The Image Vs. Who Took It


Have you ever seen a photo in an advertisement or in a magazine and thought ‘I could have done that’ or ‘I could have done that better’? It’s not hard to find a photographer talking about the agencies or the magazines not giving new talent a fair shake.

Just the other day I saw a discussion thread in a retouching forum where a photographer accused a few big name fashion photographers of being frauds. Not that he accused them of actually faking it, but just that all the shots at big assignments they were getting wasn’t due to extra ordinary skills.

And it’s not just the photographers. Last year I tested with a young model (I used to shoot with her mom when I built my book years ago), who said it was time for ‘Kate Moss to move over and make space for some young and fresh talent’. Said model does very well walking many big NYFW shows and is signed with a top tier agency.

The issue at hand is that there are more creative people than top tier assignments. And those top tier assignments are controlled by a small set of people at magazines and agencies. So it actually doesn’t just come down to a problem of skill and attitude, but also who you know and where you are. It’s not only the image that matters, but also who took it.

Who Took It Vs. Who Is In it

Let’s do a little scenario play:

Scenario 1: An image taken by a well known photographer, who is shooting a top tier model. What are the chances this photo will make a cover or billboard? Very high. In fact the photographer probably got picked. We know them. We also see work by them that probably is rather average. We also see work that we probably could have done just as well.

It should also be considered that on these big jobs there are a lot of people who have a word in the project, need to sign-off, etc. The fact that the work looks average may not be a limitation of the creative team, but more the result of decision making by committee, non-creative considerations, and other factors that often lead to the lowest common denominator of all those constraints. Big jobs often can’t take as many risks as personal or editorial projects due to the stakeholders and the potential audience.

Scenario 2: That same well known photographer gets to shoot with a fresh face model. What are the chances that this photo gets used in something big? Actually pretty good. The photographer either still got picked for the job, or mentions the image to someone, and it will get attention.

Scenario 3: An up and coming photographer gets a random opportunity to shoot with a top tier model. What are the chances now? Diminishing. The image is less likely to be used in a big exposure job or magazine. It wouldn’t have been commissioned and big magazines rarely take submissions. What’s most likely is that the photographer will get more attention during portfolio reviews and that may open the door down the road. I knew a photographer a few years back who had a random chance to shoot with Claudia Schiffer. That was the opening image in his print book. And it invariably changed the dynamic of a portfolio review.

Scenario 4: An up and coming photographer shoots with fresh face model. What are the chances now? Well, you guessed it right. It happens thousands of times a day. There are millions of those photos. And most of them will only make it to Facebook and the photographer’s website. Eventually that work may get noticed and lead to an assignment down the road, but at best this image will get ripped off by some small business who copies it on Pinterest.

So What Matters Most?

All of this goes to show that when it comes to commercial photography, who you know is as important if not more, than what you do with the camera. It is vital that commercial photographers spent as much time building the right relationships than they spend honing their craft and building their book.

The old adage goes that people like to work with or hire people who they trust. And people trust people they know well. Since people are risk averse when it comes to big jobs, that means knowing people well before they have to take a risk.

Standard sales tactics are less effective in this type of environment. Just because you put a great photo on social media every day, people may know of you, but not well enough to take a risk. That is a subtle but important difference.

Other effective ways of having people get to know you is through common connections and meeting in a non-sales setting. It is preferable that they get to know you the person before they get to know you the photographer. Great ways of making this happen is by attending industry events or volunteering in common causes. When it comes to picking these opportunities, the focus should be where your clients and decision makers spend their time. Those may not necessarily be photography industry events or organizations.

When people share some common interests with you, get someone they already trust tell them about you, or see someone they trust take a risk with you first and win, they will be much more likely to trust you with their next big job.

I get a lot of my business through referrals and connections I make through networking and volunteer involvement. Sometimes that first job comes years after I first met that person. I also do get some business through social media. However, the social media interactions are an extension of the same relationships I have offline.

The Image Vs. Who Took It

FGI - Nina Garcia & Robert Verdi
FGI – Nina Garcia & Robert Verdi. Photo by Jan Klier.

So back to the original question. What matters most – the image, or who took it? The answer is both are equally important. Those photographers who get the big jobs, get them not because they’re better than any up and coming photographer out there. They get them because they know or are known by the right people.

Whichever way that happened. Because of networking. Because their father was a famous photographer. Because of family connections. Because they met another person at the right time and hit it off.

So there is no point in lamenting the decision makers in that they don’t give young talent the chance you think they deserve. Just go out there and build your relationships. There is the nation of ‘Return on Relationships’. It matters in today’s business world.

A Bit Of Humility And The Glasshouse

Of course it doesn’t hurt to have a bit of humility. It’s a matter of relative perception and not knowing what we don’t know. We always think that our work is pretty solid. And if we didn’t we wouldn’t be motivated to do what we do every day. Yet, if we look back at work we did just 5 years ago, it probably is a bit embarrassing, isn’t it? Well, we know more now than we did five years ago. So when we think that we could have done this job on the billboard on the corner of Houston and Broadway – well, we may have indeed. Or we may just be sitting in the glasshouse and can’t see beyond it. So lets not throw any stones.


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