Building Your Portfolio With Styled Commercial Shoots with Moshe Zusman
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When I started moving from wedding photography to studio work, one of the appealing aspects was expanding my creativity. As a wedding photographer you’re creative, but you’re limited to the wedding world. As much as you may want to go outside the box, you’re still photographing a wedding.
Once I moved to studio photography as my main source of income, I realized I was still in the same boat, just in a different-themed boat. Instead of being boxed into weddings, I was boxed into headshots and standard commercial shoots. In order to exercise creativity, which is so important to any photographer’s career, I had to arrange shoots of my own.
I got burned out in wedding photography because I couldn’t be as creative as I wanted to be. I didn’t want the same thing to happen with my studio work. So I made a rule for myself that I had to do one creative shoot a week. It may seem overly ambitious, but I figured if I aimed high, I’d still do at least two a month, and that was ok with me.
In addition to fueling my creativity, I wanted to partner with more colleagues. One of the biggest mistakes I see photographers make is thinking they have to design everything on their own when they put together a styled shoot. Not true. The more people you bring into the shoot, the less work you have to do as the photographer, and the more relationships you build. Arranging commercial-style creative shoots opens doors to actually getting paid for them. Studio photographers are blessed with having a plethora of commercial clients, so the more you can do to get your foot in the door with companies, the better.
When working with other artists—hair, makeup, visual stylists, wardrobe designers and creative directors—you them to feel free to talk about their ideas. It can be counterintuitive to what you’re used to, but pulling from other creatives’ minds helps you and the shoot grow creatively. When I start collaborating on a shoot, I ask the other contributors to send me their ideas and create mood boards. It’s not about copying exact images, it’s about pulling favorite parts of images like the posing from one, the wardrobe from another and the mood from yet another to create something unique.
I get inspiration from their ideas and then think about how to execute them with lighting design and inject my own creativity from magazines and other fashion photography sources. It could be as basic as seeing something on TV and sending my stylist a screen shot and rolling from there. All of the collaborated inspiration gives me ideas for lighting, composition and lens choices that best represent the team’s ideas.
It’s also important to not make your shoots aren’t just about photographing different faces, or you’ll get burned out because they’ll all look the same. Find one or two models you like to work with and create different concepts for them to build a diverse portfolio. That makes you and your collaborators come up with unique ideas. Ask people you know to work alongside you, and eventually, when you consistently come up with unique ideas, most outside collaborators will be itching to work with you free of charge since they love the opportunity to be creative as well.
I tether as we shoot. This allows the others involved to easily give direction along the way. Photographers are used to directing everything, but trust me: When you let others around you do their job, it’s less work for you and it gets better results. Welcome ideas, direction, poses and feedback while you’re shooting.
Another benefit to organizing creative commercial shoots like this, which I touched on earlier, is that it can lead to more paid work. In addition to connecting with the network of people that you’re working with on the shoot, you want to maximize the exposure of it on social media and other publishing outlets. Be careful with this. During the shoot, have everyone do behind-the-scenes Instagram stories and such, but be patient with the final images. You don’t have a bride sitting by her computer waiting anxiously for you to email her the images from her special day. Take the extra time to cull down the best of the best images (either on site with all of the contributors, or later with fewer cooks in the kitchen) and get them retouched to perfection. After you have the final images, write the metadata on them so you have valuable and relevant keywords and copyright information to better your SEO and protect your work once they’re posted online.
When you have your final images in hand, promote them like crazy. Don’t just post them willy nilly. Be more targeted. If you’re looking to submit the images to magazines, don’t post anything online since they always prefer fresh content that no one has seen before. If you want the images to post online, go for blogs and outlets that have a similar style and perhaps even advertisers (like clothing and makeup brands) that were used in the shoot. Sometimes this can take months, so, again, be patient. It doesn’t have the same short shelf life that weddings do.
If you want to publish the images on your own, do your best to promote the images wherever you can, like on a blog (with a nicely written SEO-friendly article) or on social media with appropriate tags and hashtags. Publications big and small look on Instagram under specific hashtags and tags for content to post on their outlets, so don’t be afraid to @tag publications in the description as well as in the photo. Posts like these on Instagram, if they become popular, will keep getting engagement even months after posting, like the posts here.
It’s up to you to decide how much time you want to invest in being creative. I’d say it pays tenfold both in preventing burnout and in the exposure and paid jobs that come from it. Some of my biggest clients and jobs came through creative unpaid shoots like these. Don’t be afraid of doing creative shoots that don’t have a return on the investment right upfront. Your efforts will likely come back to you in the long run.