Why you shouldn't shoot like everybody else.

By Kirk Tuck

Let's face it,  I don't think any of us woke up one morning and said, “The thing I love best is taking pictures of strident brides putting on yet another cookie cutter,  antique ivory white dress with the annoying little buttons down the back.....”.  We didn't.  We don't.  We do many of the annoying little jobs we do because they pay the bills.  The wedding profits pay for the mortgage and the car payments.  The bridal portraits help pay for new gear.  And the PR photos of “guys in ties”, done with the same old soft box and grid light on the background,  pays for dinners and electric bills.  But you are way off base if you think we buy for a moment that you shoot these things because you are driven by your “inner muse” to do your “Art”.  (That's capital “A” art.....).

We're not all wired the same way so if you really get a thrill running a business and making a profit and that's all you want out of your photography then I get it and we'll give you a pass on the art thing.  But the rest of you aren't getting off so easily.  Most of us got into this field because we loved taking photographs of people, or landscapes, or life on the streets.  I certainly didn't pick up a camera because I saw a cool product photograph in a catalog.

I picked up a camera because I loved taking photographs of my friends.  I wasn't drawn to images that were lit in a particular way, I really loved the stuff that was black and white, available light and relatively unposed.  When I had done this kind of work for years as a pleasurable hobby I found my self at loose ends after my partners and I sold our advertising  agency.  I had some money in my pocket and a bunch of people kept hiring me to photograph them or their loved ones in the style I'd done.

But.....as soon as the art moved from hobby to business there started a subtle erosion of the essential point of view that made my work different from everybody else's.  I learned that there was an established style to shooting business head shots and so I learned that style and began to offer it.  I had to buy lights and drag them into the mix.  I learned the “right way” to do an executive portrait and I started to incorporate what I learned into the mix.  

And if you think about it, the convergence of digital imaging and the photo sharing sites on the web has quickened a process of homogenization that now seems relentless.  How many of you think that a reportage style of wedding photography is wonderfully unique?  Really?  Even though every wedding book I've seen in the past three months has exactly the same stuff in it?  The close up of the fingers trying to button five hundred annoying buttons on the back of an antique ivory wedding dress?  The edgey images with the razor thin slice of sharp focus that just screams out, “Hey, look at me.  I got a Canon 5D and a fast 85mm lens...”  You know the drill.  We all know the drill because we presume that these are the images and styles that brides want and we want to deliver them so we can make the car payments and buy dinner.  And in the corporate world we know that the standard head shot is generally a boring piece of crap that doesn't move the game forward any more than music on your website.

I think we homogenize for a variety of valid anthropological reasons.  We have a subconscious  desire to please our tribe.  We fear striving for originality and excellence because we have a suspicion that these things aren't valued by our clients and showing different work might cause them to reject our services.  Which we then interpret to be a rejection of our selves.  We might fear the hostility that will inevitably come from those who are practicing the status quo.

But here's the nasty reality statement that I'm sure you've known was coming from the minute you started reading this:  The people who populate the top 1% of the art world don't really give a minute of thought to what might “play well in Peoria”.  They pursue their vision.  Their own vision.  And they do it in a way that basically welds them into the longer view of art history or photo history because it introduces aesthetic game changers that the rest of us will buy into decades down the road and work to homogenize into our collective offerings while some where a new generation comes knocking with the real goods.  But we won't understand the value of those goods until it's just too damn late.  Think Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.  Both of whom were incredible pioneers as opposed to the Chase Jarvis and Michael Grecco types who understand a trendy, contemporary use of the tools, and the power of good, pervasive marketing.

It's like Avedon invented Haute Cuisine while Jarvis added an extra strip of bacon to the cheeseburger.....while Grecco introduced pink mayonnaise and convinced Ludacris to put it on his bacon cheeseburger.....really, it is apt.

Consider this for a moment...two companies sell 90% of the cameras used by professionals today.  Both have the identical format!  Your choice is really sensor A or sensor B.  Processing algorithm A or   Processing algorithm B.  Can you imagine the photographers we truly admire from the film age being constrained to choose between just two different films?  Where is the differentiation?  Where is the rugged individualism?  How did this all happen?

Some postulate that every move toward convenience decreases overall quality.  That every wave of mass acceptance creates an inertia to consider whatever the masses have embraced to be the “standard”.  By that measure, clothes from Walmart are the new standard, and if you are truthful you'll acknowledge that you'd never get your wardrobe from Walmart...

So, what do you do? If you are a business person, first analyze your business carefully, and if you find that selling your current product, no matter how commodified it is, is going well and your market share is growing, then continue on your path.  But if you feel like you got into this field to do something unique and different but you have the queasy feeling that you let the weight of life and money drag you into some compromised stasis then start pushing back and re-connect with why you wanted to be here in the first place.

When I taught at The University of Texas at Austin I had a student who came to me and complained that she couldn't possibly fulfill her promise as a great fashion photographer unless she had a Hasselblad and a stable of good, Zeiss lenses.  But she whined that she could never afford them, so she was doomed to failure.  A week earlier I had overheard her telling a classmate that her parents had just bought her brand new, turbo-charged  Volvo station wagon. ( in the early 1980's this would have been viewed as radically indulgent within the student class---now, who knows?).  

I suggested that she sell the car and buy the dream.  She thought I was insane.  The money trumped the art.  The comfort quotient kicked the crap out of art.  I caught up with her two decades of “life lessons” later.  She has become a gifted artist.  She pursues her vision with a Holga camera.  She lives on the edge.  She doesn't own a car.  But here's the news flash, she's happier than she ever was because she's very clear about what she wants.  And what she wants is to pursue the vision she had in the very first gestalt moment of loving photography.

So, how do you change?  How about throwing away all the trappings and offering what you really feel compelled to offer as art, and the hell with the rest of the market.  After all, would you rather be the next Avedon or a watered down/ tarted up version of Olan Mills.  You have the “Art” with a capital “A” in you or you would have never chosen this business.  Owning a McDonald's franchise is a much more secure way to earn lots more money.  So trade down on lifestyle, if necessary, and trade up on artistic integrity.  I can almost guarantee that you'll spend less on therapy and Xanax.  And people may grow up wanting to be just like you----instead of wanting to have your lifestyle.

I know you might think this sounds preachy and high handed but it's really a synopsis of the journey of self discovery I've been on lately.  I've opened the files in my office and dragged in a big ass trash can.  Anything that doesn't feel good, special and all about my work goes into the can.  All the event negatives from the 1990's.  All the executive portraits older than three years.  And I've started showing only the styles I want to shoot.  Not everything I could do in a pinch.  It makes me feel lighter.  Like I'm freeing up mindshare.  But that's something for another month.

In the meantime my prescription for change is to go back to using your very first camera for a month.  If you learned on a Canon AE-1 or a Minolta Maxxum 7000 or a Holga, go back and get one and load it up.  Shoot the way you once loved for a month.  Live with your style for a month and see if it doesn't feel better. 

I could give you more advice about shooting with little strobes but it would all be bullshit until you figure out why you shoot, and what you want to have coming out of your camera.  Customers?  If the work is satisfying to you then you'll find the market you want.  It may not be the market that supports your BMW payments but remember, you trade you life for money and you'll never get either back, so you might as well start doing it on your terms right now!

Thanks, Kirk

Author:  Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Location Photography

      Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography

(really, two totally separate books with annoyingly similar titles.....)

See more work:   Kirk Tuck's Commercial Website/An adventure in iWeb


Mike Murrow said...

Great post as usual. I'm just getting started on the business side of photography. I've been shooting on the street for years. Already I feel the tension between shooting images that will get me work and creating images that reach down and satisfy the whole reason I picked up a camera to begin with.

Kirk Tuck, Photographer/Writer said...

The deal is that you never really know which images will get you the good work or the most beneficial work. Sometimes it's the different stuff that resonates best. And longest.

Anonymous said...

This guy is an absolute genius. If more people thought about what they did the world would have a heck of a lot more interesting photos. I'm hitting the book links to see if I can learn more. Post Kirk, Post!!!

Unknown said...

I just did my first 'guy with tie' and a blue background today. I'm such a cliche

Kurt Shoens said...

It's certainly easy enough to learn f-stops, standard lighting ratios, what the modifiers do. Since your first 2 books explain those subjects, here's hoping your next book addresses style.

Thanks for the pointer to Wyatt McSpadden's work recently. As to the work you refer to in this post, one of them I don't understand (I'm probably too old) and one blends into the current fashions. I'm sure they're both very talented though.

It's hard to predict the photographers who will be remembered until later. Forgettable photography was certainly attracting attention while Avedon and Penn were making their marks.

Now's a good time to work in film. I started decades ago with a basic SLR that must have sold in the millions. I've mentioned that I'm dabbling again to two people and they've said "Here, use mine!" My film equipment outlay is $0 so far.

Sean Fenzl said...

This is just the kind of reading I've been gravitating towards lately.. I feel comfortable enough with equipment and technique, this is the final frontier - what lies beneath it all, really, to create.

I love the idea of picking up my first camera (Yashica FR) and shooting with that for a while.. I'll let you know how it goes!

I often pick up my Minolta D'Image (early 6mp digital) and wonder, how did I ever get those images I love with this? I NEED my D200/300.. I couldn't possibly... but I did. I did for many years.

Thanks for the wonderful post.


Brandon D. said...


I definitely get the gist of what you're saying, and I think most of it is spot on.

Although, I wouldn't call that a holistic view point about what Chase Jarvis does, or what he's about. I think Chase makes an attempt to be creative and to think of things that haven't been done in photography; and talks about that a lot. I really think Chase does what works for him and his artistic expression.

Chase has even been shooting fine art photography behind the scenes for quite some time: http://blog.chasejarvis.com/blog/2009/04/fine-art-photography-in-dubai.html

I still think it's tougher than ever to separate yourself from the pack. Even though many markets seems to favor the flashy DSLR shots and the heavy post-production, there will always be many extremely talented photographers shooting with a Holga, a pinhole camera, a Hasselblad 500 series camera, or even expired Polaroid 55.

So, I think that we as artists have to expect our work to look like other work to some extent. And often times it's unintentional. Very few people in history have found a way around it. And now, there are so many photographers out there that it's tough to find a way around it.

And you know what, I think there are: A) Photographers, B) Artists
and... C) Photographers/Artists.

PS - Great post! You have a great blog!


John said...

Me too..... BIG trashcan. Good post.

Poagao said...

Very good post. I read a book a while ago called "Your Money or Your Life" which said basically the same thing.

Basically, I don't depend on my photography or filmmaking for a living because I am afraid that it would adversely affect my outlook in the very manner you describe here. But that's another cop-out, I suppose. I am still trying to figure things out, but I can't stand the thought of doing "business photography" even though I watch many untalented photographers make a lot of $$$ at it.

Anthony Cronin said...

As a novice photographer who has a Mint minolta Autocord and a chance to use it, this post alone inspires me to keep the course. I went to a local "strobist meet" and l was the oddball with the film camera. While I have a great day job I am going to continue to live on the edge! what is funny in that is these days Analog is the edge!


"40 years on the planet, 2 years behind a viewfinder"