Separating yourself from the rest of the photographic market

“It’s easy these days to pick up a camera and take a nice photo but it’s harder to tell a story…”
Documentary Portrait on assignment by Cliff Etzel

I love the genre of still photography — it has been and always will be my first true love as a visual medium. The realities of an over-saturated photography market have dictated a shift into other areas that many find intimidating.

Many of my colleagues close to my age (late 40’s and up) lament to me (and I at times to them), even romanticize, about the good ol’ days of shooting film and how it was by it’s very nature, the gatekeeper to our profession. It forced users into a place of showing their skill — or lack there of — in the technical aspects of the medium.

There’s no question that film based work separated those who wanted to versus those who did.

The reality is we can’t go back (save for an EMP detonating that would wipe out all digital technology). Digital has forever changed how and what we shoot — and not necessarily for the better. The over saturation of the market as a result of digital technology has bred a lowered bar to a place mostly filled with mediocre, cookie cutter images — equated to a dump truck mentality of mediocre visual content being produced. It’s left up to the viewer to sort thru the mediocre to find the good stuff. I have heard it said on so many occasions “I’ll just fix it in Photoshop” — after shooting what I term “Pray & Spray” photography.

Whatever happened to getting it right in the camera at the moment you press the shutter button? When I shot film, there was no Photoshop to fix it later. You had no choice but to get it right in the camera — especially with a maximum of 36 frames per roll of film. And if you shot black and white, you had to know how to pull the very best out of your analog image in the darkroom.

Equipment example for multimedia storytelling — photo by Cliff Etzel

The harsh reality: If you want to stand out from the crowd, it’s my opinion that you can’t rely on being a stills photographer ONLY.

It requires diversifying your skill set — and that entails being able to tell stories effectively that have meaning & value for your clients. This shift in skill set requires (IMO) more than just shooting pretty pictures. It requires having solid skills in acquiring not only compelling still images, but shooting video well, recording audio equally as well, knowing how to edit all those media assets effectively into a compelling story, having an understanding of web technologies for delivering those stories using web platforms like VERSE, StoryMap, Wordpress, etc. and on top of all of that, having enough knowledge & experience to apply the business side of what we do to generate a decent livable income. It entails having a deeper level of real life experience in the industry today — and this will help to separate you from the rest of the white noise of stills only shooters.

Deep emotion captured at a decisive moment — Photo by Cliff Etzel

Having said that, technical skills alone doesn’t equate to compelling content. It also requires having genuine empathy, compassion for humanity, the planet, and more. Unless you connect with your heart and translate that thru your acquisition tools, your work will lack the connection your client is needing for their viewers.

You can’t learn that in an academic environment — that comes from who you are as a human being.

There are educational resources out there — online training, workshops, etc for learning these technical skills, but then you have to apply all those skills in real world shooting scenarios. And being able to juggle each skill on the fly if the situation dictates. It means getting out there and actually shooting and then editing that project effectively delivering the message of the story. As Brian Storm has said to me on more than one occasion:

“Story is Everything”

So here’s the takeaway: More and more potential clients are becoming visually literate by the minute — we as visual artists cannot afford career wise or financially to think we can just specialize in one particular area of expertise. At the same time, that four letter word — “TIME” — is becoming more and more a precious commodity that people are finding they have less of. We are expected to deliver what our clients need from us — whether it be full on video projects, audio slideshows, audio projects — or a mix of all of these. And we need to understand the consumption of that content so that we bring value to our paying clients.

Photofilm/Audio Slideshow example by Cliff Etzel

What excuses are you going to come up with for not doing what is needed to make yourself stand out from the rest of the white noise — and create the creative and financial success you desire? I’m just as guilty of coming up with excuses — and that’s the rub. I’m looking in the mirror at myself and realizing I have the skills in place, it’s getting the word out about what I do and why.

So I continue to struggle finding the most accurate information for the business side of things. My fellow colleagues should be working on this as well.