Don't Forget To Shoot For Yourself

I’m in the middle of a busy season this year. The last 6 months have been a whirlwind of shoots for various clients, a lot of early mornings and a LOT of editing to handle. Thats part of the reason why my last blog post was uh… Like last year or something… Oops. 

My clients are, and will always remain my priority, but lately I’ve been feeling kind of creatively dead. I spent a lot of mental energy pumping as much creativity into my clients projects as possible. It’d been a long time since I’ve done any personal work or test shoots. On one hand, thats not a bad problem to have. Being busy with paid work is always the goal, but I also like to maintain a solid balance of paid work and personal work. 

Last week I did a short test shoot with a few models and I was finally able to be creative and make work that is specifically tailored for me. It felt good. I felt rejuvenated and came away with several brand new lighting setups that I can’t wait to try on client work. 

The reason I’m writing this is because while I was editing the shots from that test shoot, I was reminded of a conversation I had with a photographer back when I was an assistant. At the time, I was pretty fresh as a photographer and most of my portfolio consisted of photos I took for personal work. This particular photographer jokingly picked on me a little for having too much personal work in my portfolio, and he was right! At the time I didn’t really even have any clients. All I could do was drag my friends to the studio and try to make some bad ass photos with them. 

As I got to know that photographer more, I started to notice how little he does any personal work. This guy is the definition of a workaholic. He was and is constantly shooting, but always for his clients. Again, not a bad problem to have. But what I noticed over time was pretty shocking. I want to tread very lightly as I say this, because I don’t want to come across as belittling him or his work. The photographer I’m speaking of is incredibly talented, incredibly successful and he would probably laugh at little ole me for saying what I’m about to say, but here it goes anyway. 

His work has dramatically declined in quality since I met him 5 years ago. There’s no way around it, if you look at the stuff he was doing back then vs. now, you’ll see a steady trend. The quantity of work went up, but the quality fell, and it fell hard. I keep up with his work still, I follow him on social media and regularly check out his site (I still use his work as reference and inspiration for my own stuff). I started to notice that his editing seemed to look a bit rushed, a bit… Eh. It looks like he’s started to just slap filters on his photos. 

Again, I want to make it clear that this post isn’t aimed at bashing that photographer, which is why I’m not mentioning him by name. I still consider him a friend and still admire his work. This is simply a cautionary tale to warn against becoming stale and stagnant. 

In the midst of my busyness this year I regularly found myself trying to cut corners or phone in shoots. I was/am tired. My brain can only handle so much creativity. I can only come up with so many unique types of shots. Repetition is inevitable and its even a good thing to have a few go-to setups/looks for your clients. So I understand that there’s only so much you can do when you’re shooting day after day after day. Its not easy. 

However, my point remains true; all artists, including photographers need to take as many opportunities as possible to create personal work. Its wildly important to keep your style fresh, and its equally important to be able to take a step back from your client work and create something just for you. Your personal work informs your paid work, and vice versa. They go hand in hand and are intrinsically tied to one another. I firmly believe that having a strong portfolio of personal work is critical to getting and retaining new clients. When I go to portfolio meetings the photos that shine the most are often from shoots I did as personal work. Those shoots usually have more creativity injected into them, and feel more raw and unique. 

My encouragement to all of you is this: I hope that all of you get to a point where you’re so busy, you don’t feel like you can find time to do some shoots for your own personal pleasure. But I implore you to find the time anyway. Spend every waking moment you can shooting and improving your craft.

Matthew is a commercial portrait photographer specializing in music/entertainment and editorial photography based in Nashville, Tennessee