing what will photograph well and how to portray it. And this feels like cheating in photography, even though I find this aspect harder than the technical side. I spent over a decade reading up on how to physically take a photograph. However, I now find my evenings are spent with a note pad trying to come up with new ideas that will photograph well.
If we look at other photographers work, say Platon, his work is simple. It’s the same camera, lens, and shoot through umbrella for every shot. Yeah, I could technically recreate it in a few minutes, but my images would be no where near his, simply because it isn’t my voice nor my perspective on the world. Now I am not for a second comparing my work to a legendary photographer, but I feel the same applies here. We can all recreate my new work, but it wouldn’t be in your voice. My older work was far harder to reproduce, but it wasn’t my voice. If you recreated my shots with your own voice, you would end up with a very different set of images to me. And this is the beauty of photography.
Why Does Any of this Matter?
The point I am trying to make here is that we should all stop trying to please photographers. They rarely buy photographs. I think it’s also worth noting that as photographers we often try and flex our technical abilities, and in my case, it was at the cost of my work. Since pulling back and going minimal, my work has been so much better received by the community that pays my bills. People are retuning my calls who I would never have dreamed of being able to get in touch with and my phone is ringing more than ever with inquires for shoots once the lock down is over.
I found the biggest difficulty was my ego and the fear of being mocked for doing something so technically repeatable by anyone, but photography is not a technique sport, it is a creative pursuit and I think after over a decade, I have finally grasped that.