Don’t Be a Commodity Photographer with Scott Detweiler
Let’s coin the term commodity photographer. Think generic can of peas or a jar of salsa with a white label that simply says “SALSA.” These products may have different manufacturers, but they are so similar that we often can’t tell the difference. Even if you have a brand preference, it might not outweigh that attractive sale price of another product that is so similar.
In the world of photography, this same idea rings true. You might be just another can of peas and not even know it. Let’s explore some of the pitfalls and potential solutions to prevent you from being an easily replaceable commodity. Here are a few ways to tell if you fall into the category of a commodity photographer.
Can someone take the same photo you just did but with a cellphone? As a photographer in an age when everyone has a camera attached to their body, you need to step up and deliver in areas where they cannot. That might seem obvious, but maybe it hasn’t hit home.
How about your lighting skills? Are you special because you are using only homegrown, farm-raised natural light? Sorry, but you are replaceable by anyone with a good eye for composition, and you better step up your game in other areas to avoid being a can of generic creamed corn. Sure, natural light is beautiful and can be used in creative ways, but it is also available to everyone. Using just natural light and being unique is a much harder battle to win than if you learn to incorporate reflectors or additional light sources into your body of work to separate you from the masses.
Lighting is one of the biggest game changers and one that isn’t hard to learn, especially given the number of resources out there. At ShutterFest alone, there are around five lighting classes each day. Maybe it doesn’t need to be said, but if you are using a pop-up flash or speedlight on your camera, you are not doing yourself any favors. Most people prefer ambient light to the flat, lifeless light created by light sources in line with the lens.
Do you have a solid sense of composition? I don’t mean leaning on the all-powerful rule of thirds (said with dripping sarcasm) or tilting the camera because you can. I mean knowing the why and how of image composition and studying from those who know better.
Take a painting class to up your game. You can learn a lot from classical portrait painters, who place everything on the canvas with a purpose; they even have guidelines for how they do that. Most photographers have probably never taken any type of art class, so this is an excellent place for you to improve your game and differentiate yourself, especially in the higher price ranges. Composition is an area of never-ending education. You can learn from thousands of years of artistic achievements.\
Learning to see composition on location is a skill that must be learned. Here are two simple drills you can do to help develop the “photographer’s eye.”
Put a 50mm lens on your camera and leave it there for three months. Force yourself to compose images in camera and zoom with your feet. I guarantee you will learn plenty about composition. This is my number-one tip for new photographers. It will change your life. Another great drill is the 10-in-10 challenge. Take 10 unique images within 10 feet of your position. They say the most boring place is your own backyard, and this is a great place to challenge yourself with this exercise. I have mentioned this in previous articles and still stand by it as a great way to learn how to see, especially in seemingly dull environments.
Do you snap photos as fast as the camera can take them, or are you focusing on quality over quantity? Giving your client hundreds of photos that have 1/10th of a second between shots isn’t doing you (or them) any favors. If you had to change from a CD full of images to a DVD because you needed more space for the steaming pile of pictures you are giving per session, you are more like a can of peas. Not only are they probably never going to look at them, but you have eliminated any additional sales opportunities by giving it all away up front.
There will always be someone willing to offer more for less money. This is how the market works. But your job isn’t to be part of the race to the bottom. Once you are the sole creator of your style of art, the competition goes away and money becomes less of an issue for your potential clients. The bitterness your clients will feel as they hand their future generations piles of craptastic images is much, much more significant than the momentary sweetness of a slightly lower price. Your job is to educate your clients. Don’t just respond to price requests; tell them about all the care that goes into the images you are producing.
If you attended ShutterFest Extreme this year, you heard how much impact your passion has on influencing the purchase decision. My parents decided to take my senior portraits with the family Polaroid, and to this day, only one crappy image survives. I wish this were a message they could have read, but sadly they are no longer with us. I wish they had saved some entertainment money and put it toward professional photography instead so my kids could see what I looked like when I was their age, but that moment is gone forever. Don’t let your clients live with this same mistake. Passion for what you do places you leagues beyond someone who simply has a nice camera. Let them know it.
A significant part of this business is the client experience. Making them feel amazing is much more evident in the boudoir market than any other, but those same feelings of elation can work across the board. This is the secret that many high-end wedding photographers know: The photos might actually be secondary to the overall client experience.
People hire me because they want that look only I can provide—I am the only one who can give it to them. If you are using a bunch of presets you purchased for $14.99 (normally $45,950), you are probably kicking out the same work as someone using social media photo filters. If your style is some action that came in a bundle, then you might be producing the same product as 50 other local photographers. Post-production, especially skin retouching, is a considerable differentiator in the market. No one wants senior photos with the skin of their hormonal rage machine in peak season, and smoothing the skin is not going to cut it.
Understanding how to capture those special moments in a meaningful way takes practice. Learning poses that flatter the subject, seeing the light and scouting locations are things anyone can learn, but those skills take time and practice. These are things that many commodity photographers don’t do so well, and it is usually pretty obvious.
As a side note, you don’t get extra credit for using manual mode on your camera—no one will know the difference in the resulting image. This might seem like a silly point, but more than once I have heard this used as a reason someone should be considered a superior photographer. The image is all that matters. How you get there is your choice, and there is nothing wrong with using those other modes on your camera.
Take some classes, attend workshops and find a style or product that only you can deliver. Oh, and learn to light—or you are also competing against all those cellphone photographers. “Photo” means light, and it is the first part of the word of your chosen profession.
If you are concerned that the neighbor lady next door with the nice camera is stealing your clients, you should probably read this article twice.