As photographers, we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But there is one drawback that almost all photographers have in common.
I am both a still photographer and a director/cinematographer. As a result, my articles are sometimes shared between the two disciplines. But an analogy that I’ve loved using lately refers to cinema as a team sport. Although the general public knows by heart the names of the stars of a film and often of the most prominent directors, the films are largely the result of collaboration. While it is quite possible to make an entire film by yourself. I did it. It’s also no secret that the more resources (i.e. people) you have to tap into, the better the end result.
As a commercial photographer, I also work in a team. Yes, I direct the whole thing. But there are also a multitude of talented assistants, stylists, makeup artists and others who come together to contribute to the final image. But, of course, not all photography requires such large teams. Photography is, in many cases, a solitary act. Even if you frequently form a team, the sporadic nature of the freelance profession often means that the faces of those team members can be fleeting, with yours being the only constant. Working as a photographer can, in short, be a lonely job.
Not that I’m complaining. I’m a born introvert and I have no doubt that one of the things that drew me to photography is that it’s an art form that I can do on my own. I love working with my film crew. But there is something to be said for an activity that can be done without having to depend on anyone else. You can literally walk outside right now and create art in 1/8000 of a second. No need to ask permission. No need to arrange a full production. Just grab a camera and go. It suits me well as a break from my larger scale work where planning and production are key.
But, of course, since so much of my work, still and bustling, requires the participation of multiple stakeholders, it’s in my interest to maintain an ever-growing list of co-conspirators with whom I enjoy working. and that I would like to bring to future projects. After doing this for so many years, this list has grown exponentially. Yet, there is one creative category that always seems to be missing on my depth chart.
Obviously, if you’re into photography as a profession, you’d expect the vast majority of incoming emails you receive to be about work you’ll be doing yourself. But every once in a while, potential clients will contact you looking for a type of photography that you just don’t do (or somewhere it’s not convenient for you to go). You can still decide to do it. Or, like me, you’ll often find yourself turning down such jobs simply because it’s not the product you’re offering. No strong emotions. No harm, no fault. You can’t be expected to do everything, so you wish the client a good shoot and get on with the rest of your day.
In doing so, you are often faced with a return question. “Well, are there any photographers you recommend?” This is the question I always have the hardest time answering.
Of course, I know the work of many other photographers. I might even know someone in that particular specialty or place who might be great. But, since I’ve most often never met this photographer myself in person, it’s impossible to know what they look like on set. Are they professional? Would their personality vibrate with the particular person seeking the recommendation? What is their process? All of these questions could potentially be important. And I have no way of knowing the answers.
I can recommend makeup artists. I can recommend stylists. I can recommend assistants. I have worked with them personally. But, when it comes to recommending other photographers, it can be more difficult. Not because I don’t want to pass on business. But, because as photographers, we very rarely have first-hand experience on set working with other photographers.
A set can have multiple helpers, multiple set builders, multiple wardrobe helpers. But, in most photographic genres, a set will not have multiple photographers. While this makes 100% practical sense as there is no need for multiple photographers on the same set in most cases, it does mean that we as photographers don’t often get the chance to see in action. Being well connected in the photo community, I couldn’t even dare to count the number of photographers I consider friends or colleagues. But I hardly ever interacted with them on set.
It’s a bit sad. Not just because it makes it harder to recommend other artists. But because we photographers often lose the benefit of shared information. If you’re an accountant at an accounting firm and you work in a team of other accountants, as one of you learns a new skill, he can pass it on to others. Conversely, most artistic growth occurs on our own individual islands. Most corporate training takes place on our own personal computers. There is no “water cooler”, so to speak, where we can see ourselves in action. Of course, we can watch curated behind-the-scenes videos of each other on YouTube or exchange information on forums. But the live, in-person front row seat to another person’s process is a tough ticket to find.
What made me think of this was a recent shoot I did as a cinematographer. The vast majority of my work is either with me as a photographer and director/DP, or with me as a solo photographer or solo director/DP on a non-integrated campaign. In the case of this particular photoshoot, through a series of random circumstances, I basically found myself grabbing a video alongside another photographer’s photoshoot. As the day unfolded, I realized how long it had been since I had been on another photographer’s set. It’s been over a decade since I last attended, so suddenly finding myself in a position to observe another photographer in action felt like an odd experience.
But it was also a valuable experience. I won’t go into the details of this particular shoot because what happens on set stays on set. Especially when it comes to someone else’s set. But I found the experience a teachable moment for a variety of reasons. On the one hand, it gave me the opportunity to see how the photographer ran his set. Dramatically different from how I run my set. Neither good nor bad. Just different. I had the chance to see him interact with the client. I had the chance to see him interact with talent. Again, different from how I tone my sets. No better, no worse.
What was valuable about seeing another photographer in action was that you could get advice on how to do certain things better, while strengthening your beliefs in other areas. Without bearing the responsibility of creating the stills myself, it gave me the opportunity to observe his process from a more objective perspective to see what worked and what didn’t. This knowledge can then be used to re-examine my own process to see where there is room for improvement.
Like I said, situations where I’m on set that I’m not entirely responsible for are rare. But I appreciated the opportunity to unburden myself and watch someone else work. It reminded me of the benefit of assisting early in his career. As an assistant, you may not have your name above the marquee, but you will have a front row seat to see how a wide variety of photographers approach their craft. These are lessons you can incorporate into your own career by becoming the one behind the camera. It also reminds me of the value of my involvement with groups like American Photographic Artists, which is a commercial organization created to support the commercial photography community. And others like him, who bring artists together to network and share their knowledge.
It’s a shame we don’t get as many opportunities to see ourselves working once we become the name on the bill ourselves. But one thing is certain. As photographers, the more chances we have to learn from each other and grow together, the better off we can all be.