The new life of professional photographers: Endless, shameless self-promotion.

Self portrait for PhotoPlus intro.

Little known facts about me: I like to wear suits or jacket and ties. I like vintage ties best but I've bought four ties in the last few months and I found a nice source of knitted silk ties that are understated and look great. The tie in the image above is not one of them. It's what Ben calls my "candy cane" tie. 

Another little tidbit about me is that I loathe self promotion on any scale larger than that needed to keep basic projects coming in the door. I always feel weird about it. But I think that for the working professional with the need to generate income from multiple sources the grim reality of self-promotion will be the wave of the future for everyone who has something (however remotely valuable) to sell. 

Five or six years ago most of my time was spent meeting with clients who bought or licensed photography and then doing the pre-production, actual production and post production for those projects. I spent a good deal of my time with my nose in PhotoShop followed by a witless romp through QuickBooks Pro and then on to the next job. When things slowed down I sent out post cards to clients and people that I wished were my clients and then when things slowed down more I would get out the contact list and make those dreaded cold, lukewarm and also comfort calls. Comfort calls are those you make to clients who you already work for, who consider you a friend and are always happy to go out to lunch with you and look at new work for a few minutes followed by a long, enjoyable and mostly social meal.

Now it feels like it's all changed. Part of the new reality of being a photographer trying to make a good living is that we feel the need to diversify. The need to branch out. I was thrilled when I started writing books and I was happy when the royalties would roll in because it helped keep the enterprise afloat and gave me a new reason to buy and experiment with fun toys. It's been two years since I started writing the book on LEDs (my most recent book) and I'm almost ready to get started on the next book. 

But what that really means is that I'm trading time and freedom for the feeling of security and in reality I"m feeling more and more pulled apart and separated from the thing I love about photography which is just the pure act of taking photographs. Or more clearly, making portraits. So far this year I've spent a lot of time outlining photography courses for Craftsy.com and then flying to Denver to do the production for days and days at a time. I've also traveled for Samsung in order to help them get the word out about their new camera. I'll be a paid speaker next week in NYC for them as well. But it's not just the presenting days that stretch me, there's also the time spent getting to know the new cameras and the fourth new menu structure I've memorized so far this year. When you add a book project on top of those things it starts to feel like I'm something other than a working photographer. And that's scary for me since I've spent the years since 1988 doing mostly nothing but photography. I'm not sure I'm good at career multi-tasking and I guess I need to figure out where all my boundaries are as I move forward. 

I put on a coat and tie today and went out to meet with a prospective client. I got there early and walked into the business with my little notebook and my favorite pen in hand. I listened intently, offered suggestions where appropriate and went over the possible financial arrangements. I jotted little facts in my notebook.  It felt so streamlined and elegant. It's only one day of shooting and one day of post production. The project has a clearly defined start and end. The expectations are well laid out. It's a job that's perfect for me and I hope I get it. I know it's right because I felt that old anticipation and nervous energy that I always used to feel when meeting straightforward clients. It's just straightforward  photography business. I didn't even bring up the possibility of video because I wanted to savor the purity of the job in its most direct form.

In a sense I think I've been fooling myself in the execution of my multi-threaded career for a number of years. I'm not good with long term projects. They are like bad shoes that blister your ankles or the back of your heel. They go on and on long after the thrill has dissipated like a vodka martini in your blood stream. But if you do good work on them, if you exercise your Calvinist tendencies and work till you drop  you always get invited back. And that's a blessing and a curse. A blessing because money comes in, but a curse of sorts because you believe that you've traded your freedom and poverty for some security only to find that it's bound with Sisyphean routine. You now have resources but no joyful quarter in which to spend them.

And, if you are an artist the thing you originally chased after the money for was to buy the freedom to do your own work on your own terms. But that always gets short circuited as  your lifestyle grows and mutates to take advantage of whatever level of income you become used to. And you find yourself limited by the time obligations of the projects that incessantly bookend your photography...

How does one handle multiple projects across diverse disciplines? You have to change gears a lot and that's tough on the clutch. I've completed three projects for Craftsy.com. I'll be inviting you all to sign up for the free hour long course I did on photographing family. Next week is the culmination of my Samsung project and I'm looking forward to working with the final permutation of the Galaxy NX camera. But the truth is that I'll welcome the break from doing both projects for a little while. And I may decide to hold off the next book for a little while longer, too. 

I really think I'd like to see if I can re-invent my business as a portrait business for a whole new cultural era. I'd like to see if I can make the nut with only my cameras and lights as my tools. And I've been thinking back to the early 1980's when I was teaching. A student and I were talking and he said to me, "If you were really as good as you think you are you wouldn't be stuck here teaching the same shit over and over again....you'd be out doing it." And it was that conversation more than anything else that led me to abandon teaching and embark on a wild adventure in freelancing. 

I can hear echoes of that same challenge today. Can I step back from all the things I've been embracing to assuage my anxiety about the economy and the changes to the industry and practice the pure craft again? I'm willing to try. My current mantra is "to re-invent the portrait."  And even if it's not entirely possible to do it would make for a great book project on the other side. 

It's easy to sell a product or even a service but selling one's self is difficult. It requires many periods of reflection and recharging. And in the end it's probably inefficient to have a "product" that is self aware.

The image below was added by request. A more traditional rendition.

Studio Portrait Lighting

I'm a Craftsy Instructor


  1. You want "to re-invent the portrait." WOW! Now there's a challenge for this age. I'm trying to get back into portraits after many (many, many) years and mine were pretty generic to begin with. I only aimed to get reasonably good at it again. I hope you succeed and will be following your progress.

  2. Good luck, Kirk.

    Obviously, you have many strengths, but your passion and artistry definately are in your portraits. Go for it!

  3. It's an interesting task you've set for yourself, Kirk. I hope you'll invite us along on your new journey, especially as I've come to realize my own interest in portraiture.

  4. While I appreciate your desire to keep up with technology, I have to say that I am NOT a fan of the reduced-color portraits you have been posting recently. It just looks weird to me. Your hairstyle and dress are impeccable in the above photo. But your skin tone gives me the impression that you are suffering from a serious illness. I'm sorry, but this is just how things appear to me. This is in contrast to the fit, healthy guy who has written about competitive/serious swimming on numerous equations. Why not just go black and white and be done with it? Or go back to more-normal colors. Please.

    1. For your enjoyment I have added the original image at the bottom. Tell me what you think!

    2. Kirk, thank you for indulging me in this.

      I do very much prefer the color of your face in the second image. I think what bugs me about the first image isn't so much the muted color as the coldness of the skin tones. The tones of the clothing and background look fine, but cold skin tones look very unnatural to me. I seem to recall at least one film manufacturer in the past produced color negative films that made skin tones a bit warmer and (supposedly) more pleasant to look at in prints. I would have been one of those customers the film manufacturers targeted.

      I have noted, based on comments above and below mine, that I seem to be a lone dissenter. I really do like the photo as a whole. I am not, however, crazy about the cold, pale skin tones.

    3. Craig, I'll lend you my support ;) The original shot looks like Kirk is living in a graphic novel. Great for a band. It doesn't seem appropriate for a promo shot, but then Kirk's the pro and I have no insight on the business. The blur looks fake, too ... I guess when the techniques call attention to themselves, they distract me from the image and then I'm not looking at Kirk, I'm looking at filters.

  5. Ah ah, I had to smile at the confession that just one challenging line from a pissed student made you drop teaching altogheter. That tells me we not only share a profound and structural love for portrait, above anything, but also are guilty (victims ?) of incorrigible pride.
    I understand the anxiety of having to keep afloat in an ever changing market, and the demands of a lifestyle we grow accustomed to, but that doesn't promote our freedom or artistic independance. All I can say is, hang in there, you're doing better than most traditional photographers in your position are. How many of them can boast a few million web pages and a huge and faithful readership ;-) ?

  6. I think what needs to be re-invented is the idea that quality portraits are worth having and worth paying for. Seems to me the appreciation for portraiture is pretty well gone. I don't see any reason why it can't be rekindled, but I think that's where the real work needs to be done.

  7. Does all this mean your trip to Japan is on the back burner.

  8. I don't know if it qualifies as reinvention, but the portrait atop this post certainly ought to draw a lot of business if you can find a way to circulate it among those who make up the market.

  9. Thumbs up! When the market is flooded, there will be room for nice work.

  10. Kirk, this is a wonderful portrait! I disagree with the "unhealthy look" comment. On a portrait of man of a certain age, character is more important than rosy cheeks :) The Galaxy NX looks a bit too small in comparison with that medium format monstrosity on your other portrait. You should have put the 85/1.4 on instead of the kit lens :)

    Thank you very much for promoting Samsung NX cameras which are very good but almost unknown outside Korea and maybe East Europe/Russia! I hope you'll help more North American photographers to discover them.

  11. Kirk, once again you have written an article that makes me think and rethink my own profession. I just substitute my own profession when you mention photography, and I extract words of wisdom from your prose. I thank you.

  12. A major task.
    Really easy with one who has this blog, the writing,the books,the assignments,the swimming,the coffee shop trips..
    Thank you for allowing us, strangers in a way, friends by watching,seeing and reading.
    In terms of personal portrait, i prefer the non Photoshopped one.B/W seems so meaningful yet my Facebook image is color! I like other blog!
    Oh! Happy Birthday, many more.

  13. Kirk, I'm facing a similar decision in my own career as a freelance technical writer. Like photography, there are many avenues that profession can take, and I've ventured into many of them, trying to be diversified to stay profitable.The problem is that we, or at least most of us, cannot attain expert-level in all of them. So we remain mediocre in several disciplines. I've recently decided to drop all but what I believe I'm best at and seek only those opportunities. It's a much easier sell for me because I'm totally confident with it. There's a lot to be said for that approach. Of course, this assumes there's enough work out their in your chosen area. I'm pretty sure there is for me, and I hope there is for your portraiture. It's a good feeling to have a clear focus and a plan to distinguish yourself and make it work. All the best with it!


  14. What a great rant and so revealing. I agree with everything you say particularly that we all do what we need to do to be able to do what we want to do.

    Get a marketing assistant, my friend.

  15. it's not the camera, it's the photographer AND the subject both of whom are fabulous! i wish i could afford a snapseed-enabled camera! Some day soon! ...Roland "snapseed fan" Tanglao

  16. What is charmingly Freudian about this photo is that you have shot yourself as literally cornered, and then further emphasized your distress by blurring the edges of your jacket so that you appear to be dissolving. The question is whether it represents your wish to dissolve back into the warm and welcoming womb of the studio, or whether you are trying to say that the studio is eating you alive.

  17. Definition: successful small business--one that is still in business. Rarely does anyone get to make his/her living doing only soul satisfying work. Into every life some drudge must flow. Remember, what you are doing is better than being on an assembly line turning screw number 37 three turns to the right. Celebrate the time you do get to pursue your passion and you will be much happier. Jerry Kircus

  18. WOW Mr.T!!! Love he new site look. The tie is really cool too ... loved nice ties when I was a "suit".

    So you've hacked yourself out a new task. No sweat, you've done this before (more than a few times). That noise you hear behind you is all of us cheering for you, so go for it and we'll still be here no matter what the outcome.

    John W

  19. Kirk,

    I am hesitant to comment, having recently been to a workshop where desaturated images were prominent, but I am not sure I like the overall effect in your portrait. The out of focus/blur that appears to have been a layer of gaussian blur just is not pleasing to my eye. Things in the same plane appear out of focus in part and in focus in another which does not seem natural to me. I suppose I could take or leave the desaturated aspect of the image, but the color image seems, to me, to be more personal.

    Perhaps you might post several renditions of the image as a poll. One each of the two already posted, a B&W without the blur and one with or something like that. Perhaps there would be a large enough sample to get a reasonable idea of how people would react to it.

    ...but you are the professional at this and, I suppose, are trying to show that you can present a distinctive image that not everyone else is doing. Things change.


  20. Very pleased you have moved to a more traditional blog look. Hope NY goes well, and look forward to some posts from there.

  21. I like the logo more than I liked the dynamic templates. I hope this is easy to get used to and fun to read. If you like it, let me know by leaving a comment. If you don't like it please submit your portfolio and we'll consider offering you a valuable VSL tee-shirt or coffee cup for a complete redesign and daily maintenance of the site.

    If you have caustic critiques to make be sure to include your blog site so we can see what all the fuss is about....

  22. Books are a paradox all by themselves: People who hate writing can create some very good books, while people who put no work into it at all can write some sheer dreck.

    Most careers are compromises. In order to do something you love, you have to

    (My apologies if the comment is anonymous. My openId does not seem to work here.)
    - Dave H.

  23. Kirk

    I just upgraded to the new Mac OS - Maverick - and the blog seems sharper and fresher than earlier today. That said, I do like the new look. I"m just in the early stagers of updating my website, so this is an inspiration to really go at it and shake things up.


Comments. If you disagree do so civilly. Be nice or see your comments fly into the void. Anonymous posters are not given special privileges or dispensation. If technology alone requires you to be anonymous your comments will likely pass through moderation if you "sign" them. A new note: Don't tell me how to write or how to blog!