Very few people choose a career as a professional photographer in an effort to get rich quick. Instead, most pros are enthusiasts and artists who turned their avocation into a vocation. Whether it’s shooting commercial assignments or making a go as a fine art photographer, the field is full of those who have turned their passion into their profession.
But a strange thing happens when you turn something you enjoy doing for fun into the thing you do to put a roof over your head: a carefree creative outlet suddenly has a new, definitive purpose. Instead of solely shooting what you want when you want and how you want, now you’ve got to take into account what will pay the bills. You might take on assignments of little interest or, even worse, completely compromise your creative vision in an effort to make ends meet. Neither of these options is anywhere near ideal. The best-case scenario can be explained in the Venn diagram of “what you want to shoot” and “what you can get paid to shoot.” Your happiest, most successful career will be found where those two elements overlap.
Even for photographers with a long-established and well-defined creative vision, market forces can have a real influence—for good or ill. Assignment shooters may find themselves experimenting with new post-processing techniques, or making images of a certain “look” simply because they see requests for that look gaining popularity. That makes sense; adjusting your offerings based on demand. But when you completely lose sight of your own unique way of seeing, nobody wins. I find that this is something new professionals in particular struggle with—finding the balance between creating what they think their clients want as opposed to the work that they themselves believe to be best. It’s only once a photographer becomes comfortable trusting their own vision that this problem begins to wane. Still, it can be incredibly difficult to balance creativity with business even for longtime pros.
Sony Artisan Thibault Roland is six years into a part-time career as a fine art photographer and he’s still navigating the balance between creative autonomy and good business. Ultimately, he must ensure that he delivers what customers want in a way that allows him to maximize profits without compromising his vision. Specializing in beautiful black and white long exposure landscapes and architectural images, Roland says the struggle to find this balance is real, and if you’re not careful the strong pull of market forces may lead you astray.
“I would say that in the beginning I didn’t feel it,” he says, “because I was just absolutely entirely doing what I loved and what I wanted to do. I wasn’t necessarily thinking at the time of doing anything more with photography than just following my passion. And then came that feeling of, oh, what should I be doing to actually win awards, what should I be doing to get clients, or to pay for my photography and so on. It’s a very hard situation, and it’s something that I’m still going through and thinking about.”
“One very big question that I’ve been struggling with,” he continues, “is actually the amount of work that I should produce. I will take as long as necessary to make an image. When it works well, it’s about one image per week, and sometimes it’s much less than that, but I don’t want to force myself into working faster and being sloppy. If the client’s needs and tastes and what I have out there are in sync, then that’s good. If it doesn’t, too bad. But it will come. It will come. The world is big, and with social media it’s very easy to connect with people from all over. There are as many tastes in the world as there are people. So there’s no reason to think that by doing what you love, nobody will be interested.”
“In the last few years I’ve consciously made the decision that I would be doing what I like to do and not necessarily what others want me to do,” Roland adds, “because, if you ask anyone ‘what kind of photography should I be doing, what kind of direction should I be taking?’ you’ll have as many opinions as people you’ve asked. For my own part I know I’m not necessarily going to be the most famous photographer by not following trends, but I feel like at the end of the day I want to be proud of what I do, I want to be able to enjoy what I do.”
Roland says that while it’s imperative to remain true to oneself, particularly pertaining to creative direction, it would be impossible to pretend he’s immune to the pressures of client demands. Delivering what his clients want is simply smart business; the challenge is striking the right balance. Do it wrong and you might kill the creative spark altogether.
“Sometimes when people notice you,” Roland says, “it’s a trend that grows and grows and grows. I’ve noticed online that those that are the most successful are a little bit of a trend, a little bit of snowballing in a way. But it always starts somewhere with what they love to do and how they want to do it. So sure you have to make compromises from time to time when it comes to how you work, especially for commissioned work, but I don’t want to change my personal work in such a way that I don’t recognize it any more. It will show at some point if you don’t do what you love. I don’t want to be in that situation.”
The ultimate goal is to find balance between these two often-opposing forces. Let client demand impact only the periphery of the creative process, rather than letting it change the foundational elements upon which creative vision is built. For example, a fine art photographer who shoots black and white images shouldn’t switch to color in an effort to appeal to a different audience. Instead, look for a way to maximize the income from your strength by, say, producing more profitable smaller prints in open-ended editions instead of larger, higher priced limited editions. Adjusting to this market demand is just smart business, and it doesn’t require any fundamental compromise to creativity.
About the author:
William Sawalich made his first darkroom print at age ten. He earned a Master's Degree from The Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California. Along with portraiture, still life and assignment photography, Sawalich is an avid writer. He has written hundreds of equipment reviews, how-to articles and profiles of world-class photographers. He heads up the photo department at Barlow Productions in St. Louis.