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Are You Ready To Be A Versatile Photographer?

Photo by Sony Artisan Paul Gero

In baseball, it’s said that the most successful players are the “five-tool” athletes who hit for power, hit for average, throw well, run well and field their positions. This comprehensive skillset is the template of a versatile all-star who helps his team at every stage of the game. It’s a good metaphor for the type of diversity of talent that’s required to thrive in this modern era of professional photography.

In an industry fighting commoditization, gone are the days of singular specialization. The modern professional must be able to shift gears and shift focus in an instant, while at the same time never compromising on quality.

It’s the ability to adapt and overcome, to look to the future and anticipate changes in technology, technique and industry expectations. It’s also how a photographer comes to learn video production, to invest in new technology that uproots old systems, to change disciplines from portraiture to weddings, for instance, or from corporate to editorial. In an industry fighting commoditization, gone are the days of singular specialization. The modern professional must be able to shift gears and shift focus in an instant, while at the same time never compromising on quality. It’s a challenging time to be a photographer, but that also makes it incredibly exciting. The possibilities are endless.

Sony Artisan Of Imagery and longtime commercial photographer Paul Gero is an ideal example of versatility contributing to success. He began his career in photojournalism, and after nearly two decades as a newspaperman he shifted focus to weddings and portraiture, where he’s been earning accolades for 15 years.

Be Involved At Every Level of Image Making

“To be successful in 2019,” Gero says, “I really feel like photographers have to be like a five-tool baseball player. You get somebody like Mike Trout, Stan Musial or Ken Griffey. Now not every photographer has to be quite at that level, but I still think they have to be very involved in everything. I think for a photographer it's like they have to be able to work with natural light and make it look beautiful and they also have to work with created light, whether it's continuous light or practical light or strobe light. I think they have to have competence in all of those areas.”

“I think they also have to be able to do post production really well,” he continues. “That means they have to have their technical chops so they make great exposures and can then do post production very efficiently so that they save time in edit. They have to know how to market and sell; I think that's really important. And I think there’s a newer outlier which is doing video. Because even if they don't do video as a business model, they're going to have to do video for themselves. Even if it's just creating sizzle reels about what they've done and who they are appealing to as a marketing piece. I've done that off and on and I need to do that here.”

Always Be Adapting

The “here” Gero is referring to is just outside of Madison, WI, where he and his family just relocated after more than 15 years in Southern California. He’s a believer in following your passion wherever it may lead, even when it means moving across the country or altering your discipline. His original shift from photojournalism to weddings came not only from the joy he found in photographing happy couples on their big day, but also because he was astute enough to see the writing on the wall and the falling editorial rates at the turn of the 21st century. He was also brave enough to take action. Years later he did it again, shifting away from weddings exclusively to add portraiture to his repertoire, rounding out his offerings for both personal and professional reasons. At every turn he has adapted and overcome.

“There used to be such a premeditated and plotted out path of success,” Gero says. “For me as a journalist it was: you work in a small paper, you work to go to a bigger paper, then you work for a magazine and then you work for an agency or you hit the pinnacle with Sports Illustrated, National Geographic or something like that. So what happens when the great places to work are no longer the great places to work? What do you do? You have to kind of forge your own path. And that's scary for a lot of people because you have to decide which road to choose. Which path do you pick? I believe you have to change because if you don't do it willingly, it's going to happen to you just by circumstance. I've always wanted to be ahead of the curve.”

Relentlessly Refine Your Craft

Remaining a few steps ahead of relentless revolution starts with technical prowess. It’s the kind of thing Gero learned working for newspapers, where daily assignments run the gamut from hard news to studio portraiture, still life to sports action. “One of the reasons why I loved newspapers was I like to do everything,” Gero says. “I like to do sports, I like to do portraits. I like to do documentary even more. I like to do video. And actually coming back to a small town is kind of neat because in a way I kind of feel like I'm getting back to my photojournalistic roots.”

“I think a lot of photographers talk about being specialists,” he says, “and that works for some people, but frankly I just can't. I have a hard time being such a one-trick pony. I just don't want to do it. When I was doing so many weddings, I got a little burned out and then started doing the portraits and I found them to be a nice little respite. And that's just the way I rolled when I was in newspapers too. I would be doing documentary work for a while and then I'd want to do some lit portraits in the style of Fortune Magazine, so I'd start doing them.”

In Today’s Fragmented Pro Photography Environment Make Chaos Your Ladder

“The things I learned in California were the things I needed to know in order to survive in a very fragmented industry right now,” he adds, “and one that's incredibly volatile. It’s also incredibly exciting in so many ways. I don't think it's ever been more exciting, more fun to be a photographer. To be able to do stills and videos literally with the push of your thumb on a red button and to get really good quality in both? That’s not to say that it makes you a great photographer, but it does make the technical process a lot easier.”

“The main reason that I switched to mirrorless was because of video,” Gero says, “because it was easier to do video with mirrorless, by far, than with a DSLR. And again, it's not that it makes you Spielberg, but at least the technical aspects for a kind of small crew, one-man band, are a lot easier to do with mirrorless. And that was really number one. I actually see that's eventually our future. If still photographers don't begin to learn video, they're going to be forced to learn it anyway I think.”

From photojournalist to wedding photographer, Californian to Midwesterner, Gero shows why one needs to be adept at adapting. Versatility in his professional offerings, he says, will help bridge the gap now that he’s in Wisconsin and building up a wedding clientele. The portrait business can get up and running much faster, without the season-long lead time required. This kind of smart planning is exactly why he’s been able to thrive anywhere he goes and at anything he does.

The Power Of Face-To Face-Interaction

Asked if he laid the groundwork for his recent relocation, Gero all but shrugs off the question. “There's no secret about it,” Gero says. “It's good ol' shoe leather and it's meeting people and doing things and putting yourself out there and reaching out to people. They're not going to come to you. You’ve got to go to them. It's just like how I got into newspapers. They didn't know me at all and I had to show them with my portfolio. I kept coming back and showing my work as it evolved. Everybody thinks, ‘oh, there's a magic bullet’ in terms of SEO or websites or landing pages or Facebook ads. All of those are important, but I don't know if there's one magic bullet that's going to get somebody into a position of a profitable business and a sustainable business without doing the work. Flat out.”

“I'm basically starting over,” he continues. “For me it's all about going to networking events for people in the wedding business. This is a critical thing that I missed when I moved from Phoenix to LA. I thought I didn't need to network with coordinators and venues, because I thought the brides would find me. I didn’t really commit to that strategy and I think it was a mistake on my part and I was slow to hit critical mass. I’m not making that mistake again. Yesterday I went to a networking meeting, NACE the National Association for Catering and Events. It's an association with coordinators and event planners. It's not wedding specific, but it is wedding people as well as conference centers and things like that. So it does have a crossover to the business and corporate world as well. I thought that was a very good one to attend, because sometimes there's a little bit of a lead up into weddings. Some startup. Whereas you can get some work for businesses like events that's quicker to turn over, or you can do a portrait business.”

“The portrait business model I think is the best portable photography business of any of them,” Gero says. “Better than weddings because you can literally start anywhere with one camera and one lens. You don't need to have a lot of stuff. You don't need a studio. It’s portable. You can do so much with so little in the portrait business model, but you have to market it and you have to price it correctly.”

Well-Rounded Vs. Spread Too Thin

There’s a difference, Gero says, between becoming well-rounded and spreading oneself too thin. He doesn’t suggest simply doing several things, he suggests learning to do them well.

“As a kid, when I was learning,” he says, “my goal was, ‘OK, I’m shooting sports, I want to shoot it as well as if I were doing it for Sports Illustrated. When I’m doing a portrait, I want that to look as good as you'd see in Fortune back in the day when it really meant something. Or if you're shooting a documentary project it would be Magnum-esque or something that National Geographic would do. And so all of those things became my way to assess where I was at and try to raise my own game. So now I feel like I can float among all these different things.”

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